Sunday, 15 June 2014

Ultrawide Lenses – Urban Exploration at 14mm

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/100th sec at F13, ISO 400

This blog is based around my experiences using Canon’s exciting 14mm F2.8L Mk II ultrawide prime lens, which was released in 2007. I don’t own this lens (yet) but I have spent quite a few days running around cities taking photos with rented copies. This blog is based around my impressions of this lens during that time. This blog isn't a technical review so I won't be talking about MTF curves or the like. There are plenty of other reviews out there to cover this. Also, given my experience with this lens is predominately urban photography, I'll keep the blog directed towards urban and architectural themes. If you like this blog and the photos in it, please share the link with other photographers who may be interested in ultrawide angle photography or feel free to leave a comment.

I have to admit that my relationship with this lens thus far has been a little love-hate. Don’t get me wrong, this is by no means a criticism of the lens. It’s simply that 14mm focal length is always wider than you think. 
The 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens is Canon's widest rectilinear lens and, at the time of writing, only the 8-15mm F4L and 15mm F2.8 fish eye lenses offer a wider field of view in the Canon lineup. Because of the very wide field of view, the lens sucks everything last bit of the environment into the frame like a supercharged vacuum cleaner. Photography, for me at least, is not just about what is captured within the frame, but also what is left out of it.  To that end, a lens fixed at 14mm is a powerfully creative yet, at times, enormously frustrating tool to work with. Despite this frustration  I've come to appreciate that the lens can produce some outstanding compositions when applied to architecture. For example, one of my favourite photos taken with this lens is shown above. It was taken at Melbourne’s Seafarer’s Bridge in the afternoon light.

Ultrawide angle lenses are generally classed as any lens with a focal length of 24mm or less on a full frame camera or 15-16mm or less on a typical crop sensor DSLR. Those familiar with ultrawide lenses know that composition is often challenging. I own both a 17-40mm full frame lens and a 10-22mm crop sensor lens. I have used both of these ultrawide angle zoom lenses extensively in the past and though that I would be quite at home with a focal length of 14mm. To my surprise, the extra few millimetres made a big difference. It felt as if I’d taken a large step backwards every time I looked into my viewfinder. There was always more in the frame than I could have ever imagined. Naturally, this sensation of stepping back also occurs when using my other ultrawide angle lenses but the effect on the 14mm just seemed so much pronounced. Perhaps the frame below will help to illustrate my point. It was taken at the Wheel of Brisbane, which is located at South Bank. I was quite literally underneath this giant wheel when I took the photo. I can remember thinking that the entire structure should only just fit into the frame.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/160th sec at F11, ISO 400

Another example of the ability to compress the environment into the frame is shown below. This shot was taken at the RMIT Design  Hub building in Melbourne's CBD. I was standing in close proximity to the building when I looked up and took this shot. I had initially tried using my 24mm prime to take this shot but it didn't even come close to fitting the structure in.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/200th sec at F11, ISO 100

By design rectilinear ultrawide lenses aim to keep straight lines straight, as opposed to fisheye lenses, which allow barrel distortion or “bulging out” of the image. Because ultrawide lenses have to compress such a wide perspective into a the scene without bulging there can be some apparent stretching, particularly in the corners of an image. In addition to this, rectilinear ultrawide lenses will show heavily converging lines when a shot is not taken level. This effect is known as "keystoning". Below is a photo taken under Brisbane's Victoria Bridge. The keystone effect is very noticeable in the buildings towards the edge of the frame.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/80th sec at F11, ISO 800

It’s important to know that all of these characteristics of the lens are not design flaws but simply what occurs when you take a wide portion of the three dimensional world and map down it onto a flat, two dimensional frame. Having said this, lenses such as the Canon TS-E 17mm F4L, are a special type of construction know as "Tilt-Shift" and are able to correct the keystone effect whist still offering a wide field of view. The good news is that all of these characteristics can be used for dramatic and artistic effect, if you know how. One way I've found to take advantage of this effect is to look for curves. Because the lens offers such a dynamic perspective, getting really close to structures with sweeping curves can be very rewarding. Below are two shots illustrating this. The first is a shot of Clement Meadmore's sculpture "Dervish", in Melbourne's Southbank Precinct. Although it's not apparent to the viewer, I was actually hard up against the sculpture when taking the shot. The second shot was taken at Melbourne's Southern Cross Station (formerly Spencer St Station), looking directly up at the ceiling.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/60th sec at F8, ISO 1600

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/30th sec at F4, ISO 1600

Another category of urban photograph that this lens excels at is tunnels, of any kind. The extreme perspective of 14mm really puts the viewer deep inside the scene. I've included two examples below, both taken at train stations. The top one was taken in Melbourne's Parliament Station. The bottom was taken in Brisbane's Central Station.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/20th sec at F5.6, ISO 1600

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/60th sec at F11, ISO 1600

Canon's 14mm lens is able to provide a very close focusing distance and the effect that you get from close and extremely wide can be quite interesting. Below is a shot taken inside a cheap cup of coffee - two dollars in case you hadn't guessed. A world of creative possibilities opens up here. Mail boxes, fridges, in fact any suitably sized nook and cranny could become a photographic masterpiece. The one caveat is that the design of the lens means that the bulbous front element cannot accept filters and therefore must be exposed in order to take photos. If you're like me you don't tend to use an expensive lens without first fitting a UV filter on the front. Therefore the premise of walking around with an unprotected protruding front element is daunting, to say the least. I think it's something that one would have to accept and move on.  The lens has a permanently attached lens hood integrated into the design and this does help protect the front element from some, but not all, accidental knocks.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/30th sec at F8, ISO 800
Perhaps another way to add interest to photos taken with this lens is to crop the frames into a panorama format. This will provide a quick easy ultrawide panorama, however be aware the resulting image will have much less resolution than the method of panning with a non ultrawide angle lens then stitching the resulting images together with software. The resolution may or may not be an issue, depending on what the end use of the photo will be. If it's going to be printed very large and hang in a gallery the lack of resolution may become obvious. However if it's just another photo in your web folio, it probably won't matter. Below is an example of a 3:1 panorama, cropped from a single photo taken with the 14mm lens.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/200th sec at F13, ISO 400

Well if you've been paying attention so far, you'll probably have noticed that my shots have mostly been stopped down quite a bit. The reason for this was simply to ensure an adequate depth of field. I've tended to up the ISO to 1,600 before dropping the aperture too much. So I haven't really shown any shots so far that provide an indication of the quality of bokeh from this lens. You certainly can generate bokeh but you do need to be relatively close to your subject with the aperture fairly open. Below is a photo taken in this style. I think the bokeh here is generally smooth and adequte. Sure, it's no 85mm F1.2L Mk II bokeh, but to to be honest I can't see myself doing a lot of bokeh-centric  shots with this lens. I don't think that's the main intended use for a lens like this.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II lens
1/60th sec at F2.8, ISO 100

Now let's talk briefly about image quality. I said that I wouldn't be providing a "technical review" but let's face it, if you're going to throw thousands of dollars on a lens it's nice to know it's capable of sharp photos. I'm happy to say that both copies of the 14mm lens that I have tried have been very sharp. Below is the first photo in this blog with two inset regions showing 100% detail crops. Note that this photo has been processed, which has included some sharpening, but remember you can't pull detail out of thin air. When considering how wide this lens is, I think the sharpness is stunning.

100% Crop of Seafarer Bridge Photograph
Taken with Canon EF 14mm F2.8L Mk II Lens

I'll finish off the blog by saying this. I had to choose to carry a single lens to go exploring a new city, the Canon 14mm would probably not be the one. There's no doubt it can creative stunning images and if I could carry a few lenses with me, I'd definitely be taking this in my bag. However the 14mm focal length is just too extreme to be used as my one and only walkaround lens. I would more likely reach for my 24mm F1.4L Mk II prime if I needed a general purpose wide angle lens for urban and architecture shots. I have herd rumors recently that Canon may bring out a 14-24mm zoom lens sometime in the future. If the image quality and distortion control were equal or better on such as lens I would be tempted to buy that lens instead, simply for the added versatility of a zoom. Having said all of that, would I recommend the Canon EF 14mm F2.8L MkII lens? Absolutely, without a doubt. It's not the cheapest lens around but the image quality and creative opportunities certainly make this a valuable asset in any camera bag.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Photographing Newborn Twins - Part I

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 35mm F1.4L lens
1/60th sec at F5, ISO 400

This is my first blog and I can't think of a more fitting subject matter then discussing how I approached photographing my beautiful newborn twins. My twins are now just over three weeks old and I've faced a steep learning curve in order to get the quality of photos I desired. I am writing this blog from the point of view of a combined parent / enthusiast photographer. Therefore I had nearly limitless access to my newborns for photos, provided I had the patience to wait for the photos I wanted. Please bear in mind that this blog may provide a different perspective to a professional photographer who may only have several hours to perform a shoot.

Before we get started, I'd like to pass on a warning that was given to me by a professional newborn photographer just recently. A lot of the baby photographs you will likely see out there are the result of clever editing in Photoshop, using multiple images. This is how may newborn photographers are able to create photos of seemingly impossible poses. For example, one photo may be of someone supporting the head of the baby from above and then this is combined in Photoshop with a picture of the babies chin and hands to create the illusion that the baby is propping his or her head up. Having seen such a photo, and without knowing how it was generated, some people may attempt to pose the newborn in this way and in doing so may cause discomfort, or even pain, for the baby. Therefore please be aware that many photographs of newborns are essentially "faked" and don't attempt to pose a newborn in any way that causes strain or could otherwise place them in any danger. I know this is rather obvious but it's worth putting out there. I'm personally not a big fan of composite photos and therefore none of the photos you'll see here are stitched together that way. 

So with the warnings out of the way, I'd firstly I'll talk about lenses. I'm lucky in that I've amassed a very nice collection over the ten years or so that I've been pursing photography. I also have a 5D Mk III full frame camera to put them on, but you've probably guessed as much from the address of this blog. Do you need this camera to take stunning photos of newborns? Absolutely not, but having a great quality DSLR with sharp, quality lenses certainly helps matters significantly. However good equipment alone is not enough to achieve great photos. The equipment must be combined with technical know-how and a good eye for creative compositions. If you're new to photography then don't worry, these things will come in time.

Most of my lenses are prime, which means they have a fixed focal length. Whilst they are far less convenient than zoom lenses, which offer a range of focal lengths, they do gather many times more light due to their large apertures. Also, prime lenses generally offer superior image quality compared to zoom lenses because their optical design is optimised for the one focal length that they provide. Having said that, some of the new L series zooms on the market are starting to catch up. Most of my lenses have come with lens hoods. It's quite annoying to constantly attach and detach them but they do enhance contrast and inhibit lens flares by stopping stray light from entering the lens. Therefore I always use them. I also use UV filters on all of my lenses too, purely as an insurance policy. Although costly, I've opted to use Hoya HD filters because of their superior optical qualities and enhanced strength against impact. 

In terms of photographing newborns, I've generally used three lenses. First and foremost, the infamous Canon 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens, which is a one kilogram beast costing around $2,500 new. I've also used a Canon 35mm F1.4L lens and a Canon 100mm F2.8 macro lens. The last of these lenses is designed specifically for taking very close shots. It can produce some very dramatic shots but only costs around $500 second hand. The shot below was taken using my 100mm macro lens. 

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 100mm F2.8 Macro lens
1/3rd sec at F13, ISO 100

My newborn photographs generally fall into two categories. The first category is candid type shots, such as those I took in hospital. I stayed in hospital with my wife for around five nights and therefore all of my early photos fall into this category. I was able to bring a few of my lenses with me but I forgot to bring my Speedlite external flash. Therefore I made good use of the window light during the day with only the florescent hospital lights at night. Unsurprisingly, the window light shots were far more successful than those taken with only the hospital lights. Below is one of the window light candid shots.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 35mm F1.4L lens.
1/50th sec at F2.8, ISO 100

Once home from hospital I was able to start thinking about posed shots. I wanted to avoid the typical baby studio shots and instead opt for focusing on the connection between the twins. Whilst my twins aren't identical they have still shared a special time together in the womb and it's wonderful to be able to represent the essence of that in a photo. By the time I was ready for the first posed shot, the twins were already more than one week old. I have been told previously that many newborn photographers strongly prefer the babies to be seven days or less because they become a little more aware after this time and are more difficult to settle. Having now done many posed shots, and with the babies at the three week mark, I can understand this sentiment. Steadfast patience is an absolute must. Newborns are often posed without clothes and therefore keeping a room toasty warm is essential and adequate blankets must be provided when not taking photos, so the babies can maintain their core temperature. A really useful tip which I read about, and found to work well, was to have the mother feed in the same room and only have the newborn in nappies. This avoids a big change in temperature when it's time to take photos because only the nappy is removed - not all of their layers. Below is my first posed shot of the newborns. I have tried to capture the essence of connection that I spoke of earlier.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 35mm F1.4L lens
1/60th sec at F4.0, ISO 400

For lighting in the above shot I simply relied on my big bedroom window, which is located close to my bed. The real "trick" was to get the black background. Any matte black fabric could have been used but I found that my black dressing gown worked as good as anything else and it also provided good comfort for the babies. I laid my two sleeping babies on the bed on top of my dressing gown and slightly under exposed my shot. The background all but disappeared and only minimal effort was needed in Photoshop to clean up the occasional dull reflection of light.

Whilst we're on the topic of Photoshop, I'll take a moment to point out my current workflow for photos. As a general rule, I take my photos in RAW and then use Canon's Digital Photo Professional software to make any adjustments and write out a 16 bit TIFF file. This software is supplied with the camera. The adjustments I choose to make generally include any variation to the colour temperature, applying distortion correction when desired and turning off the sharpness and noise correction features. I then open the TIFF image in Photoshop Elements 12 and use the Google Nix "Sharpener Pro 3" to sharpen the image up. I then use either Silver Efex Pro 2 for black and white conversion or Color Efex Pro 4 for any processing of colour photos. I then convert to an 8 bit image to do any minor touch ups such as removed the odd dust blemish. Finally I write out a jpeg file. If you're wondering why I don't use Photoshop CS3 it's simply a matter of cost. Photoshop Elements does most of what I need and cost around $130 for a perpetual license. A bargain compared to other options I think.

Moving on from my first posed shoot, I decided to build a makeshift studio of sorts. I bought some cheap pine and metal support brackets from the local hardware store and assembled a frame to hold a 1.5m x 1.5m backdrop. To provide a black background I purchased a cut of black velvet from Spotlight. On sale it cost around $50. I've found the black velvet to work well provided the incident light is not coming front on. To provide a space to place the subject I purchased something called a "Newborn Baby Posing Pod". It's basically a large bean bag, designed to have a shape that is very useful for placing newborns on - that is to say it's large and can be molded flat. Below is a photo of my makeshift studio as it currently stands.

My Makeshift Studio Setup 
To accomplish remote triggering of the flash with my Canon 5D Mk III, I am using a fairly cheap radio trigger. It's a Yongnu Digital wireless controller RF-602TX. It doesn't support ETTL mode for the flash but it does trigger the flash in manual mode quite reliably. It works as a two part arrangement with one part on the camera's hot shoe and the other attached to the flash. I think it was around the hundred dollar mark and I'm certainly happy with it's features and performance for that price. In terms of diffusing the flash, I currently have to bounce the flash off a reflector and aim the reflector as required, which generally requires a second set of hands. I'm hoping to improve it with a soft box to fit onto the flash, which will cost yet another hundred dollars. Admittedly the studio is a bit "bare bones" at the moment but the setup works, both for natural light and for flash photography. Below are an example of each. The first shot with my daughter contains only natural light from the window. The second shot with the balloon was taken at night. It was entirely lit with a single flash bounced off the reflector.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
 1/100th sec at F2.8, ISO 400

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
 1/100th sec at F8, ISO 100

So which is better, flash or natural light? I think that both have their place. Certainly window light can provide some spectacular toning in portraits and for this reason I've relied on it for most of the newborn photos I've taken so far. However there are several drawbacks. Most obviously, the variability in the quantity and type of light available. A few times I've needed to use an ISO of 1,600 to compensate for waning light. Whilst this isn't a big deal for the 5D Mk III camera, the use of flash provides a consistency which simply isn't possible with natural light. Another issue that you'll come across with side lighting from a window is the balance of light across a face. If the subject is looking at the window it's probably not going to be a problem. However if the subject is looking directly at the camera, a reflector will likely be needed to bounce light onto the side of the face which is away from the window. Although if the room is lit well with diffuse ambient light, it may not be such a problem. It was a hassle with my setup and the reflector never quite softened the shadows enough. I found the the eye which was away from the window tended to have far to much shadow. I could have orientated my makeshift studio towards the window but this would have caused the black velvet backdrop to reflect lots of light and therefore defeat the purpose of using it. Use of a flash avoids all of this but does introduce the hassles involved with planning and implementing an artificial lighting plan. This means a fair amount of trail and error, for me at least. I'm sure that experienced professionals can judge the optimum settings quicker than I can. When using flash, diffusing the light is essential. There are many products to help achieve this. They include the Stofen Omnibounce, the Gary Fong Lightsphere and the Lastolite Ezybox range of softboxes, to name a few. However, at a minimum, pointing the flash away from the subject and bouncing it back via a large white surface will do quite a reasonable job. When shooting indoors, white walls work fine as a surface to bounce light off. I've used my white reflector for the above photo with the balloon.

One final thought on this topic is this - a photograph is a record of light. Particularly in black and white photos where luminosity is the only variable across the photograph. I have never seen an amazing photograph with bad lighting.

The last topic I wanted to talk about in this blog is macro detail. I mentioned before that a macro lens can represent good value for money. If I had to choose only one lens to use to take newborn photographs with, a macro would likely be my choice. The reason is that it's so versatile. Macro lenses can do incredible close up images of a baby hand, face and feet but can equally be used as a portrait lens when required. When taking macro shots, bear in mind that the Depth of Field (DoF) can become very shallow due to the small focal distances. Below is an example of using a macro lens to capture the hands of my wife, our first daughter and our newborn daughter. The photo below was taken at F5.6 and most of the frame is within the DoF. However this is far from the closest focal distance. If you look back at the second photo in this blog, which was taken at a much closer distance, I needed to use F13 in order to get most of the frame in focus.

 Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 100mm F2.8 Macro lens
 1/100th sec at F5.6, ISO 100

So that's it. My first ever blog! Please let me know what you think or if you have any questions. I'll end this blog with a splash of colour.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 35mm F1.4L lens
1/80th sec at F4, ISO 320