Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Canon PowerShot SX30 IS: Short Review

I was very pleased with this shot, taken using the 840m.  Colour, contrast and clarity is very good. I go back to my comments about perhaps producing a camera with fewer pixels, a larger sensor, or at least a RAW file capability. Serious point-and-shoot semi-pro cameras are a bit thin on the ground - so why not include the RAW format in the SX 30?
The Canon PowerShot SX30 IS is the latest in a line of PowerShot super zoom cameras. It follows closely on its x10, x12, and x20 super zoom compacts. Recently I was lucky enough to be one of the first to try out his groundbreaking bridge camera.

The absolute highlight of this model is it's lens, currently the highest magnification zoom lens in the world. It's indeed impressive both on paper and physically. At the launch, just to push turned its considerable technological achievement, Canon event organizers brought along its massive EF 800mm F5.6 L IS USM super telephoto lens as a demonstration of how much 'lens' is packed into its relatively small 550g body. Clearly you cannot seriously compare a top-of-the-range L-Series lens with a $550 compact camera, but it certainly piqued interest.
Because the zoom range on this camera is so massive, and includes the latest version of its image stabilizing technology (IS) in the lens, powered by its fourth-generation DIG!C image processor. This gives the SX30 up to a claimed 4.5 stops stabilization, something that will be sorely needed when shooting with a x35 zoom lens.

Here is the same Kelp Gull, shot at full magnification. After shooting with his camera for an hour or so I found myself becoming very blasé about having a x35 magnification zoom lens.
Kelp Gull under the boat. Just the sort of shot where you wished you had a big lens! The wide-angle end of this lens is actually a lot less impressive. Although it looks okay in this short, under close inspection you will see significant chromatic aberration toward the edges of the picture. I tried cleaning these up using ACR. It did a relatively good job but could not remove all of the aberration. Again, this goes back to my comments about using a small image sensor. It's impossible to pack so much focal length into a sensor this size without incurring some serious image aberrations.
Another intriguing, but handy design feature is its zoom framing assist function. With a big magnification lens it's often hard to keep the subject in the frame. Inevitably you have to keep taking the camera away from your eye, checking the subject has got to, reframing on the subject, then looking through the lens again. It's frustrating. To improve the shooting experience Canon engineers have added this feature so if you lose the subject in the viewfinder, all you need do is press and hold the button on the back of the camera (next to the thumb grip) and the zoom quickly retracts to display more of the scene in the viewfinder (or the LCD). This enables you to reframe quickly without taking your eye from the viewfinder. Release pressure on the button and it reverts to the original magnification. It works well. And trust me, at 700mm+, you need a feature like this. How far back the lens retracts is set through the menu ('small', 'medium' and 'large' angle of view). Because this is a bridge camera, and not a large DSLR, you might find that getting the right button is a bit hit and miss. It's not made for big hands so I found this out pressing the Replay button more often than not. Practice makes this less of a lotto.

Not the best picture of a hawk perhaps but, then again, I was shooting through a metal grill at the zoo, something the camera designers always tell you' will cause the AF to malfunction because it doesn't know whether to focus on the grill or the subject behind it'. It didn't make a mistake. I suspect this is because the zoom magnification is so massive it threw the wires so far out of focus of the AF detectors didn't register at all (normally cameras like this rely on contrast detection to drive the focusing). I would've liked to have spent more time trying to get a better shot of this bird because it was so beautiful. Typically, it took one look at me and dropped onto the floor of the cage and disappeared in the undergrowth. So much for my career as a wildlife photographer.
Clearly one of the biggest problems photographers will have with a big lens is camera shake. OK, it does include Canon's latest IS stabiliser technology, but only a small proportion of the people that buy this product would fully understand the need for proportional shutter speeds to get the sharpest results. Huh? An 800mm focal length needs a shutter speed of at least 1/800s to get the subject sharp. Seriously. If the subject is moving, this shutter speed should be doubled. If it's moving fast, double that figure again. Now you see how important having a 4.5 stop 'IS' is? Without stabilisation you'd only be able to use this camera in bright sunshine. As it is you still have to be very careful with handling at slow shutter speeds but, with care, I found that it can produce quite surprisingly-sharp results. The pictures of the frill-necked lizard, for example, were snapped through glass at 1/20s and yet came out pin sharp, even at F2.7. I was happy with its image stabiliser feature, but also remarked to Canon on the day, it might be so much more effective in a slightly smaller zoom. But of course, in the market it's very much a race of who can produce the most impressive features. Sometime I'd really like to see compact super zoom model with maybe a faster, 28mm to 300mm continuous aperture F2.8 lens with a 10 or 12 megapixel sensor, shooting RAW files.

Enough of the telephoto stuff. I figured I'd try the macro approach for this frilled lizard from a distance of about 5 inches. Not a bad result, considering the reflections in the glass, but a bit of Photoshop retouching helped remove those distractions nicely. What was impressive was the fact that I was in an almost completely dark room pointing the camera into a poorly illuminated aquarium. The ISO was set to 200, exposure compensation was -0.7, aperture was F2.7 which produced a shutter speed of 1/20s. The SX30 IS uses the latest image stabilisation technology which is supposed to give the camera a 4.5 f-stop advantage, suggesting that the real shutter speed was closer to 1/400s. Which explains why Mr. lizard is looking sharp and clear. It was a pretty good result. As you might expect, at this wide-angle setting, and at such a wide aperture there appears to be chromatic aberration around the edges of the image, further exaggerated by shooting through plate glass.
Another shot that I snapped off at full (800mm) extension. I had planned this trip to the wildlife park so took along my big monopod on the day which provided excellent additional stability.
The inclusion of a hot shoe is pleasantly surprising. I tried it with my 580EX II speedlight, so it works perfectly in E-TTL but, with such a big speedlight, it's not easy to handhold. The much smaller Canon 270EX is a better choice because it's compact and very light. Out of the box the hot shoe is nicely covered by streamlined plastic protector. I was also very pleasantly surprised to find flash exposure compensation of +/-3 f-stops, a very handy adjustment when shooting subjects up close.

'Sushi' shot using the SX30's Miniature Mode..
It's metering functioned flawlessly in the less-than-easy light I was shooting in. To top it all off, as with the 60D, the PowerShot SX30 IS has a number of new (to me) Scene Modes which include a fisheye lens mode (creating funny, software-generated distortion effects) and one I personally liked a lot, a miniature effect mode, in which the upper and lower parts of the image are deliberately defocused to make the subject look as if it's a tiny scale model. It's a neat effect and I'm sure it'll be popping up everywhere in models yet to be released.

Last shot of the day, the claw of a monitor lizard. This was as close as I could get at maximum focal length: 1.4m at 840mm (1/500s@f5.8, ISO200). I think it produced a fairly credible result, although I did find that the normal process of software sharpening is not as easy because files produced by this camera can be slightly 'gritty'. This is not normal digital noise spottiness, although you do see this once the ISO is pushed past 400. It's more like a specular highlight noise, again caused by putting too many pixels on a very small sensor. You can see this even if the ISO is set to 80 so it's an inherited characteristic of the image sensor. It's not a problem as  long as your sharpening procedures are carefully monitored. Again, it would've been really nice to have a larger sensor and therefore fewer artifacts, then you must have a massive magnification. Apart from this, performance is good.

Close up of a pelican, 800mm focal length.
Aside from shooting almost every picture in this test at a focal length of 800mm, also tried the camera's HD Video feature. It's easy to use. You simply press the red button located to the right of the viewfinder and it immediately engages. Video was recorded at 1280 x 720 (i.e. 720p) and saves the file in the handy .MOV format. You can even shoot video in miniature mode. As for the popular HD TV aspect ratio seen on other models, the HD video format is brilliant for creative composition and it's easy to use. In many of the places I was photographing him, the light was poor, so I really appreciated the image stabilizing feature. Plus, I found using a monopod certainly improved the stability significantly, for both video and stills. You can clearly see when the IS kicks-in to assist producing a steady shot. The video footage is quite good but still slightly squishy. Perhaps unfairly but when compared to 1080p video it lacks some clarity but again, considering the size of the image sensor (25mm square), it's pretty good. I suspect one reason why this camera can produce such an impressive image magnification is because the sensor is so small. It's exploiting a large crop factor that can boost the image magnification. Imagine how much better this might be if it used a 38mm or 43mm square sensor?

I like this camera because, as with almost every other super zoom before it, it claims to have everything packed inside it, and it pretty much does. Clearly, this resolution-versus-sensor size argument is something of an issue. I don't see its 14 megapixels being better than those from a 10mp PowerShot G12 however the industry, or the market, demands ever-higher resolutions so the quality-versus-features argument will continue. Also, this is currently Canon's top-of-the-range PowerShot model (aside from the G12) so why no RAW file format? I have no idea if this is an expensive addition (somehow I doubt it) but it seems to be a de-facto requirement in most top compact cameras these days so its absence here is noted.

Overall this is a great camera. It could operate faster, and it certainly could do with a RAW format, and maybe fewer pixels, but even so, on location it worked well, especially when used with a monopod for additional stabilisation. As I'm less unlikely to buy the Canon EF 800mm F5.6 lens at $10,000+, this represents a superb, lightweight and very affordable alternative.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

October Night Shoot in Darling Harbour

Jones Bay Wharf,  HDR by Mark Daku. Awesome wide-angle view of a Sydney harbour icon with a dramatic sky and good foreground interest. Note that sometimes the HDR process leaves sections of the image looking low contrast (under the eaves of the wharf) and the rest appears as high contrast. One way to even this out is to process two HDR images: a regular one and a second with higher contrast. The higher contrast version is copied and pasted onto the regular HDR and the bits not required can be erased off the top layer to reveal the regular HDR underneath it.

Darling Harbour by Hamish Allen. Amazing colour in this long exposure shot in DH. Needs to be cropped and rotated to get Sydney Harbour on the level! Also, this is not 100% sharp? I suspect this is just because either the tripod moved in between the three HDR exposures or focus was not 100% accurate? AF at night is not foolproof so manual focus is a good idea. I'd always recommend using a shutter release cable. Even though it sounds pedantic, it really makes a difference between a shot that's just OK and one that's pin-sharp.
Lighthouse boat by Hamish Allen. this works extremely well because you have captured an amazing range of clouds in the sky and good illumination on the water in the foreground. Unfortunately, because of the very long exposure, the lighthouse boat moved! As a suggestion, next time you're walking past this Sydney icon, set up your tripod, use an ND filter (Neutral Density), or a Polarising filter on the lens to slow the shutter speed down further, and take the shot. What this will do is make the water in the foreground even smoother. What I would suggest you do then, is to take the same scene but without any filters and at a wide-open aperture so that the lighthouse boat is captured relatively sharp. Then, all you need do, is copy and paste that layer onto the glossy water version and erase everything off the top layer except for the boat - effectively montaging the boat into the very long exposure shot so you get the best of both worlds. It's time-consuming but should produce a more accurate result.
Hamish - this is a huge improvement over the previous version. I took the liberty of rotating the image slightly because I think the shoreline in the distance is still not level and certainly, Centerpoint tower was not 100% vertical. That said your result is awesome - very impressive sky, good exposure in the distant city skyline and vastly improved forground interest. Excellent work in the retouching department - you might find that many nighttime HDR shots require retouching simply because you're dealing with unpredictable light. Good job.

Big WOW! factor in this HDR from Hamish Allen with an almost painterly look at the Harbour at night. One issue with HDR software is that the local contrast seems to be a bit random in is placing - the tops of the buildings appear quite dark while the mid-point in the image has good contrast. Can be fixed easily enough using the technique described for Mark's Jones Bay wharf image. Or you could use the Dodge tool to brighten local areas. I's also remove that bright light section at the extreme left - but overall, a great result! (The lower version is just there to show how lightening those dark towers makes a significant difference to the resul).

A good HDR result from Kerrie Dixon. We often completely ignore the exposure problems presented by regular DSLRs, possibly because we assume there's nothing we can do about it. Shooting multiple exposures, then assembling them using HDR software is one way to go and, as you can see here, produces detailed inside a very dark pagoda as well as catching all the detail in the bright exterior. This is a bit of an optical illusion because, when I first saw this, I thought it needed rotating - but the red pillars are vertical? It might need the perspective transforming.

Waterfall, Chinese Gardens by Kerrie Dixon. Excellent use of shutter speed (with the aperture closed all the way down) to emphasise movement, in this case the water. Could be extended even longer with a neutral density (ND) filter or a Polarising filter, both of which reduce light and therefore extend exposure time considerably. Needs straightening a bit?

Another great night shot from Kerrie Dixon. Of course, one of the biggest problems here is trying to balance a long shutter speed with the movement of the boat. In general a shot like this would look a lot stronger if there was still color in the sky - we discussed this on the night. The negative side of a long exposure is that the camera records movement in the right box, the positive side is that it produces superb, almost glass-like results in the water.
Sculpture by Kerrie. This is an excellent result - even though the daylight has gone from the sky, because it was slightly overcast, the extremely long exposure picks up the ambient light reflected from the city off the clouds
Another fine HDR picture from Mark D. This addresses nicely the problems you get when are dropping and moving objects. Some photographers preferred to shoot a single RAW file and create a pseudo HDR picture from that. It's actually a neat process but, because you're extracting three pictures from one (rather than from three separate files) you do get a lot of problems with noise. Having said that, I think this is an excellent result, looking almost like the set for a horror film? I would probably get in and lighten and some of the dark areas around the girders underneath the bridge using the Dodge tool just to smooth out the effect a bit? Another thought would be to correct the distorted perspective a little bit using a layer Transformation..
Redwood house by Roger Cameron:  This is an impressive HDR picture. You managed to capture all the detail inside and everything outside - my only comment would be to lower saturation slightly because, what's typical with Photomatix is that it tends to overdo the color. Remember that when you're editing the image in Photomatix using the sliders, what you see on the screen is only an 'approximation'. It's a good idea to set the Color Saturation to about 35 or 40% only then work on it using the Hue/Saturation feature in CS. It's not until you click the 'process' button that you can actually see how it's going to turn out. You then have to import it into Photoshop for a color-managed tweak.
FourBridges by Roger Cameron: This one didn't work so well despite our efforts on the day. I'd be tempted to convert this to black-and-white just to reduce it to graphic shapes and see what that does to it?
James Craig by RogerC: again this actually works really well Roger, despite the fact that the boat was shifting. I can see from the ripples that this was a reasonably quick exposure which explains how you have minimized the blur we would normally expect to see in the rigging.  Again, the only thing I would do here would be to perhaps pull the saturation down very slightly in the sky. What do you think?
HMS Endeavour by RogerC: Again I think the color is a little bit 'hot' in this picture. You could consider backing it off by about 10%? Not much, but just enough to reduce the lolly flavor.
Shot by Kerrie Dixon - As I suspected, this scene has been reduced to quite an eerie-looking result which I personally like. Sometimes these semi-industrial areas can produce fascinating subject matter, especially if you capture them without any people. It lends a ghostly 'ambience' to the composition. I would've shifted the camera slightly to the right to have less of the city in the background and more of this large building in the foreground but it's still an amazing result considering, to the human eye, everything appeared to be considerably darker. Only possible with a tripod!
Another hot shot from Mark Daku - I think it still needs slight clockwise rotation? The overcast evening was perfect for this scene. Any sunlight in the white water in the back of the picture or on the rocks, would present significant exposure problems. The soft  lighting is also good because it forces us to use an even longer shutter speed and thus gives a more impressive smoky water effect.
Wharf by Mark Daku. Excellent job here, with an almost perfect, glassy water surface in the background and a great deal of foreground interest. As a suggestion you could have popped a bit of speedlight or torchlight into the foreground to brighten it up (if it hasn't already got some in there?) Again, shooting at this time of night is not the best solution but what you achieved here was excellent.
Another shot from Mark, taken with the help of multiple speedlights from different angles. The biggest problem here is getting enough detail in the sky - which you have done.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Life of a Photo Journalist

Dawn, Sydney, Canon EOS 5D MkII, HDR.
The life of a journalist is one of total hardship. Always.

Canon recently announced the release of three cameras: the Canon EOS 60D, the Canon Powershot SX30IS and the Canon Ixus 1000HS. To promote the launch of these products, Canon invited a bunch of technology journalists to Sydney to join in the celebration.

Here's Peter Gilmore at Quay Restaurant giving us poor old journos a quick demo on how to create his signature snow egg. (EOS 5DMkII).
And of course we were then all forced to try one. Terrible experience! (EOS 5D MkII).
OK, OK, we were hosted for nearly two days, eating superb food, zooming about town in stretch Hummers, whizzing about the harbour in a jetboat (very wet and painful) and whirring through the skies in a helicopter (really great fun). A hard life indeed.

Shot using the new EOS 60D - which has a set of cool special effects filters. This one is called 'Toy Camera' that can be added to the image (as a copy) after the photo is recorded.
Oh, and of course we simply had to try out these three new cameras, divided into teams, competing against each other in a series of challenges designed to give us a lot of fun and give the gear a good old workout.
Powershot SX30. 'Straight' shot from the top of the Harbour Bridge pylon. 24mm lens setting.
Powershot SX30. Same view, using the 840mm telephoto lens. Canon claim that the newly-designed image stabilisation built into this camera gives an effective 4.5 stops of stabilisation. It would seriously need to - to produce clear results. Effectively you'd need to be shooting in bright light to get optimum results. But hey, this looks pretty good to me. More tests to follow.
Powershot SX30. Same view, 840mm lens extension + full digital zoom on top of everything! OK, image is not 100% sharp (not surprisingly, this is at x4 digital zoom) but it came out a lot better than I had expected.
For me the landmark product has to be the Powershot SX30IS - I mean only two days before this event I'd finished writing in an article that "the largest ultra-zoom on the market was a 26x lens", and now Canon launches a 35x zoom lens. I checked, it's NOT a typo, it has an 28-840mm zoom range. Insane considering digital started with a 3x zoom as 'standard'. It eventually climbed to 10x and 12x (400mm equivalent) which is impressive. Now it stands at three times that in terms of real life optical magnification. Simply outstanding. 
But is it any good? The camera itself is quite slow in terms of operation - but to extend a lens THAT much requires a lot of movement through the cams, not to mention power, so I'm not surprised that it's a bit on the slow side. Ironically, although the sound of a hand-held 28-840mm optical zoom sounds distinctly attractive, you might get the best results on a tripod for most of that extended zoom range.

Canon's Cathie Hattersley 'blinging it up' in a stretch Hummer (Blue team came second).
Harbour view from the Bridge pylon. Canon EOS 60D in Miniature effect mode.