Night photography requires some special techniques if you want to preserve the effects of lighting while still getting a decent exposure. Many people will trust that the camera knows it’s night time and will give you a correct exposure. However most cameras will still try to meter the entire exposure as if it was lit by daylight and therefore give you an incorrect exposure for some or all of the scene. In addition, most will try to pop up the flash and fill in the foreground with fill light even if that is not what you are photographing. The first step is to place your camera into a mode that takes back some of the control over the settings. In a DSLR or mirrorless camera you can use a Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual setting. On a point and shoot, turn off the flash and adjust the settings available to you. Adjust the ISO high if you will be shooting handheld or bring a tripod or other gear to mount your camera if you will have plenty of time to take the shot. Night photography is best done with the camera supported but sometimes that is not possible. At the Pumpkin Glow for instance, the crowds meant we had to keep on the move so a tripod would not have worked out. Adjust the ISO as high as your camera can handle while keeping image quality good. For instance on the 5D Mark II I put it at 6400 but on a cropped sensor camera I would probably limit myself to 3200 or 1600. Next, if you are shooting in any mode other than manual, you must concern yourself with the metering and then choose how much to underexpose the metering. A simple trial and error can work here and I found that most shots needed me to underexpose by 2/3 of a stop with some requiring a full 2 stops of underexposure. The reason you need to underexpose is that most of your photo should end up black or very dark with just the subject exposed. However, if you shoot without underexposing, the camera is going to try to let in enough light to make that black look like a dull grey. Not only that but your shots will end up blurry most likely unless you are in shutter priority and have the shutter set to at least 1 over the focal length. Underexposing tells the camera to let in less light which is what is desired here. With the settings figured out, the next challenge is actually taking the shots. If you are shooting unsupported, you will still need to concentrate on holding the camera with your arms in and your camera pressed to your face to achieve the most stable platform for taking photos. If you have image stabilization, then this will help you out considerably. Most likely the subject is not moving at all or very much so the camera movement is the only variable that needs to be controlled. Finally, sometimes when you are shooting at night, you do want to fill the foreground with a fill flash because you are shooting people. In this case, off camera flash is best, external but on-camera is next, and pop-up or built in flash is the least desirable. The reason is simple; red-eye. The further the light source is from the lens, the less prominent red-eye is. Some flashes will pre-fire to dilate the subject’s pupils before the photo. Whatever you use, be aware of the features and turn on red-eye reduction if its an option. Keep the subjects close, but not too close. This way they will not be overpowered by the flash, nor out of its reach.
Recently I have had some free time during the week and on Tuesday I took full advantage by signing up for a wildflower hike in Round Canyon with the the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. I have been on hikes with them before such as the fourth of July hike at Bommer Canyon, a photo hike at Black Star Canyon and a terrifying beginners mountain bike ride (it was terrifying only because I don’t know how to ride a bike that well, plus I saw a tarantula). Anyway, I hadn’t been on a hike with the IRC in almost two years, mostly due to my job interfering with many the activities they have. This hike began at the Portola Staging Area just at the end of Portola Parkway in Irvine. Our group was very large, about 30 people, many volunteers for the IRC and our docent Kelly. After meeting at 9am we piled in our cars ( we could only take about 6-7 cars so we literally piled in) and drove up to the trail head for Round Canyon. This canyon is closed to the public and is only accessible by signing up for one of these hikes. The trail was overgrown with many native and non-native plants and there wasn’t an abundance of wildflowers, apparently they have had a slow wildflower season. So this was more of a plant and wildflower hike, Kelly pointed out all the various flora and fauna which she was very knowledgeable about. Although the IRC does offer cardio and fitness hikes this was not one of them. We only walked about a mile, at a slow pace and stopped every few feet to talk about a plant, flower or random animal scat. The pace was perfect for picture taking especially since I didn’t bring a very versatile lens. I chose to bring the Rebel T2i with the 50mm attached to it, this meant I really had to think about my shots and constantly move closer or further away to get a good composition. Even though the 50mm is not a macro lens it still has the ability to open up to an aperture of 1.8 which means really awesome bokeh. We got back to our cars around 11:30am just in time for lunch. I highly recommend signing up for one of these hikes with the IRC, especially since most of them are free and you can learn something along the way.
To see more of my photos from Round Canyon check out the GALLERY.
To see more test shots from the Nikon P500 check out the GALLERY.
Occasionally a company known for quality of build as well as design will unveil a product that is so ill conceived and even more poorly implemented that it casts a shadow on the entire reputation of the company. For Nikon, that product is the Coolpix P500. What follows is born from my time owning this contraption and experiencing first hand just how wrong a product can get.
1)The Nikon Coolpix P500 tries to do everything but does not do anything well. This camera is packed with more features then I care to list. The manual is electronic only, most likely because if they printed it, it wouldn’t fit in the box. The features all sound nice but in reality are almost universally so poorly implemented to be useless.
Photo is unedited. F6.3 at 1/30 of a second. ISO 200
2) The camera is based around a sensor usually found on much cheaper cameras. This is major because without a solid sensor, everything else falls apart. At an MSRP of $399, the fact that this camera has a 12 megapixel sensor is puzzling. However megapixels are not what this sensors lacks the most. My old Canon SD550 has only 7.1 megapixels and takes better photos. The problem is the sensor only really works at ISO 100. Anything above that introduces strong noise reduction and above 400 the noise reduction is so strong that people will look at your photo and ask why you did not try to focus it.
Photo is unedited. F5 at 1/80 of a second. ISO 200
3) Manual focus feature is welcome but so poorly implemented that it is useless. Remember, this camera is a superzoom with an electronic viewfinder and an LCD screen as your only two options for focusing with. The EV is so small and low resolution that it might as well not exist. When using the LCD, manual focus brings up a zoom of the center of the frame so you can more easily focus. The problem is even with this zoom, pulling focus is an exercise in frustration. I was glad the feature was there but wish it was implemented in a useful way.
Photo is unedited. F6.3 at 1/100 of a second. ISO 200
4) Aperture Priority mode ignores your aperture settings if you zoom out. This is major once again and became a deal breaker. I am sure Nikon can fix this with a firmware update but I have a feeling they have no intention to based on the response from their customer service saying there is nothing wrong. Basically it works like this. The lens is not a fixed aperture lens. This means that when zoomed in, it cannot retain the most wide open F-stop. That’s fine. However if you zoom in and set the f-stop to 8.0 and then zoom back out, the camera opens up the aperture to f-stop 3.5. It does not need to do this and it is counter-intuitive when shooting in aperture priority.
Photo is unedited. F4 at 1/640 of a second. ISO 200
5) The superzoom lens has too much distortion and distorts in a non-common way. I’m used to barrel and pincushion distortion on superzoom lenses. The distortion from this lens defies classification. Its not that it just has barrel distortion at full wide; it also has stretching and pulling and other oddly shaped distortion that I’ve never seen before. In addition, the lens is just not very sharp. An unsharp lens combined with a poor sensor is a recipe for disaster.
Photo is unedited. F3.7 at 1/1500 of a second. ISO 200
6) The auto-focus is slow and dumb. If you set the auto-focus to center point, it is slightly faster. However your only two options are the whole frame or center point. Neither works all that well but the whole frame auto-focus is a disaster. It will routinely choose 5-6 points to focus on; none of which are what is actually the subject of the photo.
Photo is unedited. F3.4 at 1/200 of a second. ISO 200
7) Battery life is poor and the camera does not come with a charger in the box. Enough said.
Photo is unedited. F4.2 at 1/1250 of a second. ISO 200
8 ) When you turn on the camera with the lens cap on, it tries to move the lens into the ready position even though it is obstructed. This is a very annoying design feature. The lens should not even need to protrude to work at full wide. Nikon could have extended the shroud or designed the cap differently. Instead they left this design flaw fully intact. It is the little things like this that make me wonder if Nikon even cares if this camera is good or not.
Photo is unedited. F5 at 1/100 of a second. ISO 200
9) Auto White Balance varies wildly between shots of the same scene. This combined with the fact that this camera only takes jpeg files makes for a very annoying time doing post production.
Photo is unedited. F4.2 at 1/320 of a second. ISO 200
10) The images this camera takes just look weird. I cannot place my finger on it but even in a bright sunny day photograph, the images just look flat and lacking. By flat, I don’t mean low contrast. I instead mean that they lack dimensionality. I have a feeling that this camera has a lower dynamic range than most and so captures images accordingly and then compensates with in camera processing to make the image look “normal”. This is just a theory but it is the only thing I can think of to explain the weirdness of the images.
Photo is unedited. F3.4 at 1/1250 of a second. ISO 200
In conclusion, stay away from the Nikon Coolpix P500 like a medieval peasant would avoid the plague. I know for a fact that Nikon is more than capable of making fine cameras that produce wonderful photos. This is not one of those cameras. I would go so far as to say that this camera is single-handedly destroying Nikon’s reputation around the world and they would be best served by taking it off the market.
Jamie and I dumped this contraption and picked up the Canon T2i instead. This is mostly because we already have a collection of fine Canon lenses. We both love the camera and coincidentally the camera fits in the same case we picked up for the P500. If you can afford the price difference, get that camera instead because you will not regret it.
Last weekend Bryan and I had the pleasure of photographing the Painted Rocks Half Marathon in San Diego. The race started at Rancho Bernardo Community Park and wound halfway around Lake Hodges. The race started at 7am but because we live in Orange County we left our house at 3:30am to make sure we had enough time to pick out our photo spots. We got there around 5am when it was still dark and cold. I consider myself a morning person, but not a pre-dawn person. I haven’t seen the sunrise in a long time but as a photographer I know that this is one of the best times to take photos. I felt grateful to the event that I had to drag myself out of bed so early as I would never do this on my own just to take photos. The time known as the Golden Hour is the first and last hour of sunlight each day. It is known for it’s long shadows and warm beautiful hues of light. The spot I chose to shoot from was at a suspension bridge that runs across the lake and leads to the rest of the trail. As I waited in the cold for the sun to rise I took a few shots from the bridge looking out to the 15 freeway. I generally don’t carry a tripod with me so in order to get a nice slow shutter speed shot I placed my camera on the bridge’s railing (while still wearing the neck strap), set my shutter speed to a couple of seconds and enabled the mirror lockup. This prevented camera movement from when I pressed the shutter button which is a good trick when you find yourself without a tripod. Once the sun started to rise I forgot how much I hated early mornings because the resulting shots came out so well. You can see more of my Golden Hour shots in the GALLERY.
To see more test shots from the P500 see our gallery HERE and to see Bryan’s top ten reasons to avoid this camera click HERE.
I am actually going to write this review over the course of a few weeks starting from the first day I received the Nikon Coolpix P500. We will actually be writing two reviews, one from Bryan which will probably be way more technical than what I will write about. So let’s start from the beginning, why did we get a another camera. Considering we already have a 5D Mark II this camera seems like a step down. Don’t get me wrong I love my Mark II, LOVE IT, but at the same time it is not something that’s easy to carry around everywhere. I usually bring it to big events and photo trips because I know that I will get amazing images every time. I don’t like bringing it to parties or hikes or random things like that because I feel it weighs me down. I needed to get a camera that was going to be more versatile. We were prepared to shell out $650 for the Rebel T2i which is also a superior camera to the P500 but also not as versatile because I would still have to carry around lenses. Now let’s get one thing straight, comparing a DSLR to a super-zoom is like comparing apples to oranges. The P500 is very good at what it was manufactured for but I knew that when I bought it I wasn’t going to get DSLR image quality. For one thing it has a very small sensor and so the low light capability is not going to be great, but that’s not what I bought it for. I was more excited about finally having on camera flash, something my Mark II does not have. Yes I could use an external flash but if you know me you know I hate carrying around extra equipment. You will almost never see carrying an external flash, a battery pack or a tripod. I try to keep things simple.
Taken in Pet Portrait Mode F3.4 at 1/15, ISO 800
Aperture Priority F4.5 at 1/30, ISO 400
The main reason we purchased this camera was to have a second shooter. We shoot at least five events a year for the San Diego Running Institute and we usually end up renting another camera body each time. Along with these events we also go to many other things where we like having two cameras so this renting business was getting rather expensive. So why not just go with the T2i? Well as I was doing research on cameras I remembered that a couple of years ago we were looking into Panasonic’s super-zoom which everyone was raving about. I thought why not check out super-zooms, and I did, relentlessly. I looked at three different Panasonic’s, the Canon SX30, the Pentax, Sony etc, I read hundreds of reviews. What made my decision even more difficult is that I couldn’t decide what features were important to me. Did I want RAW capability? Did the camera shoot in 3:2 format? Did it have HD video capability? Could it do Macro? In the end I ended up going on Nikon’s website and saw that the P500 was about to be released. I have no experience with Nikon products so I really didn’t know what to expect. At this point my brain was so overwhelmed with information I think I was most impressed by the fact that I could get the camera in red. Luckily, the color turned out not to be the best feature on this camera.
Macro Mode, Manual Focus, F4.4 at 1/60, ISO 1600
Macro Mode, Manual Focus, F5.6 at 1/40, ISO 1600
My first impression was that this little camera was gorgeous, I got the red one (of course). I had to wait for it though, a long time. It took them a month to finally send it to me and I drove myself crazy reading reviews and finding out more information on the thing before I finally got it. It is also very light which is in stark contrast to the Mark II. Even when I put a 50mm on it I still feel like I’m carrying a small brick. My husband doesn’t seem to share this problem but I have weak little arms. I also found it easy to navigate the menus which is good considering I hate reading manuals (it’s manual is 252 pages!). I pretty much figured out where all the settings were in the first few minutes which says a lot since I am not familiar at all with the Nikon menu. I did look in the manual to figure out what some of the symbols meant, there are so many features in this camera to help the user in every possible shooting situation it’s overwhelming. I just wanted it be able to shoot in manual or aperture priority, I could care less about the other “scene” modes. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have interesting things to offer, for instance, one of the first things I played with was the “Pet Portrait” mode. I just aimed the camera at my dog and it instantly recognized her face and took three photos. Nice touch.
Macro Mode, F4.7 at 1/200, ISO 320
Full zoom, F7.1 at 1/400, ISO 1600
One thing I found slightly annoying is the lack of shortcuts to change the ISO, metering and focus point settings. I am so used to this on my Mark II that I find it somewhat disappointing that the option isn’t available to me. But this seems to be a feature mostly prevalent on DSLR’s and that is not what I purchased so I’m not going to complain. It’s not like they didn’t try to make it easier, for instance you can set an ISO range when you shoot so the camera never changes the ISO above or below a certain sensitivity while shooting. I also dislike that you have to take the lens cap off before you turn it on or you will possibly damage the lens component. For someone who is as forgetful as I am this is no bueno, I have a feeling I will forget this step many times. The electronic viewfinder is another thing that I just can’t get used to. Most of the reviews I read have showed that people love the EV but I just can’t make myself like it. For me, unless the viewfinder is as large as that of the Mark II it’s useless to me. That’s just my own quirkiness though and really not a flaw with the camera. Plus every time I look through it I feel like I’m looking through the eye’s of a robot. Yes, that’s how I would really describe it. I absolutely love the large screen so it’s really not a problem that I have to frame all my photos by using the LCD, it’s not the true photographers way but this isn’t an SLR it’s an elaborate point and shoot. There was something that I did find problematic that I discovered and that is it has it’s own type of USB connection which is still a mystery to me. It wasn’t compatible with the two types of USB’s I already had connected to my computer, mini and micro, so I had to plug yet another cord in. This was all fine and dandy until the Friday I forgot the cord at work and realized I didn’t have a card reader that supported SDHC cards. Even Nikon’s website is not helpful when trying to figure out this mystery connection. One person even asked a Nikon staff member what the smaller end of the cable was to which he answered “micro usb”. There are 3 types of micro USB, none of which appear to be the same as this particular connection. I almost thought Nikon came up with there own USB input but I later found out it was Mini B (8 pin). Of course that whole inconvenient episode was my fault for not “planning better” as Charlie Sheen would say. I ended up buying an extra USB connector.
I have been shooting in mostly aperture priority which is what I shoot with the Mark II. I am starting to find what settings I prefer. For instance, I set the auto focus to center instead of auto. I find that the camera focuses much faster in this mode. I also tend to not raise the camera’s ISO above 400. I do shoot at ISO 1600 when I have to take photos at my work without the flash and the noise is not that bad, barely noticeable actually, I just prefer to keep it at 400 or below. When taking photos with the flash I like to underexpose the flash at least half a stop, this helps to avoid blown out highlights. I have also been playing with the manual focus feature on this camera. Yes it has manual focus and it doesn’t suck! You can set the side zoom to be a manual focus control which is pretty cool. The manual focus doesn’t work at full zoom but it works really well for macro shots. Like I said before there are a bajillion different settings and modes on this camera. I find that there are so many things you can set on this camera that I forget which settings to check. The other day I took a group photo and forgot to turn off the auto high ISO feature which totally ruined the photo. I also unfortunately did find a huge flaw in this camera which may only matter to me. I have found that when shooting aperture priority or full manual if you zoom in and out the camera does not keep your aperture setting. For example, I set the aperture to F8 at the widest zoom, I then zoomed in to photograph an object. When I zoomed back out to wide the aperture automatically changed to F4 or F3.4 and didn’t stay at F8 which is what I set it to. If it is going to do this on it’s own then what is the point of Nikon putting an aperture priority feature? They might as well have just made this a full auto camera if they didn’t want the user to think at all. As a result I will constantly have to check my aperture to make sure it didn’t automatically change to something else. Nikon’s response to this and I quote “This happen because the aperture change accordingly with the zoom this happen on any mode not only aperture priority.” Don’t even get me started about the grammatical errors in this sentence on top of the fact that this makes absolutely no sense. Nevertheless, this is a problem because one of the reasons I bought this camera is because it had a manual mode.
Flash underexposed by 0.7, F3.4 at 1/30, ISO 200
F7.1 at 1/1250, ISO 200
Now it’s time to sum up the review with the pros and cons (at least the ones that matter to me). I’ll start with the cons:
Only satisfactory image quality
Poor auto focus
Inconsistency in white balance
Noticeable lag time between shots
Aperture changes automatically even when the mode is set to Manual or Aperture Priority (this is the one that really bothers me and so does Nikon’s answer)
No shortcuts for settings like ISO or metering
No sensor to tell you when the lens cap is still on when powering up
No RAW file format
No info in the display or EXIF data showing what mode you are shooting in
Does not have the ability to choose an auto focus point besides the center
And here are the pros:
Macro mode is fantastic
Manual focus works well especially with Macro
Large LCD screen
Easy Panorama mode really is easy and the results are totally awesome
Pet Portrait mode
Menus are easy to navigate
Surprisingly good performance at ISO 1600
Very light and easy to carry around
You may have noticed I said nothing about the video quality, while I have taken videos on it I am just not a video taking person (I can’t scrapbook videos). From what I saw the video looked acceptable but it’s not a feature I really care too much about.
Dawn/Dusk Mode, F4.7 at 1/800, ISO 160 on a tripod
In conclusion I have been pretty disappointed with this camera. We ended up returning the camera and will be purchasing our first choice the T2i. I really wanted to make this camera work for me but it simply was not up to the task. I don’t think I will ever buy a “new” camera again until it’s been vetted by reviewers for at least six months. I tried to cut the camera some slack with the image quality, I knew it was not an SLR but I found myself making excuses for how bad the images were turning out when everything was pointing to the camera. Many images looked soft around the edges, had no consistency in the white balance reading, and were just….blah. There is a lot of distortion at full wide angle as well. Many of these issues could be fixed in Photoshop but I am not the type of person who wants to spend hours post processing and I wouldn’t even have a RAW file to work with! It makes me sad that I had to return it since I hate doing returns, especially when it’s electronics purchased online, but I knew I would never be happy with it. I was so impressed by the Macro mode on this camera I thought that for sure everything else would be great. I’m not saying that nobody should buy this camera, in fact I recommend it to amateurs looking for a point and shoot that can do all the work for them and then some. But for pros and semi pros it is just not up to the job, the camera basically forces you to shoot in auto and for someone like me that is not acceptable. I hope Nikon can improve upon this camera because super-zooms are a great idea but it seems the execution has fallen short.
It would be nice if camera bodies with interchangeable lenses sealed themselves during lens changes. Since they do not yet do this, there is always some dust or fibers which may sneak into the camera body during a lens change. The dust and fibers are then attracted to your sensor like a magnet because of the charge the sensor carries when it captures light. Dust which is not on the focal plane is usually not noticeable in photographs. So for instance a little dust on the end of your lens or dust in the camera body but not on the sensor will not be noticeable. However as soon as that dust or fiber sticks to your sensor then it will for sure show up on your photos as a dark spot.
This is a solved problem right?
The short answer is no. Many new cameras incorporate either a system to shake the sensor or to electrically push the dust off the sensor. The dust and fibers however are still in your camera body where they can re-attach at a later time.
How do I know if I have dust on the sensor?
You might already know you do have dust but if you want to find out for sure then take a photo of the clear blue sky. Then download the photo and zoom in to 50-100%. If you see dark spots where there should be none, then you have dust on your sensor.
What do I need to do now?
These instructions are specific to the Canon 5D Mark II but can be used on any DSLR or even any camera with an interchangeable lens. However you will need to read your cameras manual to find out how to put it in “cleaning mode” and follow the instructions for that mode. Make sure your battery is fully charged before doing this.
What tools do I need?
You will need at least three things and a few more optional items. The three mandatory items are:
1) A good blower
I like the Giotto Rocket Air Blower which you can pick up for about $15 including shipping. Note: do not use canned air as it has propellant which can leave residue. Also be wary of CO2 as some canisters have lubricant.
3) Eclipse Optic Cleaning System Cleaning FluidNote: This stuff is extremely flammable so you can only buy it in person in the store. If you don’t live in New York then you’ll have to find it at a local camera store. One bottle lasts a long time.
4) Optional: Sensor scope or magnifying loupe. These can get pricey and this one is $75. It does help in visualizing the problem though so you know where to concentrate the blower.
A Primer on sensors
It does not matter if you have a CCD or a CMOS sensor. The sensor always has a protective glass over it and it is this glass that you will be cleaning. Canon incorporates a low-pass filter in this as well to remove infrared light. Other manufacturers don’t do this. However the cleaning method remains the same regardless. While the glass is not delicate, it can be scratched so that is why care needs to be taken to prevent contamination anytime you will be physically contacting the sensor glass. Since it rests on the focal plane, any markings will be visible. If your sensor glass is damaged already, it is possible to repair although it is expensive. Contact the service department for your specific manufacturer to find out your options.
Let’s get started already!
The first thing I will say about this process is that it is best done in a clean room. If you take your camera to the manufacturers service center then this is what they do. Since most people I know don’t own clean rooms then a closed off room will have to do. If you have an air filter, turn it on high for about an hour ahead of time and then turn it off right before to let the air calm and the dust settle. If you have pets, kick them out. The last thing you need is your dog wagging his tail and some fur flying into your camera body.
1) Detach your lens and cap the end and temporarily put your body cap on the camera. Then put your camera in “Cleaning Mode”. Note: This is different from “clean the sensor now”. Like I mentioned before, every camera is different but to see how to do it for the Canon 5D Mark II just watch the video below. Lastly take off the body cap. You should notice that the mirror is now out of the way (if your camera has a mirror).
2) Grab your blower and proceed with blowing any dust and fibers out of the camera body. It is possible that you can clean the sensor only using the blower but if you cannot, it is still a good step to include. Blow as much out as you can while being careful not to touch the blower tip to anything in the camera including the sensor or the mirror.
3) Take one sensor swab and the sensor fluid and place it next to the camera. Now carefully open the sensor swab making sure not to touch the end with the swab on it. Apply a drop of liquid on each side of the sensor swab. Now firmly but gently swipe the swab from the left to the right of the sensor glass. Then make one swipe from the right to the left using the clean side of the swab. Now the swab is used and cannot be used again so just put it down anywhere. Once you put the body cap or your lens back on then you can take your camera out of “cleaning mode”.
Time to test the results
Place a wide angle lens on the camera if you have one and go outside. Aim at a clear blue sky up at about 75 degrees and opposite from the sun. Take several photos at the widest angle and then download them and look at them between 50-100%. You should not notice any dust but if you do you can repeat the steps. Sometimes just using the blower again can fix the problem.
Use your newly cleaned camera often. It may get dirty again but you now know how to clean it. This should lead to a much more enjoyable experience. If you end up with an impossibly to clean sensor then you might want to take it to the manufacturers service center.