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Film is still alive! Brendan Moyle Apr 12

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It's easy to forget in this world of digital photography, iPhones and the like, that film still exists and people still use it. One of the photography-groups I belong to set up a film challenge for the month of April. The challenge is to use up a roll of film (preferably in a Minolta camera) and then post the best third of the roll. Therein lies some of the challenge. Not knowing what the picture looks like, means you can't adjust the exposure during the shoot.

It also means you can't do a lot of photo-editing later on a digital image. If you want to use some filter effects, you have to add them as you're shooting with a physical filter. I took a 3-stop ND filter and a circular-polariser with me. Also, a tripod was also essential given the low ISO rating of the film and the lack of stabilisation on my camera body (or lenses).

In this roll, I pulled the film speed down to ISO-64 to eek out a bit more motion blur.


My picks were


#1 The Pumphouse Tower (Takapuna)

1/60 sec, 70mm @f4, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Tokina 28-70/2.8mm


#2 Pumphouse Amphitheatre Seating

1/2 sec, 45mm @f8, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Tokina 28-70/2.8mm


#3 Lichen

1 sec, 70mm @f8, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Tokina 28-70/2.8mm


#4 Waipunga Falls

1 sec, 130mm @f16, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Sony 70-200/2.8 G


#5 Waipunga Falls (again)

1 sec, 180mm @f16, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Sony 70-200/2.8 G

#6 Downstream

2 sec, 35mm @f16, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Tokina 28-70/2.8mm

#7 Eskdale Church- Window

1/6 sec, 70mm @f8, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Tokina 28-70/2.8mm

#8 Eskdale Church

1/15 sec, 50mm @f8, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Tokina 28-70/2.8mm

Crossing the Napier-Taupo highway involves crossing a mountain range. At this point I was above clouds trapped between two major ridges. the effect with the morning sun was startling.

#9 Above the clouds A

1/200 sec, 70mm @f8, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Tokina 28-70/2.8mm

#10 Amongst the clouds

1/250 sec, 45mm @f8, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Tokina 28-70/2.8mm

#11 Above the clouds B

1/200 sec, 50mm @f8, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Tokina 28-70/2.8mm

#12 Lake Karapiro

1/60 sec, 70mm @f4, Dynax 7, ISO-64, Kodak Portra 160VC, Tokina 28-70/2.8mm

Back to Asia Brendan Moyle Jan 18

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Heading off to do some fieldwork tomorrow for around 12 days. At this point, all I can really say is that it does have a conservation focus.

The odd thing about this trip is that it's the first time in years I won't be taking an SLR kit. My film cameras are staying behind. My DSLR is staying behind. Instead I'm going to try and do the whole thing with the much more compact NEX kit. A lot of the motivation is opportunities for photography will be rare and the odds of doing any wildlife photography pretty non-existent. There's no point carrying more gear than you need.

So my NEX kits consists of a NEX-5 camera, 18-55 and 55-200mm zoom lenses, a gorillapod 'tripod' and a Metz 28-CS2 flash. I'm pondering whether to take the 16/2.8 wide angle or a 50/1.7 low light lens as well.

The Metz is an interesting flash, it is small enough to fit into a shirt pocket but still has a ranking of 28. It works solely as a slave flash. You use your camera's flash to trigger it. Which also means you can use it off the camera for more control over lighting.

At the moment, the whole system is taking up a small fraction of my camera bag. I hope it works out and I don't regret leaving my big cameras behind.

The Birds of Spring Brendan Moyle Oct 08

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It's been a tough few weeks for photography as work pressure and turbulent weather has got in the way of employing the camera. I recently got a Sony 2x Teleconverter (off Trademe) and have been hoping to test it out. I've been happy with the 1.4x TC for a while but appreciate that image quality does take a small hit with a TC. On the other hand, my longest lens is a 300mm G prime. While this has superb image quality it isn't always long enough for nature photography. The 1.4x TC extends it to a useful 420mm focal length. The 2x takes it out to 600mm.

Once you start shooting at these kind of focal lengths (my rule of thumb, 500mm or more) stability is an issue. This is why tripods are normally used as an adjunct for the big lenses.

I didn't really have time to pack and setup a tripod however on Sunday, so I did it the hard way with a handheld shot. I'm usually pretty steady with a camera and lens (which helps with a lot of the macro shots I do), but cranked the shutter speed up to 1/1000 sec and ensured the camera stabiliser was working. This should buy me a few extra stops of stability.

Tuis are starting to increase in abundance our way, so I went out for some snapshots. Lighting conditions weren't ideal. I like to have a bit of directional light with our native birds, especially as they often have a metallic sheen to them when the sun hits them at certain angles.

Anyway, this is my hand-held, manual focus shot of a local tui.



A first look at the HVL-MT24AM Brendan Moyle Aug 13

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As noted earlier this macro-flash from Sony is basically a rebadge of the Minolta flash that preceded it. This isn't a bad thing because it was a pretty good flash to begin with.

It does mean however that the unit lacks two features found in many more modern flashes. It can't be triggered with a remote flash and it lacks ADI. You can only shot with this flash in TTL or manual mode.

These aren't critical issues for a macro-flash however.

The main difference between this flash and the Sigma EM-140 I was using before is the flexibility with the position and direciton of the light. The Sigma works on 2 lamps set at 180 degrees apart and the light is diffused through a ring mounted on the lens.

If we start with the Sony macro twin flash, you can see it starts with a mounting ring


This shows you can set the two flashes 45 degrees, 90 degrees and 180 degrees apart. The mounting shoes are fixed onto the ring.

You then attach a lens adapter to the ring to screw it on to the front of your lens.

This shoes the adapter for a 55mm diameter lens.

The flash controller mounts on the hotshoe of the camera.

Back-view of the controller. You can also see the dials that are used to manually adjust output of each flash when you shot in manual (M) mode.

The front of the controller has the sockets to attach the flash cables.



The flash heads are then mounted on the ring. They also swivel so they can point inwards towards the subject, front on or outwards.


To modify the flash you can
1) Attach it to a mounting arm that can also be positioned at a 90 degree or 60 degree arc.

2) The arm can be extended to create even more side light

3) The lamps can be fitted with wide-angle diffusers

4) Or with their own diffusers to soften the light further.


So how does it all work?
Well I had a quick trial last night (before it rained) on a tunnel-web spider that was occupying a tree-trunk. The challenge with this subject is the tunnel. Also you're shooting at night-time. So what I did for this shot was to place the lamps 90 degrees apart. The lamp located at the top of the ring was angled to direct light into the tunnel itself. The second lamp was positioned at 90 degrees to throw light on the actual spider. I went with TTL metering and exposure compensation of -3 (to minimise hotspots).

The spider


Closeup #1


Closeup #2


Now, I'm very pleased with this. The tunnel has received enough illumination to pick out the details of the legs and other body sections. The direction of the light has also meant that the hairs on the fangs and underneath the front legs have been revealed in sharper detail.

So overall, I am very pleased with the flexibility and usefulness of this unit for macro photography.

The Watcher Brendan Moyle Aug 10

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Sometimes you can be happy with the subject of a picture, but the background kind of competes with it. So one solution is to replace the background with something simpler. This can happen with more natural shots taken in situ, as the subject- say a bird- isn't inclined to pose for you.

This was my solution to this sulphur crested cockatoo pic. With the bird being so white, I went for a replacement black background. End result, well, I liked it much better :)

The Watcher


Photo is available on my
Zenfolio Website and at
Committed Photography

It’s arrived Brendan Moyle Aug 08

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My HVL-MT24AM has arrived.

The positives is that it has a lot of scope for adjusting light. It even comes with its own diffusers. Less appealing is that it is fiddly to put together in all its manifold variations. But there's a lot of variations.

I like that the flash output can be easily dialed in for each flash head with a physical dial. No pesky menus to have to navigate there.

The challenge now is to work out how I can attach it to those lenses of mine with a diameter greater than 55mm. The proprietary rings for screwing onto lenses only came in 49 and 55mm.

#Macro photography- don’t forget the light Brendan Moyle Jul 30

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I think one of the major benefits of spending a lot of years peering down a microscope, is that you develop a deep appreciation for how important lighting is. In order to see details, you don't just use a good microscope. You also spend a lot of time playing with different angles and levels of light. That's why you have light sources above and below the slide, and also fibre-optic lights on goose-neck lamps. Having the highest quality microscope in the world, means nothing of you can't work with light.

The same principle carries over to macro-photography. I've noticed a lot of people who start up with macro photography who think it's all about the lens. So they're willing to spend a lot of money on a top-grade lens, and then there's nothing left over for macro-flashes. The thing is, having light sources you can use to bring up relief on the subject matters a great deal.

This orbweb spider below is one of my favourite shots


One of the reasons is the lighting. I've got a green card set up behind the spider to reflect light back on it, and it's been hit with two flash sources. This is a spider I've photographed in the dead of night, in NZ bush. There is no other lighting here other than the sources I carried in. There's no streetlights, and the forest canopy is preventing moon or star-light from impacting on the picture. So by using light from different directions the spider ends up having shape and detail.

One of the reasons I went with Sony in my early DSLR days was because I saw the potential in this system for macro photography. The camera bodies had stabilisation, which gave hand-held macro shots a helping boost. The other factor was the weak AA filters used on the Sony sensors. This gave a notorious level of noise to images at high ISOs, but more detail in photos at low ISOs. Given I shoot macro at low ISOs, this suited me just fine.

Weaknesses however remained. Whilst Minolta had an excellent 200/4 long macro lens, Sony never resumed production of this lens- nor brought in a replacement. That left the macro lineup as a 50mm, and 100mm and later a 30mm. The gap at the long macro can be offset by using 3rd party lenses, but I really wanted to see a 200/4 back in offer.

The second weakness was lighting. Again Minolta had a ringflash in production prior to the Sony acquisition. This has been replaced with a ring-light instead- which suffers the problem of not actually being a flash and of very limited use for macro photography. The only other option was the Sony HVL-24. This is another Minolta rebadge of a specialist macro lens.

Up to now however, I've always baulked at paying the retail price for this unit. In the mean time I've been using a Sigma EM-140 ringflash. This wasn't available when I first got into macro-photography again, and it's actually a good unit. Nonetheless, you're still restricted by a ring-flash. It's difficult to make meaningful adjustments to the direction the light comes from.

Well, I've now bought a 2nd hand copy of the Sony HVL-24. This solved my issue with the retail price new :) And hopefully, I can offer some thoughts on its value after some use.






Size Matters: Manual focus with the NEX camera Brendan Moyle Jul 24

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Part III: The Art of Manual Focus

The Nex system has, possibly not by intent, become an excellent manual focusing system also. This means many lenses from the manual focus era (yes, there was a time before cameras developed autofocus functions where everything had to be focused by hand) have a new lease of life.

The reason manual-focus has become much more popular is a feature called focus-peaking. This was added to the first models in the Nex system by firmware and is now standard. What this does is show you what is in focus in your frame by colouring it. You even get a choice of colours (I use red). As part of the manual focus, you can magnify the view by either 7x or 14x. This allows for both accurate and straightforward manual focusing. In the past with film cameras, manual focusing was always associated with a level of frustration. That frustration has been replaced by enjoyment. The NEX-system doesn’t just give you the option of manual focus, it takes that concept to give you almost an entirely new way to take pictures.

The red areas (peaked) in the screen reveal what will be in sharp focus in the final shot


If you want to use lenses that are not E-Mount, you will need to use an adapter. If you already have Sony or Minolta AF lenses one such option is the LA-EA1. This preserves aperture controls (so you can adjust the f-stop) and if you have an SSM or SAM lens, it will also give you autofocus. Nonetheless, the autofocus speed is not exemplary (the camera is still stuck with contrast detection). A more expensive option is the LA-EA2 which is bulkier and adds the phase-detection autofocus via an translucent mirror mechanism. This makes it a lot better at autofocus, but if your main intention is to use the camera for manual focus, it is a very expensive option.

The LA-EA1


Side-view: the tripod mount is useful to balance the camera and take the weight off the camera body


NEX-5 with LA-EA1 Adapter and 70-200/2.8 G SSM lens


The effect of this adapter can be illustrated with these snap-shots.

Local Pukeko, NEX-5, 70-200/2.8 G


Cow, NEX-5, 70-200/2.8 G


Now, neither the camera or the lens will have any stabilisation so having the means to stabilise the shot is handy. I use a gorillapod for SLR camera with a small Giottos ballhead.

Part 2: Size Matters- the beginner’s guide to the NEX E-mount camera Brendan Moyle Jul 16

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This part of the series deals with using your E-mount camera if you have a weak background in photography.

Sony has followed Minolta’s system of defining models based on a number system. This gives the Nex-3 (entry-level), Nex-5 (amateur), Nex-7 (advanced-amateur) and scope for a Nex-9 which would correspond to a ‘professional’ camera. Minolta did the same with the first digit of each model number matching to a market-segment. The 3 meant entry-level, and the feature set improved as you went up this 3/5/7/9 scale. Rather than using the same alpha-lenses (Minolta AF or Sony alpha) for the camera, the NEX series uses the e-mount. These lenses tend to be smaller than their alpha-cousins.

The differences at the moment is that the 7 has a 24MP sensor, a proper flash hotshoe for an external flash, and improved user interface. The 3 and 5 lack a proper hotshoe* and the user interface is more cumbersome. All cameras take videos and none have in-body stabilisation. This is part of the cost of making the cameras small. Some E-mount lenses do have stabilisation in the actual lens.

So, if you’ve got a Sony Nex-camera, what sort of setups might suit a beginner? The first thing to do is install the latest firmware. This is the age of digital photography. Cameras often qualify for upgrades that add new functions or improve performance. These upgrade are free and should be taken advantage of.

Firmware & other support: Sony Asia Support

A lot of people are largely interested in cameras to take pictures of friends, family and kittens. (There is a popular theory that the internet was invented by cats precisely to circulate large volumes of cat and kitten photos). So the following basic settings might appeal.

(1) Using Scene Mode

Under menu, go the the “Shoot Mode”, find SCN (scene selection) and pick portrait. This will try to shoot in a wider aperture (small f-stop) and at a decent shutter speed. This means the image will have good detail. Under the menu item, pick quality as fine and image size as large. Under the menu term “Camera” select DMF. Under menu item “Setup” set the Peaking Level to high and the Peaking Color to whatever takes your fancy (mine is red).

What the DMF allows you to do, is to fine tune the focus manually after the camera achieves a focus lock. The peaking colour will show you what areas of the image are in focus. So if you want to make an adjustment you can.

The basic problem with portrait mode is that it won’t be any good for landscapes. For landscapes (or macro) you want a small aperture (large f-stop). The second problem is the camera’s shutter speed can drop very low in poor light. This means that you may end up with more motion blur. It’s pretty hard getting a detailed shot at 1/30 second or less. Obviously changing the scene modes are one way to solve the aperture problem. But if you want a high shutter speed to ensure neither the movement of the camera or the subject ruins the shot, try something more advanced.

(2) Using shutter priority

Under “Shoot Mode” find the ‘S’ option. Then use the scroll wheel to pick a shutter speed of say 1/100 or 1/125 second. Then go the "Brightness/Color" and find the ISO to ISOAuto. What this means is that rather than letting the shutter speed drop to levels only appropriate for stationary subjects, the camera will adjust the exposure by boosting the ISO rating instead.

Once you’re used to adjusting the shutter speed you should be to make adjustments based on experience. For action shots- especially in good light, shooting at 1/500 second will often ‘freeze’ the action. For posed shots you may want to wind it down to 1/60 second.

What is ISO about?

ISO is a measure of sensitivity to light. It’s based on traditional film. A fast film (ISO-400) would have larger grains than a slower film (ISO-100). These larger grains means the film would react faster to the light. An ISO-200 film would thus need half the exposure (shutter speed) of ISO-100 film (all other settings identical), and an ISO-400 would need quarter the exposure (shutter speed). Digital sensors achieve this a different way. As the pixel-size is fixed, the ISO-adjustment is done by amplification algorithms. So if you shoot at ISO800 instead of the base of ISO200, the camera will open the shutter for ¼ as long, then amplify the signal by 4 times. This means you have less of the original signal, and the amplification will increase ‘bad’ information as well. So it’s not a clean process. It can’t recover detail that was never recorded.



Now there’s basically two things that will affect your exposure badly. The first is if your white balance is wrong. The second is that your ISO-setting is too high or low. You don’t want to keep going through menus to change these settings as this makes for an awkward interface. If you’re shooting in portrait or landscape mode however, you may not have a choice. If you are shooting in either S, A, M or P mode, you can customise the camera to make access to these functions easier.

So you should use the custom-buttons (in the setup menu) to make it easy to change. For example, I have my Soft key B Setting assigned to White Balance. I have my soft key C setting assigned to ISO (then autofocus area and metering mode, which you can ignore for now).

The white-balance determines the temperature of the light in the scene. If you’ve ever taken a picture in a room in the evening lit by light-bulbs, you may have noticed it has an orange or red tone to it. This is because the camera is often expecting the light-temperature to be around daylight (maybe 5200 kelvin) whereas the room is really about 2500 kelvin. If you set the white-balance correctly, the warm cast disappears.

You can leave the camera on AWB (auto-white balance) but this can be fooled, especially where there are several light sources or lighting is extreme. So just using the custom button will open up a menu that lets you dial in the lighting conditions that best match your scene. If you shoot in jpeg, this is pretty important. It is less important when you shoot in Raw because this easily fixed later. You can also use a custom white-balance against a white-object- this process is explained in my youtube video.

The second thing that can go wrong is the ISO setting. Now while a low ISO is a good thing, it comes at a cost. It means the shutter has to be open longer and this means the image is more at risk from camera shake (photographer can’t hold the camera steady) or motion blur (the subject moves). While the ISOauto may be good in most cases, it might still opt for (say) more amplification tna you want. So you may want to be able to adjust these manually. Often ISO-400 will work in good light and ISo-800 indoors. If your image lacks detail, colour or has more digital noise, you might want to dial the ISO down down. I find that I’m often able to shot up to ISO 800 without too much compromise on the image quality.

So given that fine-tuning the white-balance or the ISO are likely to be something you do often, having them available to change easily without having to work through menus is very useful.

The last function you might want to make accessible via the custom-buttons is another feature called DRO. This stands for dynamic range-optimisation. If you use DRO this makes subtle changes to the exposure in different parts of the image. It’s a way of recording a bit more detail in very dark and very bright zones. This is less important for someone who uses this camera to shoot raw, but for a jpeg photographer it can help. Of course, it can also make scenes worse by inflating the amount of digital noise in dark zones, so the ability to turn it on or off or use it at differing strengths is handy.

In the next part, I discuss the fun you can have with manual focus.
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* The cameras do have a hot-shoe that you can mount the small flash that comes with the system. You can also get a proprietary flash from Sony (the HVL-F20S) for these NEX-3 and NEX-5.

Size Matters: A look at the Sony NEX Camera system Brendan Moyle Jul 06

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Introduction

Photography has undergone some seismic shifts in the last decade. The digital camera has dealt large blows to the fortunes of many companies. Kodak is bankrupt. Minolta has vanished into the hands of Sony. Pentax and Olympus are struggling. Yet with all of that, it looks like the digital compact camera is being killed also. The camera phone has now taken off. Two of the three most popular cameras on Flickr are iPhones. Not one of the top 5 is a digital compact.

Digital compacts are going to take another hit from another new technology. This is the mirrorless camera. It produces DSLR quality photos in a compact body. Now while it might be assumed that the mirrorless camera is kind of a halfway house between a compact and a DSLR, this misses the point. The mirror-less camera is really a completely different way to take pictures. Its portability means it’s much easier to take with you (e.g. it now comes with me when I’m cycling) so you end up trying and experimenting with more kinds of photos.

I know finally, have the answer to the question I often get asked. That’s what camera someone should buy. The answer is a mirrorless camera. I’m pretty enthusiastic about the Sony NEX system, as it uses a larger sensor than the rival micro-4/3 (MFT) system used by Panasonic and Olympus. Your mileage may vary. There’s no such thing as ‘the best’ camera system. All have different strengths and weaknesses.

Sony Nex-5 with 18-55mm kit lens


So what are the main differences? Compared to a compact camera the biggest difference is the size of the sensor. A Sony NEX camera uses an APS-C sensor that has an area of 370mm2. Most compacts have an area of 28.5mm2 and camera phones have smaller sensors than that. This means that even at 14-16 megapixels (MP) a mirrorless camera is using pixels that are individually much larger. This means it can extract more information from the light hitting the sensor. This translates into better colours, better detail and much better low light performance. It doesn’t matter how much processing power you throw at a digital image, if there’s a not a lot of information there, you can’t do much with it. This is the main reason I’ve never bothered getting a compact before. The images just aren’t that good when you start looking closely.

The other important differences are that mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses, and that they allow for full manual control over the exposure and focus. Being able to use a lens that is optimal for a scene, and being able to place the focal point exactly where you want it, makes a critical difference.

Compared to an SLR camera the obvious difference is the mirror mechanism is redundant. This means the camera can be made much more compact. Because the mirror doesn’t have to flip up and down when you take a picture, it also means that you can get a high frames-per-second, and video functions are much easier to implement. In fact, because these cameras use much larger sensors than many video-cameras and you can employ high-quality SLR lenses, you can get very high quality video clips also.

The big disadvantage is that the mirror-less camera has to use contrast detection for autofocus. This isn’t a big issue for landscape shots, but makes a big difference for action shots (wildlife, sports etc). SLR cameras use phase detection which is better at predicting movement and focuses faster.

An aside on autofocus.

Phase detection: image is split and then projected onto sensor via semi-transparent points on mirror. Images are compared and measured to see if subject is correctly focused. Is better at continuous focusing and in low light conditions than contrast detection.

Contrast detection: focus is adjusted until image achieves greatest contrast. The camera cannot tell if low contrast is a result of the lens focusing in front of, or behind, the subject. This makes it less effective for moving subjects and in low light (not enough contrast). It has to do a lot more focus-hunting to find the subject.



As a result I’m not ditching my SLR kit just yet. In a recent trip I was still using 2 cameras, but this time one of them was my NEX-5. The DSLR had my 300mm prime lens and was used for the bird and wildlife photography. Whenever I wanted to take a landscape shot I used the NEX-5. It was much easier than having another DSLR with me and the larger lenses this requires.

…In the next blog piece, a beginner's guide

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