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The Power of Processing: Marc in Close-Up

One of the things that can make the biggest difference in how a photo turns out is also one of the things that many inexperienced and new photographers neglect to learn about: processing.

Though I will later be having an extensive series about processing techniques, for now, I figured that I would start up an informal series that will show you the power that processing has to give an image a different look.  I’ll be processing the same image in several different ways and then showing the comparisons to highlight the differences.  I hope that this helps some of you to understand the role that processing plays in modern digital photography!

If you like this idea, please let me know in the comments!

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The Light Photographers Dream Of

I once heard photography described as “the art of bending light to your will”.  I have always felt it was somewhat the opposite – that it is in fact the art of making the best of what nature (and physics) provides, of working *with* the light.  This viewpoint has shaped my photographic style from the proverbial Day One.

Different photographers have different approaches to light.  Some prefer the 100% controllable environment of an indoor studio, some prefer to use natural light but modify the scene through the use of reflectors and flashes, and still others eschew artificial light entirely or nearly so.

I fall into that last category.  I do own a good flash, and it does get used on rare occasions (dark, nighttime indoor work), but for the most part I really prefer to try and find ways to work with the light available to me.  Often times, I really have to work to get a good shot.  Other times, mother nature provides lighting so spectacular that it’s hard to take a bad shot.  I had one of those days while shooting this past weekend on Maryland’s eastern shore.

This past weekend I accompanied Marc to Providence Farm, an 18th century farmhouse that is being renovated and turned into a private residence.  The Queen Anne’s County Historical Society had asked for reenactors to come and act, essentially, as set dressing during a fundraiser hosted at the site, and Marc and a few other members of the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginia Regiment gladly obliged.  As the afternoon wore on, I noticed that the light was starting to do some unusual things, and lo and behold, by the time that our demonstration time was over, the light was the stuff of photographer dreams.  Dark semi-stormclouds darkened the sky overhead, while the rays from the sunset pierced through at the edges, bathing the ground in a beautiful golden light and tinting the clouds with whole swaths of purple.

Here is what resulted:

  

  

I am forever indebted to Marc and our friend Kurt for putting up with me clicking away incessantly for the 15-20 minutes that the light lasted, and I am extremely pleased with the shots that I got.  As I was editing them, I felt like rolling around on the floor with joy like a dog with a ham bone.  The best thing about good light is that it makes editing so much faster, because there’s less of it to do.  Shockingly, these shots are only minimally edited – a little boost to the saturation and some occasional dodging (lightening) of the faces is all I did.  All of these shots were taken with no artificial lighting – no flash, no reflector, nothing.  For the shots facing into the sun (such as the last two), the house was behind my shoulder acting, for all intents and purposes, like a giant, if subtle, reflector.  I used the terrain and my surroundings to make the best use of the glorious spectacle that mother nature had already provided.  I’m just glad I had my camera!

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NOOOOO!!! Sigma discontinued my primary lens!

While looking through BorrowLenses‘ rental catalog, I noticed an absence of the primary lens I shoot with, my Sigma 17-70 F2.8-4.0 Macro HSM IS.  After poking around the internet a bit, I discovered some troubling news.

My most-used lens has recently been discontinued!

The 17-70 is my #1 lens, the one I can’t do without, and it is an exceptionally versatile lens.  Both of the shots below were taken with this lens, one at each of the extreme ends of the lens’ focal lengths.

There are a few lenses that are similar, but none that have the same combination of range and speed as my Sigma.  Since this has been both my own go-to lens as well as a lens I highly recommended to my one-on-one photography students, I felt that I should look into some alternatives for the day when my lens finally kicks the bucket and another isn’t available.  Though none are really a true replacement of the Sigma, here are a few options I’ve found:

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM

This is probably the closest comparable lens to the Sigma, though it is 15mm shorter in focal length at its longest end.  The fact that it’s a fixed-aperture lens is probably nice enough to make up for that lack of extra length, but as a general purpose lens, it’s still a bit on the short side in my personal opinion, especially if you tend to shoot with a very candid, non-invasive style.  I could probably get by with this and my 70-200mm, though it’s not perfect.  At $1100, it’s more than twice the cost of the $450 Sigma that it would replace, though much of that cost likely stems from the fact that it’s a fixed-aperture lens, a highly desirable feature.  If I had the money, this is the lens that I would get to replace the Sigma.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM

This one is slightly better as a general purpose lens, but for the kind of super-wide shots I tend to shoot at events, 24mm is just a bit narrower than I am really comfortable with, as it’s hard to get those full-length shots without backing up from the subject and landscapes end up feeling cropped.  This lens would definitely necessitate me buying another lens in addition to it, in order to get those super-wide shots, meaning that I’d be carrying 3-4 lenses at events, rather than 2-3.  Plus, at $1600, it’s four times the cost of the Sigma that it would be replacing.  Too steep for as restricted a lens as this one, though once again that’s due to its being a fixed-aperture lens.  If you’re going to plunk down that cash, I’d look at some of the L-Series lenses.

Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS

This is one of Canon’s most popular lenses, and it’s not hard to see why.  It has a wide range of focal lengths, and though its lens glass isn’t as good as the previous two lenses, it’s not bad either.  This is a good general lens and at around $575, is probably the best replacement for the Sigma.  It would never replace the 70-200mm F2.8 L-Series that I have for my telephoto shots, but in a pinch or a situation where I don’t have the luxury of carrying around a bag of lenses, it could serve pretty well as a general purpose lens.  I may give this lens a shot by renting it for a weekend, to see how it fares with my style of shooting.  I know many people who swear by this lens, and though I prefer to double-check lenses for myself, with my own camera and on my own time, the reviews do seem to be mostly positive for this versatile lens.

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM

This is a mediocre lens that is the offspring of an infamously bad lens, Canon’s 18-85mm kit lens.  It’s better than its predecessor, but the glass still isn’t great and it’s overpriced for what it is.  However, it is the closest lens in the list to covering the same focal range as the original Sigma that it would be replacing.  At $700, I feel that it’s overpriced for what it is, and if you choose this over the 18-200 (which is the same speed lens over a wider range), you’re essentially paying $200 for a slightly quieter lens that doesn’t shoot as far.  Most of the rental houses don’t even stock this lens, which tells you something about the quality of the lens, as well as the number of professionals who use it (hint: not many).  For the price, I would want to see this with better glass and a stop faster, as it’s double the price of its predecessor and not all that much better.  But, if you don’t like any of the other options, this could be the lens for you.

So, while I’m not a huge fan of any of the options out there for replacing my Sigma 17-70, there are some decent lenses out there that offer most, if not all, of the features of my favorite lens.  If you’re in the market for a good general purpose lens, you might want to check some of these out.