Photography is my serious hobby.
I would like to start with my photography timeline. How I got into photography may be interesting to you and I believe you may have a similar history. My photography interest and evolution chronicles well with my camera purchase history. I assume some visitors of this site are learners of photography. Therefore at several points I give the tips on gear and photography at relevant points.
A note to readers: This content is image heavy and most images are high resolution images that can be viewed on big screens. I did not liked the idea of posting web-sized images in a page where I talk about photography. Almost all images (except for a few low resolution ones) can be viewed in full resolution by clicking it. It opens up in a different window. This can be useful to proceed reading if it takes some time for the image to upload in a different window.
Film and Point-And-Shots
I started getting to photography from snapshots at around 2009, when I started paying attention to recompose-and-shoot and going beyond auto mode of my small Canon point-and-shoot SD800. I started realizing the limitation of such cameras, especially in low light situations. The small Canon (and prior small film Olympus) never gave me the feeling of using an old Yachika film camera. It was a little bigger than most point-and-shoot film cameras and had leather cover attached to it.
I don't remember the model but it used to give excellent picture quality and used to give me feel of a camera. Below is a scan of a photo taken by it in 1999. The location is my father-in-law's home in Mankot, Gulmi during my first visit there. I lost most of the photos by that camera. The actual color was way vibrant than shown by this low-resolution scanned copy.
Somewhere in my mind I was looking for that feel and image quality of that camera but I did not know how to express that in the new digital world. But frankly I was not that much curious about cameras than I was about other new gadgets, like GPS, digital MP3 players, computers, etc. until 2009.
My first digital camera was a small Kodak (called Easy Share and some number I believe), which I bought at Bowling Green in 2002. It had 3 MP and had, I believe, 1.6" screen. Later I had bought 256 MB sd card for about $30 from Amazon! Anyone remembers that time?
If so, you have felt the big digital revolution going underneath in a short time period! Boom in use of cellphones, online banking, shopping, ebay, Amazon, you count it. Apple has just entered into the all white flat desktops (with small spherical speakers that came with it) from its neon colored CRT type desktops. Flat screens were hot! I left that Kodak camera in Nepal when I went there in 2006.
My First DSLR - Nikon D90
I missed the revolution - the epoch making transition of SLR camera to digital. I missed the excitement brought by Nikon D1, Canon EOS 1D, Nikon D100. It was that revolution that swept away the mighty Kodak, whose name was kind of household name for photo. As already mentioned my first digital camera was a Kodak point-and-shoot, which I bought because it did not need film and photos could be reviewed instantly! I still used to to go Walmart for prints. The value of print was still powerful!
I lost all my Kodak shots in my aforementioned hard-drive crash. I still have some prints, and here is a scanned copy of one of the prints. Not great from photographic point, but a capture of an important moment - my graduation at Bowling Green State University.
I was exploring a little beyond the auto mode of my Canon SD800, I was still not into the world of DSLR. A friend of mine and fellow Nepali PhD student at Wayne State at that time Krishna Sharma had bought Nikon D200 at around 2007 I believe. We were close neighbors. That totally raised my interest in DSLR's and taking better travel pictures. However, did not rush for it. I went back to Nepal at the end of 2009, and left my SD800 in Nepal. The first of the return flight was at RA (Royal Nepal Airlines) from Kathmandu to Delhi. The plane was mostly empty and the weather was beautifully clear and sunny and the flight route was along the Himalaya. I had never seen the land beyond Himalaya - the comparatively flat plateau of Tibet. The whole scene was to beautiful and we could roam from seat to seat for the best view. Unfortunately, I did not have camera to capture the scene. I always feel that as missed scene for camera.
This finally pushed me toward getting a DSLR. I bought one right after I came back to the US. It was Nikon D90. I purchased it with Nikkor 18-200/3.5-5.6 G VR II, a nice all round lens. A few moths later, I bought Nikkor 50 mm/1.8 D, a cheap but great lens and a relic from film era. One of the things I like about Nikon is you can use even 50 years old lenses. Canon abandoned old mount rendering old lenses useless around in the 80's. Right from the beginning I started using the manual mode. I have almost never used other modes then, except for a few occasions of shutter priority and aperture priority modes. It took me considerable time to get decent pictures. Controlling everything for proper lighting has a significant learning curve at the beginning. Even after fours years, I was learning different aspects of auto focus setting and control in my camera.
There are so many online resources to learn. There are camera specific youtube clips, many photographic and gear specific forums. It just takes interest, time and some devotion to learn. One does not need to go to photographic lessons. However, photographic lessons help accelerate the learning process. If you are learning for the first time or sort of, the first essential thing is to learn about the control of exposure through the shutter speed, aperture and ISO and the control of depth of field with aperture. First you must move beyond the auto or some semi-auto mode and take the full control of light. You don't need DSLR to learn them. Most points ans shoots have manual modes where you can control these features. Once you take the control from camera rather than the camera deciding the values for you, you will start realizing the limitation and hence the need for DSLR. If you spend more than a thousand dollar for a DSLR and a lens in the hope of getting better picture but end up getting photos not better or even worse that the photos from your hundred dollar point and shoot camera, you are not alone! Dare to go all manual and be disappointed but be persistent. This is how you learn.
Learning to take control of your gear is one part. The other part is learning the art of photography. Rule of composition for good photography is an example of the other part. The later part is naturally developed from the world of painting and arts. I believe the book 'Understanding Exposure' by Bryan Peterson is excellent book to learn about the composition and many other aspect of photography. In order to take great pictures, distinct from causal snapshots, you need to know about them. For more aspired photographer who already know about the basics compositions and related stuffs, I suggest The Photographers' Eye by Michael Freeman. I consider buying other kind of books, videos to learn photography is just waste of money. Most are just colorful presentation of your camera manual. Moreover, you already have so much resources online - just spend time sorting them out for you. The long videos (some are like a couple of hours) B&H and Adorama videos available online for free are really great and presented by well known professionals in the field.
Nikon D7000, Taste of Professional Lenses and Exploring RAW
After about one year Nikon revamped the its cropped sensor DSLR line of like D90. I will explain the meaning of cropped sensor later, but for the moment it's photographic sensor is smaller that the famous 35 mm full frame sensor by a factor of 1.5 in area. Sensor size is one of the most important price determining factors of any camera. Nikon D7000 was the successor of D90. The resolution was increased from 12 MP to 16 and moreover, major improve was the dynamic range.
The other important positive change was lower noise at high ISO photos. Plus, some bell and whistle things, like two sd card slots instead of just one. I wanted the later feature as I wanted to take JPEG in one and RAW in the other. Today I take RAW, but that was my thinking at that time - JPEG for casual type of shots and RAW for good keepers.
RAW is a kind of digital negative, if you remember the film era term 'negative' of a photo. RAW contains all the information captured by the camera sensor. The photos the camera show to you some developed version of the RAW according to camera's programming - they are compressed and the colors are chosen by your camera! They do not contain the full information about colors and etc. If you make a mistake on setting, for example, the white balance while shooting, you cannot correct it later if you shoot JPEG only. If you shoot RAW, that mistake does not matter since the RAW file has full information. When you make (export) JPEG out of RAW, you choose your colors, etc - not the camera. Current DSLR can take lossless 14 bit color in RAW. That's huge. For size comparison, my each RAW from my 36.3 megapixel D800E is about 45 MB. When I process very good JPEG, printable to the size a small room wall, its about 12 MB! You can guess how much info RAW holds. It is for this reason, professional shoots in RAW and develop later.
For regular shooters as well, RAW is useful as you can make use of the full data later. If I had taken that photo in RAW (though only 12 MP of D90), I would have more leeway of gaining the detail later. Of course, you need to take the best as possible at the time. Details also depends on the quality of lens. The point here is an increased possibility later.
Let me briefly talk about dynamic range. Our eyes have huge dynamic range but cameras don't have that much. This means if a scene has very dark and very bright part, out eyes can still see the detail in the dark part and simultaneously in the bright part. This range from dark to bright part is called the dynamics range or DR in short. You might have noticed that if you take a picture of per person sitting in a tree shade in a very bright daylight. If you focus the person's face, his face comes okay in photo but all the the scene out of the shadow gets totally white. On the other hand, if you focus on some object in the sunlight, the face becomes totally dark and in most cases totally unrecognizable. Many people know that. In photography, this is described by the the fancy term DR. Cameras are not as capable as our eyes in DR, but we can making a judicial approach to contain both bright and dark part. Photographers use histograms of the photo for better judgement on exposure. In histograms you can see if the details are 'clipped' away either in darkness or brightness. Relatively, highend cameras can show histograms for three basic color channels.
If the bright part becomes too much white, you cannot recover the detail later even if you take it in RAW. Similarly, if the dark part of your photo is very dark to the level of total loss of data, you cannot recover the detail hidden there. Modern DSLR's has amazing about of DR now. You can recover photos even if you think of of trashing it in the first sight.
Going from D90 to D7000 meant a good amount of increase in DR. Also, D7000 was better at noise control at hither ISO. I will talk about ISO and noise soon.
Now, back to by D90 and Nikon coming up with D7000. I wanted D7000. Actually I wanted a full frame camera, but I could not afford it. D7000 came out as a very good cropped sensor camera. With that in my sight, I wanted to sell my D90 and the 18-200 lens. 18-200 is a good all around lens, but it's not for creating photos with wow factor! Firs of all, all very wide range zooms are not very sharp lens. I wanted lens that would give better minor detail. Plus 18-200 is not a fast lens. The maximum aperture could go only 3.5 and as I zoomed to 200 mm it would decrease to 5.6.
You might be puzzled why I said 'decrease' when I go from 3.5 to 5.6. The reason: aperture is related to the ratio of focal length of the lens to diameter D of the opening. This ratio, focal-length/D, is called the 'f-number'. Note that D is in the denominator of the fraction. For a fixed focal length, the number becomes smaller if the opening is bigger. Therefore, 3.5 is bigger aperture than 5.5. The aperture is often expressed 'f-numbers': 3.5 and 5.6 are f-numbers, not the focal lengths. If one talks about f1.8 lens he's is talking about a lens that can go as wide as f/D = 1.8.) F1.4, 1.8 or 2.8 are fast lenses since large amount of light from big opening let you make the shutter speed faster still passing right amount of light for image in the sensor. Now you can understand why 18-200 lens with maximum aperture range from 3.5 to 5.6 is not a fast lens. You can make aperture narrower to f22, though. But it is the maximum aperture that counts most in a lens. Fast zoom especially with constant maximum aperture are expensive lenses. Professionals use fast primes and zoom lenses. A primes lens is the one that has a fixed focal length. Examples: my 50mm/1.8 D and 85mm/1.8 are prime lenses. These are not expensive compared to even faster 1.4 primes. f number 1.4 (usually expressed as f/1.4 or even f1.4) means that lens pupil can go about 1.3 times as wide and more bigger beam of light (1.6 times bigger in cross area) enters the camera. Another useful term: 'stop'. People say f1.4 lens is half stop faster than f2 lens. This simply means half and as much light enters the camera form f2 lens. A f1.4 lens is one stop faster than f2 lens - the amount of light just doubles in 1.4.
You may recall from your middle school maths that area of a circle is proportional to square of its diameter. If you double the diameter, area does not become double - it quadruples. Let's turn this other way round: if you double the area, by what factor does the diameter change? Its the square root of 2 which is about 1.4. Thus, if you want to double the amount of light, you need to double the lens opening. Think about light going in nice round beam. This means you need to change the diameter of the circular opening by a factor of 1.4. This is 'one-stop' more light. If a photographer realizes that his f4 maximum aperture lens is not good enough for low light situation (assume he is in a museum and cannot use a flash), and says he needs at least one-stop faster lens, he is actually talking about f2.8 lens (2.8 x 1.4 = 4, after rounding off). Nowadays, fast lens usually means lens with f2.8 or wider. In practice, however the photographer just pumps up the ISO of the camera by one stop if he does not have a faster lens in this case. However, increasing ISO, increases noise in his photo output. A photo having high noise grainy and is not clear, more pronounced in dark part of the photo. Modern DSLR are getting better in giving clean picture even at higher ISO. Nowadays, you can pump up ISO to even 6400 (or even higher in certain high-end models) as still get a clean picture.
What is ISO? ISO basically means the sensitivity of the sensor to incoming light. By pumping ISO up, you just make the sensor more sensitive to light and get properly exposed image even in low light. However, the down side is more ISO makes more noisy images. Have you ever wondered why a photo by your phone or point and shoot camera is so grainy in dark? Its because they automatically pump up ISO very much to compensate the low amount of light. Remember in 'auto' mode you do not have controls where you want to fix the ISO, the camera does it for you. In old film days, people used to buy high ISO films. Now you just turn it up with a button and a dial.
Nikon D7000 is significantly better in noise control at higher ISO. This is very important in low light photography.
I sold my D90 on ebay. Kept 18-200 lens for some time and ultimately sold it on local Craigslist. I lost about $150 in total but that's not considered a loss given that I used them for more than one year. I also sold good grade 72 mm UV and CPL filters. One lesson: of the filters only CPL and neutral density (ND) filters are useful. There is not need to waste money on UV filter. People talk about protecting lens with UV filter, I have never convinced with that argument. UV filters are useless. CPL is very useful in cutting reflections. As for ND, they are very useful when you need to take long exposure photo (like for the cotton looking water in waterfall, etc). 6 to 10 stops filters are very useful. If you buy cheap filter, they will degrade the photo quality of otherwise a very good lens.
I bought D7000 and used it with 18-200, and the primes 35 mm/1.8 and 50 mm/1.8. After sometime I bought a faster zoom Nikon 17-55 mm/2.8 lens and sold 18-200. 17-55 is a professional grade lens (also look at the number 2.8, its a fast lens) for a cropped sensor or DX camera like D7000 or D90. It expensive - a new one currently costs $1400. I bought used one for $900. If you are confident about buying used lenses you can save around 30% on professional grade lenses and you can sell again anytime without much decrease in value. A good glass retains its value for a long time, unless the manufacturer incorporates some newer technology and issues a newer version. When I upgraded to a full frame two years later I sold that 17-55 for $850: $50 price tag for two years' extensive use! This lens stayed 95% of time on my D7000. Consumer level kit lenses do not retain values over time. One side note - you also need a good skill to sell. I find local Craigslist very useful and I sold about a dozen items from camera bag to a camera in last few years on Craiglist. One exception is my D90, which I sold on ebay. You loose significant amount when you sell on ebay as you need to pay ebay and paypal fees. Selling in Amazon is almost the same, though I have have not sold through them. With Craigslist, you need to be extra careful. Plus side is you don't pay any fee and all deals are local exchange or cash. In order to sell, you need to be honest with the quality, be realistic with the price and be liberal in the use of good images in the ad.
For longer reach, I purchased 70-300/3.5 - 5.6 VR. From the number 3.5 to 5.6, you can now see that its not a fast lens. For the price it is an excellent lens, however, and works also on a full frame. You cannot go wrong with this lens unless unless you have more than $6000 to invest on a single fast Nikkor lens! Its light and the VR (vibration reduction, Canon calls the feature image stabilization or IS, Tamron brand calls it vibration control or VC).
Nikkor 24-70/2.8 Lens and Cropped Sensor to Full Frame
Over the time, after some handling of DSLR camera, one quickly realized that what makes real difference in quality of photograph is the quality of lens. Given you have a decent camera, quality of lens is the most important factor in getting crispy images with a lot of detail. In landscape photography detail is even more important.
After more that one year of D7000 and mainly 17-55/2.8 lens on it, the thought about future upgrade to full frame camera started gaining some traction. The major reason is better noise control and better bokeh in full frame. However, cropped sensor camera were getting better and better and there was no need to get a full frame for that reason alone as far as you do not pixel peep too much. The major reason is the investment on quality lenses. Nikon has only one dedicated professional full frame DX lens - that's the 17-55/2.8, which I already had. One can use use other pro lenses intended for full frames on DX camera, but focal length range becomes weird and in most cases becomes impractical because of the crop factor of the sensor. For example, Nikon the area of Nikon DX sensor is 1/1.5 times the sensor area of full frame (in Canon its 1/1.6). In other words, DX camera has to make the image circle 1/1.5 smaller than the full frame body (Nikon calls it FX). The effect is like FX collects light from 1.5 times farther distance. Therefore the 'normal' 50 mm lens in DX does not act like 50 mm but like 50x1.5 = 75 mm. Now if you take the popular mid-range Nikon zoom pro lens 24-70 mm /2.8, it acts like 36-105 mm lens. On full frame 24 mm is very wide - you can cover all of your friends in a small room in a party. But on DX it becomes 36 mm and you can barely accommodate a few of them in a photo! Even a regular point and shoot starts with 28 mm equivalent. This means you need to change lens even if you have 24-70 mm lens! Nikon 24-70/2.8 is a superb piece of glass and cost $1900 new. But on DX its not convenient for the reason I mentioned. My 17-55 on DX is equivalent to 24-82.5 and is equally fast, why I was longing for 24-70? The reason is 24-70 is sharper picks up better detail than 17-55. On FX, you have large number of high quality lenses, the questions is only whether or not you can afford them. On DX, you don't have that choice. You may ask, on what count DX is good for. Remember that 1.5 crop factor. Its good for longer end, the apparent focal length increase is good for people who want to take close up picture of small bird at distance. 300 mm of my 70-300 becomes 450 mm: 150 mm for free! Some wildlife photographer carry a DX camera with a long good lens (FX lens) as a back up for their FX body with other lens. But note that you can equally take a picture with full frame body and crop it later which is equivalent to gaining extra focal length. Therefore the extra reach obtained by the 1.5 crop factor of DX lens is kind of gimmick. What really counts is a well exposed good resolution photo with nice color and detail in it. You can manipulate that crop factor later! I can crop hugely from a photo taken by my current D800E, making 200 mm lens like 600 mm! See the example below. Keep in mind that a photo actually taken by good 600 mm handily beats this cropped image in every aspect. But Nikon 600 mm costs $10,000 currently!
I finally purchased 24-70/2.8, a used one from a professional photographer who said he had two. That copy was less than one year old and according to the receipt he gave me. I bought for $1450 a good saving for a lens he paid $2000 including tax. If I sell it now, even after using it for more than 2 years now, I can sell it at least for $1300 any time, unless unless Nikon comes up with a newer versiton with VR and newest technology Nikon labels PF. There are two downside of buying a used, though. First, you need to be very knowledgeable in figuring out where the lens can fail in the test and that too on the spot. Its a kind of gamble you need to win and there can be some risk. Second, you forfeit the remaining part of 5 years Nikon warranty (in the US) on lenses as the warranty applies only to original buyer. If you find ads where seller is claiming otherwise, he is not telling the truth or he does not know himself.
24-70 is indeed a better lens compared even to 17-55/2.8. I was first amazed by its ability to pick up detail. The sharpness was superior to anything I had used so far.
I sold my 17-55/2.8 in months or so. I am now slowly phasing out my DX lenses and wanted to sell my D7000 finally to upgrade to full frame.
You can see, getting addicted to quality lenses hazardous to your purse. You also see that I was optimizing by buying used. It did not make sense to invest in DX lenses. I was slowly phasing out anything DX. I sold 35 mm/1.8 DX. At that point I kept 70-300 VR as it can be used on full frame camera. I will talk about what makes a camera 'full frame' shortly. I was moving toward upgrading to a full frame camera.
Testing Full Frame and Purchase of D800E
I mentioned earlier that I was gearing toward a full frame. Nikon had made a great jump in high resolution, 36.3 MP, camera in 2012. It came out in two flavors D800 and D800E. The difference was the removal of anti-aliasing or AA filter (and replacing it with less intervening filter). The job of AA filter is to reduce moire effect, the appearance of color fringes in fine patterned objects like telxtile, tile patter of the roof etc. But AA filter reduced sharpness in the pixel peeping level. The one without AA filter (D800E) costs $300 more, a total of $3300 for body only, i.e., without lens. The specification was ideal for landscape photographer. In fact it is DSLR counter part of mid-frame (MF) camera. A good news, because mid good mid frame like Phase One body costs around $40,000! MF cameras are used for areal photography or in other situations where extraordinary details are important. It has a much bigger sensor. It appeared that Nikon D800/E was bring the some tastes of MF in 35 mm sensor. I will tale about sensor size shortly. Now Pentax has come up with consumer level MF camera. It's 54 megapixel Pentax 645Z, the body costs slightly above $8000. MF cameras are niche products and therefore don't have big lens selection as 35mm (full frame) cameras do.
Let me briefly explain what is a 'full frame'. You must have heard about 35 mm film. Very early in history of film, from George Eastman's days, 35 mm format became much popular in photography than the bigger formats. The area on which image is captures has the dimension of 35 mm x 24 mm. When photographic went from film to digital, electronic sensors took over films. Camera that has sensor of that popular size (35mm x 24 mm) is called a full frame camera. It cost extremely high to fabricate a sensor of that size and make the camera affordable to general customers. Therefore the manufactures started producing sensors of smaller sizes. The next smaller sized sensor has the dimension of 23.6mm x 15.6 mm and is called the APS-C sensor (Canon has 22.2 mm x 14.8 mm). Entry level Nikon DSLR's like D3300 to Nikon D7200 have APS-C sensor. Point and shoot cameras have sensor sizes like 5mm x 4 mm. This is also the sensor iPhone 5. Some point and shoot like Canon Power Shot G16 has a sensor of size 7.5 mm x 5.5 mm. In between APS-C and point and shoots are the cameras called Micro Four-Thirds. They have the sensor size with longer edge of 4/3 " (hens the name). The dimensions in mm are 17 mm x 13 mm. Panasonic and Olympus have popular four-thirds cameras.
Now you can see that the sensor area of Nikon APS-C is smaller than that of a full frame by a factor of 1.5 (1.6 for Canon). Full frame collects light in more area and has bigger image circle. APS-C has to make image in a smaller area and the lenses have to be manufactured to make APS-C specific. Nikon called it DX lens. For full frames, the image circle remains the same from the film era. Note that lenses used in full frames can be used on DX. However, if you put DX specific lens on a full frame you notice the scene does not cover the whole area, the outer uncovered area is somewhat blackened out.
Sensor size is one of the major price determining factors of digital cameras. Other price determining factors are, auto focus system ans response, processor used, etc. Nikon and Canon APS-C type cameras has the price range of about $400 to $1500, while that of full frame go from $1500 to $6500. If you think you are buying an APS-C, you will be better off if you have in-camera auto focus motor (needed to operate autofocus of old but cheap lenses) and in-camera lens calibration. The letter is useful to fix slightly out of focus lens. Also, more dedicated buttons and wheels or ISO, aperture, shutter speed control prove useful as you don't need to dive into menus every time.
For possible full frame upgrade, I had my eye on D800 or D800E. However, I was slightly spooked by the shear size of images. Now I have started shooing in RAW only. A RAW image from D800 typically has about 45 MB size. I take thousands of photos. Not only the hard drive space, its the processing speed of computer. My five year old MacBook Pro has decent memory and hard disk at the time of purchase. But that was not enough for going to D800E camera. I tried to think about alternative. I rented and tested the entry level full frame Nikon D610 ($2000 price tag) and Df (a niche "camera for hipsters" with a price tag of $2700). D610 is like my D7000 in controls. It has 24MP resolution, which I thought enough for me coming from 16 MP of D7000. What is did not like in D610 is the spread of AF points - all spread in the DX size area. Df has the same spread but the sensor was like that of D4 camera and excellent high ISO noise control. It had a separate AF-ON button, no need to program AE/AF lock button to mame AF-ON. This AF-ON thing is useful in decoupling the focusing job from the camera shutter button, so that every time you hit the shutter button to half it doesn't focus at new point. I somewhat liked Df's retro look but the grip was terrible and inconvenient when you put heavy glass on it. When I put my 24-70 mm/2.8 (a 1 kg lens), I realized this is not a camera for me. Its resolution (16 MP) and, moreover, the image quality right out of camera were excellent.
If you happened to read my story in Personal Anecdotes, you know I grew up in villages in Nepal. This means I grew close to nature. It is probably the very intimacy with nature in my childhood, I always find the ultimate peace in the beauty in natural places, like in mountains, rivers, woods, marshes. I like to travel natural places. Later in my life, I slowly developed interest in photography. I found photography perfectly blending with my love of nature and what I call my poetic romanticism about her beauty. In my photography, I mostly attempt to show what my 'sixth' sense sees even in very ordinary things of nature.
I am more of a landscape photographer. I also want to take shots of beautiful animals and birds.
Another interest in my photography is man made beautiful structures like temples, buildings, monuments, beautiful crafts.