photos, tips, tricks, and thoughts from an avid amateur photographer


Archive for December, 2008



Dusk is my favorite time of day. I love the rich blues of the sky and the contrast of dark trees and such in the foreground. Normally, these shots require long exposures and a tripod to capture and a bit a tweaking post-process to get the lighting and color right.

This shot required a 30 second exposure at f/9 and ISO 100 with +1EV exposure compensation. I chose f/9 for two reasons. First, f/9 was the smallest aperture I could use and still keep the exposure under 30 seconds in Aperture Priority mode (maximum shutter time without switching to Bulb mode) at ISO 100. I wanted to keep the shot at ISO 100 to ensure tack sharp details, rich saturation and no noise. Second, I have found that my kit lens is its sharpest between f/8 and f/11, so f/9 was a logical place to start.

This photo was processed in Adobe Lightroom to look as close to what my eyes saw as possible. Here’s the original RAW shot straight out of the camera (SOOC) with nothing but my default import processing:

original SOOC unprocessed shot

Since I was shooting in RAW I left the white balance at Auto and simply used the histogram display on the LCD to verify a good mix of highlight and shadow detail. After downloading I started off by cropping and straightening the shot a bit. Next I tweaked the white balance to 3700K to get the blue to pop (the sky was too purple at the Daylight/5500 setting and too blue at Tungsten/2850). I then pushed the exposure up another +1EV and dropped the Black slider to 3. Nudging the Fill Light slider to 21 pulled even more shadow detail out. I set Clarity to 11, Vibrance to +25 and Saturation to +21. Finally, I added a touch of Sharpening and Detail (50 & 50) and Defringed all edges.

The Clarity, Vibrance, Sharpening, Detail, and Defringe settings are pretty standard for most of my shots with the Pentax K10D. I find the SOOC RAW files are a little flat color-wise and softer than I like. Also, the kit lens leaves a bit of color fringing on hard edges that Defringing seems to fix well.

The final result turned out very true to what I recall seeing that night in Birmingham. It was a bit windy so the tops of the tree branches are motion blured. The tiny star trails were an unexpected surprise.

Memory card conundrum

memory cards and readers

My first digital camera was a Nikon Coolpix 950 bought in 1999 for around $1,000. It came with an 8MB compact flash card. I soon upgraded to a 64MB card for close to $300. It used to be that the cost of memory cards for digital cameras was an important deciding factor in the camera purchase. One of the primary deciding factors in my move from the Nikon 950 to an Olympus E-10 two years later was its ability to use my growing collection of CF cards. However, by the time I traded up to my Canon Rebel XT in 2005 memory card prices had begun to fall while capacities rose and I found my collection of random 48-512MB CF cards replaced by a single 4GB model.

Flash forward to today and the collection of CF and SD cards and readers seen above is what I have left collecting dust in my desk drawer. When I made the jump from the Rebel XT to a Pentax K10D in 2007 I also made the jump from CF to SD memory. Since then I have once again made the jump to CF memory (during my all to brief stint with the awesome Canon 5D), over to Sony Memory Stick (for a not brief enough stint with a Sony DSC-H1) and back to SD (for my once again current K10D). All of this is a way of saying that I have had a bit of experience with memory cards over the years ;-)

Which brings me to the point of this article. With so many options available today, what’s the best solution? The simple answer is that there is no single solution that works for every photographer. However, there are a few things that I have learned that will make things easier for those of you just wading into this quagmire. So, wade into the following quagmire:

Compact Flash, Memory Stick Pro Duo, SD

Card Format:

I’m talking about the physical form factor of the card, not the camera’s software format of the memory card. Your choices today are pretty much limited to Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD). Sony’s Memory Stick (and all its various permutations) seems to be going the way of the Dodo with respect to their DSLRs. Here, the decision will be (or more likely has been) made for you as you pick the camera that works best for your needs.

In my experience Compact Flash is my favorite. They are easier to handle and more durable than SD. However, they require bulky card readers, can be more expensive than similar capacity SD cards and are becoming harder to find as camera makers move towards the smaller SD format as cameras continue to shrink.

SD cards are very small which makes them highly portable (and easy to lose). The main advantage of SD cards is that they do not have the multitude of tiny pins on the device side like CF cards do. These are easy to bend if one is not careful. SD cards may require a bit more attention to ensure proper orientation when inserting them into a device, but their spring contacts are more durable in the long run. One other thing of note: SD cards generally have a sliding lock switch. This is handy if you want to secure your data, but a hassle when you inadvertently lock your card inserting it into your camera.

As of this writing, Amazon is selling a SanDisk Extreme III 4GB CF card for $32.02 while the equivalent SanDisk Ultra III 4GB SD card can be had for only $19.93. That kind of percentage price difference would have been a big deal 10 years ago but today it’s not such a big deal. BTW, a SanDisk Extreme III 4GB Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo runs $58.21. Yikes!

BTW, be sure to format any new card you buy with your camera. Doing so periodically (monthly) will help prevent card corruption and lost images while clearing up miscellaneous files that tend to collect and take up storage space.


This one’s simple. The typical hobbyist DSLR owner should shoot 2-4GB cards. Sure, 8-16GB and even 32GB cards are common and likely within easy reach of most people. However, I can fit around 122 RAW (PEF) images on a 2.0GB SD card with my 10MP Pentax K10D. Switching to high quality full-size JPEGs that number bumps to 410. If I drop the JPEG size to 6MP I get 688 at the high quality setting.

If I was shooting a 16GB card I could likely fit nearly 1,000 RAW images on a single SD card. I personally have never been in a situation where I needed (or wanted) to have 1,000 images on a single postage stamp sized memory chip that could easily be lost, stolen, corrupted, dropped in my coffee (don’t ask), and/or overwritten. I figure it’s safer to shoot in smaller batches and download to the computer more often. When I travel I carry multiple 2GB cards in my bag for back up in case one gets full. I also will often switch to 6MP JPEG mode for the more snap-shotty type travel pictures. The only people who really need the largest capacity cards are professionals and people traveling to far flung places with no computer access (like Nevis or the South Pole).


CF and SD cards come in a wide variety of speeds. These are often expressed in terms of “20x”, “50x”, “133x”, etc. or more helpful “15MB/S”, “30MB/S”, etc. My Flickr friend Jim sent me this link to Rob Galbraith’s great website that scientifically tests the most popular cameras’ speeds with all the latest memory cards. Check out the site, find your camera and see what you find. Most likely you will see that the latest highest speed cameras perform the best with the latest high speed cards. However, you will also find that older slower cameras do not directly benefit from using the fastest cards. My advice, do a little research on this site then buy the fastest card you can justify. If you dig around a little on Rob’s site you’ll find his tests of card readers. This is where the cards’ speed will pay the most dividends for most people. More on that later.

One emerging area where memory card speed becomes increasingly important in the latest DSLRs is video capture. With new cameras like the Nikon D90 and Canon 5D MK II now able to capture full HD video, memory card speed is critical to their performance. If you have one of these cameras be sure to check the manufacturers’ recommendations for memory cards and follow their advice.


I recommend you stick to the top name brands like SanDisk, Lexar, Kingston, and PNY. You may pay a little more than the no-name discount and/or “house” brands but that’s because the larger name brand companies have a lot more to lose if their cards fail. If you follow my advice on speed you’ll be buying the name brands’ higher end cards to get the best speed. There are some “Professional” cards available but unless you can verify that there is a specific performance/dollar advantage don’t spend the extra money. One “Pro” CF card I saw at Best Buy was 2X the price as a regular card of the same speed and capacity from the same company. Turns out it came bundled with some kind of crappy image data verification and cataloging software that I would have never used. This came across to me as nothing more than preying on the prosumers’ desire to shoot “professional” gear.

SanDisk Extreme USB 2.0 card reader

Card Readers:

Now that you’ve settled on a memory card, do yourself a favor by stashing the twisted up USB cable that came with your camera in that drawer where all your old electronics go to die and pick up a card reader. Very few digital cameras can come close to matching the transfer speed of a good external card reader. As a bonus, you’ll save your camera’s battery by giving it a rest during transfers. The SanDisk Extreme III USB 2.0 3-in-1 reader above was one of the fastest USB readers you could buy last year. Now they have changed the design to CF only but at less than $20 it represents a great value for CF shooters.

For Mac users you can get the best speed via FireWire 800 readers. Unfortunately, Apple’s support of this format that they  gave life to seems to be waning. Personally, I’d stick with USB 2.0 unless you have a Mac with FireWire 800 you’re planning on keeping for a while.

USB SD card readers are a dime a dozen and they all seem to work pretty well. Again, stick with a name brand and all should be well. I like a cable attached design for desktop use and a thumb drive style for portable use. Also, if you’re an iPod user check out this product I created while at Griffin Technology. The Griffin Simlifi combines an iPod dock with a USB 2.0 hub and both CF and SD card reader slots. It’s not the fastest card reader out there but can really clean up the cable clutter on your desk. Plus, it features an actual aluminum case that I sweated many months over :-)

Another option for laptop users is a PCMCIA or ExpressCard reader. These adapters are a bit more pricey and can only be used with certain combinations of laptops and memory cards. However, they represent an extremely fast input interface to your machine (up to 480MB/S both ways) and are extremely convenient (especially if you just leave it in your machine). Sticking with a reputable brand name here is critical as I have run across low quality Asian versions that are not properly developed. When I was at Griffin Technology I convinced them to bring in an ExpressCard 34 SD adapter for use with the then new MacBook Pros. We were on track to be first to market with this product when we discovered that our vendor had fouled up the firmware on the first batch of readers preventing the computers they were in from going to sleep when the lid was closed. Griffin’s product finally made it to market and works great but Belkin, SanDisk and others got the retail slots which fatalistically limited production to a single order.

I’d steer clear of desktop built-in expansion bay options as they are not any faster than USB 2.0 options and have been known to have all manner of driver-related issues (particularly on Windows machines).

Bottom line on readers: make sure whatever you choose is USB 2.0 (or FireWire 400/800) compatible. If you end up with a USB 1.0 device you’ll be kicking yourself over the s-l-o-w downloads!

SanDisk SD Plus Ultra II with USB


Hopefully by now you are now fully armed with the basics needed to wade through the morass that is memory card-dum. The SD card above has been my card of choice since it came out a couple of years ago. It’s the SanDisk Ultra II SD Plus with USB and it breaks open to reveal a built-in USB connector. This completely eliminates the need for an external card reader! This is an extremely innovative solution that unfortunately seems to have not gained enough traction in the market for SanDisk to update. They are still available on Amazon but growing scarce. Here’s a couple of shots of one in use with my MacBook Pro:

SanDisk SD Plus open SanDisk SD Plus USB in use

Unfortunately, these Ultra II cards top out at 15MB/second transfer. Now that I’m back to toting around a MacBook Pro with an ExpressCard slot I think I may switch back to my ExpressCard 34 reader and upgrade to a 30MB/second SD card like this SanDisk Extreme III SDHC 4GB card.

If I was still shooting a Canon with a CF card I’d likely be taking a strong look at this Delkin SD to CF adapter so I could still make either my SanDisk SD Plus cards or a newer Extreme III card + ExpressCard 34 reader work. They do make ExpressCard 34 Compact Flash readers but since a CF card is wider than the ExpressCard 34 slot, they leave a nasty tumor hanging out of the MacBook Pros’ sleek 34mm slot.

Hope this helps. Please let me know if I missed anything or if you have any specific questions.

BTW, all the “studio” shots for this post were shot on my kitchen counter DIY whitespace studio.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas tree

Just a quick note to say Merry Christmas and thank you for your support. I started this blog less than 3 weeks ago and I have already had over 1,100 views! I hope everyone is enjoying this site and getting something out of it. I’ve got some new topics I’m working on that I’ll be posting over the next few days as time permits. Meanwhile, have a very merry Christmas, safe travels and take lots of pictures!

Nikon 13mm f/5.6 lens review

I’m a wide angle lens freak stuck in a kit lens body. I had a Sigma 10-20mm super wide zoom for my first Pentax K10D and it stayed on more than 50% of the time. Later I rented a Canon 17-40 f/4L for a couple of days in San Francisco and shot a bunch of picts with it on my 5D. Awesome. Here’s a link to some of my wide angle shots on Flickr.

I thought 14mm was as wide as one could go on a full-frame lens. Imagine my surprise when Ken Rockwell posted his review of the extremely rare Nikon 13mm f/5.6 rectilinear fisheye. Check it out. No barrel distortion what so ever. It is truly amazing stuff.

Thanks, Ken!

Christmas tree photo tutorial

Christmas ornament detail

With Christmas just a couple of days away there is no doubt that many of you have been enjoying taking artistic photos of your Christmas tree and other Holiday decor. All those colorful and tiny lights make perfect bokeh fodder. And highly processed detail shots like this are also fun.

Problem is, many of us (present company included) forget to take good documentary photos of our holiday decor that we can pull out and reminisce over with the grand kids 30 years from now. While all those artsy detail shots are nice, none of them capture the full majesty of your 2008 Holiday decor. Going through my photos a few days ago I ran across this image I took of my mom’s Christmas tree back in 2005:


This is one of my favorite Christmas photos of all time. Even in black and white (shot in B&W mode so there is no color version) I can totally feel the warmth of the twinkle lights and even smell the fresh pine fragrance of the Frasier fir tree. With this in mind I decided to figure out what makes good Christmas tree photos and do a bit of a tutorial aimed at DSLR users while I was at it.

Step 1: Turn off your flash!

flash tree

Out of the box in Program Auto mode just about all DSLRs are going to pop the flash in an attempt to achieve “proper” exposure. While this may accurately capture the image, I doubt that anyone will find the results very warm and inviting.

Switch your camera into Program mode and turn off the flash. With the flash off you’re likely to get something like this:

no flash, default settings

This is a 1/8 second hand-held exposure at f/3.5 and ISO 400. I actually had to dial in +1EV of exposure compensation because my Pentax K10D’s matrix metering was underexposing the image considerably trying to compensate for the brightness of the tree lights and lamp to the right just off frame. While the image more accurately captures the look and feel of the decorated tree, it isn’t very dynamic and compelling.

Steps 2 & 3: Get out the tripod and close down the aperture.

small aperture, long exposure

This shot is essentially identical to the previous shot except it is a 15 second exposure at f/16 and ISO 100 (shot in Aperture Priority mode). The small aperture does three things here. First it creates all those dreamy starbursts. Second, and more notably, it forces a long exposure. This long exposure time pulls in more ambient light, giving the entire scene more apparent dynamic range. Finally, it sharpens up the details. Zooming into this image you will find much crisper detail than the rather soft previous f/3.5 shot. As a bonus, using a lower ISO means richer colors, better detail, smoother gradients, and less noise.

Step 4: Attend to the details.

improved details

While the previous shot had come a long way from the Program Automatic blown-out flash shot, I felt there was still room for improvement. I didn’t like the reflections in the windows behind the tree coming from the upstairs lights and the lamp to the right was a bit harsh. Also, there were a few unsightly items cluttering up the foreground of the earlier shots and I wanted to add a better sense of grandeur to the shot.

For this final shot I turned off all the lights in the house except for a single 60 watt desk lamp behind the camera to add just a tad of ambient fill to the high ceilings. I moved the dog kennel and Where’s Waldo book. I then repositioned the tripod closer to the tree and lower before zooming out wider to exaggerate the scale of the tree and height of the room. This ended up being a 10 second exposure at f/16 and ISO 200- I bumped the ISO to 200 because the rest of the family was complaining about sitting in the dark during all my 20+ second shots ;-)

RAW file post processing in Lightroom was limited to setting the white balance (tungsten) and dialing in a bit of Sharpness, Clarity and Vibrance. You may want to tweak the Recovery slider a tad to compensate for any blown-out Christmas lights from the long exposure.

While I recommend shooting your Christmas tree photos at night, depending upon the situation, decent results can be achieved during the day. The wall of windows behind the tree here made daytime shots pretty much impossible. However, waiting until dusk I got this shot which was pretty nice:

Christmas tree at dusk

Step 5: Share!

my Christmas tree

This is a picture of my Christmas tree I took last week using the small aperture/long exposure technique described above. The photos for this tutorial were shot at my in-laws house. When you travel to visit friends and family this Christmas be sure to pack your camera and tripod. Take pictures of your non-photographer friends’ trees and send them a copy as a Holiday treat! Tis the season of giving, right?

Merry Christmas!!


I'm an industrial designer and an avid hobbyist photographer. People are always asking me "how'd you do that?" So, I decided to create this site as a place to share my experiences and insights about photography, the gear and what it all means to me. I'm not sure if this site will make anyone besides myself a better photographer but I figure it's worth a try. Take a look around and let me know what you think. Thanks for stopping by!


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