Review: The Fuji X10 Camera

The Fuji X10: A flash of brilliance, or a flash in the pan? Read to find out.

Fuji turned a lot of heads last year with the introduction of the X100, a stylish, retro-looking compactish APS-C camera that was about the last thing anyone expected from a company widely viewed as a perpetual also-ran. Despite some quirks (such as a fixed 35mm lens, which some shooters found a bit too limiting) and issues (not least of which were chronic shortages and a poky autofocus system), the company clearly had a hit on their hands. Many people – myself included – wondered if this would be a flash in the pan, or if the company would follow up with something equally promising.

With the Fujifilm X10, it appears as though they’ve done just that. A smaller camera, with a smaller sensor, it nonetheless combines respectable image quality with the same balance of form and function that made its bigger brother a hot commodity. After a week shooting with the X10, here are some early impressions.

Specs and features: The X10 features a 28mm – 112mm equivalent 4x optical zoom (pancake) lens with f/2.0 to f/2.8 aperture, a 2/3” 12mp CMOS sensor, OIS (Optical Image Stabilization), auto bracketing, RAW shooting, 2.8″ 460K dot high contrast LCD screen, magnesium alloy body, macro focusing to 1cm (at 28mm equivalent), 1080p full HD, full manual controls, optical viewfinder, built-in flash plus flash hotshoe, burst rates of 7fps full resolution/10fps at 6mp.

Build: Metal, and lots of it. Metal body, metal control dials, metal housing for the zoom, even a metal lens cap. The build is pleasantly solid, yet the X10 doesn’t feel like an albatross around your neck. Two features on the X10 take some getting used to. First, unlike other cameras in its class (most notably the Canon G12 and Nikon P7100), the X10 features a smooth and precise manual zoom, rather than the motorized zoom more commonly found on compacts. The on-off switch, interestingly, is built into the zoom ring as well. The cam is stiff, but not frustratingly so, and there’s likewise just enough resistance from the on-off switch to keep you from accidentally shutting the camera off, provided you don’t jerk the zoom ring.

The only downsides to the build are small ones. First, when you first pick this camera up, you’ll find yourself looking for buttons (like zoom and power) that aren’t there or have other buttons in their place. Not a flaw, exactly, but something that takes some getting used to. Second, there’s the odd thread size on the lens, which won’t take any filters currently available (the threading is 40.3mm, and the smallest filters I’ve seen are 40.5mm) and requires the purchase of a lens hood/adapter that costs eighty bucks. Nothing like mandatory “accessories.”

Controls and menus:  I’ve heard complaints about the menu layout on Fuji cameras, but I didn’t find it to be an issue here. For one thing, the menus aren’t that much of a nightmare. For another, the wealth of buttons, switches, and dials (P, A, S, M, EXR, user modes and an “Advanced” mode on the main dial, dedicated exposure compensation, a Function softkey, and a handful of other knobbies) on the camera’s exterior means being able to do quite a bit on the fly without having to trudge through menus and submenus to do what you want to do. An assignable function button and two user-programmable modes add even more flexibility. The biggest adjustment – especially once you get used to having your key settings in your viewfinder on an SLR – is having to take your eye away from the finder if you want to adjust your shutter speed or aperture, or double check your metering. While I wasn’t expecting the lovely and innovative hybrid viewfinder from the X100, I would at least have appreciated an AF indicator in-finder. One of my previous film cameras – as luck would have it, a cheap Fuji compact – had the feature, so you’d think this wouldn’t have been an insurmountable challenge.

f/2.5, 1/1000, ISO 100, Macro mode.

Optics: The X10’s lens is “only” a 4x zoom, covering the equivalent of 28-112mm.* That doesn’t sound like much when some available superzooms boast up to 36x zoom. However, it’s a useful range, and by keeping the range reasonable, Fuji avoided the optical compromises that inherently come with superzoom cameras (including their own). There’s slight barrel distortion at the wide end, but it’s easily corrected with the right software. The maximum aperture ranges from f/2.0 to a still-bright f/2.8 at the long end; because of the size of the sensor, f/2 isn’t going to give you quite the same control over depth of field, or the pleasing bokeh, that you’d get from a fast 50mm on an SLR, but it’s useful in low light nonetheless. The minimum aperture is f/11 throughout.

Autofocus: Not SLR fast, and not even Olympus PEN fast. However, compared to many compacts I’ve tried, it’s quick and doesn’t hunt much in low light. It’s also noticeably faster than its notoriously poky bigger brother. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a soccer game, but under normal conditions it performs acceptably well.

Video: In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a stills guy. As such, I shot a couple of cursory test videos. They’re about what you’d expect from a camera of this size… fine for home viewing, but unlike, say, a Canon 60D, not something you’d use for cinematic shooting. The stereo condenser mics are merely acceptable, and there’s no jack for an external microphone, so your movies will pick up the noises from zoom and autofocus.

f/5, 1/480, ISO 1600. As expected, there's noise from the ISO setting, but the photo is still useable.

EXR and High ISO Performance: Given that I tend to do a lot of shooting in low light, I wanted something with good (read: low noise) performance in the upper reaches of the ISO range. As it turns out, high ISO shots are good at 800, acceptable through 1,600, questionable at 3,200, and go downhill sharply after that. The EXR setting for High ISO/Low Noise performs quite well in low light, as does an “Advanced Mode” that fires off four shots in sequence and then merges them. Both are useful indoors for situations where you’ve got some light but would prefer not to use flash (especially since the built-in flash has all the limitations you usually get from a built-in flash). The EXR for dynamic range, on the other hand, turned out to be something of a disappointment. After trying a number of metering, exposure and DR settings in EXR with the same results (only a moderate improvement in dynamic range, but nothing that’d knock your socks off), I’m less than impressed.

Image Quality: There are a number of image sizes, compression options, and aspect ratios to choose from if you’re shooting in JPG. While this is a 12MP camera, keep in mind that it’s much smaller than an APS-C sensor, so those are 12 million really tiny pixels.  You won’t be able to crop with the same kind of impunity that you can with, say, a D90. To further complicate things, certain modes (EXR and high-speed burst, for instance) cut the resolution from 12MP to 6MP. While the IQ is still good, it doesn’t leave as much wiggle room in post. RAW shooting is also an option, whether full-time RAW, RAW + JPG, or (using a dedicated RAW button on the camera body) the ability to shoot single RAW frames. RAW processing can be handled in-camera, or via the software that comes bundled with the camera.

The X10 has a few different saturation settings that simulate Provia, Velvia, and Astia film, in addition to filtered black and white modes, and control over noise reduction. The film simulations are competent, the black and whites pleasing, and the NR a decidedly mixed bag; as with most other cameras, the more NR that’s applied, there’s a loss of detail, but there’s also a change in the overall color cast of the photos when too much is applied. Auto White Balance is generally reliable, though there are presets for certain lighting situations, and custom WB is quick and easy on this camera.

The Short Version:

Pros: Top-notch build quality; optical finder; a mostly well-corrected lens that’s fast throughout the zoom range; good low-light performance; thoughtful, discrete design; good image quality; minimal shutter lag; SLR-worthy burst rates at full resolution; whisper-quiet performance.

Cons: It’s nice to have a viewfinder (for me it’s mandatory, actually), but this finder’s lack of AF indicator, lack of parallax correction, and 85% coverage have been a bit frustrating.  While the AF is much improved over the X100, this isn’t a camera for sports shooting (unless it’s competitive chess).  The metering can be a bit iffy in less-than-optimal lighting (not consistently, but it does happen). Also, battery life –whether you’re using the Fuji NP 50 battery that ships with the camera or the Kodak KLIC-7004 which also happens to fit – is rated at a merely “meh” 250 shots.**

f/10, 1/110, ISO 400. Note the slight barrel distortion.

In Conclusion: Let’s not forget the price. I’m certainly not listing it under Pros (right now, the camera has a street price of $600.00, not counting the price gouging from some vendors that comes from a product being more in demand than in supply), but I’d have an equally hard time calling it a Con. You either need what this camera offers (the build quality, the faster lens, manual zoom, larger sensor, brighter optical finder, good performance at high ISO) or you don’t. If you need it, and have some idea what these things add to the cost of a camera, you likely understand why the camera costs what it does. If you don’t need those things, it stops being an expensive camera because you likely would’ve bought something else anyway.

A fair amount of whether this camera (or any other, really) “works” for you comes down to your expectations, and the kinds of compromises you’re willing to make. If you’re expecting the Fuji X10 have the same level of performance as a Micro 4/3 camera, much less an SLR, you will be disappointed, the same as you’d be if you expected a spork to perform like a Swiss Army knife. If, however, you approach the camera on its own terms, remaining mindful of what it is and what it’s designed to do, it’s a perfectly competent – and in many ways, quite good – piece of kit.

*There’s a digital zoom option that extends this to 8x, but camera shake (even with image stabilization turned on) and digital crop on an already smallish sensor makes this a last resort rather than a go-to option. If you really need 8x zoom, get a camera that’s built to do it optically.

**Real world results — that is to say, yours — may vary. On its first couple of uses, the battery that shipped with the camera actually shot less than that, while the older, broken in, Kodak batteries I was using as backup actually managed to surpass it by a bit. Other steps, like turning off automatic review and not using maximum illumination on the LCD, can further stretch battery life. If you’re using this as a backup or supplement to an SLR, though, you’re going to have to get used to changing batteries much more often.

The Fuji X10 Manual (PDF format)

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Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Giving Photos as Gifts

This time of year's always a blur...

At one time or another, we’ve all done the holidays on a shoestring. Sometimes it’s meant buying less stuff, or less expensive stuff. It can also mean making something, from a batch of oatmeal cookies to something else that’s handcrafted. But since we’re talking photography here, let’s just assume for the moment that you’re considering giving photos as gifts. Here are a few commonsense guidelines to save you a bit of time and trouble, while also letting your potential recipient off the hook for having to display something that might not be quite their type.

The first rule of thumb: know the recipient well. Well enough, in fact, that you know their tastes. If it’s someone in the habit of wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with glitter accented, weepy-looking kittens and your primary subject matter is urban exploration, you might want to rethink your approach a little. Yes, I know, it’s your art, and you do it primarily for yourself. And if you were making yourself a gift, that’d do just fine. But if you’re going to give your work to someone else – and you genuinely want that person to enjoy it – consider what they typically hang on their walls.

As a codicil to the advice above, it helps to know how sincere your recipient typically is in their appraisal of your work. If they genuinely enjoy it, you’ve got a situation with potential. If, on the other hand, you strongly suspect that they’re complimenting your work because they’re too kind not to, you may want to consider your alternatives.

The second rule of thumb: Give yourself plenty of time. Whether you’ve got a long list of people who’d practically knock each other over to have your photos hanging on their walls, or just a small handful, you still want to pick out photos best suited to those people, which takes time. Budget additional time for any tweaks you want to make to your photos. Allocate still more so you have time to do a series of test prints (your monitor and printer of choice may have different views of how the finished photo will look). Then allow for the finalized printing, framing and matting.

Third rule of thumb: Don’t cheap out on printing. If you’ve got an inexpensive (read: cheap) photo printer and a stack of cheap photo paper,* you’re very likely to end up with cheap-looking results. That doesn’t mean you need to do canvas or metallic prints, but use a reputable place that’s going to use good (heavy, acid-free) papers and a colorfast print process.

Fourth rule of thumb: Choose a nice frame and mat. Matting supplies can be found at most craft shops, not to mention places that specialize in custom framing, while frames can be found nearly anywhere. Choose a mat that’s either neutral (in the white/off-white family) or complements the colors in your photo, and pair it with a frame that’s appropriate to what it’s going to contain. A frame that has the look of weathered wood or driftwood, for instance, would set off a beach scene nicely. Use a little imagination, and if that fails, go with an unobtrusive, plain black frame.

Fifth rule of thumb: know when not to offer photos as gifts, but don’t be afraid to use your talents. Maybe your starving actor friend respects your photography even though the subject matter isn’t quite her bag. Maybe your cousin’s walls are so spartan they’d make a Quaker meeting house look like Mardi Gras. Offer your services as a photographer, whether it’s for a headshot, a family portrait, or a shot of her dog.

There’s something else to consider, as well. If your recipient takes photos – whether they self-identify as a photographer or not is beside the point – and you’ve got a few extra bucks, consider a digital photo frame. Not only can you pre-load it with a few of your shots that you think they might like, they’ll have the option to display their own work without being tethered to a computer.

*Incidentally, I’m not knocking either of those things, and have both; we can’t all have the top of the line stuff. But if you’re giving your photos as gifts, splurge a little.

Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Gear

I'm with ftupide

If you’re already a photographer, you don’t need me to remind you that the costs for even a basic setup can add up quickly. The good news is, if you wanted to tack a few extras onto your holiday list — or even if you’re searching for a stocking stuffer for the photographer who has (nearly) everything — you can do it without breaking the bank. Here’s the “Hard Times” edition of the holiday gift guide:

  • Giottos Medium Rocket Air Blaster: These come in a number of sizes and prices. As camera equipment goes, they’re pretty cheap (the standard size usually retails for between ten and fifteen bucks), and they’re higher quality. I’ve heard that some of the off-brand versions have talcum powder or some other, similar, substance inside their blowers to keep the rubber from sticking to itself, which creates about as much of a mess as you’d expect. Given that this isn’t an expensive item to start with, pay the extra.
  • Nikon 7072 Lens Pen: Lens pens come in a few varieties. Some will have a soft felt tip, others a small brush with soft bristles; others still will have both, one at each end. The brushes are good for things that settle in crevices around your camera, in your eyepiece, or in your lense’s filter threads. The felt end, in the meantime, is handy for the stubborn stuff the brush won’t take care of. I recommend this particular one because I own it; if it had some other logo on it than the brand I currently shoot with, it’d still be as competent. If the lens pen by itself isn’t quite enough, consider a lens cleaning kit.
  • Microfiber Cleaning Cloth: Similar to the cloth used for glasses, this is a soft cloth that’s good if you have a larger area you want to clean. It’s good for your lenses and filters, and even works well in getting nose grease off your LCD.
  • FishBomb Lens Filter and Accessory Case is a smallish neoprene pouch with pockets on either side that close with velcro closures. There’s a loop at the top, so you can slip the bottom part of the case through the loop in order to secure it to a belt, camera strap, or camera bag. Its compactness is both good and bad; on one hand, it won’t fit a ton (it fits two 67mm filters comfortably), but on the other, it takes up a lot less room in my camera bag than the plastic cases the filters originally came in.
  • The Tamrac S.A.S. MXS536801 Memory and Battery Management Wallet"", like most things Tamrac, features competent, no-frills construction.  Mine currently holds  . It’s good for the times you want to travel light, taking little more than a backup battery and cards, and is also good for corraling your batteries if you’re using a speedlight.
  • The Promaster Xtrapower Traveler turned out to be a lot better than I expected, handling batteries from a few different SLRs. It also includes a USB power “out” jack, enabling you to stash a handful of cords for anything capable of charging through USB, meaning one charger instead of a pile of transformers taking up space in your bags.
  • Finally, something that’s not a piece of equipment, but that has the potential to be just as useful: if you have a camera shop in your area, see if they offer classes. Most do, in addition to single-day workshops and trips to local destinations for photo opportunities that the average person might not otherwise be able to get to on their own (one shop local to me recently did a shoot in an old penitentiery).

A word to the non-photographers among you: Most photographers are a picky lot when it comes to their gear. Buying decisions usually come after considerable research, reading, and debate. When all else fails, a gift certificate to the local camera shop may be your best bet.

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Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Books

Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures, by Hans-Michael Koetzle

Whether you’re a photographer looking for reading material, or a non-photographer trying to figure out what you can buy your photographer friend/spouse/coworker that won’t break the bank, books on photography — be it history, technique, or philosophy — are a pretty safe bet. Below are a few personal favorites, some of which have been reviewed in this space, and others of which we haven’t gotten to yet.


Fundamentals of Photography: The Essential Handbook for Both Digital and Film Cameras (Tom Ang): At some point, nearly anyone who’s serious about photography will want to give themselves an overview of the basics. Ang’s book is best suited to novices and amateurs, though it’s a useful reference for the more forgetful among us, as well. It’s all here — the technology, the technique, postproduction, et cetera. Since there are at least half a dozen books by the same author covering similar subject matter, I’d strongly suggest browsing the books before buying to make sure you’re getting one that fits your personal style.

Jim Krause’s Photo Idea Index could be termed a how-to for the self-motivated. There’s less in the way of explicit instruction here than a series of short exercises with examples, designed to act as prompts to creativity (the same formula followed in most of Krause’s other work). While he’s enamored with creativity, he doesn’t have any particular affection for one type or brand of gear. That ethos, and the approach of the book as a whole, makes it useful if you’re in a mood to experiment and see where it might take your photography.

If you or someone you know is going to be finding a new DSLR under the tree, consider the Magic Lantern Guide series. These guides are written by, and for, photographers (Simon Stafford covers most of the Nikon gear, Michael Guncheon covers Canon, and other guides are available for those of you using Sony, Pentax, et al.). David Busch’s exhaustive reference books for various camera systems, and somewhat more compact field guides, are likewise well worth the time and money.


The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography follows in the footsteps of earlier Michael Freeman works The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos and The Photographer’s Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos, presenting sound practical advice with history, theory, and philosophy. Here, Freeman explores the importance of visual literacy in understanding the “reading” of a photo, but also how that practice extends to how we make photos.

The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes (Andy Karr and Michael Wood) is a book-length treatment of the ways of seeing. The authors’ intent is to have us check conception at the door, in favor of perception. The advantage, they argue, is that you learn to see in detail, and in depth. In other words, you stop just looking at things, and start to pay closer attention, being present with the subject nearly to the point that your photograph is a means of bearing witness to it, rather than simply getting the cold facts of an image onto your memory card.

 Visual Poetry: A Creative Guide for Making Engaging Digital Photographs, by Chris Orwig, is as helpful to the beginning photographer as to one who’s more advanced. The former will find plenty that helps them develop habits and ways of seeing that will serve them well, while the latter will find much to rejuvinate their approach to their craft, not least because of the insistance on first principles that can help kindle, or re-awaken, the joy to be found in simplifying one’s gear, approach, and process. 

Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision. put David duChemin on the map, and for good reason; it’s page after page of wisdom perhaps best summed up in the author’s maxim, “Gear is good. Vision is better.” Most of us are more likely to go ’round the bend than around the world for a photo, but the advice given here applies equally well regardless of where you happen to find yourself.

History/Photo Books:

Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures (Hans-Michael Koetzle) provides the backstories on several legendary images, from the dawn of photography (Niepce’s “View From the Study Window,” made in 1827) to the early 1990’s (Salgado’s 1991 photos from Kuwait). Unlike many other books, which simply provide a title, date, and photographer’s name, this one gives you a sense of history, and often also shows other shots from the same session, giving further insight into the photographer’s creative and editorial processes.

Pillars of the Almighty: A Celebration of Cathedrals (Ken Follett and F-stop Fitzgerald) is currently out of print, but if you’re at all interested in photography, cathedrals, or historical fiction (or some combination thereof), take the time to seek it out; the writing, adapted from Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, is thought provoking, and it’s perfectly complemented by Fitzgerald’s gorgeous photography from cathedrals around the world.

Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives is a small book, both in size and number of pages, but that belies the big idea that underpins it. Author Peter Davenport, through nothing more than a series of captions on blank pages, argues that certain images have the power to transcend their time and even their original purpose.

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Rule 21: Shoot Small


Beach Zen

I like minimalism. Just not too much. — Robert Wyatt

Certain photographers inspire because their vision was all-encompassing, and they had subject matter to match. It’s something you find a lot of in landscape and architectural photography. There seems to be an entire genre of photography dedicated to impressing us all with the regal hugeness of everything.

It’s easy enough to find a money shot in a mountain range or skyscraper. What’s more challenging, I think, is finding those small but telling details. Sometimes, it can be fun to find the smallest thing that can tell the story of the whole, while at other times, you may find that the detail you’ve chosen has something all its own to say.

Best of all, this doesn’t require fancy or expensive gear. Granted, macro lenses are good if you want to get close enough for an ant’s antennae to tickle your nose, but for the most part, this is more about patience, persistance, and close observation than it is about gear. I started shooting this way out of necessity; my first digital camera didn’t have much zoom range to speak of (it only went to the equivalent of 111mm), but it did a respectable job of macro shooting. Consequently, I spent a lot of my time getting nice and close to my subjects, looking for subjects within larger subjects.

What started out as a matter of necessity became something done more for the fun of it, and a technique that I’ve taken into most of the shooting I’ve done. While I love a good sunrise, sunset, or landscape as much as the next person, every so often you’ll want, or need, to get your lens out of the clouds and focus on something a bit more down-to-earth.

Three tips:

1. If you’re in the habit of using your zoom to compose, try doing it without the camera. Begin by seeing the big picture, but don’t stop there. Don’t stop with the first thing within that scene that draws your eye, either. “Zoom in” not with your lens, but with your eyes and your attention.

2. If you’re using a compact, check to see if it has a macro mode (often denoted by a flower icon). In this mode, the camera will allow a shorter focusing distance.

3. Regardless of what kind of camera you’re using, check out the minimum focusing distance of the lens. Most compacts with a macro function will allow you to get as close as one centimeter. SLR’s, unless you’re using a dedicated macro lens, generally require more of a focusing distance. Not every shot calls for macro, but it’s a nice option for those times that you’d like to get in close and still have a sharp photo.

How To Shoot The Moon

Does Not Appear to be Made of Green Cheese

Astrophotography doesn’t get the same press as other, more lucrative, genres as portraiture or wedding photography, but it can be every bit as challenging and rewarding. Even if you don’t plan on going whole hog (investing in an expensive telescope and a converter that allows you to mount your camera, for instance), if you have an SLR and a reasonably long lens, you can still give it the old college try. A 300mm lens won’t resolve the rings of Saturn, but when it comes to our celestial next-door neighbor, it’s more than adequate to the task. What follows are a few simple tips for photographing the moon.

• The longer the lens, the better. Wide-angle lenses aren’t useful here for two reasons. First, unless the context (say, a landscape or cityscape) is as important to capture as the moon itself, you won’t need a very wide field of view. Second, the magnifying power isn’t going to be sufficient to give you much more than a white blob.

• High ISO isn’t necessary. Even though the moon is a source of reflected light – albeit a very bright one – it’s sufficiently bright that a high ISO isn’t necessary, and can even be counterproductive. The addition of image noise, and the loss of detail that can result, end up outweighing any benefit you’d otherwise have gotten. Turn off Auto ISO, since the camera’s going to be metering all the darkness surrounding the moon and push the ISO into its upper reaches.

• Ignore your meter.

• A tripod helps. You can, believe it or not, get handheld shots of the moon (see the photo accompanying this post). However, using a support is absolutely vital if you want to use longer shutter speeds.

• Use a shutter release cable or remote if you’re using a longer shutter speed.

• If you plan to use a longer shutter speed, check your camera’s noise reduction settings. While it helps to have NR turned on (longer exposures tend to be a bit more noisy), bear in mind that too much noise reduction is going to reduce not only noise, but also detail.

• Use the highest resolution possible. If you usually shoot RAW, now would not be the time to stop. Conversely, if you shoot lower-quality JPGs because you can fit more images on the card that way, figure out the highest resolution JPG setting on your camera, and use that. Though you will fit fewer images per card, it will mean having images of higher quality. If space is an issue, just back your images up more frequently. Since you’ll want to crop many of your images to bring out even more detail, you’ll appreciate having the added resolution.

• If you’re envisioning a shot that includes not only the moon, but also something else – a landscape, for instance, or a skyline – don’t even bother trying to get both in the photo exposed perfectly. Take two shots, one of your foreground subject and one of the moon, and composite them. The reason for this is that the exposure settings and field of view will be different for both; generally speaking, a shutter speed that’s long enough for a nighttime shot of a skyline is going to result in the moon looking like a klieg light, and a proper exposure for the moon is going to leave the skyline a silhouette, assuming you even get that much. Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t matter; if you’re framing the moon through a gap in the trees and you’re just looking for the outline of the trees, one exposure will do you just fine.

One last thought: Feel free to experiment. The moon isn’t going anywhere any time soon (I hope; if you know something I don’t, let me know), so there are plenty of opportunities to perfect your technique. I would also suggest, as part of your experimentation, photographing the moon in its different phases, since a full moon won’t show as many interesting details as a moon that is waxing or waning. The reason for this is that a waxing or waning moon is being side-lit, which adds shadows and throws surface features into somewhat sharper relief. Have fun!

Burn The Box

Reflected Flag

Whether you’ve been doing photography (or some other creative endeavor) for about five minutes, or for something closer to five decades, it helps to think about your craft, your approach to your subject matter, and eventually, even your thinking about your thinking. It’s easy to find yourself blocked from time to time, unsure of what (or even whether) to photograph next because it feels like the well’s run dry. It’s easier still sometimes to find yourself wanting to do something different just for the simple reason that you’ve been doing your “thing” for so long.

If this were a certain type of blog, and if I were a certain breed of blogger, I could tell you to just “think outside the box” and be done with it. End of post, end of story. Pat self on back, have beer, and think of the next blindingly obvious bit of pablum to foist upon my unsuspecting readers. There’s just one small issue: the problem with “Thinking Outside the Box” is that our “boxes” aren’t a bunch of discrete little things stacked on shelves. They tend to be more like those nesting Russian dolls, one box inside another inside another. We think we’re thinking outside the box, only to find that we’ve traded our usual box for a larger, or smaller, one.

Worse still, we might even find we’ve traded our box for someone else’s. We follow someone’s formula, or try to learn from their example, only to find that all of a sudden, we’re boxed in by a process of thought or creativity that doesn’t feel right because it isn’t ours. Individuality is just that — it’s as individual as you are, but it happens by default and not by effort. The easiest way to get out of a box or a rut is to be aware of your boxes – your processes, methods, ruts, even your prejudices – especially when they box you in, but don’t obsess over them. Acknowledge them, play with them, but don’t allow them to become an impediment to doing, or being, what you really want.

Sometimes, just casting light on our process is the thing that allows us to change it or trade it for another. This isn’t something passive; you’re going to have to be aware at the various stages of your creative process, breaking down each step, and being aware of the what, how, and especially why of each one. When you start to unpack all of those steps — both as you’re taking the photo, and when you’re evaluating your finished results — you can begin to identify the ways you might be boxing yourself in, and perhaps even gain some insight as to why you’re doing it. Having done that, you can start taking the necessary steps to change what you feel needs changing.

Postscript: Tell me: What do you do when you find your work’s beginning to get stale? How do you change your thinking or your practice to refresh what you’re doing, and how well has it worked for you?

Rule 20: Try to View Your Work Objectively


Be honest, now. How good are your photos, really?

It can be hard to be objective about your own work. We’ve already discussed what happens at one extreme, where we can be our own worst critics, refusing to acknowledge when we’ve done some of our best work. It’s easy to be so focused on how far we’ve yet to go that it’s just as easy to be blind to how far we’ve already come. At the other extreme, there are a number of circumstances in which our work isn’t at its best, and we can be just as slow to acknowledge that.

Not least of these is subjects about which we’re passionate. Especially if your subject is something that’s already inherently photogenic (kids or pets, for instance), it’s easy to get caught up in that and overlook otherwise glaring flaws in your photos. In my case, having an abiding interest in history and architecture, a photo like the one above of the Statue of Liberty is a no-brainer. Of course, when you’re dealing with a subject as frequently photographed as Lady Liberty, there’s a challenge in getting some new angle or shot that nobody’s gotten or thought of previously; suffice to say, this photo doesn’t really fit either of those criteria. It’s not incompetent, but it doesn’t have anything about it that’d make someone sit up and take notice, either.

Yauco, Puerto Rico

Another challenge arises when a subject has strong memories, or a compelling story, attached to it. This is especially true of older photos you may have taken. Take a gander at the picture at the left, taken in 2009. It was taken on my honeymoon while we were passing through Yauco, in Puerto Rico.* We passed by those colorful, cheery-looking houses several times, and that scene would probably be burned in my memory with or without the photo. Does it have a sentimental value to me? Sure does. Would someone else buy it if I framed and matted it? Don’t bet on it.

If you have the time to explain the story, the image can still work on some level. But if you’re showing your 2,354 vacation photos to your in-laws, they’re not going to have the patience — or, probably, enough caffiene — to sit through the lot if you’ve got to explain each photo because you’ve come to realize it doesn’t stand well on its own. That goes double if you had in mind to turn those vacation snaps into cash. Some images work because, by themselves, they have an undeniable sense of place about them; others may work even if there’s nothing that immediately identifies them as being from somewhere in particular just because the image itself is compelling. In either instance, if you find yourself having to speak for your photos, they’re not working as well as you think no matter how much fun you had in Podunk.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that we sometimes need to bring some objectivity to our own work. Try to view your own work the same as you would anyone else’s, not necessarily looking at it not through the lens of its (or your) history or backstory, but rather through the criteria of what makes a good photo regardless of who was behind the camera. Is the subject compelling? How about the composition? Is it technically proficient? With that, I’d add a simple caveat: don’t be so cold or clinical about your own work that you get rid of something that has a sentimental attachment for you. Just realize that once you’ve decided to set your photography loose on the world, those feelings and meanings may not be as readily apparent to someone else.

*If memory serves, we were waiting para la policia after a minor fender bender.

Photo News Roundup, 11/05/11

Postal Eagle

Slow news week this week — unless you’re in the market for some Canon gear for cinematic shooting, in which case your options are about to get much, much wider. Links, as always, go to sources’ websites.

Rumor has it (courtesy of 4/3 Rumors) that the DMW-LVF2 viewfinder for the upcoming Panasonic GX camera will not be backwards-compatible with the current lineup of GF cameras. The same site also has extensive specs and the speculated pricing on the GX.

Canon pulled out all the stops on its November 3 announcement, unveiling two cinematic SLRs, plus lenses, and a concept camera while they were at it. There’s been a lot of speculation as to Canon’s failure to enter the compact mirrorless market of late, but the introduction of these cameras tends to indicate that they weren’t blowing smoke when they said they had bigger fish to fry. With Kodak’s demise seeming all but imminent, it seems wise for Canon to go all in on cinematic imaging. (Canon Rumors)

Mind the “gap”: Ricoh says that in 2012, they’ll be debuting a product meant to fill a gap in the imaging market. All well and good, only they’re not being very specific as to the nature of that gap (Mirrorless Rumors)

Nikon Rumors has a recap of Nikon’s offerings at the PDN.

Photo Rumors reports that in addition to Canon’s announcement on 11/3, RED re-announced the Scarlet, and even Lomo (makers of overpriced hipster accessory plastic cameras) got in on the movie action.

So. Who REALLY Makes the Best Camera?

Whalehead Club, Dusk

A strange thing happens when you’re out in public with an SLR around your neck: people think you know something about photography. One question I’ve gotten a lot, with variations, is, “So, is Nikon better than Canon/Sony/Olympus/Minolta?”*

The short answer I usually give is “No.” This usually causes people to look at me funny, and I can kinda understand why; I mean, if I don’t think they’re better, how come I didn’t buy some other brand? The somewhat longer answer (which follows if I get That Look) is that Nikon is a bit better. For me.

Your mileage may vary.

The somewhat-longer-still answer:

When you’re buying a camera, there’s quite a bit to take into consideration: build quality, processing speed, video quality (if you’re into that sort of thing), JPG processing if you’re not shooting RAW, pentamirror vs. pentaprism, weather sealing, ergonomics, battery life, available lenses and the quality thereof, et cetera, et cetera. There’s not a single brand that’s had an unbroken run of successes; all but the most diehard Leica fanboys will tell you the M8 was a dog, for instance, and every other manufacturer has released cameras and lenses that had their share of quirks, if not serious flaws.

Generally speaking, however, these are precision pieces of equipment, built to some pretty high specs. As long as we’re comparing apples to apples (it’s no fair comparing one company’s compacts against another’s SLR’s), there aren’t usually enormous variations in quality.** It all comes down to finding what works for you. Some cameras feel better in the hands than others, some may have easier menu navigation and button layout, or features you’re not willing to live without (or that you wouldn’t care if the camera spit them out tomorrow).

Differences in sensors and processors, meantime, are a bit like the differences between shooting with Kodachrome or Velvia back in the day. The photos coming out of a Sony will look different from those coming out of a Nikon (even though both use Sony sensors), and the photos from your compact Kodak will look different than those from a Leica (even though both use Kodak sensors).

So which brand is better? No one brand is objectively better than the others,** but they are different, and there are subjective differences among them that mean you’ll probably like one over the others. And that’s okay.

*Now that I don’t have the yellow-and-black Nikon neckstrap on anymore, I’m curious if I’ll get that question a bit less. I’m starting to understand why sometimes I see experienced photographers putting black gaffer’s tape over the manufacturer’s logo on their cameras.

**Two caveats here: First of all, I’m dealing with bodies and not lenses/accessories, though even there I’d be assuming OEM and not aftermarket stuff; there are enormous differences between some aftermarket manufacturers, both vis-à-vis each other and versus their OEM counterparts. Second, there are exceptions here. For example, Canon has set the pace with SLR video, (though Sony’s SLR’s and a couple of Panasonic’s Micro 4/3 offerings are beginning to erase that distinction), and there are still photographers who shoot Nikon just because of the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System, which is a fancy name for their speedlights).