Monday, June 29, 2009

KC Sunset

KC Sunset
Originally uploaded by jstevewhite

Many of the most interesting outdoors photographs you've seen in magazines all your life were shot in the hours of dawn +/-1 hr and dusk +/- 1 hr. There are a few reasons for this. For nature photographers, it's a requirement; many - even most - animals are most active during those two time slices. Fortunately, those hours also provide the most interesting light.

That's why, when you watch documentaries about, say, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, you see them rousting the models at 4:00 am and getting them ready to shoot. When the sun lights up the sky from low angles and makes gorgeous clouds and colors, you get the "golden hour"; the whole sky becomes your softbox, and that pink/gold cast that we see periodically is simply magical for images.

So Saturday we had storms around KC, and I've been wanting to catch the city, lit up by the low-angle sunlight, against dark, glowering clouds for some time, so I set out to do so. Left the house at 7:30-ish and drove down to the city, looking for places to shoot from. What I discovered is that most of the clear view locations from where I'd remembered seeing the images I wanted to capture were in the middle of highways or streets. Obviously, in retrospect. What I discovered is that vehicular scouting for locations with a certain view is frustrating and not very productive. I finally got a couple of semi-decent shots - not what I'm looking for, yet , but sorta ok - standing in the middle of Main Street at 30th or so.

Anyway, after I gave up on that particular task because I was having zero luck, I was driving home. I happened to see the shot above, and couldn't resist. The couple on the bridge spoke to me - "Pretty cool, ain't it?" and then went back to watching the sunset. I couldn't resist getting a couple of shots with the couple in-frame. I wish the phone lines hadn't been there, though.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

New Baubles

So I got my old Pentax-M macro sold on ebay, and made a profit on it. I took that money and a little bit more and bought the Samsung Schneider-Kreuznach D-Xenon 100mm Macro for Samsung and Pentax DSLRs - which is a re-badged Pentax D-FA lens. I couldn't wait to try it out.

What I discovered right away is that 1:1 isn't for wimps. If
you're going to work with magnifications that high, you just about have to have a tripod or a flash. So I continued my search for a
ringlight that 1) didn't suck, and 2) didn't cost $450. I got lucky at
one of the few good photography stores in the area - Overland Photo in Overland Park, KS - and picked up an old Lester Dine
ringlight for $40. It's got the Minolta TTL module, but works f
ine in "manual" mode, which gives about f16 @100 ISO. Add a 49-52 step up ring and I was in business.

So I strapped the 100mm Macro onto my K20D, screwed on Lester's ringlight (Wikipedia tells me he invented the ringlight... learn something new every day) and went in search of interesting bugs and other small things.

The most interesting thing I found, I flubbed the exposure on. I'm going to post it here anyway - I'm hoping someone knows what the heck it is. It's so counter to expectations that I'm left baffled and fairly speechless. It flew up and landed on the leaf I was looking at, and at first I thought it was a bit of fluff, but it turned out to be a bug. With fur or something:
What IS it?
What in the world IS that thing? I've seen a lot of funny lookin' critters, but this takes the cake. It's so bizarre that I'm inclined to think it's sick, perhaps a lacewing with a fungal infection or something - which gives me the shudders.

A little more wandering turned up this gorgeous little beetle - he's all metallic and shiny gold, like he was a clockwork insect of some sort. A Steampunk Beetle, maybe. My daughter said it lookes like you can see gears and stuff through his shell:
Twenty-Four Karat

I love shooting macro images. The ringlight works, and makes it possible for me to get handheld images of these guys rather than lugging a tripod everywhere, but I am afraid that I'm going to have to figure out a way to adjust the power of the flash (so I can balance it with daylight) or just use a tripod. I like my hands-free and crazy technique that allows me to chase bugs with abandon, and I hate the idea of giving it up to be tied down to a huge hunk of metal that holds up the camera, but the image is king. If I have to, I will.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sigma DC 18-50mm f2.8 EX Macro vs. Pentax DA* 16-50mm f2.8 ED AL IF SDM

That's a buncha alphabet soup, eh? I just happen to be upgrading from the Sigma to the Pentax, and I thought this might be a good time to do a quick head-to-head test. First things first, though, the significant differences in the lenses. The Pentax is weather resistant, the Sigma is not. The Pentax is SDM, the Sigma is screwdrive (noisier). The Pentax goes two millimeters wider - which wouldn't seem like all that much, but is significant in image framing. The Pentax is enormous by comparison, and heavy. The Sigma focuses closer than the Pentax - although the Pentax focuses closer than I expected, down to about four to six inches.
But what's important to me beyond those things I listed is image quality. Now, I'm not going to stack up a pile of side-by-side images. This is not an exhaustive shootout; just a quick head-to-head between a lens and the one that is replacing it. I'm going to tell you that from my position as occasional measurebator and general curmudgeon, in most applications, the real-life difference is one of personal choice.

With manual flash settings and the same aperture and shutter speed, the Sigma produced consistently darker images, by almost half a stop, all the way from f2.8 to f11. If you're shooting raw, this is well within adjustment range, and I promise if I put the pix up here side by side, some percentage would say the Pentax was overexposing, not the Sigma underexposing. Fair enough.

I am, however, going to provide a couple of images for side-by-side viewing. First the full frame images:

Pretty similar in appearance. The Sigma is a little warmer, maybe the Pentax a little more contrasty. When you go pixel-peeper on it, however, the difference really shows up. The Pentax is crisp and contrasty, but the Sigma goes all soft and dreamy -

Of course that doesn't mean the Sigma is a bad lens. After all, the Pentax lens costs almost twice as much. As I said, through most of the range of test images I shot, the difference was one of taste, no obvious differences in IQ. The Pentax focuses almost completely silently, and much faster and more accurately, but that's to be expected with the SDM motor.

Many people have said - mostly in 2007 - that the Pentax 16-50 has quality control issues. They may have resolved them, or I may have simply gotten a "good one", but I can't find a single flaw.
All in all, I think the Sigma is a good value, a great bang-for-the-buck purchase, but, at least in the instances of the two lenses I received, the Pentax is clearly superior. I'll be selling the Sigma soon. Watch ebay if you're interested!

Friday, June 12, 2009

I just got my Metz 48 AF-1, and was looking for something to test it on. So I stuck a buncha Velcro on it, attached my Lumiquest 8x8inch softbox, pushed the head down to -10 degrees, strapped on the 100mm f4 Macro at maximum (1:2) magnification, and went hunting bugs or other interesting stuff that's tiny.

This lady was flitting back and forth in some vines, and every time I got close, she'd bolt. The fence, then gone, the vine, then gone. I finally saw her settle on this clover, and got down on my knees. She seemed more comfortable - perhaps she assumed that I wasn't going to eat her after all, since I hadn't - and posed for me. I didn't realize she was missing a leg until I was processing the images. She had every reason to be skittish, I guess!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Furry Friend

Furry Friend
Originally uploaded by jstevewhite

A couple of years ago I found a huge brown spider in my bathtub. I photographed it, and examined it carefully. Threw it in a jar and got out the loupe. Sure enough, loxosceles reclusa - the infamous Brown Recluse. It was a female with a body about the maximum size quoted by the various online .edu sites, approximately 3/4" long. Doesn't sound like much, does it? I swear that thing was 3" from toetip to toetip. And those legs aren't skinny, fragile looking legs like a grand daddy long legs has. They're thick and strong, and FAST.

This got me to researching brown recluse spiders. They're exceedingly common in the Midwest. One site I read said, "If you live in Missouri, Kansas, or Arkansas, you've got 'em in your attic or basement or both."

I read that they can live for up to two years in a closed box with no water or food. That's just evil, no matter how you cut it. They don't groom themselves, so residual pesticides are ineffective; you have to spray the poison ON the buggers to kill 'em. Unfortunately, people spray for 'brown recluse', end up killing all the spiders that feed on brown recluse, and end up with an infestation.

That's why this guy is my friend. I've watched these jumping spiders take brown recluse with abandon, running them down and jumping on them. It's a beautiful thing to see. There's a smaller, slightly less hairy version of this individual living on my desk lamp. We're buddies. I keep telling him as long as he eats the brownies, he's good in my book. He just smiles.