March 25, 2014

Sunshine Photo Cart Works for Wordpress Users

By Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr., CPP 

As my website has evolved, I’ve become ever more fond of Wordpress as an operating platform. It’s simple to use, easy to update, and hassle-free. Well, it was until I wanted to create a fully integrated client ordering gallery. My search for a Wordpress gallery plug-in that would allow me to sell specific sets of images to clients led me through a muddle of free and paid Wordpress plug-ins. Then I found Sunshine Photo Cart

Sunshine Photo Cart has a clean and simple ordering gallery interface that I preferred over the other options I’d experimented with. The cart is not standalone software but rather runs as a plug-in from within Wordpress. This means you can take advantage of your existing theme, settings, and database—no need to go reinventing the wheel. I’ve had to try and duplicate, or match my site’s theme in the past when using standalone cart systems, and it’s a big pain.

Installation is easy; I had it installed and running on my site in less than five minutes, as claimed by the company. Of course, if you want to add a huge selection of products and create a number of galleries, that will take additional time; the setup itself, though, is very simple. Here’s a view of the default client gallery view, after I had completed the setup, but before adding any galleries.

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And the same gallery view, once I changed the theme customization to match my current Wordpress theme and added several galleries. You’ll notice that some are password protected (designated by the lock icon to the left of the gallery name/link).

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I installed Sunshine Photo Cart via the Wordpress dashboard (Plugins > Add New). You need to install Wordpress plug-ins in ZIP format, so if you’re not sure how to do that, there are instructions contained within the file you download from Sunshine Photo Cart.

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After installing the plug-in within Wordpress, you’ll need to activate Sunshine Photo Cart by entering a valid license key. You’ll also need to enable user registration so that your clients can register, save favorites, and submit their orders (directions included, as seen below). 

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Sunshine Photo Cart automatically creates several pages within your Wordpress site so that the galleries and carts can work properly. You can use the defaults, or select your own alternate pages if the plug-in wasn’t able to create them.

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Here’s a view of the pages that were automatically added when the plug-in installed:

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You’ll find a Sunshine tab on your Wordpress Admin panel that allows you to access the dashboard, settings, galleries, product categories, price levels, products, orders, discounts, and system info.

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The Sunshine dashboard summarizes recent orders, sales totals, galleries with sales, a list of which users have logged in (if you require clients to log in prior to viewing a gallery), a pie chart of popular items purchased, and a list of the most popular images purchased.

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From the products submenu (Sunshine > products), you can add products individually or in bulk. Each product will have a name, a category that groups them for ordering purposes, a price level, indications on whether it is taxable or downloadable, and the cost. I made two categories prior to adding my items so that I could group smaller prints separately from wall prints.

When you create a gallery (Sunshine > Galleries), you have the option to upload images through the Wordpress Media Library, or you can upload a folder via FTP to your server, which Sunshine Photo Cart will automatically detect and import for you. The benefit of the FTP method is that it allows for downloadable files as well as the web versions.

The gallery options box below appears on every gallery page. You can require users to create an account before viewing the gallery. You can disable ordering (and just have it be a viewing gallery).  Finally, there are two folders options: Images and Download. The former is for the Web viewing size, and the latter is if you want to enable the high-res file purchase or download. Assuming you’ve already uploaded your folder of images via FTP, it will be listed as one of the options to select from the drop-down menu, which also lists how many images are in the folder.

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Each gallery thumbnail can be favorited, added to cart, or clicked on to enlarge to full web viewing size.

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Once you click on an image, the ordering options will be available. In this instance I clicked on gift prints and the corresponding products from which I could make a selection and then add to the cart were displayed.

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You can view the cart at any time, and the images are identified by filename, product type, and quantity; client notes are visible, too. Your client can add a discount code if you’ve supplied one to adjust the price before finalizing the order.

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The checkout phase will capture your client’s billing and shipping information. You can provide options to pay by check (through the mail), Paypal, or if you have a pro account, two other methods as well. Shipping can be calculated on a flat-rate basis, or scaled according to your needs.

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Once the order is submitted, both you and your client will receive an email confirming the order. It looks similar to the cart detail page, as you’ll see below. This is the client’s email; the one received by the studio will be slightly different.

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Sunshine support, when I needed it, was efficient and helpful. There are help articles and documentation, support forums, and a priority support system (below). When you submit a support request, you have the option to give the developer access to your Wordpress admin dashboard by providing a username and password. This makes it easier for them to locate a solution to your problem.

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I ended up submitting several support tickets, and each was resolved in a timely manner.

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A couple of the issues were bugs in the software that the developer fixed upon discovery, while some issues arose from my use of a non-standard Wordpress theme (and desire to have the seamless theme integration). I was in the process of redoing my website anyway, so I switched to a theme that was properly coded, and then all of those issues were promptly resolved.

Overall I was very pleased with the installation and implementation of Sunshine Photo Cart. It smoothly integrated with my theme (once I switched to a properly coded theme), and the gallery creation process has been a breeze. I appreciate that there is no additional login information to remember, as with ordering systems I’ve used in the past, and the one-on-one support I’ve received has been phenomenal. I am nothing but pleased with this product, and if you use Wordpress to run your site, I think you will find this a great option for your Web cart ordering too. 

Sunshine Photo Cart is available for $99, and the Pro version with enhanced support and additional features is $249. Both versions include unlimited galleries, photos, products, no transaction fees, and a 30-day money-back guarantee. A full features comparison list can be viewed at sunshinephotocart.com/pricing.  

Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr., CPP is a portrait artist in Michigan. Her website is BPhotoArt.com.

March 24, 2014

Perfect Photo Suite 8 Covers a Lot of Ground

By Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

Like many other photographers, I use Adobe software products for the core of my photo editing workflow, but I recently found a nice addition that will complement what I already use. I was looking for a portrait retouching solution that would integrate with Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, and I decided to look into Perfect Photo Suite 8 from onOne Software. This application suite does much more than just help you retouch portraits. It’s a whole workflow solution that integrates with standard editing programs, or functions as a standalone product.

There is a profusion of information that I could share about Perfect Photo Suite 8, but for the purposes of this review I’ll give you an overview of its main features. Look for an article on retouching using Perfect Portrait 8 to follow. Perfect Photo Suite has a number of different modules, each of which focuses on a specific function. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First you have to install Perfect Photo Suite 8 and the appropriate plugins for your other software.

During the installation process, Perfect Photo Suite 8 automatically detected the compatible programs on my computer and installed plugins for each of them.

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Perfect Photo Suite 8 offers eight different modules within the interface: Browse, Layers, Enhance, Portrait, Effects, B&W, Mask, and Resize. I’ll walk you through my first impressions of each module.

Browse—New to version 8, Browse allows you to locate images easily from your computer or Internet cloud sources such as Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud Photo Stream, and Sky Drive. You can view thumbnails or an individual image, search files, view metadata, and add or create “favorite” folders to access your files quickly.

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Layers—When you open an image to edit, you can choose to edit a copy, edit the original, or add edits as a layer. Within this module, you can composite images, swap heads, and create layouts (using backgrounds, borders, edges).

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Enhance—The basic editing module allows you to make most enhancements needed for a typical image. You can crop; adjust color, tone, and detail; spot-heal; or use content-aware fill to remove objects. There are also enhancement presets you can apply to your images, such as High Contrast and Magic Landscape. I’ll mention that there’s a red-eye removal function, but I hope that would never be necessary for most professional photographers. I tried out the Perfect Brush, which samples the color from the center of your brush and adjusts the edges accordingly. It’s helpful for working around complicated edges.

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Portrait—The Portrait module had the most draw for me, as it can be used to automate facial retouching. Features include the ability to improve skin texture and color; enhance eyes, teeth, and lips; and remove blemishes. You can choose to apply effects to the entire body or just to the face. In the first screenshot below, you’ll see how you can adjust eye and mouth control points. For portraits featuring more than one subject, you can work on multiple faces individually within a single image. One other nice feature for skin color correction is the ability to select your subject’s ethnicity in a dropdown menu, which helps the software make appropriate automatic adjustments to the skin tone.

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Effects—The Effects module allows you to apply filters and presets to change the look of your image with effects such as cross processing, HDR, photo filters, and more. You can create your own customizations to the effects, layer multiple filters on top of each other, and use masking tools to apply the effects where you want and nowhere else. Or, if you’d prefer, just use the effects as an overall adjustment to your image.

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B&W—From the B&W Module, you can apply presets or adjust the tone, color response, and other variables to create a very customized look. Tools you can use include dodge/burn, adjusting shadow/mid-tones/highlights, vignettes, and edge/border effects. As with the other modules, you can also choose to simply apply a preset to the entire image rather than doing detailed adjustments.

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Mask—The screenshot I’ve chosen for this module shows a manual brush mask being painted over the sky. You can be very broad and general in creating masks, or make a very detailed mask if desired. If you want to use the module’s masking technology, you can make a rough mask, as I’ve done here, then use the software to fine tune around hair, trees, or other complicated edges. There’s also an option to mask areas based on color range.

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Resize—When it’s time to get your images ready for print, you can either save your edited files from any module of Perfect Photo Suite 8, or you can use the Resize Module to get your images print ready. This module uses Genuine Fractals technology to create better enlargements (the company claims you can “enlarge images up to 1000% without sacrificing quality“). There are a number of resizing presets available, based on output media type, lab print size, and the like. You can also create your own presets.

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Within any of these modules you’ll have access to a navigator menu that looks something like this one below. Here I’ve stacked a number of filters to change the image and created a mask for each of those layers as well.

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Continue reading "Perfect Photo Suite 8 Covers a Lot of Ground" »

March 20, 2014

BorrowLenses.com: Loaner Equipment Opens Opportunities

By Stan Sholik

Have you ever wished you had a piece of equipment to shoot a commercial assignment, a wedding, or a great idea to update your portfolio? Or maybe you’ll be traveling on assignment and would feel more confident with another body the same as your main camera rather than that old backup you carry. Or it’s time for a little time off and you’d like to take one of those compact mirrorless cameras and a couple of lenses on vacation rather than your heavy digital SLR.

There are many occasions when it just doesn’t make sense to buy a piece of equipment that you may have limited use for in the future. For those times, renting is the better option. And BorrowLenses has become one of the leading online rental houses for photographic and video gear.

If you have access to a local professional photography equipment rental house, I would encourage you to support them first. But if you don’t, or if they don’t have the equipment you need, it’s hard to beat BorrowLenses’ system of ordering online, having your rental delivered to your door, and shipping it back in the packaging it arrived in.

The process couldn’t be simpler. You choose the gear you need from the BorrowLenses website, select your rental duration, log in or create an account, enter start date and payment information, and you’re done. For most items, the FedEx shipping cost is about $25, and that’s round trip, not one way. A return-shipping label is included in the package. BorrowLenses is the only rental outfit with warehouses on both coasts, in California and Massachusetts. There are also 30 pickup sites in twelve states, but there is still a shipping cost to the pickup site.

The rental term begins on the day the first delivery attempt is made and must be shipped back on the day the rental ends. For example, a seven-day rental that begins on a Monday must be shipped back on the following Monday. All this is clearly spelled out in the paperwork when you receive the item, and BorrowLenses sends you an email the day before you should ship it back as a reminder--very neat and efficient.

But what if … The FAQs on the BorrowLenses website has answers for every contingency I could think of and all the ones they have encountered. With the high cost of the equipment you are likely to rent, loss or damage is most photographers’ biggest concern. BorrowLenses has this covered with the availability of a damage waiver fee for each piece of equipment.

The damage waiver covers only the main piece of equipment you rent, and it doesn’t relieve you of liability entirely. If the equipment is damaged beyond normal wear and tear, you are charged a 12-percent deductible for the replacement cost of the item’s value, or repair fees, whichever is cheaper. If you declined the damage waiver, you are responsible for 100 percent of the repair or replacement. And like all rental houses, the equipment carries an inventory tag. Removing the tag is considered damage, and there is a $12 fee per tag.

In my experience, the equipment from BorrowLenses shows less wear and tear than my own, and I shoot mainly in the studio. I have never had an operational issue with their gear, and when I wanted to keep a piece for an extra couple of days, it was no problem. Of course, if someone had been waiting for it, I would have had to return it.

It is best to reserve gear as far in advance as you can, and if FedEx or UPS delivery is not 100-percent reliable in your area, give yourself a extra day buffer if you need the equipment for an important wedding or a trip abroad.

When I first rented from BorrowLenses, the availbable gear was mostly Canon and Nikon, with a few exceptions. Now the equipment ranges from quality point-and-shoots to Leicas and Hasselblad H5D-60s and from GoPro to RED video cameras, with all the accessory items needed.

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A portion of the selection of Canon camera bodies available from BorrowLenses.

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BorrowLenses has a wide selection of Nikon bodies, including the Nikon 1 V1, as well as digital SLRs. The D4s is expected shortly.

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BorrowLenses has packages available for still and video shooters for specific assignments so that it’s easier to order everything you need for an assignment.

In October of 2013, Shutterfly Inc. acquired BorrowLenses. Max Shevyakov, a BorrowLenses founder and now director of marketing at Shutterfly, believes this can only benefit the company. “In the beginning we always felt we were underfunded and couldn’t keep the inventory level we wanted during busy shooting seasons,” Shevyakov said. “Now, with Shutterfly’s financial backing and industry connections, we are able to have the inventory we need when professionals need it. It is also helping us to be one of the first rental houses to have the latest equipment available.”

For frequent and volume renters there is a $99-per-year membership option. Membership advantages include an automatic 10-percent discount on all rentals, an increased level of availability for gear you need that may not be available when you need it, the ability to cancel a rental at any time without a fee, and a BorrowLenses T-shirt. 

BorrowLenses offers other services beside rentals. There is a selection of used gear taken out of rental and offered for sale. The equipment is guaranteed to be in perfect working order but with some cosmetic issues. You can return the purchase within 10 days and pay a restocking fee, or up to four weeks from purchase and be charged a rental fee. If you happen to be around their San Carlos, Calif., location, you can bring your camera in for a cleaning.

In today’s business environment, it’s discouraging to turn down an assignment because you don’t have the equipment to do your best possible work. With access to BorrowLenses, that never needs to happen.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, CA, specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book, Photoshop CC: Top 100 Simplified Tips and Tricks” (Wiley Publishing) is available now.

February 21, 2014

Comfortable and Functional ... To A Degree: Joby Pro Sling Strap and UltraFit Sling Strap for Women

Your body type may determine how much functionality this design will deliver.

By Joan Sherwood

I recently tried the Joby Pro Sling Strap and the Joby UltraFit Sling Strap for Women. Both feel good and are functional, but each has its own issues. I was an early adopter of sling straps, and I’m still a big fan, but they haven't reached the perfection I envision for them one day. 

There are three ways to wear the traditional strap that attaches to the camera strap eyelets on a DSLR, and I’m not fond of any of them. I can’t stand the insecure feeling of a camera strap hanging from just one shoulder. It’s an invitation to theft or a catastrophic slip-and-break accident. A strap just over my head puts far too much strain on my neck, particularly with heavier professional DSLR and lens combinations, plus I always have to keep one hand on the camera to keep it from bouncing around as I walk. And with the traditional neck strap in a cross-body position, you can feel that it just wasn’t designed to be used that way. It doesn’t hang well across my chest, the strap is always too short, and it’s not easy to raise the camera to my eye.

The Joby Sling Straps use what they call a SpeedCinch pulley system. You wear the strap in a cross-body position with the camera hanging at your hip or cinched behind your back. The strap threads through the buckles in a way that allows you to shorten, lengthen, or lock the strap in place at a certain length. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to use, though the locking clamp takes a little practice to feel natural.

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The Joby Pro Sling Strap is the top of its line and my preference between the two Joby sling straps that I tried. The shoulder portion of the strap is strong like a seatbelt and has a ribbed underside, but it’s soft and supple so that the edges don’t dig into your neck. I think it would benefit from a gripping surface on the underside where it lies across your shoulder blade, though—something to hold the strap in place when the user bends forward. It’s far too easy for the weight of a camera to urge the strap to slide around your body, even with a fairly snug but still-comfortable cinch. The entire strap is made of a textile custom created by Joby.

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The attachment mechanism centers around a metal bolt and cylinder with a rubber washer on the bolt side and a plastic collar that smoothly rotates on greased bearings around the main cylinder. A thumbscrew lets you hand-tighten it into the tripod socket and then a coin groove allows you to secure it more firmly.

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Trust in this type of tripod-socket connection is what divides sling strap users from sling strap haters. Many photographers fear that the screw-in connection in the camera’s 1/4"-20 tripod socket will gradually come loose, and in one horrific moment their most cherished glass will crash to the sidewalk. There are horror stories out there.

The strap makers have addressed this security concern in their own ways. Joby offers a Camera Tether, which gives you a secondary point of connection as a failsafe. It loops a strong but slender tie through the camera’s strap eyelet and tethers it to the sling strap with a screw-lock carabiner that doesn’t impede the movement of the sling strap. This tether is included with the new Joby Pro Sling Strap but is listed as an accessory with other models.

The Joby Pro Sling Strap worked well for me, with certain limitations. For me, the SpeedCinch pulley system works to hold the camera where I want it to hang on my hip, but not for the full-cinch, behind-the-back, close-to-the-body position. It works great on the male model in the demo video, but I’m a short stocky woman with a moderately large chest. The closest I can get to a secure cinch is to have the chest strap above my right breast and passing through my armpit. Needless to say, this is not a look that lends itself to professional appearance. As a plus, it does come in two sizes: S - L and L - XXL.

Joby makes the UltraFit Sling Strap for Women to address the squashed-breast issue, but in my testing I found that this works only for slender women (such as the one in the Joby demo video).

201402we_joby_UltraFit_SlingStrap_Female_VideoStill.jpgThe UltraFit Sling Strap for Women is available in just one size and is only large enough to use with the camera at my hip with the strap extended to its full length. When I tried cinching it up, the strap had nowhere to go but the above-breast, armpit position. On a slender coworker, it worked as advertised but the camera strap was still easily susceptible to slipping around the body when she bent forward.

Finally there’s the issue of carrying the camera behind you. It’s great if you have an awareness of where it is at all times and how much space your camera body and lens combination occupy back there. Have you ever been wearing a backpack, and instinctively turned sideways to get through a narrow space only to be reminded that you’re now thicker in a side orientation than you are full forward? Imagine turning sideways to go through a subway turnstile or a closing door and hearing your lens smack against a hard surface. If you plan to carry your camera behind you, practice, practice, practice knowing where it is and how much space it needs at all times.

That said, I’m still a fan of the sling strap for midrange size cameras and I would recommend this one. I prefer the SpiderPro camera holster system ($135) for comfortably carrying weightier pro DSLRs and big lenses. Having that weight on your hips instead of around your neck and shoulders makes a huge difference. But the SpiderPro’s nylon and Velcro belt with its big plastic buckle are best suited for hiking gear and casual clothing. The Joby Pro Sling Strap ($69.95) is more elegant and comfortable (with your camera at your hip), and has the capacity to complement professional clothing. 

February 20, 2014

Epitome of Lens Design: Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2

Optics manufacturer Carl Zeiss set out to design and produce the ultimate camera lens based on more than a century of knowledge, and the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 is the result. It is available for Nikon and Canon cameras, and I had the opportunity to use the Nikon version, designated by ZF.2. Considering how good the $1,700 AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G is for practical shooting, what does the $4,000 Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 have to offer?

For one thing, the Zeiss optic offers manual focusing and only manual focusing. Not only that, the focus ring needs to rotate through 248 degrees to change from its 2-foot close focus distance (about the same as the Nikkor) to infinity. This makes for extremely precise but extremely slow focusing for still photography.

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It’s also a large, heavy lens, beautifully made of metal. It’s about twice the length of the Nikkor and nearly three times the weight. By comparison, the focusing ring on the Zeiss is nearly the size of the Nikkor lens. The focusing ring uses ball bearings like the finest cinematography lenses to ensure a smooth, silky feel free of backlash or play. There are stops at the minimum focusing distance (19.7 inches) and at infinity. And the focusing ring rotates in the proper direction for the camera on which it is mounted.

Distance markings are engraved on the lens and filled with bright yellow. And there are depth-of-field markings for each aperture from f/1.4 to f/16. These are similarly engraved and painted.

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As beautiful as the Zeiss lens is, the real art is in the optical design. Based on the Zeiss Distagon formula, the 55mm Otus utilizes 12 elements in 10 groups. The resulting images are as close to flawless as I have seen. There is barely a hint of vignetting, color fringing, or chromatic aberrations, even at f/1.4. The only noticeable aberration was the smallest amount of coma in point-source light at the edge of the frame at f/1.4. From f/2 to f/16, the images are flawless. Sharpness and contrast from corner to corner are excellent at f/1.4 and remain so throughout the aperture range.

With the lens mounted on a high-resolution digital SLR such as the Nikon D800E and the system on a steady tripod, the image quality is nothing short of outstanding. Even at f/1.4, contrast is high with no veiling glare in the shadows, and there is an almost three dimensional quality to the images.

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Click for larger view. Exposure: 1/125 second at f/1.4, ISO 100. Camera: Nikon D610 with Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2 lens. ©Stan Sholik

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Click for larger view. Exposure: 1/125 second at f/1.4, ISO 100. Camera: Nikon D610 with Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2 lens. ©Stan Sholik

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Click for larger view. Exposure: 1/500 second at f/1.4, ISO 100. Camera: Nikon D610 with Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2 lens. ©Stan Sholik

While it won’t be the lens of choice for action photographers, wedding photographers will benefit from the ability to hold detail in the bride’s dress and the groom’s dark clothes. Landscape photographers will benefit from its ability to hold detail in both highlights and shadows. But portrait photographers will be in for some post-production work smoothing skin tones and blemishes.

Zeiss promises that the Otus 1.4/55 is only the first in a line of Otus lenses designed with fast apertures and the highest optical and mechanical standards. The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 represents the epitome of the current state of lens design and manufacturing—and at a price representative of that achievement.

January 22, 2014

Epiphanie Bags Keep Function in Style

By Pete Wright, M.Photog.Cr.

It wasn't long ago that the photography industry started seeing a growing influx of products designed for female photographers, and Epiphanie bags was one of the first to come out with quality camera bags designed for the needs and tastes of women in the industry. I spoke with Epiphanie owner Maile Wilson about how she got started and what’s new in the Epiphanie line.

Wilson wanted to create a bag that went beyond basic black poly-vinyl construction and showed some style. She didn't just stop with her original Lola bag, a hybrid shoulder bag style suited for photography or personal-bag needs. The company now offers 12 styles in a range of sizes, each in multiple colors, including styles that also appeal to men. 

The Epiphanie selection ranges from small purse like bags to messenger style bags that quickly convert backpacks. All are made with moveable Velcro pads to allow for customizing the arrangement of gear.  Never sacrificing functionality for fashion, Epiphanie bags have multiple pockets to hold personal items and accessories, and some models can accommodate laptops and tablets. Maile’s bags are available at epiphaniebags.com, ranging in price from $154 to $225.

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The new Sydney bag transfers into backpack just by pulling the straps at the sides. You can wear it on your shoulder or cross body. Versatile.

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The Madison bag is large enough to accomodate a laptop, two bodies, an iPad, and a long lens. It easily converts to a backpack.

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The London bag is one of Epiphanie's designs that appeal to both men and women.

January 21, 2014

Olympus MFT Earns Flagship Status: OM-D E-M1 Review

By Theano Nikitas

Olympus has a new flagship camera, and it’s not a DSLR. In fact, the introduction of the 16-megapixel, Micro Four Thirds (MFT) OM-D E-M1 effectively signals the end of the company’s DSLR line. But even photographers with a stash of Olympus standard Four Thirds lenses will be able to take advantage of the E-M1’s feature set and new on-chip Dual Fast AF autofocus system.

The E-M1 joins the E-M5 as the second model in Olympus’ OM-D line, although it stands a notch above its sibling. Improvements include faster performance (including more responsive focusing with Four Thirds lenses), more sophisticated handling, integrated Wi-Fi, focus peaking, and a larger hand grip.

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Although the appeal of mirrorless cameras and their lenses often revolves around smaller-than-DSLR size and weight, the E-M1 is a little hefty for its class. Its 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.5-inch measurements and body weight of 17.5 ounces is due, in part, to its larger handgrip; but overall, it’s one of the more substantial mirrorless bodies on the market. Add the first model in Olympus’ new PRO line of MFT lenses, the constant aperture, weatherproof M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm, f/2.8 (a second, 40-150mm, f/2.8 PRO lens is in development) and you’ve got some weight in your hands. While the lens is larger and heavier than Olympus’ other MFT lenses, it’s solidly built and delivers excellent results, especially in combination with the E-M1’s five-axis image stabilization. (A quick note to anyone who plans to use the E-M1 with non-MFT lenses: the MMF-1 and MMF-2 lens adapters will work with the new camera but only the MMF-3 is weatherproofed.)

The E-M1’s grip provides a well-balanced handhold, although it’s likely that the longer legacy lenses may offset that balance. Its weather-sealed, magnesium alloy body is splashproof, dustproof and freezeproof, and so the E-M1 can handle outdoor and adventure photography in all kinds of conditions.

Like many mirrorless cameras, the E-M1 doesn’t have a built-in flash. However, it comes with Olympus’ tiny shoe-mount flash, which works fine for fill flash in smaller areas; just be on the lookout for redeye. The hotshoe/accessory shoe accepts larger flashguns as well.

A beautiful, 3-inch, high-resolution, tilt and touch-control LCD monitor occupies much of the camera’s rear real estate. The 2.36 million dot electronic viewfinder (EVF) has an automatic eye sensor as well as manual switching between the tilting touchscreen monitor and the EVF. The LCD’s touchscreen feature is limited to certain functions but includes focus point selection, triggering the shutter, and selection of parameters from the on-screen control panel.

External controls are plentiful and arranged within easy reach across the top and rear surfaces. The on/off switch is on the camera’s left shoulder, a position that’s more convenient than one might imagine (even for right-handed shooters). A design feature that’s especially useful is the center lock button on the mode dial. Unlike those on other cameras, however, you do not have to depress and hold the button to release the dial. Instead, one press-and-release locks the setting in place; another press-and-release leaves it unlocked so you can move quickly from one mode to another.

Dual control dials, function (Fn) buttons, and a wealth of custom options translate into more advanced—albeit complex—operation than the E-M5. The ability to customize controls is welcome, of course, but it can take a little while to assign—and then remember—the function of each custom setup. Once you do, operating the camera is fluid and a real pleasure. 

In addition to an another Diorama II Art Filter, dual HDR options, a Photo Story mode for collages, and an improved time lapse feature, the E-M1 now has built-in Wi-Fi. Setting up the E-M1’s Wi-Fi is quick and easy with a quick QR code scan. Once connected, you can use the Olympus Image Share app (available for iOS and Android) to transfer images, add GPS data to photos and even share images with others. Remote shooting is also possible with the OI Share app and Wi-Fi connection.

Live Time is an interesting and useful feature for long exposures. It’s essentially a bulb mode that allows you to see the progress of the exposure in real time on the LCD. I find it especially useful for light painting since you can watch the exposure increase in real time during the process and then close the shutter when you achieve the look you want.

Naturally, the E-M1 offers HD video capture. And while the camera offers manual exposure controls for video and AF (only with MFT lenses during shooting), the move mode is limited to 30p for all resolutions (1,920 x 1,080, 1,280 x 720 and 640 x 480). That’s too bad since it would be nice to have 60p and 24p options as well.

Olympus has also made some under-the-hood improvements boosting the maximum mechanical shutter speed to 1/8,000 second (the E-M5 maxes out at 1/4,000 second) and a sync speed of up to 1/320 second. Thanks to the E-M1’s TruePic VII engine, continuous shooting can be clocked as fast as 10.5 frames per second (fps) with a maximum of up to 41 raw files (in single AF) at 6.5fps. The camera can capture up to 50 raw files in continuous autofocus. I found that the maximum speed didn’t quite measure up to those numbers, and the camera started to slow down toward the latter part of the sequence. But the camera and continuous autofocus was fast enough to keep up with some rodeo-style action with a 40-150mm MFT lens. When it comes to telephoto work, Olympus’ 2X crop factor really comes in handy.

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Exposed for 1/400 second at f/7.1,
ISO 200, at 40mm with the Olympus
M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO
lens, which provides a 35mm-equivalent
field of view of 24-80mm.

Olympus has improved the performance of their legacy standard Four Thirds lenses on the E-M1 with its Dual Fast AF system, which uses On-Chip Phase Detection AF and Contrast Detection AF. While other Olympus MFT cameras can accommodate Four Thirds lenses via an adapter, achieving speedy autofocus has been an issue since Four Thirds lenses are designed to work with phase detection. With the E-M1, the camera can access phase detection AF for better performance when standard Four Thirds lenses are attached and AF tracking is engaged. MFT lenses still use contrast detection AF, and the camera automatically switches the type of AF used depending on the lens. Though my selection of Four Thirds lenses was limited, from what I can tell there is some improvement in AF; the speed increase isn’t astonishing but it’s detectable. It’s certainly not as fast as, say, my Nikon D3s, but it’s good to know that if you have Four Thirds lenses, you have an option to use them with respectable results on an MFT camera.

Just as on-chip, hybrid autofocus is working its way into more cameras, so is the elimination of the optical low pass filter. The latter is designed to deliver better resolution but with the increased risk of moiré. However, there was very little evidence of moiré with the E-M1, and I presume that the TruPic VII processor was largely responsible.

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This exposure for 1/60 second at f/5.8,
ISO 800, picked up all the fine detail
of the lace in the hat with no moiré
evident. ©Theano Nikitas

I was pleased with most of my test images. They were sharply focused, adn exhibited good detail and accurate colors. Image noise was kept well under control up to about ISO 3200, but even past that, the E-M1 maintained better detail than I expected, though image noise was visible. When necessary, I might push the ISO, but I would prefer to have more in-camera control over noise reduction. As always, however, shooting raw and post-processing for noise delivers the best results.

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At PhotoPlus Expo, Sigma set up a test booth with models, so I checked out the Sigma 60mm F2.8 DN Art lens, which delivered excellent results. ©Theano Nikitas

Under bright and/or high contrast conditions, the E-M1 (set on Natural) had a tendency to blow out some highlights that even the well-implemented highlight and shadow control feature couldn’t manage to fix. Otherwise, exposures were generally well balanced. Colors were accurate and rich, although not overly saturated. If the colors aren’t to your liking, the Color Creator provides a useful tool for adjusting hue and saturation.

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But even with the funky lights on the deck of the USS Intrepid during a press event, the E-M1—and its auto white balance—did a great job of reproducing the neon-like colors.

Despite its somewhat larger-than-average size and increased competition (especially from Sony’s full-frame a7/a7R), the Olympus OM-D EM-1 is one of my favorite mirrorless cameras on the market today. It’s an excellent addition to Olympus’ camera line and delivers superlative image quality and above-average performance.

 

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Price: E-M1 (body only)  $1,400
Kit with Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens: $2,200

January 20, 2014

Creativity and Inspiration, an Excerpt from "Inspiration in Photography" by Brooke Shaden

Inspiration-in-Photo_500px.jpgThe following is an excerpt from Brooke Shaden's "Inspiration in Photography" (Focal Press, $34.95). 

Creativity Can Be Learned 

What is it speci­fically about creativity that so many people shy away from? Why is it normal to think that creativity is something reserved for the obviously artistic? The reason lies in our perception of creativity and how we interact with that notion. Creativity is often nothing more than problem-solving. To come up against a problem during a project—be it an obstacle or a desire—and then ­figure out a way to resolve the issue: that is being creative.

So often creativity and inspiration are treated as being the same or very similar things, when actually they have separate meanings. Creativity is the application of a thought, while inspiration is the force that originates that thought. Not everyone is always inspired, but everyone can be creative. We all have our own ways of bringing forth our creativity; the key is learning how to embrace our own personal style.

How then does one learn creativity? If everyone is creative, there must be little learning involved to actually be so. The real work is in ­figuring out how we personally are creative and how we can apply that energy to our work. Think about your life as it currently stands. I am willing to bet that you do something creative every day, whether you see it as such or not. Take your job, for example, or school. Every single day, in order to be productive, you need to make decisions that keep progress moving. So you are being creative, because you are problem-solving to move your desires to completion.

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RUNNING FROM WIND (2010)

This picture was taken in the very early morning in a foggy field. I was out shooting with my friend, the amazing photographer Miss Aniela, and we ran through cold, wet grass so that I could get this picture. The inspiration behind this image is the recurring theme in my dreams that something or someone is chasing me. This picture creates an atmosphere of pursuit, giving the feeling that something or someone is chasing the subjects through the field.

What about more obvious creative endeavors? Here I’m talking about what we do with our spare time. It doesn’t matter if the answer is watching television or mountain biking. Anything can be fuel for inspiration. For example: I watch television and movies as a way of relaxing after working hard. Specifically, I watch Game of Thrones, not only because I ­find it wonderfully exciting, but because it shows me a different world. I take inspiration from it visually, as well as narratively. That inspiration then feeds into building my photographs, because it informs the way I see the world and the way I de­ne beauty and intrigue.

Now take my other favorite hobby: hiking. I love going hiking because it clears my mind, but I also try to see it as a creative endeavor. Hiking shows me settings that I can use for my photographs, and frees my mind from the daily grind. It allows me to fi­nd inspiration in every step, because I am not only doing what I enjoy, but also applying it to my photography on a daily basis.

So it is worth thinking about what we love and how we can turn that into something creative.

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TALLY (2009)

Skin photographs beautifully with window light on it, so I decided to challenge myself for this series and use natural window light and a plain white wall as a background as often and interestingly as possible. By using chocolate sauce to add an unsettling element, I was able to distract from the dull surroundings and focus the eye on the subject, who is posed displaying unease and tension. Never underestimate the power of giving yourself projects to work to.

Inspiration is Everywhere

Thus far I have been presenting inspiration as an abstract feeling that appears on a whim. This certainly does happen—no matter what we do for a living or for fun, we all know the power of a great idea hitting us from nowhere or a beautiful daydream sucking us in whole. This is the type of inspiration that is wonderful to experience, but is often fleeting, and impossible to control. What happens when a client needs a photograph in a hurry and no ideas come to mind? What happens when life takes over and things do not work out as planned? What happens when our usual method of brainstorming fails and there is no time left to sit and wonder?

The answer to these questions is the answer to how we de­fine inspiration. I believe that there is no clear de­finition for what inspiration is, and even less of a concrete method of how to ­find it. I believe that inspiration is everywhere. We just have to look for it. In life, if we look for something hard enough, chances are we will ­find it. I might never have another amazing idea completely off the cuff again, but if I can train myself to ­find inspiration in everything, then I will be constantly inspired.

The commonly held view is that inspiration is reserved for an elite few artists who are so in touch with their inner workings that they fi­nd themselves inspired constantly, as if by some kind of magic. While this might be how some people function, I have never met an artist who has not been frustrated at some point by a lack of inspiration. We all need help sometimes ­finding it, and luckily there are some techniques that help a lot.

I’ll talk about these techniques in greater depth in the next section, but in general, they involve changing our personal perspective. From fi­nding meaning in every little part of our routine, to looking back on memories to ­find stories we can use, there is potential inspiration in our whole life if we choose to open our eyes to it. I believe that most people turn a blind eye to inspiration, not because they do not seek it, but because they have been conditioned not to see it. How often do you take the same route to work each morning? How often do you eat the same breakfast, visit the same restaurants, or travel to the same vacation spots? Human beings are creatures of habit, and breaking some of those habits might well be the key to opening up our minds to ­find inspiration.

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FETUS (2009)

The subject of rebirth is prevalent throughout my images, particularly in Fetus. I found myself in Walmart trying various containers on my head to find one big enough to use in this shoot. Shooting, I had a remote in my hand and I did a back bend over a couch to dip my head into the container. I had two people on standby should something go wrong, but luckily I got the shot in three tries. It was intensely claustrophobic, and remains the most terrifying photo shoot I’ve ever done. If you’re stuck for inspiration, think about what scares you—is it something you could incorporate into a shot or series?

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AN UNHEARD CRY (2009)

Underwater photography was something that I had never tried before creating this image. I learned a lot about what works underwater and what doesn’t when creating this picture, and that in itself can be motivating and inspirational. I took a lot of bad pictures that day, and realized that sometimes complete failure is the best form of inspiration because it pushes us to try harder and learn more. Oddly enough, this final picture from that day remains a favorite of mine across my whole portfolio. Maybe I like it so much because I know how hard-won it was.

 

 


 
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