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Jan 20 / admin

Camera Quality Calculus

I made two camera-accessory purchases while on a recent trip that highlight just how much the stakes of digital photography have changed since I started taking pictures made of pixels less than a decade ago. One of these products produces traditional static photographs, the other, dynamic time-warps.

Purchase #1 was a wide-angle lens lens for my DSLR. Cost: $500. Even though my camera—a Canon T2i (aka EOS 550D)—is small and relatively lightweight model, it’s still something to lug around, conspicuous to use, and in the two years since I got it I haven’t used it nearly as much as I once thought I would. The rigamarole of downloading the SD card got old fast, and the files I did get from the its massive 18-MegaPixel image sensor are huge and unwieldy. Moreover, the stock 18-55mm lens was versatile, but limiting. Mose often than not I found myself simply reaching for the 5-MegaPixel iPhone camera that’s always in easy reach, if not already in-hand. Case in point, on a recent backpacking trip to Northville-Placid trail in the Adirondacks my iPhone proved perfectly adequate to document the trip.

My solution for rekindling the old flame with the Canon? Buy an expensive wide-angle lens!

I settled on a Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX that costs more than what I imagine an iPhone 4 goes for these days. The added scope of the wide-angle lens, while certainly not perfect for every situation, let me experiment with new compositions possibilities and held my attention for the whole two-week trip. I happily fell into the role of trigger-happy tourist, amortizing my investment by snapping more than 2,000 images.


And then there’s Purchase #2: Miniatures, the tilt-shift, time-lapse, utterly addictive camera app for iPhone and iPad. Cost: $2.

For as wide and sharp as the big Sigma lens is, it just wasn’t capturing Bangkok’s busy Chao Phraya river like I wanted. While my trusty old Canon G9 (a glorified point-and-shoot) had a nifty time-lapse feature, the big crop-sensor SLR sadly does not. A quick check of iTunes and I found my solution—yes, there’s an app for that. After some jerry-rig work involving a folding chain, a ceramic umbrella holder, a drinking glass and a hand towel, I had my tripod.

The easy-to-use app and the iPhone’s high-quality camera produce mesmerizing video vignettes. The scope and blur intensity of the “tilt-shift” that give the movie clips their Lilliputian character can be easily fine-tuned, as can the interval timing of the camera shutter.

So, what’s the verdict? In terms of sheer enjoyment-per-dollar, Miniatures runs away with it. The two dollars I spent on the app is more that what it cost to catch the Mass Rapid Transit train in Bangkok to get to the camera store—round trip.

The Sigma lens, however, opened up the world in a whole other sense. Sure, it can accidentally deliver some cartoonish distortion at its extreme focal length if you’re not careful with composition, but with a little care it can produce lasting still images. While time-lapses are entertaining, the still image format has been around for going-on two centuries. The SLR helped me the document my trip in a way I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to achieve. I don’t claim to have captured any profound photographic statements on my two week boondoggle across Thailand and Laos, but fire the shutter 2,000 times and you’re bound to net at least a few keepers.

Even if I buy an Ollo Clip wide-angle lens converter for the iPhone (which I plan on doing), the shutter speed won’t be as fast, the depth of field won’t be as forgiving and the images won’t be as well composed as is possible with the hefty, trusty old SLR.

The real verdict may lie in considering a certain Purchase #3, made on the same trip: a National Geographic special issue devoted to the 50 Best pictures the magazine has ever published. Some of the photographs were shot a lifetime ago, before digital imaging was conceived and when time-lapses were reserved for those with amateur reel-to-reel home video equipment. That Nat Geo, with its yellow perfect-bound spine and extra heavy glossy paper stock, is a testament to the power of the still image. Its compelling photographs and accompanying back-stories held my sadly shortened 21st-century attention span longer than any smart-phone time-lapse ever could.

Nat Geo 50 Best Pictures





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