Category Archives: Reviews

iPhone 6 Camera Review

It is pretty hard to be on the planet Earth any longer and not hear some of the hype when new iPhone models ship.  I am no different, I have been an iPhone user since the first model, and even though I don’t get every model, I am typically on an every other model rotation, I am always excited when I get a new one to play with.  This year was no exception as I pre-ordered a shiny new iPhone 6 to replace my aging iPhone 5.

The big brown truck delivered my shiny new iPhone 6 on the morning of the 19th and being a photographer the first thing I wanted to do was put the camera through its paces.  I shot a lot with the new iPhone this weekend and thought I would take a few minutes to post a very informal and un-scientific review of the camera.

On Friday night the wife and I went out to dinner.  We picked a table on a patio just as the sun had set.  This worked out very well as I wanted to see how the iPhone 6 would do in somewhat low light.

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This image was made at our table and as you can see there is a good amount of noise in the image, however, it is a lot less than there would have been with any previous model of iPhone I have had.  I never expected this to rival my Nikon D610, but it doesn’t need to, it is a cell phone camera and for a cell phone camera I think it did a pretty good job in these conditions.

Ok, it does a decent job in low light, what about in a situation where frankly my iPhone 5 was terrible, in bright light when you are shooting into the sun?  With my old iPhone 5 a situation like this would have created a ton of purple fringing through most of the image, I was curious to see what would happen with the iPhone 6 so I took it to the Washington State Capital building on a sunny afternoon and made this image.

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The first thing I noticed, and was very happy with, was that there wasn’t the purple fringing that I have come to expect when shooting in conditions like this with my old iPhone 5.  The second thing I noticed was that the iPhone 6 did a surprisingly good job at capturing a lot of the dynamic range of this image, the relatively dark section of the capital building and the much brighter sky behind.  The third thing I noticed is the lens flare that manifests itself as straight lines coming from the sun and the curved rings near the bottom edge of the image.  My initial guess is that this happened because the lens protrudes just a tiny bit from the back of the camera and there is more places for the light to bounce around in there.  In any case, I don’t really care to much about that, as I said above, it is a cell phone camera and not an expensive lens on an expensive DSLR.  Add that to the fact that it did a MUCH better job in these conditions then my iPhone 5 did and I am quite pleased.

Ok, I have been very positive about the cameras performance so far, but is there anything that I feel it did worse than the iPhone 5?  The answer is yes.  Take a look at the following panorama that I shot of downtown Olympia.

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I hope it shows up in the smaller version here in the blog post, but there is some significant banding in the sky that shows up as vertical dark lines.  I have shot a lot of panos with my old iPhone 5 and I have never experienced this before.  I have no idea what caused this, but I plan on shooting with it more and see if I can determine which conditions lead to this.  In any case, it is a bit of a concern to me.

One of the new features in iOS8 that excited me was having built in time lapse capture in the camera app.  I have done quite a few time lapse videos with my iPhones in the past but have always had to use an app of some kind, Apple now gives us the capability build right into the iOS but is it any good?

I made this short time lapse of some moving clouds in my front yard.  All in all I thought that the iPhone 6 did a really good job with sequence, but I wish that Apple would have given me at least a little control over how the final video came out.  I don’t seem to have any control over things like interval or playback speed.  While the time lapse function works, and probably works perfectly well for most users, I will be sticking with some of the 3rd party apps such as HyperLapse or OSnap.

So, after all of this what do I think about the camera in the iPhone 6?  I like it.  Would I spend a lot of money to upgrade from an iPhone 5 for it, probably not, but if you are ready for an upgrade anyway, I don’t think you will be disappointed as long as to remember that it is a cell phone camera and not a replacement for a DSLR or even a high end point and shoot.  If you use this camera within its capabilities, and you are already a creative photographer, you will make some great images with it.

I am going to finish out this review post with one more image that I made with the new iPhone 6 from inside the Washington State Capital building in Olympia.  I tweaked it a little with Snapseed and I am quite pleased with it.  I am also going to plug my friend Justin Balog’s book Big World Little Lens as the goto guide to getting the most out of your iPhone camera.

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Nero Trigger Review

The Nero Trigger mounted to my Nikon D7000

The Nero Trigger mounted to my Nikon D7000

Some time ago the folks over at Nero Trigger contacted me and asked me if I would like to review their Nero Trigger after having seen some of my lightning photography.  Those that follow me, or know me in real life might know that I have said before that I tend to feel disconnected from images that I make that I don’t actually press the shutter release button on, that very reason has kept me from investing in a lightning trigger, but after my friend Bryan Snider wrote a review of an earlier generation of a Nero Trigger last year, I wanted to give one a try.

The Nero Trigger is a multi-function tool, which I like, but I only tested 2 of the functions as they are the types of photography that fit into what I do, they are the “Timelapse” mode and the “Lightning” mode.  This review will address both of those, but won’t go into the other functions as I didn’t test or use them.

The first thing that caught my eye when I took my Nero Trigger out of the box was the LCD display and what looked to be very well laid out and intuitive buttons.  I then added the batteries and turned the unit on and was quite impressed with the brightness of the LCD display, I would later determine that it could even be seen in bright Arizona sun, no easy task for a small LCD.  The intuitive nature of the button layout carried on to the menu structure, it was quite simple to navigate around and find each of the functions available.

There were also a few negatives that I immediately noticed.  The first thing that jumped out to me is that there doesn’t seem to be any level of weather protection at all.  This unit sits on the top of your camera, mounted in the hot shoe, with the buttons on the top surface.  While this layout makes it easy to make changes while shooting, it also is the first place that rain is going to fall when out storm chasing, and trust me, you gear is going to get rained on when chasing storms.  Two other things jumped out as soon as I mounted it to one of my cameras, the plastic foot that slides into the hot shoe is just a little too big to allow it to slide in easily, that did get better the more I used the trigger and the plastic got shaved off a bit, but it made it pretty tough to mount the first few times.  The second thing is that the hot shoe mount doesn’t sit square to the unit itself, when mounted on the camera the trigger points just slightly to the left.  You can sort of see that in the picture above.

Timelapse mode

Living in Western Washington I don’t always have access to the amount of thunderstorms I would like, but I do shoot a lot of time lapse videos and because of that it made sense that I would use the Nero Trigger early on using it’s “Timelapse” mode.  This mode gives you a very solid, yet simple to use, intervalometer.  An intervalometer is a device that fires your shutter a pre-determined number of times, with a pre-determined interval between shots, for a pre-defined amount of time.  While I typically use the built in interval shooting mode with my Nikon cameras, the built in intervalometer in my cameras are limited to 999 shots meaning that when you are done with the 999 shots the camera stops.  While this is fine in a lot of cases, there are times that you want to exceed that, and the Nero Trigger really works well for that, you can set a limit number, or simply set it to 0 and it will fire until you either run out of batteries or you fill your memory card.  One other advantage to using the Nero Trigger as an intervalometer is that it allows you to make really long exposures, up to 59 minutes when you have your camera set to “bulb” mode.  The built in option with Nikon cameras is generally a limit of 30 seconds.

The fact that the Nero Trigger mounts in your cameras hot shoe is also quite nice for time lapse shooting, you don’t have anything hanging down by a cable or needing attached to your tripod with something like velcro or gaffers tape.  It is a clean setup that works very well.  All said, I am quite impressed with the Nero Trigger as an intervalometer, but what about the real reason you are reading this review, using it as a lightning trigger?

Lightning mode

As great as the Nero Trigger is as an intervalometer, it was the lightning mode that I was really anxious to test, but living in Western Washington it was something that I was going to have to wait to do until I could get somewhere with lightning.  That opportunity came when my annual Arizona monsoon storm chasing trip this year.  I flew into Phoenix the evening of July 8th to perfect conditions.  The sun was just setting and there were thunderstorms to the north, west and south of Phoenix.  I grabbed a rental car and headed south to a location I have shot from multiple times and knew that I would be able to get some shots from before the storms died out.

Once I got to the location I had in mind, I set some gear up and almost immediately the Nero Trigger captured the following image.

Nighttime test image captured with the Nero Lightning Trigger

Nighttime test image captured with the Nero Lightning Trigger

The storm continued for another 15 minutes or so, with lightning very much like this strike, but I did start to notice that there were times that the Nero Trigger simply wasn’t firing, even though I had the sensitivity adjusted per the users manual.  My guess is that it would actually fire the camera every 3 or 4 strikes.  This seemed odd as it was dark, and the lightning was very bright, I expected it to fire each and every time.  Regardless, I was happy with what it did capture for me and after the storm died out I checked into my hotel and started importing images.

The first opportunity I had to test the Nero Trigger, and this time during the day, came on July 10th when a late afternoon storm developed to the south of Phoenix near the small town of Maricopa.  It wasn’t an intense storm, but it was a pretty one, and even if there wasn’t much lightning in it, I was happy to go out and shoot it.  I got my gear setup, attached the Nero Trigger to my Nikon D7000 and adjusted the sensitivity per the manual.  Like with the night test, there were strikes that I felt it should have triggered on, in fact, probably more.  It fired once every 3 or 4 strikes when it was dark, but it was only firing the shutter every 6 or 7 strikes during the day, but I was able to capture the following strike, which I found quite impressive as it was a very faint strike.

Daytime test image captured with the Nero Lightning Trigger

Daytime test image captured with the Nero Lightning Trigger

This storm died down shortly after this image was captured and the next opportunity to give the Nero Trigger another workout wouldn’t come until Sunday the 13th when Bryan Snider, Chris Frailey and I headed to the high desert of Arizona for an epic day of storm chasing.

Standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona

Ok, maybe on on a corner in Winslow, but we did find ourselves in the Little Painted Desert area near Winslow with storms in almost every direction.  They all had gorgeous structure and lot of lightning, needless to say that I was excited to get my gear setup and let the Nero Trigger do it’s thing, but this is where things sort of went south a bit.

On this trip there were 3 different Nero Triggers.  Chris and I had the current model, and Bryan had his earlier generation from the review I linked to above.  One thing came immediately clear, Bryan’s older generation Nero Trigger was firing his camera more than ether Chris or my current model triggers were, infact mine only fired a couple times during the entire storm chase, and when it did, it would put the camera into a rapid fire situation where it seemed that the only way I could get it to stop was to turn the Nero Trigger off and back on again.

I do have a theory as to why this happened.  During my first two tests I had a lot more contast through entire scene.  Take a look at the images above, the night one is obvious that there is a lot of difference between the dark areas and the brightness of the lightning.  Even with the day time shot there was a decent amount of range between the dark skies, the green fields and the mountains in the scene.  When we were up in the high desert, we didn’t have that range of contrasts in the scene, as you can see in this image of the Little Painted Desert near Winslow.

The Little Painted Desert near Winslow, AZ

The Little Painted Desert near Winslow, AZ

You will notice that for the most part the only darker part of this scene is the storm itself, the upper clouds and the painted desert canyon in the foreground are both quite bright.  My theory is that the Nero Trigger needs more range in the scene to be able to detect the lightning strikes, even when sensitivity is set to 99, its highest setting.  While I did manage to capture lightning from this location and this storm, sadly it wasn’t with the Nero Trigger.

The bottom line

So where does all of this leave us?

I would like to see a little effort put into the build quality of the trigger, specifically a little bit of weather proofing on the top side where rain will easily get into the buttons.  I didn’t test how much rain it would take before failing as I didn’t want it to fail.  When I was out shooting in the rain with it, I simply put a piece of gaffers take across the top.  Gaffers tape is not waterproof, but it did prevent water from getting into the buttons.

I can honestly say that as an intervalometer the Nero Trigger works great, and I will continue to use it as one since I do a lot of time lapse work, especially at night when I want longer than 30 second exposures.  I suspect it also works quite well for it’s other functions that I didn’t have the opportunity to test, namely the sound and laster modes, but there are a number of reviews online for both of those from people far more qualified to test those functions.

As a lightning trigger, it does work.  As spelled out above though there are times where I think it could have done a much better job.  While the Nero Trigger is not cheap, it is less expensive than many other options out in the market.  I can’t compare how it performs against those more expensive units as I have never used or tested them.  I can say though that if you are a hobbiest storm chaser or just want to try your hand at capturing lightning, the Nero Trigger might be a good choice for you.  If you are a serious storm chaser, and shooting in the proper conditions it might also be a viable choice as long as you are aware of its limitations, and are willing to miss shots that you would typically expect a trigger to capture.

Review of the Studiohut macro bellows for Nikon mount cameras

Bellows

Studiohut macro bellows for Nikon mount cameras

I set a photographic goal for myself this year to make macro images of snowflakes.  As you know, snowflakes are quite small and even a 1:1 macro lens (a lens that projects a real sized image onto the image sensor) that is pretty awesome for most macro photography falls far short when you need to magnify greater than 1:1.  My first attempt using some close up filters I already had attached to my Tamron 90mm macro lens was a huge failure and I won’t go into detail here as to why, enough to say that I had to try something different and that is where a set of macro bellows comes into play.

There are a few options when it comes to getting your lens to magnify to greater than 1:1, one of them is to reverse you lens and shoot through it backwards, the rear element becomes the front and vice versa.  This is somewhat cumbersome and wasn’t the route I wanted to go.  The other is to move the lens away from the image sensor.  One very popular means to do this is via extension tubes, they simply sit between your camera and your lens and increase the magnification of any lens that you attach to them.  There are advantages to extension tubes, if you get good ones you retain things like AE and autofocus since they have the electronic contacts to pass that information between the lens and the camera body.  The downside is that you are somewhat limited as to how far you can move the lens out from the sensor.  I knew that I was going to want to move that macro lens a long way, and thus the Studiohut macro bellows.

D7000 Bellows

The Studiohut macro bellows mounted between my Tamron 90mm macro lens and my Nikon D7000

Bellows are about as old school as you can go when it comes to photography, look for images of really old, I mean REALLY OLD cameras and you will see all of them have bellows.  What you might not know is that a modern tilt/shift lens simply replicates the functions of a set of bellows, but in the case of this review all I am using them for, and all that this set is cab able of, is to extend the lens from the camera and increase magnification.  The biggest advantage to using a set of bellows is that they allow you to move the lens a lot further than a set of extension tubes will, the shot above shows the bellows extended about half their maximum distance.

This review is of the Studiohut branded bellows but upon doing a little shopping it appears that these exact same bellows are sold under a number of different names, I bought the Studiohut ones simply because they were available when I wanted them, the others were out of stock.  You should also know that Nikon markets bellows but their price was outside of what I wanted to pay, nearly 10 times as much as these, and with Amazon’s liberal return policy if these 3rd party ones didn’t work I would simply return them.

The first thing I noticed when I removed them from the box was that they seemed somewhat well built for an aftermarket photo gadget that costs 1/10th of what Nikon wants for theirs, I was pleasantly surprised.  The second thing I noticed was that while the bellows mounted smoothly to my camera, a Nikon D7000 in this case, attaching the lens to the front of the bellows was VERY tight.  It did mount, but it made my wonder about the tolerances used in manufacturing.  I will say though that after 2 or 3 uses things have smoothed up and mounting lenses to the bellows is now quite smooth.  The third thing you will notice with these bellows is that there is NO electronic contacts between the front mount and the rear mount.  While this might be a huge disadvantage to most, it isn’t to me, it simply means that you are shooting if MANUAL, and I mean totally MANUAL mode.  As I said, this isn’t a disadvantage to me, I shot with fully manual cameras for years.

Optical performance really isn’t a topic for this review as there are no glass elements and the bellows are light tight.  You will lose some light when using bellows though, just as you will with extension tubes, but it will be a lot more as you extend the bellows to their full extension.

The following series of shots show the difference is magnification between using a macro lens by itself and by adding the extension tubes.  All of these shots were made with my Nikon D7000 (I prefer my crop sensor cameras for macro work in many cases, the same crop effect that applies to telephoto lenses applies to macro) and a Tamron 90mm macro lens (the older non-VC version).  All shots are pretty much out of camera with the exception of converting from RAW to JPG and doing a little color and exposure correction, none of them have been cropped in any way.  Please see the image captions for shot details.  Also note, for both shots with the bellows the macro lens was focused to its highest magnification setting.

Dice Normal

A “standard” macro shot without the bellows. Not quite at full magnification of the Tamron 90mm lens

Dice Close Macro

Maximum magnification with my Tamron 90mm macro lens on my Nikon D7000, no bellows used.

Dice Bellows 1

Shot with my Tamron 90mm macro, Nikon D7000 and the Studiohut bellows at their minimum magnification setting (lens closest to the camera)

Dice Bellows 2

Shot with my Nikon D7000, Tamron 90mm macro and the Studiohut bellows at their greatest magnification (lens moved as far from camera as possible)

As you can clearly see, the bellows make a huge difference in the amount of magnification you can achieve with a somewhat standard macro lens.  The cool thing is that you could turn an inexpensive “nifty fifty” into a very capable macro lens without dropping the cash needed for an even moderately priced macro.  While I haven’t done the math, I do suspect that if you were to attempt to use this with a wide angle lens, the focal point would probably end up inside the lens barrel, with the 90mm lens the working distance in this last shot was a little less than an inch.

I can honestly say that I am quite impressed with this little bit of kit.  I am always pleased when I can find something that costs a fraction of the “name brand” items and it actually works as it should.  Will it stand up to the test of time and a lot of use, I don’t know, but at 1/10th the price of the Nikon alternative, I can replace it a few times before I get too upset.

*I was not provided this product for review, I paid for it out of my own pocket to fill a need I had.

 

Steptoe Farm – Topaz B&W Effects

It seems that there can be no doubt that the plugin wars are really under way in the photographic world.  You have Nik (now owned by Google), OnOne with their Perfect Photo Suite and Topaz Labs which has a long reputation in the plugin market, all making tools to help make your photographic life easier.  Recently Topaz Labs reached out to me and asked me to evaluate some of their newer offerings and I was more than happy to give them a go.  Sadly I got pretty busy with other projects, both with my day job and photographically, and while I have been using the tools, I haven’t really had much of a chance to sit down and tell you what I thought of them, until now.  Today’s post is simply a quick review of the Topaz B&W Effects.

I’m not going to go into great detail about how to use the plugin or provide screenshots, this post is not meant as a tutorial, there are actually a good number of those out on the internet on both the Topaz Labs website as well as on a number of photography forums.  I am going to talk a little about my thoughts on both the plugin and the results in general.

The first thing I noticed when I launched B&W Effects was that it opened quickly and is very responsive.  We are asking plugins to do more and more these days which means that they are becoming more complex and slower unless you have the latest top of the line computer hardware.  B&W Effects seems to have all the power needed, but renders previews fast and is very responsive when applying any changes to the image.  It also toggles between the edited and the original image quickly.  The other thing that jumped out at me immediately was the size of the previews themselves, they are large, and I really like that.  In a lot of the applications out there the default previews are quite small and make it tough to actually evaluate the changes, but the previews in Topaz B&W Effects are a pleasure to work with.

Topaz offers a fairly large number of presets that will most likely satisfy most photographers, but like other plugins, you can select a pre-set and then tweak the image further.  All the tools that you would expect to be there are there, but the one that really jumped out at me was the very straightforward, and almost simplistic dodge and burn tools.  Being a person that applies a little dodge and burn to almost every black and white image I process, I really appreciated these tools being as simple, and effective, as they are.  Simply put, they do what they should and do it well.

All of this doesn’t mean much if the final image isn’t what you want, and I have to say that I am quite impressed with the final results from Topaz B&W Effects. I have processed a number of images with the plugin since I installed it, but I thought I would share this image from the Steptoe Butte area on the Palouse in eastern Washington.  I shot this image with a super color IR converted Nikon D200.  I decided to use this image because the black and white conversions from the super color IR can actually be somewhat challenging.  You don’t really have a very wide tonal range to work with, and it will show the limitations of an application quickly.  I don’t know if you agree with me or not, but I am very pleased with the results in this image and would not hesitate to share this image anywhere on the web.

Should you by Topaz B&W Effects?  That is a hard one to answer, but I would absolutely download and evaluate the trial version.  I think you will be happy with the results.

Triggertrap Mobile review

As a matter of disclosure, triggertrap.com provided the Triggertrap Mobile device used for this review and all images are from the Triggertrap media package available through their website.

I recently posted a review of the ioShutter, which is a competing product to the Triggertrap.  In that review I ranted a little bit about Nikon changing the connectors that you attached remote shutter release cables to and how items like the Triggertrap Mobile not only give you options for both types of connectors (more on that in the review) but how they also take remote shutter control to a whole new level.

Triggertrap Mobile Hardware

 

Triggertrap contacted me recently and asked if I would be willing to review their remote shutter solution.  I do a lot of shooting that requires some sort of remote shutter release and I was anxious to evaluate the different options out there to fill that need.  Triggertrap shipped me everything needed to test on both styles of Nikon cameras, the Triggertrap MD-DC2 for the Nikon DC-2 and the Triggertrap MD-DC0 for the Nikon 10-pin connector.  Both models do the exact same thing and the only difference is the connector cable, the part with coil above, that connects to the camera.  As you can also see from the image above, the camera cable detaches from the dongle itself which means that you simply buy a second camera cable if needed, you don’t have to buy a 2nd complete unit, but for a small investment the main dongle itself will accomodate any of the camera bodies that you currently use.

As you can see in the above picture, you simply attach one end of the Triggertrap to your dslr and the other end to your mobile device, currently both iOS and Android are supported, I used iOS for this review as I am an iPhone user.

The first thing you will notice about the Triggertrap is that it is very well built, that was one of the things that I thought was lacking with the ioShutter.  The camera side cable is coiled, which is very nice, and allows for ease of movement when you have everything attached.  The cable that attached the dongle to the mobile device just feels sturdy and I don’t have the feeling that I am going to damage it after just a few uses.  It just feels like a quality product, and that is something you can’t always say these days.  One would think that when you build what seems like a very well built product with attention to details such as higher gauge cable and coiled wire the  retail price would fairly steep but the Triggertrap retails for $29.99 compared to what I feel the the poorer built ioShutter which retails for $69.95.

Triggertrap Mobile app

I am not going to go into a great deal of detail about the application.  The Triggertrap website gives great detail about the app and I would strongly suggest visiting their site to learn more.

The iOS version of the app is actually quite impressive.  It is a very well designed app that should cover just about any of your shooting needs but the one thing that is something of a game changer for me is their WiFi master mode.  This allows me to setup one device connected to my camera and use a different iOS device that is on my WiFi network to control my camera wirelessly.  This presents a lot of possibilities but one thing that I have already used it for was capturing images of birds in my front yard.  I simply set my camera up to capture a place where the birds like to hang out, headed back into the house where I could monitor the scene then simply fired the shutter every time a bird was where the camera would see it.  It worked great and while the birds always seem scared of me, they rarely take notice to my camera sitting there by itself on a tripod.

I do have one complaint about the app though, and it is related to what I like about the app.  The app gives you an incredible amount of control over how you fire the trigger and that is great, but it is also not great.  While the app has functions for time lapse, HDR and many other functions 99% of the time I simply want it to be a remote shutter release.  The image above shows the app while it is in cable release mode, and in that mode I have 4 different shooting option and each of those options have subset options below them.  As I said, this give me a great deal of control over how I release the shutter, but it also means that there are a lot more things that I need to keep track of when all I really want is a button that fires the shutter when I press it, and if my camera is in BULB mode, keeps the shutter open until I release the button.  I don’t want to have to remember to set the app to the proper mode from within the cable release mode to have it do that.  You will also notice from the image above that the shutter release button is offset on the screen, and it really needs to be centered.  When I am shooting I am naturally trying to touch the center of my screen, I can find that without looking, but when the button is offset like it is, I have to keep looking for it.

Conclusion

The Triggertrap Mobile is a great option for people who are looking for an elegant way to remotely trigger their dslr cameras.  While I do have a couple complaints about the app, they are very minor and have more to do with my personal preference when shooting, the dongle and app work as advertised.  During the weeks that I have been evaluating the Triggertrap it has not failed a single time and I can’t imagine it not being in my bag.  We live in a world where photo accessories tend to be very expensive, especially remote shutter releases that have multiple functions, but for under $30 you simply can’t go wrong, it puts any other shutter release I have used to shame.