The Ultimate Beginner Lens for Awesome Family Photos

If there’s one lens I would recommend to new photographers time and time again, it would be a 50mm prime lens. Why? It’s cheap, incredibly sharp, super light in weight, and super small in size.  Value for money and performance – ultimate. And yes, the picture above was taken with the equivalent of a 50mm prime.

The 50mm prime lens is a great ‘learner’ lens that will really hone your mastery of portrait photography.

First, a primer on understanding lenses.

Prime Lens vs. Zoom Lens

Everyone knows what a zoom lens is. It’s a lens with variable focal length – meaning you can increase or decrease magnification – by extending or shortening the length of the lens. We’ve all seen it. We all know what it can do.

A prime lens is the exact opposite of a zoom lens. You cannot zoom it. It’s fixed.

Left: Canon 50mm prime, Right: Canon 24-70mm zoom.

Left: Canon 50mm prime, Right: Canon 24-70mm zoom.

So why is a prime lens better than a zoom lens? Because everything in its design is optimized for that one fixed length. That’s it. The manufacturer is able to optimize image contrast, color, sharpness, distortion control and bokeh for one and only one fixed length. On the other hand, a zoom lens is a balanced compromise between quality vs. price, size and weight. If you want a very high quality zoom lens, you have to contend with very expensive, very large and very heavy lens. If you want a cheap, small and light zoom lens, then quality suffers.

Most “starter” camera packages you buy come with a zoom lens. Which is great. It’s easy on beginners – you don’t need to focus as much on the ‘craft’ as you do just snapping the picture. But you’ll notice also that your zoom lens – being light, small and cheap – suffers in image quality.

Invest in Prime Lenses

In purchasing a camera, most people first decide on a camera body, then decide on the lenses. It’s a natural progression. When you think of photography, you think ‘camera’. Well here’s a secret that the pros know:

When you think photography, you should think lenses.

Take a minute to let this sink in. This is extremely important. When you think photography – think lenses. Not camera bodies, not manufacturers i.e. Nikon, Canon. Think of buying lenses first, then find the best camera body you can afford on those lenses. Which means, given a limited budget, think of the best possible quality lens you can buy, then sacrifice on a cheaper camera body to meet your budget. Not the other way round.

The Nikon 50mm F1.8G cost only $199 but provides excellent sharpness, contrast, color and bokeh.

The Nikon 50mm F1.8G cost only $217 but can create amazing portraits that rival the best of professional photographers.

Why?

Good quality prime lenses will last a lifetime. There are some classic manual lenses today (over 30 years old), that photographers still love and revere. When you buy a prime lens, you are investing in a lifetime of quality images. Technology will constantly change. The hot camera body of today will loose its luster when the next hot thing comes. Camera sensors are constantly evolving – giving you better and more powerful features over time. But a lens is all about one thing – capturing light in the best possible quality ever – and it does so with glass. In other words, it is about optical performance – not digital or electronic performance.

The quality of glass (and its coating) determines the contrast, color, sharpness, resolution and distortion control of an image. You can have an uber super-sized 36MP full-frame sensor (Nikon D810) that will capture the tiniest detail. But if you put an ‘ok’ lens on it – it’s pointless because none of that detail will ever reach the sensor. In lenses, quality matters.

Yes, you can overcome certain deficiencies in post-processing. But the more upfront work you do with lens selection and knowledge will save you a lot of time – especially when processing hundreds (or thousands) of vacation pictures.

Finally, the MOST important thing that a good prime lens offers better than any zoom lens is bokeh.

Bokeh

Bokeh is magic. It’s that amazing creamy, out-of-focus quality that pops your subject and gives it the wow factor.

Left: aperture set to 1.4, Right: aperture set to 16.

Bokeh is the magical creamy, out-of-focus quality that pops your subject and gives it a wow factor. The same camera and lens was used to take both these pictures. The left has an aperture setting of F1.4, the right has an aperture setting of F16.

One aspect of controlling a lens is to control the size of the opening that allows light through. The bigger the opening, the more light comes through. Think of a water hose. The larger the diameter of a water hose, the more water passes through. If you cut the diameter of the water hose in half, you will have to add more time to fill the bucket. Same concept with a lens, except the size of the opening is called the aperture.

One interesting effect of increasing the size of the aperture (lower the ‘F’ number) is that it controls something called depth-of-field. I’ll save this topic for another post but the gist is, the aperture controls the ability for you to make your background in focus or out of focus – thus creating the pop in your subject.

So how do you add bokeh to your picture? It’s easy. Set your aperture to the lowest number possible. When you control aperture you’ll see a number with an ‘F’ in front of it. When you want everything to be in focus (landscape scenery etc.), set the aperture to the highest number i.e. F16. When you want only your subject to be in focus, set the aperture to the lowest number i.e. F1.8.

The 'F' number on your camera controls the aperture of the lens.

The ‘F’ number on your camera controls the aperture of the lens.

That’s it.

Buy a 50mm prime lens. Set your camera to ‘aperture-priority’ mode. For Nikon cameras it’s the ‘A’ mode, for Canon it’s the ‘Av’ mode. Then pick the absolute lowest number your lens will allow you. Typically for a good 50mm prime lens it’ll be F1.8.

Conclusion

You don’t need to buy a brand new DSLR (if you already own one). You can start achieving amazing portraits with creamy bokeh just by buying a cheap 50mm (full-frame equivalent) lens and then set the aperture to the lowest setting possible. This is why having only a cheap zoom lens is bad. Zoom lenses tend to be small and thus the lowest aperture is likely between 3.3 to 5.6. That’s about 2 – 3 stops difference (roughly). Every stop is double the amount of light over the previous stop. So it’s significant. Supplement your zoom lens with a good 50mm prime lens.

Here are some prime lens recommendations for your consideration. Depending on manufacturer and sensor format, the focal length may change but the criteria remains the same – a good quality prime lens for great portraits at a reasonable price.

Nikon 50mm F1.8G – $216.95
Canon EF 50mm F1.8 II – $125
Sony E 50mm F1.8 OSS – $298.99 (75mm F2.5 equivalent)
Fuji 35mm F1.4 XF R – $599 (53mm F2 equivalent)
Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm F1.8 – $399 (90mm F3.5 equivalent)

Bottom line: Buy a cheap 50mm prime lens for great portraits. You cannot go wrong.

How Post-Processing can Save your Picture from Bleh to Awesome

As parents we don’t often have our choice of lighting, location or timing in taking pictures of our kids. They’re never still, run around you in circles, and sometimes that magical Kodak moment comes and you have but seconds to make it count before it’s gone.

If you are a professional photographer, used to fast moving, dynamic environments – in other words – it’s your job, then being quick on your feet to make those appropriate camera setting changes works. But even then – often – lighting becomes a serious challenge even for the pros.

Here’s a classic example.

Capturing shaded portraits is a tricky scenario even for the best cameras.

Capturing shaded portraits is a tricky scenario even for the best cameras.

This is a very tricky shot. If Alyssa was out of the shade, this would be an easy shot. But because she’s in the shade it’s just about impossible. If your camera correctly exposes for the shade, everything else in the sunlight will be overexposed, loose details and just white-out. But if the camera correctly exposes for the sunlight areas, the shaded areas will be under-exposed and you loose details and experience a black-out.

So what do modern digital cameras do? They attempt to capture as much of the full range of tones as possible – not too much light – not too much dark – get as much of the mid-range in as possible. Which in this case, my Fujifilm X-T1 does an excellent job of. But of course, while it does capture detail, the picture as a portrait, is sub-optimal.

Enter post-processing.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Post-processing saves the day!

Post-processing saves the day!

Here’s a quick summary of changes I did.

Changed settings are in green highlight boxes.

Changed settings are in green highlight boxes.

  1. I changed the “temp” or temperature of the white balance to make the picture warmer. It was clear blue sky, bright sunny afternoon so the color temperature should reflect that.
  2. Now comes the tricky part. I pushed up the exposure by 0.70 stop. This brightens up the picture so now you’ll be able to see much better details in Alyssa.
  3. I then increased contrast to bring in more ‘pop‘.
  4. Now because I pushed up the exposure and everything is brightened up, I want to decrease only the areas that are washed out. So I go to ‘highlights‘ and I decrease all highlighted areas by 21 points.
  5. I want to bring in even more details in the shaded areas so I lightened up ‘shadows‘ by 52 points.
  6. Next I want all the mid-tone areas (skin) to have even more contrast to give it even more ‘pop’ so I increased clarity by another 15 points.
  7. Lastly I want make the colors in the picture more saturated – but I only want areas that do not have enough saturation to have more saturation. This is where ‘vibrance‘ comes in. This is important because if you ‘turbocharge’ the entire picture in color saturation you get a very un-natural look.

That’s it. If you’re new to photo processing, your head is probably spinning at this point. Say what?!? But if you know what you’re doing, it takes you less than a minute to do it. Notice it’s not 50 settings you have to change. In this particular example, it’s only 7 settings.

Most of these settings are self-explanatory. All you need to do is just spend time with them and get enough experience to understand how they work.

Not only that, all setting changes can be saved as ‘presets‘ in Adobe Lightroom. So you can apply a group of changes in one go to an entire album without going through each one. This is usually what I do when I import all my photos from my camera. I have a preset that I just click and it will apply to everything. Then I individually walk through each picture to fine-tune if necessary.

In my upcoming posts, I will touch more on each individual setting in greater detail. For now, know that with just a little bit of knowledge of a handful of settings, you can make a difficult picture into an AWESOME picture. Why? Because we now live in the digital world. The power of darkroom superheroes is now available to you via Adobe Photoshop Lightroom at $9.99/month (under their “Creative Cloud” plan). Or you can buy the whole package for $135.85. And yes, I don’t get a cent from Adobe and I’m not in any way affiliated with them.

Either way, to get good at this, you have to practice. The learning curve is steep but it will be SHORT. Your return-on-investment in picking up this skill is unmatched. In no time you’ll have amazing shots that you will treasure for a lifetime. Do it.

The Fujifilm X-T1: Best Camera for Awesome Family Photos

If you’re in the market for a new camera system that’s specifically optimal for great family photos, there’s really only two that I can recommend at the moment – the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Fujifilm X-T1. Both have pros and cons but ultimately both are mirrorless system, with very favorable weight and size dimensions. The Olympus wins with smaller and lighter form-factor, and in-body image stabilization. The Fuji wins with better low-light performance and superb prime lens offerings.

Fujifilm X-T1

Fujifilm X-T1 has better low light performance and choice prime lenses

Fujifilm X-T1 has better low light performance and choice prime lenses

Ultimately if you’re upgrading from a compact point-and-shoot and want something better and willing to sacrifice a little performance for better usability, then the Olympus OM-D E-M1 is your choice. If on the other hand, you have an existing digital SLR system, you love the power of interchangeable lenses, and you’re looking for something smaller, lighter but sacrifice little practical performance, then the Fujifilm X-T1 is your ultimate choice.

Why?

The X-T1 is significantly smaller and lighter than the full-frame Nikon D800

The X-T1 is significantly smaller and lighter than the full-frame Nikon D800

The Fujifilm X-T1 is small in size and weight because of its mirrorless design. It’s got that chic awesome retro look! And finally it’s got KILLER prime lenses. The 23mm F1.4 (35mm F2 equivalent), 35mm F1.4 (50mm F2 equivalent) and 56mm F1.2 (85mm F1.8 equivalent) lenses are UNBELIEVABLE. I consider the 35mm, 50mm and 85mm my top 3 lens choices for family photography (I’ll write more about lens choices later).

Special Offer

I’m not sure how long this will last but B&H Photo has a great deal on the Fujifilm X-T1. It’s priced at $1,299 (a reasonably competitive price) but they are including an extra battery ($48.95), a 32GB SD card ($19.99) and the vertical battery grip kit ($249.95) all for FREE!

Fuji X-T1 with VG-XT1 vertical battery grip

Fuji X-T1 with VG-XT1 vertical battery grip and extra battery

This is about $319 in savings and its free shipping as well. By the way, I’m not paid or affiliated with B&H Photo in any way. I gain nothing from promoting them. Click here for the deal.

If you should go for this deal, I would recommend the following lens and protective filter as a starter kit.

Fujifilm 35mm F1.4 XF R lens ($599)
B+W 52mm XS-Pro Clear MRC-Nano 007 filter ($38.40)

The Fujifilm 35mm lens is the equivalent of a full-frame 50mm F2 lens. It’s a great starter lens with a low enough aperture (the F number) for you to do some really awesome family portraits (bokeh!). I often just leave my 50mm lens on my camera body most of the time because of its versatility. You won’t regret it. Now you will have some slight adjusting to do if you’re used to zoom lenses but trust me, you will not regret learning the discipline of using a 50mm lens.

Update…

If you prefer a cheaper model that the Fujifilm X-T1, then check out the new Fujifilm X-E2. It’s their mid-range model BUT it has the same excellent 16MP X-Trans II CMOS sensor, which gives you the same low-light performance. AND you will still be able to access Fuji’s superb interchangeable lenses.

Fujifilm X-E2 ($849)

The X-E2 shares the same sensor for excellent low-light performance but is 35% cheaper.

The X-E2 shares the same sensor for excellent low-light performance but is 35% cheaper.

Next >> Which lens should I get? <<

How to Get Perfect Focus All the Time

In my previous tips I wrote about choosing one primary star in your picture and using the Rule of Thirds to aid you in composition. To wrap it all up let’s finish it with the one technique you need to make it all happen.

Focus Lock

If there’s one technique I use 99% of the time, this is it. Without it just about all my pictures will have out-of-focus subjects because I gravitate toward creating portraits with strong bokeh – meaning I love creamy, blurry, out-of-focus backgrounds to accentuate the subject.

There are three steps. And it’s easy. So don’t worry.

Step 1

Focus Lock - Step 1
Select your composition. In this example, Alyssa is the star of the picture and I use Rule of Thirds to place her on the right side.

Step 2

Focus Lock - Step 2
Move your camera focus point to either the left (or right) eye. The EYE is the most CRITICAL focus point of the face. Every else can be a little out of focus but the eye(s) has to be sharp.

Next PRESS your SHUTTER RELEASE BUTTON HALFWAY until you hear a BEEP or the COLOR of your focus point changed. That’s your camera telling you that you have a LOCK.

DO NOT LET GO.

Step 3

Focus Lock - Step 3
With the focus locked (maintain pressure on the button), RECOMPOSE your picture by moving the subject to your target location.

Finally press the shutter release button all the way down to complete the snap. That’s it!

Conclusion

You now have the last of the three ingredients necessary to take awesome pictures of your family. To recap:

  1. Establish the primary star of the picture (and secondary star if necessary).
  2. Use Rule of Thirds as a guide to help you compose your picture.
  3. Use focus lock to establish the correct focus point of the picture.

A few observations.

Different cameras have different ways of showing focus lock. So check your camera manual to see what works for you. Some cameras have a focus confirmation dot in the viewfinder that goes green etc.

Two faces at opposite sides. One closer than the other. Which does your camera decide to focus on? Focus Detection looses out in scenarios like this.

Two faces at opposite sides. One closer than the other. Which does your camera decide to focus on? Face Detection looses out in scenarios like this.

Other cameras completely bypass whatever you lock on when it detects a face. It then focuses on the face no matter what you do. This is great – until you have a few faces in your picture. Then you’re subject to the whim of who the camera decides.

I’ve kinda given up on face detection. Most times it gets it right but when it gets it wrong I’m fighting the camera to force it to get the right face. I can focus lock super fast and it doesn’t bother me.

Lastly, many modern day cameras let you select the location of your focus point as well. It doesn’t have to be right smack in the center of the picture. You can set your focus point to be left side, right side etc. That’s great, until you forget to reset it!

So focus lock is an important skill to learn, no matter what you do or have. Now that you have the basics, you are well on your way to establishing AWESOME, memorable family photos that your children will appreciate for a lifetime.

Happy shooting!

Next >> The best starter lens you can buy to create awesome family photos! And it’s cheap! <<

How to Compose Awesome Photos

In my previous tip I wrote about choosing one primary star in your picture and making it the center of your attention. To achieve this we need to understand photo composition.

Perhaps the most famous and well-known rule in photo composition today is the Rule of Thirds. Well, its actually more of a guideline than a rule. And even then, a very loose guideline. The basic gist of it is just move the star of your picture off-center. That’s it.

Officially, you’re suppose to split your picture into thirds both horizontally and vertically like this.

Rule of Thirds

Split your picture into thirds with horizontal and vertical lines.

Simple right? Then find natural points of alignment along these lines. Here’s an example.

Natalie and Rule of Thirds

This is a classic usage of Rule of Thirds in portrait shots. Align your star along the right (or left) horizontal line. It doesn’t have to be exact but you get the idea.

Occasionally you’ll get a “power point” – when two lines intersect on your subject.

Natalie and Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds can apply to both the subject and background. When two lines intersect we get a power point.

Sometimes you get two parallel lines, which is also very powerful.

By now I think you get the picture. Alignment along the lines create great frames of reference in composing your picture.

By now I think you get the picture. Alignment along the lines create great frames of reference in picture composition.

But don’t go crazy over Rule of Thirds. Remember, its just a guideline. Sometimes its not about the lines, it just about where your focus point is.

We all naturally focus on the face of the subject – in any picture. This is a focus point.

Kaitlyn’s face (focus point) is away from the center of the picture on the upper third section.

Kaitlyn’s face (focus point) is away from the center of the picture.

That’s it. Just move your focus point off-center. And you’re done.

And this moves us right into the topic – the focus point – and how to not screw it up.

>> NEXT TIP: HOW TO GUARANTEE CORRECT FOCUS <<

3 Tips Guaranteed to Make You a Better Photographer

Here’s a scenario. You’re on vacation. There’s this amazing scenery and you want to include yourself in the picture with your family. You have two choices:

  1. Unlock your tripod. Set it up. Set up your camera. Initiate the timer. Wait until it snaps. Then pray that everyone looked at the camera.
    OR
  2. Give it to a stranger. Then pray it comes out right.

Inevitably, 95% of the time, since I hate carrying a tripod on vacation, I give it to a stranger. They snap the picture. I thank them, then review it – it’s horrible. So then I do one of two things:

  1. Educate the stranger on how to improve the picture.
    OR
  2. Thank them and move on.

60% of the time I move on. Why? Because its missing the most crucial ingredients of a successful picture. And I’m on vacation, so I move on. But if I did have the time, what would I have told them? Here’s what I would have said.

Tip 1 : Decide the Star of Your Picture

For every picture that you take, decide who or what is the “star” of your picture? In other words, what is the focus of your picture? In family photography, it inevitably comes down to two categories: scenery (landscape) or people (portrait). That’s it. You can’t have both. You must choose one.

Is the scenery the primary purpose of your picture? Or is it the people (or person)? One must be primary, the other a secondary objective.

Here’s an example of an ambiguous picture.

Is this picture about the scenery or the person?

Is this picture about the scenery or the person?

You’ll often get something like this when you give your camera to a stranger and tell them to ‘press here to take the picture’. They won’t zoom the lens or move around to frame the picture. They point the camera exactly toward the owner of the camera, center it and snap.

So what’s missing here? The star. Is the star of this picture the giant Olympic logo sculpture behind Kaitlyn? Doesn’t feel like it. Half of it is cropped and any person looking at this picture will likely not know what it is.

Next, is the star of this picture Kaitlyn? You might be tempted to say yes, but she’s actually not. So much of the background competes for your attention that you spend more time wandering your eye than really focusing on Kaitlyn. Ultimately you cannot tell which is the primary star, and which is the secondary star. In fact, I personally feel THERE IS NO STAR here.

Scenery is the Star

But let’s say you did decide the giant Olympic logo is the star, here’s one example of how you might frame the picture.

The Olympic logo sculpture (scenery) is the star of this picture. Kaitlyn is secondary.

The Olympic logo sculpture (scenery) is the star of this picture. Kaitlyn is secondary.

Kaitlyn does not compete for your attention. The first thing you really focus on is the sculpture. Then you look at Kaitlyn – and the message in your mind is – Kaitlyn was at the Olympic village at Whistler Canada.

Person is the Star

But what if Kaitlyn should be the star of the picture, and the Olympic logo secondary, if even at all?

Kaitlyn is the star of this picture and the unique curves of the sculpture make a great secondary interest.

Kaitlyn is the star of this picture and the unique curves of the sculpture make a great secondary interest.

Now the picture above can be improved further by making the background out of focus. This will put a “spotlight” and really force your eye toward Kaitlyn. But I’ll save that for when I write on the topic of bokeh.

>> NEXT TIP: HOW TO COMPOSE AWESOME PICTURES <<

Don’t Get Caught in the Megapixel Myth

Megapixels is one of the most misunderstood aspects of camera performance. In general, the higher number, the better the performance right? Well, no. Not always. Here’s a quick rundown on what Megapixels truly mean for you.

First a quick primer. What is an image sensor? It is the part of your camera that captures an image by converting light to a digital signal.

Location of camera sensor

Location of camera sensor

Image sensors come in different sizes and aspect ratios. There are three competing standards: Full-Frame, APS-C, and Four Thirds.

Sensor size comparison

Size difference between the formats

The Practical Difference

For purposes of comparison we will pick the two extreme ends of the formats: Full-Frame vs. Micro Four Thirds.

Low Light Performance

One common marketing trick in promoting camera sensor capability is the term “Megapixels” or MP. You’ve probably seen it – 16MP, 33MP etc. A camera sensor consists of millions of tiny individual cells that measure one “dot” each. So a 16MP sensor has roughly 16 million dots that it can assign a light value to. All these “dots” collectively make up the image. So what happens when you have a 16MP Full-Frame sensor (Nikon D4S) go up against a 16MP Micro Four Thirds sensor (Olympus E-M1)?

They both have the same pixel count. So technically they should be the same in image quality, right?

WRONG. Each individual cell in Nikon’s sensor is actually larger than Olympus’. That’s why Nikon’s Full-Frame sensor is larger – because the cells are larger even though the cell count is the same. And because each cell is larger, it is able to collect more light. This is the key. What this means is that the Nikon D4S can perform far better in low-light situation than the Olympus E-M1 – even though both are 16MP in resolution.

At ISO 12800 (film speed) the D4S far outperforms the E-M1

Full-Frame far outperforms Micro Four Thirds in low light (courtesy of dpreview.com)

Resolution Performance

What if instead of packing larger cells for better low-light performance, Nikon packs smaller cells – closer to the size of the Olympus sensor? By doing this, they can effectively pack more cells into the same area. This is exactly what Nikon did with its very excellent Nikon D800 camera, reaching a stratospheric 36 Megapixels in resolution. The result is images that you can blow up to a wall, yet retain significant detail.

Original

Full-Frame original image (7360×4912 resolution) – click to see full size

Cropped

Cropped image (450×300 resolution)

Herein lies the challenge of large resolutions. Nikon’s excellent 36MP Nikon D800 carries a mind-blowing 7360×4912 pixel resolution. But as you can see from the cropped picture of Natalie’s face, I can get a very decent picture at 0.135MP. Yes. That about one-tenth of 1MP. In practicality, most users won’t see tangible benefits beyond 6MP.

Another disadvantage is that a Nikon Full-Frame image yields about 75MB in file size! And that’s one single image! You need more hard disk space and more powerful computer to post-process your pictures. Finally, Full-Frame cameras and lenses in general are significantly bigger and heavier than the other formats. So larger format camera systems carry size, weight and also cost disadvantage.

Conclusion

Understanding camera performance is not as simple as Megapixels. So in your next camera purchase, don’t chase the Megapixel race. Ironically, the oft-quoted maxim of ‘its not a matter of size, it’s how you use it‘ is true.

If you love taking pictures of your family in natural-light or low-light setting – without flash – and you love the flexibility of being able to crop images, then a Full-Frame sensor yields significant, practical advantage.

If all you do is sharing on Facebook and you never print a picture beyond 10R (10″ x 12″), then you very likely can live with APS-C or even Micro Four Thirds (MFT). You will get significant size and weight advantage (not to mention cost). While it does not perform as well in low-light settings, at smaller resolutions, it is not as critical.

Bottom line: If you want ultimate performance, go with Full-Frame. But for practical usage, go with the newer generation APS-C or MFT cameras. Their low-light performance have improved significantly and Megapixels don’t mean anything unless used in proper context. 

Help Me Decide What To Focus On

So I’ve been doing research on trends to focus on, for search engine optimization purpose. After exploring many variations, the two phrases that generated the most traction are “kids pictures” and “family photos”.

Here’s how these two phrases performed in the last decade according to Google. “Kids pictures” have traditionally performed better than “family photos” up until last year, when “family photos” started to trend better.

Google search trend on "Family photos" vs. "Kids Pictures"

Google search trend on “Family photos” vs. “Kids Pictures”

Which trend do you prefer I focus on? This will help me decide what articles to write in the future.

Which Camera Should I Get?

So you’ve decided to go beyond your smartphone.

You now want a good camera to capture all those precious Kodak moments. But which one should you get? There’s an ocean of choices. From professional, semi-professional to entry-level cameras – Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus and many more. From compact cameras, SLRs and more recently, a new category of cameras known as mirrorless cameras.

What in the world is a mirrorless camera? 

To understand what it is, let’s take a step back into memory lane. Not so very long ago, back in the days of film – when men were men, and cameras were made of metal – in order for you to see through the lens of a camera, you need a mirror and a prism.

Light travels through the lens, bounces up the mirror, then gets reflected through a prism to your eye.

Light travels through the lens, bounces up the mirror, then gets reflected through a prism to your eye.

Light travels through a hole in your lens called the aperture. Behind the lens is a mirror. Light reaches this mirror and bounces up to a prism, which then reflects through the viewfinder to reach your eye.

When you press the shutter release button, the mirror flips up, and instead of the light bouncing up, it goes straight to the sensor plate, which then records the image.

This is why when you take a picture with a traditional SLR camera, you hear a loud noise of something flipping up and down. That’s the mirror. It’s also the reason why when you snap a picture, everything goes black for a moment. The mirror flips up, and you see nothing.

As you can see from the diagram above, this design makes your camera body big because you have to incorporate a mirror and prism to reflect the light – hence the name Single-Lens Reflex (SLR).

Mirrorless Camera

Today with digital technology, we can project images on LCD screens. Instead of an optical viewfinder, we have electronic viewfinders (EVF). No longer do we need a mirror and prism. We can digitally capture an image on the sensor and then electronically transmit it to the LCD screen behind the camera. So we bypass the mirror and prism. This allows manufacturers to create smaller SLR-style cameras that accept interchangeable lenses!

Intro the mirrorless camera – a camera that accepts interchangeable lenses like SLRs, but is significantly smaller in size. So small in fact they border on being as compact as your traditional point-and-shoot cameras.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs. Canon Rebel

Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs. Canon Rebel

As you can see from the diagram above, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is significantly smaller than Canon’s very popular and compact Rebel SLR.

So which camera should you get?

If you want the absolute best in image quality and flexibility, and don’t mind paying big bucks for the best – and using them to their highest potential – then a traditional SLR like the new Nikon D810 is good for you.

If you want absolute practicality and are willing to sacrifice quality and awesomeness, then stay with your smartphone. It’s good enough, it’s always in your pocket/hand-bag, you’re not carrying anything extra nor buying anything so it cost $0 and 0 lbs to you.

If you want something simple that you can just point-and-click and you’re thinking of a compact camera – forget it. Spend the extra money and upgrade your smartphone to the latest iPhone/Android phone you can buy. Compact cameras are the fastest shrinking category in the camera industry today. Smartphones have all but killed them in any meaningful and practical usage.

NOW if you want the flexibility and power of a traditional SLR – interchangeable lenses, controllable settings, awesome pictures – but you still want the size and weight of small compact camera, then consider the mirrorless camera.

There are three major players in the mirrorless market today – Olympus, Fuji and Sony. Olympus’ top model is the OM-D E-M1. It’s an excellent camera. Then there’s Fuji’s X-T1, which received rave reviews, as did Sony’s A7 series. These are their top-of-the-line models but their entry-level models are also excellent. Olympus recently came out with the Olympus OM-D E-M10. It received DPReview.com’s Gold Award and it has a street price of $699. Fuji came out with the X-E2, which also received DPReview.com’s Gold Award and has a street price of $799.95.

The size of the Olympus OM-D camera vs. a credit card.

The size of the Olympus OM-D camera vs. a credit card.

Which camera are you planning to get?

Next >> Fujifilm X-T1 – possibly the best camera you can buy today for awesome family photos <<

Equipment, Knowledge & Post-Correction

In my previous blog post I wrote about achieving great pictures of your kids by focusing on the right 20% in what you need on equipment, knowledge and post-processing of images. So let’s drill into this a bit further.

Equipment

What did I use to achieve Natalie’s portrait above?

First, you’ll notice this picture was taken in natural lighting. No flash was used, or harmed in the making of this picture. Lighting is extremely important in photography. Studios use more than one light source, often employing up to five. But studios are controlled environments. When you take impromptu pictures of your kids, capturing that Kodak moment is like catching flies with your bare hands. You need fast reflexes. And if you miss it, it’s gone, forever. In other words, forget about artificial lighting. You need a camera body with a sensor that can handle very low light setting.

The number one criteria for camera body selection in my humble opinion is the camera sensor’s ability to capture quality images in low light. Period.

So forget about flash. It takes too much time to set them up. You need special knowledge to use them effectively. Also the ones permanently attached to any camera body usually suck. SIMPLIFY your operation. Take flash out of the picture. Buy the right equipment and remove this from your thought process.

Second, is the concept of bokeh. Notice how Alyssa (pictured below) is sufficiently differentiated from the background. Everything behind and in front of her is creamy blur. This re-creates the same effect in how your eye focuses on an object. Try this. Extend your palm away from your face and then focus on it. Your palm is sharp and in focus but everything else behind it is blur – creamy blur. In photography speak, it’s called bokeh. This aesthetic quality of blur is what makes a portrait go from bleh to awesome. Smartphone apps like Instagram offer blur effects to recreate this. But you can detect them a mile away. They look cheap and fake.

NOTHING beats a good quality lens with awesome bokeh. If there’s one equipment you should spend good money on, it’s a good quality lens.

Notice how the creamy blur (bokeh) behind Alyssa draws your eye to her as the center of attention.

Notice how the creamy blur (bokeh) behind Alyssa draws your eye to her as the center of attention.

Knowledge

Assuming you have the right equipment, the only real thing you need to master is lens control. And in this arena, there’s only two things you need to learn: how big an opening in your lens to allow light through (aperture), and how much time to let the light in (shutter speed). That’s it! Everything else can be set to automatic. All you focus on is the balance between aperture and shutter speed. If only life itself were this simple!

In taking Alyssa’s picture, I focused on setting the right aperture to maximize bokeh but yet maintain enough shutter speed so the camera avoids recording motion blur. This is the essence of 80% in my decision making – keeping the subject in focus (depth-of-field) and keeping them sharp (sufficient shutter speed).

Next is composition. One of the most useful principles of good composition is the Rule of Thirds. In essence, if you divide an image in thirds (both horizontal and vertical) and then locate the intersection points – those points are super important. More on this topic later.

Post-Process Correction

Now comes the final part. Our brain does all sorts of interesting tricks to manipulate the perception of light and make us see images in a certain way. For example, the final image that lands on our retina is actually upside down. But our brain corrects it to be right-side up. Fluorescent light is actually greenish, but our brain corrects it to be white (also know as correcting white balance). Tungsten light (from light bulbs) is yellowish-orange but our brain corrects a significant portion of it so that “white” stays “white”.

Today’s digital cameras attempt to do the same as our brain does. It does a reasonably good job of detecting proper white balance but does not get it right 100%. That’s where post-process correction comes in. Here is Natalie’s picture before and after processing.

Natalie reading on the bed - original

Original image

Natalie reading on the bed - corrected

Post-processed for correct white balance

I used Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to correct white balance, increase contrast, sharpen the picture, and reduce noise (low light graininess) – it’s stuff your brain does for you but in photography today, modern cameras are not quite there yet. If there’s one area you need to spend more time in learning to improve your pictures, this is it. With the right software, you can post-process a bad picture into a semi-decent one. But all the best equipment and knowledge you have is limited if your post-processing skills are bad.

In upcoming postings, I will drill further into each of these areas in greater detail.