Adventures in Digital Photography With Linux, part 2

Posted by tuxchick on Jul 2, 2007 2:15 PM EDT
LXer Linux News; By Carla Schroder
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In part 1 I introduced you fine readers to my new obsession, digital SLR cameras. If you're used to compact point-and-shoot digital cameras, and you're thinking of making the move to a DSLR, there are several important points to keep in mind:

In part 1 I introduced you fine readers to my new obsession, digital SLR cameras. If you're used to compact point-and-shoot digital cameras, and you're thinking of making the move to a DSLR, there are several important points to keep in mind:

  1. DSLRs are several times more expensive than compact digital cameras
  2. DSLRs do not have the zoom range of a compact digital camera
  3. DSLRs are bigger, heavier, and you'll probably want several lenses, which means lots of stuff to lug around
  4. To get the best image quality, you'll want to shoot in RAW mode. This means much larger image file sizes, from 6 megabytes and up, and more post-processing work to get usable images
  5. If you're making prints, you'll want a good photo printer. The good news is you can get very good ones for under $200, sometimes even less than $100
  6. There is a learning curve
  7. Compact point-and-shoot digital cameras are such excellent quality these days that it's hard to justify the cost and hassle of a DSLR
That last point is one I'm keeping at the top of my watch-list. Is all this gear really going to justify its cost and hassle? Or will I end up Ebaying the lot and returning to a point-n-shoot camera? There is a saying: the best camera is the one you use. If you spend all your time fiddling, or if it's too much hassle to haul around, you won't get any pictures.

It's rather amusing how this all started. There I was with my two little compact Panasonic Lumix digital cameras, all contented and happy. They have their shortcomings, but not many- the optics are excellent, the zoom range is phenomenal, and they're easy to pack along anywhere. Why even bother with a DSLR? Well, my original plan was to purchase a low-end DSLR body to put on my little telescope. I bought a Celestron 102mm Wide View spotting scope, which in the real world goes for a couple of hundred dollars. This is a great scope and a super value for the price. I use it both for terrestrial viewing and stargazing. Naturally it must also be used for photography. It comes already threaded for cameras, so all you need is the T-adapter for your particular camera.

I have some old Canon gear from the film era, so I decided to get a Canon DSLR so I could use my old lenses. One of the best values in DSLRs is the Canon Digital Rebel (400D) XTi. It's small, lightweight, chock full o features, and includes a self-cleaning sensor. No other Canon camera includes the self-cleaning sensor, not even the hideously expensive ones. Cleaning the sensor is no big deal, provided it's not all mucky, but it still sounds like a nice thing to have. You can find it new for around $700. The older 350D is still a popular and excellent camera, so you can find some nice deals in the second-hand market.


But I didn't buy one of these, even though either one would have been a great little camera to hook up to the telescope. No, the more I researched, the more I talked myself into getting something Really Cool, and that is the Canon EOS 30D, which is the next level up in the Canon DSLR family. I paid $1,086.00 and change for the camera body and a Lexar 2GB 133x CompactFlash Card. Which brings us to Warning #1: don't assume that all cameras use SD cards. I didn't know these used CF cards until I went to B&H Photo and Video to place my order, and they had a bundled deal with the Lexar card. Watch for rebates; the camera body has a $100 rebate, and the Lexar card has a $20 rebate.

Why get this camera? It's heavier and larger than the XTi, which is not a plus for me. It's faster- you can shoot up to 5 frames per second in burst mode, shutter speed ranges from bulb to 1/8000 second, and it focuses faster. It has a tuff magnesium body, and image quality is exceptional. ISO ranges from 100-3200, and it is very low-noise across the whole range. Its tweak-ability is phenomenal; you can control every setting to your heart's content.

It has a nice bright crisp 2.5" LCD, which brings me to Warning #2: the LCD is not a viewfinder, but for playback only. I'm used to the compact digital camera world where the LCD is the viewfinder, so this was a big surprise to me. Especially since in all of the reviews I read, not one single person bothered to mention this. I'll trade the LCD for a bigger optical viewfinder any day, though the viewfinder is OK as it is. Because of the the placement, you will leave nose prints on the LCD.

The biggest advantage of a DSLR over any compact point-n-shoot is sheer raw speed. Point, click, done. There is no shutter lag like you get with the point-n-shoots.

Lens Frenzy

B&H shipped it out nearly instantly and I had it in my hands three days later. Well, I did pay for expedited shipping, but even their regular shipping is fast. I dug out my old lenses and gave it a test-drive. They are the Canon EF 100-300mm f/4.5-5.6 USM, and a Canon 35-80 f4/5.6. I used to think these lenses were good, and they are, but they are not as sharp as the two Panasonic Lumix cameras. Obviously this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs- the new expensive camera simply cannot be outperformed by the old inexpensive cameras. So I went a-Googling again to find new lenses.

I live way out in the sticks, with nary a camera store for days, but by a fortunate coincidence of timing I went on vacation back to the old homestead in Spokane, Washington right after I got the new camera body. Spokane is home to Huppin's Photo Hi-Fi & Video, which is one of the oldest and best camera stores there is. So I was able to try on a number of lenses and pick the brains of their excellent salespeople. (Hi Kim!) And I actually purchased stuff, because they have genuine Internet pricing in the store. So I ended up with three new lenses: the EF 50mm f/1.8 II, the EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM, and the EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L USM.

The EF 50mm f/1.8 II costs about $80. Yes, you heard me, a mere $80. It has a cheap-o plastic body, but the optics are superb. This is called a prime or normal lens because it is a not a zoom lens. Prime lenses cost less than zoom lenses because they are less complex, and they are usually sharper and brighter. In general, for absolute best image quality you want prime lenses. However, back here in the real world, I prefer zoom lenses. I would rather compose my pictures on the camera and have minimal editing to do later. I take mostly candid outdoor photos of critters and pretty landscapes, so I don't have the luxury of setting up staged shots and all day to swap lenses. The 50mm is great for portraits, flowers, low-light, and mid-range views. Very sharp and fast.

The EF 24-105mm set me back about a thousand dollars. The L series lenses are Canon's best lenses, and are priced accordingly. This baby has an image stabilizer, and while rabid photo geeks require f2.8 or brighter, f4 works fine for me. Especially since the f2.8 version costs way more and is larger and heavier. The image stabilizer compensates a bit for the slower f-ratio. It won't stop rapid movement, but if you're like me and prefer to do candid hand-held shots, it will gain you a couple of f-stops by controlling camera shake.

The EF 70-200mm is an incredible bargain at around $500. It does not have an image stabilizer; for about a thousand dollars you can get the same lens with IS. I couldn't quite bring myself to fork over a thousand clams, so I got the non-IS version.

Focal Length Follies

This here digital photography world is completely different from the old fillum era. You have to beware of different image sensor sizes in your digital cameras. A "full-frame sensor" is the same physical size as a 35mm film frame. You find these on the very expensive cameras, like the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, which goes for about $7000. For the body only. Canon has three different sensor sizes: full-frame, 1.3x, and 1.6x Field of View Crop Factor (FOVCF). I'm not going to go all technical here- you can do a deep dive into this stuff yourself if you want. The most important thing to know is this changes the effective focal length of your lenses. The 30D has a 1.6x sensor, so I have to multiply to get the effective focal length of my lenses. Which means my 50mm lens, for example, is not 50mm:

1.6 x 50 = 80mm

So this presents an interesting problem. Ordinarily a 50mm lens is an excellent "walk-around" lens; the one you leave on your camera all the time. But this doesn't work on my camera, because at an effective focal length of 80mm I can't get far enough away for most situations. It's like having a wimpy telephoto. So the EF 24-105mm, which functions as a 38.4-168mm lens on the 30D body, is my "walk-around" lens. This is a seriously excellent lens: fast, sharp, bright, not too big, and a very useful zoom range.

Shun Cheap Filters

After spending all that money on prime Canon L glass, I'm darn well going to stick some UV filters on them for protection. Don't get cheap filters- they will hurt your image quality. In my unhumble opinion, B+W filters are the best, and are required for top-of-the-line lenses. They're not cheap- mine cost around $70 each. Replacing a filter is a lot cheaper than repairing or replacing a lens, and they don't cost that much more than the inferior filters.

EF-S Lenses

Canon also makes lenses for the smaller-sensor cameras, the EF-S line. They are smaller and lighter. But they only fit the 1.6x camera bodies. There are two advantages to sticking with the standard lenses on your small-sensor camera: they fit any Canon camera, and the small-sensor uses the best part of the lens. Lens flaws are usually concentrated on the outer portion- that's where you get flares, vignetting, and barrel distortion. The 1.6x sensor doesn't see the outer part of the lens at all.

If you're never going to get a full-frame camera, the EF-S lenses are worth taking a look at.

Where to Shop

The camera world is notoriously full of scammers. I adore B&H and Huppin's. They both have physical stores, good Internet shopping sites, good return policies, and great customer service. Adorama has a good reputation, and all three sell used and open-box gear. The camera market is very competitive and all the reputable vendors are going to have about the same prices. When you see a too-good-to-be-true deal, it's probably a scam. Visit to get information on vendors.

Stick around for our next thrilling installment, in which your intrepid author actually takes some pictures and tries to use Linux for management and editing.

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