Not what I thought it would be

I thought I was smart… but I wasn’t. I tried out the Canon EOS 90D. What was I hoping for? Why do I return it?

I still have no high-resolution camera. My primary interest in having one is shooting portraits. My good old Canon EOS 5D Mark iii is ok, but I thought having something better would make my customers happier. However, as I’m trying to make profits with my photography, I wasn’t prepared to spend a lot of money. I don’t think I’ll gather extra customers from buying a better camera. It would just be a cost to me.

So I was looking for a reasonably cheap camera with high resolution. This led me to the new 90D. It has 32.5 MP. This is 46 percent more resolution than what I have. Hang on, you may think: the 90D just has an APSC sensor. My 5Dii is full format. It should have a better image quality. However, when I do portrait shootings, I shoot at low ISO. So all the disadvantages of small sensor are unimportant.

Then, an online store offered the camera with huge discount. I thought it’s now or never. I ordered it.

Bad View-Finder Autofocus

Then the testing: I used my EF 70-200 F2.8 lens. The first thing I discovered was a back focus problem. No 1DX quality, it’s ok for the price, I thought. So I fixed the back focus problem. Then the disappointment: Only about each 5th picture was tack sharp, the others more or less soft. This is simply not acceptable. Even my 5 year old 7D Mark ii performs much better.

To be fair, the problem disappeared when I used Live View instead of the viewfinder. However, I do sports portraits! Did you ever shoot action with a viewfinder? I cannot imagine doing this.

The 90D might be a great camera otherwise. However, dear Canon, what is the point of bringing a 32.5 MP camera to the market that shoots soft pictures? I’m sorry to write this. The camera will go back to the store after the weekend.

Not mirrorless

So I have a new camera, a dinosaur: another Canon 1 DX mark ii.

In the days of the mirrorless hype (“the camera revolution has started”) when Canon, Nikon, and Fuji introduced a generation of new mirrorless cameras, my photo friends and I decided to buy… good-old DSLRs.

Why? The reason is simple.

  • First: for our needs, there aren’t lenses for mirrorless cameras out there. Those lenses that have been introduced are not convincing (the only exception being Canon’s new F2.0 zoom lens – this one might be a game changer in the future).
  • Second: modern DSLR’s are 100% reliable. Brilliant autofocus, 14 frames per second, my old one has 376’000 shutter releases and is still working perfectly).
  • Third: Why do we need more of everything? 20 Megapixels are all we need, I recently even delivered even a 5x5m poster. The video capabilities are really good, and the weight… come on, We’re neither 7 nor 80: the weight is negligible compared to that of the tele lenses.

I unboxed the camera yesterday. Enjoy some first test shots.

I am convinced, the future will be mirrorless. But meanwhile the new DXiis will do the better job!

Just Another Lens

Did you buy another lens? Why do you need another one?”

I recently bought the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 lens. Admittedly, this was a very though decision, as I have a lot of gear.  Why did I do this?

  • At many events my 400 was too long and the 70-200 was too short. Examples? Football when the play comes closer, athletics when athletes react after the finish line.
  • Moreover, I love the flexibility of a zoom to shoot the same scene close and wide at the same time. So a 300mm prime lens was no option (and far too expensive).
  • Finally, I needed a fast lens. F2.8 was a must.

There’s only one lens on the market that can do all this: the Sigma 120-300 F2.8

VOLLEYBALL CUP FINAL 2018

Der Swiss MVP des Jahres Jovan Djokic im Schweizer Cup Final zwischen Biogas Volley Naefels und Volley Amriswil; VOLLEYBALL CUP FINAL 2018 am 31 March, 2018 in Fribourg (St. Leonhard-Halle), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller

Critics on the lens were excellent. So I took the risk and bought it instead of renting it first.

I added a Sigma USB dock, because I understood that Sigma lenses almost always have either front or back focus problems. I downloaded the adjustment software and spent one very dull evening with the calibration of a heavy back focus problem (thanks Tobias Wagen for cheering me up via the facebook chat).

Moreover, the lens weighs more than 3kg. From my experience with my 400mm prime lens, I knew I could hold it for a while and use a monopod between the shots. I certainly would think twice if I had to carry it with me as a nature photographer (which I am not).

VOLLEYBALL CUP FINAL 2018

Here’s a digital zoom into a picture. The lens is sharp until you approach the limits of my Canon 1DX mark ii. VOLLEYBALL CUP FINAL 2018 am 31 March, 2018 in Fribourg (St. Leonhard-Halle), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller

The next event on my schedule was the Swiss Volleyball Cup Final. So I took the lens with me to this event. My friend Stephan Wiesner came with me and prepared a video.

So what is my verdict?

It is a great lens. Some “testers” have complained about this or that… I don’t care!

  • The pictures are sharp. Period.
  • The autofocus is working. Period.

The only serious complaint is about the initial back focus problem. Sigma stole me 4 hours to fix it. But here’s the second thought. I saved about 3’000 stones compared to a 300mm prime lens. In this sense, buying the Sigma 120-300mm lens instead of the 300mm prime is like receiving a daily wage of 2 x 3’000= 6’000.

This makes me feel good! I should go and buy another lens!

*** UPDATE: One month later I had many more opportunities to work with the lens. I stick to my verdict, but with a slight qualification. When the action comes close and I am shooting at 120mm at a distance of, say, 5-7m, the autofocus has problems. I missed some shots at Bundesliga matches. ***

*** UPDATE 2: It’s the beginning of June and I had the first serious issues with the lens. I used it at two meetings in midday sunlight and the results were… BAD. I immediately switched back to my old equipment which worked nicely. As this happened twice I will do further tests. Was it the sunlight? Was it me? Do I have to repeat the calibration? I’ll let you know, but it will take some time. ***

 

Shooting action using flashes

Recently I did several portrait shootings with internationally successful athletes. The ambition is to set up special lighting using flashes. This blog is about the difficulties that you encounter and how to solve them.

The Basic Setup

First let me explain my typical setup like I used it for this portrait of the European Scratch Champion 2016 Gaël Suter. The customer (Tissot Velodrome) showed me a target picture with a portrait of a 5xOlympic Champion and Tour de France winner (if you know cycling, you know who).  That target picture had side lighting as the main artistic ingredient. So I placed my 120cm soft box with grid on the left hand side. This was my main main source of light. Next, I took my 180cm strip light (with grid too) and placed it on the right hand side behind Gaël. The idea was to create a rim light that would separate Gaël from the background (typical for sports portraits).

The rest was easy: Gaël balanced his bike on the rollers and I ensured that I pressed the shutter exactly when his right foot was in the picture.

Gael Suter, 26.06.2017

Gael Suter am 26.06 2017 im Tissot Velodrome, Grenchen, Schweiz, Foto: Ulf Schiller 2017

 

From still pictures to action pictures

Taking action pictures is considerably harder. This is a shooting that I did with Stephan Wiesner in December 2017 when we met the U23 European Silver medalist Dany Brand. The basic setup was similar, but not identical. One light source (the same 120cm soft box) from Dany’s front (of course now to the side of the photographer). Instead of the strip light we chose five speed lights from the back.

Dany Brand Shooting

Dany Brand (Silver 400mH at the European U23 Championships 2017)

The main problem is to freeze the action. To explain, a flash has a short but not infinitely short burning time. This time gets longer, when the flash is used at higher power. In such cases, the action often won’t be frozen. The usual result is a quite ugly image. So we had to ensure that the burning time was sufficiently short! This meant that the flash had to be at  low power. The usual reaction would have been to shoot with wide aperture. However, there was a second difficulty: we wanted to create the star-like look of the flashes in the back. Hence we had to shoot at F13 which is less than half the light as in Gaëls photo. We solved the problem by increasing the ISO (ISO 400) and moving the flash as close as possible. It was just outside the frame.

Moving the light source close is almost always a good idea in portrait photography. By the law of physics with half of the distance you need just 1/4 of the flash power. Moreover, the light gets softer (which was a potential problem here because we also wanted Dany’s muscles to pop out. But, as you can see, his muscles were bigger than the light source was soft 😛 )

Dany-Ulf-Wiesner

Me, Dany, Stephan

Better gear made me a worse photographer

Admittedly, the title is an attention grabber, but I have a point.

When I meet other “old” photographers, we start talking about the good old days after a while. We had cameras with a single shot only, manual focus, no auto exposure, maximum 400 ASA films (which is equivalent to 400 ISO) that we could push to 800 ASA, maximum. Pushing to 800 ASA was only possible with black and white films, of course. After 36 exposures we had to insert a new film. Back in the late 1970s sports photography was really hard. I shot Basketball Bundesliga games. I used about three films per match and went home with one or two good pictures. Moreover, when I look at those pictures today, they are all very soft. Given todays standards, I would just press the delete button.

VOLLEYBALL NLA PLAYOFFS 2018 QUARTER FINAL

Tiana DOCKERY (Viteos NUC #7) during the warm up for the quarter final between Viteos NUC and VC Kanti Schaffhausen; VOLLEYBALL NLA PLAYOFFS 2018 QUARTER FINAL am 24 March, 2018 in Neuchatel (Halle des Sports de la Riveraine), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller

So, let’s be clear: Today my pictures are better! But still, I think my claim is true: better gear made me a worse photographerExamples?

  • I was more patient. In a basketball match, I pre-focused on, say, the position where the power forward typically shot. Why pre-focus? Because I had no autofocus. After pre-focusing, I had to wait. Guess, what didn’t happen? The guy did a lot of things, except shooting from the “typical” position.
  • I was more concentrated. Today my camera is like a machine gun. Back then, I had only one shot. Then I had to re-wind manually. So while I can shoot up to 14 frames/sec today, I had to press the shutter exactly at the peak of the action. Recently, I remembered this when I was at a cross run. I set the camera deliberately to the one-shot mode and tried to capture the strides exactly at the point where the back leg was in maximum stretch. I needed a few attempts, but it worked after a while. The advantage: nearly every picture was perfect whereas with the high-speed mode, I mostly have “almost perfect” pictures, shortly before or shortly after the ideal phase.
2015-12-05-langenthal-cross-17

Langenthal cross run 2015: single shot, fill-in flash

  • I cared about the background. Today, I have super lenses. My 400mm F2.8 has 140mm aperture. With such a glas, background is just irrelevant. It vanishes in the bokeh anyway. Back then, this was entirely different. So I was constantly looking for positions with good background. This was often in conflict with the lighting, though. I shot many bad photos, just because I could not solve this problem.
2014-05-bernerrundfahrt-66

Cyrille Thièry at the Berner Rundfahrt 2016 – 135mm F2 (the cars in the background vanish in the bokeh)

  • I was more selective. Today I often press the shutter although I know that I shouldn’t. The consequence are tons of mediocre pictures that get deleted immediately when I look at the results. Back then, I had 36 pictures on one film roll. I didn’t want to waste them, so I was much more cautious when it came to pressing the button. Again, this is related to the fact that I am less concentrated than I was back then.

So why do I care? Because I come back home with tons of junk. This stresses my shutter counter and my time budget. My aim for the next year is to remember the skills from the “good” old days (they weren’t exactly good), be more concentrated, shoot less, without missing the good pictures.