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Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Extra Digital Gear


Two pieces of equipment in sometimes overlooked categories offer specific and valuable benefits for the digital photographerTwo pieces of equipment in sometimes overlooked categories offer specific and valuable benefits for the digital photographer


extra digital gear As you can imagine, a lot of digital gear comes through our offices. If you saw the volume of equipment we see, you'd realize there's no question that today's market is oriented toward digital. You'll find some of this gear in our "Editors' Picks" feature in this issue; we chose items that we thought you might find of special interest and that would be useful for outdoor photographers.

I'd like to cover two pieces of gear that we didn't include, however. They're likely to be overlooked by many nature photographers, and that may be a mistake. While not for everyone, these items offer specific and valuable benefits for the digital photographer.

Sekonic L-558R DualMaster Meter. Like many longtime photographers of my generation, I first learned how to accurately meter a scene with a handheld meter. I had struggled to master Ansel Adams' Zone System and, of course, the photo police might have arrested anyone who aspired to the Zone System and then used anything other than a handheld meter, so handheld meter it was.

Over the years, however, camera meters have become very good. When I first started at OP over 10 years ago, I decided I needed to better understand how camera meters worked, so I started using every camera that came through our office on automatic. I quickly became convinced of how well that technology worked and shot almost exclusively on automatic (usually using aperture-priority and exposure compensation).

With digital, the histogram was added. This was a huge benefit for me, as I could ensure that a scene was properly exposed. Blinking overexposure warnings also helped, but the histogram gave such a strong visual reference of under- and overexposure that I found it invaluable.

Could I need more? Well, at a trade show, the Sekonic meter folks worked to convince me that I did. I knew that flash meters were a great help in getting optimum balance of flash and existing light, but I had been happy to use auto, so why change? Still, I was intrigued by their arguments about getting better exposures for digital and had them send me a Sekonic L-558R DualMaster 1º spot meter to try.

I've long been an advocate of shooting the best possible picture from the start. The marvelous internal processing of a camera for JPEG files and the terrific technology involved in a RAW file aren't substitutes for poor decisions in taking the picture. "Fixing it in Photoshop" is a waste of time to me if the image could have been shot better when the shutter was released.

As soon as I started using the DualMaster, I fell in love with it. It immediately brought me back to the Zone System and precise metering for sound exposure decisions. The meter is compact enough to easily fit in my camera pack so it can always accompany me.

You may wonder, why not just use the spot meter in a camera (many have them)? With due respect to my friend George Lepp, I've always found the in-camera spot meter to be an awkward way to meter. If your camera is on a tripod, you have to move it around to place the spot properly, meaning your composition gets messed up. And if you want to check multiple spots in the scene and compare them, the in-camera spot meter just isn't set up well for that task.

With the DualMaster, I could instantly check meter readings for multiple places in a scene. The camera stayed locked on the tripod. Or if I was evaluating the possibilities of a scene, the camera could stay in the bag. It can be worth checking a contrasty scene to see what the brightness range is before you commit to setting up a camera. There's little sense in trying to take a picture of a scene that will never look right because of the contrast.

When using a spot meter, you look through what's essentially a small telephoto lens on the meter with a small circle in the center of the view where the metering occurs. I loved the feeling of security that this style of metering afforded me. As an example, I was photographing in the Patriarch Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of California. I could quickly check readings on bright clouds on the horizon, the light dolomite rocks on the ground, the bristlecone tree trunks and so forth.

By using the scale located on the side of the meter, I could tell if the exposure range was beyond the capabilities of my camera as well as have an idea of the exposure I needed to best capture the scene. One composition that I liked had an extreme tonal range, but the spot meter readings were a tremendous help in setting up a series of three exposures to capture the whole range so I could bring them together later in Photoshop.

A spot meter is an important addition to my camera kit. It brings me closer to the scene, in many ways, by giving me better information on how specific parts need to be exposed. The craft of photography espoused by Ansel Adams is still important today with digital photography, and a handheld spot meter keeps you connected to that craft so that you get the best exposure needed for a scene.

Hewlett-Packard Photosmart R817. You may be wondering what the heck this camera is doing in OP. One reason: quality panoramic photos made easy. The HP Photosmart R817 (and its sibling, the R818) is the only camera on the market (at the time of this writing) to offer in-camera stitching of multiple-shot panoramas.

Multiple-shot panoramas require several distinct images as you pan a camera across a scene; then those shots are combined in a stitching program to create one big panorama. But when you're in the field, on site with your potential scene before you, you have no way of seeing what the final panorama looks like.

Enter the R817. When I first heard about its in-camera stitching capabilities, I knew I had to check out the camera as soon as I could. This simple point-and-shoot camera actually helps you through the pan shots. Take the first shot, then move the camera. An outline of detail from one side of the first shot appears that allows you to align the next shot. You can continue doing this for up to five shots. These are saved as separate shots that you can use later in the computer.

The 5.1-megapixel camera also lets you stitch together those images right then, while you're still at the scene. This is saved as a separate file, and even though all the panoramic rules say to never shoot in auto, this little automatic camera does a remarkable job with its pan work. My son thought it would be fun to try a panoramic shot of the mountains up in the bristlecones near Big Pine, Calif., and on his first try, he had a remarkable panoramic shot ready for printing.

The stitched image is a decent-sized file that varies depending on how many single shots make up the pan. A three-shot pan ends up as a 15 MB file that can be printed at 4x13 inches (300 ppi) to 6.5x20.5 inches (200 ppi). Sky is sometimes a problem because of unevenness from the auto exposure, but I found that fairly easy to fix. I was amazed at how well the camera stitched the shots together.

At a street price of $300 to $349, the R817 is a great opportunity for the photographer who has always wanted to try panoramas, but wasn't willing to spend the time at the computer. It's also an ideal preview for anyone who's taking panoramas more seriously with a larger camera, but wants to check the composition before committing to the final shots. Its size—3.58x1.17x2.24 inches—makes it an easy addition to any camera bag.

OP editor Rob Sheppard's latest book is the PCPhoto Digital Zoom Camera Handbook, a guide to getting the most from advanced compact digital cameras.


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