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Recommended Apps: “Sol”

I thought I'd start a new series of blog posts showcasing my favorite smartphone/tablet apps beneficial to photographers. These apps will revolve primarily around the iOS iPhone and iPad platform but they may also be available for Android. Enjoy...

"Sol" App for iPhone and iPadApp: Sol
Price: $0.99 (buy)

For outdoor photographers, knowing the time of sunrise and sunset is vital for timing your shots. That's where "Sol" comes in.

"Sol" is a simple, clean app that shows the times of dawn, sunrise, sunset and dusk for virtually anywhere on Earth. Along with the exact times of these events, "Sol" also visually represents these times on a clock-like illustration. The hand sweeps around the clock as the day progresses with gray areas indicating daylight, light blue areas indicating dawn/dusk, and a dark blue area indicating nighttime.

"Sol" App for iPhone and iPad

It's really great having the visual representation of sunrise, sunset, and especially, the duration of dawn/dusk. This helps in quickly estimating how much time you have before the light is gone and also in gauging how quickly your daylight is fading.

The interface for adding new locations is easy and convenient. Just type in a city, then select a state or country, and click "Search". Your list of saved cities is easy to edit and scrolling from one city to the next is a simple swipe left or right. My only request here would be the ability to reorder my saved cities.

"Sol" App for iPhone and iPad

At $0.99, the price can't be beat. There are a lot of sunrise/sunset time apps out there, but the simplicity of this app and the clean interface blows the rest out of the water. When I'm out shooting, I don't need a cluttered interface to get through and I don't need any extraneous information like the azimuth or angle. "Sol" is quick, clear and convenient. I highly recommend it.

Choosing a Telephoto Zoom Lens

Along with a good mid-range zoom lens and a wide-angle zoom, a telephoto zoom will round out your collection of lenses quite nicely. A telephoto lens will zoom in further and magnify the subject more than a typical mid-range kit lens. This makes them great for "reaching" those far away subjects like wildlife, sports and even detail shots on landscapes.


This is 200mm on a full-frame camera (equiv. to 125mm on a small-frame)

When selecting a telephoto zoom lens, you'll have to consider a few things (in addition to budget). First, the higher the focal length number, the more "zoomed in" the lens can go. Meaning, a 70-200mm lens won't reach as far as a 100-400mm lens. So if you need to reach as far as possible, go for the higher focal length number.

You'll also want to look at the lens' maximum aperture. The maximum aperture is the widest the aperture can open on the lens. A wider maximum aperture will let in more light and, thus, allow the camera to use faster shutter speeds. So if you think you'll need fast shutter speeds when using the lens, you might want to consider getting the lens with a wider maximum aperture. The lens' widest maximum aperture is always indicated in the title. For instance, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens can open all the way to a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Whereas the Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS can only open to an aperture of f/4. To learn more about how to understand lens nomenclature, check out this post.

Here are the telephoto zoom lenses I recommend:


Canon 55-250mmCANON

Entry-Level
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS (buy - $255)

A great starter lens for those looking to get a little more reach out of their Canon DSLR. It's a mere $255, which shouldn't break the bank for most people, and it zooms pretty far out to 250mm. Although this isn't as far as the next lens, which reaches to 300mm, 250mm ain't half bad for a lens under $260. At this low of a price, though, the autofocus motor isn't as fast or as quiet as the more expensive lenses. But at least it has image stabilizer, which is a very nice perk on long lenses like these.

Canon 70-300mmMid-Level
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM (buy - $549)

This lens has a few benefits over the 55-250mm discussed above. First, it reaches 20% further out to 300mm. When photographing wildlife or sports, that extra 50mm turns out to be quite a bit. The build quality of this lens is a little bit better over the 55-250, too. Sure, it's no magnesium-alloy tank like the professional series lenses, but it will feel a little more robust than the 55-250mm. Most importantly, this lens features Canon's Ultrasonic Motor (USM) auto focus system. That means this thing will focus much, much faster and much more quietly than the 55-250.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L ISHigh-End Option 1
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS (buy - $1,349)
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II (buy - $2,499) 

For your first high-end option, I'd recommend the Canon 70-200mm. At 200mm this lens really doesn't reach that far. Truthfully, it just isn't enough zoom for most wildlife photography. But for sports and portraits...it's phenomenal. That being said, Canon offers both a 70-200mm with a maximum aperture of f/4 and one with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Both varieties come with or without image stabilizer, too (get it with stabilizer included - no doubt about it). As part of Canon's L-series professional line of lenses, both feature Canon's top-of-the-line optics, construction, weather-sealing and ultra-fast USM auto focus motors.

But now the real question: do I get the f/4 or f/2.8 version? Here's my short, no-nonsense recommendation: If you want to shoot portraits or sports and you won't have to hike long distances with this lens, get the f/2.8. The 2.8 max aperture will let in 1 stop more light than the f/4, which may be the difference between a shutter speed that's just fast enough or one that's just a little bit too slow for sports. And as for portraits, the ultra-blurry background at f/2.8 will make you drool. But if you're planning to use this more for photographing detail shots in landscapes or if weight will be an issue for you, go with the f/4. It's over a pound-and-a-half lighter than the 2.8 and it's only 1 stop loss of light, which is usually no big deal when shooting still subjects. Oh, and it's over $1,000 cheaper.

Canon 100-400mm High-End Option 2
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS (buy - $1,699)

If wildlife is your thing, then I'd recommend the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L. It reaches over twice as far as the 70-200mm and features the same pro-level build, optics, weather-sealing and image stabilization. At 3.04 lbs, it's no lightweight, so be prepared. But hey, the 70-200mm f/2.8 discussed above still has a quarter of a pound over this baby. The extra reach here will be worth the loss of light (which is actually quite a bit). And with today's modern cameras going up to 6-digits on the ISO in some cases, the lack of light won't be much of an issue.

 

NIKON

Nikon 55-300mmEntry-Level
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR (buy - $397)

Much like the Canon 55-250mm discussed at the top of this post, this Nikon 55-300mm is a great starter lens if you're looking to zoom in a little further for sports, wildlife, portraits or kids. It has Vibration Reduction (which is Nikon's brand of image stabilizer) and has a decent auto focus motor. Truth be told, though, this thing feels pretty chintzy in your hand. The focus rings always feel loose to me. I really think this lens should run more around $275 than $397, but again, good for starting out. It'll last you a couple years or less, then you can graduate up to a more rugged lens.

Nikon 70-300mmMid-Level
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED (buy - $587)

This is a great mid-level telephoto that works perfect for those photographers looking to shoot the occasional kid's baseball game or the local air show. Like all lenses in this mid-level price range, it won't let in a ton of light, which may become an issue when photographing in dim environments, but the price and weight are just right for the casual shooter. The build quality is slightly better than the 55-300 above, but the zoom and focus rings still feel loose to me. It also has Vibration Reduction to help combat camera shake.

Nikon 70-200mmHigh-End Option 1
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II (buy - $2,397)

For close-range sports, portraits and scenic details, the Nikon 70-200mm is a superb choice. Its max aperture of f/2.8 will let in a boatload of light, allowing you to use faster shutter speeds and/or lower ISOs - perfect for capturing action. The build quality is leaps and bounds above the mid-level lens discussed previously. Rugged construction and weather sealing ensure this lens will go to hell and back with you, and never miss a shot. The optics, of course, are top-notch and the Vibration Reduction will be a godsend when handholding this puppy. It's pricey, but you won't need to replace it for years and years.

Nikon 80-400mm

High-End Option 2
Nikon AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED (buy - $1,679)

If you need more reach than the 70-200mm can give you, the Nikon 80-400mm may be your best bet. It's rugged, tough and sharp - all good things when it comes to photographing wildlife. And with double the reach over the 200mm, you won't find yourself wishing for "more lens" as often. Don't get me wrong, though, you'll still want "more lens." Wildlife always leaves you wishing you could reach further. The loss of light with the smaller max aperture may be an issue when photographing in dim environments, but with ISO performance the way it is on newer cameras, it won't be a problem most of the time. Be prepared to carry the weight of this beast, though.

How Many Megapixels Do You Really Need?

With the recent announcement of the 36.3 megapixel Nikon D800 and D800E, I figured it was high-time I write a blog post about megapixels and how many you really need.

First things first: You should understand that I'm not a gear head. I love my equipment as much as the next guy, but to me, these are just tools in the hands of someone who knows how to use them or not. I don't care about Nikon vs. Canon, I don't need a coffee mug shaped like my favorite lens, I don't want a wrist-band that looks like the lens barrel of my 24-70mm and I'm not about to wear a t-shirt that announces my brand-loyalty to the world.

So when I talk about gear and camera specs, I'm looking at it from a realistic, practical application type viewpoint. No MTF charts, no side-by-side images, no bias towards one brand - I'm giving it to you straight. I'm also trying to talk you out of spending more money, so listen up 😀

Alright, so let's get down to the nitty gritty: How many megapixels do you really need?

To put it simply, it all boils down to how big you want to print. Or better yet, how big you will print. That's a more realistic way to look at it. Because I would love to print gallery-quality billboards, but let's be honest, I'm not going to.

Let's look at some common print sizes and see how many megapixels you'd need to print that size natively (meaning straight out of the camera with no "blowing up" the image). These calculations are done with a 300 DPI print quality for all prints below 20" in the long edge and at 200 DPI for anything above 20" in the long edge. Why? Because that's how photo labs work.

But really, where do most people's images end up? Facebook, email, Flickr, etc. Not many people print very many of their images. It's almost all digital sharing now. So let's look at the megapixels required for some common digital sharing avenues.

So think about all your pictures and where they all end up. How often do you print 24x36? What about 16x24? How about anything above 8x12?

The truth of the matter is most people's pictures rarely end up larger than 8x12. Even fewer go above 16x24. Hardly any print at 20x30 or larger. Of course I'm not talking about professional photographers, but even then, anything above 16x24 isn't the lion's share of their work.

But let's say you do want the ability to print all the way up to 30x45. Does that mean you need a 54 megapixel camera? No! Of course not! 54 megapixels is what you'd need to print straight out of the camera at 30x45 with loupe-worthy detail. You don't need that. With just a little blowing up of the file using software like Alien Skin Software's Blow Up (that's what I use) or Photoshop's built-in resizing tool, you can get great results from 18 megapixels. I know that sounds hard to believe, but I've printed at 30x45 from my 12.8 megapixel camera with results that were good enough to sell as fine art pieces to an art buyer.

The quality of a blown-up file definitely isn't as good as a native 54 megapixel file, but trust me, the difference in quality isn't worth the $31,000 price tag. Plus, you have to realize that larger prints are always viewed from further away. A huge 30x45 print isn't meant to be viewed from 3 inches away. People will look at it from whatever distance allows them to see the entire image. The bigger the image, the further back they need to be. And the further back the viewer is, the better the quality will look.

I print gallery-quality 20x30 prints all the time from my 12.8 megapixel files. That means I blow my files up to nearly double the original size and the results are great!

But if you have the money, why not buy the highest-megapixel camera you can? Well, there are a couple drawbacks to having a ton of megapixels. The first is measurable and obvious: more megapixels means bigger files. Bigger files means more memory cards and more hard drive space. For instance, my 12.8 megapixel camera produces RAW files in the neighborhood of 13 MB. So, I can fit around 79 photos in 1 GB. A 21.1 megapixel RAW file is around 25 MB. So, you could fit 41 images in 1 GB. And the Nikon D800 with its 36.3 megapixel sensor will produce RAW files around 40 MB. That will give you a mere 26 images in 1 gigabyte. That's less than a roll of film!

Given that memory cards and hard drives are pretty cheap nowadays, that might not be a big deal to you. But the other thing that people fail to acknowledge is the extra strain on your computer. Processing 36 megapixel RAW files will take quite a bit more computer power than processing 12 megapixel RAW files. Your computer will act sluggish when you work and you'll have a harder time running multiple programs at once. You may have to get a new computer altogether.

Another drawback to ultra-high megapixels is a little less measurable but, ultimately, much more expensive.

An ultra-high resolution sensor will create ultra-high resolution images that, when viewed 100% on the computer, will reveal every single little flaw in your lenses, subjects and your technique. Your 18-135mm lens that looked great on your 18 megapixel camera suddenly looks a little soft at 36 megapixels. Also, all those little blemishes that make us all human now look like huge blemishes!

This will lead to new, more expensive lenses in that never-ending quest for perfect sharpness and lots of extra Photoshop time removing blemishes. And it will all be for nothing, because although now your 36 megapixel images look great at 100% on your computer, all of your money spent on top-notch lenses and Photoshop plugins will be lost on the 0.7 megapixel file you sized-down for email and Facebook.

So really, don't put down a deposit on the D800 just yet. You probably only need about 18 megapixels at most. No reason shelling out $3000-$4000 so you can throw away half your megapixels with every image you take.