Plugged In: Don’t fall for upgrades unless they raise quality

Photography contest deadline Aug. 2

The Redoubt Reporter is holding another round of its reader-submitted photo contest, this time with the theme, “Capture the Kenai.” We’d like see your take on what makes the Kenai, the Kenai. What images say life on the Kenai Peninsula to you? Is it salmon in the Kenai River? Alpenglow on Mount Redoubt? Your favorite seasonal activity? Potholes in gravel roads during breakup? Moose poop in your garden? We want them all — the good, the bad and the ugly, as long as they speak to the unique character of this place. And as always, we’ll be looking for good photography, regardless of how “good” the subject matter might be.

The deadline to submit photos is Aug. 2, 2013. All submissions must be in high-quality digital format. Submit no more than five JPEG images by email to redoubtreporterphotos@gmail.com.

Entry rules:

1. Our theme is “Capture the Kenai.”

2. Entrants must be amateur photographers who are residents of the central Kenai Peninsula.

3. Photographs can be of any subject fitting the theme but must have been taken of the Kenai Peninsula on or after Aug. 1, 2012.

4. If you submit photographs in which people are recognizable, you must also provide us with their permission for us to publish any such photographs.

5. Please do not submit portrait photos. Do not submit photographs whose content would not be appropriate for publication in a family newspaper. Do not submit photos of illegal subject matter. All such photos will be deleted immediately without notice to you and at the sole discretion of the editor.

6. Photographers must include their name, telephone number, email address, town of residency and each photo’s date, location and description of subject matter.

7. Submitted JPEG images should be of the best possible technical quality. Good technique and technical quality are important, but originality, creativity, interesting subject matter, artistic merit and good composition are even more important.

8. By submitting photos, you agree to our publication of them in the Redoubt Reporter newspaper and on our Web site. The Redoubt Reporter will have the right of first publication of your photos. However, you will retain the copyright for all other purposes and your name will be listed if we publish any of your photos.

9. Our decisions about what’s published or selected for exhibition are final and are admittedly subjective. Space is limited, and the judging panel and editor reserve the right to choose photos at their discretion.

10. Retain your original digital files of all submitted images. We are not responsible for preserving copies of your digital images.

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

When do you realistically need to upgrade your camera gear and, conversely, when is enough, enough?

Most current digital SLR and compact-system camera models, used intelligently, are probably more than adequate for 98 percent of the needs of 98 percent of camera users. Upgrading makes sense only when your current gear precludes you from important functions. That’s less common than you may imagine. Knowledgeable users can often work around apparent equipment limitations and, in the process, achieve better results when they’re forced to actually think through what they’re doing rather than depending on auto-everything gear to think for them.

As examples, among the most common capabilities of modern camera systems are autofocus, autoexposure, image stabilization and high-ISO image quality. Not too long ago, however, nearly everyone focused manually and usually did so with precision. Most decent digital cameras remain capable of accurate manual focus — you just need to slow down and take some care. A tripod remains the best image-stabilization hardware and even helps make sharp photographs in the low light-conditions now typically exposed hand-held at ISO 3200.

Similarly, many of us first learned photography using film cameras and hand-held light meters. Again, slowing down a bit, thinking about the relationship between a subject and its lighting, then manually measuring the subject often resulted in more thoughtful, technically better photos. Nonstandard lighting conditions, such as backlit subjects, snow scenes and moody dark scenes still fool modern digital cameras just as often as older film cameras, but fewer modern users understand how to adjust the exposure to compensate for nonstandard lighting conditions. That information used to be printed on the insert found in every roll of Kodak film.

Despite these workable solutions, there’s a definite preference for acquiring new camera gear that goes higher, farther and faster than anything else. To some extent, that makes sense. Smaller, more capable cameras are more likely to go everywhere with us and, hence, be used more frequently. Reliable autoexposure and autofocus allows us to work more quickly and intuitively if the situation demands that working style. However, auto-everything is most effective when used intelligently, rather than as a crutch for a lack of deep knowledge, and used in a way that complements and furthers your personal approach, rather than substituting for it.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve bought camera gear to deal more easily with various limitations. As an example, I was quite pleased with the low-ISO image quality of my old Pentax K20d, but its Samsung sensor simply couldn’t handle subjects with a wide dynamic range, such as the very bright backlit beach scenes that I like to photograph. It was not very usable at higher ISO sensitivities because image noise became quite unpleasant by ISO 800, blurring detail and color accuracy. That older K20d also lacked some useful, now-standard features, such as the ability to make high-definition videos.

As a result, my K20d couldn’t be used to photograph my kid’s middle school volleyball games, nor make videos of any subject. It wasn’t useful for my other pending projects, such as taking hand-held photos at ISO 3200 in the lovely luminous light that characterizes our summer twilight just after sunset. Because of these limitations, I did upgrade my gear, buying a Pentax K5 and later an Olympus OM-D EM-5, both of which solve all of the K20d’s limitations.

The OM-D is smaller and hence much more portable and readily available, while the K-5 has even better lowlight performance at ISO 3200. (I still have that weather-sealed Pentax K20d — I use it in foul weather when I’m loath to risk newer gear.)

Mostly, these gear upgrades have expanded my options and allowed me to complete some otherwise infeasible photo projects. The 16-megapixel Sony sensors used by both of these cameras are more than adequate for nearly every purpose, including making very large, high-quality, 24-by-36-inch prints. I can’t make a print that’s larger in any case, so cameras like the Nikon D800 with its 36-megapixel sensors, don’t provide me with any additional benefit. It’s rather like buying a 200 mph Ferrari sports car for Alaska roads. It’s only usable on summer roads that are usually so heavily traveled that the Ferrari never gets above fourth gear.

Both the K-5 and the OM-D systems included balanced sets of good quality prime and zoom lenses that make the most from these fine cameras. Indeed, purchasing high-quality optics is now the most important factor in making fine photographs. It’s an area where careful research is still needed — many mediocre lens designs remain on the market.

Other examples:

  • For some time now, I’ve used a Canon S100 as my supercompact pocketable camera when carrying anything larger, even a small Micro Four-Thirds camera like an Olympus E-PL5, seems obtrusive. The $350 Canon S100 produces sharp, good-quality images that print well to 17-by-25-inches, a print size beyond which I rarely go, and thus serves my compact travel-camera needs quite well. There’s no reason, then, to replace it with the new darling of the pocket-camera set, Sony’s $750 RX100 II, even if the RX100 lens was better, which it’s not.
  • I also gave some passing thought to upgrading my Pentax K-5 to the newer model, the K-5 IIs, in which the anti-alias over the sensor has been removed to extract that very last bit of sharpnesss. Nikon’s taken a nearly identical approach, removing the anti-alias filter from its new D7100, the semipro model most similar to the K-5 IIs.

Does removing the anti-alias filter improve sharpness enough in either the K-5 II s or the D7100 to justify upgrading from the earlier models introduced three years ago? In a word, no. Image quality is virtually identical for all models, including both recent and earlier models. Again, there’s no reason to upgrade. High dynamic range, important when you need to salvage detail from underexposed and overexposed areas, likewise remains very good and thus unchanged.

The takeaway? Be skeptical about advertising and reviews urging you to upgrade from recent models. There’s usually less benefit than you might imagine, particularly if you’re already knowledgeable technically and able to work around gear limitations. Some camera limitations, though, may not be amenable to work-around solutions and objectively preclude some projects. That’s when they’re not enough and an upgrade may be warranted.

Avoiding theft and loss

Cameras are choice prey for thieves, particularly large “pro” camera bags that practically scream that they’re full of high-value, easily fenced gear. How might you protect your gear from theft and insure it should a theft occur?

  • Insure your camera gear, preferably through a homeowner’s insurance policy. Such policies usually include “floater” provisions allowing you to list “schedule” valuable items such as cameras and jewelry, paying a small additional premium to protect them to full value. In the event of loss, you’re covered. Be sure to save receipts and take photos of the scheduled items to prove your ownership and the item’s value. Floaters cover your gear when it’s being used outside the home, where it’s most likely to be damaged or stolen and least likely to be insured.
  • Register your ownership and warranty with the manufacturer and keep a record of serial numbers. You might be able to reclaim stolen property if you do so. Some fee-based services will list any stolen property on the Internet, increasing your chance of safe return. In any event, registration helps with insurance claims.
  • Keep a tight eye on your gear in public, physically carry it whenever and wherever possible, and never put camera gear in a large bag that must be checked by an airline. That’s just asking for damage and theft, particularly if you’re making connections. Really, unless you’re a pro, you don’t need to carry that much gear in any event. Instead, use a small, lightly padded messenger-style shoulder bag that will fit in a smaller plane’s overhead compartment and then fill that bag only with gear that you’re likely to need rather than every lens and light that you possess.
  • Put a small motion or proximity sensor in your camera bag if you plan to leave it unattended for even a short time.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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