Misused photography terms that bug me

I try to keep my impulses to correct other people's grammar and diction on a pretty tight leash, but there are two words in the photography world that I hear misused a LOT. And it bugs me.

Sorry, but I am about to vent.

"STROBE" - Arguably the best photo lighting blog on the 'net is the STROBIST blog. I'm not knocking anything about this blog. At all.

Except the name bugs me.

The Strobist has a built a great brand and appears to be living the dream of a monetized blog. It would be stupid of me to suggest or for the Strobist to ponder changing the name. But he's not talking about strobing.

"Strobe" is short for the word "stroboscope." This, by definition, means a series or short, bright flashes of light at intervals which can be used to record movement of an object, or to make a rotating object appear to be stationary, such as with an automotive timing light. There is a rather famous photo of a golf swing recorded with strobe, with the club seeming to make a sort of peacock fan around the golfer. In the 1970's, strobes were also used to illuminate the spastic gyrations of dancers wearing hideous clothing in places once referred to as "discoteques."

So, what the strobist writes about is "portable electronic flash photographic lighting." But, of course, "Portable Electronic Flash Photographic Lightingist" would be a crappy name for a blog, so forget it.


"PRIME" - In recent years, photo related internet discussion groups and forums have lit up with discussion of the pros and cons of fixed-focal length (non-zoom) lenses, which way to many people insist on calling "primes." There is such a thing as a "prime" lens, but most lenses people refer to as primes, aren't.

The prime focal length, as I can recall from Joseph Costa's Advanced Photojournalism class back at Ball State University, is the lens focal length which will closely reproduce a person's normal field of vision. That is, objects viewed through a prime focal length lens do not appear to be closer to the viewer or farther away. You can calculate the prime focal length for various film and digital sensor formats thusly:

Square root of ((width of sensor/film format squared) plus (height of sensor/film format squared))


Prime focal length for 35mm film or FX (full-frame) digital sensors (24mm x 36mm):

(24*24) + (36*36) = 1872, square root of which is 43.27mm. Of course, 50mm is generally considered to be "close enough" to prime for this format.

Prime focal length for APS-C digital sensors, such as Canon 40D (22.2mm x 14.8mm):

(22.2*22.2) + (14.8*14.8) = 711.88, square root of which is 26.68mm. Sigma markets their 30mm ƒ/1.4 lens as a "prime" for this sensor size. Personally, I'd lean toward the Canon 28mm ƒ/1.8, since it would be usable on all EOS cameras.

So, a 50mm on a Canon 5D or Nikon D3/D700 would be considered a prime lens. The same lens on a Canon 40D or Nikon D300 would not be a prime, but a short telephoto. Likewise, a 28mm/30mm lens on a Canon 40D/Nikon D300 would be a prime, but on the Canon 5D or Nikon D3/D700 would be a wide angle.

A 300mm, although not a zoom, is also not a prime lens unless you happen to be using it on an 8"x10" view camera.

I can actually accept using "strobe" as a slang-ification when referring to single-pop flash lighting. I've been guilty myself of making reference to "strobing the IUPUI natatorium for a college swimming meet."

But I have to hold the line on "prime."


Pylons and Sleestaks and Dinos . . . Oh my!

If you are in roughly the same age bracket as me (mid-forty-ish), "Land of the Lost" was probably part of your Saturday mornings as a kid. This 30-minute show hit the airwaves when I was about 9. This is the age when cartoons start to become a yawn, and in the early 70's, Saturday morning "kidvid" started an awkward transition into more live action shows. To throw out a few titles, "Run, Joe, Run", "Westwind", "Shazam!", "Isis", "H.R. Pufnstuf", "Lidsville", "Sigmund & the Sea Monsters", and "Land of the Lost". Production values on these shows generally ranged from 'bites hard' to 'total suckage.'

Those last four titles I mentioned were all produced by brothers Sid and Marty Krofft and were probably the best of a bad bunch. And "Land of the Lost" was the baddest of the bad. And by "bad", I mean what passes for "good" in this context.

I caught a few of the old episodes of "Land" on cable several years ago. And brother, they have not worn well. The nostalgia center of my brain wants to remember this show as a shining achievement rising high above the rest of the Saturday morning schlock. But face it, fellow forty-somethings, the dialog sucked,the special effects sucked, and the acting sucked (or was at best intentionally very campy).

But I mean all that in the best possible way. Producing a show like "Land of the Lost" for Saturday morning in 1974 was an exercise in insanity. The state of the art of special effects at the time was nowhere near capable of creating believable live-action footage of actors interacting with dinosaurs, especially on a per-episode budget that probably wouldn't cover the cost of lunch on the set of a prime-time drama of the day.

But they did it anyway. The Kroffts attempted what they had to know was impossible, and that is often the Genesis of genius.

While the producers may have skimped on acting talent and been hamstrung on special effects, they deserve credit for laying out the dough for quality writers. "Star Trek" and science fiction fans will know some or all of these names: David Gerrold, Margaret Armen, Larry Niven, Ben Bova, D.C. Fontana, Norman Spinrad and Theodore Sturgeon. And even if the acting and production fell short of potential, there were smart science fiction concepts in play and a well-developed and consistent "universe," although writing and continuity slipped noticeably in the last season.

Well, people, get ready for a not-so-routine expedition. "Land of the Lost" is back. Or it will be this June at a theater near you. Depending on what you want this movie to be, the fact that Will Ferrell is in the starring role is either very good news or very bad news. I would describe Ferrell as highly talented, but his appeal to me personally is uneven at best. The "More Cowbell" skit on Saturday Night Live? Genius. "Kicking and Screaming" and "Blades of Glory"? Not so much.

If you wanted "Land of the Lost" re-done in serious mode with state of the art CG special effects and script treatment worthy of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark, this assuredly won't be it. I suggest you try getting your dino fix by renting "Jurrasic Park" again.

Based only on the trailer on the official site, it appears to me Ferrell may be hitting the right notes on this one. There's a Marshall, there's a Will, and there's a Holly (although they aren't father, son, and daughter this time around). There are dinosaurs and Sleestaks. There's a "greatest earthquake ever known." There are three moons and monkey people. We can see giant walnuts, giant mosquitos, and it appears the characters kill a giant crab in self defense and eat it with a squeeze of juice from a giant lemon. Concepts from the original show such as the Lost City and the Sleestak Council of Skulls seem to be present as well. The cast listing for the new movie at imdb.com lists a Chaka, an Enik and no less than 26 Sleestaks. Possible references to specific episodes of the original show are suggested by the viking ship visible in the trailer, and characters in the cast that include two "Tar Pit kids" and an "Astronaut."

Don't see any pylons, skylons or light crystals yet, though. Hmmm. . .

"Must see" movies are few and far between for me these days, but 2009 promises at least two of them so far: the re-boot of "Star Trek", and "Land of the Lost".

(NOTE: click the picture at the top of the post and you will be taken to the full size image file. This is the downloadable wallpaper image from the official site modified to fit wide screen laptop-style screens - 1440x900 pixel size. Right-click it and enjoy.)


Big doin's at PocketWizard

There was some chatter on the Paul C. Buff forums recently that PocketWizard would make a big announcement soon. Like I usually do when I hear such a thing, I religiously checked their website for several days and when I keep seeing same old same old day after day, I gave up checking one or two days before "THE EVENT." (Seriously, I must have pinged the Canon website for 60 consecutive days, but gave up on it exactly two days before the 5D Mark II announcement.)

The event in this case is the announcement of the MiniTT1 transmitter and FlexTT5 tranceiver radio flash triggering devices. The news here is that these units allow TTL flash operation over wireless RF channels, which will be much more reliable than the about as expensive but dicier infrared wireless systems marketed by Nikon and Canon. For starters, this system is for Canon only, but Nikon-compatible gear is on the way. I won't re-hash features of the units here, as they are covered very well at the Strobist blog.

Personally, I've never been particularly happy with the consistency of results I've gotten with TTL flash equipment. Being an old hand (a VERY old hand) with manual operation of Vivitar 283's, I'm more pleased with the results I get working in "old school" manual. Therefore, I nearly said "big deal" at the news and went on with my day.

But, fortunately, I read on.

These units have the capability of operating in what is called "Hypersync" mode. This is of high interest to sports shooters like myself because it MAY allow using higher flash sync speeds with studio flashes triggered by these units. The power of my AlienBee's B800 units are "just enough" for some of my arena lighting situations, so the ability to cheat the shutter speed upward to cut out a little more ambient light could prove huge in certain situations, such as the IUPUI Natatorium (below).

The manual for these units says mileage may vary with different flash equipment and different cameras. Therefore, I will need to finagle a test situation to figure out if I can squeeze, for example, 1/400 or 1/500 sync speed with my Canon 40D (1/250 stock sync speed), but every single click upward on the shutter speed is a win-win in helping to cut back the ambient light to eliminate ghost imaging in arena situations. And if I read the manual correctly, it will work my my existing PocketWizard Plus II's. This is extremely cool, as it will keep the cost of adoption down by only requiring me to purchase a MiniTT1 transmitter. I may be interested in a FlexTT5 tranceiver later, but that can wait since my interest in TTL operations ranges from limited to non-existent.


Dear Canon: Your AEB sucks.

I've been an HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography enthusiast for about a year now. Having now done hundreds, or may be even thousands, of bracketed exposure sets, I'm always on the lookout for ways to reduce the tedium of this exercise. Auto-exposure bracketing would seem to be the answer, but, if this post can be seen as an open letter to Canon, Inc., I would have to begin it thusly:

"Dear Canon,

Your Auto Exposure Bracketing sucks."

For cameras other than the EOS 1D's, (like my 5D and 40D) one can set bracket inervals up to two f-stops for up to 3 exposures. This is sufficient only for what the book I consider to be the Bible of HDR imaging calls "MDR," or medium dynamic range. It's sufficient for many of the images I have taken (including the one that serves as the banner to this blog), but certainly not all situations. The pro-level Canon 1D mark III will do up to 7 exposures at up to 3 f/stop intervals. That's much better, if you can afford the price of admission.

I was frustrated enough with the lack of Canon bracketing options that I looked into Nikon cameras. (Switching to Nikon is not something I would seriously consider for multiple reasons, but I looked anyway.) Sadly, Nikon's AEB features didn't strike me as being much better. The Nikon D300 and D700 (to name the only two cameras I have looked at), do up to 9 exposures at up to 1 f/stop intervals. Bracketing over the 9 stop range would be great, but the 1 f/stop interval limit would not be my preference. I've found that 2 f/stop bracket intervals is quite sufficient for HDR work, and the 1 f/stop intervals from the Nikon would fill up my card with a lot of data that I would never use.

There are a few possible workarounds to this:

One option would be to connect the camera to the laptop via USB cable and control it that way. I suspect the brackets could be automated, either in the Canon EOS Utility software or via other means using the Canon SDK (software development kit). I "applied" to receive the SDK last Friday, and haven't yet been notified if I will be one of the "cool kids" and be granted download of the kit. Another open question is whether I will be able to figure out how to actually make the SDK do something more constructive than take up hard disk space. I am a scripter (using AppleScript), but am by no means a software engineer.

But even if I can get an SDK solution to work, I'm not sure at all that I want to lug a laptop around while I shoot, which I sometimes do in inclement weather. Seems to me that would just be a different kind of hassle, not a solution to the the problem. So let's leave this idea aside and proceed to. . .


This is something I just learned of recently thanks to the This Week in Photography podcast. Arduino is a small circuit board that can be programmed from your computer when connected by a USB or serial cable and running a programming environment on Mac, PC, or Linux. I was briefly enthused by this idea, described here, which makes use of software, called Bracketmeister, engineered by a highly skilled photographer named Joergen Geerds (his blog, his portfolio). But then I realized that it operated the camera in "Bulb" mode, which means shutter speed accuracy at speeds shorter than 1 second would be dicey at best, if even possible. Many of my brackets run up into the 1/8th second range, and there is one lighted bank sign on the Indianapolis downtown skyline that is so bright it can take up to 1/60th second to keep it from burning out. (Thanks for that, Fifth Third bank.)

The Arduino board is interesting to the budding electronics geek in me and I will probably mess with it at some future time for another purpose, but it does not seem like the preferred solution for my bracketing needs.

Another possible solution I know I am not the first to think of would be using iPhone or iPod Touch as a handy, portable device for camera control. But my understanding is that these devices are "locked out" of any kind of tethering operation with non-Apple devices. And again, this would probably require programming chops I do not possess, this time with the Apple iPhone SDK.

So, for now, it looks like I'm limited to counting the clicks on the shutter speed wheel in the dark. The best approach I've found thus far is to use a combination of AEB and manual adjustments.

Here are the particulars: My cameras are set to vary the exposure settings in 1/2 stop intervals instead of the default 1/3 stop interval. This gives me the most exposure variation "per click." I first determine the minimum shutter exposure that I plan to use for my brackets by reducing exposure until the brightest area of the image no longer flashes a highlight warning on the LCD. Then I set up AEB at 1.5 stop intervals, and slow the shutter speed down by 3 clicks. This gives me a 3-exposure set with my pre-determined minimum exposure at the low end. This is not yet a high enough exposure range, of course. So I then slow the shutter speed by 9 more clicks of the Tv wheel and do another 3 exposure set. This results in 6 exposures at 1.5-stop intervals for a 7.5 stop range.

That's still more clicks than I like to count, and results in touching the camera on the tripod more than I would like. But it does yield the broadest exposure range for least tedium of any method I have found so far.

Quotable: Feb 16, 2009 edition

My wife, Diane, and I made up our own quotable yesterday as we were driving around.

"He who hesitates . . . screws the person waiting behind him at the traffic light."


This ain't peanuts: Today's quotable

The recent testimony before congress, or should I say deliberate NON-testimony (taking the fifth), of executives of the Peanut Corporation of America brought to my mind a line from the movie "Silverado."

"We're gonna give you a fair trial, followed by a first class hanging."

We seem to have a tradition of relative wrist slaps for corporate "white collar" criminals in this country. I hope these peanut executives, along with Bernard Madoff, set a new precedent. If guilty as alleged, all these men have destroyed lives with their callous disregard for ethics and decency toward their fellow human beings (although I classify Madoff and Co. among "humans" with some reservation).

Such persons deserve to be in an environment that will forcefully broaden their appreciation for the concept of justice, not to mention the diameter of their rectal apertures.


Not quite early enough

We had a refresher coat of snow yesterday, so I thought I'd get an early start to try to take advantage of it for some photography. Seems I didn't quite start early enough. It was amazing how backed up traffic can get even at 6:40 AM. The route I can usually drive with only two or three stops today made me wait through at least 7 extra stop light cycles, costing me a good 10 minutes. It would have been nice to have that extra 10 minutes at my destination, which was one of my favorite views of the Downtown Indianapolis Skyline on the West side of the Canalwalk.

This photo is an HDR stitched together from 5 images and was shot with my Canon 40D and 24-105mm f/4.0L IS lens. The snow looks pretty fresh, but there were some footprints and the canal walk was probably plowed off yesterday. I'd love some fresh undisturbed snow, but the timing for that is rather unlikely for the sunrise view I prefer.

I'm pleased with the image overall, but I'd have liked to have been there a little earlier when the street lights were more in effect. Also, the sky was completely lacking in any kind of cloud activity, and that would have really added some pop and texture.

Click the play button below to take a tour of the image.