Tag Archives: Astro

So bridge cameras now have 80x optical zooms, but what does an equivalent DSLR setup look like?

In late 2014, Nikon pulled off a coup in the digital bridge camera market, by announcing the Nikon Coolpix P900 – a fixed lens camera with an astonishing 83X optical zoom range (4.3-357 mm –  which is equivalent to that of 24-2000mm on a 35 mm camera).

Nikon Coolpix P900 (Nikon stock product shot)
Nikon Coolpix P900 (Nikon stock product shot)

For several years, people had assumed bridge cameras were on their way out because they would not be able to compete with cheaper Digital SLRs and Compact System Cameras; but with the new generation of superzoom ranges, the bridge camera has come of age.  For convenience when travelling, it is easy to see the appeal of such a versatile zoom range accompanied by many DSLR type controls and features. This is doubly true when you consider the cost of such a camera may be less than the cost of a single lens of equivalent maximum focal length for a DSLR.  So can a DSLR still, really compete?

Can and how would you achieve a similar zoom range in a DSLR? Can you beat it? What would it look like, and how much would it cost?

There have been several excellent reviews of the Nikon and I would recommend Photography Life as the one with the nicest test shots. There is also a youtube video by Lothar Lenz (below) which demonstrates the full range of the zoom.


Given these reviews are already out there – I thought it would be useful to ask, can and how would you achieve a similar zoom range in a DSLR? Can you beat it? What would it look like, and how much would it cost?

As you know, this website is called Shooting on a Shoestring and generally the focus of the blog is budget photography. I should therefore say straight up, that you will almost certainly not be able to achieve such a huge range of focal lengths in a DSLR with equivalent features (autofocus, image stabilization etc.) for the same cost as the Nikon (less than £500 as of August 2015).  I do, however, want to focus on the cheapest way of achieving top quality results.

Can you achieve an 83x optical range in a DSLR?

Well… Obviously yes.  Though not with a single lens.  You will not, therefore, be able to smoothly zoom from the widest angle to the longest tele-focal distance.  Indeed, the expense of very wide angle zoom lenses and very long telephoto zoom lenses is such that you may want to consider fixed focal length lenses at the extreme. For some examples, you can check out some older and cheaper ideas here.  However it is important to have a decent range of zoom to be practical.  So, having considered the challenge, I have come up with a realistic 100x focal length range of lenses for a DSLR setup, giving excellent image quality for less than £1,000.

Having considered the challenge, I have come up with a realistic 100x focal length range DSLR setup giving excellent image quality for less than £1,000.

Let’s start at the wide end: Opteka / Kelda 6.5mm fisheye.  I love fisheye lenses and I was really keen to include one in this challenge because the Nikon bridge camera cannot achieve true optical fisheye effects.  On my Cannon DSLR (with a 1.6x crop factor), this lens gives an equivalent focal length of 10.5mm, much wider than the 24mm offered by Nikon.  True, this lens is manual focus only, but fisheyes offer such a massive depth of field, even at wide apertures, it really causes no problem at all.  I picked mine up on ebay back in January (2015) for £120.

Kelda 6.5mm Confirmation
Kelda 6.5mm Confirmation for £120

This lens is a favourite of mine for wide star-field shots and creating odd viewpoints:

Hesperia Hotel under the stars, single exposure, Lanzarote
Hesperia Hotel under the stars, single exposure, Lanzarote

Stepping things up a bit, to really compete with a bridge camera, it’s important to have a versatile lens with a wide zoom range – so a budget super-zoom seems appropriate.  In this case, I have plumped for the Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM. Note – this is the older version dating back to 2009 (not marked macro) for budget constraint reasons.  This lens is an image-stabilized, autofocus lens, which feels sturdy in the hand. It has a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 27-375mm, so is a reasonable wide-angle at the short end and still a good everyday telephoto at the long end.  Second hand, you can pick them up for around £150. I bought mine in London Camera Exchange on the Strand for that price, but to demonstrate the point, here is one on ebay today (for £174 including delivery).

Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM on ebay - 25th August 2015
Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM on ebay – 25th August 2015

This lens is one which I carry with me nearly all the time, as, while image quality is not as good as a prime lens, or even some smaller range zooms, it is still very respectable and it covers a vast array of different situations.  Alternatives would include the more expensive Tamron 16-300mm or the similarly priced Tamron 18-270mm lens.

You can then couple this with the Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD, which is now readily available on ebay for less than £600. This gives a zoom range equivalent 240-960mm on a full-frame camera.

Tamron 150-600mm, now available for less than £600 easily.
Tamron 150-600mm, now available for less than £600 easily.

Alternatives here, include the cheaper Sigma 150-500mm, which frankly, is not such a good lens, and the Sigma 150-600mm, which is nearly identical to the Tamron in spec and handling, but as it is a slightly newer model, it still tends to be a tad more expensive.

So what results can you get with these two in combination?

Knole dear park, on a miserable rainy day, shot handheld at 18mm...
Knole deer park, on a miserable rainy day, shot using the Sigma lens, handheld at 18mm (equivalent to 27mm for a full frame camera)…
And the highlighted red section, zoomed at 600mm (also handheld) using the Tamron.
And the highlighted red section, zoomed at 600mm (also handheld) using the Tamron. This is equivalent to 960mm on a full frame camera.

These photos were taken in far from ideal conditions, but they clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of the Tamron’s image stabilization and sharpness at a wide aperture, as well as the fact it can definitely be used handheld.

“The full range of lenses on cameras? You’d better buy a bigger bag.”

So – having come up with a 100x zoom range for less than £1000 – can you beat even that?  Well, yes. Quite easily actually. You might be surprised that the Tamron lens can quite easily be paired with a simple 2x teleconverter (around £100 if you look hard) and still be very effective.  True – it won’t allow you to autofocus any more but the manual focus on the Tamron lens is very smooth and easy to use with practice.

The absolute full range of this setup at 6.5mm on the wide end to 1200mm on the long end (nearly a 200x zoom range!) is best shown again, with some photos of the night sky…

Tudeley Church under the stars (shot at 6.5mm)
Tudeley Church under the stars (shot at 6.5mm)
The moon shot with the Tamron 150-600mm at full zoom with a 2x teleconverter
The moon shot with the Tamron 150-600mm at full zoom with a 2x teleconverter

So – quite a wide range of focal lengths there.

But what does this all look like?

The full range of lenses on cameras... You'd better buy a bigger bag.
The full range of lenses on cameras?  You’d better buy a bigger bag.

Conclusion: At the end of the day – there is no denying that a superzoom bridge camera is a pretty nifty bit of kit, and an 83x zoom is still pretty incredible.  Would I buy one?  Perhaps, if I had the cash… But so far I haven’t and I don’t seem to mind one bit.

To the moon (on an economy ticket)

There’s a truism about photographers who like to try different types of shots, just to see how well they can pull them off.  And that’s that everyone needs a good moon shot.

It’s probably not surprising that so many people have tried to take photos of the moon, after all, you can see it from every continent on Earth and it’s easily the most noticeable object in the night sky.  But while nearly all photographers try to take photos of the moon at some point, many find it difficult to get a really satisfying result.

“Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think.”

Having tried several different approaches to photographing the moon, I’ve realised there are two areas which need some consideration – exposure and equipment (in that order).

Exposure

Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think, and brighter than just about everything else in the night sky.  It is an object bathed in (and reflecting) direct sunlight, and your exposure should account for this.

Normally, to take shots of stars, you need a wide aperture and high ISO to gather enough light to get a useable exposure, without creating long star trails or without a some kind of tracking/rotating mechanism to account for the earth’s rotation.  For the moon, however, this sort of setup would massively over-expose the moon, creating a burned out homogenous blob.  For this reason, when shooting the moon, if properly exposed no stars will be visible in the same exposure (though some shots can be combined very effectively).

The moon also moves relatively quickly across the sky, so any exposures of more than a couple of seconds will “smudge” (how noticeable this is will depend on your focal length / magnification).  To get a really crisp shot, it’s normally best to aim for a low ISO, an optimum aperture of around f/16 and an exposure of well under a second.  Always try to use a tripod of you want things to be really sharp (though, because it is bright, it IS possible to shoot the moon handheld).

If you are using in-camera auto exposure, then you are likely to need to dial in several stops of exposure compensation, or you will need to use spot metering, as the dark mass of surrounding night sky will fool the camera into over-exposing the moon.

Equipment

To shoot the moon, you don’t need particularly expensive equipment but if you want to really get fine detailed, zoomed-in shots, you will need a lens with quite a long reach.  Most point and shoot cameras will not be sufficient (though I have seen some startlingly clear results shot with a mobile phone held up to a telescope!)

The new wave of super-zoom bridge cameras (with 42x or 50x  optical zooms) have a far enough reach to photograph the moon as the primary subject.  At these very long focal length, a tripod is pretty much essential – especially when using Bridge cameras which tend to have smaller front-elements and are therefore less good at gathering sufficient light than dedicated fixed focal length tele-lenses.  Auto-focus can also be tricky, so switch to manual focus and zoom in, in live view, if possible to get things pin sharp.

If you want to get really good images, then you will probably want to get a fixed focal length telescopic lens.  These don’t need to be really expensive, especially if you get a t-mount or M42 mount manual focus lens, such as the Photax / Optomax / Sunagor 500mm f/8 lens (or another similar design).  You can pick these up second hand for as little as £25, and coupled with a tele-converter, they provide a huge reach.  The shot below was taken with this setup and is pretty crisp and free from chromatic aberrations etc.  Manual focus is pretty easy using live view.

Waxing (Gibbous) moon
Waxing (Gibbous) moon – shot using a manual Optomax 500mm f/8 lens (at f/16) and a 2x teleconverter, on an APS-C DSLR. This gave a 35mm equivalent focal length of 1600mm. The exposure was 1/15th second.

An alternative is to use a mirror lens (a much smaller lens) such as the Opteka, Samyang or Neewer 500mm models (normally f/6.3 or f/8, fixed aperture) which can also be fairly successful.  They are virtually completely free from colour fringes, but they do not give such impressive contrast and (because of the shadow of the mirror itself) tend to need a higher ISO and therefore create a noisier image.  They can be picked up new from around £50:

Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame).  The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame). The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.

Both of these lenses are considerably cheaper than, say, a 75-300mm tele-zoom, which tend to be the cheapest entry level telefocal length lenses produced by Canon and Nikon.  While these may have the benefits of electronic aperture control and autofocus (which doesn’t always work well for the moon), they also struggle with colour fringing (which can be taken out in post-processing) and are not as sharp:

Full moon
Full moon – shot at 600mm on an APS-C camera, using a 2x teleconverter and a 75-300mm Canon zoom lens at full extension.

While this is no-where near as clear as the results achieved with the manual focus, fixed length lenses, it is a significant improvement on the results I have achieved with a bridge camera with an 18x telephoto zoom (although more powerful zooms are now available).

Tested... a 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens
Tested… a 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens

A final piece of advice…

No matter what camera you are using, you often get the best results photographically  when you shoot the moon in a waxing or waning phase, rather than full (or nearly full).  This is because the shadows across the craters on the moon’s surface are longer, darker and have greater contrast in the lunar twilight, between day and night (or the light and dark side’s of the moon).

Another point worth noting (given the time of year) is that some of the clearest, stillest nights come during the winter – so get your gloves on at night over the next few nights, and get out shooting!