Tag Archives: Lens

The £200 challenge… A full DSLR kit for a range of situations, for the same cost as a bridge camera?

A friend of mine recently asked me the simple question: “What sort of camera should I buy?

I looked at him a blankly and was initially very unhelpful.  Not deliberately, mind you.  It’s just that there are so many different types of camera out there, with different advantages and disadvantages, prices and sizes.  After a few minutes I managed to ask him what sort of photos he wanted to take, and what he wanted his camera for.

Everything.” He said.

Now, I love a challenge, and I got to thinking about what sort of cameras you can use for everything – or at least what sort of camera you can use in the majority of situations.  Obviously, budget has to be a consideration, so I asked him how much money he had to spend, and he decided that about £200 was a good figure to settle on.

To a lot of people (me included!) £200 is a lot of money to lay out in one go, and a lot of people would never dream of spending so much on a camera (me not included). But as high-end professional cameras can be in the tens of thousands of pounds, clearly some compromises need to be made somewhere when coming up with our solution to “everything” for £200.

My first suggestion was therefore a bridge camera which tend to be “good all-rounders”. There are some very powerful options available for around £200 either used or new, with zooms in the 30x to 50x range.  (Particular favorites of mine would be the Fuji Finepix HS range, with manual focus and zoom rings, like a DSLR, but there are great options out there from all of the major camera manufacturers).

Nearly all of these new superzoom bridge cameras have DSLR-like controls for Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO etc., and will come with an electronic viewfinder.  However, they tend to have smaller maximum apertures and smaller sensors, so they are not as good for beautiful soft, out-of-focus backgrounds and their lenses tend to struggle at long focal lengths in difficult lighting conditions.

But is there another option?  Is it even possible to get a DSLR, with a set of additional lenses, to give you the versatility of a bridge camera for the same price?

The challenge

I should set some rules out for this challenge before I get it underway, because there are clearly going to be differences in the overall specifications and results achievable between  Bridge Cameras and second hand DSLRs, the point is, though, that the ultimate quality of the end image must be acceptable.  Here are my ground rules for the challenge:

  • The equipment bought/identified does not have to be new (since the cheapest DSLRs are commonly more than £200 with a kit lens new).
  • The equipment does have to be in fully working condition (cosmetic ware is fine, but no scratched lenses, or broken screens etc.)
  • The final kit does not have to take up as little space as a bridge camera – but it does have to be portable, and transportable in a single bag.
  • The final kit must be capable of taking photos of at least 10.1MP (considered the minimum for proper “photo quality” A4 / 8″ x 12″ photographic prints).
  • The final kit must be capable of at least ISO 6400 (which is at least faster than traditional film, though not much to shout about compared to some modern Bridge cameras).
  • The final kit must be capable of a wide-angle to super-telephoto zoom (ideally of over 30X).
  • Evidence of the availability of the item at that price (as at September / October 2014) should be shown – no open ebay bids!
  • The kit must be capable of macro.

So here goes…

Apologies to any Nikon fanatics out there – but I have plumped for Canon in this test for two reasons.  Second hand Canon gear tends to be a bit cheaper, and because I am a Canon user myself, I can vouch for how well the items mentioned here work.

The Camera: Either a Canon EOS 400D or Canon EOS 1000D.  Both available for around £100 – £120, including a 18-55mm kit lens:

Canon EOS 400D
Canon EOS 400D – The evidence, listed on Gum Tree for £100 with a Mk II 18-55mm kit lens (the type with no image stabilization, but one I own and have used a lot).
Canon EOS 1000D
Canon EOS 1000D also with an 18-55mm kit lens (the first DSLR I ever owned!) – this one is £120, though I have seen them on sale for less occasionally.  They are available for around £80 without the lens on gumtree today.

The Lenses and adapters:

  • Canon 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens (free with body) – a wide angle to portrait length zoom lens – which can be found from as little as £25 without Image Stabilization, if you buy the camera body separately, such as the 1000D, available for £80.
    Canon 18-55mm
  • Canon 75-300mm F/4.5-5.6 Lens, £45 (inc P&P):

    Canon 75-300 F/4.5-5.6
    Canon 75-300 F/4.5-5.6 Lens – available for around £45 (or less if you have patience bidding on ebay).  Also look out for the excellent Tamron 70-300mm lens.
  • Jessops 2x teleconverter (Canon Fit) – £40 (also available from Kenko and similar brands).  WARNING!! These can be very variable in price, so you will need to do a lot of searching to find a bargain!  Also do not buy a screw fit, filter ring type. They do not do the same thing, and they do not work anything like as well! They’re frankly rubbish.

    2x teleconverter
    Jessops 2x teleconverter
  • Set of 4 macro / close-up lenses – £7.50.  In this case, for a 58mm filter ring size – which will therefore work with both the 18-55mm and 75-300mm Canon lenses.  If you were to, instead, buy something like the Tamron 70-300mm lens, you would want a 62mm thread size and a step-up ring for the 18-55mm lens.

    Diopter lenses
    Set of four Diopter lenses (+1, +2, +4, +10)
  • 0.45x fisheye / wide angle conversion lens – £8.75, (also 58mm thread size)

    0.45x Wide Angle lens
    0.45x Wide Angle lens for use with the 18-55mm lens.

So, that gives us:

  • Camera and 18-55mm kit lens – £100
  • 75-300mm lens – £39.50
  • 2x teleconverter – £40
  • Macro lenses – £7.29
  • Wide Angle lens – £8.75

Total Cost: £195.54

The kit has a focal range of 8.1mm to 600mm (technically a 74X magnification from widest angle to longest focal length) – and a 35mm equivalent range of 13mm to 960mm focal lengths.

But how much space does it take up? Does it fit in a bag?

Yes it does (just!):

The full kit - for £195, all fits in a bag (which I got for 50p in a local charity shop).
The full kit – for £195, all fits in a bag (which I got for 50p in a local charity shop).

But is it any good?

Well – I think it is!  A lot of this is equipment which I use pretty regularly in the tests throughout this site.  There are a number of macro images already online, so I won’t dwell on these – but the full extent of the 600mm zoom hasn’t been demonstrated before.  Sure, there is some chromatic aberration, but it would be much worse on a bridge camera:

Red Robin
Shot with at 600mm on a Canon EOS APS-C sensor camera, which gives a 35mm equivalent focal of a whopping 960mm. This was achieved with a cheap 75-300mm tele zoom and a 2x teleconverter

Then at the extreme wide angle end things look like this – which is wider than can be achieved on a bridge camera without a similar converter:

Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse – which is too big and surrounded by trees to be conveniently shot without a fisheye – in this case a cheap 58mm screw-fit adapter on an 18-55mm kit lens.

Bee brilliant (or bees on a budget)

I love bees, and I love taking photos of them.  True, I am interested in all wildlife I really enjoy the challenges of macro, but bees are incredible, industrious, collectively intelligent, and indispensable little creatures and a real pleasure to observe and photograph.

For anyone who is interested in bees in general (and for some lovely video footage), I recommend checking out the excellent swiss movie, A Taste of Honey, (narrated in English by John Hurt).  For anyone who wants to check out some photos of bees (taken with varying degrees of success) there is an enormous Flickr group, Bees, bees bees! which is a great place to start getting some ideas.

“…bees are incredible, industrious, collectively intelligent, and indispensable little creatures and a real pleasure to observe and photograph.”

So how should you approach shooting bees?  What gear do you need?  And how much will it cost?

Well – clearly, I’m not going to tell you to go out and spend lots of money!  There are loads of different setups you can use for macro, and the most important thing is that you familiarise yourself and get comfortable with the one that you have chosen.  One of my preferred setups is pairing a +2 diopter supplementary lens with a telephoto lens (such as a 70 – 300mm zoom), but you can also use supplementary lenses with bridge cameras, you can try using reversing rings, extension tubes or there are various macro lenses that you can pick up second hand.  What I would like to talk about today though, is free.  And that’s technique.

Many incredible macro shots are taken in studios with artificial environments and complex lighting arrangements – all of that costs money and to my mind means that you lose some of the natural simplicity and beauty of a shot.  I’m therefore going look at natural environments in natural light (since specialist macro flashes are also very expensive).  I thought it would be useful to reduce it all down to a few simple rules.

Rule 1: Shoot on cool bright days (or in the early morning)

This first rule goes directly against the advice that you will read in lots of books and magazines – which often say that it is preferable to shoot macro on overcast days because you get fewer burnt out reflections and you better contrast… Well, that maybe true if you’re shooting things which don’t move – but for insects which can be fast moving it’s complete nonsense.  You need to be able to shoot handheld and at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action.  Bright days are definitely best. However, insects (which are cold blooded) have a faster metabolism and are faster moving in warm conditions, so cool days (spring and autumn) and early mornings are absolutely ideal.

The bee in buttercup
The bee in buttercup – shoot on bright days so that you can shoot handheld using fast shutter speeds without a flash

Rule 2: If the bee is on a flower, get really close and try to shoot sideways on.

To really get fine detail with budget equipment, you want to get up close and personal with the bee with a focal distance of just an inch or two.  Reversed lenses, macro extension tubes or powerful diopters on shorter lenses are a good way of achieving this. The important thing, when shooting bees like this, is not to get nervous. Bees are very placid animals and are very, very unlikely to sting you unless they feel threatened.  Often, when getting very close to them, people get scared and react unpredictably.  If you feel this is likely to happen to you, it is important to master your instincts.

Getting really close means you will have a reduced depth of field which is great for throwing your background out of focus – however it also means that if you shoot with the subject facing directly towards you with the eyes in focus, the abdomen will be out of focus.  Therefore try to get the bee side on (or nearly side on) so that you make the best use of the plane of focus.

A honey bee shot from close-up with a Canon EOS 35-80mm lens, with the front element removed.  This lens requires you to be very close to the subject though, so not practical for bees in flight.
A honey bee shot from close-up with a Canon EOS 35-80mm lens, with the front element removed. This lens requires you to be very close to the subject though, so not practical for bees in flight.

Rule 3: If shooting bees in flight, stand back!

Getting really close to a bee is all well and good when they’re almost stationary, but when they’re flying it’s totally hopeless.  For starters, they will actively try to avoid you, but in any case, your focal distance will be so short that you will never be able to keep track of their movements – therefore you need be able to stand back a few feet.  In this case, you probably want a smaller diopter on a longer lens or a shorter extension tube on a longer lens.  This setup should allow you to still get a big enough enlargement of the bee to be the subject of the shot while still being stood far enough away to track its movements.  Another advantage is that bees in flight tend to look much better if shown in relation to their environment, such as the flowers they are flying around – so you can be sufficiently “zoomed out” to include the environment:

Bee in flight
Coming in to land… A honey bee on (what I believe to be) Loosestrife flowers, in Kent.

Rule 4: To get sharp focus, pre-focus, try to be nearly side-on and “pull back”

A really big problem when shooting flying bees is that they tend to fly too fast for most autofocuses (particularly on cheaper lenses) and too fast for you to rapidly re-focus the lens manually.  You therefore need to get a bit clever about predicting the movement of bees.  Try to remember that they tend to hover on approach and take off from a flower so they will be nearly stationary in flight for a fraction of a second – and that they “back out” from flowers having collected the nectar.  This last point is critical, since it is easiest to “choose” a bee to photograph, while it is in a flower already.

Like my advice above, about shooting stationary bees side on to make the best use of the plane of focus, the same is true for flying bees.  If you can get the trumpet of a flower in perfect profile, when the bee flies out  backwards, it should remain in the plane of focus.  If you want to compose the shot so that it is not perfectly sideways on, then remember, still that the bee will come out backwards.  What you need to do, then, is focus on the part of the flower closest to the camera lens, and as the bee backs out tilt backwards (roll back on your heels) trying to keep the bee in focus by moving the camera with it.  It sounds simple, but can be really quite tricky!  As with all things, practice doesn’t exactly make perfect, but statistically at least, the more times you try, the more likely you are to get it right!!

Bumblebee backs out backwards...
A bumblebee backs out backwards… Pre-focus on the nearest section of the flower and roll back on your heels as the bee backs out to keep it in focus.

At the time of writing (late September) there are still some bee species active, and conditions are good, as the days are now a little cooler.  Try and get out this weekend and give it a go!

Do big numbers mean big cash? Shooting super-telephoto images

Today, I thought I would turn away from macro and taking photos from really close-up, to taking photos of things from really far away…

Like macro, taking shots with “super-telephoto” lenses can very easily be written off as a rich man’s game – and there are definitely plenty of rich boys’ toys out there if you have bottomless pockets.  For example, a story recently surfaced of a £99,000 telephoto lens going on sale!

If you’re anything like me, though, you’re probably looking for a solution for under £100.  Okay, so that’s hardly free, but this is a specialist area.

But what are your choices? Well, actually – there are quite a few.

In the case of the (slightly daft) £99,000 lens, the focal length on offer was an enormous 1,200mm – and the lens (as a result) was totally impractical for most purposes.  However, there are times when you’re shooting wildlife, sporting events or some specific scenery when you may want something which is pretty far reaching.  In these cases, it’s actually quite handy being on a budget as most cheaper cameras have smaller sensors which effectively increase the effective focal length of a lens, relative to a 35mm SLR or full frame DSLR.  This basically means that you get more magnification in your final shot from the same lens.  In the case of most Canon EOS cameras, you get a magnification (known as a “crop factor”) of 1.6X.  For a Nikon you get 1.5X.  For some bridge cameras, the crop factor may be as high as 5X to 6X!!

“it’s actually quite handy being on a budget as most cheaper cameras have smaller sensors which effectively increase the effective focal length of a lens…”

But what does it really mean?  Well – I’m going to look at focal lengths of between 500 and 800mm (equivalent for a 35mm camera).  This is because there are lots of ways of getting lenses of around 500mm of an APS-C DSLR which, because of the crop factor, will give the same level of overall magnification in your final shot as an 800mm lens on an old film SLR.

I’ll mention five options, and test four:

  1. Supplementary telephoto lenses
  2. Teleconverters
  3. Manual focus mirror lenses (often t-mount)
  4. Manual focus multi-element telephoto lenses (often M42 mount)
  5. Superzoom bridge cameras

1. Supplementary telephoto lenses – from as little as £10 on ebay 

I said I’d mention but not test one option – and this is it.  Supplementary telephoto lenses screw in front of the lens of your camera (like the diopters I tested for macro), or many wide angle or fisheye adapters.  I have already tested diopters on this website, and I will return to supplementary fisheyes in the future – but I’m not going to test the telephoto version because they are simply too rubbish.  My three pieces of advice would be avoid, avoid, avoid.  The real issue is that, unless you have a tiny aperture (and therefore have to push up the ISO and exposure time up beyond a practical level), you get terrible focus problems anywhere outside dead-centre of the frame.  If you would like to see some tests demonstrating this – I would point you to Keith Cooper’s article here.  (Seriously, though, even for £10, don’t bother.)

2. Teleconverters – Prices vary a lot, though if you shop around you can start from around £25 second hand.

In terms of intended outcome, teleconverters do the same thing as supplementary lenses – in so far as they work with an existing lens and increase its effective focal length.  The mechanism by which they do this is far more effective, though.  Rather than acting as a “magnifying glass” at the front of the lens, they work as an additional lens element stage between the sensor and the lens.  While it is obviously not as good as an expensive, dedicated telephoto lens, it is still pretty effective and a lot cheaper!

Now – one clear challenge here, is that in order to use a teleconverter to reach super-telephoto length, you will already need to have a telephoto lens with a focal length of around 250mm to start with.  These can also be expensive, but there are some cheap second hand options out there.  A few examples are:

  • Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6, Nikon / Canon and other fits available.  Second hand for £50 – £100.
  • Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6, Canon fit only. New from around £70 (this is the lens tested below).
  • Nikon AF-S 55-200mm f/4-5.6, Nikon fit only. New from around £70
  • Nikon AF 70-300 mm f/4.0-5.6, Nikon fit only. Second hand from around £80

In my test case, I have coupled a second hand Jessops (Kenko) teleconverter (bought for £25) with a Canon EF 75-300mm lens, bought second hand for £50, so £75 in total.  I also have the Tamron lens, which works equally well (perhaps a little better).  The photos used in this test aren’t terribly exciting, but they were all taken at the same time, in the same light so give a fair representation of capabilities:

x Teleconverter with 75-300mm Canon telezoom
Test – 2x Teleconverter with 75-300mm Canon telezoom.
Shot at around 500mm on an APS-C camera (800mm equivalent on a full frame camera). At this focal length the auto-focus stops working.

The focus achieved, given the long focal length is acceptably sharp, and chromatic aberration is not too noticeable (though from experience, this gets a log worse as contrast in your image increases).

Pros:

  • Pairing a tele-converter with a zoom means you can have an enormous range of zoom available to you by simply adding / removing the converter.  In this case, all the way from 75mm – 600mm.
  • Very space efficient, and can be paired with several different lenses.  It can simply be kept in your kit bag alongside your main lenses.
  • Reasonable quality results, retaining aperture control for depth of field control.

Cons:

  • While auto-focus works at shorter focal length, once you have gone up to super-telephoto lengths it gives up, so manual focus only.  Focus confirm should still work, though.
  • Adding a teleconverter reduces the light which reaches the sensor, so you will need to up the ISO, or lengthen exposure time unless it’s very bright.  At long focal lengths, this can be tricky.  You will probably want a tripod! (Though I would recommend it for all of these solutions really…)

3. Manual focus mirror lenses (often t-mount) – cheap 500mm lenses from around £70

Until recently, I had never tried a mirror lens, and I had always been fascinated by the idea of them.  If you look at a mirror lens from the “front” they really mess with your mind.  How can you get a full image from a lens which looks like it still has a small lens cap stuck in the middle of it?  (I’ll let you ponder that on your own).

Mirror lenses used to be very popular as a cheap way of getting up to super-telephoto focal lengths, without enormous costs.  Their relatively simple construction, basically consisting of two carefully aligned mirrors, means that there is far less complicated and heavy glasswork to create the image.  The lenses are also much, much shorter than multi-element telephoto zooms.  High grade mirror lenses remain very popular with astro-photographers, because they are virtually free from chromatic aberration and some of their weirder properties (donut shaped bokeh and “double vision” either side of the optimum depth of field) disappear at infinity focus.

But can they be used for day-to-day use? – On this occasion, I can’t exactly say that I’m convinced.  I should say that I have only ever used one (so not a statistically brilliant sample), but it is a very common one – the Opteka 500m f/8, t-mount (don’t forget to buy the right adapter!) I bought mine new and I believe it to be in “perfect” working order – but there are some serious limitations to optics of this type.

The major problem is low contrast (caused by the shadow of the front mirror), but this in turn makes it very difficult to find focus and, to be honest, I am not convinced that the sharpness of this sort of lens is ever really up-to-scratch.  That said, I have managed to get a few nice shots, and the low contrast can be corrected in post-processing.  For a fair comparison, below is an unprocessed shot, straight from the camera:

Opteka 500mm f/8 lens test
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror lens. The shot shows the low contrast caused by the mirror’s shadow, which can be corrected in post-processing, and the “double vision” background, which cannot.

Pros:

  • Virtually no chromatic aberration (so good for astro-photography).
  • Very small for a dedicated super-telephoto lens.
  • Cheaper than buying a standard tele-photo lens plus a converter

Cons:

  • Donut bokeh and double-vision backdrops
  • Low contrast and can be hard to focus
  • Can seem a bit soft generally (though that could just be me!)
  • Normally fixed f/8 aperture, so no control over depth of field.

Before moving on, though, it would be wrong of me not to show an image of something I believe that they are good at!

The moon with a mirror lens.
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.

4. Manual focus multi-element telephoto lenses (often M42 mount) – new from around £80

I should start this section by saying I think I got an absolute bargain, having picked up an Optomax Telephoto 500mm f/8-f/32 lens for just £25.  In my case the rear element (closest to the camera) has gone a little bit milky, but even with this problem it seems optically very good (so I would love to try a mint one!) Keep your eyes peeled for a second-hand bargain.

The costs of this sort of lens (often M42 to t-mount, so again, don’t forget the right adapter) vary quite a lot – but these generic lenses are much, much cheaper than branded auto-focus lenses.  Rokinon are the modern makers of a basically identical lens, and you can buy them new from around £80 if you shop around.  They are manual focus, and have manual aperture control (but this is important, as they aren’t fixed at f/8).  They also make a super-tele zoom (Rokinon 650-1300mm, normally sold with a 2x tele-converter), which you can pick up from around £150 new. You will need to shop around for this.

The construction is pretty simple, and they can be taken apart almost completely, simply by twisting and unscrewing (which can be handy if you want to pack them away somewhere not at full length).   They are pretty long and unwieldy and normally come with their own tripod mount.

The image quality from these is pretty good if you are patient enough and good at manual focus.  Shooting handheld can be very tough though because of their length – so if you are trying to catch fast-flying birds, it may be a bit difficult.

Optomax 500mm f/8-32 test
Optomax 500mm f/8-32 tele-photo, showing acceptably sharp results and bright colours.

Pros:

  • Good optical quality at a very reasonable price
  • (Manual) aperture control
  • Can be paired with a 2x teleconverter to make enormous focal lengths

Cons:

  • Big and unwieldy – difficult to use handheld
  • Fixed focal length
  • Manual focus only

5. Superzoom bridge cameras – used from around £50

All of the other options I have looked at today assume that you already have a camera to attach a lens to.  This is a one-stop-shop solution and is therefore very convenient for travelling light.  I am a big fan of bridge cameras as “good all rounders” and the modern superzooms are truly impressive in their equivalent focal-length range.

You will see in the photo below, that the equivalent focal length is not quite as large as I was able to achieve in the tests above, but I was using my old fuji Bridge camera (with an 18x optical zoom) and some newer bridge cameras can come with up to 50X optical zoom.  In this case, my Fuji S8000fd has a focal length of 4.7 – 84.2mm which doesn’t sound much, but with a 5.6X crop factor, it gives a 35mm equivalent focal length of 24-486mm, which is pretty impressive.  You can buy newer version for under £100 with 30X zooms which is equivalent to 24-720mm so the numbers are getting pretty big!

Of course, the downside is that the sensor is small and therefore the ultimate clarity and light sensitivity of the camera will suffer, and if autofocus doesn’t lock on, manual focus can be a dead-loss, but in good conditions, things are pretty good.

Fuji FinePix S8000fd test
Fuji FinePix S8000fd at full zoom (84.2mm, equivalent to 486mm full frame). Newer bridge cameras can zoom in even closer.

Recommendation?

As ever, your final choice is up to you – there are advantages and disadvantages to each solution. Here are my thoughts in summary though:

  • Never buy a supplementary lens for your filter ring.  You may as well burn a £10 note.
  • Personally, I would never build a DSLR camera bag and not include a 2x teleconverter.  Sure, they may not be as good as a massive, expensive lens, but they’re cheap and portable, so you can take them with you everywhere.
  • Unless you’re into astro photography – don’t bother with a mirror lens. They’ll only frustrate and annoy you.
  • If you don’t mind the length, the fixed focal length M42 mount lenses from Rokinon and Optomax etc. are really good for the price.
  • Bridge cameras remain great all-rounders provided you aren’t too fussed about retaining total control (or taking portraits with lovely narrow depth of field at shorter focal lengths).  Plus, the lens and the camera come together, so if you don’t mind an old 8 megapixel one they’re an absolute bargain.

As ever – happy shooting!

The lenses tested:

Lenses tested here
Tested… Top to bottom: A 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens

Maddening Macro (Part 1)

If you’re anything like me, you will doubtless have found yourself drawn in amazement to some of the photos out there of the very tiny, from very close up.

An ant in a wildflower
Wildlife can be found on your front doorstep, and shot with the simplest of gear.

One of the great things about photography, is that it allows you to see things which are very difficult to perceive with the human eye, either because you simply can’t get close enough to focus well, or because you can’t “freeze” something whilst moving, and your eyes can’t keep up with it.

This is where the wonderful world of macro photography comes in – and there are some true masters of it.  If you want to explore a vast array of images and techniques, the Flickr macros group is one of the largest on the site and is well worth a browse amongst its 300,000 or so photos (at the time of writing).

However, as with all things in photography, there is a catch.  If you start getting serious about taking macro images and read all of the magazines, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that you can spend a LOT of money on gear.  So is there any way to avoid this?

The short answer is yes – so long as you know and understand your equipment and its limitations.  I am therefore intending, over a series of articles in the next few weeks, to cover off some of the ways you can achieve great results without splashing too much cash.

Supplementary Lenses (also known as diopters, close-up or macro filters, or simply close-up lenses)

Being a stickler for technical accuracy, I’m not keen on referring to these little beauties as macro filters, as technically they don’t filter out any light – they simply act as magnifying glasses.  They are referred to as filters, though, as they tend to screw into the filter ring of your camera. (This is one of the reasons I recommend buying a bridge camera with a filter ring, or an appropriate adaptor).

As a general rule, you cannot use these sorts of lenses with more basic point and shoot cameras or mobile phones, which I will return to at another time.

There are a few reasons why I love these handy little tools, though, and why they formed part of every camera bag and setup I have ever owned:

  1. They are really cheap (under £10; definitely the cheapest way of getting into macro photography to start with).
  2. They can generally be fitted to any lens in a kitbag (either by choosing lenses with the same thread size, or a step-up ring, which can be bought for next to nothing).
  3. They hardly take up any space, so you can have them with you all of the time.

The third reason, although not technically a cost saving piece of advice, is definitely one about getting value for money.  One of the things I love about wildlife (particularly macro) photography, is that you can find things to take pictures of everywhere.  Ants, spiders, wasps, bees, even common houseflies become a hundred times more interesting seen from close up.  What you will find happens, is that you’ll go out with your camera and just stumble across things which you think are beautiful and interesting, and would love to take a photo of, but can’t because you don’t have the right lens, because it was too big or bulky.  With these little screw-on lenses, that needn’t happen, because they’re tiny to start with.

But seriously – are they any good?

In all honesty, yes they are – so long as you know their weaknesses.  Here are my “top tips” for getting the best out of your diopter lenses (with a few examples along the way):

Tip #1: Don’t just buy one diopter – by a set of three.

Or even a set of four!  You will normally find that these are sold in sets of +1, +2 and +4 (sometimes +3 or +5), and some sets come with +10.  I have a set of four, including a +10, but, to be honest, it’s a pretty crumby bit of glass, so stick to the lower numbers.  You will also read that you can “stack” these lenses (with the largest diopter closest to the lens) but don’t bother doing that either, as it will rapidly degrade your image quality.

Tip #2: Keep your subject centre-frame.

Unless you can afford to buy a two-element diopter lens (also known as an achromatic lens), which are quite a bit more expensive, then these lenses suffer from chromatic aberration especially closer to the edges.  This basically means that areas of high contrast end up with fringes of colour which should not be there.  With an out-of-focus and even background, this won’t matter, but if it’s a key element of the photo, you will begin to notice.  Therefore, when shooting (particularly in bright, high contrast conditions) try and keep your subject fairly central.

Buff-tailed bumblebee
Bombus terrestris in flight.
Shot with a +2 diopter from a £10 set of 4, on a basic canon 75-300mm lens (available new for about £70 and second hand, potentially a lot cheaper).

In this shot, you can see the chromatic aberration occuring on the right hand edge of the flower, though in the context of the shot, it detracts little from the action.

If you compare this with the following shot of a cricket, however, you can see how the image quality degrades as you reach closer to the edge of the frame:

A cricket
Shot, again, with a +2 diopter on a 75-300mm lens, but with a closer working distance (and a larger insect) filling the frame. You can see how image quality degrades further out (particularly around the legs).

However, if you shoot your subject dead centre, and against a low contrast (or single colour background) then you can hide the effect almost entirely:

Ladybird
A common English ladybird in a bush in my back garden. The same set up (75-300mm with a +2 diopter) but more even, green background without bright highlights.

Tip #3: Shoot on bright days!

There are a lot of comments out there about needing overcast light to shoot nice macro images, which is fine if you are able to shoot with an expensive ringflash or build complex artificial environments, but as a general rule, bright days are best if you’re on a budget.  This is because they allow you to shoot your subject at a high enough shutter speed to freeze your action, and to give you more flexibility on the aperture you use.

Tip #4: Try using a longer focal-length lens, with a lower diopter number.

Especially if your subject is moving! This approach should allow you to shoot your subject from a sufficiently distant position, without scaring the subject off – it also means you won’t block out too much light by casting your own, huge shadow over the subject thereby extending shutter speeds.  Also, the closer you get to your subject, the worse DoF problems can become making it hard to get what you want in focus.

Tip #5: Buy a mini-clamp tripod

These really are, cheap, low end bits of kit for about £5 – and would be rubbish for shooting birds, but for the small things they’re brilliant.  They’re also really good for quick snaps on a self timer and attach to pretty much anything (and have tripod feet if needed).  Again – they can be carried anywhere and used with any camera – so there’s not really any downside.

Mini clamp tripod
A mini clamp tripod you can just hang off your camera bag – available from amazon or ebay for around £5

Until next time – happy shooting!

Cameras… What cameras?

…use whatever you like, whatever you can get your hands on and whatever you have lying about.

As this blog is about photography, I guess it’s only right that my first proper post should be about cameras.  With all the thousands of different types of cameras out there, what on earth should you use?

The shortest and best answer I can give is – use whatever you like, whatever you can get your hands on and whatever you have lying about.

I’m not saying that to be frivolous or to avoid answering the question – but after all, this blog is about doing things on a shoestring and frankly, I don’t know how long your shoestrings are.  Of course, I could recommend you a particular make or model of camera, but if I did, for some it would be too expensive, for some too complex, for others it may be too basic, or not powerful enough, or not carry the right features.  If there are any camera snobs reading this, my recommendations could even seem too “cheap” – but if you fall into that category, this blog probably isn’t for you.

Instead, I think it’s important to work our what sort of photographer you are, what sort you want to be and what sorts of cameras will best meet your needs. Note my use of plural here, as some of you may well want to use more than one type of camera depending on circumstances.- and this doesn’t need to be expensive…

A few tips on different types of camera:

Compact / Point & Click cameras:

  • Don’t write these cameras off as no good simply because they are (normally) at the cheaper end of the market – there are some excellent cameras out there.
  • Don’t get sucked in, looking for the highest number of megapixels. It is far more important to get a camera which is optically good (with a good lens) and decent response to different light conditions, than getting a high resolution JPG of an image which looks bad.
  • If you don’t mind buying second hand, you can pick older ones up really cheap. (I recently bought a 7mp camera for £6 and use it a lot).
  • Obviously, they fit in your pocket.  This is great as it means you can always have one with you; you never know when you’ll find the “perfect” photo opportunity, and kick yourself for not having a camera.
  • If you get a cheap second hand one, you can try things and take it to places you may be unwilling to take more expensive gear (out sailing, diving in a cheap plastic cover, up a mountain etc.) 
  • They normally run on AA or AAA batteries that you can replace anywhere in the world.
  • They tend not to have powerful zooms.

Look out for: Optical zoom. A decent ground glass lens. A view finder or electronic viewfinder (EVF) if you can find one. At least some level of manual control. A tripod mount. 

Avoid: Digital zoom only. Small or poorly manufactured lenses. Cameras overladen with “gimmick” features but little manual control.

Always try before you buy – and zoom in on a test photo all the way to see the sharpness of the image captured.  If you can, try the same in low light.  Often the big names, like Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fuji etc are good bets, but they have also made some dogs!

Casio Exilim 7mp
A second hand camera bought for £6 before my last trip to Greece – it was intended for use diving in a simple plastic case (and lives to tell the tale!)

Mobile Phones / Camera Phones

  • Some purists amongst you may object to their inclusion here, but let’s be honest, we nearly all have mobile phones, and nearly all of them have cameras these days. A lot of them are really very good.  In fact, the cameras in phones have come on so far that these days, that sometimes the design is clearly more camera than phone.  (Check out the Samsung Galaxy S4 or Nokia Lumia 1020 to see what I mean).
  • Of course, top end phones and/or camera phones don’t come cheap, but a lot of you will have access to them anyway because of your mobile phone contracts – so don’t be shy about using their cameras to their full capabilities, because it’s almost a camera for free.
  • Even older phones with less high quality cameras can still be very good, especially in good light.
  • One key benefit is that you will nearly always have your mobile phone on you, so you never need to miss that golden opportunity for a shot.
  • New phones can be loaded with loads of cool (and free!) photo apps for editing and sharing on the internet.
  • Because they tend to have small sensors, they can actually be really, really good for close-up work which dedicated cameras can’t achieve without spending quite a bit of money.
  • They often only offer digital zooms, which can be a pain (though some newer models buck this trend).

Look out for: Decent low light sensitivity. A powerful flash. Macro focus mode. A reasonably wide field of view.

Avoid: Poor low light response (like the plague!!). Poor field of view. Poor autofocus.

St Paul's shot on my current phone (a Nokia Lumia 800). It was a beautiful day, when I was walking to the office, and I had my phone on me at the time.
St Paul’s shot on my current phone (a Nokia Lumia 800). It was a beautiful day, when I was walking to the office, and I had my phone on me at the time.

Bridge Cameras

  • Bridge Cameras are called this because they bridge the gap between Point & Click cameras and interchangeable lens cameras (DSLRs and CSCs).  They offer far greater manual control than most simple compact cameras, normally offering independent shutter and aperture controls and quite often they offer “manual” focus (thought this will be achieved digitally).
  • They normally have significantly better zooms than compact cameras, starting from around 15x from a few years ago right the way up to a whopping 50x available today.,
  • They have large ground glass lenses so their optical quality is normally much better than compact cameras (even on older models with lower pixel counts).
  • They are incredibly versatile, offering a wide range of shooting options in a single camera and lens.
  • They are therefore great travel cameras covering a wide range of situations.
  • Like compact cameras, old ones are now getting really quite cheap (though I’ve not seen one for £7 yet).  If you shop around you can start finding pretty decent ones from about £50.
  •  As you start pushing the boundaries of their capabilities, you are likely to start wanting to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera.

Look out for: A decent zoom range (anything from about 18x is pretty good for older models). Full manual controls including manual focus. RAW image capture if available. A threaded filter ring (or one capable of having a filter ring adapter added). A snug fitting lens cap. Optical Image Stabilisation. 

Avoid: Anything with a scratched lens (if buying second hand).  This is common in cameras of this type. Any versions that don’t have an EVF.

Fuji Finepix S8000fd
One of my favourite travelling companions, which has travelled pretty much everywhere with me since 2008. This little bridge camera is only 8MP and would be dirt cheap today, but it’s still got a great lens and is a real workhorse.

Interchangeable lens cameras

There’s so much to say about these, that they will need another blog entry, but they fall broadly into two types – DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and CSC (Compact System Cameras).  Both types vary greatly, and the modern high spec versions can be pretty pricey.  At the lower end, it’s much easier to find second hand DSLRs, as they have been around for a lot longer (basically since the early days of digital photography) where as CSCs are only really becoming mainstream now.  It is therefore also much easier to buy second hand lenses for DSLRs today…  

Looking at ebay today – you can buy a 6.3MP DSLR for under £50 but you would be lucky to get a decent lens with it, and the light sensitivity will not be as good as a more modern camera.

If you are really, really serious about photography, it’s likely that you will want to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera at some point because the range of different lenses you can use ultimately gives a greater range of shooting capabilities than even those offered by a Bridge camera – but it can therefore be an expensive journey to set out on.  If you’re total budget is £100, you are much better off sticking with a Bridge camera.

 

Conclusion?

I can’t tell you what to buy – I own variants of all of these, but I would suggest to anyone that a few quid on a compact camera with a decent lens can never be a waste of money… If you learn how to make the most of it, you’ll be able to get some great pictures.  If you’re a little more serious but still just getting going – an upgrade to a bridge is a massive step up in terms of the capabilities of the camera.