Nature close up

Nature can be beautiful, as in the snap I made in downtown Toronto yesterday afternoon:

Bird, Fountain and Flowers (Toronto, 29 August) - photo by Michael Willems

Bird, Fountain and Flowers (Toronto, 29 August)

Sometimes, as in this example, nature is best seen close up; sometimes better using wide angles.

That is the kind of thing we will be going over in the upcoming full-day Nature Walk workshop, which, take note, has now been brought forward to 11 September. It is also one of the subjects I go through in the Henry’s “Creative Urban Photography” half day walkaround I do in Oakville.

Choosing the right angle is a very important part of making (not “taking”!) a photo, and it is one of many subjects covered.

Oh, the photo? A 70-200mm f/2.8L lens, set to f/4 (I wanted the bird to be sharp, and these birds never sit still for more than a moment). At 200 ISO, that gave me 1/250th second. I used the Canon 7D camera, because its 1/6 crop factor gave me a longer reach (the 200mm effectively became 320m).

What camera?

Or more importantly, why do I use these big, heavy, costly 1-series cameras? Like my 1D Mark IV?

Even in tonight’s course, a student asked me that (yes, you know who you are). Good question.

Canon 1D Mark IV camera

Michael's Canon 1D Mark IV camera

So do they give me better pictures?

Of course not. Unlike the lens, the camera makes little or no difference to the image. Sensors are pretty much sensors, now, and when the image is being taken, the sensor and the lens are really the only two thing sin play. The camera is ust a box.

Nevertheless, I invest in these heavy things. I’ll give you some clues as to why.

  • I can write to two memory cards at once. This is important when the event is important, like a wedding: memory cards can, and occasionally do, fail.
  • They can get wet – on last Sunday’s Creative Urban Photography shoot, my 1D bodies were dripping with water, literally.
  • They are fast (the 1D Mark IV, a sports camera, takes 10 shots a second!)
  • They are more customizable. The less you spend, the more functions are removed by Canon and Nikon et al.
  • They last. The 1-series bodies can take 300,000 shots before the shutter needs replacing. A consumer camera can take a fraction of that.
  • Support. I can sign up to Canon CPS and pay extra money to get support: but only if I have “professional” cameras.

That’s why I spend money, and if you do not need these benefits, that’s why you do not have to. Spend your money on lenses and flashes, in that case!


I hear that Canon is announcing new camera and lenses etc for release by late 2010:

  • EOS 60D
  • 8-15 f/4 fisheye
  • EF 70–300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM
  • EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM
  • EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM.
  • Extenders EF 1.4X III and EF 2X III.

Canon has also issued an announcement that the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM and EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM are currently being developed, with delivery planned in 2011.

OK… get your wallets ready!

Love them. Love them not. Love them.

Large corporations, especially Japanese ones, can be hard to deal with. Customer Service tends not to be top of mind – dealing with these companies can be a little like dealing with the government.

They have only a vague understanding of the Internet. Their web sites are designed, it seems, to obfuscate. Long trees of site-to-site navigation, often having to chose between several options, none of which are right. “The interwebs”, for these old grey guys in suits, is, it seems, quite often just a way to get rid of those pesky customers who keep calling. (And I say that tongue-in-cheek: I am middle-aged, male, and wear suits quite often, and a tie even more often).

I use Canon equipment. The cameras are a 1Ds Mark III, a 1D Mark IV, and a 7D, and all the “L” lenses I need. Probably $45,000 worth of Canon equipment. And I love it all to bits of course, but I do rely on my cameras for a living, so I need good service when I need it.

Canon has CPS for that: Canon Professional Services. Pros get better service.

But here’s the catch.


  • In Canada, CPS costs hundreds of dollars a year. It used to be free, and in most of the world it still is, but for Canada it costs. Much! We get a really bad deal. Why do photographers in other countries get reasonable service for free, and we in Canada pay $250 a year? After paying tens of thousands of dollars?
  • Well, at least in return, you get service. But wait. That service appears to have been downgraded from what it was, just last year! More money for more process, less service!
  • Emails from Canon about CPS have links, but the email is a graphic and you cannot click on the link.
  • The CPS program has no email. Their emails are signed by “CPS Services”. Who wants customers to email them? Not Canon, it appears. Makes me feel very unwanted: Canon goes out of its way to not be contacted by me. I am an annoyance.
  • Service? Well, I signed up. I got “approved” (ludicrous that you have to get approved, but anyway). I got a bill. Had a question. Called the person whose name and number was on the bill. She was on holiday (it’s OK for some!) so I left a message on her voice mail. This lady never called me back. I guess perhaps they have a “policy” against that.

As a result, I have not yet paid. And I doubt that I will. Maybe I’ll switch to another brand of camera equipment if I ever need service. Paying tens of thousands of dollars for less service, and getting no help? Doesn’t seem like such a good deal to me.

I cannot imagine treating customers this badly. Suppliers of any product or service should go out of their way to make their customers, who part with their hard-earned money for them, happy.I am delighted to work at midnight, or to go the extra mile in any way I can. I love my customers. I am grateful to them. I cannot imagine treating them badly!

So when my thousands of students ask me whether Canon service is like Apple’s, I can only sigh. And I doubt that Nikon is better (correct me please, if I am wrong!)

One thing I will say: retailers can be a very useful buffer.  Henrys (Canada’s largest photo store) are fantastic. (Disclaimer: I teach there. That said, I do not work for them, and I can say this independently). Any service issue at Henry’s is dealt with very well. They invite contact, instead of avoiding it.

And I am not just saying that: I take out the additional Henrys warranty on all my cameras. The only additional warranty I ever buy. Because it is worth it.

The summary of this post:

  • Large corporations can be good (Apple) or useless (you know who you are) at service.
  • Retailers can be a very useful way for customers not to have to deal with these corporations (just like insurance brokers).
  • Service is important: if your camera breaks, you are out of business!

Now back to photo editing, my job for tonight.


I was amused to see Leica announce recently that they would not be issuing any micro four-thirds lenses. In a recent Popsci blog, Leica’s VP marketing is quoted as saying:

“One reason why we’ve decided not to move into Micro Four Thirds is that we have looked at the sensor size and realized that it cannot produce the image quality that we need. Therefore we decided to stick with the full format in addition to APS-C. It’s all about the ratios”

Interesting. Really? So why is Leica selling rebranded Panasonic cameras at the bottom end?

So let’s see what a real micro four thirds Panasonic, my new GF-1 with fixed 20mm lens, can do against the top of the line Canon, the 1Ds Mark III with a prime 50mm lens. Crazy comparison, eh? Who’d be crazy enough to shoot the same object with a highest-end SLR versus a point and shoot?


I just shot my most patient model in the studio, lit by a couple of Bowens strobes.

  • Both cameras set to manual, 100 ISO, f/9, 1/125th second (as measured with the light meter). One shot focus, focus point on the eye.
  • 1Ds Mark III: 50mm f/1.4 lens on this full-frame 23 Mpixel camera
  • The 12 Mpixel GF1 was fitted with a 20mm f/1.7 lens. Because the sensor is four times smaller than a negative, this is equivalent to 40mm “real” length.

So the shots:

Full shot, Canon:

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens

Full shot: Panasonic:

Panasonic GF1, 20mm f/1.7 lens

Detail, Canon:

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens (detail)

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens (detail)

Detail, Panasonic:

Panasonic GF1, 20mm f/1.7 lens (detail)

Panasonic GF1, 20mm f/1.7 lens (detail)

In all cases, click to see a larger picture.

These were RAW images that have been read into Lightroom and edited slightly for white balance and exposure. No sharpening or noise reduction was done.

What does this show me? Yes, I suppose at higher ISOs I’ll see more of a difference, but at these low ISO settings, any megapixel count over ten is “enough”, and the difference in the case of such a controlled shot is minimal.

Certainly, this does not in my opinion warrant the comments by Leica.

While I am not about to hang up my DSLRs, I am impressed by the small camera’s ability to produce professional work.

So to Uncle Fred (and you are not Uncle Fred, or you would not be reading this):

  • It’s not about the equipment;
  • It’s about the picture.

There! Let’s start thinking more about the image than about how we make it.

Canon updates

Canon has released several updates: new firmware for the Canon EOS 7D, version 1.2.2 (download it from here), and new firmware for the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV., version 1.0.8 (download it from here).

I recommend that when able, you do these updates. Full battery, newly formatted-in-camera memory card, no lens or a good Canon lens on the camera, and then do the update. Features and fixes could be useful, and there may be undocumented fixes also, I suspect.

Engineers… sigh.

An old one:

  • Q: What does an engineer use for birth control?
  • A: His personality.

I am constantly amazed when I see how engineers fail to communicate. They assume that ordinary people know or understand things that the engineers take for granted. If I know it, so must others, right?

Wrong. Here are just a few of the constant stream of things that make photography difficult for mortals.

  • Nikon menu spaghetti: The vertical menu tabs in Nikon cameras. And the navigation: “left, up/down, right, up/down, select, up/down, Set”. And then if you forget the final “up, set, press OK”, you lose the setting you have just done.
  • Nikon menus: in addition, most users do not understand that the menus are longer than the screen. The scroll bar is small and unintuitive. So if the vertical menu displays 8 functions but contains 18, most users will never know about those additional 10.
  • Nikon hidden auto ISO. Hide the Nikon auto ISO setting in a custom function, and users wonder why their pictures get all grainy (and their studio pictures fail completely) when they have clearly set ISO to just 200 in the main ISO screen. D’oh!
  • Wakey wakey – that fact that you need to wake up your camera by briefly pressing the shutter before you can set anything. I cannot tell you the number of times I hear “my camera isn’t working: it’s on but when I turn that dial, nothing happens”.
  • 1/1. When I set my flash to full power manual, a Canon flash displays “1/1”. In a world where only one in ten Canadians can tell me that 1,000 times 1,000 equals one million (most think 10,ooo), why do you think that people know that one divided by one is one? And even if they do, that “one” means “full power”?
  • Lens terminology. “ZOOM LENS EF 70-200mm 1:2.8 L USM IS”: need I say more? Instead of “1:3.5-5.6”, why not say f/3.5 to f/5.6, so beginners understand it? Look at that string: one colon three dot five dash five dot six. Clear, not.
  • Auto-focus terminology – We have AF mode and AF point selection, but AF point selection is not called anything like “AF”. So when people look for the word “AF” to select where the camera focuses, they get how it focuses instead.
  • Colour: why call “white balance” after “white”, which is not a colour? If they called it “colour balance” it would be sooo much clearer! Yeah guys, I know. Don’t think science; just think customer!
  • Terminology. Why call it “3D Color Matrix Metering” or “Evaluative metering” when “Smart Metering” would work a whole lot better?
  • Alonzo the Clever Mexican. I have had several people ask me who Alonzo is. Al, that is. Namely Al Servo, the Mexican who invented continuous autofocus. I mean really, do you know how few people know that “AI” means “Artificial Intelligence” (I estimate fewer than one perfect of Canadians)? And that a Servo Motor is a closely controlled electrical motor with negative feedback loop?

The list goes on, and on.

Don’t these companies do any UI testing? Head in the sand! The GTA Nikon rep recently looked at me baffled, and says “but no-one else ever told me this is confusing” – like it’s my fault.  Yeah buddy, that’s because I teach this to ordinary users, day in day out, and you just sell it.

Camera people always get defensive. “But everyone else understands it!”, they say. Um… look up “survivor bias” on Wikipedia, guys.

So if you find yourself confused: it’s not you. It’s the camera and the manual. It is time Apple designed an SLR. But do not despair: take some training and in spite of the camera companies’ engineers’ best efforts to avoid clear communication, you will learn this stuff.

And yeah, I am an engineer.


A fellow photographer friend and blog reader asks:

Have you any thoughts about the Leica D-LUX 4 in comparison to the Canon G11 Which would be the better buy? Thanks

I do have thoughts, yes. And of course am happy to share them.

Although both feature full SLR controls (eg Av and Tv modes, etc), and both have good sensors without too many megapixels, these cameras are aimed at a different audience.

The Leica is really a typical “little point and shoot”. Few buttons and much hidden in menus. It’s really a Panasonic of course. I teach this type of camera often, and see the drawbacks well:

  • Convoluted menus.
  • Much needs to be done through those menus.
  • Slower operation.
  • Easy to hit the wrong button, even with the few buttons it has.

The benefits: the Leica badge, the lens, and “light and small and inconspicuous”.

Now the G11. I recently updated the Henrys G10/G11 course. I love the G11 because it feels much more like an SLR. The G11’s build quality is excellent.

It has easy to use buttons for things like exposure compensation, ISO, etc. Although it too has a few “compact-type” (i.e. slow to operate, confusing, and easy to accidentally hit) controls and menus (I’ve never understood why you need two different menus; now you have three), at least there are fewer such.

The G11 has an articulated LCD. It also has a viewfinder. It is a lousy little almost-unusable viewfinder, but that is the key: “almost”. It works and the Leica needs a flash-shoe mounted viewfinder add-on. Call me crazy,  but I consider a viewfinder a necessity.

As an SLR shooter, control is important to me. And since I consider the G11 the next best thing to an SLR, I would wholeheartedly recommend that as my choice.

My verdict: Unless the small size or the Leica name are essential to you, go with the G11 if you know anything about cameras.


I have pointed out before that camera makers have no vision. There is irony in that.

One example of this lack of vision is their software. Because I am shooting kids with Santa tomorrow, I am looking for a good tethering solution, so I can attach my 1Ds MkIII to the Macbook Air and see the shots immediately – so the parents can choose.

So I download install Canon EOS utility, which allows tethering my camera to my computer, and doing settings, shooting remote, and so on.

Except I can’t. You can download the software, but to install you need to have a prior version installed first.

Why on earth is that a requirement? This software is only useful if you have a Canon camera. Why would they want to prevent a non-camera owner from installing? It won’t do them any good.

Now I need to go find my DVD drive (the Macbook Air does not have one built in), I need to go find the CD that came with the camera (wish me luck). Canon, why do you insist on making my life more difficult with these idiotic and unnecessary restrictions?

How I rate photos in Lightroom

It occurs to me that it may be helpful to share my “rating”-workflow in Lightroom. I go through the following sequence:

  1. Import everything as 2 stars
  2. Go to grid view and step through them, and reject any that are technically bad (e.g. out of focus or badly exposed, or the subject is blinking). They get an “X” marking. I exclude X from my view.
  3. Go through them again and rate any that “could possibly be used” as 3.
  4. Go through the threes again and rate any that are “great in this shoot” as 4.
  5. Go through the fours again and give any that are “great and can be used even outside this shoot as portfolio shots” a five rating.
  6. Then I select just the 4 and 5 stars rate them all as PICK.
  7. Then I step through the 3 stars and decide with of them I want to use; I rate those as PICK also.
  8. Then I check for doubles and unpick those.
  9. Then I do any post on my picks.


Here’s a couple of (unedited)  4-star images from yesterday’s Toronto Island model shoot:



(70-200 f/2.8 IS lens on 1D MkIII, manual exposure -2 stops from ambient and key flash though umbrella, fill flash on camera.)