GoPro Hero9 Black

I don’t know why, but I had to have one.

The Hero10 was the current model, but the Hero9 was available at a great price. (And I didn’t know that the Hero11 would be out soon.) I picked up the Hero9 with a good number of accessories. GoPro thoughtfully provides a 32GB microSD card, but you’ll want more. I picked up a couple of 256GB cards, the maximum size for the GoPro.

The main role for the GoPro was for my rides on the bike trail. Nothing exciting, nothing glamorous, just a record of my slow pedaling and a showcase for the Chester Valley Trail.

I also wanted to have it for our vacation stay down the shore. As it turns out, I never went into the ocean, but the GoPro did. I picked up the floating orange surround and the floating handle with orange accents. Turns out I never used them. But I could!

There are a ton of GoPro videos out there, and YouTube is a good place to start. But here are a couple of short videos, one from the bike trail, one from the shore. Oh, yeah – the GoPro is complete waterproof, immersible to about 30 feet or so.

These two videos open in new windows. Both were shot at 4K resolution, 30 frames per second, which is my go-to setting for these videos. And I should point out that the GoPro also acts as a capable little camera for still photos, too. Click either image below for the full 5184 x 3888 original (a full 20 megapixels).

Several video clips covering 3 miles of the Chester Valley Trail are compiled here as part one (the trail runs more than 13 miles). When viewing on YouTube, the video settings should be 4K (2160), not just HD.

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At Last

Real World Lens Test: Canon’s 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM

This is one of Canon’s absolute best L-series lenses, superb glass. This is also the level of lens that I dreamed of when I bought my first digital SLR camera, the Rebel XT back in 2005. And it’s true what they say, camera bodies come and go, but lenses are forever.

Canon’s 70-200mm L-series telephoto zooms come in four flavors. Basically, it’s available as either f/4 or f/2.8, and both are available with or without image stabilization. The pick of the litter, then, is the f/2.8 IS version. But if you’re on a tight budget, the f/4 without IS is no slouch, assuming you’ve got plenty of available light.

f/2.8 IS III = $2,099
f/2.8 = $1,349
f/4 IS II = $1,623
f/4 = (no longer listed?)
(all prices US at Canon and B&H websites 8/30/22)

After years of lust, I finally bought the f/4 IS II. B&H PhotoVideo has a nice overview of the lens at their site, as does DP Review, and the reviews should convince you to buy one. In this price range, I’d recommend renting one for a week – try it before you buy it. RentGlass.com or LensRentals.com are two shops that I’ve used to check out lenses I was thinking of buying.

I’ve been pressed into shooting two weddings and had rented the f/2.8 IS on both occasions. The f/2.8 versions perform better with less light, obviously. There are nothing but glowing reviews about that lens and it has never disappointed me. For my own purposes, and because I’m cheap, when I decided to pull the trigger, I went with the f/4 IS II version you see here. (And it was on sale.)

Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS II with Canon EOS 80D

Let’s get to shootin’. A few photos from this lens, untouched other than cropped from a larger image and resized, all taken with the EOS 80D. The deer was about 60 feet from the back door. The cardinal was taken through a patio door at a distance of about 25 feet. The pod of dolphins was off of Cape May, NJ at quite a distance. Each photo links to a version at 1920×1080.

deer in the back yard @ f/4, 1/125sec., ISO-200, 150mm
male cardinal @ f/9, 1/80sec., ISO-400, 187mm
pod of dolphins @ f/8, 1/1000sec., ISO-100, 200mm

One reason I decided to upgrade to the EOS 80D was for high def 1080p video, through whatever lens is attached. Here’s a short clip taken with the 70-200mm on automatic setting. This is just a typical tourist shot on the fly, but it’s a good example of the clarity of this lens. (Untouched, unedited.)

surf at Cape May, NJ

Next is a compilation of short videos of a birdfeeder at a distance of about 15 feet. EOS 80D is mounted on tripod with remote shooting by app over home WiFi. The large woodpecker is an infrequent but welcome guest.

EOS 80D with 70-200 f/4 IS set up on birdfeeder (about 15 feet)

Canon, you know I love you, but these tripod mounting rings for the L glass are ridiculously overpriced. (Currently $168.) And it’s a necessary accessory, to boot. I also ordered an additional mounting plate for my tripod, because I’m too lazy to keep swapping it out between cameras and lenses.

L to R: 100mm with EOS 50D, 17-40L, 70-300, 70-300L, 70-200L with EOS 80D

For the most part, the L lenses have been outstanding for me. The 100mm macro needs to be on a tripod for close-up work. The 17-40L is a wonderful walk-about lens, always sharp and suited to a wide range of subjects. The 70-300L replaces the older 70-300 (non-L), which was largely a disappointment. And the 70-200L instantly becomes my favorite. You would think there’d be some redundancy with the 70-300L and the 70-200L, but the latter is sharper, cleaner than the former. (Oh – hiding in the back somewhere is the 50mm f/1.8, the Bang for the Buck Canon lens that every photographer should have.)

As advertised, the 70-200 f/4 IS II is very quiet, very fast. I tend to shoot a little dark – my exposures are usually a couple of ticks to the left of dead center on the light meter. This lens responds well to that, so that backgrounds aren’t blown out and skies are still blue.

User Manual here

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Pixel 6 Pro

Where do I start?

Smartphones in America are coming down to a choice of two: Apple or Samsung. At the moment, Apple and its iPhones make up slightly more than half of all smartphones in the U.S. Samsung is holding a bit over 30%. That leaves the other manufacturers fighting over the 25% or so that remain.

I’ve been a fan of HTC’s smartphones for years. HTC, of course, made the first Android phone and continued making great phones right up through the One M7 and One M89. My latest was the U12+, reviewed in these pages, a gorgeous all-glass phone with great cameras onboard. But HTC seems to have left the smartphone market high and dry.

After a disappointing start to the Pixel line, Google bought up half of HTC’s smartphone division and set to work on the Pixel 2. That phone was very well received. My wife and son were both using the Pixel 3a phones. (My son has since upgraded to the Pixel 6a, and my wife is now sporting the new Pixel 7 Pro.)

When word came out that Google was working on a Pixel 6 with its own inhouse processor and possibilities for new camera tricks, I was very interested. My U12+ had a cracked screen and was nearing the end of its useful life. I really didn’t want to buy either of the two giants in the field, Samsung or Apple (just my own bias against monopolies – I’m sure they’re both great phones), so I kept watch on every leak that came out about Google’s new phone, as they were the “successor” to HTC.

By the time Google made the official launch of the Pixel 6, it seemed that the public response was greater than even Google anticipated. The Google Store crashed under the weight of so many pre-orders. After multiple refreshes and attempts to put a phone in the shopping cart, I was able to order a “smoky black” Pixel 6 Pro, unlocked, with 128GB. Success. The phone arrived on the earliest availability date, October 28, 2021. It is everything that I’d hoped for.

A slippery bar of soap

The phone is beautiful. The front display curves around the edges in its new Gorilla Glass Victus covering, while the back is also fully coated in Victus. The look is one of a slab of glass in your hand. As beautiful as it is, PUT A CASE ON IT. The phone really is a slippery little devil. It will fall out of your pocket, it will slide off a couch, it will undoubtedly hit the floor the moment you stop paying attention.

I ordered this Crave Slim Guard case before the Pixel ever arrived. I also ordered the Google case, which has a “barely there” feel to it. The Crave cases are available in several colors; this is the Forest Green. The case fits the phone perfectly, nice and snug, and wraps around the edges without killing the look of the front display. Best of all, the case is NOT AT ALL slippery.

The display is also a beautiful thing, adapting to ambient light or you can set the brightness manually. The display measures 1440 x 3120 pixels. It also features an adaptive display that picks up colors from your background and applies it to text, icons, etc. (In my case, green, of course.)

The phone ships with Android 12. And, being an unlocked phone direct from Google, I receive security updates and new versions of the operating system first, before all of the major carriers can apply their own stamp and bloat to it. I’ve had Android phones from AT&T and Verizon, and both came with a lot of nonsense apps that I didn’t need or want. Buying direct from Google avoids all of that pre-installed garbage and I’m now dealing direct with the manufacturer. My carrier at present is Verizon, but there’s no sign of them on the phone. BTW, I was able to transfer the SIM from my HTC phone to the Pixel 6, and it worked perfectly. Up and running immediately. (My phone has since updated to Android 13.)

Okay, the phone is gorgeous, the display magnificent, and Android 12 has all kinds of new tricks and usefulness. But that’s not why I bought this phone.

Take a picture.

The current Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max owns the camera segment in cellphones. But Google is giving them a run for the money. Tom’s Guide has a good review of the Pixel 6 Pro v. the Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max.

The ratings for the Pixel 6 Pro have come out at DXOMark with an impressive overall score of 135. That puts it right up there with the iPhone 13 Pro in image quality. The nod for the camera and video go to the Apple, but not by much. And for those interested mainly in selfies (you know who you are), the Pixel is now king of that hill. (I am ignoring the smartphones from Huawei and Xiaomi, since I cannot recommend them at this time.)

As with all smartphones, the Pixel does a whole lot of processing before it spits out a JPG. In most cases, the colors are highly accurate – what you see is what you get (wysiwyg). Even shooting into the sun, the Pixel applies a bit of HDR (high dynamic range) to even out the lighting or to capture the intense blue of the sky without sacrificing the other colors.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the Magic Eraser┬« software that comes with the Pixel 6. This is a software trick that allows you to remove unwanted elements from a photo, AFTER you take the photo. In this example, I’ve removed a few folks from the lower left corner of the photo. The Eraser left some artifacts, certainly, but if you weren’t looking for it, you probably wouldn’t notice. You identify the unwanted portion of the photo, and then the Eraser predicts what would have been behind the portion to be removed. It doesn’t always get it perfect, but it does a fairly good job. The more uniform the background, of course, the better it works.

While I’m at it, here’s a telephoto on that arch. The Pixel 6 Pro includes a 4X optical telephoto lens that you don’t get on the Pixel 6. The Pro model also zooms out to an impressive 20X digital zoom. Digital zoom is almost always garbage, but Google’s software produces fairly good results. Still, it’s the optical zoom that counts. This is at 4X.

Another example of the Magic Eraser® removes a small post in the foreground of this landscape photo. If you know where to look, you can see imperfections. Another reason I post this photo is to show the true-to-life colors as captured by the Pixel 6 Pro. You can always play with light and color saturation after the fact, but I like my photos to capture what my eye sees.

The Pixel 6 Pro also shoots in RAW, if you want. This will give you the standard output JPG along with the “negative” RAW in .dng format. This is the image as it hit the sensor, without any sharpening or color saturation or any of the other processing that the camera normally performs. In some cases, the Pixel will spit out a JPG that is over-processed, to my eye. A bit too much sharpening, a bit too much color saturation. Here’s an example of what the sensor caught, as opposed to what the camera puts out as JPG.

One of the main options is the Portrait mode. Smartphone cameras try to get EVERYTHING in focus, near or far. Most digital cameras will offer a bit of blur to the background subjects (see: “bokeh”), as does the Pixel 6 in Portrait mode. Here are a couple of selfies, one with the background in focus, and the other in Portrait mode, with the background blurred out.

I should also note that, at the time it was released, the Google Pixel 6 Pro had the highest-rated selfie camera on the market, according to DXOMark.

Here’s another neat trick called Night Sight. The Pixel enhances a dark scene, making full use of available light. The shadows are lit up nicely throughout. But you’ll have to hold the phone steady for a while. It’s almost like shining a huge flashlight on the back yard here.

I’ve put up a gallery of images at my smugmug pages. Have a look!

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The Digital Age

I love my cameras. From film through early digital models to now the Canon EOS 80D, I have always enjoyed photography. And I love the possibilities in today’s digital cameras.

SLR / DSLR

SLR denotes a “single lens reflex” camera (or “digital single lens reflex”). This camera uses a mirror and prism setup that allows the user to look through a viewfinder and see exactly what the lens is going to capture. (Mirror = “reflex,” as in reflection.) Some cameras now feed that information to a display screen, in lieu of a viewfinder, while others may have both. I’ve always preferred the viewfinder.

With digital cameras, we’re finding there’s really no need for a mirror, since images are captured as pixels. This digital information can be fed directly from the sensor to either a display or “viewfinder,” without the need for the middleman mirror. Thus, we are now seeing more and more “mirrorless” cameras. This also removes the extra moving parts involved.

SLRs are known for their “bokeh” (boe-kay), which is that lovely blur to the background of a photograph. Compare this with a modern cellphone, which wants to have EVERYTHING in sharp focus, all throughout the image. Digitals can do that and, indeed, they want to do that by default. An SLR usually focuses on one element of the photo, with everything else blurred out according to distance. Often, this blur (bokeh) is desired, as in headshots or having the subject stand out from the background. SLRs are often rated as to the beauty of their bokeh.

Today I’m using the HTC U12+, an amazing cellphone with one of the top-ranked cameras onboard. No question, it takes wonderful photos in a variety of settings:
1:1 (9MP)
4:3 (12MP)
16:9 (9MP)
18:9 (8MP)

As example, the 16:9 image will fit the normal High-Def TV screen. The 18:9 version fills the U12+ display, which has a slightly wider (or taller) aspect. The 4:3 is more square, sort of like the old television screens.

Here’s a sample from the U12+, a photo of the produce section at the local grocery store. Click here for a larger version (3840×2160).

As you can see, the camera wants to keep everything in focus, from the red peppers up front to the cut flowers way back yonder. It’s a lovely image, if you want everything in focus.

But set the camera to the 4:3 aspect and hit the Bokeh Button, and you can now focus on anything you want and have the background blurred out. In fact, you can control HOW MUCH blur the camera gets. This is wonderful! Now we’re taking photographs! Click here if you want to see the HUGE original, right from the phone.

But wait, there’s more.

AFTER YOU TAKE THE SHOT, you can use the onboard Bokeh Mode Editor to “change your mind.” Maybe you don’t want the foreground in focus, you can CHANGE THE FOCUS POINT to anything else in the photo! AND you can again dictate how much or how little blur there is in the image. AFTER you take the shot.

The red fire hydrant is in focus, the white car in the background is blurred. Simply tapping on the car brings it into sharp focus, while applying a foreground blur to the hydrant. Or, if I want, I can have BOTH in sharp focus or both blurred (though, why would I?).

This is what digital photography does for us. The camera captures millions of pixels, and knows which pixels are sharp, which are blurred. And it can change them at any time.

Pretty soon, it will be impossible to take a bad photograph. But I’ll keep trying!

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