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 (1920×1080).

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!

back to TOP

HTC 10

There can be no doubt that the all-new HTC 10 is the finest smartphone available on the market today. (Go ahead, argue with me.)

It is an absolute beauty, from its chamfered all-metal body to the edge-to-edge glass on the front.

Edge to edge gorilla glass, but where did the speakers go?

Edge to edge gorilla glass, but where did the speakers go?

HTC touts the “24-bit high resolution audio.” It’s like there’s a bottom-firing woofer and a top-firing tweeter. The older HTC One line used to have two front-facing speakers built in, for what many believed was the best-sounding smartphone. But how many of us listen to smartphones through the speakers? When I first plugged a headset into the 10, it asked if I wanted to set up a personal audio profile (well, YEAH, duh). After taking a short test of various frequency levels, the 10 now adjusts the audio for MY EARS. (And with hearing loss in the upper reaches and a constant tinnitus, that ain’t easy.) It also recommends that I create a separate audio profile for each pair of earbuds/headsets that I use. SWEET.

HTC One M7 and HTC 10

The old One M7 with the new 10. Now that’s different.

The One M7 was a groundbreaking smartphone from a respected manufacturer. It had an all-metal chassis, dual front-facing speakers, and was crammed with goodies as befits a “flagship.” The One M7 was a class leader. The succeeding One M8 and One M9 would carry the same look and feel onward, and reviewers would complain that HTC was getting stale. Well, the HTC 10 puts all of that behind. Still, what was important to me was that this new HTC would carry class-leading cameras, above all else. And it does.

HTC 10 sample

Sample photo on AUTO using available lighting

I’ve set up a Flickr album for the HTC 10, to show actual untouched photos straight from the camera (other than downsizing, of course). As with the TFrog.com philosophy, I will show exactly what this device can do, without any help from me, so that everyone thinking of investing in the 10 will know what they can expect.

Right off the bat, I’m amazed. The f/1.8 lens seems to be up to every situation, from full sun to low light. I took the phone on a grocery shopping trip, and it came back with photos good enough to eat. One reviewer pointed out that the photos from the HTC 10 lacked the oversaturated colors, the “punch,” of other smartphones. As a dedicated amateur photographer who has spent thousands of dollars on cameras and lenses, I will point out that the images from the HTC 10 are exactly what the eye sees. Others pump up the colors to make them attractive on social media sites, but I’m not interested. Reminds me of those tourist postcards sold in gift shops.

HTC 10 PRO mode

PRO mode in the HTC 10

I can always adjust saturation and sharpening in post-processing, especially because the 10 also has a PRO mode and RAW format! In PRO, I can control many of the functions (read: screw up), from ISO to shutter speed to focal points. But my early results tell me to just keep it on AUTO. I like the 16:9 format, which spits out a 9MP JPG (4000 x 2240). The buffet above was at 4:3, and was exactly a 4000 x 3000 JPG (you’re looking at an 800 pixel version). So output from the camera is more than enough for most occasions (think a printed copy at 13″ by 10″).

The phone arrived Saturday and I write this on Monday, so I’ve only had it for a few days. But everything about the phone so far has been amazing. I’m thrilled and convinced that I made the right decision.

The back story

Back in 2013, I bought the best available smartphone on the market, the HTC One M7. Not thrilled with my iPhone 4S, I moved to Android, read up on available phones, and chose the HTC – the right decision. The display was sharp, clear, and vivid. HTC Newsfeed was a great home screen, offering news, social media, fully customizable content. The camera/selfie combo was just fine, until my main camera zotzed in year two, putting out purple garbage in other than outdoor sunny shots. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed that phone for its three years.

2014 – HTC released the One M8, also to excellent reviews.

2015 – HTC took a step backwards in the One M9, generally viewed as a disappointment.

I knew that the successor to the M9 had to be a major hit. HTC couldn’t simply “return to form,” they had to create a masterpiece to reclaim the top spot among smartphone manufacturers. And whatever was coming would be out in time for me to upgrade! I set up a Google alert and started scouring the net for any information.

Rumors abound in the electronics world, especially in mobile electronics. Even so, nothing was known as the big Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show came around in January. Perhaps we’d find out something at the big Mobile World Electronics show in Barcelona in February. No, what we found out was that HTC was not going to announce there, either, but stand by for a release from HTC in April.

The early rumors indicated that the new phone (as yet unnamed) would feature a Qualcomm chipset that hadn’t yet been invented. It would also run on a new version of Android that hadn’t yet been written. I wasn’t the only one anticipating something very special.

Enter @evleaks, Evan Blass (now of venturebeat.com), a leaker of information famous around the globe for accuracy. He pointed to a performance test that showed the new 10 as faster than all of its competition. He pointed to a third-party test of the camera, which scored the highest marks ever (tied with the new Samsung). He leaked things like the processor, the camera sensor, and ultimately pictures of the upcoming phone.

Finally, on April 12, 2016, HTC had the big reveal of the new 10. It was beautiful. Just seeing it, I wanted it. Knowing that it had the best camera available today, I wanted it. Knowing that it was the fastest, most capable smartphone available today, I wanted it. It would begin shipping on or about May 4th. But there was a catch.

AT&T LilyI’ve been with AT&T since back in the Bell Atlantic Mobile days. And AT&T, for whatever reason, was not going to offer the HTC 10. It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to Lily (left) and set up an account for three with Verizon. But it was a celebratory moment when the FedEx man came up my front walk with a package containing two shiny new HTC 10s! “It’s Christmas,” somebody yelled.

The Genesis of an Addiction – or – How Did I Get Here?

Above:
(1) Pentax K-1000 (all manual, all the time, film)
(2) Pentax ZX-M (fully auto to fully manual, film)
(3) Olympus D-360L (1.3 megapixels, first digital)
(4) Canon S3 (12x optical zoom, from fully auto to fully manual; 6MP, the gateway drug)
(5) Canon ELPH cameras that I gave as gifts
(6) Canon Rebel XT (2nd generation Rebel, 8MP, now we start buying lenses)
(7) Canon EOS 50D

Lenses:
18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens (w/ Rebel)
50mm f/1.8
70-300mm telephoto zoom f/4-5.6 IS
100mm f/2.8
17-40mm wide angle zoom f/4 (L series)
70-300 telephoto zoom f/4-5.6 IS (L series)

It’s time.

I decided to redo my website from the bottom up. TFrog.com is an evolutionary product which has undergone incremental changes over the past two decades. From my first “website” as an AOLer to my very own TFrog domain, there have been generations of my website, but the last redesign was basically put up in 2007. Since then, I find:

(1) The photography pages were full of Flash slideshows, and where Flash was a wonderful thing not so long ago, it is now almost deprecated. Android and Apple phones and tablets will not show Flash, and that’s probably a good thing, since it’s a security risk. So all Flash elements had to go, being replaced by HTML only (and maybe a little javascript).

(2) Bowing to the times, I concurrently created a parallel universe, designed to display on phones, tablets, and other devices. While I believe that the photography pages are still best viewed on a traditional monitor, I live in the real world. You can now see all of the tasty bits on your smartphone.

WHY

Why Real World Lens Tests?

When I was considering the purchase of a new lens, I did my due diligence, searched the internet for information, reviews, and sample photos. More often than not, the samples that I found were beautiful, professionally processed images that convinced me to spend a good bit of money on that lens. When I started shooting with my new lens, I was disappointed that my pictures did not measure up to the samples I’d seen.

The purpose of my Real World Lens Tests is to show the results that a dedicated amateur can get with each of these lenses. I present a good range of images, several of which link to full-size, straight-from-the-camera JPGs, so my fellow amateurs will know that they can get the same results as I do, before any post-processing work is done. “You, too, can expect this level of photos or better if you buy this lens.” In a lot of cases, the images shown have been edited mildly for sharpening, levels, and saturation, and some have been cropped. But the out-of-body JPGs are untouched by human hands.

But how did I get here?

There was a time, believe it or not, that I did not have a camera with me at all times. Lenses are important to me now, to be sure, but it’s not the lenses that got me to this place. It was a succession of cameras, and the first one WAS NOT MY FAULT.

Part of the process of rebuilding this website involved going back in time – to the beginning, the genesis of my obsession with photography. We don’t have to go back all that far, either.

Pentax K1000(1) I will only briefly mention FILM (old folks, explain “film” to the youngsters, please), and only to say that my wife was taking a filler course in Black and White Photography toward her college degree. For the course, she bought a Pentax K1000 – all manual, all the time – and even learned to develop film in our basement. I picked up the Pentax and couldn’t put it down. Over a thousand dollars was spent in having bad, bad photos developed. (Old folks, explain “developed” to the youngsters, please.)

olympus_d360l(2) When DIGITAL was born, I jumped on an early Olympus D360L (released in 2000). This camera took photos at a stunning 1.3 megapixels, or a best 1280 x 960 (a size that is barely adequate today on Facebook). As I recall, the memory card it came with could hold all of two photos at best quality. The camera was slow, downloading photos took forever, and it took 4 AA batteries and ate them like candy. I know, because I still have the camera. And I wish I could go back in time and re-take every one of those photos with modern equipment. As a digital camera, it made me want to keep using film.

s1_isMy second digital was the Canon S1 IS (IS = image stabilization, not quite as universal then as it is today). Oh, how I loved that camera. Issued in 2004, the S1 was a “superzoom” camera with a 10X optical zoom (the equivalent of 38mm to 380mm) PLUS digital zoom (which one should never, ever use). This little handful took excellent photos, packing 3 megabytes (or twice the size of the Olympus’ best setting). After a month shooting on automatic, I read the user guide, switched over to manual settings, and never looked back. And I was never without that camera.

s3_is(3) Eventually, my beloved S1 developed a zotzed display screen. I found out that this was A Thing, that Canon had issued an advisory on it, and that I was supposed to send the camera in for free repair. It turned out that the parts needed to complete that repair had run out, so Canon’s new “repair” was to replace the S1 with a refurbished S3! No complaints from me. I just went from 3MP to 6MP, and from 10X zoom to 12X. But by that time, I had a new love.

rebel_xt(5) In all of my reading, I found myself lusting after better resolution, more clarity, more vivid photos. I wanted a DSLR. At the end of 2005, I picked up the Canon Rebel XT (the 2nd in the Rebel line), an 8MP beauty with an 18-55mm kit lens. Coming from the S1, I was mightily impressed with the quality of photos from the XT. Within 6 months, I had bought a 70-300mm telephoto zoom lens and the Canon jewel 50mm f/1.8. To these, I later added the 100mm macro lens. I think my photography improved over the years, and I was eventually asked to shoot a wedding. A very special wedding. And not long before that wedding, some IDIOT (could have been me) left the XT outside on a rainy night. The camera was soaked and nonfunctional. A brick. Luckily, it dried out over the next 24 hours and returned to normal, but I was convinced that I couldn’t go shoot a wedding with this one camera.

eos_50d(6) So in 2009 I bought the Canon 50D, the newest release at the time in the next level of Canons. Somewhat larger than the Rebel, the 50D fit my hand like it was built for it. Now I had 15MP, a much faster, cleaner, and more capable camera. With this camera, I upgraded the old 18-55mm kit lens with the 17-40mm L series lens, and most recently upgraded to the 70-300 L series telephoto. I also added a Speedlite 580 flash unit, which is wonderful, and a real Manfrotto tripod for the heavy lenses (as opposed to the plastic KMart tripod of my earlier days).

Now here’s the thing.

It occurs to me that all of this digital activity took place in the first decade of the new millennium. From 2000 to 2010 I bought a succession of cameras that eventually got me to where I am now. And my “new” camera is 6 years old. Are the glory years for semi-professional digital photography over? Where is the new camera that’s going to make me NEED to buy one?

Even in the lineage of my EOS 50D, it seemed that Canon was bringing out a new model almost every year through that decade:

10D (2003)
20D (2004)
30D (2006)
40D (2007)
50D (2008)
60D (2010)
70D (2013)
…?

Today, toward the end of 2015, the 70D is still the “new” camera in this line. The professional series has seen releases only every 3 to 4 years, so a long time between models is nothing new. And the Rebel series has continued unabated. But improvements are incremental – there are no great leaps in digital photography.

And through all of this, Canon has kept churning out lenses. And lenses change even less often than camera bodies. The 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens today is the same as it was five years ago. (And still the pick of the litter.) So I think it’s still important that folks thinking about putting out $1,600 for a new lens should see REAL photos from those lenses, not polished and made-up professionally processed images.

And that’s why my Real World Lens Tests.

[Update: I added the Canon EOS 80D to my list in late 2018. This is 24MP, full HD 60p video, WiFi connection, etc. – and a 45point focus system.]

back to top