Wednesday, February 26, 2014

New Blog Posts Coming in 2014

I'm back. Well I will be soon, with new posts to the Photo Monkeys blog. I will be writing/photographing and my awesome Jennifer Donatelli will be editing and making my word make sense. I slipped this one past her, please forgive any grammatical errors. So stay tuned.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Paul, what camera should I buy?


Recently a friend asked if the Nikon D3100 DSLR camera kit with 18-55 VR and 55-200 VR lenses plus some accessories was a good set up to buy for a vacation to Africa. The kit costs around $800. I figured since I was writing it out anyway I may as well share it with the world. The names have been withheld to protect the innocent.

This is always a tough one for me, when people who are not professional photographers ask what kind or is this a good camera. I tell them it depends on what you want to do with your photography. Do you want to control every aspect of an image and really get into it as a hobby or do you want a camera that will be easy to use and take good photos without much work?

Any of the newer Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras in that price range will most likely be easy to use on automatic and take decent images under the right circumstances, good to moderate light being the most important factor. The VR - or Vibration Reduction - lenses will also help with shooting in lower light situations. You should also be able to get a little deeper into learning photography and control most settings with the camera.

If you were looking to get even deeper into photography as a hobby, then you are going to want something a little bit better. This is where costs jump.

One of the things that makes those costs jump is better lenses. Better lenses have wider f-stops, meaning they can shoot at f2.8 or faster. This allows you to shoot in lower light situations and control the depth of field better. The lenses in most consumer kits are made from lightweight plastic and have an f-stop of  f4 or higher, depending on focal length. This means they let in less light and need more exposure time to make an image. This can introduce camera shake or subject movement and blurry pictures. The VR helps with the camera shake, but can't stop subject movement.

The lenses could also be less sturdy in the durability department and break easier. That does not mean they will break easier, but the better lenses are built with higher quality materials to a higher degree of  sturdiness. Better lenses may also be sharper due to the use of better optics and design.

Why so much talk about lenses? Well camera bodies will come and go as time and technology marches on, but your lenses will work with the newer camera bodies, if you stay with the same camera maker. I always tell people that want to get serious about photography to buy the best lenses that they can afford. If it means saving a little longer as opposed to buying a cheaper plastic lens, do it. Odds are it will last longer, be of better quality and they will not have to buy it again when the cheap one breaks, is not the quality or speed you need as your skills grow.

A great way to get good lenses is to look into the used market at places like KEH.com or B&H Photo in NYC. They are reputable dealers who grade the gear so you know what you are getting. You might not get as long a warranty, but you will get a better lens for less money than new.

Again if you are just looking to get something that will work decent for a decent price for snapshots and vacation images, the kit camera will do the trick. You just have to realize that you may outgrow it as your skills improve and need to upgrade if you get really into it.

On the opposite side, spending $5000 for a camera kit just to take on vacation and use once in a while is not too smart either, unless you make a boatload of money.

I would suggest trying it out in the store and talking to the salesperson, just don't believe everything they say. The stuff I use was top of the line when bought for me by my paper. The lenses were bought nine years ago and I have used them with three different upgrades of camera bodies. My gear takes a beating and still works. Sure it has gone in for major repairs when accidents happen or it just stops working, but if the same wear and tear was put on a lesser outfit, it would be ruined and not able to be fixed.

Hope this helps.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Photo SJ 2012


Good friend, photographer Bill Horin and his ArtC organization has put together a great two day photography event in the southern New Jersey area on April 4&5th. The event, called Photo SJ 2012 will feature free presentations from celebrity photographer John Russo and acclaimed photographer Seth Resnick. There will also be paid workshops with John Russo and an Intro to DSLR Video workshop with Bill Horin and Frank Weiss.

From the ArtC website;

"John Russo is among Hollywood’s most sought-after photographers. He has trained his lens on giants such as Jeff Bridges, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Will Smith, Sophia Loren and many others. His images are often seen on the covers of top magazines. He has two books of portraits, About Face and 100 Making a Difference. A native of Ventnor, N.J., he is a graduate of The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and lives in Beverly Hills and Montecito, California."

"Seth Resnick is one of North America’s most respected photographers. His work been published in 2,500 prestigious publications, including National Geographic. A co-founder of D-65, the educational resource for digital photography, he also consults to manufacturers, software developers and agencies. He is a Photo District News Most Influential Photographer, a Canon Explorer of Light, a member of X-rite Colorati and a consultant to Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. He teaches and lectures around the world."

Some of the events are free with a ticket. The John Russo workshop costs $125 and there is two separate sessions, either a morning or afternoon. The Intro to DSLR Video costs $45. The John Russo presentation, April 4th at 7pm, is free with ticket. The Seth Resnick presentation April 5th at 7pm is also free with ticket. All events will be held at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway, NJ.

It will be a great event. Bill and his team have put a lot of work into this conference. I will be making the drive up from Maryland and I hope to see some of you there.

See the ArtC website for more details and to get tickets/register.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Boo Wells Fargo Bank, bad customer service.


Very disappointed in Wells Fargo. Long time customer with First Union, then Wachovia and now Wells Fargo. Wachovia used to at least try and work with me when there was a problem. Now the manager at my branch didn't want to do a thing for me. I called last week to ask if there would be a wire transfer fee for me if I had money sent to my account. The WF rep on the phone told me no, it was only on the sender. Well today I see that the funds hit the account $18 light.

The manager, Crystal Carter at the Chesapeake Square branch, was only interested in finding out who it was that told me that and not doing anything to help me. We have a decent amount of money in this bank and it is also our mortgage servicer. Well I can't do anything about the mortgage at this point, but am seriously thinking about changing banks. If they would have been up front with me it would not be that big of a deal.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Cool Shot from the State Cross Country Championships.


I really liked this image I captured at the Maryland state high school cross country championships Saturday.Through out the day I was not really happy with the shots I was getting of the races. For this race I decided to go down farther from the start of the race and get something different than the usual starting shot of the whole group running across the field towards me. I went down to the first turn.

I knew that they would still be somewhat grouped up, which was good, but also starting to thin out a bit. I laid down on my stomach, pre-focused where they would be and waited. While waiting I fired off a few test shots and nailed down my exposure. As I started to hear the thundering footsteps approach I began to think I might be a little too close to the rope separating me from the course. Was I going to get trampled by these skinny teens? Not that their size would make it hurt any less. Well it was too late to move, I would miss the shot. So I stood, or should I say, laid, my ground.

As they ran by I composed my shot and started shooting off some frames. I got a little trigger happy and after a few seconds my buffer filled to the point that I was only getting one shot per second. They finally ran past and I started to look at my images, going backwards with the newest ones first. I started to worry that none of the kids in the frames were from my area. While they make cool pictures, they are unusable for the paper. Then I see an Annapolis High jersey and it is in a frame that I really like. Jackpot. All I need now is for him to do well in the race and then I really have something.

He wound up finishing fifth in the state, not too bad. Would have been great if he was first, but I got a cool image and I was happy.

Monday, November 07, 2011

A Tale of Two Satellite Radios or Sirius Sucks.

I bought my Sirius satellite radio five or six years ago so I could listen to Howard Stern and other music/news channels I liked without commercials. It was reasonably priced for what it was and I didn't mind paying a premium for the service. Whenever my wife was in my car, she commented on how she liked it and I got her one for Christmas. This was about three years ago.

Over the years I have put up with the price increases and new fees, like the Music Royalty Fee and Internet Radio Fee. The latter was included when I first signed up as part of my package. Now that I think about it, I even kept my service after they did not honor a $50 rebate I was due when I first got my radio. I supported them when they were fighting with the FCC to get approval for their merger with XM Radio. In hindsight, this was a big mistake. Heck, I even lost money owning Sirius stock.

As I grew older, my tastes have changed a bit. I have gotten tired of hearing Howard Stern complain about being rich, especially as I grow poorer in this recession. I think his show has sucked since before Artie Lange left. Now with all the time Howard gets off, it is constantly a rerun.

I really do enjoy the music channels, like the Grateful Dead one and some of the others. I also like being able to hear the news channels, like MSNBC and CNN, but I find I hardly ever have the radio on in my truck. I have been listening to more sports radio and local music on the over the air car radio. And it is free.

My wife Jennifer's subscription is due to renew in little over a month, on Dec. 14. The cost to renew would have been $110.00 plus tax. My subscription is paid through May 14, 2012. After thinking about it, I was going to cancel Jennifer's subscription and transfer mine to her radio, or so I thought.

My phone call to Sirius started off well enough with a customer service rep named "Gertrude."  I explained that I was no longer using my radio. I wanted to transfer my service to my wife's radio, since hers was due for renewal next month and mine still had over seven months of service left. That is actually the condensed version, because it took "Gertrude" a while to get it.

After I finally think I made her understand what I wanted to do, she said there would be a $15 transfer fee. Not much in the grand scheme, but more than was acceptable to me, considering I spend over $300 a year for their product and all she was doing was a few keystrokes. I told her that I could just cancel Jennifer's radio and put mine in her car for no fee. I did not want to do this since my radio was older and Jennifer's worked better. She told me that was my choice and I said, "You know what? I am canceling all my services with Sirius." I could tell this was no skin off her nose and she transferred me to the cancelations department.

Next "Justin" came on the phone, and he sounded like a nice enough fellow and he wanted to make me happy, to try and keep me. I started explaining my situation again and for some reason it took him a while to get what I want to do. When I think he finally gets it, he told me that I can't transfer my subscription to Jennifer's radio. He said this like it is etched in stone in the radios themselves. He said that the radios' billing date can't be changed. I would have to cancel all the subscriptions and start a new one with Jennifer's December billing date if I wanted to keep her radio going. I believe this to be BS and just a way for them to get more money from customers.

I tried a hypothetical on him. I said, "Let's say I canceled Jennifer's radio and put it in the closet. Then two months from now, my radio broke and I pulled the other one from the closet and called you to get it on my subscription. Are you telling me that you could not do it and I would have to start a new subscription?" His answer was basically yes. Ridiculous!

I was starting to get angry. I repeated myself many times in trying to explain to them what I wanted and it did not seem like it should be that hard. At one point I think he was trying to tell me about a deal they had for a cheaper yearly subscription, but it would have required me canceling all my current ones, getting a refund for them and paying for a new one. At this point, I was not going for it. Maybe it would have been better, but I was too frustrated to listen and they did not seem to understand where I was coming from.

So now, after 40 minutes on the phone, I canceled Jennifer's radio, my Sirius Internet Radio and will be moving my old radio into Jennifer's car. Just what I did not want to do. It is no wonder why Sirius stock is trading at $1.70 a share and has not been over $3 since early 2008. They are an overpriced, poorly-run company with bad customer service. A simple thing like transferring a subscription from one radio to another, without fees or hassles should not be a big deal. Nickel and diming your customer is not the way to build loyalty. I have a feeling come May 2012, if the Mayan world ending prediction does not come true, it will be the end of our family's Sirius subscriptions.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The NYC Thirty Minute Photo Challenge.

I attended the PDN PhotoPlus Expo in NYC Friday with fellow professional photographers Bill Horin, Alex Anton and Bill Banks. This was the second year I went with this group of photo friends, and it was suggested that we hit the show early and then spend some time in the afternoon doing something different.

I am not sure who came up with the idea - not me - but it was suggested that we have some sort of a photo challenge after the show. Not a contest, mind you, but just an exercise to get away from the paid shooting we do and get creative for creativity's sake. We would agree on a subject and that subject had to be incorporated into the images in some way. Not necessarily the main subject of the image, but in the frame in some way. The Empire State building was chosen by the group.

We would be allowed one lens, one body and a half-hour to complete our shooting. I had a tough time deciding what lens to bring. I debated between my 17-35-mm., 70-200-mm., and my newly-acquired 50-mm. I was going to go with the 70-200-mm., at first, and shoot tight, maybe some people portraits. After thinking about it, I went with the 50-mm., I think, mostly because I wanted to keep it light. I didn't want to be lugging around a heavy camera all day. Plus, the 50-mm. is the sharpest lens I own.

We split up and went our own ways. After taking some shots, I started to regret being locked into a fixed 50-mm. lens. Things were not fitting in my frame. This was going be harder than I had thought. I was going to have to actually think and plan my shots and look for ways to make shots that fit in my frame.



I walked around the building looking for things I thought would be cool. I thought that getting the building in a reflection would be an interesting shot, but I was not seeing it. If I did see a reflection, it was only a sliver of the building. While this would be in the spirit of the rules, I wanted the viewer to know what they were looking at when seeing the image. I needed something reflective that also had a curve to it and would mirror more of the building.

A car window would do the trick, but it would have to be in the right spot and should be something that says NYC. A taxi cab would be awesome. I started to look for one that had stopped at a light. Looking at the windshields, it just was not working. Then a NYC Transit bus came by and the reflection was almost perfect. I just had to work the angle so the reflection was in the right spot. This was not easy in the limited time the bus was stopped at the light, but I got a decent shot. I tried to work it some more with other buses, but they just didn't line up in the right spot in my time to shoot.

The light was really nice Friday. There were bright, blue skies and even the shadows had nice light. I saw plenty of flags around the building and thought that with the blue skies, Old Glory and the Empire State Building, how could you go wrong. I found one hanging on a building across the street and found a way to frame it and the building with my 50-mm. Nice, I got another decent shot.


All around the building there are a million tourist shops selling NYC bobbles and post cards. I thought it would be cool to get a Empire State Building postcard on the rack with a portion of the building in the background. Easier said than done. I found one that was in similar light, open shade. I worked the shot for a little bit, trying different f-stop, shutter speed, ISO combinations and found one that worked. While the real building is out of focus, the postcard is sharp and you get the idea of the building.


I wanted a shot that showed the throngs of people walking across the intersection with the building in the background. This was one of the shots that frustrated me because of my 50mm lens choice. If I had my 17-35mm lens, no problem - everything would fit. But it was not happening with the 50mm. I was holding the camera on the ground and pointing it up towards the building and getting zip. I finally gave up and moved on.  When I was back at Bill Horin's going through my take, he said, "What is that one?" It was a woman staring at me in a sliver of the frame as another woman walked by me. She is looking at me like, "WTF is this guy doing, up skirt shots on a NYC street?" I was not. Bill liked it so we worked it up as one of my five.


I still wanted the shot that said busy, NYC street. I went to the entrance to the Observation Deck. I was thinking old school street photography, with the motion blur of people moving and went with a longer shutter speed. I held the camera down by my waist and was shooting from there. Checking my framing after I would fire off a few shots. I would then change my position as necessary. It's a combination of Hail Mary shooting, skill, and luck. Funny thing was after checking the images on my rear LCD, I was going to go with a different image. I had not noticed this one with the family waiting to enter the building. I now had my five.

When this idea for the photo challenge was originally proposed I was not that excited. The idea of shooting images on my day off was not that appealing to me. Plus, I was nervous about shooting with Bill and the other shooters. Yes, I still get nervous about certain shoots, especially ones where I am shooting the same subject as one of my mentors. Boy, was I wrong about not wanting to do this. It was an awesome experience. It got my creative juices flowing. There was great light, and I was happy with my shots. I am going to try and start shooting more for me from now on. I used to shoot just for me in the beginning and had lost my way. After NYC, I have found the path again.




Check out Bill Horin's ArtC blog at http://www.artcnow.com/blog/ for his insights on the day and images from Bill, Alex Anton and myself.