Tag Archives: review

Hands-on with Aurora HDR Pro

Aurora HDR is a new HDR tone-mapping program for Mac users.
Aurora HDR is a new HDR tone-mapping program for Mac users from Macphun Software.

Today, Macphun Software released their latest photo editing tool, Aurora HDR. I’ve had the opportunity to test-drive a pre-release version of the software for a little while, and I really like what I can do with it. Here are my first impressions of this powerful HDR software for Mac. Continue reading Hands-on with Aurora HDR Pro

Review: Domke “Ledger” Shoulder Bag

Most photographers have a dirty little secret: a closet full of camera bags. That’s because no single bag can meet every possible need for carrying your gear. Backpacks are great, but they can be awkward to work out of and don’t fit into tight spaces easily. Roller bags are perfect for airports and carrying lots of gear, but they are cumbersome to use for street photography. Shoulder bags are easy to work out of, but they can get really heavy if you pack a lot of gear. Belt packs are really nice, but you can’t carry everything in them as they quickly get overloaded.

I’ve used just about every style of bag, and most of the time I end up using some combination of backpacks and roller bags, depending on how I’m traveling and what I’m packing. The one style I don’t typically use is the shoulder bag; for me, I usually have too much stuff to comfortably carry one for extended periods of time. However, when Tiffen USA contacted me about testing one of the Next Generation Domke shoulder bags, I thought it might be a nice way to pack a mirrorless kit. Continue reading Review: Domke “Ledger” Shoulder Bag

Airborne! Aerial Photography with the DJI Phantom 2 Vision

Garden of the Gods park from the air.
Garden of the Gods park from the air.

I mentioned in my Year in Review post that my holiday present was a DJI Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter, or as some people like to say, “drone.” I’ve seen quadcopters proliferating, but this one caught my eye as a complete out of the box solution for anyone looking to explore aerial photography. While most quadcopters, including the original DJI Phantom, were complex do it yourself projects with few instructions, the DJI Phantom 2 really simplifies things. And now that I’ve been able to use it for a few weeks (in between snow storms), I’m hooked. This baby is fun to use, easy to fly, and takes pretty decent photos!

Key Features

Integrated GPS System

The core of the DJI Phantom 2 Vision surrounds two great features. The first is a built-in GPS system that makes the copter incredibly easy to fly. As long as you allow the Phantom 2 to acquire 6+ GPS satellites (not too hard, really), it marks your home position and uses GPS to hover in place… even in a breeze! GPS lets you let go of the control sticks and hover the copter without having to do anything. The other great feature of the GPS is that it has a fail-safe mode. Should the Phantom 2 lose radio contact, it will return to your last known home position and land itself!

My DJI Phantom 2 Vision flying over Colorado Springs. The GPS system allowed me release the controls and hover in place while I captured this photo with my Nikon 1 V2 camera.
My DJI Phantom 2 Vision flying over Colorado Springs. The GPS system allowed me release the controls and hover in place while I captured this photo with my Nikon 1 V2 camera.

Built-in camera with FPV

The other great feature of the Phantom 2 Vision is the built in First Person View (FPV) camera. This is a 14-megapixel camera with a fixed f/2.8 aperture and a 140° angle of view. That’s kind of like a fisheye lens on a DSLR, so you’re going to see some curvature in your horizons. You can also use the camera to capture 1080/30p video at one of three different view angles; 140°, 120°, or 90°. That’s fun stuff, but the really awesome part is that with a built-in WiFi transmitter, you actually use your smartphone (iOS or Android) to control the camera and you can watch where you are going in real-time! Did I mention that this thing is COOL? The camera is mounted on a single-axis (tilt) gimbal, which holds the camera steady in the up/down direction when flying.

Here’s a video I captured in Colorado Springs, CO:

Battery Life

The Phantom 2 Vision uses a lithium-polymer (LiPo) battery that delivers 20+ minutes of flying time. That’s actually quite good; earlier models are limited to around 10 minutes of flight between charges. You’ll need AA batteries for the Remote Control unit, and the WiFi extender module charges via a USB port.

The DJI Phantom smartphone App is what sets this bird apart from traditional RC copters. In addition to the FPV camera, you can check battery status, GPS, and even locate your Phantom on your Maps app if needed. It also has options to control exposure parameters like EV compensation. Because you don’t need to constantly hold the control sticks of the RC transmitter, your hands are freed up to use the smartphone App. I’ve been able to hover 250′ up and take photos without fear of losing control.

I took the Phantom 2 Vision to Ashcroft mining town. At an elevation of 9600′ in the Rockies and sub-freezing temperatures, I had no issues getting 20 minutes of flight time.

Drawbacks

Right now, there are really only two negatives I can find with the DJI Phantom 2 Vision. First, the gimbal is single-axis. This means that you only get camera stabilization in the up/down tilt direction. That’s fine for stills and basic video, but serious videographers will want a 2-axis gimbal for super-smooth videos. Currently, there are a couple of third-parties developing gimbals for the Phantom 2 Vision, but they are still not mainstream.

The other drawback is lack of RAW support from the Phantom’s camera. The camera JPEGs have some sharpening artifacts that could be better. The good news here is that the camera does indeed produce a RAW file; Adobe is currently working on supporting it. So for still photographers, you’ll have the ability to work with RAW files soon (I can’t wait).

Conclusions

The DJI Phantom 2 Vision is an amazing piece of technology at a fairly reasonable price. I purchased mine from B&H Photo along with an extra battery and extra set of rotor blades. Considering that you really have a turnkey solution for aerial photography, this is a really amazing device! If you are interested in a more custom solution, like mounting your own GoPro camera and gimbal, you can also consider the non-vision version of the Phantom 2, which doesn’t include a camera. You’ll need to purchase and install one yourself at additional cost, and install the necessary FPV software to get real-time video. For me, the Phantom 2 Vision was just the right thing to dabble in aerial photography and video, because it is an integrated system. I’m having a great time learning to fly it and by the time spring rolls around I should be pretty good with it! I highly recommend the DJI Phantom 2 Vision to anyone who wants the thrill of flying without having to get a pilot’s license!

Pricing and Availability

I purchased my DJI Phantom 2 Vision from B&H Photo for $1199. The non-vision model with a gimbal mount, runs $869, but you’ll need to add a GoPro or similar camera yourself.

Quick Thoughts: 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 AFS G VRII Nikkor lens

It only took 13 years, but we finally have a new 80-400mm AFS G VRII Nikkor. Is it right for you? (Image courtesy Nikon USA)
It only took 13 years, but we finally have a new 80-400mm AFS G VRII Nikkor. Is it right for you? (Image courtesy Nikon USA)

Yesterday, Nikon announced a long-awaited (overdue?) replacement to its 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens. The the original 80–400mm VR has been around since 2000, and for as long as I can remember, enthusiasts have cried out for and AFS replacement. Why? Despite very good optics and excellent zoom range, the AF-D model of the 80-400mm was  slow to focus and as such sub-par for many action and wildlife photographers. Despite its limitations it remained popular lens because it was the least expensive Nikkor with a focal length of 400mm. On a DX-format DSLR body, that translates to an effective field of view of 600mm, making the 80-400 the enthusiast’s choice for wildlife photography. The relatively compact size of this lens made it an ideal option for travel photographers or people wanting to have extra reach on a reasonable budget. Continue reading Quick Thoughts: 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 AFS G VRII Nikkor lens

Hands-on Review: Nikon 18.5mm 1-Nikkor Lens

Yucca amongst the names, Garden of the Gods, Colorado. I used the 18.5mm f/1.8 1-Nikkor lens for this shot, hand-held at f/2.0.

Along with the Nikon 1 V2 announcement in October 2012, Nikon also released a new 1-Nikkor prime lens, the 18.5mm f/1.8 1-Nikkor. This lens, designed for the Nikon CX-format sensor has an angle of view roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera body.

With the Nikon CX format, fast lenses are important for two reasons. First, the small format makes depth of field control hard, so anything with a fast aperture will help to deliver subject isolation and soften backgrounds. Second, while the ISO performance of the Nikon 1 cameras is excellent overall, these cameras are still noisier than large-sensor DX or FX DSLRs. That means anytime you can shoot with a faster aperture, your camera will be able to use a lower ISO for any given shutter speed. Read on for my review… Continue reading Hands-on Review: Nikon 18.5mm 1-Nikkor Lens