Canon

How to photograph the Aurora Borealis

This year (2013-2014) is a good time for seeing the Aurora Borealis (and its lesser-known Southern twin, the Aurora Australis) – commonly known as the Northern- and Southern Lights. I have my heart set on seeing the Lights with my own eyes in the coming year, so in this post I’d like to talk about how one can best prepare for capturing this natural wonder.

A friend, Bart Vastenhouw, travelled to the region of Varanger in Norway to see and photograph the lights. Here is one of the photographs he came back with:Aurora at Varanger

Bart captured this beautiful scene using a Canon 40D and Canon 10-22mm F3.5-4.5 wide-angle lens. The 40D was a good camera, but these days there are better ones to choose from. The lens is decent too, but for best results you’d want a wide angle with larger aperture (F2.8 or faster).

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Which DSLR camera brand is the best?

J.D. Power and Associates, a company best known for their car satisfaction surveys, have recently published a buyer satisfaction comparison for the major DSLR manufacturers. In the car world we know that Japanese cars tend to be the most reliable/satisfying, but in the camera world we deal almost exclusively with Japanese brands – so who is going to win?

Since bars speak louder than words, I'll skip to the results:*Note that the term "DSLR" excludes mirrorless and compact cameras. 
Olympus and Panasonic are leaders in mirrorless system cameras, 
at the expense of their DSLR product lines.
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Canon 7D firmware update 2.0.X

Update (7 Aug 2012): Canon has just released firmware 2.0.0 (click here for official site)

It is always a good idea to keep your camera’s firmware updated. In Sony’s NEX series, for example, updates resulted in major usability improvements. For the Nikon D800/D4, updates fixed bugs that made it past quality control. No matter what brand you own, you win by getting the latest firmware.

Now Canon 7D owners really have reason to rejoice since firmware update 2.0.X adds a lot of performance and usability improvements to what is already a very good camera. It is almost like upgrading to an even better and more expensive camera, only it’s free!

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Nikon D4 vs Canon 1DX

And here it is! The new flagship of Nikon’s camera range, the D4 (posed next to its upcoming nemises, the Canon 1D X).

The Nikon D4 (left) vs. the Canon 1DX (right)

When Canon announced their EOS-1D X in October, I made a quick side-by-side comparison with Nikon’s flagship at the time, the D3S. The new Canon featured a range of major improvements and was poised to make a grab at being the best 35mm professional DSLR money can buy. Notable was that the new Canon would only be available in March 2012, making the announcement a marketing move (for the time being). The question was what Nikon’s answer would be, since the D3S was still excellent, but already a few years old.

And now we know – on paper. The Nikon D4 narrows all of the gaps that existed between the D3S and the Canon 1DX, but the Canon still holds the specification crown. These numerical differences will probably be less important than how the features are implemented, and without a hands-on comparison we will still have to wait at bit. Notably, the new Nikon excels in its video features, for the first time surpassing Canon.

The significant stuff, in table form:

Nikon D4
Canon 1DX
Max ISO
204,800 204,800
(Max native ISO)
12,800 51,200
Megapixels
16 18
Max FPS
11 14
# AF points
51 61
Video
1080p, 30fps,
H.264 + RAW out
1080p, 30fps,
H.264
Viewfinder magnification
0.7x 0.76x
Metering sensor
91,000-pixel RGB
with face detection
100,000-pixel RGB
with face detection
LCD display
3.2″, 921k dots 3.2″, 1040k dots
Memory card slots
CF + XQD CF + CF
Price (body) $5999 (B&H) $6800 (B&H)
Announcement date Jan 2012
(available for pre-order)
Oct 2011
(available March 2012)

DPReview covered the D4’s announcement in more detail, but I’ll just focus on the most important headline upgrades:

  • Multimedia! The D4 supports high resolution video: H.264 1080p @ 30fps, 720p @ 60 fps + uncompressed HDMI video out
  • Second card slot for the brand new industry-standard XQD card format
  • A new 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor with face detection

Actually that is quite a short list. All the other improvements are incremental. Slightly larger LCD, improved AF sensor (with same number of points), higher resolution, improved processing power, and tweaked ergonomics. Not a bad thing since these were already excellent on the D3S. But not head-turners either.

The D3S was absolutely the best low-light performer of any full-frame DSLR, so if the D4 equals this it will still be great. One just can’t help noticing that Canon massively upped their game with the 1DX, and it seems that they might now have taken the lead – with a native ISO limit that is almost 4x that of the Nikon. One can’t help thinking that the D4’s boost range was doubled only so that the it could match the Canon’s 1D X impressive maximum ISO. What it will mean for noise I don’t yet know – we will have to wait for tests.

The Nikon D4 takes CF and XQD cards

Interestingly the D4’s biggest selling-point now seems to be its video features. Ironic, since only a year ago the situation was reversed, with Canon being the DSLR videographer’s choice, and Nikon leading in still photography performance. But progress benefits us all, and professional video shooters will be ecstatic with the Nikon D4’s uncompressed HDMI out – up to now only available on expensive dedicated video equipment, and notably lacking on any Canon DSLR. And the XQD card slot will prove a huge advantage for storing all those massive video files.

Of course if you are already heavily invested in either manufacturer’s equipment, especially their expensive pro lenses, it might make little sense to consider a switch. But if you want to move into pro photography and have little or no existing commitment, this might be a moment to choose carefully.

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Canon 1DX vs Nikon D3S

Update: Since the Nikon D4 has been announced on 2012-01-06, I have also written a concise post about the Nikon D4 vs Canon 1D X.

The Nikon D3S (left) vs the Canon 1D X (right)

Canon has thrown down the gauntlet with the announcement of its brand new flagship DSLR, the Canon EOS-1D X. This new camera is an extremely important new model for Canon, make no mistake about it.

The significant stuff, in table form:

Nikon D3S
Canon 1DX
Max ISO 102,400 204,800
Megapixels 12 18
Max FPS 11 14
# AF points
51 61
Video
720p, 24fps,
MJPEG
1080p, 30fps,
H.264
Viewfinder magnification
0.7x 0.76x
Metering sensor
1005-pixel RGB 100,000-pixel RGB
LCD display
3″, 921k dots 3.2″, 1040k dots
Price (body) $5200 $6800 (est)
Announcement date Oct 2009 Oct 2011
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