Tag Archives: gear

Too. Much. Information.

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I remember when I got my first serious 35mm SLR camera. It was a Zenit EM, carved from solid lead, and with an instruction booklet that had maybe 24 pages in total. From the booklet you learned about loading film, about settings, about taking a picture, about winding the film on a frame, and about all the natty accessories you could get to complement your camera.

All so simple. Even the Olympus OM10 instruction booklet was slim and to the point. Let’s face it, analogue photography was a much simpler affair all round.

Not that I don’t like my digital cameras. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love them, but I really enjoy using them to make images. The immediacy of digital, I think, has made me happier to experiment and play.

A downside, though, is modern digital cameras are just so eminently adjustable. Once you get lost in the maze of menus, it is very easy to lose track. This is my problem. I’ve owned my EOS 7D for about 18 months now, and I have it pretty much set the way I like it. I think. I can’t actually remember some of the settings I’ve adjusted, or why I adjusted them. I keep rummaging through the menus, vainly trying to recall whether it was C.FnIII-12 or C.FnI-4 where I set the noise reduction levels or AI Servo 1st/2nd img priority, and why would I want to register an AF point anyway‽

You might say I should read the manual more thoroughly. This is very true, but herein lies another problem. The manufacturer’s manual is great at explaining what Button X does when you press it, and what Custom Function Z does when you set it. It’s not at all great at explaining what Button X and Custom Function Z are actually for! It’s all very well being informed that pressing Button X makes a beep, but why and under what circumstances would I require a beep to be made by pressing the button? Take my beef about registering an AF point, mentioned earlier. Great. I know how to do that, but not why I would want to do that. I’m digressing, as I tend to when I am in full-on rant mode! Back to the theme…

All the while the camera seems to be working as I want I feel comfortable. There is a nagging doubt, though, that there is something I have neglected, or accidentally switched on when it really would be better switched off. So, the time has come for me to reset everything back to the way it was when Canon shipped it out of their factory.

Why am I apprehensive about doing this? I don’t know. Part of me worries, I think, that I might forget to switch back on a feature I use a lot. A larger part figures it is a Good Thing to start afresh occasionally. After all, I’m still discovering new things about the machine, and a reset may well let me learn something else new. 

You couldn’t say that about the Zenit or Olympus. Once you’d mastered the basics, you just got on with things. Digital cameras are a whole new species in comparison.

Do You Wear a Camera?

Perhaps the biggest challenge I hear many of our readers talking about when it comes to their photography is that they struggle to find time to practice their photography.

The real problem though is that so many of us don’t have our camera with us when the photographic opportunities present. Instead they sit at home in a little bag that is full of well researched and rarely used gear.

But even when we take our camera with us it often remains in that bag.

I recently was reading Thorsten Overgaard’s site (pictured right) where make the statement that cameras should always ‘wear their camera’. He wrote:

“Things happen when you wear your camera. You get to see things and document them.”

By ‘wearing’ your camera Thorsten advocates actually having out of your bag, over your shoulder, switched on and ready to go at all times.

Getting a little meta, writing a blog post about a blog post about a blog post, but I think the subject here is worth a look.

I used to “wear” my Olympus OM10—it was always nearby wherever I went—and I used to be able cram my Canon EOS 400D with a lens into my handbag, but since moving to a larger body, I only ever carry the PowerShot G9 in my bag.

The sound of pennies dropping

I shoot a Canon EOS 7D. As well as some Canon lenses, I also own some Sigma lenses. I acquired an ƒ/2.8 70–200mm Sigma a little while ago.

Now, something about using Sigma lenses on Canon bodies bugs me. See if you can spot it in this screenshot from Aperture (bear in mind the image was shot using the 70–200mm):

Screen_shot_2012-03-30_at_15

See the lens model at the bottom? It seems the Canon “brain” sees the Sigma lens, but identifies it as an ƒ/2.8 50–150mm plus a 1.4x extender! Do the maths, and you’ll see this odd combination actually works out as a 70–210mm. It’s not just this lens, either. All my Sigma lenses, both EF and EF-S compatible, are reported incorrectly in the EXIF from the camera. Weird but true.

It would be really nice if there was a way to correct this, either in the camera or within Aperture. I haven’t found a way yet.

Why Good Photography Isn’t About the Gear

With the release of the Nikon d800 and the Canon 5d mk3 many people will have no doubt begun checking their bank statements a bit more carefully and thinking about increasing that credit limit by a measly few thousand.

This got me thinking, how many bells and whistles do you actually need to take a great photograph anyway? Too many cameras are now available with enough fancy settings to give the geekiest of technology nerd’s nightmares.

Lets face it, these days 99% of photographs will never see printed paper, ending up on an innumerable amount of social networking sites, converting a large file from a full frame ultra mega pixel machine into web ready kilobytes and a pixelated 72dpi. Shooting poor images wont change from mobile to DSLR, your rubbish (and mine) will just be higher definition.

With this in mind I decided I would go out and shoot some landscapes with my girlfriend’s entry level and well-used Canon 1000d and its bog standard 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens. I figure as long as any camera can go fully manual in ‘M’ mode, I should be able to capture good images without having to resort to using the bell setting or even it’s whistle feature.

It’s nice to have new gear. My “new” camera is now a year old, and will no doubt soon be obsolete when Canon produces the 7D Mk II any day (joke!).

But the pertinent point here is whether new gear makes you a better photographer. Well, does it? Be honest now.

Keeping Your Gear Safe While Shooting In The Rain

Let me lay out my credentials: I live in Seattle. Yes, it’s a bit of a stereotype, but it’s that way for a reason. While we don’t get the torential downpours during monsoon season in some hemispheres, we are pretty good at getting out when the weather is waterlogged to take photos. I have been shooting for 20 years and, while I am surely not perfect, I have some experience with different techniques for shooting in the rain.

A useful post over at Digital Photo School concerning protecting your camera gear from the rain. I have been acquiring wet weather gear for a while, and now I have a weather-sealed camera I need to think about actually getting out in inclement weather.

New Shiny Announced!

World goes bonkers!

Anyone with even just a passing interest in digital photography can’t have failed to spot the rumour mills and industry monitors grinding into life this past few weeks. New DSLRs are very much in the news, if you care about such things.

Canon announced a new professional flagship model, the EOS-1D X, back in October 2011. Aimed at replacing the current top-flight DSLR models they produce, it’s slated for release sometime in 2012. I won’t bore you with the technical details. If they interest you, they’re on the press release and everywhere else!

Nikon, meanwhile, has just unveiled their D3 series replacement, the FX-format D4. I can’t immediately find official release dates, but again, if you are sufficiently interested in the technical stuff, it’s in the press release and everywhere else!

These press releases are timed to hit the CES 2012 shindig in Las Vegas, Nevada, US. The Consumer & Electronics Show is one of the biggest international gadget-fests going, and everyone who is anyone in the technology world will be there. Except Apple, but there you go. That’s an entirely other story.

So why do I bring you this earth-shattering news? Am I being sucked into the technolust vortex? Will Snaptophobic end up as just another technoblog, regurgitating press releases about every new gadget or software without even pausing to breathe?

No. Not a chance.

If I am completely honest I have never been free of the vortex, but I find the effort needed to get incredibly excited about new gear has waned in proportion with my age and bank balance! Yes, I am interested in it, but only in a peripheral kind of way. Being a Canonista, the new EOS-1D X is interesting, but it’s so far beyond my budget that I can effectively ignore it. It’s a camera that may be of interest to me if I were a professional photographer and it was to be my key tool, but as I am not a professional and I already have a camera that’s more than adequate for my needs, I won’t be letting myself be sucked too deeply into the vortex.

With Nikon’s announcement, there will now be an inevitable increase in the Cankon/Niknon fanbois crowing over features that trump their arch nemesis. This is partly why I haven’t bothered you with the technical features of each new camera, because they are really irrelevant to you and me. The kind of people who will find that sort of information at all of real interest are those who are not—in my opinion, I hasten to add—real photographers. 

So, while the baying over megapixel counts, burst frame rates, astronomical ISO levels, focus points and other geeky stuff begins to inexorably grow in volume, remember this: it’s not about the gear.

The camera is just a tool, a means to an end. Some of my best images were taken using a 35mm film camera that cost £20. Learn to use the tool you have, and make great pictures. If you can afford one of the new shinies, or can justify one for your work, go to it with my blessings. If you just want to leave it in idiot mode, slung round your neck as techo-jewellery … words fail me.

No, really, they do. 

Here’s to the future now…

I recall hoping 2011 would improve on the utter disaster that was 2010. I have to admit to being disappointed. 2011 hasn’t really been much better. I wonder what 2012 might have in store for me.

Yes, it’s that time of the year when I sit down and review where I have been over the past 12 months, and where I want to go over the next.

Not having a regular income to speak of has rather curbed my wanderlust, so any photographic expeditions in 2011 have been closer to home. Apart from a couple of sallies beyond the confines of Kent—model railway exhibitions earlier in the year took me as far as Wigan and York, and a brief day trip to Shropshire a few weeks ago took in the RAF Museum at Cosford—I have had to be content with places that don’t cost a fortune to visit.

I made a couple of exploratory visits to places during the year. Dungeness and the Isle of Grain have been earmarked for further exploration. Faversham piqued my interest, and warrants a longer visit. Trips to flesh out my “Margins” photo project were relatively few, mainly incorporating the north shore of the River Medway, which has turned into one of my regular haunts. I suppose I have managed to get some good images during the year.

Gear-wise, selling off some other hobby items enabled me to upgrade my DSLR from the Canon EOS 400D to the 7D. I also added an ƒ/2.8 70–300mm lens, and a few accessories like a remote shutter release and memory cards. There’s not a lot more I want to add to my gear, although I have one more lens I would like to acquire in the ƒ/2.8 17–70mm-ish range, and more memory cards and so on. My MacBook Pro will celebrate its fifth birthday in summer 2012, and it is just beginning to show its age. Aperture 3 gives it cause to struggle, and sadly I cannot add any more RAM to the machine to help. I’m looking at options such as a new, faster, bigger internal hard drive in order to eke out a little more life from it.

Looking to 2012, what do I wish for? I am ignoring the real world here, just looking at my own life. There is only really one thing I want: a proper full-time job. I need a nice regular income again. Life out here in the freelance artworker world is totally dead. The lack of a job has meant I have had to let another fantastic opportunity sail by without my boarding it. Later in the summer 2012, I had hoped I would be going on a photographic safari to Svalbard. Circumstances in 2011 meant I simply couldn’t commit to buying the flight tickets. So much for adventure.

I would also like to push to try and get some freelance model railway photography gigs. I’ve already blogged about that, but in the new year I intend to keep pushing at that stuck door. I am fed up with letting life pass me by. 2012 ought to be the year when I make every effort to get life moving again. 

If I don’t blog before, I would like to wish you all a merry Christmas, and my best wishes for the new year.

Testing a new toy

I have wanted an ƒ/2.8 70–200mm lens for some time. I wanted the Canon variant, but sadly finances don’t quite stretch that far at the moment. After a brief flirtation with the Canon ƒ/4 70–200mm, I decided I really did want the ƒ/2.8 after all.

After comparisons around the main brands, I decided the Sigma 70–200mm ƒ/2.8 II APO EX DG Macro fitted the bill nicely. Reviews were good, if not completely stellar. Users seemed to be happy with the quality, and already owning two other Sigma lenses meant I knew what the build quality would be like. All in all, I felt my choice would be a competent and useful lens that would serve me well until I was wealthy enough to buy the Canon lens.

Then, my hand was forced a little in my decision. The lens in question had been launched in 2008, and was ripe for replacement. Many places still seemed to stock it, but when I went to one of my favourite suppliers, they only had the new version in stock. The new version, sporting improvements such as image stabilisation and slightly better optics, was twice the price. There were still resellers, through the Amazon marketplace, who were stocking the old variant I was after. I did some bean counting, and worked out that, yes, I could afford the lens, and it was duly ordered.

After a week or so, the hefty box arrived from Germany. The lens is a beast. It is built like a tank, and weighs about the same. Attached to the camera, you know it’s there. As with the other Sigma lenses I own, the autofocus is fast and silent, just occasionally getting confused. The macro feature, which I thought I’d probably not really use much, turns out to be quite useful.

I tried the lens out indoors. The ƒ/2.8 constant aperture was very useful. AF would latch on to almost anything no matter the light level. Hand-held, the zoom and focus rings were comfortable to use. The weather, it being November, however, didn’t really let me test the lens outside. I tried some shots from our back garden when we had a few minutes of watery morning sunlight, but that was all I managed.

To say the results were disappointing is understatement. I had been aware of the reviews commenting on softness at full zoom, and a measure of “chromatic aberration” (colour fringes caused by the optics). However, they seemed far worse than I had anticipated. While I had not expected pin sharp detail, I had expected things to be slightly less fuzzy than what I was seeing.

I tested the lens to see if it needed calibrating. My camera, the Canon EOS 7D, has a micro-adjustment feature, which allows you to compensate for lenses that consistently misfocus. I tested the Sigma, and found it was just about right.

So, it wasn’t the lens focus at fault. Perhaps it was technique. This morning, I awoke to bright autumnal sunlight. I went back into the garden, tooled up with the camera and lens. I wanted to see if I could settle whether the fuzziness was just a feature of the lens optics, or whether I needed to refine the technique in order to get the best from it.

These images are unprocessed, converted to JPEG from the RAW images using Apple Aperture 3. The only processing that took place was the RAW conversion filter.

On the surface, they don’t look too bad. The bokeh, one of the key features I was after with the ƒ/2.8, is nice and smooth. However, when you look at them in detail, you can see just how soft the images actually are.

Fittoscreen01

Taken at the full 200mm zoom (310mm effective on my APS-C camera), ƒ/8 at 1/250th second shutter speed. The grab shows part of the image as it appeared in Aperture on my 15in MacBook Pro, with the full image filling the window.

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This grab is zoomed in to 100% in Aperture. I believe this equates to one image pixel per screen pixel, but I stand to be corrected. The image is soft. There is detail there, but it’s not sharp. A little disappointing, but still a usable image provided it’s not enlarged too far.

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Again at 200mm, ƒ/3.5 at 1/500th second. Once again, the “fit in window” view.

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Here is the 100% view. Note the cyan and magenta fringes on the water droplets?

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Finally, another 200mm zoom, ƒ/8 at 1/640th second.

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The 100% view.

At the other end of the zoom range, somewhat amusingly known as wide angle, though it’s into telephoto range on my camera at 112mm effective, the images are still soft but exhibit much less colour fringeing. 

Having now had the opportunity to test The Beast in decent light outdoors, my initial disappointment has somewhat evaporated. The lens appears to be operating within normal parameters. The quality and sharpness improves as the aperture is closed down, with the sweet spot around the ƒ/5 to ƒ/8 region—much the same as the cheaper 28–300mm ƒ/3.5–ƒ/5.6 Sigma I also own. I was also disappointed with that lens at first, until I began to work within its limitations. With more in-the-field experience, I think I will grow to like The Beast after all.

As a final note, I uploaded my test shots to Flickr. I export uploads to fit within 1024px square. Flickr performs a sharpening algorithm on uploads. Judge for yourself whether that makes a silk purse from a sow’s ear. I may have to experiment with a little judicious sharpening locally to see if it improves matters on my originals. 

The Problem With Using Filters On Your Camera Lenses « Photofocus

Just like the meme that you should change your oil every 3,000 miles or have your teeth cleaned every six months, the photographic retailers have their own meme going – you should buy a UV filter to protect your lens.

Sigh…

While I am sure many of you – maybe even most of you – have fallen for this, it’s not necessary. In this post I’ll give you my opinion as to why you don’t need such a filter and further, discuss a few pitfalls of filters in general.

Let’s work backwards. Filters in general cause several problems. They may induce flare, either the visible kind that results in small starbursts of light appearing on your image, or the more insidious kind – light refraction, which ends up reducing image contrast. These problems are caused by light leaks between the filter and lens, and the inner reflective surfaces of the filters themselves, as well as a few optical phenomena, the discussion of which would be beyond the scope of a simple blog post.

Scott Bourne at Photofocus hits the nail on the head again. I always fell for this, until a couple of years ago when I decided I couldn’t afford the really expensive UV filters, read about a bit and decided they simply weren’t worth the effort anyway.

One lens I own still has a UV filter—the Sigma 10–20mm. I’m not sure why, to be honest.

Tethered Shooting

Generally, the fastest way to get images from the Canon EOS 7D is a case of popping the CF card out of the camera and into a reader attached to my Mac, then getting Aperture to copy the files into its library. If most of my photography has been out in the field it’s the only sensible method of downloading, especially if there are several cards involved.

Sometimes I find myself working in a studio environment, where seeing the results without recourse to pixel-peeping on the camera’s LCD would be beneficial. If I’m doing some model or macro work, where focus can be quite critical, or if I’ve got a bunch of products I need to shoot where the lighting and framing is all but identical, tethered or remote shooting — where the camera is connected to and controlled by software on a computer — is the way to go.

Canon ships a bunch of software* with their DSLRs, including a utility that lets you set up and control the camera from the computer screen. Combine this with the camera’s Live View feature, where the viewfinder mirror is locked up so you see exactly what the sensor is seeing, and you can perform critical focus and framing while seeing everything as large as your computer’s screen will allow.

Canon’s software hasn’t really been designed with a third party application in mind. I’ve used Digital Photo Professional (Canon’s RAW image management and editing suite) in the past, but let’s just say I was only too happy to move to something better when I could.

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The ‘Studio’ setup. Black card forms the backdrop, with battery LED lamps to fill in, helped by a reflector on the right which is bouncing the desk lamp light into the scene.

I’ve been an Aperture user for some years now. Apple’s flagship image management and editing software has always supported camera tethering of some sort, but my previous DSLR was not supported. My current camera, the EOS 7D, is supported by Aperture 3. Keen to cut out the comprehensive but rather clumsy Canon control software, I tried it out.

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With the camera on and connected, choose Tether > Start Session… to begin using Aperture’s tethering controls.

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You are asked to choose some basic settings before you begin…

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…and here’s your control panel. A button to capture the image, and a button to stop the session. Any camera settings must be performed on the camera itself. Aperture tethering is simply a way of downloading the images directly from the camera.

It was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment. True, the 7D can be linked to Aperture. But that’s about it. You have some control over the EXIF or IPTC data embedded with the image, there’s a button that lets you fire the camera’s shutter and it does download the resulting image directly into your Aperture project, but for everything else you have to work on the camera itself. There’s not even a way to preview the shot, or activate the autofocus, or change the other parameters on the camera, as far as I can tell. Compare this with the complete remote control of the camera—save zooming in and out or moving the tripod—which is available if you use the EOS Utility.

The task, then, is to work with the Canon software to set up and control the camera, but make sure the images are downloaded into Aperture, neatly sidestepping the rather clunky Digital Photo Professional. Ideally, this should happen automatically, so I can concentrate on the work at hand, but still be able to review images if I need to.

Step forward a handy little free script, built using Apple’s Automator scripting package. Called Aperture Hot Folder, it’s a tiny application that monitors the folder where the EOS Utility is downloading images from your camera, and tells Aperture to import them. Easy.

Aperture Hot Folder is free, which is even better. (It’s for Mac OS X only. I’m sure there are similar things available for Windows and Linux, and Adobe Lightroom, too.)

So, here’s my workflow. Firstly, I set up the camera and connect it to the Mac with the USB cable. Once Aperture is running, and I’ve set up a project for the shots I’m taking, I launch Aperture Hot Folder and step through the instruction screens.

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The first screen explains what the script does, and what to do next.

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Select a folder on the hard drive to watch and click Choose.

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Aperture Hot Folder then asks you to choose an Aperture project to which it should import the images that arrive in the watched folder selected in the previous step. If your Aperture library is large, with lots of projects, this list will be very long!

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Next, you’re asked whether the imported images should be referenced (Aperture-speak for leaving them where they are in the hard drive) or imported into Aperture’s managed library. I choose the latter because I like to work with a managed library and not worry about where originals are.

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Finally, a confirmation screen and instructions on how to stop the script running when you’re done.

With the camera connected, switched on and mode dial set to manual, the next application in the sequence is EOS Utility so we can control the camera.

EOS Utility itself initially shows a main screen where you can choose various functions. It’s a launch pad that gets you into a variety of software for downloading images from the camera, setting the downloads folder and all that kind of thing. 

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The part I’m interested in, though, is Camera Settings/Remote Shooting. Clicking this launches the control panel proper.

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I’m not going into detail with this control panel. As you can see, it’s pretty comprehensive, with plenty of data showing how the camera is set up, battery condition and other information. The round button near the top right is the shutter release button. Before I start, I click the tiny folder icon below the shutter to select the destination folder being watched by Aperture Hot Folder.

From the control panel I can literally control every parameter of the camera, short of physically moving it on the tripod to frame my subjects. With the camera set to manual (M), I can set shutter speed, aperture, ISO, colour balance, file format, etc, by clicking on the relevant element and using the left and right cursor keys to change them incrementally. Remote control also works for aperture and shutter priority, but for full control manual is preferred.

From the menu buttons below the data panel I can pop up the camera’s built-in flash (where I can also control flash exposure levels) and, with the Live View shoot… button, crucially kicking the 7D into Live View shooting mode. 

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Once in Live View mode, rather than peering at the image on the camera’s LCD, I see it in a larger window on my computer screen. I see exactly what the sensor is seeing. In this new window, I can turn on grid overlays, move the focus block about and set the colour balance to my liking. I can even turn on selective focus and exposure points. Almost every part of the camera’s operation can be controlled from my computer. If the lens is set to autofocus, pressing the shutter release button focuses the lens before the shot is taken—though this is a little hit and miss. If the focus misfires, the resulting shot will still be taken, which is why I prefer to work with manual focus for tethered shooting.

Ae_point

For critical focus, I click the zoom magnifier below the main image or double-click the white rectangle in the image. This area can be dragged around the screen, and once clicked opens an enlargement window zoomed into the defined area. 

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I can drag the image about for a better view, and zoom to 200% to allow really fine manual focus if desired. Closing this window returns me to the main window, although most of the settings are available in both windows. If I have chosen a small aperture, I can also turn on depth of field preview to see how it will appear in the final shot. There is also a mode where the Remote Live View Window will simulate the exposure settings to give me a better feel for the final image. 

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Depth of Field preview off. The lens aperture is wide open, allowing critical focus.

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Depth of Field preview on. This shows me how the image will appear with the aperture set to ƒ/16. The software brightens the image artificially, unlike when you squint through the viewfinder when pressing the DoF preview button on the camera itself!

When I’m happy, I can click the faux shutter button on the control panel, or the real thing on the camera or remote release, and my image is captured and downloaded to the watched folder. I can, of course, check it for focus and colour balance without leaving the Canon software suite if I wish. I’m going to do my reviewing in Aperture, so I will have to wait for a few seconds.

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EOS Utility downloads the captured image from the camera to the watched folder.

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The original downloaded images remain in the watched folder, so they’ve been copied into Aperture’s library rather than moved.

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The captured image appears in Aperture where I can review and work on it.

Once the image has been downloaded to the watched folder, Aperture Hot Folder notices the new arrival and pokes Aperture in the ribs. The new image is imported as a copy to Aperture—leaving the original capture in the hot folder for later disposal, just as when downloading from a CF card—and after a short pause I can study the image in greater detail in my preferred image management software.

While Aperture Hot Folder and Aperture are sorting themselves out, I can carry on and capture further images. Each will be dutifully imported into Aperture while I work. If not seamless, at least it lets me avoid the step of importing the images to Aperture later. Theoretically, I could be capturing the shots on my laptop, controlling the camera settings, while the images are downloaded and then perhaps copied across a network to an assistant working in Aperture who can then process the shots. The potential for a busy studio workflow is there.

I should also add that the EOS Utility and Remote Live View Window let you record video as well as stills. Ideal for the director who simply must see everything as it’s being filmed. I plan to use this feature soon for a short video I have in mind.

It’s definitely not a perfect solution, but it allows me to use the full control Canon provides while still working in my preferred RAW management software. Aperture’s tethered shooting mode comes up a long way short.

 

 

 

*The full list of software Canon provides is Digital Photo Professional (management and RAW editing), EOS Utility (download and camera control), Picture Style Editor (allows the user to edit and create new picture styles which can be uploaded to the camera), PhotoStitch (for creating panoramic images for multiple shots) and PhotoStitch Viewer (to view the resulting panoramas), and CameraWindow (I have no idea what this is for: when you launch it, it launches EOS Utility for you…).