Saturday, August 29, 2015

Review: Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6G ED II Lens

Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6G ED II Lens
When I purchased my Nikon D3300 DSLR, I went out of my way to buy it without the kit lens. Nikon doesn't sell the D3300 "body only" in the U.S., so I purchased one from Japan, where it is available without the cheap 18-55mm lens. I decided (perhaps foolishly) that I did not need the kit lens. My intention was to use the camera with a good prime lens, and that's what I have done, for the most part. 

Recently a job came up that would require me to use a wide-angle lens. I didn't own a wide-angle lens, except for the one on my Nokia Lumia 1020, which I do occasional use for more "serious" work, but it wouldn't be sufficient for this job. However, I wasn't going to be paid enough from this project to justify purchasing a wide-angle prime or a high-end wide-angle zoom. I needed something inexpensive.

I decided that the best option was a cheap 18-55mm kit lens. Nikon has several, and the cheapest one that I could find was a "factory refurbished" Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6G ED II lens. This is not the same lens that normally comes with the D3300 or even the D3200 (each came with a different Nikkor kit lens). This is an older version that doesn't have image-stabilization (or "vibration reduction" as Nikon calls it). It was introduced in 2006 and initially came with the Nikon D40.
Summer Country Feeling - Stallion Springs, California
55mm focal length at f8.
When preparing for product reviews I like to consider who will be purchasing the product. I had a tough time coming up with scenarios in which someone might buy this lens. I came to buy it through unusual circumstances, and I suspect that, if you are considering it, that your circumstances are a bit unusual, too. Perhaps, most commonly, someone has accidentally broken their kit lens and are looking for a cheap replacement.

Like I said, I purchased my Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6G ED II lens as factory refurbished. What this means is the lens was returned to Nikon, most likely as a defective product. It was torn apart, cleaned up and (if appropriate) fixed, and resold in a "like new" condition. I've purchased a couple factory refurbished Nikon products before and I've never had any issues with any of them. The product looks brand-new and, aside from the packaging it came in, you wouldn't know that it wasn't new.

The Lens
Circle And Lines In Monochrome - Stallion Springs, California
55mm focal length at f5.6.
The Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6G ED II wide-angle zoom lens is for Nikon cameras with APS-C sized sensors (Nikon calls it "DX"). For this review I used a D3300. With the APS-C crop factor, the lens has an equivalent (in 35mm "full-frame" terms) 27-82.5mm focal length. That's a good focal length for portraits and landscapes. It doesn't have any image stabilization.

Build quality is pretty low. It's mostly plastic, except for the glass, some rubber, and a very small amount of metal. It doesn't feel like it will last forever, but on the positive side it is very light weight.

This lens has no distortion at 55mm, but as one zooms out the distortion shows up somewhat quickly. It's quite noticeable by 24mm and is at its worst at 18mm, which is what one would expect from a kit lens. It isn't horrible (and it is certainly correctable in post-processing), but this is something to be aware of. Keep the lens at 55mm if you want straight lines to be straight. On newer Nikon DSLRs, the camera can correct the distortion for you if distortion correction is enabled.
The Sun Has Set - Stallion Springs, California
55mm focal length at f5.6.
I couldn't find much in the way of chromatic aberrations at all, which is really good. I'm not sure if this is entirely because of the lens. Nikon "fixes" chromatic aberrations automatically in-camera with their latest generation of DSLRs.

The 18-55mm AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6G ED II is sufficiently sharp. It's not terrible or great--about what one would expect from a kit lens. If you want a wide-angle zoom lens with sharpness similar to a prime lens, be prepared to spend at least $700.

The lens is actually surprisingly sharp in the center from 18mm to about 45mm with the aperture set between f3.5-f8, but seems to lose a bit of sharpness when longer than 45mm and/or with the aperture smaller than f8. Corner sharpness is a weak point. It seems to only perform well in this area between 30mm and 45mm focal lengths and with the aperture set between f5.6 and f8. Otherwise, expect soft corners.
Three Steps In The Sand - Stallion Springs, California
55mm focal length at f5.6.
A downside to this lens is vignetting. There is significant vignetting at 18mm, especially when combined with a large aperture. The amount of vignetting does decrease as you zoom in. Apertures of f8 and smaller will produce the least amount of it. If you are photographing a white wall or empty sky you'll notice the vignette, otherwise this is not a huge deal.

Diffraction occurs around f11. The lens is at peak sharpness around f5.6. Contrast is pretty good thought the focal lengths.

The Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6G ED II has seven elements in five groups. It has seven rounded blades. Bokeh (the quality of the out-of-focus area in a photograph) is fairly nice and smooth and won't be a distraction. Highlights show up as soft circles. Lens flare is well controlled and sunstars look good.
Stres Relief - Tehachapi, California
Autofocus is perhaps slightly slower than what one would expect. If the change in focus is small the camera locks focus almost instantaneously. If the change in focus is from near-to-far or far-to-near, it takes a noticeable moment for the lens to get focused. Manual focus is possible with a flip of the switch on the side of the lens, but the focus ring isn't great and the experience is less than ideal. Still, I manually focused multiple times with success.

Minimum focus distance is about 11 inches from the camera's sensor, or about five inches from the front of the lens. This is pretty good for a kit lens, and more than sufficient for everything except macro photography.

The largest aperture is f3.5, available at 18mm, but it decreases to f5.6 as you zoom in. The smallest aperture is between f22 and f38, depending on the focal length, but diffraction makes these impractical for use.
Sagebrush - Stallion Springs, California
38mm focal length at f4.8.
The lens has threads for 52mm filters. Those who use polarizer filters won't like that the front element rotates during focus.

The Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6G ED II retails for $100 brand new. I paid $70 for my refurbished lens. You shouldn't have much trouble finding a used one for around $50. That's a price that most people should have no problem affording.

A Sunset In June - Stallion Springs, California
40mm focal length at f5.6.
The Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6G ED II lens performs very well within limited parameters, mainly between 30mm and 45mm and between f5.6 and f8. Otherwise it is an average lens and the price is understandable.

If you are like most people and are on a limited budget, the Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6G ED II is a descent lens that will get the job done for not too much money. It is a good value option for adding some versatility to your DX camera, or for replacing your broken kit lens.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Sunsets Captured From My Yard

The Sun Has Set - Stallion Springs, California
California is known for its great sunsets. They can be breathtaking! And my home in the Tehachapi Mountains has been a great place to view them.

The sunset photographs in this post were all captured from my home. For many of them I was standing in my yard. For some I was in the empty field right across the street from my property. I was never further than a stone's throw from my place for any of them.

This proves that you don't have to travel to capture great images. Look around where you live for photographic opportunities. Keep an open eye and an open mind for subjects that are right around you.

Great sunsets don't happen every day. Typically there are only one or two per month worth photographing. Sometimes you get lucky and there might be a handful in one month. However, if you are not out with your camera in hand when the sun is going down you will not photograph any of them. You may have to sit through a bunch of underwhelming sunsets before capturing a great one.

For some of these sunsets I had my camera in hand waiting for the color and light show to begin, and it just seemed as though it wouldn't happen. Then, just as I was about to give up, for a brief moment the sky went crazy and I was able to capture something beautiful. Sometimes you have to be patient. As the saying goes, never give up on a sunset.
A Sunset In June - Stallion Springs, California
Striped Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
A September Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
Rays of Hope - Stallion Springs, California
The Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
An August Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
Summer Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
Summer Solstice Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
Summer Grass - Stallion Springs, California
Stallion Springs Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
Sunset, California - Stallion Springs, California

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tehachapi To Barstow

BNSF Intermodal - Tehachapi, California
About a month ago I published an article If You Give Your Kids A Camera. I took my family on an adventure between Tehachapi and Barstow in California, and I gave my seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son a camera. It was a cool experience and their photographs were impressive.

While they post-processed their photographs over a month ago, I just now got around to post-processing mine. The reason for this is that I like to wait a while before editing my images, which helps me to more easily recognize my bad exposures.

I used a Nikon D3300 DSLR to capture these. They were post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure 7 software.
Dramatic Oak - Tehachapi, California
Turning Train - Tehachapi, California
Horseplay At The Loop - Tehachapi, California
Contained - Tehachapi, California
Pillars - Barstow, California
Reflecting On Strife - Barstow, California
Blue Under, White Over - Barstow, California
Boy At The Train Station - Barstow, California
Today's Girl Photographer - Barstow, California
Frightened Child - Barstow, California
Three Arches - Barstow, California
Fire Wok - Barstow, California

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Consider How The Photograph Will Feel When Post-Processing

Every photograph has a certain feeling. There is an emotion that each photograph convey's to the viewer. This is a part of the nonverbal communication of photography.

It's easy to change the emotion of an image through post-processing. You can make a photograph convey whatever feeling that you want. Because of this, you must be purposeful with your post-processing choices.

In the days of film you picked a film--perhaps it was what you already had loaded into the camera--and you were stuck with whatever that choice was. While there were some tricks that you could do in the darkroom, for the most part you were stuck with the look of the film. And each film had it's own look. Film choice was a critical choice! This decision had to be made well before opening the shutter.

Digital capture looks roughly the same no matter what camera captured it, but digital images can be manipulated to look like anything you want. This is a major advantage of today's photo technology. You get to decide after the fact what you want the photograph to look like.

The decision to make an image look a certain way--to convey the emotion that you want it to--is just as critical with digital as it is with film. It's easy to overlook just how important it is to post-process an image in such a way that it nonverbally speaks what you want it to. You don't want to create a feeling that is contrary to what you want to convey.

Let's take a look at one photograph post-processed with three different looks.
Restaurant Cafe (Velvia Edit) - Tehachapi, California
Restaurant Cafe (Polaroid Edit) - Tehachapi, California
Restaurant Cafe (B&W Edit) - Tehachapi, California
The same exposure, three vastly different versions. Each one speaks something different to the viewer. Your emotional response to each version is likely noticeably different. Where your eyes get drawn to is different, as well.

You may have decided that one of the edits is better than the other two. You might have ranked them from best to worst. You may have noticed something in each version that you don't like. I could have made 100 different versions, and they all would have a different feel, if even just slightly different.

Let me remind you: this is one photograph. This is a singular exposure. It's amazing what one can create with just one digital image. Technology is amazing!

I don't want to get into which version is better and why. Since each one speaks something different to the viewer, the only one that is "right" is the one that speaks what I want it to speak. Because everyone's life experiences are different, the one that you might pick as "right" might not be the same one that I pick. That's alright. Because this is my art I get to decide which one is best. For your art you get to choose.

The takeaway is that your post-processing decisions have an impact on the final image. Make sure that what you do with software to an image makes it convey the emotions that you want. Make sure that it speaks to the viewer what you want it to nonverbal say. The look you give the image is a critical decision and it should not be taken lightly.

If you are not sure what look might be best for an image, consider how you feel about the image. Remember what you felt when you captured the photograph. Think about what you want viewers to experience in their brains when they view your photograph. Let this guide you when you post-process your photographs.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Alien Skin Software is 40% Off!

Alien Skin makes some fantastic photo-editing software. I use Exposure almost exclusively, and I use Snap Art occasionally. I may just have to go get Blow Up as well. Now through August 26, 2015, Alien Skin is offering a 40% discount on all of their different software programs. This is such a great deal!

The next version of Exposure is supposed to be released this winter. If you buy the current version, Alien Skin will give you a free upgrade to the next version when it comes out. Not many companies do that. Certainly not Adobe.

If you've thought about purchasing Exposure or one of their other options, you won't want to miss this rare offer. If you are not sure that you want the software, download the free two-week trial and give it a test spin; however, the 40% discount will only last one week.

Head on over to Alien Skin's website and download one or all of their great post-processing programs. Since you can test drive them for free, you have nothing to lose.

See also:

Get 8 Free Custom-Made Alien Skin Exposure 7 Film Presets
Alien Skin's Customer Service Is Fantastic
Interview With Alien Skin's Jimmy Beech
Review: Alien Skin Snap Art 4 (Or, How Editing Photographs Became Fun Again)
Alien Skin Snap Art 4 - Before & After Examples

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On Perfections And Limitations In Photography

Sunset At Morro Rock - Morro Bay, California
This is one of my most well-known images, but it is has imperfections that you might notice if you look close enough.
I was recently frustrated by some imperfections within some of my images. Those imperfections were, to a large extent, out of my control. I found them to be quite annoying.

I showed my wife the imperfections. She had a hard time noticing many of them at first. Some of the imperfections were extraordinarily subtle. But to my eyes they were obvious and stuck out like a bunch of sore thumbs.

Using software, I spent significant time trying to fix, as best as I could, the imperfections that I could. Photo editing software can be powerful, but it also has limits. Some of those limits pertain to my ability to use such software. I improved many of the imperfections, making them just a little less obvious. I showed my wife the before and after. At first she couldn't spot the change at all.

I had to remind myself that I cannot expect to create perfect photographs. I hope that no one expects my photographs to be perfect because no such thing exists. Perfection in photography is a myth. The world is imperfect. People are imperfect. Gear is imperfect. As much as one strives for perfection within their photography, it is a futile pursuit that will always end in disappointment.

We live in a finite world with finite constraints. Limitations are everywhere. It's a part of life, and it is especially a part of photographic life. You cannot escape it.

But limitations can be blessings. Limitations force you to be more creative. Limitations force you to innovate. Orson Welles said, "The absence of limitations is the enemy of art."

It's important to accept that perfection is unattainable and impossible in photography. But it's also important to embrace that and use it as a catalyst to better photographs. Limitations improve art. They make you think outside-the-box with whatever problems occur. They make you realize that a problem exists that you hadn't even considered before, and now, moving forward, you've got to figure out how to deal with it. They allow you to realize that perfection isn't possible, so don't worry so much about achieving it.

My photograph's are not perfect, and they never will be. But that's alright, because no one's photographs are perfect. I just need to make sure that I'm doing the best that I can with what I have. That's all anyone can do. And, hopefully, that's good enough.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Photographing Tall Grass In The Yard

Summer Country Feeling - Stallion Springs, California
Each spring tall grass grows in my yard. In the summer it turns a yellowish-tan color. Most people would mow it down. Me? I grab a camera.

To me the grass represents a feeling. I'm reminded of the long summer days as a child. I think of friends and exploring adventures--playing and being free. I would search for shapes in the clouds while laying on the ground. It's a warm feeling. But it's also fading memories.

A bunch of different cameras were used to capture these images, including a Nikon D3300, Sigma DP2 Merrill and Samsung NX200. Does it matter which were used for what? Nope, because vision is what's important in photography, not gear. All of the images in this post were captured in my yard.
Rain Tease - Stallion Springs, California
Summer Grass - Stallion Springs, California
Endless Summer Wish - Stallion Springs, California
Summer Leap - Stallion Springs, California
Country Wood - Stallion Springs, California
Adventure of Summer Youth - Stallion Springs, California