Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Canon 6D and its in-camera HDR feature

For some time, I'd been itching to upgrade to a digital camera with a full-frame sensor to exploit the larger frame and, because of the greater number of pixels, the higher-quality resolution in my non-sports shoots. Besides, any camera purchased new will contain the industry's latest technology, which almost always is a plus. Of critical concern for me in the new technology realm is a camera's ISO range and its low-noise performance in low-light situations.

I've been using Canon's 7D as my primary camera since December 2009, and it's served me very well. It's Canon top of the line digital single-lens reflex body in the crop-factor (small-sensor) family. Its ISO quality was a significant improvement over that in my previous primary body, the 30D. It also was Canon's first DSLR to be equipped with the dual DIGIC processor, and the first camera of any kind to feature a chip that serves as wireless trigger that photographers can use to shoot off-camera flash without having to buy and or employ additional hardware such as a Pocket Wizard system. The 7D's in-camera trigger, employed through the pop-up flash, is restricted in two key areas, however. It works only with Canon higher-end flashes, and the camera's pop-up must be in the line of sight of at least a portion of a flash unit's front side so that the chip can find the flash unit to trigger.

Of particular benefit to me has been the 7D's speedy burst rate -- 8.2 frames per second, which comes in handy for my sports, concerts and theater shoots. So good is the 7D, whose magnesium alloy body included dust and weather resistance protection, that the only significant thing I was sacrificing by selecting it over the much-heralded 5D Mark II at the time of purchase was the full-frame sensor. That larger sensor, however, figured into the 5DM2's superior image quality and ISO light sensitivity. Apparently, Canon felt that was enough to justify the two cameras' $1,000 price differential. But to pro shooters, that in itself was sufficient, and I don't argue that.

So it was with much consternation that I saw that the 2012 upgrade of the 5D -- the Mark III -- priced at $3,800 when it hit the market. The Mark III promised to improve image quality and low-light sensitivity even more, and it introduced a built-in high-dynamic (HDR) rage feature, piquing my interest because of the extensive HDR work I've done the past three years. But that price point again kept me at a distance ... and prolonged any decision to upgrade. Also figuring into the deliberation was the fact that I started to assess a move to a lighter mirrorless camera.

The mirrorless bodies were introduced two and a half years ago and really started cranking off the production lines in droves within the past 12 to 15 months. From what I've read, most of them are good-quality products whose light-weight bodies and lenses present a distinct appeal to the photographer who spends a lot of time on shoots and assignments. I do believe that at some point, because of the constant evolution in technology, mirrorless will be almost equal in use, popularity and versatility with the DSLR.

Then Canon grabbed my attention later in 2012 when it released the 6D. Its initial price of $2,400 was more than $1,000 less than the 5DM3. Gear experts who reviewed the 6D heralded its image quality and ISO light sensitivity -- even to the point of rating it above the 5DM2. Plus, the 6D is equipped with the built-in HDR feature, just like the 5DM3; the difference, however, is that the 5DM3 will allow you to shoot HDR scenes in RAW format, while the 6D allows only JPG. There are other differences -- the 5D offers a 6 frames per second burst rate, the 6D, 4.5.

The three significant factors that reviewers say separate the 6D from the more expensive 5DM3 was the latter's weather and dust sealing, its 61 (vs. 11) focus points, and its two media slots -- one for SD, the other for CF. The 6D has but one slot, for SD media. But, the 6D has something the 5DM3 does not -- GPS and WiFi capabilities, which are features I'm not really excited about just yet ... but may be in the near future.

About a month ago, I heard about a price-buster deal on the 6D offered by B&H, a respected camera/video retailer based in New York that does extensive business through its online store. It had the 6D body and a package of four accessories (a Canon gadget bag, a 16MB Sandisk Ultimate SDHC memory card, an aluminum monopod and an off-brand battery) priced at $1,699. I've bought camera gear from B&H, so I was confident in what I was seeing.

I took the plunge.

I haven't said anything here about the purchase for a while because, well ... because of economics. Even with that great deal, ever since I've been living largely on retirement income, I wasn't sure I'd be able to afford or justify holding onto the camera, and I wanted an option to return it if it proved to be something I quickly came to realize was out of my reach. I've been testing the 6D off and on since, and I'm certain I'm going to keep it.

The post here last month of my autumn pictures in Garfield Park was my first shoot with the 6D. Pictures of leaves from my backyard in a subsequent post also were taken with the 6D. Last week, I went out to the park again and tested the camera's HDR feature. I started the shoot using one-stop increments for my three exposures (i.e., one image taken at normal exposure, one taken at one stop under normal exposure, and one stop over normal exposure, or -1,0,+1). About 15 minutes into the shoot, I boosted the intervals to two stops (-2,0,+2). I had the 6D mounted on a tripod for all the shots and used a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. I set my white balance to sunlight and ISO to 100, and used aperture priority (f/8), which meant the shutter would be the variable to determine the different exposures.

My impressions of the results are mixed; the 6D did a very nice job with blues -- particularly skies and water (such as the shot of Bean Creek leading off the post), but not too well with anything that was photographed when the sun's angle toward the subject was 90 degrees or less.

Because the 6D's in-camera HDR feature can be used with JPGs only, what you see here had little editing in post-processing. I tweaked some for slight variations on exposure and saturation, but not much at all. The editing went quickly; that is rarely the case when I process my RAW images for HDR through the software program Photomatix.

The bottom line (so far) is that the in-camera HDR feature is nice to have in a pinch (or hurry), and I will do more testing with the single-stop increments ... and possibly even the three-stop increments (the built-in feature offers only those three increment options). But I plan to do future serious HDR work the way I always have -- shoot in RAW format and process images through Photomatix, where I have greater editing control with exposure, color and textures.

Above: A long-range view of the MacAllister Center for the Performing Arts amphitheater.

Above and below: Bean Creek seen from the pedestrian bridge just west of the Sunken Gardens. The closer shot below shows some of the ice formations that had formed the previous night.


Above: Deciduous trees are now leafless, but you could see still thousands of leaves on the ground and sidewalk near the ginko trees that line this stretch of Conservatory Drive. The female ginkos drop berry-shaped seeds in the fall that soon become rancid smelling. While the leaf colors in sunlight are stunning, the odor you smell when accidentally stepping on the seeds is quite the opposite. If you look in the distance a little left of center in the photo above, you can see the V-shaped sycamore that I grabbed a closeup of below.


Above: The backlight situation on this reflection of Pleasant Run intrigued me ... as did the curiosity of how HDR would handle it. The answer: HDR did very little to help. This picture required the most work of the whole batch in post-processing. I had to reduce the shadows levels a good amount and struggled to find a balance between that and contrast. I made monochrome conversions of this and one other shot of the same scene, taken from a tighter angle. I decided to use this in the post to show the true amount of color in the real image -- very little.


Above: Here was an instance where HDR really wasn't necessary; light was even throughout most of the frame. But I decided to try it anyway to see what if the feature would enrich the green coloring on these conifers.

Above: Indianapolis Fire Station 29, which is along Pleasant Run Parkway at the junction of Conservatory Drive, just west of the bridge locals refer to as Ticklebelly Hill. 

Above: Of all the scenes I photographed in this shoot, the contrasty lighting in this image -- very dark under and in the front shadows of the railroad overpass, and bright in the background and foreground -- was best suited for the classic use of HDR, which is to draw optimum detail from both light and dark elements of an image. My impression on how the 6D HDR did on this? Very good. 

Above: HDR helped bring out a little detail in the shadow area inside the shelter.

Above: Another frame where HDR was mostly unnecessary, but I liked the way it was bringing out rich colors in the blues, so I used it on this shot of Pleasant Run, looking northeast off the Ticklebelly Hill bridge.

Above: I was pleased with the sky color in this otherwise untampered with image. I've been itching for some time to compose a shot from this angle in incorporate the park's storied pagoda on the right, the Garfield Park Arts Center in the background left, and the two conifers, especially the tilting one on the right. Even though the 24-70mm lens takes in more content on the large-sensor 6D than it did on the smaller-sensor 7D, it still wasn't enough to fit in all of the pagoda. 

Above and below: The backlight and shadows grabbed my attention in the composition above. If it looks familiar, like the one immediately below might to regular readers of Photo Potpourri, it's because I've taken and used these shots here before -- but the previous ones were winter scenes, when there was snow on the ground. The winter shot of the one above, however, was on an overcast day -- when there was no backlight.


Above: The Burrello Family Center and parking lot.

Above: I came across yet another Garfield Park tilter of a tree during my walk-around. This is along Pagoda Drive, just north of the recycling bin and across the meadow from the Garfield Park Arts Center.

Above: Someone left these munchies on a picnic table for the critters and birds to feast on. And no, I didn't set up that leaf and shadow on the right; that's exactly as I came upon it.

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