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Best Time to Shoot, Understanding Lens Crop

Have a question about digital photography? Send it to me. I reply to as many as I can--though given the quantity of e-mails that I get, I can’t promise a personal reply to each one. I round up the most interesting questions about once a month here in Digital Focus.

For more frequently asked questions, read my newsletters from June, July, and August.

Time of Day

I remember in the old days of 35mm film, photographers never bothered to shoot between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. since the light was not great. With the powerful editing programs out there today, is the time of day as important to the quality of the image as it used to be? I'm thinking that with programs like Adobe CS5 and Lightroom 3, I just might be able to take pictures any time of day and dress them up after the fact.

--Sally Leavitt, Seattle

Sally, even in these modern days of digital cameras, flying cats, and hover-phones, some things don't change--like the basics of exposure.

Smart photographers still avoid the midday hours for outdoors shots because the light is just too harsh and unforgiving. Moreover, when the light is coming at your subject from directly overhead, there's generally no way to avoid the high contrast of bright light and deep shadows. The bottom line is that this lighting adds up to very unattractive photos.Photoshop and Lightroom can't completely fix these problems--though you can improve your photos, especially if you start with a RAW photo rather than a JPEG.

Storing Your Camera in a Cooler

Years ago when I bought my first digital camera, I asked the salesman for a recommendation for protecting my investment while traveling. Instead of the expensive metal camera cases the store sold, he suggested using--of all things--a cooler. So I gathered up all my gear, went to a local store that sells coolers, and started trying out different sizes of coolers. For padding I gutted a cloth camera bag.

The cooler keeps everything tidy and secure, and as an added bonus, at a cool temperature--even in direct sunlight in a closed car. I keep the cooler in plain sight, and no one has ever broken into the car to steal it. It looks just like, well, a cooler. At airport security checks, your carry-on items pass through screening before you do, leaving them vulnerable to theft. But who wants someone else’s leftover food and drinks? To make it look even more unattractive to would-be thieves, you can rough up the outside of the cooler to make it look used. Put a couple of old bungee cords around it and you’re set! I also use it to sit or stand on when I am lugging it around.

--Paula Smith, Arkansas

Thanks for this tip, Paula! It's an intriguing idea. Personally, I still prefer a well-designed camera bag or backpack, since a cooler doesn't sound very convenient to carry around on a photo trip. But it's certainly a clever way to stay under the radar of potential thieves.

Readers, how do you store and carry your photo gear? Share your favorite strategies in the Comments section below.

Understanding Camera Lens Crop Factors

My Nikon digital SLR (a D7000) has an APS-C sensor. If I understand the concept correctly, that means my 50mm lens has a crop factor of 1.5, effectively making the lens 75mm. While lens shopping, I noticed that Nikon has some lenses with a DX designation that are made for APS-C sensors. If I purchase a non-full-frame lens, should I ignore the crop factor? Is a 50mm Nikon DX lens a true 50mm lens on the smaller sensor?

--Rob Crispin, Raleigh, North Carolina

That sounds like a reasonable theory, Rob, but actually that's not the case. DX lenses--which are, in fact, designed specifically for cameras with APS-C sensors--take advantage of the fact that the smaller sensor requires less glass to cover the entire frame. DX lenses can therefore be made smaller, lighter, and less expensively. Conversely, if you use one of these smaller and less expensive DX lenses on a camera with a full-frame sensor (like the Nikon D700, for example), your photos will be vignetted (cut off around the edges) because the lens is not big enough to fully cover the larger sensor.

But all of that can't change the physical laws of optical science, so any lens will give you a relatively magnified image on an APS-C camera compared to a full-frame camera.

If you're a little confused by all this talk about sensor sizes and not sure what applies to your own camera, here's what you need to know: The vast majority of digital SLRs use a smaller sensor size (usually called APS-C). While this sensor is less expensive than the alternative "full frame" sensor found in a relatively small number of expensive, professional-class cameras, the key side effect is that your lenses are effectively magnified by a factor of 1.5 compared to their marked focal length. If you have a 200mm telephoto lens from your old film camera and snap it onto your digital SLR, it'll magically work like a 300mm lens.

The most obvious downside to all this is that it's really hard to get a very wide angle lens for most digital SLRs. Even a lens marked 20mm behaves like a 30mm lens. And wide-angle lenses use a lot of glass--which tends to make them ludicrously expensive. Thus, camera makers sell special lenses (Nikon calls them DX, while Canon has EF-S) that are optimized for the smaller lenses and therefore give photographers some more affordable options for really wide-angle lenses.

Panorama Software Suggestions

I've become a fan of making two-dimensional panoramas (that are both tall and wide). There is no shortage of solutions to make a panorama in just one dimension (left to right). But it gets more complicated with multiple levels.

I've used AutoPan Pro, and been very happy with it, but it;s a paid program, and the version I have is quite old. I've also tried the panoramic feature in the latest Adobe Elements 9.0, but was unhappy with the quality. It wasn’t able to stich very well and blend the light levels of different images.

Do you have a recommendation of a program to use? I'd love a free version for Windows 7, but am open to your suggestions.

--John Bergerson, Weehawken, New Jersey

Sure thing, John--this one is easy. I highly recommend Windows Live Photo Gallery. Photo Gallery has a particularly high-quality panorama generator that smartly grabs all the photos in either a one- or two-dimensional series and stitches them together with superb results. It's the only panorama software I recommend.

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