Sunday, 30 March 2008

A tale of my camera and a quest for cheaper, better bird photography

My Camera is a Sony DSC H9. I must say with 15x zoom it is among the better non-SLR cameras for Bird Photography.

Sony DSC-H9 Specifications

Image Device: 1/2.5" 8.0 Megapixel Effective Sony Super HAD™ CCD
Still Image Sizes: 8M 3264x2448
3:2 3264x2176
5M 2595x1944
3M 2048x1536
VGA 640x480
16:9 HDTV 1920x1080
Recording Media: 31MB of internal memory
Memory Stick Duo or Memory Stick Duo PRO Media
Zoom: Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 15X, 5.2 – 78mm (31-465mm equivalent in 35mm)
Conversion lens: Yes
Smart Zoom™ Feature: Up to 18X (5MP), 23X (3MP), 25X (16:9 2MP) 76X (VGA Resolution)
Auto Focus: 9 Area Multi-Point AF, Monitoring AF, Flexible Spot AF
Minimum Focus Distance: 19.7" (50cm)
Macro Focus Distance: 0.4" (1cm)
Shutter Speed: 1/4-1/4000 sec. (Auto)
1-1/4000 sec. (Program Auto)
8" - 1/2000 (Aperture Priority)
30" - 1/4000 (Manual/Shutter Priority) )
Aperture Range: F2.7 - 5.6 (W), F4.5 - 8.0 (T)
Exposure Metering: Multi-pattern
Exposure Compensation: +/- 2.0 EV, 1/3 EV Steps
Viewfinder: 0.2" (0.5cm) 20oK pixels
Color LCD: 3.0" (7.5cm) 230K TFT Clear Photo LCD Screen
Flash Modes: Auto/Forced On/Forced Off/Slow Synchro
Red-Eye Reduction: On/Off
Flash Effective Range: ISO Auto: Approx. 7.9" to 32.2' (0.2-9.8m) Wide, 3.9' to 20' (1.2-6.0m)
White Balance: Automatic, Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, Flash, Manual
Burst Mode: Max. 100 Shots at 2.2 fps (8MP)
Color Modes: Sepia, Black & White, Natural, Vivid
ISO: Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200
Scene Modes: Advanced Sports Shooting, Beach, Fireworks, High Sensitivity, Landscape, Portrait, Snow, Twilight, Twilight Portrait
Self-Timer: 10, 2 Seconds
Video Output: NTSC/PAL Selectable
HD Output: Yes (1080i)
Still Image Modes: Normal (JPEG Fine/Standard), Burst, Exposure bracketing
MPEG Movie Mode: MPEG VX Fine with Audio (640x480 at 30fps) (MPEG VX Fine requires Memory Stick DUO PRO™ media), MPEG VX Standard with Audio (640x480 at 16fps), Presentation Mode (320x240 at 8.3fps).
SteadyShot® Image Stabilization: Yes
AF Illuminator Light: Yes
NightShot® Exposure mode: Yes
Microphone/Speaker: Yes/Yes
USB Terminal: USB 2.0 high speed
PictBridge Compatible: Yes
Memory Stick PRO™
Media Compatibility:
Tested to support up to 8GB media capacity; does not support Access Control security function
Compatible Battery: Lithium-Ion NP-BG1 3.6v 960 mAh
Supplied Software: Windows: Picture Motion Browser Vers 2.0 + USB Driver
OS Compatibility: Microsoft® 2000 Professional, Me, XP Home and Professional
Macintosh® OS 9.1/9.2/OS X (10.0-10.4)
Supplied Accessories: NP-BG1 rechargeable battery, BC-CSG battery charger, Flower Lens Hood, Lens cap with strap, Lens Adaptor Ring, A/V and USB multi-connector cables, Shoulder strap, Remote Commander, Software CD-ROM Note: No Memory Stick® DUO media or adaptors are included.
Dimensions: 4-3/8 x 3-3/8 x 3-3/8" (109.5 x 83.4 x 85.7 mm)
Weight: 1 lb 3.3 oz (546 g) including NP-BG1 battery pack, shoulder strap, adaptor ring, lens hood and lens cap, etc.

The above specs might read as awesome, but in reality the DSC H9 disappoints on many fronts. Firstly, the cameras greatest criticism is its aggresive nise reduction which causes great loss of detail and sharpness. At 8 mega pixel setting I find that there is too much compression of the image and thus prefer the 5mp setting. This means that I have far less pixels in my photos and thus image cropping is limited.

As an alternative, I considered purchasing a teleconverter lens, so that I could get close enough to the birdies without actually having to crop images. Besides, quite often, a 15x zoom is just not enough for framing distant birds. Now, Sony makes an excellent 1.7x TC lens (VCL-DH1774), but at over a 100 GBP, its far beyond my reach at the moment. And thus while Iwas oggling at the sour grapes, I came across this on Ebay for only 23.00 GBP. I was instantly hooked. A 3x teleconverter! Almost double the magnification for about 1/5th the price!

They say that in lenses, you only get what you pay for and how right they were to be. With just 23 pounds to lose I took the gamble and ordered it. It took almost a month for the item to reach from Hong Kong, but it finally did arrive and I was overjoyed.
The lens turned out to be a generic make, which ships with a 74-58 mm step down adapter ring. This adapter enables one to screw it onto the 74mm adapter that comes with the camera.

I wasted no time in testing it out and I must say I was heart broken. The magnification was great, but the images suffered from massive amounts of purple fringing.

Although, one can remove purple fringing from photos through image editing software, such as photoshop, it is laborious and not feasible to work with tens or hundreds of photos that one can accumulate in a day. Furthermore the results are often not very satisfactory.
I did a little bit of research and found that the reasons for the purple fringing could either be the lens itself or the camera or both.
This white paper on Sony cameras says:
"You'll find a slew of bargain-basement high-power tele-converters on eBay, and each costs less than the other. But each produces more distorted images with more chromatic aberration. Low-end conversion lenses are no bargain unless you don't care if your images look like a kaleidoscope with heavy purple highlights. That's not an exaggeration. They really can be that bad." ...almost as if they were talking to me!

and again..... "2X adapters and 3X adapters get you into a range that no digicam can support. A good quality 1000+ mm lens costs many thousands of dollars. You're not going to duplicate that quality in a $100 US add-on lens, no matter what the manufacturer claims. In my tests, 1.7X seems to be the maximum effective telephoto adapter you can use on an H-Series camera without running into image quality problems." little wonder then that the manufacturers themselves dont make bigger TC lenses.
"It's a minor miracle that the H-Series lenses produce crisp, undistorted images at 432-465 mm. You're tempting fate when you add on a lens whose quality and capability are not up to the standard of the Carl Zeiss-engineered lenses on the H-Series cameras."
So there you go! I wish I had read this before buying the lens!

However, all the purple fringing maynot be because of the lens. The sony DSC H9 itself produces a good amount of purple fringing as reviewed by numerous sites:
This user review

The lens could just be amplifying this effect. I wonder about the images that would be produced if I added the lens onto some other make of camera. I may have to wait a few months for a test on my brothers Canon S3IS.

I tried one option to try and reduce the purple fringing - adding a uv filter. However this seems to have no effect and I`m left wondering if i purchased a normal piece of glass claiming to be a UV filter!

Meanwhile, I`ve used the lens more and every now and then I get a few good pictures which makes it worth the while. I must say the lens work remarkably well with mallards for some reason. Here are some of the pics taken with the lens :

I have mostly given up on the lens now, as my attention has now been diverted to a much better way of getting awesome bird photos- the art of Digiscoping. More on that in another post.

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