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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Canon EF 70-300 IS review

By Justiceiro,

This is the first "quality" lens I've owned, if you define quality as "a lens that costs about as much as a cheap DSLR." Actually, this lens currently retails for about $550 at B&H, so as far as the higher end Canon lenses go it isn't too bad.

Physical Characteristics

General Info

This is the latest version of the 70-300 IS, with 2 modes of Image Stabilization. Mode 1 operates in all directions, and is designed to be used while shooting stationary objects in low light. Canon claims that its good for about 3 stops- I don't know if that's the case, but the results are obvious even on the screen of my 20d.

Mode 2 is used for action shots, the stabilization operates horizontally and is designed to be used while panning. This gives the object being "followed" greater clarity.

Physical Dimensions

The first thing I noticed when I got the box is that it is heavy; 1.4 pounds (640 grams) is more than you might think, particularly when its attached to the already weighty 20d. It is manageable, however.

Here's how it looks with the zoom rolled all the way back at 6.5 inches . The specs say 5.6 (14.3cm), but I measured it at a bit longer than that.

Fully extended the lens measures 8.8 inches. That's pretty big.

Hoods and Filters

The recommended lens hood is the ET-65B. However, with the ET-65B attached the lens can come in at almost a foot long. That's exceedingly clumsy, not to say conspicous.

Additionally, the lens hood, though it has a lovely bayonet attachment system, is ridiculously overpriced. It's risibly flimsy, and huge- very much a case of overkill. To my mind you can spend your $50 elsewhere; I returned it to B&H that day (what a joy these people are to shop with) and traded it for 2 hood hats, a generic rubber hood (pictured) and a very nice tripod carrying case. That's a lot for just one hood.

The filter size is 58mm. that's a nice standard, and a lot of the filters I aleady have will work with it.

The Positives

Image Stabilization, at least in Mode 1 (stationary objects) really works. Take a look at this shot, taken without the image stabilizer engaged.

It's pretty soft, at 300mm you need to be rock steady, and just looking through the viewfinder can make you a bit seasick- the "view" bounces around quite a bit.
Now here is the same shot with the stabilizer engaged.

The difference is extraordinary. It was obvious even when reviewing the shots in camera, but blown up the improvement is even more obvious.
IS mode 2 is a little more iffy. Or it could be that I'm not the best judge of it. I do almost zero action or sports shots, so I'm not too proficient with panning, nor am I experienced with what's really good or bad stability in this situation, but here is a panning photo for those who are a bit more knowledgable than me to evaluate.

For 1/40th of a second on a rapidly moving target, it doesn't look too bad to me. Then again, it's not up to the level of Bodwik & Company's motocross shots, but that's likely more to do with the photographer than the lens in this case.
Zoom Range

A 70-300 zoom range is pretty nice. I would prefer a little more on the wide end, but for less than $600, I can't really complain. Here's an example of the extreme wide and tele ends, taken about a mile away from the Goldman-Sachs tower in Jersey City.

70mm (effectively 112mm)
300mm (effectively 480mm)

On a full frame this range would be really nice.
Color and Light properties

The lens has a nice look to it, with pleasing colors and good "natural" sharpness. I didn't see any vignetting at all, but then again, I'm using it with an APS sized sensor. Here's a "warm" shot of City Hall.

I can't describe this quantitatively, but I like the representation of the green here better than I do with, say, my 17-55 kit lens. It's on par with my 300mm Orestegor, but the lens doesn't weigh 15 lbs.
Here's another one, maxed out at the long end of the zoom.

Very crisp as well, you even get good detail inside the windows.
The lens has eight aperture blades, a decent amount, so the bokeh is pretty nice.

Granted, it's widest aperture is only f4.

There is a bit of flare visible here, (OK, lets be honest, a lot of flare) but I am pointing it directly into the setting sun, which is a pretty stupid thing to do. Even so, its not that bad. I've had worse flare from other lenses in much better conditions.

The Negatives

Not as fast as one expects from USM

This USM lens isn't nearly as fast to focus or quick to acquire targets as some of the other lenses in the USM line. Even my venerable 35-135mm is faster out of the gate than this one. It has "micro USM" rather than "ring USM"; which is technospeak for "it isn't as fast as other USM lenses, but it costs a lot so we are going to slap the USM label on it. Perhaps that isn't fair. After alll, its still better than the kit lens, or the 50mm f1.8 mark II. As I tend to shoot street rather than "action" this isn't much of a problem for me. For sports or cycling fans it could be irritating.

Weight and Length

This is a heavy lens. It's also long and very noticeable, and tends to cry out "hit my owner over the head and steal me." I can also imagine it bumping into stuff if carried over the shoulder-all the more reason not to get the ET-65B lens hood.

I would much prefer the length of the 70-300 IS Diffractive Optics lens, which is about half as big. As soon as I get that phat job at National Geographic, I'll be sure to buy one. Seriously, the real advantage of the DO seems to be faster USM and shorter barrel length. It is, however, $1300 rather than $550.


A Great "Bazaar Lens"

Is it a perfect lens? No, but its very, very good. The quality of the glass is nice, the IS system works well, the zoom range is good. And the price is right. For $550 this represents an excellent value; and until I can convince my spouse/CFO to let me spend $1300 in the 70-300 IS DO, or I win the lottery and buy that 28-300 L lens, this will be an important part of my tool bag.

I bought this principally to do people shots in markets and places like the bazaars I like to shoot when I am travelling. With the IS, you can take decent shots of people that are tightly composed, from a distance that is unobtrusive, and still retain a good level of sharpness, even when the light isn't perfect. I've been looking for a "bazaar lens" for some time, and I am pretty sure that this one is it.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

PhotoSafari: Bangkok

We reached Bangok by flying out of Macau with Air Asia, a very reasonable flight at less than $200 round trip, after about 3 and one half hours we arrived at Bangkok Airport, to the hottest climate I had ever experienced; about 40 degrees celsius and 90 percent humidity.

Photography inside the airport was strongly discouraged and, given the ubiquity of sings informing me that I would be put to death for smuggling drugs, I heeded the "suggestions."

After emerging into the night, we caught a taxi for the 25km ride into the center of the city. If you are not leaving or arriving in the dead of night, allow yourself a great deal of time (at least two hours) just to get from the city to the airport.

Upon leaving the hotel the next morning to walk around the city, the first thing we stumbled upon was a religious ceremony in a small curbside open air shrine.

Thailand is Buddhist, and very devout at that. The Buddhism of Thailand also seems to be of a totally different nature than that of China (at least as far as the temple architecture goes) and I am lead to undersand that the follow the therevada tradition rather than the mahayana. I'm not sure about doctrinal differences, but it seems to me to be a more "old-school" sort of buddhism.

Also, whereas Chinese Buddhists are fat and generally happy, Thai buddhas are rather thin and ascetic looking. I'm not sure what this means. One would never rub a Thai Buddha's belly for luck, of that I am sure.

We wanted to go to a place called Wat Pho, which is the home of Thailand's biggest reclining Buddha. So we hired a "tuk-tuk," the thai version of the gypsy cab, whose driver immediately attempted to take us to, of all places, a carpet shop. I would have expected this in Turkey, but have never considered Thailand a prime source of carpets. Needless to say, we declined. So the driver drove us a ways, and dropped us off to see the "sleeping Buddha."

This was the temple at which we arrived. It was actually quite difficult to get properly exposed photos, as the "whiteness" of the marble tended to drive my camera's autoexposure system to distraction. As I had had this camera approximately 2 weeks at this time, I am afraid I was not up to the challenge.

The temple was quite nice, but I was a bit underimpressed at Thailand's greatest Wat.

The marble was beautiful, and the whole place was impeccably maintained. But the greatest religious center in all Thailand. Hmmm.....

Auto-Exposure gone wild

It was here that we encountered our first Buddhist Monks.

I continued to be amazed at a number of things; first, the lack of tourists at the famous Wat Pho, two- the fact that, though very nice, it certainly seemed to lack the presence of a "national cathedral," and three- if this was the biggest reclining buddha in Thailand, then the others must be very small indeed.

The architecture was very cool, particularly the roof gables.

This was a monestary attached to the wat.

Also, I discovered the great reverance accorded to Monks by the surprising tomb of Nob Buhvadi. His mummified corpse was on display in a glass alcove, along with the following sign:

So, we left "Wat Pho" and began looking for the Grand Palace which was supposed to be next door. We failed to find it. After about an hour of attempting to navigate with the map, we realized that in fact we were no where near Wat Pho. The tuk-tuk driver, seeing that there would be no carpet sale today, had dropped us off at a conveniently nearby Wat with a reclining Buddha. To this day, we have no idea what temple we were wandering through- we call it "Wat Faux." So we headed toward the river, and took a ferry to the center.

the Chao Phraya river is heavily trafficed, with a lot of goods transported by water (travelling by road is nearly impossible in Bangkok traffic).

The Thai version of the Pepsi Truck

We were literally an hour and a half away from the Grand Palace. At this point the unpleasant bit of Thailand surfaced- our encounter with the con-man/tuk-tuk driver was unfortunately not an unusual one. I had heard that Buddhists had a reputation for sterling honesty, but apparently this did was not able to overcome the temptation for a few to blatently lie to tourists.

For the two days we were in Bangkok, whenever we attempted to take anything other than a standard taxi, or attempted to enter a landmark, we were assailed by folks who, inexplicably, attempted to sell us carpets (apparently some tourists think they have flown to Istanbul). Also, we were repeatedly assured that the [enter appropriate temple] was closed due to a Buddhist holiday. Even when we were directly in front of the Grand Palace and dozens of westerners were streaming through the gates. If you go to Bangkok, ignore these people.

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace was indeed grand, and heavily laden with Gold. It contains dozens of chedi, both large and small.

There are also countless statues and figurines, some gilt and others mosaiced with bright tiles and jewels.

I find it amazing how the artisans who designed these statues made their facial expressions- divine power and majesty, but also a certain weariness at being trapped in the cycle of existence. It is an interesting way to capture, in sculpture, an important element of Buddhist theology.

The Central Stupa at the Grand Palace Temple Complex

Right Across from the Grand Palace is the real Wat Pho. It is very beautiful, and choked with people. There are also quite a few monks around.

Monks employing the latest digital cameras while pursuing Nibbana

Wat Pho in the distance, with Cannon from the Military Academy

Wat Pho contains an enormous sleeping Buddha, so we were clearl in the right place.

The Royal Palace complex (including Wat Pho) is a hive of activity, being an active palace and a center of religious activity.

Two Monks arranging their clothing

We realy had very little time in Bangkok, which was a pity, as it is a fascinating place. Difficult to navigate, a little more like the middle east in terms of scamminess (suprisingly, this was totally absent in Zhuhai, Hong Kong, and Macau), but overall a place deserving of a lot of time to see.

So we went back to the Airport the nex morning, and caught our flight to Rangoon, the great unknown.

I'll leave you with a photo from my favorite monument, the Bangkok temple of the municipal penis. Every city of note in Thailand has a symbolic phallus, with its own temple.

Here is a temple inhabitant engaged (I assume) in sacred ritual transvestitism. You have left the judeo-christian world far, far behind.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

PhotoSafari: Macau

Macau is, similar to Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. It consists of three islands; Maca, Taipa, and Coloane.

Also like Hong Kong, Macau began its life as an Entrepot, a spot where foreigners could recieve chinese merchants and trade goods between Europe and China. It's existence, however, far predates that of Hong Kong. It was first established as a Portuguese trading depot in 1553, almost 300 years before the English established themselves in Hong Kong. Even today, Macau is a busy port.

The Inner Harbor (Porto Interior) looking towards Guangdong Province

in 1557 , in exchange for a leasehold and for combating piracy in the region, the Ming Dynasty recognized Macau as "Chinese territory under Portuguese administration."

In 1974, Portugal experienced a revolution that ended five decades of fascist rule, and began liberating its extensive colonial empire, including Angola, Mozambique, Guinea, Cape Verde, and East Timor. The government of Portugal offered to hand Macau over to the PRC at this time, but the PRC declined, waiting for a "more appropriate moment." There are many possible explanations for this, including the fact that China wished to eliminate the British presence in Hong Kong first, they needed a route to trade with the world, or that they simply weren't yet ready to swallow a potentially bitter pill.

Everybody needs lawyers

In 1987 a treaty was established calling for the handover of Macau to China in 1999, a full two years afterthe cession of Hong Kong. Many feel that this was done to slight the British, whose aquisition of Hong Kong was significantly more coercive than the Portuguese aquisition of Macau. Thus on December 20th, 1999, over 450 years of Portuguese rule came to an end, and China's "last colony" was returned.

Avenue of Prince Henry, the Navigator

Like HK, Macau maintains its own currency, the Pataca, which is issued by the bank of China and the Banco Nacional Ultramarino. It is also officially bilingual, with street signs bearing both Portuguese and Chinese script. (as above). Unlike Hong Kong, it was never democratic, so it does not have a lively independent political opposition or civil society to the extent that HK does, however, unlike the United Kingdom, before the handover Portugal gave everyone born in Macau Portuguese citizenship (regardless of ethnicity or language skills), with an absolute right to reside and work in Portugal, and by extension, anywhere in the EU. Strangely, that means that Macanese can work in England, But Hong Kong residents can't.

Canon at the Fortaleza do Monte

The city is much smaller than HK, with about 400,000 residents. Aproximately 1200 Portuguese still live there, working in business and municipal administration (some of them work at the border control). In addition, there are about 20-25,000 Macanese, ethnically chinese but culturally portuguese. My wife (who is Portuguese) and I were on a bus standing next to two teenaged chinese girls who were discussing the cute boys in their class- in portuguese. Very odd.


Additionally, the city (though it does have some modern buildings) is far less fast-paced than HK in terms of architectural change and general life. Most of the cities early modern and baroque architecture is still preserved.

Senate Square (Largo do Senado)

The central parts of the city have the cal
çada style of streets and pavements (as seen) above- and were it not for the inhabitants and the street signs, one could just as easily be in Lisbon or the Algarve.

Entrance to the Loyal Senate

Chamber of the Loyal Senate, The center of Portuguese power in Asia from 1630-1999

The Senate Square is the center of town, with the "Loyal Senate" building at the south side. The senate was given the official apellation "Loyal" due to the fact that it was the only Portuguese territory that refused to recognize the authority of the Spanish kings during their occupation of the Portuguese throne from 1580 to 1640. Of course they were able to do this because they were very far from Spain, and their city walls were stout.

Farmacia Popular

The most famous landmark of the city are the ruins of the Church of St. Paul, established by the Jesuits in the late 1500s, it was destroyed by a fire and a typhoon in 1835.

Ruinas de Sã
o Paulo

It is the most popular spot for tourists in Macau, most of whom are Chinese (very few westerners get beyond the casinos near the port).

Photographers at St. Pauls

St. Paul's is a popular spot to get married, for both catholic chinese (about 10% of the population) and non-catholic chinese.

The city has a number of largos, small squares built throughout neigborhoods, and winding side streets.

Theater of Dom Pedro the 5th

Away from the center, the architecture is less grand, but the whole island is generally clean and safe. In fact, as the cartoon below illustrates, spitting on the street will get you a 600 pataca fine.

Though the city has a few refreshingly seedy neighborhoods.

Quinquilharia (Junk Shop) Long Seng Hou

Macau has a number of churches and religious institutions beyond St. Paul's and several times a year one can see processions on various saint's days.

Holy Water, St. Lawrence Church

Exterior, St. Lawrence

In addition to Christian Churches, Macau has a number of Buddhist and Taoist temples- the most famous of which is the Ah Ma temple on the south side of Macau Island.

Worshipper lighting incense at the Ah Ma Temple

Kun Iam (God of War) Temple on Almirante Sergio street

Not all the architecture on Macau is old. There is quite a lot of modern construction that has been or is being built. Unlike Hong Kong, however, Macau has done a better job of integrating the new into the old, rather than simply building over it, as can be seen with the new Macau/Zhuhai land border crossing post.

The most visible modern landmark is the Torre de Macau, one of the tallest freestanding structures in the area. You can bungee jump off of it, if you are so inclined.

Dragon boats from past year's races

This was the site of the premiere of Bruce Lee's first film

Macanese Culture

The descendants of luso-chinese relationships, as well as "pure" chinese who were drawn into the portuguese cultural sphere due to the long duration of Portuguese rule, are not as numerous as their counterparts in Hong Kong. Portugal never had more than a few thousand administrators and soldiers in Macau at any given time. Nevertheless, a significant mestiço community did develop, with its own customs, food, and language (a cantonese-portuguese creole called patuá.) Though the Macanese community remains viable in modern Macau, the use of Patua is declining as most of the young Macanese are educated in Mandarin and standard Portuguese. Even the use of Portuguese is declining, as more and more young people opt to learn english.

One of the most interesting places to see the fusion of Chinese and Portuguese societies are the cemeteries of Macau.

Here rests Maria Benjamina Chiang Lok

Some of the architecture at the Cemetério São Miguel Arcanjo is quite beautiful.

the food is generally good, as well. If you go to Macau, you must try Frango Africano (African Chicken), a dish originally brought from Mozambique and spiced up with some chinese Flava. Very nice. Sometimes, however, the food and language can surprise you. a Pasteleria in Portugal, for example, is a bakery shop were you can get sweet cakes, pie, etc. A Pasteleria in macau is a shop that sells meat jerkey. At least, I think that's what it is.

After a fine day on Macau Island, my wife and I headed down to Coloane to relax, and blow a years worth of Sheraton points for a night at the Westin Macau.

Coloane Island

The Westin Macau is a resort composed of a hundred rooms or so, all of which face the sea, situated on remote Hac Sa Bay.

Coloane Island is the southernmost of the three islands that make up the Macau SAR. It is mostly nature preserve, with a small settlement on the Hac Sa bay called (not surprisingly) Coloane village.

Coloane Village Square at Night

Coloane Village has, I would imagine, only a few hundred inhabitants, and is very reminiscent of the fishing villages of the Algarve that my wife's mother's family comes from. The inhabitants here are mostly Macanese, and one can here Portuguese spoken frequently. It's also home to one of the Island's finest Luso-Chinese restaurants; Espaço Lisboa. the Chef is a fellow named António- he first came to Macau in 1972 when he was stationed there as part of his military service. After returning to Portugal for a year or two he moved back, and has been there ever since.

António is very likely to sit down and have dinner with you (the place has, I think, only 5 or 6 tables); particularly if you speak Portuguese. This is true all over the island. If you are lusophone, the community will instantly help you out. The day we were leaving I struck up a conversation with a Portuga at a bus stop, and he immediately offered to have us over for dinner. It's that kind of scene- very small and cozy (for the westerners). In fact, if you wander of the main track, which essentially consists of the Largo do Senado, Templo Ah-Ma, and the Casino Lisboa you are very likely to see very few non-locals.

Macau is ofted overshadowed by its neighbor to the east, Hong Kong. But I actually found Macau to be a much more pleasant place to visit. There is quite a lot to do, from Casinos (such as the famous Casino Lisboa)

to small market shopping, to relaxing on the other islands. Generally, Macau gets a bad rap, due to the fact that Hong Kong people view it simply as a "place to gamble," but in reality I found it to be far more relaxed and pleasent than Hong Kong. So after a few days here, we headed out to the brand new airport to jump on our "Air Asia" (the Asian version of Jet Blue) flight to Bangkok. I'll post on that subject later.

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