So I bought a $5 flash

My experience with buying an old external flash (speedlight) meant for Pentax film cameras and mounting it on my digital Lumix GX7.

Recently I found myself at a shop with some old, used camera gear – and one of the items on display was an external flash (or speedlight). I had no idea if it worked or not, but the price was just $5 so I figured… why not? I’d always wanted to try out using an external flash, and I figured this might not be a bad way to get into it.

Sunpak MZ440AF-PT on a Panasonic Lumix GX7
The flash mounted to my Lumix GX7… I think the flash is actually bigger than the camera!
Rear controls of a Sunpak MZ440AF-PT
These controls on the flash/speedlight suggested to me that this was an older flash… maybe a very old flash… from the days of film cameras.

From the controls on the back I could tell that this was an older flash – probably meant to go on an older film camera. So, I didn’t have high hopes that it would work perfectly with my camera – or even that it would work at all! But once I got it home (and got the batteries put in the right way – the markings on the inside for battery orientation were not easy to see) I attached it to my camera, turned it on and… it worked!

exuberant keith holding his camera and flash

Well, sort of.

It turned on – which was the first good sign – and the flash fired when I pressed the shutter on my camera. My camera knew that a flash was attached… but it didn’t know anything about it, nor could it control it in any way.

At this point I decided I should probably look up some instructions or better information. The model of speedlight I had was a “Sunpak MZ440AF-PT,” which I learned was an old flash for Pentax cameras. A bit more research on the connectors for various flashes and camera models revealed that, basically, only the connector for “fire the flash now” was compatible – everything else is manufacturer specific (even if the pins line up – which is annoying). So I would be using this flash in full manual mode.

camera hotshoe connectors
The flash I had matched the “Pentax” hotshoe connector pattern.

Unfortunately, this particular model of flash doesn’t seem to actually have manual controls – even though it looks like it on the back. There are sliders for ISO and for focal length, but I think these are more of a guide than actual controls – as the flash output does not seem to change no matter what I select.

I did some test shots (in manual mode on the flash as well as on my camera), trying out different combinations of settings on the flash while keeping my camera settings the same, and I found that the flash never seemed to vary its output in any way – the photos were identical.

Now, I may just be using this flash wrong – I was not ever able to find the manual for it – but it seemed to me that it would only be able to vary its light output if controlled by a camera – a Pentax camera, not my Panasonic Lumix GX7.

So, at the end of the day I’m probably just going to donate this flash back to the same store I got it from (or to another used camera store) since it’s basically of no use to me. But still, it was an interesting learning experience… and who knows? Maybe in the future I’ll find a flash that actually works with my camera and can learn some more. But for now, it’s back to nothing but natural light for me!

That Time of Year Again

It’s almost that time of year again – autumn, my favorite season and time of year, and also my favorite time to take photos!

leaf & morning dew on the lawn in september

I snapped this one in the morning in my back lawn, as the sun was just coming up through the trees. It’d been a cool night, so there was a nice blanket of dew on the grass, which just adds that extra little sparkle.

There’s just something about autumn – maybe it’s the shorter days that make getting up at the “golden hour” easier, or the angle of the light, but even before the leaves start to change color, the world just seems more photogenic (to me, at least).

Photography Experiments: Aperture, Focal Length, and Sensor Size

Just a quick photography experiment to demonstrate the effects that aperture, focal length, and sensor size can have on depth of field (i.e., how much you can blur the background of a photo.)
It snowed here recently, so I took a photo of a branch with some snow on it, which came out decently enough, but it prompted me to think: what would this look like at different apertures – or even different sensor sizes? So I decided to perform a little photography experiment to find out, and these were the results.

snow on pine tree branch - f5.6First is the original photo – taken at f/5.6, at max zoom (200mm, equivalent to 400mm on a full-frame camera) using my Lumix G2 camera. Even on my smaller micro four-thirds sensor, you can see that the background is completely blurred out – even more so than I could’ve gotten with my f/1.7 lens!

The depth of field in this photo is very shallow – if you look closely at the bottom right of the photo, you can see the bottom part of the branch is slightly out of focus (because it was angled slightly towards me). This gives you an idea of how thin a “slice” of the scene was in focus.

snow on pine tree branch - f22Next, I changed the aperture to f/22, but kept everything else the same. As you can see above, the background is still blurred out, but not as much. It is still blurred somewhat because I was focusing on a branch just a few feet in front of me, while the background is easily another hundred feet beyond that.

Compared to the first photo, you can see that the bottom bit of the branch is in focus – meaning the depth of field was greater, and a thicker “slice” of the scene was in focus.

snow on pine tree branch - f5.9 (compact camera)Finally, for this last picture I switched to a different camera – a compact Canon PowerShot ELPH 320. The aperture here is f/5.9, nearly the same as my very first shot, but as you can see the background is hardly blurred at all! The depth of field here is very deep – a very large portion of the scene is in focus.

Unfortunately, the little compact camera I was using couldn’t zoom to the same focal length – so this photo is at the equivalent of 255mm, instead of 400mm, and that contributes to the greater depth of field as well.

However, the smaller sensor size also has a significant impact – because the sensor is so small, there’s less room for the light to be “smeared out” (as it were), and so less of the background can be blurred.

So, what did we learn from all this? All else being equal:

  • A larger aperture (a smaller f-number) provides less depth of field and allows for a more blurred background.
  • A longer focal length (zoomed in more) provides less depth of field and allows for a more blurred background.
  • A larger sensor allows for less depth of field, which allows for a more blurred background.

This is why compact & cell phone cameras – which usually don’t have large apertures, don’t have long focal lengths, and have small sensors – are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to getting shallow depth of field & that nice blurred-out background look.

Nothing here is terribly ground-breaking in itself, and all of this should be basic “photography 101” stuff, but I still think that actually performing photography experiments like this can be incredibly useful, in the same way that performing physics or chemistry experiments can be useful even if you already know the theory behind it.

As for myself, experiments like this help me develop an intuitive “feel” for how all the different settings and elements work together, so that I can just take the photos I want to take, without having to spend too much time thinking about which setting affects which aspect of the photo.

Perhaps this experiment will help you in the same way, or perhaps it will inspire you to perform your own photography experiments. Either way, I hope it’s been helpful, or at least enjoyable!

More of the Hidden Worlds in our Own Backyards

A simple walk by the river can turn into a journey to someplace special… all within walking distance of our backyards.
So I went for a walk again recently, on a trail that goes beside the Passaic River near my house.

green reflections in the passaic river

It’s one of my favorite places to go for a walk, especially in the evening, since the reflections in the river can be amazing.

water like glass

I always tell people that New Jersey isn’t called “The Garden State” for nothing – everywhere I go, I find nothing but lush green growth. (Newark and the bits near New York are the exception, of course.)

a narrow path through lush greenery

Even more amazing is how the setting sun lights up the green of the trees and undergrowth along the river. It’s almost like something out of a painting.

setting sun through the trees

This time I went a bit further than I normally do, and as usual, I was rewarded with beautiful scenes. You never know what might be around the next corner.

gold and green at sunset

Finally of course I had to turn back – the trail probably goes on, but I figure I can save that for another day.

evening reflections in the passaic river

No matter where you are, there’s always something special waiting, hidden, in the most unlikely or even ordinary of places – if you just take the time to look. Often these special places are right nearby, around corners we routinely ignore.

Wherever you are, or wherever you end up, I hope you take the time – once in a while, at least – to look around you, to turn down that path you always walk by, or that place you’ve always seen but never stopped at. Your curiosity will almost certainly be rewarded.

Happy (backyard) trails, everyone.

Where the Water Flows

I make no secret of the fact that I love photos of flowing waterAnd I also make no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of using slow shutter speeds to create that “silky water” effect.

Just recently I got myself a better tripod (and a nice ballhead to go with it), and ever since then I’ve been playing around with this technique a bit more.

benro a0580f tripod

I also just recently picked up an ND filter (“neutral density” – basically sunglasses for your lens) and decided to try it out.

ND filters are typically used to darkens a scene evenly, allowing for a slower shutter speed – which lets you blur out any movement… such as flowing water.

little stream flowing

Previously, I’d been using my circular polarizing filter as a sort of poor-man’s ND filter. I could still use slow shutter speeds, but I was still somewhat limited by the available light – if it was too bright, I wouldn’t be able to use as slow of a shutter speed as I would have liked. The above photo, for example, was taken in the shade under a bridge in order to allow me the slow shutter speed I wanted.

So when the weather warmed up a bit this past weekend and I found myself at a local park with some streams and rocky cascades, I just had to give it a try.

rocky cascade on Rhinehart Brook

For a first try, I’m pretty pleased with how these came out. The thing with using slower shutter speeds is that… well, you are using slower shutter speeds – which means you really need to hold the camera steady. In other words, you almost always need to use a tripod (and, ideally, a remote cable release).

Unfortunately, I didn’t have either of those things with me the day I took these shots – these shots are entirely hand-held.

small cascade on Rhinehart Brook

Luckily the exposures I was using weren’t too terribly long, so I was able to get away with hand-holding – but I did have to get a bit creative with how I steadied the camera! The shot above, for example, was taken with the camera resting on the side of my shoe as I sat cross-legged on a rock!

little cascade on Rhinehart Brook

I’m not sure why I’m so fond of this particular type of photographic effect, but I do know that it’s something I’ve been trying to do pretty much ever since I first picked up a digital camera.

Long exposures in general are just kind of fun – to me they imply motion where none exists in a way that I just find really compelling.

In the end of course this is just my taste – I like these kinds of photos, and more importantly I enjoy taking these kinds of photos.