Inside the 2011 Vail Film Festival (w/ exclusive video)

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend the 8th annual Vail Film Festival to check out Olympus’s new initiatives in digital filmmaking and photography. As someone that loves independent films, experimenting with digital cameras, and snowboarding; the only way I would have been more anxious to pack my bags and fly to Colorado would’ve been if Lindsey Vonn had personally offered to escort me to the slopes and give me ski lessons upon arrival.

I’d never visited any Colorado ski resorts, so all of my preconceptions of the town were summoned from an exaggerated mix of pop culture references to Aspen (think Dumb & Dumber, Southpark or Family Guy). Just before touching down at Eagle Airport, I imagined that I would have to sift through hoards of stiff yuppies draped in mink furs and Burberry scarves scoffing at me for participating in the barbaric sport of the mono-ski.
But after settling into the newly remodeled Sebastian Hotel and taking a walk through the quaint cobblestone streets, I was relieved to find a proportionate balance of twenty-somethings on spring break from the nearby CSU Boulder, mild-mannered family crowds, and even a few polite young urban proffesionals sipping chardonnay and enjoying the afternoon’s aprés-ski.

Olympus came to Vail as one of the primary sponsors of the film festival and host of the 48-hour “PEN Your Short” competition. This contest gave teams of filmmakers the chance to shoot a 3 to 5 minute long video in just 48 hours with the PEN EP-L 2, a compact digital SLR camera that boasts interchangeable lenses and an array of in-camera ‘art filters’. The participants of the contest ranged from tight teams of young but experienced production buffs to a pair of local radio hosts that desperately began to search for a video editor moments after the countdown kicked off.

In theory, it was a great chance for everyone to showcase their ability; a level playing field of equipment, a list of specific shots & techniques to be incorporated in the videos, and the freedom to showcase any topic or narrative feasible within the given deadline.

Shot with the Olympus PEN and Olympus Tough TG-610

After meeting the 48-hour teams & getting familiar with the PEN, the impressive XZ-1, and Olympus’s Tough TG-610, myself and the handful of other journalists had the chance to participate in the weekend’s festivities and catch the various festival events and screenings. In its 8th year, the Vail Film Festival has yet to reach Telluride or Sundance proportions; but the stars that came to support the event and quality of the films shown lead me to believe it will eventually grow to be associated within the weight class of the bigger festivals over the next 5 years.

The films screened ranged from a charming low budget love story titled Falling Overnight, to a quirky Sideways-esque film about a female scientist that refuses to give up control in every aspect of her life, to a fascinating documentary about legendary skier Bill Johnson.

There were festival parties held across several ballrooms inside the Sebastian, with intimate musical performances by artists like Cary Brothers & Meiko. Representatives of films in the festival rubbed elbows with Vail’s socialites and a few celebrities (that had been lured to the festival by handing them awards) like Kate Bosworth, Michael Imperioli & Oscar Nunez; Lindsey Vonn even made a brief appearance, but I got the impression that my ski lessons would have to wait.

One of the biggest highlights of the weekend was chatting with Kris Krosskove, a Hollywood cinematographer and camera operator that had used the Olympus PEN to shoot several of the racing scenes in Disney’s 2010 horse-racing film Secretariat. Krosskove took advantage of the PEN’s small profile to capture angles that wouldn’t have been possible with full sized cameras, using it to shoot fast-paced action sequences that were then intercut with standard 35-mm film shots. It was both fascinating and reassuring to speak with a professional that was using the same tools that everyday consumers have access to; proof that a typically slow-to-adapt industry is in fact willing to incorporate new, inexpensive technology.

The founders of the Vail Film Festival are well on their way to establishing a legacy in Vail, and for travelers interested in independent film but reluctant to join the masses at Sundance it’s certainly a viable mountain festival alternative. The good snow, great venues throughout the town, and an overall charming and pleasant setting to mingle with the creative class and see a unique selection of films will certainly bring me back.

To check out the unique variety of finished films from the Olympus 48-hour film competition, visit the Olympus Youtube channel and see if your favorites match up with the contest winners.

Stephen traveled to the Vail Film Festival on a trip sponsored by Olympus. No editorial content was guaranteed and he was free to openly experiment with Olympus’s cameras while snowboarding, bathing in picturesque hot tubs, and rubbing elbows with A-list celebrities.

Travel Photo Tips: What is ISO, and how does it affect my pictures?

what is iso

ISO. Three little letters which stand for International Organization for Standardization (not exactly thrilling) and make a monumental difference in the outcome of images, particularly in low-light scenarios. It’s one of the most prominently featured specifications of any modern digital camera, and it’s one single aspect that can make a night-and-day difference in the outcome of your shots. If you’re on the road, on vacation or just galavanting about with your new camera, there are a few key pointers you need to know about how ISO works, and how it can affect the snapshots your take. We’ll spare you the behind-the-scenes, science-y explanation on ISO though and get right to the heart of the matter.

While film and photography purists may balk at the assumption, the average photographer really only needs to know a couple of things about ISO — particularly the novice who simply needs their vacation photos to look at least somewhat like how they remember the scene looking.

FIn general, if a camera has a wide ISO range then it can capture faster moving action in low-light settings. Also, higher ISO ranges enable handheld shots to be taken further into the evening (and without blur). The gallery below highlights every single ISO stop between 200 and 104,200 on a Nikon D3s. Few cameras will offer an ISO range similar to this, but walking through it shot-by-shot gives you a great view of how a boosted ISO alters the outcome of a shot. Pictures are worth a thousand words, as they say. All of the other settings were kept constant for these shots (Shutter Speed: 1/8 of a second; f/5.0; 50mm focal length, no flash fired; auto white balance; tripod-mounted shot). Click the ‘Read More’ link here for a deeper dive into ISO, along with loads of pointers on how and when to tweak the value when shooting.

%Gallery-112103%Most point-and-shoot digital cameras have an ISO range from 200 to 800. A few of the nicer models extend from 200 to 1600, and an elite few at the highest-end extend from 200 to 3200 (Casio’s EX-H20G comes to mind). We’ll focus on the majority here in order to drive home a point. Chances are, the average point-and-shoot that you pick up will top out at ISO 800. If you force this camera to shoot at ISO 800, you will still have trouble shooting handheld images in low-light scenarios. Why? The inverse relationship between ISO and shutter speed.

You see, when shooting in low-light, there are five main things you can rely on to get a decent, visible, usable shot:

  1. A flash. This works almost every single time, but it usually blows out your shot, makes everything in the center a blinding white, and generally makes pictures look “fake.” Consider the use of a flash your last resort, but on a point-and-shoot, it’s likely to be a must.
  2. More light. If you have an indoor family portrait that you’re struggling with, try taking things outdoors. The sunlight vastly improves shots, and you should always seek outdoor light first and foremost before turning to a flash, a heightened ISO setting or a slower shutter. Natural light is king.
  3. Increased ISO setting. In general, the higher the ISO value, the faster your shutter speed can be while still grabbing a usable shot. Conversely, your shutter will need to be slowed as your ISO value is dropped in order to prevent an overly dark photograph. Unfortunately, specks of “noise” and grain are introduced with each heightened ISO value, so it’s never as simple as just “maxing out the ISO,” at least not if you care about image quality.
  4. Slowed shutter speed. If you slow your shutter to 1/8 of a second (as an example), you’ll probably be very impressed with how much light can be captured. Unfortunately, anything slower than 1/60 of a second is nearly impossible for a human to shoot handheld without introducing blur, and that’s for still life. If your subject is moving, you’ll need to shoot at around 1/160 of a second or faster to ensure that nothing is blurred. Of course, if you use a tripod and / or a remote shutter trigger, handling these slowed shutter speeds becomes much more possible, though the setup process is far slower than simply pulling a camera from your pocket, pointing, and shooting. Sadly, most P&S models will not allow you to manually slow the shutter (or adjust the f/stop, for that matter).
  5. Lower (“open”) your aperture. If you have an interchangeable lens camera or DSLR, and you can adjust the f/stop of your lens, tweaking that number lower will allow more light to flood in but will simultaneously give you a shorter depth of field. This means more of the background will blur (introducing an effect known as “bokeh“), but it’s a great way to grab more light. Most P&S cameras will not give you this option.

For example’s sake, let’s say that you’re no fan of your camera’s inbuilt flash. Let’s also say you don’t have a tripod handy. Finally, let’s say that you’re stuck indoors in a low-light situation with no way to increase the amount of ambient light. This scenario is more common than you may expect. This is the exact scenario that most encounter when going out for a family dinner. This also describes most wedding receptions. Sadly, this also describes most hotel rooms that you’ll want to capture on vacation.

what is iso

Now, with your camera set at ISO 200, you’ll notice one or two things. One, there’s essentially no grain or noise to be found. But unless your shutter speed is extremely slow (approximately 1/60 of a second or slower), your image will be almost completely dark. That’s no good for anyone. For example’s sake, let’s set the shutter to 1/160 — assuming you have a camera that allows you to adjust this setting. In a dark room, with the shutter at 1/160 of a second or so (fast enough to shoot handheld without blur), and ISO at 200, with the flash off, you’ll basically get a black shot. Go ahead and try it. Your results will almost definitely be too dark. Here’s where you realize what kind of magic lies in the ISO value. Keeping all other settings the same, bump that ISO value to 800, or 1600 / 3200 if your camera supports it. Now take the same shot. You’ll notice a much, much brighter imagine, albeit one with some level of grain or noise. In some cases, even “maxing out” the ISO isn’t enough — you’ll simply be forced to slow the shutter and use a tripod or let the flash fire.

what is iso

But since we’re focusing this article on ISO, let’s talk a bit more about that noise and grain. Basically, you’ll be able to take clearer, more visible shots in low light as you bump the ISO value higher (assuming your shutter speed remains the same!), but the compromise is that you allow more noise and grain into your shots. It’s a tradeoff, so to speak. The inverse is true as well. As you back the ISO value down closer to 100 or 200 (whatever the minimum is for your specific camera), you’ll see darker images, albeit ones that are very sharp. The goal is to strike a balance. Find an ISO setting that introduces a bearable amount of noise, yet still gives your camera the ability to take more visible shots in dim situations.

If you’re able, it’s always preferable to slow the shutter speed in order to take the pressure off of your ISO value. But unless you have a tripod and / or subjects that aren’t moving, that’s not always an option. This very reason is why ISO values on cameras are so important, particularly high ranges. The higher the ISO range on your camera, the better off you are after sunset and indoors. If your DSLR, for example, can reach ISO 6400, you can manage to grab more visible shots than a similar DSLR with an ISO ceiling of just 3200, all other settings being equal. Taking that to an extreme, Nikon’s D3s has a native (non-boosted) ISO range of 200 to 12,800. Needless to say, having an ISO value of 12,800 at your disposal means that you can take very useable images in near-darkness, but of course you’ll have noticeable grain to deal with. But when it really comes down to it, you’d probably rather have a noisy shot of your anniversary dinner than a shot distorted by blur or simply too dark to make out what’s going on.

what is iso

In case I haven’t convinced you, buying a camera with a wide ISO range is very important. You’ll probably end up taking more low light pictures than you’d expect, and it’s always nice to have a high ISO range to resort to if you simply must get the shot. In general, the higher the price on a camera (be it a point-and-shoot, an interchangeable lens / Micro Four Thirds camera or a DSLR), the higher than ISO range will be.

My overly simple advice here is to buy the camera with the highest ISO range that you can afford; you can never have too high of an ISO value at your disposal. Nikon’s D3s is the current ISO king, but retails for over $5000. Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH2 Micro Four Thirds camera just recently started to ship in the U.S., and it has set a new bar for ISO range on a Micro Four Thirds camera. It can reach as high as 12,800 and retails for just $900. Casio’s Exilim EX-H20G has a surprisingly great ISO 3200 setting, and it’s amongst the best out there for low-light shooting in the point-and-shoot arena at $350.

Let’s recap:

  • The higher the ISO, the greater your camera’s ability to shoot in low light (with the shutter speed remaining equal)
  • The higher the ISO, the more noise and grain are introduced into your images
  • The lower the ISO, the more you’ll need to rely on external light sources, a flash or a slowed shutter
  • “Maxing out” your ISO can help you capture a shot you otherwise wouldn’t get, but if it results in too much grain when you preview it, you should consider using a flash, slowing the shutter speed, using a lower f/stop (which decreases the depth of field and blurs more of the background) or seeking more light via lamps or by heading outdoors

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding shutter speed, metering, f/stop, white balance and more!

Dana Murph is a creative photographer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can view more of her work at Dana Jo Photos and contact her via Twitter at @danajophotos.

How to protect your digital camera at the beach

If you’ll be tanning at the beach this summer, make sure your digital camera doesn’t also end up getting toasted. Though many camera manufacturers now make waterproof digital cameras or accessories, not everyone can afford to buy new gear just for a beach trip.

I checked in with Lindsay Silverman, Nikon‘s senior technical manager, for advice on how to protect your digital camera while at the beach.

Whether you own a SLR or a point-and-shoot, these five tips can help make sure your camera survives a day on the sand. Best of all, none of Silverman’s tips require buying a lot of fancy accessories.

What should you do if you get sand in the camera?

Use a blower device, like the ones that you would find in a pharmacy for getting mucus out of a baby’s or child’s nose. It works great for blowing off moderate amounts of sand. If the camera really took a “dusting,” send the camera in for servicing and let the experts take a look.

What do you do if the camera gets wet?

If it’s a moderate amount — let’s say from a drizzle of rain — I would just wipe the camera clean. If the camera has severe water damage, send it in for servicing.

What do you do if just the lens gets wet or gets sand on it? How do you wipe it without scratching anything?

Same as above; try using a blower to remove grains of sand.

Should you store your camera under the shade of a beach umbrella? What if you put it under a towel? Is that good because it’s out of direct sunlight, or will it overheat if it’s also in a bag?

Leaving the camera exposed on the beach can make the camera really hot. Not only will the camera get hot, the battery will also get very hot, so this is not a good idea.

Protect the camera as much as possible. What I like to do is bring a protective bag for the camera, and then I put it in a dry spot in my cooler. If you can’t do this, keep the camera in its case and put that under a towel — anything to keep it out of the sun and heat.

Should you leave your digital camera at home and take a cheaper one to the beach instead (or just use your camera phone)?
Leave a camera behind? Never! Just use common sense, and have a good time.

[Image Credit: Amy Chen]

Samsung HZ35W digital camera with GPS – first look

This really is a great summer for people in the market for a new digital camera. The new Samsung HZ35W is no exception. In this quick look, I’ll introduce you to this newest product from the Samsung lineup, with some extra focus on its travel friendly features.

Inside the HZ35W is a 14.2 megapixel sensor, a 24mm wide angle 15x optical zoom and HD movie mode. What sets the HZ35W apart from the competition is its GPS receiver. Even though the camera is not the first to come with a GPS receiver for geo-tagging, it is the first (that I know of) with a built in street-level map database, powered by Navteq (the same company that provides maps for many popular GPS navigation units).

Because of the 15x optical zoom, the camera is by no means compact – it stops short of being bulky, but this isn’t a camera for your back pocket. Controls are simple and well laid out – you get a selector knob on top, along with a switch for the GPS receiver, power button, zoom lever and shutter control. On the rear is a D-Pad and buttons for quick movie mode, menu, play and erase.

On the side of the camera is a metal door to protect the USB and HDMI connectors. And these connectors bring me to the biggest disappointment of the Samsung HZ35W – the camera once again uses a proprietary connector for all its functions. The power/usb cable is short and bulky, and no HDMI or AV cable is included.

Worst of all – even though the HD video port is labeled “HDMI”, you still need to invest extra in a special HDMI Mini-Type D cable. To make matters even worse – nobody seems to sell these cables (yet). Honestly, I absolutely hate the proprietary connectors and I wish they’d just settle for Mini or MicroUSB and the same MiniHDMI connectors used by almost every other brand.

Thankfully, the connector issue is pretty much the only downside I’ve been able to find so far. The camera speed is excellent, and despite the long lens, it starts up very fast. The display is stunning, thanks to Samsungs own AMOLED display technology.

As I mentioned earlier – the Samsung HZ35W is the first I know of with a full map database loaded on the device. It makes tagging and referencing photos quite a lot of fun. Loading maps on the camera takes about 20 minutes, and the ability to carefully read instructions (an ability I lack).

And finally in this quick look, I’ll leave you with two photos that show the zoom lens at work:

I’ll post a full review next week, after I’ve been able to take the camera for a real test over the next couple of days.

Panasonic Lumix GF1 Micro Four Thirds camera review

In this review, we’ll introduce the fourth Micro Four Thirds camera to earn some coverage here on Gadling. As a quick reminder – Micro Four Thirds digital cameras offer the same image sensor quality found on large(r) digital SLR cameras, but in a much smaller body. This size and weight reduction obviously makes these cameras perfect for travel, especially if you want to lighten your load, without sacrificing image quality or features.

The basics inside the Panasonic Lumix GF1 are what you’d expect from a camera in this (price) range. 12.1 megapixels, 1280 x 720 HD video, live view and a built in flash.
In the version being reviewed here today, we used the GF1 with the Panasonic H-H020 20mm F1.7 pancake lens. The design of the GF1 is very much in line with all other Panasonic cameras – and I’ve been a longtime fan of their Lumix lineup, so I was instantly attracted to the GF1. Controls are fairly basic – the usual mode selector dial is on top, along with a very handy shoot mode switch (for single, continuous and timed photos). Many other cameras hide those options under the menu, so quick access like this is quite welcome.

On the rear is the D-Pad menu/option selector, buttons for the display, delete, play, Autofocus lock, quick menu and a fast auto/manual focus selector.

Startup time of the camera is very quick – in part because of a “real” power slider switch. From power on till first photo can be just under 2 seconds making the camera perfect for those spur of the moment things you’d like to photograph.

Because this is a Micro Four Thirds camera, the GF1 can be used with some other Micro Four Thirds lenses, though Panasonic did inform me that not all lenses will work – in some cases, the lens may not auto focus. In my test, I used the 14-42 lens from an Olympus E-P1 which worked perfectly – in fact, it performed better on the GF1 than on the E-P1, mainly because the E-P1 has a notoriously slow focus, something the GF1 does not suffer from.

The GF1 features a built in pop-up flash. The flash is manually operated (so no auto pop-up). Think of this flash as handy to have around, just don’t expect it to light up a large room as it is pretty weak. Still, it beats having to carry around a separate flash. Of course, there is a flash shoe on top of the camera.

The flash shoe can also be used for an optional ($155) viewfinder, which uses a small connector port just under the shoe.

Image quality from the GF1 is very, very good – the camera is fast, and the 20mm lens was much more fun to work with than I had expected. There are a few things lacking though – there is no in-camera image stabilization, and movies are recorded in mono.

On the side of the camera is a miniHDMI port (for HD video and images), a dual USB/AV port and a remote control jack. The camera can not be charged over USB, so you’ll need to carry the included charger along with you. Battery life is quite excellent – rated for up to 380 photos per charge.

All in all, I found the GF1 to be a worthy competitor to the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2. The pop-up flash is a handy feature to have, and the auto focus performance is certainly better. But the lack of image stabilization and stereo audio puts it a few steps behind.

PROS: Fast focus, easy to use menu structure, good battery life, excellent photo quality
CONS: No image stabilization, mono video audio

As reviewed, the Panasonic Lumix GF1 retails for $899 – with the 20mm lens. This is exactly the same price as the Olympus E-P2 with a similar pancake lens (the E-P2 lacks a pop-up flash).