At Home with Tech

Don’t let your gadgets kill your Zen. Byte back with your inner geek!

How to Battle Blurry Photos with a Fast Prime Lens

Why is everything crystal clear in this picture except for my son?  The problem is my young bowler is the only part of the image moving quickly!  A faster camera lens could have frozen this action shot.

Why is everything crystal clear in this picture except for my son? The problem is my young bowler is the only part of the image moving quickly! A faster camera lens could have frozen this action shot.

It’s hard to believe it, but my son is almost five years old, and I’ve probably taken at least 5,000 pictures of him so far. I think 4,598 of them have been blurry.
(I exaggerate only slightly.)

He just moves too darned fast. With the exception of his first year when he wasn’t that mobile, he has proven too swift for my inadequate photo arsenal to keep up.

So I know that anybody can take a decent picture outdoors with lots of light to support an average camera lens. But as any amateur photographer has probably realized, unwanted blur usually has to do with indoor or low-light situations. That’s the Achilles’ heel for many consumer-grade lenses, which are too slow to freeze all the action in their line of sight.

Sure, you can throw some flash on your subject, but that strategy has its own set of limitations. If you want to capture the beauty of a moment in natural light, you may not want to ruin it with an obnoxious flash.

Of course, the simple solution is to buy more expensive gear.
(Isn’t it always?)
But as you start to look at your options, it quickly becomes an expensive proposition. A good zoom lens can cost you $1,000 or more…

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. You’ve got to start somewhere…

Begin the Journey to Snapping Sharper Photos
Five years ago, I bought my Canon DSLR knowing I needed more than a point and shoot camera to get the job done.
(It’s the EOS Rebel T1i, which has since been superseded by five newer versions. The Canon T6i has just been announced.)

I picked up two ‘kit’ lenses, which were packaged with the camera body as part of a holiday sale. One was an 18-55mm zoom. The other was a 55-250mm zoom.

I found the super zoom to be relatively useless in freezing action. I liked the basic zoom better. It enabled a significant jump in the general quality of my pictures over my Canon PowerShot Elphs, but it also had trouble in low light.

The reason was neither were high-end lenses. Specifically, they weren’t very ‘fast.’ The 18-55mm had a maximum aperture of f/3.5-5.6, while the 55-250mm was only an f/4-5.6.

To capture the action, you need a faster lens with a larger maximum aperture and lower ‘f’ number. Fast lenses let in more light, allowing you to use quicker shutter speeds to freeze any motion in front of you.

But of course, they cost a whole lot more than a couple hundred dollars.
(Which is what the kit lenses go for)

Discover Prime
Fast-forward two years…
I was struggling over how to proceed forward with my increasingly expensive hobby, when a friend, who was a professional photographer, suggested I buy a ‘prime’ lens. A prime is a lens with one fixed focal length, which means it doesn’t zoom.

The quality of these lenses is typically quite high. They’re fast, and their cost… by comparison with fast zoom lenses…is a steal.

So I decided to try out a prime as a cost-efficient next step on my journey to photographic enlightenment.

50mm Prime
I just had to figure out the focal length I wanted…
I was concerned about having enough reach without a zoom.
(I didn’t want my photo subjects to look like tiny dots…)

My friend suggested a 50mm lens as a good starter prime.
So I bought the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Lens.
(It’s currently $399 at B&H Photo. But if you wait for the next Canon rebate, you can knock off $50 or so…)

When I popped on the 50mm, I immediately saw the benefits of its speed.
However, I found its reach to be a bit too tight when trying snap a photo of my boy from only a few feet away.

With the ‘cropped’ sensor of my Canon Rebel, (and I assume all entry-level DSLR bodies) its framing was 1.6x tighter than what you’d see using the same lens on a more expensive full-frame DSLR body. As a result, I always found myself stepping back as far as I could to get the shot I wanted.

I became frustrated with the results, and eventually left my DSLR at home in favor of my less bulky pocket cameras. Then, my powerful iPhone 6 Plus showed up, which takes a pretty good picture all on its own.

It was like I had dropped out of Photography 101 and was just winging it again. But I knew I needed to get back on the digital horse and find another prime lens that wouldn’t make the world seem so crowded…

35mm Prime
So I’ve been doing more research and recently came to the conclusion that a 35mm prime should give me the extra ‘room’ I want…

For Canon DSLR owners, it’s the Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM.
Unfortunately, it’s a pricy prime that goes for $599.
(You can almost buy a brand new DSLR body for that price!)

I then came across a review from Ken Rockwell about the previous generation 35mm Canon lens.
(The Canon EF 35mm f/2)
He loved it, suggesting it was almost as good as the current version and half the price. Unfortunately, this older lens has been discontinued.
But he mentioned you can still find it for sale in the used camera market.

A new browser window later, I found one at B&H Photo for just $249.

How Solid is a Used Lens?
The question was whether I should gamble on a used lens? B&H rated this lens as a ‘9,’ which is two points shy of looking like new. So it’s not going to win a beauty contest. But the lens is still supposed to work, right?

One comforting factor that continued to lead me towards the uncharted waters of the ‘used market’ is the fact that B&H Photo offers a 90 day warrantee on its used photo equipment.

I figured the lens is either going to function properly out of the box or it won’t.


So that’s the end of this chapter in my quest to become a better photographer.
My new (used) 35mm lens comes in the mail next week…

In Search of a Faster Zoom Lens
But this is not the end of the story…
You can’t really live your life shooting only with primes.
(My son will be in the next county by the time I switch lenses.)

The question here is the proper lens upgrade path for any amateur photographer aspiring to be something more. I know the endgame is to have a few really great lenses. Every professional photographer I know talks proudly about his or her arsenal of ‘glass.’

But I’m not hoping to become the next Ansel Adams. I just want snap better pictures of Junior in action.

Sure, I know my camera body is due for an upgrade.
(Hello, T6i?)
But I also know that one day soon, I should also spend some serious dough on a fast zoom. I just need to feel confident about the choice.

Anyone have any suggestions…?

Rest in Peace RadioShack

The end is near for this RadioShack store and many others.  If you want to pay your respects, you’d better hurry…

The end is near for this RadioShack store and many others. If you want to pay your respects, you’d better hurry…

It isn’t as if we didn’t see this coming. The last time I gave a thought to RadioShack was a year ago when I watched its clever Superbowl commercial. The retro spot was a great Hail Mary pass. Still, I can’t remember the last time I actually stepped foot in a RadioShack.

You don’t have to follow the news to know RadioShack was in trouble. And last week, the ailing electronics retail chain finally filed for bankruptcy protection. (Sprint will be picking up some of the stores as co-branded retail spaces.)

The New York Times recently ran a feature chronicling RadioShack’s slow train wreck over the years…

For me, RadioShack’s implosion felt a lot like losing a long-time friend who moved away from the neighborhood.

Once upon a time, RadioShack was always there whenever I had an immediate tech need. Where else were you going to go to get some speaker wire? Or headsets for your walkie-talkie? Or size D batteries?

But my RadioShack abandonment story is easy to explain:

  • I never went there expecting to buy quality tech
  • Their nerdy tech vibe wasn’t cool
  • My needs move from wired to wireless
  • There were other stores that carried the same stuff

You Get What You Pay For
You can’t argue that RadioShack carried items at a certain ‘accessible’ price point. But invariably, inexpensive items don’t hold up.
The price was right, but the tech I bought often broke or stopped working prematurely.
(So I went there mostly as an emergency measure.)

It’s hard to build a brand on merchandise that doesn’t last…

Who Wants to Feel Uncool?
Consumer tech is supposed to be cool, right?
But I don’t think you could ever have called RadioShack cool.
It was for nerds who liked to tinker.
(I should know.)

Image is everything, and even as a tech nerd, if I didn’t need to go to Radio Shack, I wouldn’t.

Who Wants More Cables?
A lot of what I bought from RadioShack over the years were the cables that connected all my tech together. But as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies took center stage, I didn’t really have to buy many cables anymore.

RadioShack didn’t stock much else that compelled me to come back…

Numerous Shopping Options
This was a time before Best Buy, Staples, Amazon and of course… the Apple Store.
Radio Shack had something of a monopoly on certain kinds of tech.

But now, there are plenty of places that can serve up all your technology solutions.

So Radio Shack couldn’t keep up and kicked the bucket.
Nothing lasts forever…
Plus, there’s really no loss to the consumer here.

All that said, I guess I still feel a little sad.
Yes, RadioShack was there for me… literally over the course of decades.
But I simply outgrew it. And so did everyone else…

Goodbye, old friend.

How to Bypass a Frozen Ticket Touchscreen

What should you do when ‘Touch to Start’ doesn’t work?  You can either pay the premium ticket price on the train or figure out a workaround…

What should you do when ‘Touch to Start’ doesn’t work? You can either pay the premium ticket price on the train or figure out a workaround…

Commuting to work during a snowstorm on the train has certain advantages. Primarily, you don’t have to drive your car around like you’re on the
ice planet Hoth.
Any Road Warrior will tell you that.

But you’d better arrive at the train station prepared to step right on the train…

Ticket HAL Hates the Cold
As I carefully traversed the icy platform last week, I realized I needed to buy a ticket. The eight M8 rail cars were due in less than five minutes, and so I shuffled quickly over to the glowing ticket machine and accessed its condition.

There were numerous ice pellets clinging to its metal frame, but the automated stationmaster appeared impervious, standing silent, ready to serve.

I pulled off my glove, exposing flesh to the hungry elements. I quickly jabbed at the touchscreen to buy a ticket.
Nothing happened.
I touched a different part of the screen to generate a response.

This supposedly weatherproof HAL was apparently iced over from the inside.
I would have to buy my ticket on the train and pay the premium.
(Metro North charges a huge convenience fee on board.)

In defeat, I slowly backed up into the swirling ice storm.
Then I heard a wispy voice through the howling wind.

“Use the keypad.”


“Use the KEYPAD!”

My Obi-Wan Moment
I turned around and realized the mysterious voice was coming from a fellow commuter. I could barely make out his face, which was hidden by a huge scarf.

So I inspected the physical keypad to the right of the touchscreen. Over all my commuting years, I had only used this credit-card keypad to type in my zip code after executing the traditional ‘swipe.’

Apparently, I still looked a little confused.
How was I supposed to bridge these two very different tactile interfaces? The touchscreen layout did not translate to the numeric 3 x 4 keypad.

Then, Ben’s voice focused my attention…
“Type in the number option.”


“If you want the first choice, press 1. If you want the second choice, press 2. Then press the enter key.”


Suddenly, it seemed so easy. I pressed away at the antiquated numeric keys and within seconds, I had my ticket.

In Case of Touchscreen Emergency, Break Glass
I turned back to face my Jedi Tech Master, but he was gone!
(just kidding)
Actually, I thanked him and then quickly looked to see if the train was coming.
(Not quite yet….)

So I had a moment to further access this malfunctioning ticket robot and my inability to work it without a little intervention from the commuting ‘Force.’ I looked for any posted instructions.
Indeed, there were none….

I carefully walked over to my usual boarding position on the platform and considered my experience with this faulty tech.

Use the Keypad, Silly!
Are you simply supposed to know to use the keypad as an obvious backup to any touchscreen?

Or is this a secret ‘Jedi Tech Trick’ I’ve stumbled upon?

Either way, I figured it was worth mentioning…

I don’t know if this technical bypass is going to work with every malfunctioning touchscreen you encounter.
(Assuming it has a matching credit-card keypad)

But it’s worth a try.
Even though there is no ‘try.’

So summon your inner Yoda and DO!


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