Thursday, May 28, 2015

Check out my new body!

No, I'm not talking about the results of some extreme makeover or diet.  I got a new camera body!
My older camera body started having some electrical issues and needs to be sent off for warranty repair, which is more or less the reason I haven't posted much recently.  I had been planning to buy a second camera body anyway, so that I could use my two favorite prime lenses without having to constantly change lenses, or so that my fiance would have a camera to play with instead of constantly wanting to borrow mine.  Yesterday there was a sale, so I figured now was as good a time as any for a new camera. 

I got a Pentax K-3.  It's not a camera you're likely to find on the shelf in a store, but y'all, it's the THE BEST THING EVER.  It's actually the same as my other camera body.  That's right, I liked it so much I got TWO!
Some test photos, just messing around in the sewing room.
Here's what I like about it so much.

First of all, it takes great pictures.  It has a 24 megapixel sensor, and the level of detail is remarkable.
Some silk crepe de chine
A small part of that image, enlarged.
On the other hand, it's hard to find a digital camera today that actually takes poor-quality pictures in good conditions.  Let's see how it does in truly awful conditions.

I took this photo at Big Bend National Park.  The sky was bright and the rock face was in deep shadow, which is usually a recipe for disaster-- dark shadows and blown highlights.  The K-3's sensor preserved enough detail in the shadow that, with a little bit of postprocessing, I was able to get a really nice picture.
15mm, f/11, 1/50, ISO 100

I took the next photo in a cave.  It was really dark.  Cameras generally don't do well at taking pictures in the dark because they can't gather enough light-- the image is too grainy because the sensor had to take the photo at too high of a sensitivity, or the exposure was so long there's motion blur.  As for this photo, there's enough graininess that I couldn't blow it up to be poster sized, but it looks fine at normal web resolution.
31mm, f/7.1, 1/20, ISO 3200
This brings me to my second point-- the image stabilization.  Pentax handles image stabilization by stabilizing the camera sensor, not the lens (which is what Canon and Nikon do).  This has several advantages.  First, this is much better for taking pictures in low light.  Any lens automatically has lens stabilization.  Canon and Nikon generally don't put image stabilization in their fast prime lenses (for the purposes of this discussion, you can just read 'fast prime lenses' as 'lenses that can gather a lot of light').  So, you can't use long exposures (which you'd want in order to gather more light) with fast prime lenses (which you'd want in order to gather more light).  You see the shot of the cave above?  I used a fast prime lens (31mm f/1.8) with a 1/20th of a second exposure.  The longest exposure I could use without image stabilization would probably have been 1/50th of a second.

I imagine most of you don't spend much time in caves, but have you ever gone to a dimly-lit museum exhibition and been disappointed with your photos?  The only bad museum photos I've taken with my K-3 have been due to user error.
Dress from Gone With The Wind exhibit, 31mm, f/4.0, 1/30, ISO 3200

The Enola Gay.  15mm, f/4.0, 1/10, ISO 400

Third, Pentax still uses the same lens mount as in the film era.  This means that practically any lens designed for Pentax cameras since ~1975 will work on new Pentax DSLRs, with no adapter needed.  This also means that you can buy awesome lenses for fire-sale prices.  For instance, this is my macro lens, an M 100mm f/4 macro.  It's a really old lens.  It cost around $100 at KEH, my favorite web retailer for used camera gear.  The comparable modern lens costs around $850. 

On the other hand, the old lens doesn't have autofocus or auto-aperture, which makes for a bit more fiddling around with the camera.  But, since I only use it for macro pictures where the subject is an inanimate object and the camera is on a tripod, it's not like the manual controls cause me to miss shots.  This little bit of extra hassle is definitely worth saving $750.  Plus, all of these old lenses?  They automatically get image stabilization!
Fourth, the weather sealing on certain Pentax bodies and lenses is ridiculously good.  It's just nuts.  If you don't believe me, check out this or this or this or this.  I haven't done anything that extreme, but I certainly wouldn't have stood under this waterfall to take pictures if it weren't for the weather sealing.
Nor would I have stood in the surf, getting splashed up to my waist, to get this picture.

On a similar note, the build quality is also very high.  The body is mostly metal.  It feels like I could pound nails with my K-3 and the camera would just shrug it off.

Fifth, I love the tiny lenses.  Not all Pentax lenses are tiny, but they do have a nice selection of tiny prime lenses.  Let's take another look at the camera in the first picture.  That's my 21mm pancake lens.  It only sticks out an inch beyond the camera.  It's small enough that I can carry the camera just about everywhere with me-- I can throw it in my ~12" x 12" purse along with my wallet, keys, and cell phone, and still have room left over.
I could keep going, but those are the major points.

On the other hand, there are some good reasons to go with another brand.  If you want a smaller, lighter interchangeable lens camera, get a mirrorless camera.  Fuji makes great stuff; I don't know about the other manufacturers.  If you want a bigger, heavier, more badass camera, get a full frame camera from Canon or Nikon.  I hear that Pentax video is mediocre, but since I only shoot stills, I don't know anything on that topic.  If you want to shoot very very tiny birds very very far away, Canon and Nikon have a better selection of lenses.  And, of course, if you want to buy your camera gear from a physical store, instead of an online retailer (my favorites are B&H and Adorama), you're better off with Canon or Nikon.

Anyway, here are some pretty photos to reward you if you actually made it to the end of this very long, non-sewing-related post!  (All photos copyright of me, don't use them without permission, etc.)  I should be back to posting more about sewing soon.
Black Swallowtail
Volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest-- hat tip to Ann

Big Bend National Park
Rock climber
Obligatory adorable cat photo

Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review-- Sew Iconic

I picked up a copy of Sew Iconic:  How To Make 10 Classic Hollywood Dresses by Liz Gregory at my local Half Price Books for $3.  I had paged through it on several previous occasions and hadn't been interested enough to buy it, but at $3, I figured, why not.
The book presents descriptions of and instructions for making ten iconic movie dresses.  It includes patterns for these dresses, but you have to trace them off the pattern sheet yourself.  (Click on any of the photos for a larger version.)
Guys, this book just made me mad.  I can't recommend it.  In fact, I would strongly recommend you don't use it.  Stay away!  It presents itself as a book for beginners, with a long introductory section on basic sewing techniques, even going so far as to define "pincushion"--
--but if you are a true beginner to the point where you don't know what a pincushion is, this book will lead you astray.  Let's consider the Julia Roberts dress, the brown-and-white polka-dotted dress from Pretty Woman.  This is the very first project in the book.  The recommended fabrics are "silk or poly-cotton."  What kind of silk?  There are many different weaves of silk, all with different properties.  Judging from the pictures of the dress, clearly the author intended something like charmeuse or crepe de chine.  Would a beginner know this?  No.  The book also recommends habotai for the facings.  This is a bad idea.  Facings typically need at least a little bit of stiffness to serve their function, and many patterns even call for the facings to be interfaced.  Habotai is about as flimsy as it comes, and would make a great lining but a terrible facing.  In short, if you are a beginner, you're not likely to achieve a good result using this book. 
I also wasn't impressed by the quality of the outfits the book presented.  For instance, the covered buttons for Faye Dunaway's fawn coast dress from The Thomas Crown Affair are lumpy:
And Kate Winslet's evening gown from Titanic looks like a costume, not evening wear.
And if you are a more advanced sewer?  Why would you be using this book, when there are so many better options open to you?

Would recommend for:  Halloween costumes, killing time.
Would not recommend for:  Pretty much everyone.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Self-drafted pattern-- Tube dress with elastic shirring!

"Pattern" is putting this really strongly.  I bought about a yard and a half of silk crepe de chine, cut it to a length appropriate for my height, ran some shirring with elastic thread, sewed the tube up the side, and hemmed it.  A really quick and easy dress!  I'd write this as a how-to, but I made this dress a few years ago and don't have pictures.  I'm sure I'll make another one at some point, though.

I bought the fabric from Thai Silks, which remarkably still has some but in a different colorway.  Around the time I originally bought the fabric, I also saw some at F&S Fabrics on Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles, though at a much higher price.

It took some trial and error to get the elastic shirring to work out.  I wound the elastic in the bobbin thread, and after several tries, I realized that you can't use any tension when you wind the elastic thread.  Also, once you've completed the rows of stitching, you have to spray the fabric with water to get it to crinkle up like that.  I don't know why this is necessary, but it's MAGIC!

The fabric I used has a very busy print, and so even though my lines of stitching run about as straight as a drunk rabbit, nobody can tell.  Win!
Naturally, even with a dress this simple, something had to go wrong.  I sewed the side of the tube of fabric all the way down the side, which didn't leave me enough room to walk in it.  Oops.  So, I unpicked part of that seam and left a slit up to my knee.
Also, for whatever reason, the elastic-shirred section isn't enough to hold the dress up.  As I wear the dress, it keeps wanting to slip down to my midsection.  I tried adding straps, but it didn't look good.  So now, if I want to wear the dress out, I have to pin it to my bra.  Have any of you encountered this?  What did you do to fix it?  I'm wondering if a band of strong elastic at the top of the bodice would solve this problem.

Anyway, I love this dress.  It was easy to make, it looks awesome, and it's incredibly cool in hot weather.  Plus, it looks good with my boots ;-)
The first and last photos were fun to shoot.  I tried a new technique this time-- using the flash to light myself, and then using the length of the exposure to control the brightness of the background.  Most of the light on me comes in a brief instant from the flash, but leaving the shutter open longer allows more light to collect on the sensor from the comparatively dim background.  The exposure on the last photo is 1/15 sec., and the exposure on the first photo was 4 sec.  For the four second exposure, even thought most of the light on me came from the flash, I could still cause motion blur and weird ghost images if I moved around too much.  Standing that still was hard.

The main reason I used such a long exposure in the first photo was to blur out any cars that might drive down the busy street, but it looks like I lucked out and didn't get any cars close up in that particular image.  The other reason was that I wanted to stop the lens down enough to get starbursts out of the streetlights.  That seems to have worked out well-- the aperture I used was f/11, and I like the way this lens renders starbursts.  Horray for starbursts!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Vogue 2859: 1935 Evening Dress

I love 1930's evening dresses, and this one is no exception.  This was my favorite evening dress for a while.
One of the great advantages of this pattern is how little fabric it requires.  Size 6 calls for 2 1/4 yards of 45" wide fabric, but I actually managed to make it with a yard and a half.  What can I say?  Airplane seats and fabric yardage-- it's great to be short.  I used a navy silk crepe de chine remnant from F&S Fabrics in Los Angeles.

So...before I show you any pictures, I have to say that this dress was one of the victims of the Grad School Apartment Mold Disaster.  I couldn't get the stench out by washing it with vinegar in the washing machine; I had to have the dress dry-cleaned.  Unfortunately, even though I'd pre-shrunk the fabric, the dress still shrunk.  I can still squeeze into it, but now it's several inches too short.  I thought I ought to blog about it before I give it to one of my friends, though. 
I love this pattern and would highly recommend it.  I found that the construction was straightforward and it went together very easily.
I love the lines in the bodice.  It took a lot of care to get the points sharp, but it wasn't particularly difficult.  I believe the pattern has you use lapped seams, which is my favorite technique for tricky corners like these.
The lines are echoed in the bodice back.
I made a modification to the inside of the dress.  I thought it would be too low-cut in the back and too form-fitting for me to wear a bra, so I stitched a couple of circles of lightweight cotton batting to some cotton gauze, and sewed it into the inside of the bodice for modesty.  This worked out really well.

Anyway, I highly recommend this pattern, and I will definitely make myself a replacement at some point!