With the recent addition of the handsome AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to my bag, I noted that this new lens features an aperture with nine rounded blades, unlike its predecessor, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, which has seven straight aperture blades. The reason this matters to me is that I like to use sunstars in some of my imagery to create the impression of brightness in light sources.
To test the sunstar capabilities of the new 50mm, I grabbed some Christmas lights from the rafters in the garage. With my camera on a tripod so everything would be the same except the lens, I shot some test images, all at f/16 at about 1 second, and made a direct comparison between the new f/1.4 and the older f/1.8.
Readers might recall the formula for sunstars: even-numbered aperture blades make sunstars points of that number, while odd-numbered aperture blades make sunstar points equal to twice the number of aperture blades…
I was quite pleased with the result. In recent years, rounded aperture blades have become increasingly common in an effort to give lenses the ability to create more pleasing out-of-focus areas, but this often sacrifices the crisp sunstar effect I love. But I found that while the effect using the 50mm f/1.4 wasn’t quite as dazzling as it was with the f/1.8, it still expressed the feeling of brightness.
While I had everything set up for sunstars, I thought I would experiment with a funny little do-it-yourself trick that can sometimes be useful: shaping your out-of-focus areas. It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to screw up. In its simplest iteration, you cut a small shape into an opaque object and fit it to the front of your lens.
I used aluminum foil for my experiment, but it made the bokeh a bit too edgy. There are kits available, but part of the fun for me is doing it with household items. This was shot at the largest aperture setting available, in this case f/1.8…
We all want to make amazing images, and we all see amazing images we admire every day. Often we think, “I saw something just like that the other day and tried to photograph it, but my pictures were nothing like that one. What am I doing wrong?”
Often the answer is a nebulous collection of visionary perspective and technical knowledge, with all imagery consisting but one thing: light.
A few years ago, lensmaker Sigma, faced with combating a reputation for poor quality control that resulted in inconsistent products, reorganized and upped their game by introducing their “Art” series of lenses. Bigger, heavier, more expensive, and better built than anything Sigma ever created before, these lenses are aimed at photographers who want the best image quality from larger-maximum-aperture lenses, and who are willing to deal with physically huge and heavy glass. Examples of this line are their 18-35mm f/1.8 Art, 35mm f/1.4 Art, 50mm f/1.4 Art, 24-105mm f/4 Art, and so on.
Primed for Primes
It’s no secret: I love”prime” lenses, which are defined as non-zoom lenses, usually featuring larger maximum apertures than zoom lenses, and which are usually lighter, smaller, and more affordable than their zooming brethren. Much of the time when I can choose between a zoom or a prime, I choose the prime. Though slightly less versatile than zooms, I spent the first part of my career shooting with nothing but primes (since zooms weren’t all that great then), and I am quite comfortable selecting a lens and then “zooming with my feet.”
I have only seen one “Art” series lens, bought by a student of mine last year.
As the popularity of these lenses rose, so did the idea that “Art” was a class, not a brand, of lens, and that we artists wanted one. But removed from its brand, was an “Art” lens really meant to be “the best,” without context, or is the “Art” something more, something etherial, something even magical?
In a conversation with fellow photograph Robert recently, he asked me, “Aren’t all lenses ‘art’ lenses?”
I speculated that lenses followed an evolution the same way culture did, with a growing interest in technology and capacity, while leaving behind some of the things we loved: older lenses, for example, are generally softer at the edges of the frame (often due to an aberration called spherical aberration, which results in the focus plane of a lens being curved slightly), and most computer-designed lenses have either gotten better at preventing that, or, in the case of cheap ones, hide these sometimes-flattering aberrations beneath other, more garish, problems like distortion and chromatic aberration.
So, I thought, maybe Sigma’s “Art” lenses are designed to bring back some of that old-lens look.
In actuality, Robert is right: all lenses are “Art” lenses because art isn’t a function of equipment or technology, but of the heart and mind.
Sigma’s “Art” series are, in simplest terms, a high-quality product intended to turn around a company struggling with quality-control issues, as well as a big, heavy tool in the toolbox. They are certainly capable of producing art in the hands of an artist.
Just because some loudmouth Millennial rolls his eyes and dismissively says, “That’s the oldest trick in the book!” (with an implied “old man!”), doesn’t mean it’s not a good trick. I used one of the oldest tricks in my lexicon recently in class: the hair shake. This works well with people who have long hair that is looking too stiff. Have the subject/model throw their head forward and shake their hair, then quickly sit up, letting their hair fly back. Nine times out of ten it will result in their hair looking wild, free, fun, beautiful. Don’t let them touch it – it will feel strange to your model because they never comb or brush it that way, but it will look amazing.
Years ago I was on the sideline at a Stratford, Oklahoma football game with a photographer buddy of mine, Matthew White. Despite the fact that he was just tagging along and wasn’t shooting the game for any agency or even for himself, he couldn’t help himself, and shot it just as thought it was his job.
I turned to him and said, “You can’t turn it off, can you?” I knew he couldn’t because I can’t. No photographer can. It’s not just what we do when we’re clocked in or on a job, it’s who we are.
No one, I think, knows this better than Robert, who has a full-time non-photography job, yet remains a photographer every minute of the day. It shows in his work, which I was showing my wife Abby the other day to a constant litany of “wow” and “that’s incredible” and “these are amazing.”
I thought of this when Abby and I recently travelled to Rolla, Missouri, to buy a new puppy. I wasn’t supposed to be a photographer on this overnight trip, but of course, I couldn’t turn it off. In spite of being the puppy chauffeur, I also took great interest in things like the silhouettes of the state of Will Rogers on the turnpike, the dilapidated Totem Pole gift shop next to our motel, and, of course, photographing the new dog.
It is this willingness to be the photographer all the time that sets us apart from the incessant visual chatter of the 10,000-selfies crowd. Instead of “hey, how about a picture?” we are always looking at the light, the textures, the lines, and the shadows, to try to decide how to express something.
That’s the key thought of this post, I believe: the selfie makers are trying to impress someone, and the photographers are trying to express something.
For a couple of decades now, a cacophony of myth and misinformation has stemmed from digital photography regarding sensor size. This all started because professional and advanced amateur digital photography was rooted, for economic reasons, in 35mm film photography.
Driven mostly by the engines of sales and popularity, not necessity or creativity or technical superiority, the 35mm film frame, at 36x24mm, and originally derived from an industrious camera maker wanting to take advantage of surplus film from the burgeoning 1930s motion picture industry, became the standard bearer for image size by the end of the 20th century.
I recently decided to do a little used-for-used sell-and-buy on Ebay to get my hands on a Nikon D700, one of Nikon’s earliest digital cameras equipped with a sensor the size of a 35mm film frame, 36x24mm, sometimes referred to by the misleading name “full frame” because it is the same size as a full frame of film. Nikon calls it “FX,” in contrast to their smaller 24x15mm sensors, which it calls “DX.” 24x15mm sensors are often mistakenly called “cropped” sensors by laymen who don’t fully understand the origins of image size. If it has to have a name, it is most accurately described by its size in millimeters or by the film size closest to it, APS-C (Advanced Photo System type-C).
The lazy-writing web world often calls full frame “FF” in forum posts.
Do full frame sensors have “better depth of field”?No. I was eager to debunk this one because I already knew the answer, and because it is an embarrassment to photography that everyone is so eager to believe this. Depth of field is controlled by two factors: magnification and aperture. The reason this myth seems to be true is that to get the same composition on a 36x24mm as on a smaller sensor, one has to either get closer or use a longer focal length, both of which increase magnification to create shallower depth of field. At identical distances, focal lengths and apertures, depth of field is identical. If you don’t believe me, here is the proof…
Is an aperture of f/2 on a larger sensor “equivalent” in light gathering capacity to f/1.4 on a smaller sensor?No. I heard this one asserted by Tony and Chelsea Northrup on their YouTube channel, and I couldn’t believe my ears at the time. (They also refer to “ISO” as a name – “Eyesoh,” which it is not). I have no idea how they came to this conclusion, but this and the popularity of their channel has done nothing but muddy the waters on issues like this. Simply put, f number is a fraction describing the ratio between the focal length of a lens and the diameter of the opening. A 50mm f/2, for example, has an opening of 25mm. 50 divided by 2 equals 25. A specific aperture value lets the same amount of light through the lens regardless of what size of film or sensor is on the other side.
Will a larger sensor give life back to my wide angle lenses?Yes, with some caveats. A 20mm lens that was a mediocre lens on a smaller sensor has now been restored to its film-days glory as an ultra wide lens. While this is certainly nice if you have a bunch of old wide angle lenses, today many manufacturers make very wide angle lenses for smaller sensors. I have several myself, and I am able to get as wide as I need, including ultra-ultra-wide using my 10-17mm fisheye and uncurving it in Photoshop.
Will my telephoto lenses will be less telephoto-y on a larger sensor?Yes. This is the reason sports and wildlife photographers got away from large and medium format film as soon as 35mm was available: just as larger sensors make wide angles wider, they make telephotos wider, since they are projecting their images onto a larger surface. Many top sports and bird photographers very much prefer 24x15mm sensors for just this reason, and this has been a leading marketing tag for Nikon’s flagship 24x15mm camera, the D500.
Are larger sensors better at capturing low-light scenes due to the pixels themselves being larger?Yes. If you compare a 36x24mm sensor against a 24x15mm sensor of the same pixel count, assuming the sensors are of the same era and treated with the same renderings, noise will be lower in the larger sensor. This is true because the pixels themselves, the tiny light-sensing devices inside the integrated circuit in the middle of the camera, are larger, and can gather more light, thus requiring less amplification of the signals they produce. In practice, though, this rule doesn’t hold much water. There are many smaller-sensor cameras that make incredibly low-noise images, and most cameras with larger than “full frame” sensors do not.
The craving for lower noise at higher ISOs is a symptom of photographers being too lazy to master what matters most, light. Additionally, there is a lot of pretense on the photo forums (like photo.net, which recently changed formats and is now unviewable) about, “wanting to do more street photography.” The truth is that most of time people who make this claim just want to be able to say, “I have this camera and that lens,” and don’t make very many photos. All you have to do to discover this truth is walk the streets and count the photographers: ≈ 0.
Are “multiplier” or “crop factor” numbers useful?No. These numbers are all over the place, and only exist so camera makers can muddy the waters of what you should buy. 1.5x “crop factor” or 2x “multiplier” is only helpful if you go from one format to the other constantly while shooting. A far better way to understand this is to know your camera, and know what does what. For example, suppose your camera is a “four thirds” format (18x13mm). A 14mm is a wide angle lens, and a 200mm is a super-telephoto.
Is it worth it to “upgrade” to a larger sensor?No. Anyone who asks this question isn’t ready to take advantage of the subtle differences offered by a larger sensor, and larger sensors are disproportionally more expensive. If you need a larger sensor, you already know it.
People on the street, and students in my class, sometimes tell me their ten year old camera has died, and ask if it would be worth getting it repaired. The answer is usually no, because so many cameras that fetched top-dollar when they were new are no longer worth much on the resale market, yet would be very expensive to repair.
Almost all the cameras on the street are in the “amateur” or “advanced amateur” class, a group of photographic tools that have gotten much more affordable over the years. That leaves us with two options: replace the camera that originally cost $1200 (like my wife Abby’s 2005-era Nikon D70S) with a much better one in the $400-$600 range (like the Canon EOS Rebel T5 with its kit lens for just $399), or poke around Ebay or Craigslist or pawn shops for a used version of our dead camera.
An excellent example of this is the Nikon D80. When it first appeared on the market 10 years ago, this camera retailed for $1000, but today even the cleanest ones on Ebay are never more than about $180. For me, this is exactly the kind of bargain that allows us to use and enjoy perfectly good technology, that once fetched big money, at nearly giveaway prices.
I have a couple of D80s, both bought used, that deliver amazing image quality, image quality that is honestly very hard to beat. It takes a lot of photographer and a lot of necessity to generate a situation in which older, used cameras can’t deliver great pictures.
I’ve said this before, as have others, but it bears asserting again: you don’t need to upgrade your camera. You need to wear it out.
The Nikon D80’s strengths are…
Lightweight and unobtrusive
Easy to use, well-place controls
Will autofocus older AF Nikkor lenses as well as newer AF-S lenses
Decently large LCD display on the top of the camera which is missing on all of Nikon’s D3xxx and 5xxx intro-level cameras
Delivers sharp, clean 10 megapixel images at low and medium ISO settings
Very affordable in the 2017 market
The D80’s weaknesses are…
Slowish frame rate of 3 frames per second, which is too slow for sports
Noisy images at higher ISO settings
A little small for full-sized hands
Plastic construction makes it a bit fragile
Exposure control dial doesn’t have a lock and is easily moved to another setting
Exposure mode dial is filled with useless amateur “scene mode” options
If you are thinking about picking up a D80 is a pawn shop or from the web, and the price is right, make your move. This camera will make good pictures.
Those who follow me on social media might recall that my current batch of students were disappointed that it rained during last week’s class, forcing us inside.
Tonight’s forecast is more likely to produce a sunset opportunity.
All photographers with any experience know that a good sunset can be difficult to pin down, and it’s always a smarter move to be ready to shoot sunrises and sunsets when they come to you, not when you come to them.
Readers also know that I like to use the sun itself as a compositional element, often trying to emphasize its brightness by choosing a lens that makes good “sunstars” at small apertures.
Judicious use of exposure compensation can make a huge difference, since your camera doesn’t know if you are going for shadow detail or highlight detail, and will often split the difference. Don’t be afraid to crank in +3 or -4 or any other value to tell the camera what you want. I’ve seen too many disappointing sunset attempts by photographers with disappointed faces asking me, “What did I do wrong?”
There is a lot to be said for sticking around after the sun dips below the horizon as well. The so-called “blue hour” can sometimes offer amazing color values as the sun’s light strikes clouds high in the atmosphere.
The light changes quickly at sunrise and sunset, so we need to be ready to change quickly as well.
As with any photograph endeavor, the best results are achieved through a willingness to explore and experiment, and the realization that not every evening will deliver magic, but with persistence, we can eventually capture magic and share it with our audience.
Periodically my photographer friends and I will talk about how much we miss film, particularly how much we miss certain cameras and lenses. Wouldn’t it be neat, we speculate, to get back into shooting film, if we only had a camera.
But, of course, film cameras are still around. I’ve got one in my hand as I write this.
I pulled the Pentax K1000 out of the display case in the entryway at our office. This camera is one of the most basic, simple, easy-to-use cameras ever. Its simplicity made it popular with photography teachers, since the camera is entirely manual, and required students to learn how to do everything.
I could shoot film right now if I wanted to, but the truth is, digital photography is overwhelmingly popular because it is overwhelmingly better than film. That wasn’t the case 15 years ago, but today, digital imaging technology has surpassed film tech in all respects.
So despite the fact that I have this perfectly-workable Pentax, I have no desire or intention to try to buy film, shoot it, and have it processed somewhere, then either print it or have it scanned.
We photographers are happy in our digital world, and despite Jonesing for the old days, we live in the new world of photography.
There is a saying among gun owners. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people with guns.”
This slogan is an ideal analog to what I often see when people buy a new lens like the marvelous and under-recognized 50mm f/1.8. “Lenses don’t make pictures. People make pictures with lenses.”
This lens has earned it the nickname “Nifty Fifty” over the years because it is affordable and capable of delivering beautiful results. But…
Any lens is a tool, and if you use a tool wrong, it won’t give you the results you want. All lenses are the same at f/11 in midday sun with your knees locked. A 50mm f/1.8 and an 18-55mm kit lens are the same at f/11. You might as well shoot with your phone or a point-and-shoot.
Taking advantage of tools like large-aperture lenses requires aggressive techniques, including moving yourself and using those large apertures. You didn’t buy an f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens to shoot it in Program mode or worse, green box mode, and have the camera choose every mediocre compromise it can.
So if you find yourself with a nifty little 50mm in your hands, take it to the limits – get close, shoot wide open, see the light. Only then can you discover why a lens like this is a great tool.
As I was writing a post for my social blog, The Giant Muh, I needed some images. I scrolled through the folder of stuff from our October anniversary trip with my wife Abby, The Endless Sky, and found an image I thought would be worthless because I overexposed it…
When I shot it, I was disappointed, but I kept the frame in-camera and continued my Canyonlands hike with longtime friend Scott Andersen. As the light matured and the day went on, we made many successful images, and had a great time.
I didn’t give the image much more thought.
Today when I saw the image, I attempted to get some detail out of the moon using Adobe Photoshop’s recovery slider, without much effect.
Then I rather whimsically thought, “I’ll run it through my Nik Collection’s single image tone mapping high dynamic range (HDR) filter (which is free – read more here [link]) and see what happens.”
Honestly, I didn’t think there was much detail in the image – the blacks looked black and the moon looked white. I was amazed, then, when the Nik filter was able to extract a very interesting and detailed image…
You see the terms “flare” and “ghosting” bantered around a lot, particularly when reading the photography web about lenses. Put simply, these terms describe reflections that occur inside lens elements within lenses and filters, and reflections between the lens and the imaging sensor.
Flare, sometimes called “veiling glare,” is a tendency for light to fill the frame and obscure the subject, and ghosting is the appearance of objects in the frame often shaped like blobs or like the shape of the lens’ aperture.
Some lenses are resistant to flare, while others will flare with little provocation. Generally, but not always, single focal length (“prime”) lenses flare less than zoom lenses (which have more, often many more, lens elements inside), and generally, top quality lenses flare less than cheap lenses, and “fast” (large aperture) lenses flare more than lenses of more modest maximum apertures.
Flare and ghosting are almost always a consequence of having bright light source in the frame; a window, a street light, the sun, or headlights, for example. Lens hoods, which I always use to protect my lenses, are not very effective at controlling flare because they are often not quite large enough, and you will often see me shading my lens with my hand when shooting into a bright light source.
Flare and ghosting are reduced by using smaller apertures.
Finally, flare and ghosting, while referred to as an aberration in technical talk, can often contribute to the success of an image. Some fine art photographers use older lenses, for example, to convey a sense of “vintage” in their images. I know a wedding photographer whose entire look is based on flare at sunset. In my own work, I often use flare and ghosting to convey a sense of brightness that might not otherwise be expressable.
I have another Intro to Digital Photography class starting Monday, and I always get a little buzzed about it in advance. I think about arriving, writing my name and website on the dry erase board, looking around. I see people look up at me in anticipation, some of them with questions on the tips of their tongues.
Their cameras are old and new, expensive and austere, well-used and right out of the box. (Sometimes they are still in the box.)
Their experiences are as diverse as their cameras. Maybe they got that camera for Christmas. Maybe they shot film years ago and are just now deciding to enter the digital age. Maybe they have kids who they want to photograph. Maybe they want to make extra money with their cameras. Maybe their bosses want them to shoot photos for the business.
One thing they will have in common: they want to learn.
The Intro classes are nuts and bolts. How often should you charge the battery? What kind of media card do I need for video? What’s the best lens for shooting seniors and babies?
One of my goals in the Intro class is to take the magic and mystery out of photography, to let all my students that it doesn’t take a $10,000 camera, and it isn’t rocket science. Photography is fun, powerful, and exciting. You can do this. You can make beautiful pictures.
It seems that every January my wife Abby and I log in to our credit card rewards site to see how many points we have accumulated in the past year. She then picks out a couple of items and gives the rest of the points to me. This year I was able to purchase a new iPad Pro, as well as the topic of this post, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
I consider this lens to belong to both of us, which is true for everything we own, really.
I let Abby have the first turn with it, and she was delighted. She remarked that it showed fast, decisive autofocus and a nice bright viewfinder image, and it felt about right in her slender hands. She photographed Max the Chihuahua with it first, and as you can see, the results were pleasing…
I know what you’re going to say: Richard, don’t you always recommend the much cheaper 50mm f/1.8? Yes I do, and the truth is that I would never have paid cash for the f/1.4, but with a large number of accumulated rewards points made it easier to spring for its luxury. And the more I thought about it, the more I decided I wanted to have at least one f/1.4 lens in my bag.
Considerable larger than the f/1.8 it replaces, this lens comes with a large plastic bayonet-mounted hood. Mounted on my D7100, it makes a handsome, well-balanced package.
Though there was nothing wrong with my old 50mm f/1.8, it is missing a feature common to the new Nikkors, AF-S, which uses motors inside the lens to move the focussing elements. This benefit is twofold, with focus being faster and internal, as well as allowing the photographer to turn the focus ring any time to focus manually.
Finally, we usually own and shoot with large-aperture lenses at their largest apertures, since we didn’t pay a premium price to shoot them at f/11, which even the cheapest 18-55mm kits lens does with ease. One of my goals with the lens will be to push the limits selective focus at very large apertures. I’ve only shot a few frames with it wide open (f/1.4), but early tests indicate what I expected: depth of field of just a few millimeters, powerful selective focus, and pleasing bokeh.
The film era of photography, which despite the epic surge of digital is the largest era of imaging, was filled with institutions. Kodak. The Brooks Institute. Winona School of Photography. They are all gone now, relics of both a bygone era and their lack of vision for the future. They were all part of a mentality that a professional photographer was like a doctor or a lawyer: someone with special training and knowledge who could do things with film, chemistry, and printing that others could not.
Then, digital. Affordable digital photography meant that many of the mysteries and specialties of photography disappeared. There is still some tech to it, but most of the things about photography that were out of reach for the average person – a darkroom, and enlarger, some knowledge of chemistry – are arcane.
More significantly than all that, though, is cost. Once we have a device or two in our hands – a digital SLR and a smart phone, typically – there are no additional costs. No film. No processing. No printing. No photo albums. The hobby of photography is, to a degree, free where it used to be expensive.
This giant paradigm shift led to a perception shift, an illusory one, one represented by the piano paradox: what kind of piano should I buy so I can play like Chopin? We see this paradox invading many other areas of our lives: preppers buy expensive sights for their rifles and think they can shoot like Navy SEALS. Soccer moms buy expensive kitchen accessories and think they can cook like Wolfgang Puck. Joggers buy expensive running shoes think they can run like Usain Bolt.
The fallacy of this line of thinking is that photography is not usually about the tools used to create photographs, but about the vision of the person making the images.
In some ways, this is, at its core, about the idea that money can take the place of talent, hard work, and training, but I have said again and again: You can’t buy mastery; you have to earn it. It’s not the equipment in your hands that makes you a photographer; it’s the equipment between your ears.
So what do I recommend?
I urge you to quit reading about cameras and software and start reading about making pictures. The first book I would tell you to read is Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams. There is nothing about pixels or bokeh in it, but you can follow the process of turning a vision into an image.
When you daydream about photography, look at pictures made with cameras, not of cameras.
Stop patting yourself on the back for buying something, and start making an effort to see light and shadows, lines and motion, color and form.
I would urge you to take my class: once we have learned about our equipment, we can forget about it and learn about how images can move the human heart and change the human condition.
I would urge you to put down your phone and look up, look around, see the world in a different way.
So no, not everyone is a photographer. Everyone is taking pictures, yes, but in all the most important ways, they aren’t photographers. Their pictures are self-referential noise, and aren’t expressive in any important way.
You can make your images expressive, impressive, important. Once you open your heart and start to understand the purpose of self-expression, you can be a photographer.