Water of Love, Love of Water

By , July 22, 2014 10:35 pm
A very useful tool of my trade, the white-red-green selectable flashlight; I got this one on the camping supply aisle.

A very useful tool of my trade, the white-red-green selectable flashlight; I got this one on the camping supply aisle.

In my current class, Intro to Digital Photography, I teach a lot of basics. I point out the effects of changing this, changing that, chaining the other, and how best to take advantage of those effects. One thing we discussed last night was shutter speed, and everyone had fun waving their hands in front of each other at 1/8th of a second, then at 1/500th of a second, to get a clearer idea how shutter speed is one key component in building an image.

Since I live in the world of photographing people (mostly) for a living, I tend to come down on the side of faster shutter speeds. Lots of people are fast, from toddlers to professional athletes, and most of the time I try to freeze the action of their movements to illustrate what they are doing for our readers.

One of my students asked me last night, “Richard, what’s a good shutter speed if I want to show movement?”

It’s a great question with a not-as-great answer: practice. Every time we try to illustrate movement, the scene and subjects are a little different, so my advice is to keep experimenting, but with the notion in mind that in photography, a half a second is a really long time, and a minute is an eternity.

The scene of the crime: this angle illustrates the lighting and direction of water flow. The best image of the evening was made on the other bank.

The scene of the crime: this angle illustrates the lighting and direction of water flow. The best image of the evening was made on the other bank.

Then, as luck would have it, I was at Ada’s Wintersmith Park this morning looking for a feature photo, which I found (of a young lady doing her daily run up and down the steps of the amphitheater there), and noticed that the lake was high. Sure enough, the stream below the lake was flowing.

Anyone who has tried to photograph running water in daylight has experienced the same frustration: the relatively fast shutter speeds dictated by the brightness of the daytime light create an image that looks wrong. It is neither amazingly crisp, nor does it seem to express how water flows.

Knowing this, I made a plan to return to the park at dusk, and did so tonight. I set up my Nikon D7100 with the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm zoom on my best tripod as close as I could get without getting wet. I wanted to create as much blur as possible in the swiftly moving water, so I started at 30 seconds at f/22 and ISO 200, but that was entirely too dark. The only number I needed to keep was 30 seconds, so I bumped up to ISO 400 and f/11, and that was just right. The scene was illuminated by fading evening sky through the woods, and orange streetlights on the walking trail. To add an opposite color, I “painted” with my multicolor flashlight set to green.

30 seconds is the threshold exposure for creating really beautiful water blur. Longer exposures create an even deeper "cotton candy" look to the water.

30 seconds is the threshold exposure for creating really beautiful water blur. Longer exposures create an even deeper “cotton candy” look to the water.

Scan While You Can

By , July 18, 2014 8:42 am
Rodeo cowboys ride into the show arena, June 1996. I found this image while searching my archives for another item, and thought it deserved another moment in the light.

Rodeo cowboys ride into the show arena, June 1996. I found this image while searching my archives for another item, and thought it deserved another moment in the light.

Much of the world around us is driven by economics. Exceptions might be institutions like the Smithsonian or the National Archives, but even they are frequently at the mercy of money. That’s a shame, of course, but it’s a reality.

A member of the "Latta Kittens" t-ball team gets hitting advice from a coach in this June 1996 image. It's a nice moment, and doesn't deserve to be forgotten.

A member of the “Latta Kittens” t-ball team gets hitting advice from a coach in this June 1996 image. It’s a nice moment, and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

In photography, one such reality is that, in the shift from film to digital in the last 15 years, less and less emphasis is placed on film and what we can do with it. I am in no way a champion of shooting on film in 2014, but I am aware that, with film rapidly disappearing from our lives, so disappears what we can do with images that exist on film.

A critical example of this is the Nikon LS-2000, an excellent, fairly-high resolution film scanner with some powerful features. We have one here at the office, and it lives in “the morgue” with a bunch of other obsolete equipment. It’s not obsolete because it doesn’t work. It’s obsolete because Nikon quit updating the drivers for it. And they did that not because there was no longer a need to be able to scan film, but because it wasn’t making money for them any more.

I have a fairly decent flatbed scanner at home, the Canon 9000F. It makes superb scans of prints, but only so-so scans from negatives. I also have an older Epson Perfection 1650 scanner at my office. There are still a few affordable film-only scanners for sale, but only from niche companies. To get a truly solid scan, you need a what’s called a drum scan, and drum scanners are astronomically expensive…

Hasselblad Flextight X5 Scanner: $25,700

Blackmagic Design Cintel Scanner$29,995

An alternative is sending your film away to be scanned, but honestly, I spend too much time and effort on my photography to have an overworked technician guess at how my images should look.

Pictures we made on film for decades remain a significant part of our imaging lexicon, and it would be wrong to let them sit in the dark in the top of the closet. Get them out, get them organized, and scan while you can.

A black-and-white negative sits in its carrier prior to being scanned at my office recently. The reversed orientation is correct for this scanner. Even a mediocre scan with a flatbed scanner can breathe some life into old images.

A black-and-white negative sits in its carrier prior to being scanned at my office recently. The reversed orientation is correct for this scanner. Even a mediocre scan with a flatbed scanner can breathe some life into old images.

The Real Mission is Storytelling

By , July 9, 2014 11:44 am
When I initially approached these guys about taking their picture, they wanted to pose in a big group. I politely explained that it wasn't what I wanted, and asked them to relax and go about their evening. It took a few minutes for them to do so, but you can see how much better this image is than a group of them posing.

When I initially approached these guys about taking their picture, they wanted to pose in a big group. I politely explained that it wasn’t what I wanted, and asked them to relax and go about their evening. It took a few minutes for them to do so, but you can see how much better this image is than a group of them posing.

I’m teaching a beginning digital photography class next week, and 12 of the enrollees are high school yearbook students. It’s fun to have enough people in class, because it can energize the room, but I may find it difficult to convey to high schoolers one of my most important messages: storytelling.

It's easy to make a group photo of troops who are leaving for deployment, but it's vastly more powerful to photograph a moment like this.

It’s easy to make a group photo of troops who are leaving for deployment, but it’s vastly more powerful to photograph a moment like this.

I’ve watched high school photographers at ball games and graduations and class plays and so on, and they almost always fall into the same imaging paradigm: stop the action, get the subjects to grin like apes at the camera, blast away with direct flash, and come away with, essentially, nothing.

So as a high school yearbook photographer, who is your audience? In some very significant ways, you are, only 20, 30, 40 years in the future. What can we offer this audience? If we give them 175 “party pics,” we’ll be doing them a serious disservice, because, as I have discussed before, when you stop a moment to get people to pose for a photo, that photo no longer expresses the moment. It expresses people posing for a photograph, usually predictably and boringly.

I appreciate how hard it might be for a high school kid to say no to, “Hey, take my picture,” or to turn down an opportunity when a bunch of kids are “cheesing” for you. In the smart phone camera era, everyone is conditioned to do that. But I am here to testify: these aren’t the images you want.

Also, of course, is this: you and your friends and everyone else already has hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of these same boring party pics. If you don’t believe me, do a web image search for “group photos,” and look at how similar the photos look, and how they don’t tell us much about the people and the moment.

After the obligatory group photo when the Roff Tigers won a state championship, there was this moment, which is filled with almost infinitely more emotion.

After the obligatory group photo when the Roff Tigers won a state championship, there was this moment, which is filled with almost infinitely more emotion.

So if not party pics, Richard, what? Very simply, we are trying to tell a story with our images. Wait for the moment. Watch for it. It’s not before the game when everyone is goofing off. It’s when the three-pointer hits the rim and bounces out at the buzzer. It’s not when the principal and the debate student pose with the plaque. It’s when the debate student is at a tournament, waiting tensely in the lobby to find out if he’ll finish first or second. It’s not when the dignitary hands a check to the student council president and shakes her hand. It’s when she then holds up the check with tears in her eyes and the crowd goes wild for their achievement. It’s not when the football team grudgingly accepts their runner-up trophy. It’s when tears are streaming down their faces with 00:00 on the clock.

Look through the portfolio of any award-winning photographer and you won’t find party pics or group photos. You will find stories. Look at those images, and begin to explore how you can tell your stories.

There are often a lot of photographers making pictures on senior night, in this case Ada Lady Cougar softball, and those photographers want group photos of the families holding their ribbons and roses, grinning their butts off. But this image brings the story home better than any of those photos, that Blakeley Franz was about to play her last high school softball game.

There are often a lot of photographers making pictures on senior night, in this case Ada Lady Cougar softball, and those photographers want group photos of the families holding their ribbons and roses, grinning their butts off. But this image brings the story home better than any of those photos, that Blakeley Franz was about to play her last high school softball game.

How Photographers Can Miss the Point

By , June 27, 2014 6:39 pm

It’s too easy for photographers to get mired in technical details and forget their message: conveying images that describe the moment.

Here is one example…

Ada Cougar football players hold their quarterback after words were exchanged with the opposition at the end of a play, September 2008.

Ada Cougar football players hold their quarterback after words were exchanged with the opposition at the end of a play, September 2008.

If you look at the image above and are inclined to criticize it on its technical merits – noise, blur, color rendition, resolution – you might have lost sight of the true purpose of photography. If you look at this image and see an emotional moment among competitors, there is still hope for you.

The Geometry of Photography

By , June 27, 2014 7:27 am

or How to Avoid Boring the Audience with Your Wide Angle Lens

Photography is a surprisingly complex visual puzzle. In addition to using a lot of numbers, it is rife with its own jargon: the inverse square law, the exposure triangle, circles of confusion, lighting ratios, the rule of thirds, and on and on.

One excellent use for a wide angle lens is to utilize the directional elements of an image, called leading lines, to draw the viewer into the center of an image, as in this November 2012 high school playoff football game.

One excellent use for a wide angle lens is to utilize the directional elements of an image, called leading lines, to draw the viewer into the center of an image, as in this November 2012 high school playoff football game.

One thing I see again and again, and hear described and debated, that is directly related to the geometry of photography, is the misuse of wide angle lenses. Many images that make very poor use of wide angle lenses pass through my hands every day. Not only do I see tons of images shot with wide angles that simply fail to fill the frame with a basic subject (like group photos with the group in the middle of a mostly empty frame), I also see wide angle images that fail to grasp the most fundamental concept in photography: storytelling.

Proper selection of focal length is one of the ways we tell the viewer our story, but it doesn’t end there. Once we have mounted our 18mm or our 85mm or our 300mm, we can’t just sit back and let it do the work. I see a lot of web forum posts with titles like, “What’s the best portrait lens (or wide angle, or telephoto, etc.) for my Camcon 9000?”

The answer is, of course, “that depends.” And it mostly depends on you.

The most important thing you can do with a wide-angle lens – and I can’t emphasize this enough – is use near-far relationships to invite the audience into your image. Without this essential storytelling element, wide angle shots, particularly landscapes, can easily bore the audience.

Here is a very dull photo of some rebar by the side of the road, shot with a 12mm lens. Compare to...

Here is a very dull photo of some rebar by the side of the road, shot with a 12mm lens. Compare to…

…same scene, same lens, same exposure, same light, but with a very different result. Essentially, all I did was move.

…same scene, same lens, same exposure, same light, but with a very different result. Essentially, all I did was move.

In the end, the success of your images made with a wide angle or ultra wide angle lens will sink or swim on how you use it. It requires a willingness to give up boring, easy perspectives and work to find ways to tell your story with the lines and angles that are available with these incredible tools.

DPI, PPI, IPI

By , June 25, 2014 11:31 am

IPI = Idiots Per Inch.

I continue to be amazed and discouraged that after more than two decades of modern image editing, photo editors and graphic designers still insist on describing images using the term “DPI.” It stands for Dots Per Inch, and it’s kissing cousin is PPI, or Pixels Per Inch, and I am here to tell editors once and for all: DPI and PPI don’t describe image resolution.

The reason this is so discouraging is that imaging professionals should know better. The only number that actually describes digital image resolution usefully is the number of total pixels.

I had an editor ask for a “300 DPI” image just last week. Without any other parameters, a “300 DPI” image could be the size of a postage stamp (1 inch by 1 inch at 300 DPI) or the size of a garage door (270 inches by 180 inches at 300 DPI).

If there’s good news in this miasma of ignorance, it’s that you can easily make a change in the “Image Size” dialog in programs like Photoshop to fool editors into thinking there are getting what they want by simply unchecking the “Resample Image” box and entering “300″ in the “Resolution” field. Of course, it doesn’t change the number of pixels in the image, but it satisfies the recipient. They could do it themselves, too, but that may be asking too much.

I’m going to make a point to send this to any and all editors who specify they want a “300 DPI” image.

Behold: same file, same number of pixels, but one says 72 DPI, and other says 300 DPI.

Behold: same file, same number of pixels, but one says 72 DPI, and other says 300 DPI.

At This Point, It’s All Used

By , June 21, 2014 12:33 pm
This is the vertical release on one of my D2H digital SLR cameras. As you can see, it is well-worn. This illustrates two important things I demand from my work cameras: a vertical release, and a body that can take this kind of wear and tear year after year.

This is the vertical release on one of my D2H digital SLR cameras. As you can see, it is well-worn. This illustrates two important things I demand from my work cameras: a vertical release, and a body that can take this kind of wear and tear year after year.

I have never hesitated to recommend buying used photography equipment. All the cameras I currently use for my work as a photojournalist were bought used.

I looked at the camera lineup at nikonusa.com today and decided … Nikon, are you listening? … that I will be buying used cameras for the foreseeable future. Basically, Nikon has split their models into two camps: small-sensor (15x24mm) cameras for hobbyists, and large-sensor (24x36mm) for rich amateurs and pros, and then into three sub-categories.

I, and those like me in the news business, am none of those.

Here is today’s lineup from nikonusa.com

“Entry-level” DSLRs, the D3100 through the D5300. Price range: $450-$750.

“Enthusiast-level” DSLRs, the D7000 and D7100, the Df, and the D610. Price range: $1000 to $2800.

“Professional” DSLRs, the D800 and D800e, and the D4, D4s, and D3x. Price range: $3200 to $8000.

You can have a lot of fun with a camera like this, my wife Abby's Nikon D3000, but it won't be as fun when it's in the shop five times a year due to its lightweight, plastic build.

You can have a lot of fun with a camera like this, my wife Abby’s Nikon D3000, but it won’t be as fun when it’s in the shop five times a year due to its lightweight, plastic build.

Nikon’s small-sensor cameras are like cheap toys in my hands, while their large-sensor cameras are too expensive, by a lot.

What I need:

  • A tough body with responsive autofocus
  • A fairly high frame rate with a big buffer
  • A biggish camera body with an integrated vertical grip
  • Decent high-ISO files
  • Fairly good HD video

What I don’t need:

  • So-called full-frame (Nikon calls it FX, the same size as the obsolete 35mm film frame)
  • More than about 10 megapixels
  • Astronomical ISO performance
  • Stupid features like social media integration, WiFi, or GPS

So, Nikon, make this happen for Richard the photojournalist…

  • A camera body like the Nikon D2h, with
  • About 10 megapixels and
  • A maximum ISO of 12,800, and make it clean
  • A frame rate of about eight frames per second, with a big buffer
  • A price of about $1000

In summary, I need a tough body with good performance, and I don’t care about pixel count, sensor size, or trendy features, and I need a good price.

Nikon’s D300S had all this, but Nikon no longer lists it. I have a D7100 at home for my fine art, commercial and travel photography, but for news, sports, and magazine work, I have absolutely no use for it’s small buffer, intermediate build quality, and 24 megapixels.

In some ways, the bottom end of Nikon’s line, like the D5300, which has some respectable specifications, would be suitable, but in comes in a plasticky, consumer body.

Much of this is fallout from the lingering, pointless megapixel craze. More is better, especially in the West, especially in the eyes of egomaniacal and/or insecure photographers. If someone handed me a 36 megapixel Nikon D800 to use today, I would immediately dial it down to 9 megapixel, even for magazine shooting.

On photo forums like Photo.net, participants often speak of having a “backup” camera, sometimes one of lesser quality than their main camera, but this is a tipoff that they aren’t real photographers, since almost all decent professional photographers shooting events use two or even three cameras at once, and they all need to be of the same ilk. Of course, I would love to have three new Nikon D4S cameras, but who are we kidding? $6000 apiece? I don’t know who is buying these, but it isn’t me or any of the news photographers I know.

My solution to the conundrum of what to do if you shoot news and sports is, as it has been for some time, to tell the big camera companies that their products have shifted away from real photographers like us and toward the measurbators, and that we will be cruising eBay for the foreseeable future, looking for cameras like the D2X, the D300S.

The core camera in my photographic stable is the Nikon D2H. Naysayers who claim that 4.1 megapixels isn't enough or that the camera's high-ISO files are unusable probably don't shoot RAW files and probably aren't particularly good with Adobe's Camera RAW software. In the right hands, this camera can deliver.

The core camera in my photographic stable is the Nikon D2H. Naysayers who claim that 4.1 megapixels isn’t enough or that the camera’s high-ISO files are unusable probably don’t shoot RAW files and probably aren’t particularly good with Adobe’s Camera RAW software. In the right hands, this camera can deliver.

A Complete 180

By , June 14, 2014 7:56 pm
This mimosa behind the garden started blooming just this week. This image was made at f/2.8 at just about the closest focus distance on my AF-Nikkor 180mm.

This mimosa behind the garden started blooming just this week. This image was made at f/2.8 at just about the closest focus distance on my AF-Nikkor 180mm.

As you can see, the 180mm is scarcely bigger than a 70-300mm zoom, yet the images from it are far superior.

As you can see, the 180mm is scarcely bigger than a 70-300mm zoom, yet the images from it are far superior.

The hay guy came by this morning to ask if he could cut and bail the pasture in July like he has every year recently, and it reminded me to grab a camera and photograph the pasture in the coming weeks before he cuts it.

I grabbed the Nikon D7100 tonight, and very deliberately chose one of my favorite lenses, as it has been for 30 years, the 180mm. I’ve owned four iterations of this lens over the years, including tonight’s guest, the AF-Nikkor ED 180mm f/2.8 D.

Tiny white flowers blow in a late spring breeze in a shady spot down by our pond tonight. The 180mm let me set them apart from the background nicely.

Tiny white flowers blow in a late spring breeze in a shady spot down by our pond tonight. The 180mm let me set them apart from the background nicely.

This lens has few vices. It is lightweight, bright, and sharp, and has fairly nice bokeh wide open. It’s only failings are its older autofocus system (non-AF-S) and an itsy bit of chromatic aberration.

It’s possible to get a decent bargain on a used 180mm on sites like eBay, particularly if it’s ugly on the outside but still has good glass.

It felt good in my hands tonight, and I remembered why I like it so much.

A bit of juxtapositional imagining, with the vines wrapping around barbed wire in the west pasture. The excellent selective focus qualities of the 180mm at f/2.8 make this possible.

A bit of juxtapositional imagining, with the vines wrapping around barbed wire in the west pasture. The excellent selective focus qualities of the 180mm at f/2.8 make this possible.

A Lens for the Fun of It

By , June 12, 2014 7:14 pm
Aztec Ruins National Monument's restored great kiva, shot with my Tokina AT-X 10-17mm  f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens.

Aztec Ruins National Monument’s restored great kiva, shot with my Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens.

I sold my first fisheye, a 16mm for 35mm film, to David Wheelock, who was kind enough to send me this photograph of it.

I sold my first fisheye, a 16mm for 35mm film, to David Wheelock, who was kind enough to send me this photograph of it.

In my time, I owned two fisheye lenses. From 1993 until 2004, I had a the Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 AI-S, which I seldom used and sold to a friend when I phased out film and switched to digital, since its image circle was for a 24x36mm image area. I carried it for a while for imaging at my newspaper, where it became known as “Richard’s weird lens.”

In the summer of 2008, I felt the fisheye still held a place in my imaging, so I bought the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5, which was both about half the cost of Nikon’s 10.5mm, and was also a zoom. I didn’t know why zoom would be valuable in a fisheye, but it was there.

Which Begs the Question...
Why would you create a fisheye zoom? I would speculate that almost all lenses designed in the last 15 years were created using CAD/CAM, Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing. It would make sense that programs controlling CAD/CAM are optimized for the creation of the most popular lenses, which are zooms, and that engineers would be inclined to use existing CAD/CAM methods and software to avoid “reinventing the wheel.”
Michael uses my 10-17mm on his Nikon D7000 on a trip to Great Salt Plains in 2011.

Michael uses my 10-17mm on his Nikon D7000 on a trip to Great Salt Plains in 2011.

I always bring my Tokina fisheye to class on “lens night,” and my students get a big kick out of it. It is my impression that almost none of them later consider buying one. The fisheye lens is very specialized, and even when I make a point to use it, I still find that images made with it have a unique look, and, maybe more importantly, it is a fairly difficult lens to use well.

Robert Stinson, right, and I pose with our fisheye lenses, my Tokina 10-17mm, and his Nikkor 10.5mm.

Robert Stinson, right, and I pose with our fisheye lenses, my Tokina 10-17mm, and his Nikkor 10.5mm.

I made this image of Surprise Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, in March 2004, using a Nikon FM2 and the 16mm Fisheye Nikkor I later sold to David Wheelock.

I made this image of Surprise Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, in March 2004, using a Nikon FM2 and the 16mm Fisheye Nikkor I later sold to David Wheelock.

There have been a few occasions when the fisheye field of view, 180˚ from corner to corner of the frame, has been irreplaceable. I can think of three, all in the west, where I was in a place that didn’t allow me enough room to back up and get everything I wanted in the frame: Aztec Ruins National Monument’s great kiva, Arches National Park’s Surprise Arch, and Arches National Park’s Tower Arch.

If the strength of a wide angle lens is its ability to express near-far relationships, the strength of a fisheye is to explode them.

The fisheye can dress up boring images with its wild curves, bring the viewer into spaces a normal or wide angle can’t, and can create a sense of depth like no other lens. It also has the potential for overuse by boring or confusing viewers. It takes a lot of practice to be able to tell when that might happen. From inside the viewfinder, the view is so extreme and entertaining that it’s easy to think everything is looking great.

In terms of build quality and handling, the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 is without peer. Zooming is smooth and obedient, it is quick to focus, and it feels very solid in-hand.

In terms of build quality and handling, the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 is without peer. Zooming is smooth and obedient, it is quick to focus, and it feels very solid in-hand.

This lens is in my bag, and I need to take it out and use it more, if only to keep me out of any photographic ruts.

In New Mexico in March, I partnered it with the excellent AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6, and the combination seemed to cover all bases of travel photography.

This view, made with the 10-17mm, looks almost straight up, and shows Tower Arch to the left, and the tower from which it got its name on the right. I was standing against a sheer wall behind me, so there was no room to back up.

This view, made with the 10-17mm, looks almost straight up, and shows Tower Arch to the left, and the tower from which it got its name on the right. I was standing against a sheer wall behind me, so there was no room to back up.

Scott uses my Tokina fisheye to photograph one of his GoPro cameras. Scott loves the fisheye look.

Scott uses my Tokina fisheye to photograph one of his GoPro cameras. Scott loves the fisheye look.

In a vis-a-vis comparison between the Tokina and the Nikkor, the Nikkor probably has an edge in image quality due to some annoying color fringing with the Tokina, but that advantage is quickly negated by the Tokina’s price and versatility. It is possible to mitigate the color fringing to some degree using software.

A couple of years ago, Scott borrowed Robert‘s 10.5mm and liked it so much that it took Robert a year to get it back from him.

This is a comparison view shot from my front porch. The top image is a regular 12mm lens; the bottom image is the 10-17mm fisheye set to about 15mm. Since the horizon passes through the center of the image, no distortion correction was required for the fisheye view.

This is a comparison view shot from my front porch. The top image is a regular 12mm lens; the bottom image is the 10-17mm fisheye set to about 15mm. Since the horizon passes through the center of the image, no distortion correction was required for the fisheye view.

My recommendation about a lens like this is unambiguous: you know who you are. If you want a fisheye, get one. A lens like this is entertaining to use, but is a formidable challenge to get genuinely compelling images. It takes a lot of practice, but in the right hands, it can deliver.

I made this image in 2012 at Waterholes Canyon near Page, Arizona, and I find the lines and curves very satisfying.

I made this image in 2012 at Waterholes Canyon near Page, Arizona, and I find the lines and curves very satisfying.

Coming Soon to an America Near You

By , June 10, 2014 10:43 pm
Adans watch fireworks from the banks of Wintersmith Lake.

Adans watch fireworks from the banks of Wintersmith Lake.

I’ve been shooting various Independence Day celebrations for my entire career. Our community, Ada, Oklahoma, has a big day-long party in Wintersmith Park. It starts at 7 am with the Fireball Classic 5k/10k run, and ends 14 hours later with a fireworks display over the lake in the park. Many Adans set up tents and make a day out of it.

One slightly vexing problem for a lot of would-be photographers is the formula for photographing fireworks. Complicating matters is that many of today’s cameras have a not-very-effective “fireworks” mode on the exposure mode dial.

Three floral shells burst in the sky above Ada's Wintersmith Park.

Three floral shells burst in the sky above Ada’s Wintersmith Park.

But I’m here to make it easy. You need…

A lens that focuses "beyond infinity" sounds theatrical and impossible, but some are actually made this way because of differential expansion of some of the specialized glass elements inside.

A lens that focuses “beyond infinity” sounds theatrical and impossible, but some are actually made this way because of differential expansion of some of the specialized glass elements inside.

  • A rock-solid tripod
  • A digital SLR or other camera with the ability to make manual exposures for up to 30-seconds.
  • A lens, probably a zoom, that can be focused manually and has either a focus distance scale or a hard stop at the infinity setting (some lenses focus beyond infinity, which is a place for another, more philosophical discussion.)
  • A spot about as close as you can get to the source of the fireworks.
Independence Day is more than just the fireworks show at the end of the day; have fun making pictures of the Americana.

Independence Day is more than just the fireworks show at the end of the day; have fun making pictures of the Americana.

Find your spot early enough that you don’t have people sit or stand in front of you. On top of a wall or at the edge of water might work. With the camera on the tripod, focus to infinity. Make your shutter speed “B” or “Bulb,” which allows the shutter to stay open as long as you hold the shutter release down. Make your ISO about 200, and your aperture somewhere around f/11.

Be ready to tweak these settings if they don’t give you what you want.

As the fireworks show starts, watch the floral shells lift into the air. Anticipate when they will burst, and try to open the shutter just before they do. Hold the shutter open as more shells burst. The longer you hold the shutter open, the more bursts will accumulate on the image. I find that two or three is enough, but your taste may vary.

Be aware that longer shutter speeds also accumulate more smoke and haze that is illuminated by the fireworks themselves.

There are other tricks of the trade. Some shooters will bring a black card (or a black hat or other black object), open the shutter, then move the card out of the way during the period of the motion of the fireworks that he wants to capture, then covering the lens again and waiting for the next chance to add to the image.

The true essence of photographing fireworks is to let your creative self have fun, both in the process and at the destination.

Fireworks are extremely satisfying to photograph because there is no "correct" image, and they have the potential to dazzle the eye.

Fireworks are extremely satisfying to photograph because there is no “correct” image, and they have the potential to dazzle the eye.

Color Spaces and Color Pallets

By , June 9, 2014 2:17 pm
This image of my wife Abby isn't about numbers and charts; it is about a beautiful moment with a beautiful woman.

This image of my wife Abby isn’t about numbers and charts; it is about a beautiful moment with a beautiful woman.

A friend was playing around with the menu settings of my Nikon D7100 not long ago, and asked me, “Now, why would you have it set to sRGB?”

sRGB, for those of you who don’t know, is a color space, which is a way various devices, from cameras to computers to printers to the internet, describe color to each other.

I told my friend that I picked it because I felt it would be more compatible with different devices and operating systems, but the truth, of course, is that color space, for almost all of us, is irrelevant.

You can search for a color space chart on the internet. It is a chart with some numbers on it. Like a lot of the world of cameras and other fetish properties, it is a good way to distract yourself from actually taking pictures.

I’m not saying there is no reason to select one color space or another. I am saying that almost no one except the highest level professional, studio, huge-agency photographers, who need to be able to manage the minutia of color at every step of the process, every day, for high-dollar clients, needs to worry about color space at all. sRGB contains all the color information you and I will ever need.

If you’re a computer geek and think you can prove me wrong with numbers, I can prove you wrong with a spectacular portfolio, online, published, and printed.

If you are worried about color space, you’re not taking enough pictures. The only color that really matters is what you see in the world. Perception of color is human and organic, and isn’t about numbers or charts; it is about vision.

If you look at this image and wonder if it was shot in Adobe color space or sRGB, the answer is simple: it was shot in the morning.

If you look at this image and wonder if it was shot in Adobe color space or sRGB, the answer is simple: it was shot in the morning.

Cleaning Your Gear

By , May 22, 2014 1:40 pm
In the real world of photography, lens hoods are the first line of defense against filth and damage.

In the real world of photography, lens hoods are the first line of defense against filth and damage.

I got a text from a buddy of mine asking for the best method for cleaning the surface of his lens. He said there were a “couple of water droplet stains” on the front surface, though he didn’t say if it was on the front element of the lens itself or a filter on the lens.

First things first. In the photography world we have a cute little maxim: it is better to keep your lens clean than to keep cleaning your lens.

This principle is meant for photographers working in the field day after day, not equipment fetishists who take the gear out of aluminum cases once every three months to look upon it like treasure, and its meaning is pretty plain: use a hood and a filter, and keep your fingers off the optical surfaces. That’s all.

Be aware that the number one way to put schmear on the front of your lens is by removing and replacing lens caps. I don’t even own a lens cap.

You can take my word for it. I shoot every day, often in trying weather condition of blowing dust, rain, snow, heat and cold, and I might clean my lens surfaces four times a year. They stay pretty clean.

Some items I seldom use and don't recommend: film  cleaner, lens cleaning fluid, anti-static brush, and cleaning cloth. These items are almost always outclassed by some canned air and my shirt tail.

Some items I seldom use and don’t recommend: film cleaner, lens cleaning fluid, anti-static brush, and cleaning cloth. These items are almost always outclassed by some canned air and my shirt tail.

There’s the rub, really. If you guard your gear like a virgin and have to have it spotless and gleaming, your priority probably isn’t photography. A little bit of dust, dirt, rain spots, even scratches, seldom effect the quality of your images.

On those rare occasions when I do clean my gear, I keep it simple and use…

  • Canned air on all the surfaces to remove dust.
  • A toothbrush to remove dirt in the hard-to-reach areas where canned air doesn’t work.
  • Q-Tips for glass surfaces like viewfinder eyepieces, LCD displays and monitors.
  • Clean, soft-weave cotton (like a t-shirt) for optical surfaces. If needed, I will breathe on them to create a small amount of solvent (pure water).
  • Kodak Lens Cleaner, used in very tiny amounts, is reserved for the most stubborn filth on a lens, which is almost never.

Since the inception of digital photography in 1999, a recurring problem has been the accumulation of dust on the imaging sensor. In recent years, camera makers have installed sonic “shakers” on the front surface of the sensor to remove dust, which is usually collected by a piece of sticky tape at the bottom of the sensor box. Only some of my cameras have this feature, and none of the cameras I use at work have it. Cleaning the imaging sensor follows the same principles as cleaning the lens surfaces…

  • Be gentle. The sensor is more delicate than optical surfaces.
  • I use canned air and it’s never been a problem, probably because I’ve been handling canned air for my entire career. The trick is to keep the can perfectly upright and use short bursts of air.
  • I don’t use anything that requires me to actually touch the surface of the sensor. If it’s really that dirty, it needs professional help.

After working in the rain, it’s temping to think your prized photographic possessions will be ruined by water getting inside. I’ve worked many situations in rain, blowing rain, snow, and even getting accidentally sprayed with water by firefighters.

  • Instead of plastic bags and duct tape around my gear, I have better results with keeping cameras under my rain poncho and only bringing them out to shoot.
  • I keep a small towel or wash cloth with me and wipe off rain as it accumulates.
  • Back at home or at the office, if my gear has really gotten soaked, I simply use a blow dryer set on medium to drive out any residual water.

The bottom line for any of this is to recognize that there is a big difference between “field clean” and “showroom clean,” and a little bit of dust, dirt, rain spots, and fingerprints are part of the life for anyone who actually takes pictures, and as a rule, they don’t ruin our images.

This is the mount of my 20-year-old AF Nikkor 85mm. If you are worried about buying used equipment that is in "mint" condition, if you clean your gear obsessively, if you concern yourself with removing every speck of dust from a lens, or if you think that wear marks on cameras "lower their value," perhaps photography isn't for you.

This is the mount of my 20-year-old AF Nikkor 85mm. If you are worried about buying used equipment that is in “mint” condition, if you clean your gear obsessively, if you concern yourself with removing every speck of dust from a lens, or if you think that wear marks on cameras “lower their value,” perhaps photography isn’t for you.

Smart Phone Photography: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By , May 5, 2014 3:22 pm
The maple tree in the front yard filters the sun on a warm spring day; the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8, with its seven straight aperture blades, delivers a bright, clear, dazzling sunstar to help express the moment.

The maple tree in the front yard filters the sun on a warm spring day; the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8, with its seven straight aperture blades, delivers a bright, clear, dazzling sunstar to help express the moment.

This is the same scene as the image above it, but shot with my iPhone 5. Note that the sun overwhelmed the image sensor and the lens, leading to the sun being a bright blob surrounded by an odd cluster of pink flare.

This is the same scene as the image above it, but shot with my iPhone 5. Note that the sun overwhelmed the image sensor and the lens, leading to the sun being a bright blob surrounded by an odd cluster of pink flare.

Smart phone photography, taking pictures with the camera built into a modern multipurpose cellular telephone, is here to stay. Even the most “old school” among us has come to appreciate that the cameras in our phones can replace the point-and-shoot cameras we once toted around, at least in some cases.

The good…

This is a super-macro image of the camera and LED light on my iPhone 5. The lens is about the size of a match head. Despite using a Q-Tip and some canned air, this was about as clean as I could get it.

This is a super-macro image of the camera and LED light on my iPhone 5. The lens is about the size of a match head. Despite using a Q-Tip and some canned air, this was about as clean as I could get it.

  • Smart phones are always with us
  • Smart phones in 2014 are fully integrated with social media like Flickr, SmugMug, and Shutterfly
  • Smart phones are less conspicuous, allowing a certain level of intimacy and candidness

The bad…

  • Smart phone photography tends toward mundanity and silliness, such as…
  • The smart phone scene is rife with trends like Instagram filters and hold-away selfies
  • Shooting with a smart phone leads the photographer take his craft less seriously and subjects take him less seriously
  • Smart phones, like very small point-and-shoot cameras, are easy to lose and easy to steal

The ugly…

  • Tiny image sensor plus tiny lens equals diminished image quality on several levels, such as the lack of selective focus and high-ISO noise
  • Social media integration means images are always in JPEG format instead of RAW
  • The tiny lenses collect tiny dust, which can interfere with image quality
  • So far, anyway, there are no interchangeable lens smart phones, meaning you are stuck with the characteristics of a single, compromise lens

The really ugly…

An odd take on convenience photography, the iPad photographer.

An odd take on convenience photography, the iPad photographer.

  • Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off their entire photography department, 24 photographers in favor of training their reporters to take pictures with smart phone. No one, not even the managers who did that, believes that smart phones can, on any level, replace bigger, better cameras and, more importantly, real, full-time professional photographers.

The trump card of the cell phone camera is decidedly its convenience, not its quality. As a result, that’s when I use them, when quality takes a back seat to handiness. If that sounds like a microcosm of western life, it is. Thus is the struggle of the artist, to guard against shallowness and sacrificing our vision because of convenience.

I’m not a futurist, and I could be completely off base about this, but I believe that smart phone photography can coexist within the rest of the art.  It would be a conceit to imagine that those of us who consider ourselves artists are above the clutter of commerce, so it might be a smarter play for photographers to see their art, along with their lives and careers, in balance.

Another potentially maddening thing about embracing technology like this is that in two or three years, it will seem antiquated, as more and more impressive devices appear. That can be something of an impairment to creativity, since it is easy to fall into a downward tech spiral, instead of an upward creative curve. The solution to this curse it to stay on task: creative photography.

A nice family recently hired me to make senior pictures of their son and group photos of the whole family. I feel certain I could not, despite all my experience, have come up with images like this if I was shooting with a smart phone camera.

A nice family recently hired me to make senior pictures of their son and group photos of the whole family. I feel certain I could not, despite all my experience, have come up with images like this if I was shooting with a smart phone camera.

Face Off: Nikkor 18-55mm vs Nikkor 18-70mm

comments Comments Off
By , April 25, 2014 1:07 pm
The 18-55mm vs the 18-70mm

The 18-55mm vs the 18-70mm

I was poking around on kenrockwell.com the other day. Rockwell is equally liked and despised by the web community. Some cite him as example, while other tag him with appellations like Krockwell. I know he likes it that way, or he would be less inclined to contradict himself from one article to the next. Despite his inclination to be dramatic, he knows some stuff.

I was looking at his lens reviews when I came across one for a lens with which I have rather a lot of experience, the AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G. I’ve had one of these in my pro bag for several months after the Nikon D70, which was in use by our reporters, died. I use this lens in a very general role, as my standard wide angle, and find that most of what I shoot with it is at the 18mm setting.

from KenRockwell.com
This is a serious lens, not a “kit lens” or a cheap replacement for a lens cap sold as part of a kit as with most other cameras. The fast f/3.5~4.5 speed should be your clue; the cheapies are all f/3.5~5.6. The 18-55 is a cheapie, but good.

The “cheapie” he mentions, the 18-55mm, is the lens I see most – by a lot – in the field and in my classes. Nikon, Canon and others have made this lens the more-or-less universal normal lens for digital, and with good reason: it is cheap, lightweight, and mostly easy to use. While it is true that for the cost and weight, it’s a good lens, it’s got a couple of big drawbacks…

  • It has almost no focus ring for manual focus. You have to grip a sliver at the front of the lens, which is hard to find unless you stop and look for it.
  • At 55mm, it’s maximum aperture is f/5.6, which is not only limiting when shooting in low light, it makes for a very dark viewfinder.
  • It looks stupid and/or amateurish. I know this last one is pure vanity, but I own the fact that I like to look like I know what I’m doing.

The 18-70mm, on the other hand, has an actual focusing ring, is at about f/4 at the 55mm setting, and, by virtue of its bigger filter and hood, looks like a real lens.

R. E. used this lens on a hiking trip we took three years ago, and liked the results.

Both lenses are decently sharp, but I give the edge to the 18-70mm, which is sharp at all focal lengths and all apertures. This lens is hovering in the $125 range on Ebay as I write this. If you’ve already got an 18-55mm, keep shooting with it, but if you are in need of something in this range and see a bargain on the 18-70mm, grab it. It’s a good piece of glass.

Either of these lenses do the job, but in my experience, the 18-70mm has the edge.

Either of these lenses do the job, but in my experience, the 18-70mm has the edge.

 

Stepping Up with Stepping Rings

By , April 12, 2014 6:27 pm
Just for fun, I stacked as many of these new stepping rings together as I could. It's a pretty funny way to get a 72mm filter on a lens with a 52mm thread, but it works.

Just for fun, I stacked as many of these new stepping rings together as I could. It’s a pretty funny way to get a 72mm filter on a lens with a 52mm thread, but it works.

When I got ahold of the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm recently, I discovered it took 72mm filters. Great, I though, my 77mm polarizer won’t fit on it. In fact, I had a number of polarizers sitting around (49mm, 52mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, and 77mm), none of which fit the new lens.

I found a cheap 72mm polarizer, but decided to stop the madness and not buy any more polarizers. I poked around on Amazon.com and bought a set of stepping rings, which are also called step-up rings.

The set of seven was only $15, and included incremental sizes from 49mm to 77mm. I might have to stack more than one stepping ring, but I will now be able to get a polarizer on any lens I own.

When I got this set of stepping rings in the mail the other day, they were in an envelope with a single bulge in the middle, so I had no idea what they were. It turns out they were all screwed together.

When I got this set of stepping rings in the mail the other day, they were in an envelope with a single bulge in the middle, so I had no idea what they were. It turns out they were all screwed together.

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