How to Process Film

Some film is destined for greatness. Some is destined for the trash heap, but not without first being photographed.
Some film is destined for greatness. Some is destined for the trash heap, but not without first being photographed.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine asked if I would consider writing about how to process your own film at home. I told her it was easier than she imagined.

In the business, processing film is called “souping,” and you “soup” film, and say, “it’s in the soup.”

To process your own film, black-and-white or color, you need…

• The film itself. This is becoming a scarce commodity, and freshly-manufactured film is getting very expensive.

• A darkroom or a dark bag, sometimes called a film changing bag. This is essentially a place to transfer your exposed film, in total darkness, onto a spiral reel (in the case of roll film) or a film holder (in the case of sheet film) before immersing your film in developer.

• Reels or holders, tanks, and a way to wash the film in running water. There are two kinds of reels: stainless steel reels, which are harder to use but easier to keep clean, and plastic reels, which are easier to use but tend to accumulate developer stains that are hard to remove and potentially contaminate the process.

• Chemicals. This item tends to be the most intimidating for beginners, since it can seem like alchemy or magic, but it’s not. Photographic chemicals require careful handling, but if you can read and understand basic instructions, using them isn’t any more difficult than making cookies.

• Black-and-white darkroom chemistry is the simplest, since it requires only a few steps, and is usually done at room temperature. The chemicals include developer, stop bath, fixer, and water for washing, and in our hard-water environment, a wetting agent like Kodak’s Photo-Flo.

• Color negative processing, called C-41, can seem more intimidating, but the number of steps for color negatives is the same. The main issue with color is the need to tightly control temperature, usually at approximately 100ºF. When I processed color all the time, my processing tanks sat in a bigger tank full of water with a temperature control unit in it, which automatically kept everything at 100º. The chemicals include developer, blix (a combinations of bleach and fixer) and stabilizer. Processing color slides can be more daunting because there are more steps (around 12, depending on who you ask), but the principals all remain the same.

• Putting film onto developing reels might be the hardest part of the process. You can practice using an exposed roll of film with the lights on, then practice with the lights off. Despite this, many photographers new to film will experience difficulty with this.

• Once your film is wound onto the developing reels, it should be placed, in total darkness, in the developer. Most film processing tanks have traps at the top that allow you to pour chemicals into and out of them while maintaining a seal against light. One way to work this is to place the film on the reel, put the reel in the tank, then pour developer in through the trap.

• Follow the instructions that came with your film or chemicals, or you can find good time and temperature recommendations here (link).

• After thoroughly washing your film, you’ll need a way to dry it. If you don’t have a dedicated film dryer, you can use a blow dryer on a medium setting, but be careful not to stir up too much dust. It will cling to the film and be difficult to remove later.

A note about chemicals: in my decades of processing film in various shared darkrooms, I can tell you that many people don’t realize how easy it is to contaminate chemicals with everything from other chemicals to food. Many people don’t seem to understand that clear liquids in photography might not be water. They get it on their fingers and transfer it to other containers or onto film, never with good results.

Over the years I experimented with all kinds of combinations of film and chemicals. Some of my favorite black-and-white films were Kodak Verichrome Pan Film (which was discontinued decades ago) and Ilford FP4. My favorite developers for black-and-white were Kodak HC-110 and Kodak D-76, and I had a soft spot in my heart for a fine-grained developer called Microdol-X.

Finally, I am of the opinion that if you scan your photographic negatives once you have them processed, they become digital photographs, somewhat rendering the idea of using film in the first place a moot point. If you really want to remain true to the roots of film photography, the final step almost has to be printing your images with an enlarger.

Increasingly rare and expensive, these rolls of Kodak color print film are currently out of a job, at least in my tool box, since I no longer have my own darkroom.
Increasingly rare and expensive, these rolls of Kodak color print film are currently out of a job, at least in my tool box, since I no longer have my own darkroom.

 

 

Review: Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5

As I promised in my last entry, here are quick reviews of the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and the Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5.

The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 sit back-to-back. They are among the smallest lenses in this class. The 50mm is known as a "pancake" lens because it's so flat.
The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 sit back-to-back. They are among the smallest lenses in this class. The 50mm is known as a “pancake” lens because it’s so flat.

One thing I have heard and sometimes even said is that there are no “bad” large-aperture 50mm lenses, but I can think of two: my original Nikkor 50mm f/1.2, and the lens in this review, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 “pancake” lens of 1984 vintage.

The 50mm f/1.2 seemed like a dream lens when I bought it. It was magnificently made and finished, and commanded respect on the front of my cameras. The only problem with it: it was absolutely unusable unless you stopped it down to f/2.0. The problem with that is that I didn’t pay $300 (in 1983) for an f/1.2 lens just to shoot it at f/2.0. I already owned a 50mm that was sharp at f/2.0, and it did so weighing less than half, and costing a third as much.

This is Summer the Chihuahua shot with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 at f/1.8. It is adequately sharp, but contrast is low, and the image is a bit lifeless.
This is Summer the Chihuahua shot with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 at f/1.8. It is adequately sharp, but contrast is low, and the image is a bit lifeless.

Within a few years, I sold the f/1.2 to a collector, where that lens belonged.

Hawken the Irish Wolfhound had a roll in the grass right before I shot this, so he looks a little rough. The selective focus ability of the 50mm, though, is evident.
Hawken the Irish Wolfhound had a roll in the grass right before I shot this, so he looks a little rough. The selective focus ability of the 50mm, though, is evident.

In my days, I have owned nearly a dozen 50mm lenses, from the Nikkor-S Auto 50mm f/1.4 of late 1960s vintage to the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G of today, which I use all the time. A good example of work from this lens can be seen in some night work I did on The Plaza at Santa Fe at the end of our 2019 anniversary vacation, The Winding Road (link).

One nice thing about older 50mm lenses is that shot wide open, they flare and ghost like old movies or dreams, an effect I love having in my kit.
One nice thing about older 50mm lenses is that shot wide open, they flare and ghost like old movies or dreams, an effect I love having in my kit.

The 50mm focal length on small sensors like 36x24mm or APS-C is something of a double-edged sword: it can create compelling images with a sense of intimacy, but it can also end up creating boring perspectives. As a news photographer, I have to make a point to get out this focal length, and make a point to push it to the edges to get interesting images.

I shot this frame of Abby's owl yard ornament expressly to analyze the 50mm's bokeh, which I would call average.
I shot this frame of Abby’s owl yard ornament expressly to analyze the 50mm’s bokeh, which I would call average.

But back to what I said about this 50mm being one of just two “bad” 50mm lenses. I can’t give this lens high marks on anything, because any of my 50mm lenses, including the other Nikkor lenses, and my Fujinon 50mm f/2.2 of 1978 vintage and my Pentax 50mm f/1.4 lenses easily outperform it; sharper, closer focus, better handling, better build. The only 50mm I own that disappoints as much as the pancake lens is a Canon 50mm f/1.8 from the FD era.

A very tiny spider floats in a sea of flare at sunset on our property recently. Shot with the 50mm f/1.8, images like this might be the one thing that this lens does right.
A very tiny spider floats in a sea of flare at sunset on our property recently. Shot with the 50mm f/1.8, images like this might be the one thing that this lens does right.

The 35-70mm is really just a 50mm with the convenience of a little bit of zoom. Honestly, I can make a 50mm work better than a 35-70mm for almost everything, and it is lighter and brighter than any zoom. I know there are many photographers, including the super-talented R. E. Stinson, who love the 35-70mm (though Robert loves the f/2.8 version), but when I shoot with them, they are just teasing me with focal lengths just out of their reach, like 24mm or 105mm.

It's easy to criticize cheap lenses by saying that they aren't sharp, but honestly, I don't ask as much of these lenses, and when I do, like in this image at 35mm at f/3.3, I am happy enough with the result.
It’s easy to criticize cheap lenses by saying that they aren’t sharp, but honestly, I don’t ask as much of these lenses, and when I do, like in this image at 35mm at f/3.3, I am happy enough with the result.

Ken Rockwell has nothing but bad things to say about the 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, but in the evening I spent with it, I found nothing  to support the idea that it is, “a cheap and crappy lens. This lens simply isn’t very sharp.”

Also from his web site: “Sharpness is the most overrated aspect of lens performance. Lens sharpness seems like it ought to be related to making sharp photos, but it isn’t.” So, meh.

Shot with the 35-70mm at 35mm, stopped down to f/8, the image is sharp, but the bokeh is predictably ratty and cluttered.
Shot with the 35-70mm at 35mm, stopped down to f/8, the image is sharp, but the bokeh is predictably ratty and cluttered.

This particular 35-70mm is slightly broken: if you push the zoom or focus ring forward away from the camera, a gap shows up that isn’t supposed to. When I shot with it, I made sure to pull back slightly to keep that from happening.

So I was able to get sharp images with it, and I was able to create compelling compositions, but I ran into the same problem as before; it’s not a fast 50, and it’s not wide enough or long enough.

If someone gives you one of these (someone did give me this one), take it and fool around with it, but don’t pay more than a dollar for it at a garage sale.

The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 is a good-looking lens, and is well-made.
The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 is a good-looking lens, and is well-made.

A Look Back: The Nikon FG-20

I received an unusual gift recently from my friends at People’s Electric Cooperative: a Nikon FG-20 film camera, with three lenses, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, a Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, and a Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5.

The Nikon FG-20 is shown with a Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 "kit lens" mounted on it.
The Nikon FG-20 is shown with a Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 “kit lens” mounted on it.

The camera had been used by PEC during the film era, often by a good friend of mine, Karen Hudson.

The aperture ring of the FG-20 has a green A and a green "beep" symbol, which makes the camera beep if the shutter speed is slower than 1/30th or faster than 1/1000th. The silver button on the upper left is the push-to-unlock button for the A setting.
The aperture ring of the FG-20 has a green A and a green “beep” symbol, which makes the camera beep if the shutter speed is slower than 1/30th or faster than 1/1000th. The silver button on the upper left is the push-to-unlock button for the A setting.
Unlike modern digital cameras that allow you to change the ISO one frame to the next, this ISO dial is set to match the film you put in the camera. Since the FG-20 doesn't have an exposure compensation dial, one way to change automatic exposure is to intentionally mis-set the ISO dial to fool the camera into over- or under- exposing a frame.
Unlike modern digital cameras that allow you to change the ISO one frame to the next, this ISO dial is set to match the film you put in the camera. Since the FG-20 doesn’t have an exposure compensation dial, one way to change automatic exposure is to intentionally mis-set the ISO dial to fool the camera into over- or under- exposing a frame.

This camera was stored in a cool, dry environment, and is in excellent condition. I happened to have the right batteries for it, and all of its functions work perfectly.

It’s very flattering that people in our community think of me in these situations. The person who gave it to me asked if I would like to have it as a teaching tool, which was right on the money.

The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 sit face-to-face. These lenses were regarded as affordable in their day, but are built to mechanical standards almost unheard of in 2021.
The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 sit face-to-face. These lenses were regarded as affordable in their day, but are built to mechanical standards almost unheard of in 2021.
This Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5 is surprisingly compact, and feels quite heavy for its size. The push-pull zoom is smooth, and the focus throw is very short.
This Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5 is surprisingly compact, and feels quite heavy for its size. The push-pull zoom is smooth, and the focus throw is very short.

The FG-20 was introduced in 1984 during the crest of the film era. At the time, it was meant to be a cheap, lightweight alternative to Nikon’s heavier, higher-end cameras, but as photography evolved, cameras in general got cheaper and, especially, more-plasticky as manufacturers discovered they could charge photographers more for less as they accepted plastic into their lives.

I took the Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5 to an assignment recently, and while f/8 at 1/1000 doesn't exactly challenge a lens, it did deliver workable images.
I took the Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5 to an assignment recently, and while f/8 at 1/1000 doesn’t exactly challenge a lens, it did deliver workable images.

Thus, the FG-20 is built to fairly high standards when compared to many of today’s digital cameras targeting the same market.

Since I bought film in bulk through my newspaper, I never saw this: Fuji color print film that specifically mentions returning to Wal-Mart for processing.
Since I bought film in bulk through my newspaper, I never saw this: Fuji color print film that specifically mentions returning to Wal-Mart for processing.

I don’t have any intention of shooting film, since I don’t have a darkroom any more, but I will be able to bring this camera to my students and talk about the history of photography with a working example of the kind of camera I used in the early years of my career.

Watch this space for reviews of these lenses coming soon!

The Nikon FG-20 is shown with the 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor, the 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Nikkor, and the Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5.
The Nikon FG-20 is shown with the 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor, the 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Nikkor, and the Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5.

Spherochromatism

Here’s an example of spherochromatism, a type of chromatic aberration that is common to large-aperture lenses in the telephoto range, and is more obvious when focusing closely. This aberration is manifested by unwanted color on either side of the focal plane, usually magenta in the region closer to the lens, and green beyond the focus point. It is more obvious in images like this one…

Spherochromatism, a type of chromatic aberration, showed up rather brilliantly in this image of steam condensation I shot yesterday with my Tokina 100mm f/2.8.
Spherochromatism, a type of chromatic aberration, showed up rather brilliantly in this image of steam condensation I shot yesterday with my Tokina 100mm f/2.8.

Much of the time, images are colorful enough or complex enough visually to hide this aberration, but this image from yesterday’s pinto bean pot made it glaringly obvious.

Options? I could run the image through Photoshop or Lightroom and try the “Defringe” and/or “Remove Chromatic Aberration” features, but I tired that with this image, and it wasn’t very effective. I could grayscale the image, since color wasn’t a key aspect of this image.

As you can see, if a black-and-white rendering still expresses the scene, grayscaling works fine.
As you can see, if a black-and-white rendering still expresses the scene, grayscaling works fine.

Spherochromatism isn’t a huge problem, but it’s worth knowing about, and this example of it is quite striking.

A Passel? A Cluster? A Stockpile?

Sometimes it's just fun to buy cheap stuff on Ebay.
Sometimes it’s just fun to buy cheap stuff on Ebay.

My readers have long known that I like lenses for more reasons than their use to make photographs. I think lenses are beautiful, interesting objects with an artistic appeal all their own.

I can be forgiven, then, for recently buying a big box of 11 Canon FD lenses, with a few other brands in the FD mount, marked “untested” from an Ebay seller. It cost next to nothing.

Canon’s FD lenses were discontinued in the late 1980s when Canon adopted their new EOS lenses, mainly in pursuit of better, faster autofocus technology. Some Canon shooters were understandably angry about it at the time, but they mostly got over it.

FD lenses were well-made, crafted of steel and brass, which is a level of craftsmanship I often wish would return.

During that era, my photographer friends and I were lens snobs, and thought, not always incorrectly, that Nikon’s Nikkor lenses were the only glass good enough to shoot.

To actually use these lenses, I bought a cheap adaptor that allows then to be mounted on my Fuji mirrorless camera.

As I thought about this large group of lenses, I considered the collective noun nomenclature for large groups of animals; for example, an unkindness of ravens or a sleuth of bears or a rabble of bees. (You can look those up if you don’t believe me.) So what is a large collection of lenses using this naming system? A flare of lenses? A blinding of glass? A shine of focus? It’s fun to ponder.

This is a snapshot of photography from a bygone era. Do I miss it? No, not really, but it's still fun to revisit.
This is a snapshot of photography from a bygone era. Do I miss it? No, not really, but it’s still fun to revisit.

The Fujifilm X100V

I recently had the opportunity to make a few photographs with an unusual camera: the Fujifilm X100V.

The Fujifilm X100V is a handsome, capable camera.
The Fujifilm X100V is a handsome, capable camera.

In a photographic world dominated by digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras and the ever-growing mirrorless camera genre, Fuji has managed to help fill a void left by the disappearance of film and compact cameras.

Fuji refers to this line of cameras as “Premium Compact,” but the X100V is actually larger than my own Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera, and it weighs more.

I placed my Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera back-to-back with the Fujifilm X100V. As you can see, the camera body of the X-T10 is smaller, but after adding an lens adapter and a lens in the same class as the 23mm on the X100V, the two cameras are laid out quite differently.
I placed my Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera back-to-back with the Fujifilm X100V. As you can see, the camera body of the X-T10 is smaller, but after adding an lens adapter and a lens in the same class as the 23mm on the X100V, the two cameras are laid out quite differently.

The photography press is absolutely falling over itself to praise this camera, and I am starting to understand why. Some of the things this camera does really well…

  • Film simulation modes, including black-and-white filter modes that produce images like we used to get using red, green, or yellow filters with black-and-white film.
  • Manual everything; you can shoot in full auto mode, or manually control any and all functions, thanks to knobs and dials that remind us of film cameras from years ago. You could use words like “retro” or “vintage,” but honestly, I sometimes miss feeling like a pilot when running a camera.
  • In stark contrast to the “steam gauge” dials is that you can also control the camera with a touch-screen interface. Touch-screen cameras have been trickling through the hands of my students for some time now, and they tend to make the fun and magic of making pictures into an experience not unlike working with a smartphone.
  • It is film-camera-like in many ways, and reminds me of my Fuji GS670III medium format camera, a camera I regret selling but would never use if I still had it.
  • This camera is decidedly less conspicuous than my big DSLRs.
  • The sensor in this camera has a lot of pixels, 26 million, and it can shoot fast, really fast: 11 frames per second with the mechanical shutter, and 20 frames per second with the electronic shutter. I confess that I might not shoot at full speed if I had one of these, even for sports, since I tend to compose and edit in my head before I push the shutter release, and 20 frames per second can kind of clutter that process.
  • The hybrid viewfinder is one of the more groundbreaking features of this camera. In addition to the usual monitor on the back of the camera, it has a viewfinder which can be switched from optical, like a rangefinder film camera, or electronic, like we’re used to seeing with mirrorless cameras.

Obviously, the thing that sets this camera apart from the pack is that it sports that fixed 23mm f/2.0 lens, rather than the X-mount interchangeable lenses of their mirrorless cameras.

The lens on the Fujifilm X100V is a fixed (non-interchangeable) 23mm f/2.0.
The lens on the Fujifilm X100V is a fixed (non-interchangeable) 23mm f/2.0.

If you can set aside the internet’s prattle about “crop factor” and see it for what it can do, this lens is a modest wide angle. In my film days, I had a 35mm f/2.0 Nikkor that was on my camera all the time, and Fuji’s 23mm is in this category of lenses.

Mackenzee Crosby scampers like a roadrunner across the street last week at the scene of a crash at Main and Oak. In her hands is her new Fujifilm X100V.
Mackenzee Crosby scampers like a roadrunner across the street last week at the scene of a crash at Main and Oak. In her hands is her new Fujifilm X100V.

I only got the chance to shoot a few frames with this camera, but what I got was impressive; smooth handling, great sharpness, and very pleasing bokeh.

I made a few quick images with the Fujifilm X100V last week. As you can see, up close at large aperture, bokeh is quite smooth and pleasant.
I made a few quick images with the Fujifilm X100V last week. As you can see, up close at large aperture, bokeh is quite smooth and pleasant.

That kind of brings us back to the idea of shooting with a camera that is married to one focal length. On paper, this seems like a limitation, but when you get the camera in your hands and start to shoot, it works so well. It encourages working to get the image. It makes you “zoom with your feet,” and the result seems, to me anyway, to be more intimate, more immediate, more genuine.

I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m blowing smoke at you. It really is a great way to shoot. I’ll be watching for more images from this camera. It is an exciting piece of kit.

Film photographers, especially older, more traditional ones like me, will feel right at home with the X100V's mechanical dials.
Film photographers, especially older, more traditional ones like me, will feel right at home with the X100V’s mechanical dials.

Photographs and Memories

We all cherish memories. Many of us have fairly accurate memories, while others struggle to keep dates and people and places organized in their heads.

Abby and I pose on the giant jackrabbit in Joseph City, Arizona in July 2003.
Abby and I pose on the giant jackrabbit in Joseph City, Arizona in July 2003.

I believe the very best way to preserve memories is to write down the events of your life. It can be in a journal or scrapbook, as text files on your computer (preferably then printed onto paper), or in some kind of personal web presence, like an online journal or blog, some of which, hopefully, can be marked “private.”

I also happen to think that if you let social media curate your memories, you are either dead inside, or are being played by global corporations. Think about it: social media has no idea what stirs you to tears, but it does know what you buy.

Abby holds her Nikon Coolpix 885 as she and I have a photo session in the late winter of 2004.
Abby holds her Nikon Coolpix 885 as she and I have a photo session in the late winter of 2004.

I thought about this as I was enjoying a different kind of memory visit: looking through computer folders of image files from some of those great times my friends and family had over the years.

I photograph and write about all our travels, both in my journal, and here on my web site. One I visited recently was a folder of only-lightly-edited images from the first vacation Abby and I took together in 2003, The High Road. (Click it.)

It was a great time for both of us, both as a couple and photographically.

As I searched these images, I found two instances of images I had passed over at the time, two of hers and two of mine,  that both looked like they would be interesting to stitch into panographs.

When Abby made pictures of Vermilion Cliffs in northern Arizona on U.S. 89a, she didn't realize that two images she made could be stitched into this beautiful panograph.
When Abby made pictures of Vermilion Cliffs in northern Arizona on U.S. 89a, she didn’t realize that two images she made could be stitched into this beautiful panograph.
Abby and I were driving from Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah to Page, Arizona. Dark had fallen on us as we made our wave through the winding U.S. 160 when we drove into a shaft of red light from the sun setting in Tsegi Canyon. We immediately drove through it into the dark again, but made a u-turn to make this image, a stitch of two frames from my Minolta Dimage 7i.
Abby and I were driving from Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah to Page, Arizona. Dark had fallen on us as we made our wave through the winding U.S. 160 when we drove into a shaft of red light from the sun setting in Tsegi Canyon. We immediately drove through it into the dark again, but made a u-turn to make this image, a stitch of two frames from my Minolta Dimage 7i.

Abby shot with the Nikon Coolpix 885, a tiny camera I bought two years earlier as a throw-in-a-travel bag camera. When we started dating, she adopted it, and it became hers. I shot with the Minolta Dimage 7i, which I still have to this day.

The Nikon Coolpix 885 was just the right size for Abby's slender hands. She made images with it for years until it finally died.
The Nikon Coolpix 885 was just the right size for Abby’s slender hands. She made images with it for years until it finally died.

Both cameras came from the start of the digital photography era, and though they have some significant technological limitations, we made some amazing images, and, most importantly, we made memories.

I love this humble camera, the Minolta DiMage 7i from 2002. I especially like its color rendition, and its gorgeous 14-point sunstars when shooting into the sun.
I love this humble camera, the Minolta DiMage 7i from 2002. I especially like its color rendition, and its gorgeous 14-point sunstars when shooting into the sun.

 

A Vanishing Skill: Manually Focusing a Lens

A tiger swallowtail butterfly harvests nectar from blossoms on one of my cherry trees recently.
A tiger swallowtail butterfly harvests nectar from blossoms on one of my cherry trees recently.

I possess an increasingly rare skill: being able to focus a manual-focus lens.

In today’s autofocus-saturated world, this skill is particularly hard for younger photographers to appreciate. The truth is that for the first 20 years of my career, I neither had autofocus, nor did I need it. And to this day, I have several extraordinary manual focus lenses that I can manually focus swiftly and precisely. I bring them out once in a while to keep my game and my eye fresh.

I would urge anyone getting into digital SLR or mirrorless photography to learn to manually focus. There are times when you can’t convince a camera’s autofocus system to focus where you want, and there may be times when you use non-autofocus cameras. It’s a valuable skill.

Last summer I bought a Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera specifically to breathe new life into all manner of older manual-focus lenses, and that has been very rewarding.

I recently photographed some tiger swallowtail butterflies harvesting my cherry trees. The lens I had with me was my newest acquisition, the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 AIs Nikkor of early 1980s vintage. Manual-focus zoom lenses are harder to focus than prime (non-zoom) lenses, since they tend to have smaller maximum apertures (thus, less-bright appearance in the viewfinder), and the focus throw (the amount you need to turn the focus ring) tends to be longer to accommodate different zoom settings.

Honestly, the challenge of focusing like I did in 1988 adds a layer of stress to shooting, but it also feels like the task is awaking and retraining my old skill.

Finally, my young friend Mac borrowed my blooming cherry trees for a photo shoot recently, and she shot digital and film, the film camera being an Olympus of 1980s, pre-autofocus vintage. She expressed a definite liking for the old camera and the technique required to focus it.

Mackenzee Crosby makes pictures in my orchard last week, moving freely from an autofocus digital camera to a manual focus film camera.
Mackenzee Crosby makes pictures in my orchard last week, moving freely from an autofocus digital camera to a manual focus film camera.

Another Lens for the Collection

My "new" 30-something Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 sits in my studio. I had never seen one in the field, so I think it's safe to say it was an undiscovered asset. The outward-swooping colored lines are the depth of field scale, which changes with focal length.
My “new” 30-something Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 sits in my studio. I had never seen one in the field, so I think it’s safe to say it was an undiscovered asset. The outward-swooping colored lines are the depth of field scale, which changes with focal length.

My readers know I love lenses for more than just photographic reasons. I think they are beautiful, art unto themselves, and worthy of having just because it’s fun to have them.

The trouble with a philosophy like this is that it can get pretty expensive, so I make a point to wait and wait and wait for bargains, hand-me-downs, and rough-looking but optically workable lenses.

You can label me "old school," but I find nothing shameful in appreciating craftsmanship from the past, like this superbly-made aperture ring on the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5.
You can label me “old school,” but I find nothing shameful in appreciating craftsmanship from the past, like this superbly-made aperture ring on the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5.

Sometimes I will buy a lens I don’t need or even want all that much if it’s a really great bargain. Lately I am seeing rock bottom prices on 1980s-era Nikon lenses, usually zoom lenses I never saw in the field.

Our neighbor's goats aren't as friendly as the goats Abby and I owned years ago, but they remain curious, and are very fun to photograph.
Our neighbor’s goats aren’t as friendly as the goats Abby and I owned years ago, but they remain curious, and are very fun to photograph.

An interesting paradox about these lenses is that my fellow photographers and I regarded these lenses (particularly zoom lenses) as sub-standard back then, but in the nearly 40 years since that era began, there are tons of not very good, plasticky lenses being sold as industry standard.

My most recent purchase was a mostly-unknown lens, the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 of 1983 vintage. The web seems to think it was made from 1982 to 1984. I paid $30 for it.

The Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 sits next to a 62mm filter and steel screw-in lens hood, both of which I already had as part of a large collection of photo junk.
The Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 sits next to a 62mm filter and steel screw-in lens hood, both of which I already had as part of a large collection of photo junk.
The day the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 arrived I put it to work on my Nikon D700 at a basketball game I was covering for my newspaper, and, as you can see, it delivered what I asked of it: it is decently sharp and easy to use under the stress of working in a low-light environment.
The day the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 arrived I put it to work on my Nikon D700 at a basketball game I was covering for my newspaper, and, as you can see, it delivered what I asked of it: it is decently sharp and easy to use under the stress of working in a low-light environment.

I was actually shopping for a 135mm from that period. At one time or another I actually owned three 135s, two f/3.5s and one f/2.8. They were all sharp and a pleasure to use, and I missed the focal length, despite being able to make 135mm with several zoom lenses.

Chickens are fun to photograph, both because they are interesting-looking, but also because they are easy to focus on with manual-focus lenses.
Chickens are fun to photograph, both because they are interesting-looking, but also because they are easy to focus on with manual-focus lenses.

This lens doesn’t doesn’t give me the amazing selective focus capability of a very fast prime lens like my 85mm f/1.4, since its maximum aperture is a modest f/3.5, and isn’t really quite sharp unless I stop it down to f/4.

I made this image of our neighbor Mike holding a turkey egg and a guinea egg from his birds using the 50-135mm f/3.5 at 50mm in its macro mode.
I made this image of our neighbor Mike holding a turkey egg and a guinea egg from his birds using the 50-135mm f/3.5 at 50mm in its macro mode.

Some highlights…

  • It is a push-pull zoom, meaning you push the zoom/focus ring forward toward 50mm, and back toward 135mm. You turn the same ring to focus.
  • There is a macro setting; at 50mm, you can focus to two feet using an orange line on the focus scale. Calling it “macro” is stretch, since all the 50mm primes I own focus to 1.47 feet. Real macro lenses like my 60mm focus much, much closer.
  • It is well-built of brass and steel, common among lenses of that time, but quite rare today unless you are willing to pay for top-end lenses.
  • This lens was probably meant to be Nikon’s “real” offering to compete with their more consumer-focused 75-150mm f/3.5 Series E lens.
  • It is sharp, though it exhibits some of the usual pre-computer-designed aberrations like vignetting and color fringing, but those are easy to dial out while editing.
  • In early shooting, I found myself mostly starting at 135mm, but liking the fact that I could zoom a bit.
The orange line on the focusing scale indicates the portion of the focus range only covered at the 50mm setting. The orange M indicates it is a "macro" setting, but it doesn't focus as close as a real macro lens.
The orange line on the focusing scale indicates the portion of the focus range only covered at the 50mm setting. The orange M indicates it is a “macro” setting, but it doesn’t focus as close as a real macro lens.

While getting this review together, I found other reviews online that, of course, employed the “brick wall, sturdy tripod, live-view focus” test, which, honestly, reveals nothing. When I review a lens, I shoot with it, in the real world, and I get a useful, real-world result.

This large, noisy tom turkey is fun to photograph. This image, made at f/4, shows the unimpressive background selective focus capability of the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5. Additionally, the "bokeh," or the character of the out-of-focus portions of this image, is a bit cluttered.
This large, noisy tom turkey is fun to photograph. This image, made at f/4, shows the unimpressive background selective focus capability of the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5. Additionally, the “bokeh,” or the character of the out-of-focus portions of this image, is a bit cluttered.

In conclusion, this $30 lens is fun to use and makes decent images, and I am very glad I bought it.

With its zoom ring set to 85mm, the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 is pictured with one of its contemporaries, the Nikkor 85mm f/2.0.
With its zoom ring set to 85mm, the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 is pictured with one of its contemporaries, the Nikkor 85mm f/2.0.

A Little More Light Can Make a Big Difference

Miss Oklahoma Kris Gonzalez was given a send-off recently for her travels to Las Vegas to participate in the Miss for America competition. Of note in this image is the flattering light in her eyes, made possible by an electronic flash bounced into a corner of the small room over my left shoulder.
Miss Oklahoma Kris Gonzalez was given a send-off recently for her travels to Las Vegas to participate in the Miss for America competition. Of note in this image is the flattering light in her eyes, made possible by an electronic flash bounced into a corner of the small room over my left shoulder.

The basketball season just ended in our community. It was a great one, though it was full of fits and starts because of the pandemic, and it kept me busy, and shooting really well.

All the sports action I shoot is made under existing light.

A modest electronic flash that have a rotating, pivoting head like this one can give you very nice control of light in many situations.
A modest electronic flash that have a rotating, pivoting head like this one can give you very nice control of light in many situations.

When sports scale back a bit, I have more time to concentrated on feature stories and photos, and I am almost always happier with my indoor feature photos if I include some flash.

I recently worked on two such features, one about Bladesmith Logan Morris, the other about Miss Oklahoma Kris Gonzalez. I photographed both of these people indoors under institutional fluorescent light, which is everywhere, from classrooms to businesses to warehouses. It is efficient in lighting these spaces, but can be somewhat unflattering to human faces.

To help with these images, I added some electronic flash. I almost always bounce the light from the flash into a wall, ceiling, or, if I am feeling particularly ambitious, a reflector. Bounce flash allows me to control the angle of the light striking the faces, as well as the color of the light.

Sometimes I add more electronic flash units to the lighting mix with a device called a slave unit, which is able to detect a flash and fire additional flash units simultaneously.

Also of note is the rise of ever-brighter, more efficient, more portable light emitting diodes (LEDs), that may soon replace electronic flash in many situations.

Finally, the Morris story is also one of contrasting worlds: a high schooler brings a knife to a small-town school and everyone is excited and proud of him.  But imagine a similar situation at a big-city high school. A knife? Instant lockdown, call SWAT, send texts and social media posts saying to “shelter in place.”

It’s nice to know that small-town sensibility about such matters remains with us.

Bladesmith Logan Morris, a Vanoss High School Senior, is shown Thursday, March 10, 2021 at the School. Note how the sheen of the blade is enhanced by the light, an electronic flash unit bounced into a white surface above me and to my left slightly.
Bladesmith Logan Morris, a Vanoss High School Senior, is shown Thursday, March 10, 2021 at the School. Note how the sheen of the blade is enhanced by the light, an electronic flash unit bounced into a white surface above me and to my left slightly.

Fooling Around with Christmas Lights

My wife Abby has been in the hospital for a couple of days. She’s getting better, and we hope she comes home tomorrow, but in the mean time, since I can’t visit her due to the pandemic, I have been fooling around with some Christmas Lights.

An old point-and-shoot camera sits on a tripod with Christmas lights in the background. 85mm Nikkor f/2.0 at f/2.0.
An old point-and-shoot camera sits on a tripod with Christmas lights in the background. 85mm Nikkor f/2.0 at f/2.0.
Model airplane with Christmas lights in the background and airliner-shaped "bokeh kit" on the front of the lens. 50mm f/1.4 Pentax at f/1.4.
Model airplane with Christmas lights in the background and airliner-shaped “bokeh kit” on the front of the lens. 50mm f/1.4 Pentax at f/1.4.

Conflict: The Essence of Sports Photography

The Allen Lady Mustangs and the Stonewall Lady Longhorns tangle in a game last week in Stonewall. As you can see, the competition can get pretty physical.
The Allen Lady Mustangs and the Stonewall Lady Longhorns tangle in a game last week in Stonewall. As you can see, the competition can get pretty physical.

One of the core goals of sports photography is to capture the moment of conflict, which, by its very nature, is at the heart of athletic competition.

Presently, we are in the heart of the basketball season; finishing the regular season and moving into playoffs.

Capturing the moment of conflict can be elusive. Often inexperienced photographers will shoot dozens or hundreds of frames in a row trying to capture it, the so-called “spray and pray” method, but that usually results in a mess of inconsistent frames and an editing nightmare afterwards.

A better approach is to learn about the sport you are covering, and learn to anticipate when and where the action will happen. With basketball, there are a lot of places to be, but I have a lot of success watching players drive toward the basket, where the other team will try to stop them.

Games without conflict are boring. In this image, the Latta Lady Panthers and the Atoka Lady Wampus Cats tangle.
Games without conflict are boring. In this image, the Latta Lady Panthers and the Atoka Lady Wampus Cats tangle.

There are a lot of camera and lens options for photographing basketball, but in the last couple of years, I’ve been going to my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G. It’s not as versatile as a big zoom, but it’s lightweight, super sharp, and fast to focus. As I get older, the biggest selling point is its weight.

An unwritten rule in photojournalism for my entire career is that we like to have the ball in the photo somewhere. I’ve relaxed that rule somewhat in my photography, somewhat because we can use so many more photos in our newspaper than we could years ago.

I’m also all about faces and expressions, which tell the story better than anything.

Photographing sports is a lot of fun. It gets more fun when we start to get better results.

The Ada Cougars took on Durant recently. You can anticipate the moment of conflict in this image from the player’s body language and facial expressions.
The Ada Cougars took on Durant recently. You can anticipate the moment of conflict in this image from the player’s body language and facial expressions.

Monochrome Challenge: Snow

Our patch of southern Oklahoma just received more snowfall that in the last ten years combined. Our mighty Irish wolfhound Hawken couldn’t wait to romp around in it.

The mighty wolfhound looks at me as if to say, "Come on!"
The mighty wolfhound looks at me as if to say, “Come on!”
Snow clings to my pecan tree.
Snow clings to my pecan tree.
I have seen and photographed this trail over and over, but it's never looked like this.
I have seen and photographed this trail over and over, but it’s never looked like this.
Snow hangs on branches on the trail below the pond.
Snow hangs on branches on the trail below the pond.
Last night's snow was the third winter storm in our area. The first one was an ice storm.
Last night’s snow was the third winter storm in our area. The first one was an ice storm.
Last night's snow created this unusual figure on our neighbor's trailer.
Last night’s snow created this unusual figure on our neighbor’s trailer.
Snow was deep enough to completely cover my shoes.
Snow was deep enough to completely cover my shoes.
This is our front porch after the first of two snowfalls this week.
This is our front porch after the first of two snowfalls this week.

Cameras Outpacing Photographers

My friends in the sports community are always glad to see me, and this pose with the Ada Lady Cougars has become a tradition. In fact, this image was made by Ada Lady Cougars head basketball coach Christie Jennings.
My friends in the sports community are always glad to see me, and this pose with the Ada Lady Cougars has become a tradition. In fact, this image was made by Ada Lady Cougars head basketball coach Christie Jennings.

January 2021 has seen some extraordinary developments in camera technology, including the introduction of the 50 megapixel, 30-frames-per-second Sony A1, and the 102 megapixel medium format Fujifilm GFX100S.

It certainly represents interesting times in photography. Numbers like these are an answer where there wasn’t a question: photographers can rightly say they needed more pixels and higher frame rates 15 years ago, when the best cameras sported 8 to 10 megapixel sensors shooting at 5 frames per second. But today, we are adding layers and layers of overkill that most of us don’t really need.

Also of note is that if you started shooting with these hugely powerful cameras, almost immediately you would find that your computer speeds and storage space are presently inadequate. Be ready to buy a bigger, faster computer and tons of cloud storage. This is big data.

A mind-blowing comparison is that the first computer I used professionally at The Ada News would hold about eight images from one of these cameras. Eight.

A recent sales point for cameras like these is the rapidly-expanding video specifications. The most recent spec is “8K,” meaning each video frame is 8000 pixels wide. For me, especially when I see so many people consuming media on very small devices like smartphones, 8K is level after level of overkill. And I know I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: what almost all video needs more than anything else is a good script.

If someone handed one of these cameras, I would certainly give it a day in court, but I would not count on it to improve my photography, which, at this point, can only be improved by building its narrative, not by buying equipment.

All of this circles back neatly to one of the things I write on the board at the start of my Intro to Digital Photography class: “You can’t buy mastery. You have to earn it.”

Another fun tradition in recent years is posing with fellow photographer Courtney Morehead.
Another fun tradition in recent years is posing with fellow photographer Courtney Morehead.

iPhone vs Camera

I was privileged to join some of my professional photography colleagues to cover the Big 12 football championship game last month. Number of us using smartphones to cover the event? Zero.
I was privileged to join some of my professional photography colleagues to cover the Big 12 football championship game last month. Number of us using smartphones to cover the event? Zero.

A fellow photographer recently asked me if I would do a head-to-head comparison between an iPhone or iPad and the cameras I use every day as a photojournalist.

I felt this comparison to be an apples-to-lemons challenge, since, for me anyway, there are many things my iPhone does better, and many things my DSLRs do better.

A smartphone is a capable and useful tool in photography, but it is only one of many.
A smartphone is a capable and useful tool in photography, but it is only one of many.

I prefer to use my phone for video, since the video I get from it is smooth, clear, and has decent audio, while video with my DSLRs tends to require a lot more production – microphones, steadycams – than my phone does. I also love the way I can seamlessly send lightly-edited images from the field to my staff with little effort, and of course there is video streaming.

My DSLRs are better at sports, a big one for me since I cover a great sports scene at our newspaper. They are much, much better in situations in which I want to add light, like with a flash, or when I need to create selective focus by using shallow depth of field.

Finally, there is handling. This may be the veteran in me talking, but holding a big camera and lens up to my eye is infinitely more commanding in almost every photographic situation. I can compose and organize much better with a DSLR than I can holding a phone or tablet at arms length… in some ways, using a DSLR or even a film camera is making pictures, while using a phone or a tablet is like watching television.

Despite all the advances we see all the time in smartphone and tablet technology, a camera remains a better tool for photography.

This image was made with my iPhone 7 at a basketball game I was covering last night. Compare it to the next image...
This image was made with my iPhone 7 at a basketball game I was covering last night. Compare it to the next image…
...made with one of my D300S digital cameras with an older 180mm f/2.8 AF lens, standing in the same spot as in the previous image. As you can see, the comparison is almost unfair.
…made with one of my D300S digital cameras with an older 180mm f/2.8 AF lens, standing in the same spot as in the previous image. As you can see, the comparison is almost unfair.