Phonetography Phun

I found this interesting juxtaposition of a curved anthill and a red wall in downtown Ada recently, and made this image with my iPhone 7 using Instagram.
I found this interesting juxtaposition of a curved anthill and a red wall in downtown Ada recently, and made this image with my iPhone 7 using Instagram.
The iPhone 7 Plus is one of this year's models that has a dual-lens camera.
The iPhone 7 Plus is one of this year’s models that has a dual-lens camera.

As consumers and the camera industry are well aware, the most common type of photography in the world today is smartphone photography, and the most popular smartphone is the iPhone. My wife Abby and I have iPhones, and their sophisticated, convenient, built-in cameras have all but silenced our point-and-shoot cameras.

As I explore the most recent iteration of these, the iPhone 7 Plus, I am finding both its virtues and its flaws.

The iPhone is equipped with two lenses integrated with software to hopefully imitate the powerful selective focus of a large-aperture prime lens, but it has limitations and flaws, including this, a clumsy software implementation that resulted in a "gap" in the out of focus area behind the bush.
The iPhone is equipped with two lenses integrated with software to hopefully imitate the powerful selective focus of a large-aperture prime lens, but it has limitations and flaws, including this, a clumsy software implementation that resulted in a “gap” in the out of focus area behind the bush.

My favorite way to use my iPhone to make pictures is through Instagram, which includes interesting filter looks and makes sharing on social media easy. Instagram’s game changer for me, though, is its square format. It leads to me to compose images differently, since more of my photography involves choose between vertical and horizontal compositions.

The built-in LED flash built into your phone has the same drawbacks as the built-in flash on any camera: it's not ver powerful, it blinds the subject, and it produces very unnatural-looking light.
The built-in LED flash built into your phone has the same drawbacks as the built-in flash on any camera: it’s not ver powerful, it blinds the subject, and it produces very unnatural-looking light.

Some ideas that might up your phonetography game…

  • Keep your phone clean. In particular, keep that tiny lens free of fingerprints. I see tons of phone photos that are hazy and fog-like, and this is because the lens is covered in schmoogies.
  • Get closer. This has been an essential piece of my teaching for years, and it applies to phonetography as much as any other. The pixels for which you pined and paid over the years are wasted with sky above and floor below in most iPhone images.
  • Unless you are shooting square frames, pay attention to mode: portrait vs landscape. Most people hold their phone vertically out of habit, and it defines both their photographs and their videos, often inappropriately. It’s easy to turn a phone on it’s side, but too often we see horizontal scenes represented by vertical compositions.
  • Steady is better. Even the biggest phones are lightweight, so it becomes very important to hold them steady. If you don’t have a steady hand, consider a mass-based steadycam, tripod or monopod.
  • Don’t bother with the “pinch to zoom” feature. On most phones, it just crops the pixels in the same way you can when editing later.
  • Although trendy, getting a light source in your phone photos can make quite a mess, and this technique calls for more lens that the phone can muster.

All of the basic rules of photography apply to the phonetography. Keeping that in mind, the camera in your phone is another great tool in the photography toolbox.

A tiny, clear surface like the lens of your phone's camera is easy to cover with fingerprint, pocket lint, and dog saliva. Keep it clean.
A tiny, clear surface like the lens of your phone’s camera is easy to cover with fingerprint, pocket lint, and dog saliva. Keep it clean.
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More Stars, More Stripes, More Fun

Motorcyclists and police officers line up to escort runners in the 50th Annual Fireball Classic half-marathon, 10k , and 5k race Tuesday morning, July 4, 2017 in Wintersmith Park. This image was on the front page of the July 6 Ada News.
Motorcyclists and police officers line up to escort runners in the 50th Annual Fireball Classic half-marathon, 10k , and 5k race Tuesday morning, July 4, 2017 in Wintersmith Park. This image was on the front page of the July 6 Ada News.

On a couple of occasions before, I have described how much fun I have covering Ada’s Independence Day celebrations in historic Wintersmith Park. Our community goes all-out, starting with the Fireball Classic half-marathon, 10k, and 5k races (this year was the 50th), followed by kids games, then grown-up games, then fireworks at dark over Wintersmith Lake.

I dug around in the morgue and found this page, my first opportunity to cover Ada's July 4 fun, 1989. "PYAT" in the headline refers to the long-defunct group Proud Young Americans for Truth.
I dug around in the morgue and found this page, my first opportunity to cover Ada’s July 4 fun, 1989. “PYAT” in the headline refers to the long-defunct group Proud Young Americans for Truth.

Having shot this event year after year has been more than a pleasure, it’s been a privilege to offer my view of this historic family-friendly piece of Americana.

A happy coincidence of ads and free space let us use a nice package of my images in color on pages 5 and 6 Thursday. It is my hope that everyone enjoyed the images, and that they spend many years tacked to bulletin boards and stuck on refrigerator doors.
A happy coincidence of ads and free space let us use a nice package of my images in color on pages 5 and 6 Thursday. It is my hope that everyone enjoyed the images, and that they spend many years tacked to bulletin boards and stuck on refrigerator doors.
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The 2017 Solar Eclipse

I made this lunar eclipse sequence (six images placed in one frame using Adobe Photoshop) in September 2015, using my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 lens with a Nikkor 1.4x teleconverter. Even with an effective 560mm focal length, most of the frame was empty.
I made this lunar eclipse sequence (six images placed in one frame using Adobe Photoshop) in September 2015, using my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 lens with a Nikkor 1.4x teleconverter. Even with an effective 560mm focal length, most of the frame was empty.
The web is full of eclipse path maps like this one from NASA. Click it to view it larger.
The web is full of eclipse path maps like this one from NASA. Click it to view it larger.

There is a fair amount of excitement building around the first total eclipse of the sun in the United States in 72 years, on August 21, 2017. Undoubtedly, millions of people will be attempting to view and photograph it, mostly with marginal success using their smartphone cameras.

My wife Abby and I have been planning for this for some time, and expect to include my sister Nicole and her husband Tracey. Our hope is to be in our mother’s home town, Park Hills, Missouri, (known as Flat River for most of her life) on the morning of the eclipse, to stake out a spot from which to witness, and photograph, this event.

Disposable paper eclipse glasses like these are available in ten packs on sites like eBay and Amazon.
Disposable paper eclipse glasses like these are available in ten packs on sites like eBay and Amazon.

Photographing a solar eclipse is challenging. I’ve never photographed, or even seen, one, though Abby and I have photographed several lunar eclipses, and many of the same principals apply.

  • A coworker of mine has a Sigma 150-500mm and a 200-500mm Nikkor, both good starting points for photographing the upcoming color eclipse.
    A coworker of mine has a Sigma 150-500mm and a 200-500mm Nikkor, both good starting points for photographing the upcoming color eclipse.

    Firstly, as you will read on most sites about the upcoming eclipse, don’t look directly at the sun, even for a second or two, and even if it is partially eclipsed by the moon. The only time it is safe to look at it with your naked eye is during the totality, when the disk of the sun is completely covered by the moon.

  • The weather will play a huge role in viewing this event: read a forecast and try to be someplace with clear skies. Even with planning, there is a chance it might be obscured by clouds.
  • I bought some disposable eclipse glasses, and have looked directly at the sun with them on. They seem to be effective, although I don’t exactly trust them, so I won’t be staring through them at the sun for more than a second or two.
  • Though they appear large in the sky compared to stars and planets, the sun and moon actually occupy a very small area of the sky. Filling the frame with these celestial bodies requires either an astronomical telescope or a very long telephoto lens.
  • When the disk of the sun is visible, normal exposures are not effective without a neutral density filter, in these cases sometimes sold as a solar filter. These act as powerful “sunglasses,” since the photosphere (the surface of the sun) is much brighter than anything on earth.
  • When the sun is eclipsed by the moon, exposure values are hundreds of times darker than before. Camera settings can go from f/16 at 1/1000th of a second to f/4 at one, two, ten seconds or longer depending on conditions. The most interesting thing to photograph during the totality is the solar corona, which is very faint compared to the photosphere.
  • Cell phones, point-and-shoot cameras, and cameras with the ever-popular “kit lens” will be unable to fill the frame with anything useful during an eclipse, as we have see time and again during lunar eclipses.
  • A rock-solid tripod will be indispensable, particularly during totality when exposures will be long.
  • The ultimate solution to this photographic puzzle would be to use a real (and very expensive) astronomical telescope.
  • Someone recently told me the best approach of all would be to find a spot, relax, and enjoy the eclipse, then buy a photograph or enjoy all the posts on the web. That’s certainly a valid point of view, but I am a photographer, and feel like I should be shooting this, which I will very much enjoy.

There are maps and other useful information at the Eclipse 2017 web site.

Abby made this 2007 eclipse photo with her 75-300mm lens at 300mm, giving an idea of how small the sun and moon appear even with this long telephoto.
Abby made this 2007 eclipse photo with her 75-300mm lens at 300mm, giving an idea of how small the sun and moon appear even with this long telephoto.
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A Little More 50mm Magic

A quiet moment: my wife was asleep and I was doing laundry when I spotted the light being perfect on this metal lizard sculpture on one of our glass end tables. Few lenses could have rendered this image as gracefully as the 50mm f/1.4.
A quiet moment: my wife was asleep and I was doing laundry when I spotted the light being perfect on this metal lizard sculpture on one of our glass end tables. Few lenses could have rendered this image as gracefully as the 50mm f/1.4.
Regardless of the camera format you use, the 50mm lens remains easy to manufacture due to its size in human terms - not so small as to require delicate engineering, and not so large as to require lots of expensive optical glass.
Regardless of the camera format you use, the 50mm lens remains easy to manufacture due to its size in human terms – not so small as to require delicate engineering, and not so large as to require lots of expensive optical glass.

When I recommend a prime (non-zoom) lens, one of the first I encourage someone to buy is a 50mm, which is a great choice for a lot of reasons: it’s lightweight, small, affordable, and, above all, offers a large maximum aperture. In a world in which top large-aperture zoom lenses can cost $2500, it’s nice to have an option that might cost a tenth that.

It’s easy to see why such a lens would appeal for low-light sports action, kids blowing out birthday candles, and magic moments under the Christmas tree. I grab mine all the time at home, from photos of my lovely wife, our derpy dogs, or the beauty of nature on our little patch of the country.

Our black walnut tree takes on the mix of light just at sunset at our home recently. The 50mm f/1.4's excellent selective focus ability and pleasing bokeh rendered the background as a wash of soft color.
Our black walnut tree takes on the mix of light just at sunset at our home recently. The 50mm f/1.4’s excellent selective focus ability and pleasing bokeh rendered the background as a wash of soft color.
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Other Photographers and Our Egos

A passel of photographers photographs Antelope Canyon in May 2012.
A passel of photographers photographs Antelope Canyon in May 2012.

A friend of mine, who I regard as a very talented photographer, recently asked me for some advice about photographing the American West. Among her destinations was Mesa Arch, a beautiful, easy-to-reach attraction at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, which I have visited many times.

I told her that this feature is classically photographed in the morning, since the sun rises in the opening of the arch, with a beautiful canyon below and mountains in the distance. The light strikes to red wall of the canyon below and causes the underside of the feature to take on deep red hues.

Mesa Arch at Canyonlands is illuminated by handsome morning light in this 2002 image. The light bounces up from canyons below to causing the underside of the arch to take on a deep red. In the distance are the La Sal Mountains.
Mesa Arch at Canyonlands is illuminated by handsome morning light in this 2002 image. The light bounces up from canyons below to causing the underside of the arch to take on a deep red. In the distance are the La Sal Mountains.

The only drawback, I told her, is that it’s been “discovered,” so she should expect to see a large number of photographers there at sunrise.

“I really want to see Mesa Arch, but I hate the idea of a lot of photographers because I will feel inferior,” she replied.

Years ago I wrote a piece about how I can sometimes be tempted to get outside my game when I am in the presence of other professional photographers. I’m sure this is true for other professions as well, and why conferences and think tanks are useful for showing us way of doing things we might not see.

The other side of that, of course, is that we don’t want to let the herd mentality take us to what I like to call the “force op,” or forced photo opportunity, in which you let other photographers define you creatively.

I told my friend that the Grand View Point at Canyonlands is "better than the Grand Canyon," which I think it is for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are far fewer visitors.
I told my friend that the Grand View Point at Canyonlands is “better than the Grand Canyon,” which I think it is for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are far fewer visitors.

But there is a little trick that will help relieve you of the burden of feeling competitive with other photographers. Now that digital imaging has taken some of the mystery, and particularly the surprise,  out of photography, all we have to do is stand behind someone and look at their monitor to see what kinds of images they are making. Often, even most of the time, I am surprised and discouraged by how badly photographers are composing their pictures. “Why is this guy even here with his $10,000 worth of equipment,” I ask myself, “when he can’t compose his way out of a wet paper sack?”

In some ways, painters and sculptors are freer than photographers because their art starts with vision and imagination, and I admire that.
In some ways, painters and sculptors are freer than photographers because their art starts with vision and imagination, and I admire that.

Also, don’t let anyone’s equipment intimidate you, and even more importantly, don’t let them talk about their equipment to you. If they do, it will be all they talk about, and they will have nothing interesting to say about the art of photography.

Ultimately photography should be about expressing ourselves and sharing our vision of our lives and our worlds, not worrying about how we look when we’re making our images or what others might think about our equipment or skills. When it comes to comparisons, it is certainly worth looking at the work of others, but not with the purpose of copying it. I should serve as inspiration.

Everyone takes pictures now. The only genuine value in them is your vision.

Despite the traditional "best" shot of Mesa Arch being a sunrise shot, my favorite image of it so far is one I made right after sunset. Not only was the light beautiful, but there were no other photographers present, and I feel the image is unique. When you see this image, or another you admire, don't try to copy it. Ask yourself how you and your creative vision might express it.
Despite the traditional “best” shot of Mesa Arch being a sunrise shot, my favorite image of it so far is one I made right after sunset. Not only was the light beautiful, but there were no other photographers present, and I feel the image is unique. When you see this image, or another you admire, don’t try to copy it. Ask yourself how you and your creative vision might express it.
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Learning the Trade: College

Robert Stinson poses under a streetlamp on the South Oval at Oklahoma University in January 1984. We were both photographers at OU back then, and remain friends to this day. I shot it with my Nikon FM2 on a tripod, with my 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, and Plus-X Pan Film.
Robert Stinson poses under a streetlamp on the South Oval at Oklahoma University in January 1984. We were both photographers at OU back then, and remain friends to this day. I shot it with my Nikon FM2 on a tripod, with my 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, and Plus-X Pan Film.
I cheated a little to make this image of a 1984 snowball fight: I asked my sister's roommate to pose for it. I made this with my 105mm on Plus-X Pan Film.
I cheated a little to make this image of a 1984 snowball fight: I asked my sister’s roommate to pose for it. I made this with my 105mm on Plus-X Pan Film.

My young friend Mackenzee Crosby was just accepted to Oklahoma University and intends to go to journalism school. These events left me reminiscing about my own experiences at OU in the early 1980s.

My educational experiences as an instructor have reenforced what I have always believed, that education is very learner-defined, meaning that it depends very much on how motivated the student is to absorb what the instructor is offering.

College, by extension, isn’t as valuable as it could be because many people get through it just to get through it. On the occasions when I taught college, students were all over the place: lazy, excited, cynical, fun, bored, motivated, selfish, ambitious.

I will add that as the years have passed, a college degree is worth less. For a while the mantra was “you need a master’s degree,” and now it is, “you need a doctorate.”

I made this portrait of my friend Anna Maria in 1983. Shot on Kodak Panatomic-X film, ISO 32, with my 105mm. The light is a two-flash setup, one bounced off the wall to my left, and the other behind her. I thought she was beautiful in 1983, and I was not wrong.
I made this portrait of my friend Anna Maria in 1983. Shot on Kodak Panatomic-X film, ISO 32, with my 105mm. The light is a two-flash setup, one bounced off the wall to my left, and the other behind her. I thought she was beautiful in 1983, and I was not wrong.
Using a red filter and Tri-X Pan Film, this is one of my earliest "fine art" attempts.
Using a red filter and Tri-X Pan Film, this is one of my earliest “fine art” attempts.

In any case, I learned very little of my actual tradecraft from classes I took. The overwhelming majority of my skills came from my motivation to be a journalist: shooting, working in the darkroom, getting published in the yearbook and the student newspaper, and getting work from various media. I couldn’t wait until a journalism class was over so I could go do some journalism.

I made this image of a pie-in-the-face event for the Sooner Yearbook in 1984. This was the day I met Scott Andersen, who was shooting it for the Oklahoma Daily student newspaper. It was shot on Kodak Plus-X Film with my 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor.
I made this image of a pie-in-the-face event for the Sooner Yearbook in 1984. This was the day I met Scott Andersen, who was shooting it for the Oklahoma Daily student newspaper. It was shot on Kodak Plus-X Film with my 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor.
This is my official "candid" self-portrait for the colophon of the 1985 Sooner Yearbook. I am holding a Nikon FM2 with my 105mm f/2.5.
This is my official “candid” self-portrait for the colophon of the 1985 Sooner Yearbook. I am holding a Nikon FM2 with my 105mm f/2.5.

I had in mind during my college years that yearbook and magazine represented better quality than newspaper, so much of the time, I tried to get the sharpest and finest quality from my work, and preferred to sell it to glossy publications instead of dailies. Having been a newspaper intern in the summers of 1982 and 1983, I knew that newspaper photography was, as a fellow photographer said to me at the time, “meatball photography.”

I got to know several of my fellow student photographers well, but none more than Scott AndersEn and Robert Stinson, who remain close friends and respected fellow photographers to this day.

It seemed like a big deal at the time to have a sideline pass to photograph Oklahoma football.
It seemed like a big deal at the time to have a sideline pass to photograph Oklahoma football.
A young lady I was courting at the time holds my then-new Nikon FE2 with the 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor. She was a twirler for the band at rival Oklahoma State.
A young lady I was courting at the time holds my then-new Nikon FE2 with the 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor. She was a twirler for the band at rival Oklahoma State.

My film of choice was usually Kodak Tri-X rated at about ISO 250, souped in Kodak Microdol-X, using the 1:3 dilution, 75 degrees for 13 minutes, thought at the time to produce better grain and sharpness. I experimented with all kinds of products, but came back to those again and again.

I had three camera bodies, a Nikon FM, which I bought in January 1982, a Nikon FM2, which I got in 1983, and a Nikon FE2, bought in 1984 when a friend suggested it instead of another FM2. All of them had the MD-12 motor drive.

I had four lenses in my basic bag through college, a 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, a 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor, a 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor, and a 200mm f/4 Nikkor. The 105mm was my go-to favorite, since it was sharp, light, bright, and easy to use. Near the end of my college life I got a 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor.

This is the Nikon FE2 at the end of its life in 2003, right before I sold it.
This is the Nikon FE2 at the end of its life in 2003, right before I sold it.
One of my roommates, Matthew Hyubich, poses for an illustration of students falling asleep while studying, which I made for the Sooner Yearbook with my 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor.
One of my roommates, Matthew Hyubich, poses for an illustration of students falling asleep while studying, which I made for the Sooner Yearbook with my 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor.

I used the darkroom in Copeland Hall, which was shared by newspaper and yearbook students, and which was often quite a mess. Most photographers and dilettantes never understood that the chemicals – developer, fixer, stop bath, wetting agent – were anything other than water, and tended to spill them, contaminate them, use them up and not replace them. I became the de facto manager of the darkroom, and cleaned it all the time.

Oklahoma University tried to do a "Hands Across OU" thing while Hands Across America was going on, but it came up short, as in this image I shot with my 200mm f/4 Nikkor on Tri-X Pan Film.
Oklahoma University tried to do a “Hands Across OU” thing while Hands Across America was going on, but it came up short, as in this image I shot with my 200mm f/4 Nikkor on Tri-X Pan Film.

I had a crush on at least four of our Sooner Yearbook staffers, but no one on the Oklahoma Daily staff. I never dated any of them, though I certainly tried, and was mostly alone for my time in college.

I shot this from the parking garage above the ticket office at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium before an OU football game. A few seconds later I dropped clip-on metal lens hood from my 105mm Nikkor lens to the ground below. Fortunately, it didn't hit anyone.
I shot this from the parking garage above the ticket office at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium before an OU football game. A few seconds later I dropped clip-on metal lens hood from my 105mm Nikkor lens to the ground below. Fortunately, it didn’t hit anyone.
Robert lived in a basement apartment for a while during that period, and installed this chair by hanging it from some pipes.
Robert lived in a basement apartment for a while during that period, and installed this chair by hanging it from some pipes.

I used all my own darkroom gear, including tanks, reels, and chemicals, since I could almost guarantee the other photographers would compromise the supplies in the darkroom. During finals week in an art class in 1983, I souped some slide film in the chemistry they provided, which had been contaminated, and which ruined my film, forcing an urgent reshoot.

Once, when I was walking home with my backpack stuffed with photo gear, I heard some frat turds yelling at me, “Hey, nurd!” Yeah, frat guys in college: a topic for another day.

At one point I dropped by The Tulsa World and showed some of my stuff to the managing editor, who kept asking, “You’re a student?”

In the fall of 1985, I got a call from The Shawnee News-Star, and started my career as a news photographer.

This was one of my favorite images from the era, of the bonfire prior to the 1984 OU-Texas game, shot with my 105mm f/2.5.
This was one of my favorite images from the era, of the bonfire prior to the 1984 OU-Texas game, shot with my 105mm f/2.5.
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Amping and Upping the Game

My AF-S 300mm f/4 Nikkor is shown mounted on my Tamron 1.4x teleconverter, on my Nikon D300S, at Thursday's Allen Mustangs baseball playoff game.
My AF-S 300mm f/4 Nikkor is shown mounted on my Tamron 1.4x teleconverter, on my Nikon D300S, at Thursday’s Allen Mustangs baseball playoff game.

Last fall my newspaper bought me a new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4 telephoto lens to replace my nearly 20-year old AF 300mm. I’ve been shooting with it nonstop since then, since it is a bread-and-butter lens for long sports like baseball, softball, soccer, daytime football, tennis, and golf.

As baseball season has evolved this spring, I decided to up my game by adding my 1.4x teleconverter to my 300mm, making it a 420mm f/5.6. The 300mm already filled up the frame nicely, but I was looking for more.

Shooting super tight like that has some serious drawbacks, drawbacks that will completely discourage amateurs from keeping it up. The biggest problem is that your action moves out of the frame, or the frame moves away from the action, with little provocation. The other problem is that since the subjects are moving so much in the frame, the focus tends to bite on the background.

It's all about eyes and faces, and nothing gets into them better than a super telephoto lens like a 300mm or longer.
It’s all about eyes and faces, and nothing gets into them better than a super telephoto lens like a 300mm or longer.

I was shooting playoffs last week next to Oklahoman photographer Sarah Phipps, who was shooting with her 400mm, and she said, “There’s something about the crowd that attracts the focus,” noting that some of her image were back focused. It’s a burden we all must bear.

Amateurs deal with these issues by zooming out. Much of the time I see their 70-300mm zooms at their widest settings, since they can see more of the field that way. But their images definitely suffer. It’s one of the reasons I sometimes prefer a “prime” (fixed focal length) lens – I can’t, and therefore don’t, zoom out when the action fills up the frame.

I have a 400mm, but it’s heavy and awkward on its monopod, so almost all the time, I shoot with the new 300mm and my Tamron 1.4 converter. I was surprised at how well this cheaper converter took to the new 300, but I think it’s just that the 300mm is so sharp that when the converter takes its sharpness down a notch, it’s still on one of the top rungs of sharpness.

From the first base dugout at Oklahoma City's Dolese Youth Park, the 300mm plus the 1.4x teleconverter really fills up the frame with second base action.
From the first base dugout at Oklahoma City’s Dolese Youth Park, the 300mm plus the 1.4x teleconverter really fills up the frame with second base action.
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Striking Photos of Lightning

Lightning peels across the sky north of our home in Byng, Oklahoma last night, in this image made with my 20mm f/2.8 lens showing our front yard.
Lightning peels across the sky north of our home in Byng, Oklahoma last night, in this image made with my 20mm f/2.8 lens showing our front yard.

Two rounds of thunderstorms rolled through our home in Byng, Oklahoma last night. The first one skirted us to the north, so from our point of view, we had an excellent view of the right flank of the storm. It was the first time in the last couple of years that all the factors came together for me to make good lightning photos: little or no rain at my site, a very electrically-active thunderstorm, a lack of obscuring rain on my side of the storm, and no danger of being struck by lightning.

It Does Happen
Years ago I was standing in my garage trying to photograph lightning when a bolt hit a tree across the pasture. Not only was it insanely loud and bright, a feeder of it made it to the garage. I was leaning on the metal door track at the time, and electricity passed through it into my right arm. I was lucky I wasn’t injured or even killed.

So, if we see a thunderstorm like this and want to photograph it, what do we need, and how do we do it? We need…

  • A camera with manual controls of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus
  • A sturdy tripod or other way to hold the camera rock-steady
  • A lens that will fill the frame with what we want to shoot (I know that’s vague, but stay with me.)
  • The patience of Job
This was one of the images I made from there back deck before the storm moved behind the house and I relocated to the front. At the bottom of the frame is a short green line, which I saw moving slowly at the time, and which I have to conclude is someone's drone. (Click to see it larger.)
This was one of the images I made from there back deck before the storm moved behind the house and I relocated to the front. At the bottom of the frame is a short green line, which I saw moving slowly at the time, and which I have to conclude is someone’s drone. (Click to see it larger.)

Last night my wife and I saw and heard an approaching thunderstorm. At first I went out onto the back deck, but only made a few frames there and decided the storm, moving from my left to right looking north, was about to be hidden by the house, so I relocated to the front deck.

Using my Nikon D700, a 36x24mm sensor DLSR, I started with my 20mm, a very wide angle lens. Mounted on a tripod, I set the ISO at 400, my aperture at f/8, and my shutter speed at 20 seconds. My 20mm has a hard stop at infinity, which is where I set focus. (Don’t try to use autofocus – it will never bite on anything in the dark.)

At that point, the patience plays a big role. Unlike fireworks, traffic, or Christmas parades (all of which are photographing lights) thunderstorms are irregular and unpredictable, so by the time you get set up, it could be too late, or the timing could be just right. Last night was such a “just right” night.

Also worth noting are the clouds in this image, particularly in the upper left corner, which appear to repeat. This is caused by swiftly-moving clouds that are invisible to the camera until they are illuminated by repeated lightning strikes.
Also worth noting are the clouds in this image, particularly in the upper left corner, which appear to repeat. This is caused by swiftly-moving clouds that are invisible to the camera until they are illuminated by repeated lightning strikes.

Within five minutes I felt the storm had moved away from me sufficiently to warrant switching to a 50mm lens, and I felt I wanted a slightly darker product than I was seeing on the monitor, so I changed to f/11 at 30 seconds. The 50mm filled the frame with the densest part of the lightning, and I felt several images looked good.

At 30 seconds, this image is an aggregation of a number of lightning strikes. Made with my 50mm, the view angle was about right for this storm, and I was very pleased with this image.
At 30 seconds, this image is an aggregation of a number of lightning strikes. Made with my 50mm, the view angle was about right for this storm, and I was very pleased with this image.
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Now We’re Ready to Shoot

The traditional trophy scrum is just the start of what's going on during these moments, and one of the easiest and most obvious to shoot.
The traditional trophy scrum is just the start of what’s going on during these moments, and one of the easiest and most obvious to shoot.
A happy moment that was over in about three seconds: Menee Thomsen congratulates Kenzie Dean after the Lady Cougars won the area championship game.
A happy moment that was over in about three seconds: Menee Thomsen congratulates Kenzie Dean after the Lady Cougars won the area championship game.

My newspaper and I recently covered the Ada Lady Cougars area and state tournament basketball playoffs and the Latta Panthers drive to the state basketball championship game in Oklahoma City. I remember quite vividly as I was working the most important aspects of these events, their dramatic climaxes, that I was only thinking about one thing: how to get the moment.

I wasn’t thinking about shutter speeds or apertures or pixel counts or how to set exposure compensation. All those things were happening in the background of my mind. In the foreground were the faces I’d photographed all season long, and the people behind them who were experiencing the best or worst days of their young lives.

I had my camera at "low ready" with my eyes on the game when I saw this kid charge the basket. I was ready, and shot this without even thinking.
I had my camera at “low ready” with my eyes on the game when I saw this kid charge the basket. I was ready, and shot this without even thinking.

My point is, of course, that we need to be prepared. Plan plan plan. And don’t just plan to have the right gear in your hands, plan to be in the right place. Plan to be comfortable with your exposure settings and white balance settings and ISO settings long before the moment starts.

A tough moment: the Ada Lady Cougars reassure each other as their state tournament hopes slip out of reach.
A tough moment: the Ada Lady Cougars reassure each other as their state tournament hopes slip out of reach.

If it’s 13 seconds before the end of the game and your team is either about to leap into a dog pile or bury their faces in their towels to hide their tears, and you are trying to decide if aperture priority is better than shutter priority, you aren’t ready.

Now is the time to get ready. If your tenth grade daughter is slated to start for the softball team in September, now is the time to go to softball field and shoot, then sit at home and realize everything you did right and everything you did wrong, and decide now how to fix it.

Another fleeting moment: with just seconds left and their state championship win assured, the Latta Panthers can't hold back their emotions.
Another fleeting moment: with just seconds left and their state championship win assured, the Latta Panthers can’t hold back their emotions.

When you are comfortable rolling in +0.7 exposure compensation without really looking, based only on a glance at the monitor… when you are comfortable switching from the camera with the wide angle on it to the camera with the telephoto on it… when you are ready to imagine what is going on in the hearts of the winners and losers of those games instead of what’s going on inside yours, you might be ready.

Part of being read to make pictures is being ready to shoot the hard ones along with the easy ones, like this stressed-out moment for coach Christy Jennings as her team struggles to come from behind in their area championship game.
Part of being read to make pictures is being ready to shoot the hard ones along with the easy ones, like this stressed-out moment for coach Christy Jennings as her team struggles to come from behind in their area championship game.
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From Paper to Papers

From my first day on the job as a news photographer in May 1982 until The Ada News bought a scanner in September 1998, I made prints like this, using Kodak Ektamatic SC paper and an Kodak Ektamatic processor.
From my first day on the job as a news photographer in May 1982 until The Ada News bought a scanner in September 1998, I made prints like this, using Kodak Ektamatic SC paper and an Kodak Ektamatic processor.
While working an Ada High baseball game I shot a frame of this airplane landing at the Ada airport. The next day I took my pilot check ride in this very aircraft and became a licensed private pilot.
While working an Ada High baseball game I shot a frame of this airplane landing at the Ada airport. The next day I took my pilot check ride in this very aircraft and became a licensed private pilot.

For the first 16 years of my career as a photojournalist, starting with my first newspaper internship in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1982, my craft was entirely mechanical and analog. I made pictures exclusively on photographic film, and printed them on photographic paper using a darkroom, an enlarger, and processing chemistry of various kinds.

A dominant part of this process for the newspaper industry was the Kodak Ektamatic print processor. Designed to be a very quick way to make prints, the Ektamatic processor used activator and stabilizer instead of developer and fixer. Instead of a properly fixed and washed black-and-white print, it produced a damp, ready to use, supposedly temporary print in just eight seconds.

Toughman contest fans react to the action at the Pontotoc Country Fairgrounds in April 1998. Because sticky labels wouldn't adhere to the damp surface of a fresh Ektamatic print, we often just wrote names and places on the prints with felt tip pens or paper-clipped a note with caption information to the print.
Toughman contest fans react to the action at the Pontotoc Country Fairgrounds in April 1998. Because sticky labels wouldn’t adhere to the damp surface of a fresh Ektamatic print, we often just wrote names and places on the prints with felt tip pens or paper-clipped a note with caption information to the print.

Anyone who used one of these, and most of us did, remembers one thing about these prints more than anything else: the smell. The stabilizer used a potent mixture of acetic and boric acids to rapidly neutralize the developer and make the image temporarily light safe. It was a vinegar-like smell, only somehow sharper.

A young women reacts with dismay at the scene of a quadruple-fatality accident involving a funeral procession west of Ada Friday, May 29, 1992.
A young women reacts with dismay at the scene of a quadruple-fatality accident involving a funeral procession west of Ada Friday, May 29, 1992.
It wasn't all "good old days," particularly when you consider the thousands of head shots I had to print over the years for products like our football special.
It wasn’t all “good old days,” particularly when you consider the thousands of head shots I had to print over the years for products like our football special.

Cleaning this processor involved taking it apart and scrubbing the rollers, then adding fresh chemicals using bottles that sat upside down on top of the machine so they could refill the trays using valves that screwed onto the bottles. It needed to be cleaned a couple of times a week, but I can tell from my prints when I waited five or six days because there are streaks on the prints.

Vanoss fans Norman Hurley and Randi Jean Hurley cheer for the Wolves during state championship action at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City March 6, 1998.
Vanoss fans Norman Hurley and Randi Jean Hurley cheer for the Wolves during state championship action at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City March 6, 1998.
I worked with four Ektamatic print processors over the years, like this one, in the lower center part of the frame in the darkroom in Shawnee, Oklahoma in the late 1980s.
I worked with four Ektamatic print processors over the years, like this one, in the lower center part of the frame in the darkroom in Shawnee, Oklahoma in the late 1980s.
For most of my career, I received my photo assignments on cards like this. Each newspaper had a slightly different iteration, but they all conveyed the same information. Only in the last few years have I switched us to an application-based photo assignment system.
For most of my career, I received my photo assignments on cards like this. Each newspaper had a slightly different iteration, but they all conveyed the same information. Only in the last few years have I switched us to an application-based photo assignment system.

My analog craft tapered off somewhat after September 1998, when my company bought a Nikon LS-2000 film scanner and an Apple PowerMac G3 computer to run it. I still processed film, but instead of printing it with an enlarger, I scanned the negatives and saved the files on a service for the newsroom to use.

I cite this transition as part of the impetus for one of my earliest photographic trips to the desert, Villanueva.

Reviewing these images started late last year when my coworker LeaAnn Wells was looking for an old newspaper in the storage are we call the “morgue.” It’s a smallish room, and had filled with so much clutter that when LeaAnn tried to stand on something to reach papers on a high shelf, she almost came crashing down. She and I vowed to clean up the place, which was filled with, for example, 300 copies of the 2006 football preview section, where we really only need about five copies.

This whole project started when a coworker nearly fell while trying to find an old newspaper in the "morgue," the storage room where we keep old printed copies of our newspaper.
This whole project started when a coworker nearly fell while trying to find an old newspaper in the “morgue,” the storage room where we keep old printed copies of our newspaper.
When a reporter shot some film, he or she would attach this little slip of paper to it, which I would paperclip to the print.
When a reporter shot some film, he or she would attach this little slip of paper to it, which I would paperclip to the print.

Knowing that if everyone is in charge, no one is in charge, I took point in this cleanup effort, and have thrown away maybe a ton of worthless duplicates of newspapers, dust mites, rat turds, and even 50 bags of cooking show coupons and free chicken broth.

In the midst of all this, I found, near the bottom of the piles, a huge box full of my own Ektamatic prints from many years ago, and decided to try to get them in some order and preserve them.

Making Me Look Bad...
One thing I despised was being caught between management urging me to use less material and editorial demanding I use more. Publishers and accountants would tell me something like, “We used too much film and paper last month. Try to use less.” Which I would. Then editors would say something like, “Why can’t I get more shots from this?” or “Why are you printing this so small?”
For a while at The Ada News in the late 1980s we published a picture page of my sports images every Monday. The public loved them, but we never have that kind of space in the daily any more.
For a while at The Ada News in the late 1980s we published a picture page of my sports images every Monday. The public loved them, but we never have that kind of space in the daily any more.

One thing I was able to affirm by looking through these thousands of images is that I was good. It’s easy for me to forget that I have done solid work for my entire career, particularly during periods when I wasn’t appreciated by management. But I look through these slicks and see that I shot well year after year after year.

Colby Jackson and Johnny Jackson play sword fight in their yard in Ada on Feb. 14, 1998.
Colby Jackson and Johnny Jackson play sword fight in their yard in Ada on Feb. 14, 1998.
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A Light Serving of Light

I recently added the excellent AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G to my bag.
I recently added the excellent AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G to my bag.

With the recent addition of the handsome AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to my bag, I noted that this new lens features an aperture with nine rounded blades, unlike its predecessor, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, which has seven straight aperture blades. The reason this matters to me is that I like to use sunstars in some of my imagery to create the impression of brightness in light sources.

To test the sunstar capabilities of the new 50mm, I grabbed some Christmas lights from the rafters in the garage. With my camera on a tripod so everything would be the same except the lens, I shot some test images, all at f/16 at about 1 second, and made a direct comparison between the new f/1.4 and the older f/1.8.

Readers might recall the formula for sunstars: even-numbered aperture blades make sunstars points of that number, while odd-numbered aperture blades make sunstar points equal to twice the number of aperture blades…

This was shot with my older 50mm f/1.8, which has seven straight aperture blades, and as expected produces crisp 14-point sunstars.
This was shot with my older 50mm f/1.8, which has seven straight aperture blades, and as expected produces crisp 14-point sunstars.
Compare this to the previous image. This was made with the 50mm f/1.4, which has nine rounded aperture blades. I admit to being a little surprised at how well it rendered these 18-point sunstars.
Compare this to the previous image. This was made with the 50mm f/1.4, which has nine rounded aperture blades. I admit to being a little surprised at how well it rendered these 18-point sunstars.

I was quite pleased with the result. In recent years, rounded aperture blades have become increasingly common in an effort to give lenses the ability to create more pleasing out-of-focus areas, but this often sacrifices the crisp sunstar effect I love. But I found that while the effect using the 50mm f/1.4 wasn’t quite as dazzling as it was with the f/1.8, it still expressed the feeling of brightness.

This is a fun little trick that can add another layer of interest to certain kinds of photos: adding a shape to the front of your lens to shape the out-of-focus areas. I used aluminum foil because it was handy, but construction paper or opaque plastic works well too.
This is a fun little trick that can add another layer of interest to certain kinds of photos: adding a shape to the front of your lens to shape the out-of-focus areas. I used aluminum foil because it was handy, but construction paper or opaque plastic works well too.

While I had everything set up for sunstars, I thought I would experiment with a funny little do-it-yourself trick that can sometimes be useful: shaping your out-of-focus areas. It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to screw up. In its simplest iteration, you cut a small shape into an opaque object and fit it to the front of your lens.

I used aluminum foil for my experiment, but it made the bokeh a bit too edgy. There are kits available, but part of the fun for me is doing it with household items. This was shot at the largest aperture setting available, in this case f/1.8…

As you can see, this is a pretty simple trick with some eye-catching potential, particularly for very-romanticized portraiture like engagements or babies.
As you can see, this is a pretty simple trick with some eye-catching potential, particularly for very-romanticized portraiture like engagements or babies.
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What Is an “Art” Lens?

One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 "Art" lens, which represents Sigma's efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. Note the "A" badge on the barrel, denoting their "Art" series. However, just because they call it an Art lens doesn't mean you are automatically creating art just because you are using it.
One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 “Art” lens, which represents Sigma’s efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. Note the “A” badge on the barrel, denoting their “Art” series. However, just because they call it an Art lens doesn’t mean you are automatically creating art just because you are using it.

We all want to make amazing images, and we all see amazing images we admire every day. Often we think, “I saw something just like that the other day and tried to photograph it, but my pictures were nothing like that one. What am I doing wrong?”

Often the answer is a nebulous collection of visionary perspective and technical knowledge, with all imagery consisting but one thing: light.

While it is an excellent tool in the toolbox of photography, it is often very tempting to regard selective focus with large-aperture lenses as a goal unto itself, which it is not.
While it is an excellent tool in the toolbox of photography, it is often very tempting to regard selective focus with large-aperture lenses as a goal unto itself, which it is not.

A few years ago, lensmaker Sigma, faced with combating a reputation for poor quality control that resulted in inconsistent products, reorganized and upped their game by introducing their “Art” series of lenses. Bigger, heavier, more expensive, and better built than anything Sigma ever created before, these lenses are aimed at photographers who want the best image quality from larger-maximum-aperture lenses, and who are willing to deal with physically huge and heavy glass. Examples of this line are their 18-35mm f/1.8 Art, 35mm f/1.4 Art, 50mm f/1.4 Art, 24-105mm f/4 Art, and so on.

Primed for Primes
It’s no secret: I love”prime” lenses, which are defined as non-zoom lenses, usually featuring larger maximum apertures than zoom lenses, and which are usually lighter, smaller, and more affordable than their zooming brethren. Much of the time when I can choose between a zoom or a prime, I choose the prime. Though slightly less versatile than zooms, I spent the first part of my career shooting with nothing but primes (since zooms weren’t all that great then), and I am quite comfortable selecting a lens and then “zooming with my feet.”

I have only seen one “Art” series lens, bought by a student of mine last year.

One lens I keep recommending to photographers just starting out who only have the inexpensive "kit" zoom lens that came with their camera is the 50mm, either the pricier f/1.4 (left), or the smaller, more affordable f/1.8 on the right. Both are a good start down the road to lenses with better "art" credentials.
One lens I keep recommending to photographers just starting out who only have the inexpensive “kit” zoom lens that came with their camera is the 50mm, either the pricier f/1.4 (left), or the smaller, more affordable f/1.8 on the right. Both are a good start down the road to lenses with better “art” credentials.

As the popularity of these lenses rose, so did the idea that “Art” was a class, not a brand, of lens, and that we artists wanted one. But removed from its brand, was an “Art” lens really meant to be “the best,” without context, or is the “Art” something more, something etherial, something even magical?

In a conversation with fellow photograph Robert recently, he asked me, “Aren’t all lenses ‘art’ lenses?”

Our AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is certainly capable of creating images in the field of "art" in the right hands and the right circumstance.
Our AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is certainly capable of creating images in the field of “art” in the right hands and the right circumstance.

I speculated that lenses followed an evolution the same way culture did, with a growing interest in technology and capacity, while leaving behind some of the things we loved: older lenses, for example, are generally softer at the edges of the frame (often due to an aberration called spherical aberration, which results in the focus plane of a lens being curved slightly), and most computer-designed lenses have either gotten better at preventing that, or, in the case of cheap ones, hide these sometimes-flattering aberrations beneath other, more garish, problems like distortion and chromatic aberration.

So, I thought, maybe Sigma’s “Art” lenses are designed to bring back some of that old-lens look.

In actuality, Robert is right: all lenses are “Art” lenses because art isn’t a function of equipment or technology, but of the heart and mind.

Sigma’s “Art” series are, in simplest terms, a high-quality product intended to turn around a company struggling with quality-control issues, as well as a big, heavy tool in the toolbox. They are certainly capable of producing art in the hands of an artist.

One thing that "feels" artistic is using large maximum apertures to create powerful selective focus (often wrongly called "bokeh", which is another concept altogether), as I did in this image of Max the Chihuahua I shot yesterday with our AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Pleasing to the eye, shallow depth of field is not art unto itself.
One thing that “feels” artistic is using large maximum apertures to create powerful selective focus (often wrongly called “bokeh”, which is another concept altogether), as I did in this image of Max the Chihuahua I shot yesterday with our AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Pleasing to the eye, shallow depth of field is not art unto itself.
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Old Tricks Still Work

Just because some loudmouth Millennial rolls his eyes and dismissively says, “That’s the oldest trick in the book!” (with an implied “old man!”), doesn’t mean it’s not a good trick. I used one of the oldest tricks in my lexicon recently in class: the hair shake. This works well with people who have long hair that is looking too stiff. Have the subject/model throw their head forward and shake their hair, then quickly sit up, letting their hair fly back. Nine times out of ten it will result in their hair looking wild, free, fun, beautiful. Don’t let them touch it – it will feel strange to your model because they never comb or brush it that way, but it will look amazing.

Karen holds a light and Amber prepares to photograph Jill, who is doing the hair shake trick.
Karen holds a light and Amber prepares to photograph Jill, who is doing the hair shake trick.
Jill smiles after doing to hair shake. She thought it felt odd and wrong, until she got a look at the results.
Jill smiles after doing to hair shake. She thought it felt odd and wrong, until she got a look at the results.
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Always on Duty

This is two extracts in one: a pressboard totem pole sign is juxtaposed against a Coca-Cole machine next door to our Rolla, Missouri motel.
This is two extracts in one: a pressboard totem pole sign is juxtaposed against a Coca-Cole machine next door to our Rolla, Missouri motel.
Abby holds her new puppy at the farm where she bought him. The road trip, to Rolla, Missouri, as always, was an opportunity to make pictures.
Abby holds her new puppy at the farm where she bought him. The road trip, to Rolla, Missouri, as always, was an opportunity to make pictures.

Years ago I was on the sideline at a Stratford, Oklahoma football game with a photographer buddy of mine, Matthew White. Despite the fact that he was just tagging along and wasn’t shooting the game for any agency or even for himself, he couldn’t help himself, and shot it just as thought it was his job.

I turned to him and said, “You can’t turn it off, can you?” I knew he couldn’t because I can’t. No photographer can. It’s not just what we do when we’re clocked in or on a job, it’s who we are.

The closed and dilapidated Totem Pole gift shop featured these handsome fuel pump globes, tributes to the history of Route 66.
The closed and dilapidated Totem Pole gift shop featured these handsome fuel pump globes, tributes to the history of Route 66.
The way the roads are cut into the hillsides in southern Missouri reminds me of my childhood when we lived in places like Independence and Manchester, or when we visited my mom's home to, Flat River. We don't see this kind of roadcuts in Oklahoma.
The way the roads are cut into the hillsides in southern Missouri reminds me of my childhood when we lived in places like Independence and Manchester, or when we visited my mom’s home to, Flat River. We don’t see this kind of roadcuts in Oklahoma.

No one, I think, knows this better than Robert, who has a full-time non-photography job, yet remains a photographer every minute of the day. It shows in his work, which I was showing my wife Abby the other day to a constant litany of “wow” and “that’s incredible” and “these are amazing.”

I thought of this when Abby and I recently travelled to Rolla, Missouri, to buy a new puppy. I wasn’t supposed to be a photographer on this overnight trip, but of course, I couldn’t turn it off. In spite of being the puppy chauffeur, I also took great interest in things like the silhouettes of the state of Will Rogers on the turnpike, the dilapidated Totem Pole gift shop next to our motel, and, of course, photographing the new dog.

Abby and I had breakfast at Waffle House, which brought back memories for both of us. I think most readers can relate to an image like this.
Abby and I had breakfast at Waffle House, which brought back memories for both of us. I think most readers can relate to an image like this.

It is this willingness to be the photographer all the time that sets us apart from the incessant visual chatter of the 10,000-selfies crowd. Instead of “hey, how about a picture?” we are always looking at the light, the textures, the lines, and the shadows, to try to decide how to express something.

That’s the key thought of this post, I believe: the selfie makers are trying to impress someone, and the photographers are trying to express something.

This view looks west from the restaurant over Interstate 44 in northeast Oklahoma. At one time, it housed the world's largest McDonald's restaurant, but it has since been more practically commercialized. My sister and I were fascinated by this view when we were kids.
This view looks west from the restaurant over Interstate 44 in northeast Oklahoma. At one time, it housed the world’s largest McDonald’s restaurant, but it has since been more practically commercialized. My sister and I were fascinated by this view when we were kids.
Abby rides the glass elevator at the restaurant over Interstate 44. I happen to think an image like this is ten times better than a "selfie" in the same spot.
Abby rides the glass elevator at the restaurant over Interstate 44. I happen to think an image like this is ten times better than a “selfie” in the same spot.
Looking the other way is this statue of Will Rogers, after whom the turnpike below is named. In the 1970s when we stopped here, the large windows had huge vertical blinds to keep out blinding sunrises and sunsets. There now have retractable vertical curtains.
Looking the other way is this statue of Will Rogers, after whom the turnpike below is named. In the 1970s when we stopped here, the large windows had huge vertical blinds to keep out blinding sunrises and sunsets. There now have retractable vertical curtains.
On the way home from Rolla, we passed under the restaurant over Interstate 44, and I made a point to have a camera ready to shoot it. Thought not a particularly spectacular image, it does give the viewer some perspective on how this features looks from the outside.
On the way home from Rolla, we passed under the restaurant over Interstate 44, and I made a point to have a camera ready to shoot it. Thought not a particularly spectacular image, it does give the viewer some perspective on how this features looks from the outside.
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Fact and Myth: “Full Frame” vs “Cropped”

I recently sold some older gear to get ahold of this Nikon D700. With 94,325 frames through it when I bought it, it is about halfway through it's life expectancy. The D700 is larger and heavier than most of my other cameras, and it is a luxury to look through a film-sized viewfinder.
I recently sold some older gear to get ahold of this Nikon D700. With 94,325 frames through it when I bought it, it is about halfway through it’s life expectancy. The D700 is larger and heavier than most of my other cameras, and it is a luxury to look through a film-sized viewfinder.

For a couple of decades now, a cacophony of myth and misinformation has stemmed from digital photography regarding sensor size. This all started because professional and advanced amateur digital photography was rooted, for economic reasons, in 35mm film photography.

Not only does the Nikon D700 have a bigger sensor, it has a bigger, and much heavier body.
Not only does the Nikon D700 have a bigger sensor, it has a bigger, and much heavier body.

Driven mostly by the engines of sales and popularity, not necessity or creativity or technical superiority, the 35mm film frame, at 36x24mm, and originally derived from an industrious camera maker wanting to take advantage of surplus film from the burgeoning 1930s motion picture industry, became the standard bearer for image size by the end of the 20th century.

I recently decided to do a little used-for-used sell-and-buy on Ebay to get my hands on a Nikon D700, one of Nikon’s earliest digital cameras equipped with a sensor the size of a 35mm film frame, 36x24mm, sometimes referred to by the misleading name “full frame” because it is the same size as a full frame of film. Nikon calls it “FX,” in contrast to their smaller 24x15mm sensors, which it calls “DX.” 24x15mm sensors are often mistakenly called “cropped” sensors by laymen who don’t fully understand the origins of image size. If it has to have a name, it is most accurately described by its size in millimeters or by the film size closest to it, APS-C (Advanced Photo System type-C).

The lazy-writing web world often calls full frame “FF” in forum posts.

  • Do full frame sensors have “better depth of field”? No. I was eager to debunk this one because I already knew the answer, and because it is an embarrassment to photography that everyone is so eager to believe this. Depth of field is controlled by two factors: magnification and aperture. The reason this myth seems to be true is that to get the same composition on a 36x24mm as on a smaller sensor, one has to either get closer or use a longer focal length, both of which increase magnification to create shallower depth of field. At identical distances, focal lengths and apertures, depth of field is identical. If you don’t believe me, here is the proof…
To prevent confirmation bias, I won't say which of these images is made with which sensor size. 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Vs...
To prevent confirmation bias, I won’t say which of these images is made with which sensor size. 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Vs…
... 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Can you tell me which one is which?
… 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Can you tell me which one is which?
  • Is an aperture of f/2 on a larger sensor “equivalent” in light gathering capacity to f/1.4 on a smaller sensor? No. I heard this one asserted by Tony and Chelsea Northrup on their YouTube channel, and I couldn’t believe my ears at the time. (They also refer to “ISO” as a name – “Eyesoh,” which it is not). I have no idea how they came to this conclusion, but this and the popularity of their channel has done nothing but muddy the waters on issues like this. Simply put, f number is a fraction describing the ratio between the focal length of a lens and the diameter of the opening. A 50mm f/2, for example, has an opening of 25mm. 50 divided by 2 equals 25. A specific aperture value lets the same amount of light through the lens regardless of what size of film or sensor is on the other side.

    Nikon badges all of its 36x24mm sensor cameras with this "FX" badge.
    Nikon badges all of its 36x24mm sensor cameras with this “FX” badge.
  • Will a larger sensor give life back to my wide angle lenses? Yes, with some caveats. A 20mm lens that was a mediocre lens on a smaller sensor has now been restored to its film-days glory as an ultra wide lens. While this is certainly nice if you have a bunch of old wide angle lenses, today many manufacturers make very wide angle lenses for smaller sensors. I have several myself, and I am able to get as wide as I need, including ultra-ultra-wide using my 10-17mm fisheye and uncurving it in Photoshop.
I shot this today with my 18-35mm at 18mm on the D700.
I shot this today with my 18-35mm at 18mm on the D700.
I shot this today with my 12-24mm at 12mm on the D300S.
I shot this today with my 12-24mm at 12mm on the D300S.
  • Will my telephoto lenses will be less telephoto-y on a larger sensor? Yes. This is the reason sports and wildlife photographers got away from large and medium format film as soon as 35mm was available: just as larger sensors make wide angles wider, they make telephotos wider, since they are projecting their images onto a larger surface. Many top sports and bird photographers very much prefer 24x15mm sensors for just this reason, and this has been a leading marketing tag for Nikon’s flagship 24x15mm camera, the D500.
These are some of the wide angle lenses my office and I own that will see the light of day more now that I have a 36x24mm sensor. From left to right are the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8, the AF Nikkor 20mm, the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, and the Sigma AF 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5.
These are some of the wide angle lenses my office and I own that will see the light of day more now that I have a 36x24mm sensor. From left to right are the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8, the AF Nikkor 20mm, the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, and the Sigma AF 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5.
  • Are larger sensors better at capturing low-light scenes due to the pixels themselves being larger? Yes. If you compare a 36x24mm sensor against a 24x15mm sensor of the same pixel count, assuming the sensors are of the same era and treated with the same renderings, noise will be lower in the larger sensor. This is true because the pixels themselves, the tiny light-sensing devices inside the integrated circuit in the middle of the camera, are larger, and can gather more light, thus requiring less amplification of the signals they produce. In practice, though, this rule doesn’t hold much water. There are many smaller-sensor cameras that make incredibly low-noise images, and most cameras with larger than “full frame” sensors do not.
Though quite rare, I was able to spot this Nikon D700 "street photographer" on the Plaza in Santa Fe, one place you would expect to see a jillion street photographers. Of note is the not-very-good lens he has mounted on it.
Though quite rare, I was able to spot this Nikon D700 “street photographer” on the Plaza in Santa Fe, one place you would expect to see a jillion street photographers. Of note is the not-very-good lens he has mounted on it.

The craving for lower noise at higher ISOs is a symptom of photographers being too lazy to master what matters most, light. Additionally, there is a lot of pretense on the photo forums (like photo.net, which recently changed formats and is now unviewable) about, “wanting to do more street photography.” The truth is that most of time people who make this claim just want to be able to say, “I have this camera and that lens,” and don’t make very many photos. All you have to do to discover this truth is walk the streets and count the photographers: ≈ 0.

  • Are “multiplier” or “crop factor” numbers useful? No. These numbers are all over the place, and only exist so camera makers can muddy the waters of what you should buy. 1.5x “crop factor” or 2x “multiplier” is only helpful if you go from one format to the other constantly while shooting. A far better way to understand this is to know your camera, and know what does what. For example, suppose your camera is a “four thirds” format (18x13mm). A 14mm is a wide angle lens, and a 200mm is a super-telephoto.
  • Is it worth it to “upgrade” to a larger sensor? No. Anyone who asks this question isn’t ready to take advantage of the subtle differences offered by a larger sensor, and larger sensors are disproportionally more expensive. If you need a larger sensor, you already know it.
You can see from the brassing and smoothing of the working surfaces of my "new" used Nikon D700 that it's been put to work. This is how I prefer to buy cameras, since I am going to wear them out myself in short order.
You can see from the brassing and smoothing of the working surfaces of my “new” used Nikon D700 that it’s been put to work. This is how I prefer to buy cameras, since I am going to wear them out myself in short order.
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