The Walls

By , March 21, 2015 3:40 pm
I get points for style for converting these pot lights - originally meant to hold safelights for black-and-white printing - to accent lights using colored compact fluorescent bulbs.

I get points for style for converting these pot lights – originally meant to hold safelights for black-and-white printing – to accent lights using colored compact fluorescent bulbs.

Readers of my social blog know that I recently moved from one office, formerly the darkroom, to another office, formerly composition, at work. I talked about the work it required and a bit of the history of my workplace. One aspect I didn’t explore much is how I make my work environment feel like home.

When I first arrived at The Ada News in late October 1988, I was fairly impressed with my new darkroom. Despite being neglected and mismanaged, it had originally been constructed by a skilled carpenter with a fair amount of foresight. The tops of the cabinets had overhangs in which ports were milled to hold real Kodak safelights, which for years held the standard type OC amber-colored safelight filters so familiar to every photographer who printed black-and-white images from film.

This is my darkroom just four months after I arrived in Ada. As you can see, I hadn't yet decorated at all, and the space doesn't really look like home. Also note the Omega D2 enlarger. I lobbied for a replacement and got a Beseler 23CII not long after this image was made. (Click it to big it.)

This is my darkroom just four months after I arrived in Ada. As you can see, I hadn’t yet decorated at all, and the space doesn’t really look like home. Also note the Omega D2 enlarger. I lobbied for a replacement and got a Beseler 23CII not long after this image was made. (Click it to big it.)

Readers might be curious why safelights were amber, and it’s because most black-and-white photographic paper is dichromatic, meaning it is sensitive to two colors, green and blue, but not red, so it could be safely handled (for reasonably short periods) under the amber safelights. The dichromatic properties were refined over the years in the form of multiple-contrast papers (Kodak called theirs Polycontrast, and Ilford called their Multigrade), which used two emulsions, one high contrast and one low contrast, so the photographer could control contrast by filtering out green or blue light. It worked pretty well, though some photographers, including me, felt that single-contrast papers offered an edge in tonal quality.

This seven-panel panograph was made in my darkroom sometime in 1990, just before I added a color enlarger. As you can see, it looks a lot more like home than it did at the beginning of 1989. (Click it to big it.)

This seven-panel panograph was made in my darkroom sometime in 1990, just before I added a color enlarger. As you can see, it looks a lot more like home than it did at the beginning of 1989. (Click it to big it.)

The countertops featured two extensions that held an enlarger and a paper processor, so the photographer could stand between them. When I first came to Ada, the enlarger was a ratty Omega D2 of 1960s vintage, which I replaced almost immediately with a Beseler 23CII.  The processor was the ubiquitous Kodak Ektamatic. Although the Ektamatic processor would ingest any paper with an developer-incorporated emulsion (meaning it had developer in it, so all it needed was to be “activated”), it was intended to use Ektamatic SC paper, a single-weight, fiber-based, developer-incorporated stock that came out of the processor in nine seconds after being activated and “stabilized” (not “fixed” like when you put most paper into the fixer tray) still damp and stinking of acetic acid, ready to be dumped on an editor’s desk and sent right to the production room. It was rough, but fast, which is what we needed for newspaper back then.

One of the first things I noticed and liked about my darkroom at The Ada News was this custom cabinet arrangement, which allowed me to stand between the enlarger and the processor with everything I needed within reach.

One of the first things I noticed and liked about my darkroom at The Ada News was this custom cabinet arrangement, which allowed me to stand between the enlarger and the processor with everything I needed within reach.

In 1991, my newspaper bought a used system for producing in-house color images for the daily, so I got a Road Warrior tank system for processing color film, and a Fujimoto enlarger with a dichroic color head for printing it. I was never as good at printing color as black-and-white, since I only made three or four color prints a week. Still, I could make a passable print, and it was fun.

Mention of 1991 bring us back to the subject of making my workspace feel like home. Starting less than a year after arriving in Ada, I began sticking photos on the walls and cabinets of my darkroom. By 1991, the walls were covered with everything from news and sports to images I thought expressed my fine art skills. But all was not well at our little newspaper. We had an editor no one liked, kind of a bully, who had no talent. A couple of reporters quit that spring. By July, I felt like I’d had enough, and told that editor, “I’m taking all the rest of my vacation starting today.” I went into my darkroom and ripped every print off the walls and threw them in the trash, left the building and drove to Tulsa, where I interviewed with The Tulsa Tribune. I was one of several experienced photographers applying for that job, and it was probably just as well I didn’t get it, since the Tribune closed just six months later. (Which brings up the question: why would you hire anyone if you are going out of business in six months?)

The grain and tonal qualities of this black-and-white Kodak T-Max P3200 image from 1989 summon a look from a different era.

The grain and tonal qualities of this black-and-white Kodak T-Max P3200 image from 1989 summon a look from a different era.

When I returned after my vacation, that editor must have seen that I’d cleaned out before I cleared out, because he was much nicer to me.

Over the years I’ve had many different images on those walls, and when it came time this winter to move out of the old darkroom, one thing I knew I wanted to do was make my new workspace as much like home as the old one was. In addition to quite a bit of cabinet and drawer space, my new office also has a large blue bulletin board that is covered with stains. Filling it with my images was twofold: it covered the stains, and it made the space into my space.

This is the wall of images in my new workspace. Filling it with images of everything from news to landscapes to portraits of my lovely wife makes my new workspace feel like home. (Click it to big it.)

This is the wall of images in my new workspace. Filling it with images of everything from news to landscapes to portraits of my lovely wife makes my new workspace feel like home. (Click it to big it.)

Being There: Triumph and Heartbreak

By , March 14, 2015 3:18 pm
Ada Cougar star athelete Cory Kilby smiles as he is congratulated by his teammates after breaking Ada's all-time scoring record at Ada High School's Cougar Activity Center, Feb. 21, 2015.

Ada Cougar star athelete Cory Kilby smiles as he is congratulated by his teammates after breaking Ada’s all-time scoring record at Ada High School’s Cougar Activity Center, Feb. 21, 2015.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my career as a photojournalist is capturing moments in the lives of those around me. It’s also one of the most difficult, because it requires me to be present not only at some of the best moments in people’s lives, but also at some of the worst.

These moments don’t usually sneak up on photographers, so we can be ready: We know that time will run out at the end of a game. We know the Teacher of the Year is about to get her award. We know the police will tape off the crime scene. We know the ball is on the 1-yard line.

I thought about this the other day as I was looking at some images from the 2014-2015 area basketball season. There were many great moments, as there are every season, but a couple stood out. The first happened when Cory Kilby was poised to break Ada High School’s all-time basketball scoring record, and another was when the Stonewall Lady Longhorns lost an area playoff game to Rattan. The two were connected for me because I shot them from almost the exact same spot.

I made the image of Cory Kilby from the west baseline of the court at the Cougar Activity Center, using my AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8, a big, heavy zoom lens that excels at low-light sports, feature and news photography. I tried to count the goals he scored, but lost track. I was still ready when the moment happened, and the image it made, of Kilby unable to contain his elation in the moment, is one he, and our readers, will remember and save for a long time.

That image also stands out as an excellent example of the value of photojournalism and the imaging it provides: we make pictures of moments that can’t be repeated or reproduced. You can’t tell Kilby to look that way again after the game for the cameras. The images after the fact are, by their nature, posed and contrived.

Just nine days later, I stood in that same spot as the Stonewall Lady Longhorns battled for a place in the state tournament. The game was close and emotionally engaging, but the Stonewall girls couldn’t hold on for the win. Again, I was on the west baseline, shooting with the same lens, and in the same light, of the same sport, and the emotion the image conveys, of Lauryn Humphers walking dejectedly toward the bench with the Rattan Lady Rams celebrating in the background, is completely opposite from the Kilby image.

My take-away for you and your photography is this: whenever you can, make pictures of real moments as they happen. There is nothing as wonderful as a genuine moment recorded forever, and few things as awkward as trying to pose them after they happen. Have your camera (or, in many instances, phone) ready, and be ready to grab that moment in time.

Stonewall roundballer Lauryn Humphers walks toward her team's bench after the Lady Longhorns lost to Rattan in area tournament play at the Cougar Activity Center March 1, 2015.

Stonewall roundballer Lauryn Humphers walks toward her team’s bench after the Lady Longhorns lost to Rattan in area tournament play at the Cougar Activity Center March 1, 2015.

Doing an Exploratory

By , February 23, 2015 2:00 pm
This is the view out the kitchen window this morning; more snow and cold weather are on the way.

This is the view out the kitchen window this morning; more snow and cold weather are on the way.

As I might have mentioned before, I am in the process of editing, in my spare moments, the hundreds of images I shot on our October anniversary vacation, A Perfect Ten. Working on these images has been a very satisfying experience, since so many of my jaunts yielded excellent images, most of which I was not able to include in the trip report. I am, however, publishing many of them on my photo blog, and here on the teaching blog.

Today, as my wife sleeps in her recliner because snow and sleet kept her from going to work, I am again chewing on some of those images. In that process, I ran across one in particular that seemed to reach into my sense of adventure, an image I made in an area I visited for the first time, just north of Delicate Arch in the vicinity of Echo Arch (according to the kiosk at the visitor center – if you know better, please let me know.)

The reason I like this image so much is…

  • Its monochromatic lighting resulted in an excellent black-and-white red-filter rendering
  • It is an angle from which I never shot before and yields a new view of an old haunt
  • It shows Echo Arch at the very bottom of the frame and the Delicate Arch area (though the actual arch is concealed by terrain) at the top
  • It invites me to come and romp in the adventure playground of southern Utah
  • The utter complexity of the image is intriguing, and invites the eye to explore it

Editing these images is great fun. I’m sure I will come across many more teaching points as I explore them.

This image was made just above Echo Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, last October. The more I look at it, the more interesting it gets. You can see it bigger by clicking on it. I shot it with my Nikon D7100 and the excellent AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm .

This image was made just above Echo Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, last October. The more I look at it, the more interesting it gets. You can see it bigger by clicking on it. I shot it with my Nikon D7100 and the excellent AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm .

Single-Frame High Dynamic Range

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By , February 22, 2015 5:19 pm
This is my source image, a late afternoon shot at central New Mexico's Camel Rock. It's not a bad frame, but I wanted more out of it. The shadows in the rock face are too dark, but increasing the exposure would destroy the deep blues of the sky.

This is my source image, a late afternoon shot at central New Mexico’s Camel Rock. It’s not a bad frame, but I wanted more out of it. The shadows in the rock face are too dark, but increasing the exposure would destroy the deep blues of the sky.

As my readers know, I recently enjoyed some rather spectacular success photographing Utah’s iconic Delicate Arch using a technique called High Dynamic Range, or HDR. The technique usually involves shooting an image a number of times (I usually make five) at different exposures (called bracketing), then blending them together using software to create an HDR image. The program I use is called Photomatix Pro, but there are many available.

What some photographers might not realize is that it is possible to create HDR-like images using just a single frame and a blending method called tone mapping.

Instead of telling the software to blend three or five or ten images, we tell it to tone map one, and it offers us various settings we can apply to create the look we want. I used it recently on some stubbornly contrasty iPhone images, and just today I was able to extract a much more interesting and inviting image out of a single frame that I would have been able to just using Photoshop. Have a look…

This early evening shot at Camel Rock shows how a fairly dull image can be punched up using software techniques like tone mapping.

This early evening shot at Camel Rock shows how a fairly dull image can be punched up using software techniques like tone mapping.

Traveling Light

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By , February 22, 2015 5:00 pm
Allen vs Stonewall basketball action shot with my 180mm: despite being nearly 30 years old and having an ugly scratch on the front element, this lens definitely delivers sharp action photos with the right technique.

Allen vs Stonewall basketball action shot with my 180mm: despite being nearly 30 years old and having an ugly scratch on the front element, this lens definitely delivers sharp action photos with the right technique.

A photon goes into hotel. The bellhop asks, “Do you have any luggage?”

The photon answers, “No, I’m traveling light.”

A year and a half ago, I penned a piece about working indoor sports like basketball, wrestling, volleyball and cheer using smaller, lighter, cheaper lenses than the full-time professional zoom lenses I often carry.

Fans greet their players during introductions at a high school basketball game recently. I used my 28mm held high over my head to make this one.

Fans greet their players during introductions at a high school basketball game recently. I used my 28mm held high over my head to make this one.

Now that this year’s basketball season is entering the playoffs, I am using those big, heavy zooms, since they are more versatile and the situations are more diverse; not only action, but celebration and dejection, coach and player features, and fan reactions. But for much of the regular season when I just needed action and the occasional coach feature, I again tried to lighten my load. Since my 85mm died, however, I’ve switched up my gear for basketball a bit.

I’ve had immense success this season with my AF-Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 combined with an AF-Nikkor 28mm f/2.8. Both weigh a third as much as their zoom counterparts, and both are capable of excellent image quality. The only caveat is that when you shoot primes (non-zoom lenses), you have to be willing to “zoom with your feet.” Fortunately, I not only enjoy mobility, I am the kind of person who doesn’t really sit still anyway.

The 180mm plus the 28mm are a good team for basketball and similar sports action and features.

The 180mm plus the 28mm are a good team for basketball and similar sports action and features.

One thing the 180mm forces me to do since I can’t zoom out toward the short end is shoot really tight, really filling the frame. That can be challenging, but challenges are one way we can improve our skills.

Go Cougars! I made this cheerleader feature from the baseline with my 180mm.

Go Cougars! I made this cheerleader feature from the baseline with my 180mm.

The Right Idea

By , February 12, 2015 9:49 am

The photographer in the image in this post is using the latter-day technique of shooting from an angle that’s hard to get while looking through a viewfinder.

Looking up or down with a wide angle lens at a ladder, hillside, ski slope, swing set, church, Christmas tree, hiking trail, fountain, radio tower, Ferris wheel… you get the idea … anything that has lines and forms that can be used to invite our viewer into the image… can create very exciting compositions.

This was harder to do in the film days because the framing is just a guess, since the camera is so high or low that we can’t see what it’s seeing. But in the digital era, we can instantly review what we just shot and fit whatever might need to be fixed.

Don’t hesitate to play around with unusual angles and compositions. It can really pay off.

A photographer makes a low-angle shot looking up a ladder at New Mexico's Taos Pueblo in October 2014.

A photographer makes a low-angle shot looking up a ladder at New Mexico’s Taos Pueblo in October 2014.

Dancing with the iPhone

By , February 6, 2015 12:30 pm
While my Nikon D7100 was making a 10-minute video clip at Delicate Arch in Utah's Arches National Park in October, I made this image of it with my iPhone 5. I later used Photomatix Pro to improve the shadow detail and control the highlights.

While my Nikon D7100 was making a 10-minute video clip at Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park in October, I made this image of it with my iPhone 5. I later used Photomatix Pro to improve the shadow detail and control the highlights.

A longstanding (and often over-cited) maxim in photography is, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” It’s not a great maxim, since it can become an excuse for not bringing the right camera for the right imaging task.

Abby shops at Madrid, New Mexico. This is the image as my iPhone originally rendered it, with way too much contrast.

Abby shops at Madrid, New Mexico. This is the image as my iPhone originally rendered it, with way too much contrast.

On the other hand, having a camera of some kind is always better than having no camera, and in the smartphone era, most of us have a fairly decent point-and-shoot built into our lives. That was the case for me last October when my wife Abby and I wanted to take a “day off” from our usual vacation itinerary of exploring photo ops and just walk around the small town of Madrid, New Mexico with our dogs. Madrid is, by the way, one of the dog-friendliest towns we’ve ever experienced.

Abby shops at Madrid, New Mexico. I used Photomatix Pro to play around with the tones, and ended up saving this one because it illustrates how much you can do with the app. Some will find this look neat, and some will find it garish. I think it's a little of both. In any case, it certainly improved the contrast problem with the original iPhone image.

Abby shops at Madrid, New Mexico. I used Photomatix Pro to play around with the tones, and ended up saving this one because it illustrates how much you can do with the app. Some will find this look neat, and some will find it garish. I think it’s a little of both. In any case, it certainly improved the contrast problem with the original iPhone image.

Additionally, I wanted to play around with the WordPress app on my iPhone 5 and post a few of my iPhone images from the trip on PhotoLoco, our shared experimental photography gallery.

The resulting images were predictable: I got passable point-and-shoot images right out of the camera, but in order to be of any use or interest to me, I would need to punch them up a bit. In the field for the WordPress posts, I used a free app in my iPhone called Photoshop Express. I was able to use a couple of the built-in filters to play around with color and tone, and ended up remotely posting something I genuinely liked.

I shot this image of Utah's Wilson Arch with my iPhone for the sole purpose of posting it to PhotoLoco. I used Photoshop Express to punch up the colors and darken the corners, which gave the image a far better sense of drama.

I shot this image of Utah’s Wilson Arch with my iPhone for the sole purpose of posting it to PhotoLoco. I used Photoshop Express to punch up the colors and darken the corners, which gave the image a far better sense of drama.

This is a screen shot of the Photoshop Express app for iPhone.

This is a screen shot of the Photoshop Express app for iPhone.

I should note that this activity differs markedly from the typical Facebooker/Instagrammer/Tumblrer/Twitterer, almost all of whom post overwhelming numbers of very similar, and therefore boring, images.

Another tool I use to enhance my iPhone photos, especially the ones in which contrast was overwhelming, is Photomatix Pro. In addition to being an excellent app for blending several bracketed images together to form one High Dynamic Range image, it also allows single-image enhancement, including contrast management.

Not every photo made with the iPhone needs to be heavily edited, but it’s nice to experiment with the tools available and have another avenue of expression at my disposal.

This image of small statues for sale at Santa Fe, New Mexico's Historic Plaza is pretty much as the iPhone rendered it originally, with excellent color and sharpness.

This image of small statues for sale at Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Historic Plaza is pretty much as the iPhone rendered it originally, with excellent color and sharpness.

Back to Basics

By , February 2, 2015 12:38 pm

I am pleased to report that after a hiatus, I am teaching Digital Photography for Beginners at the Pontotoc Technology Center tonight and the next two Monday nights from 6 pm to 9 pm. The class is $75, and walk-ins are welcome.

Come on, people, jump in the photography bus!

Come on, people, jump in the photography bus!

A Mild but Interesting Epiphany about My Shooting

By , January 19, 2015 12:15 am
A Byng Lady Pirate is fouled during tournament play last week at Bill Koller Field House. The lighting there isn't great, so I often opt to shoot with my 50mm f/1.8 at f/2.0. The horizontal composition captured this moment of conflict well.

A Byng Lady Pirate is fouled during tournament play last week at Bill Koller Field House. The lighting there isn’t great, so I often opt to shoot with my 50mm f/1.8 at f/2.0. The horizontal composition captured this moment of conflict well.

I got someone to make an image of me peeking over the top of my camera at a game recently. Being able to see what's going on around me helps me decide when and where to shoot.

I got someone to make an image of me peeking over the top of my camera at a game recently. Being able to see what’s going on around me helps me decide when and where to shoot.

Years ago, Scott Andersen was working as a photography stringer (biz speak for freelancer) for the Associated Press in Oklahoma City. Since OKC isn’t too far off, our paths would cross when we were shooting, particularly when we were both working college sports. Once day at an Oklahoma University basketball game, he and I were shooting, and he looked over at me and incredulously asked, “You shoot basketball horizontal?”

Yes, I do hold my camera horizontally (landscape mode) rather than vertically for basketball. I’ve always been more comfortable shooting it that way, though I didn’t really analyze the mechanics of it until recently.

I was shooting a college basketball at ECU‘s Kerr Activities Center here in Ada and thought for a moment about what exactly I was doing, when I put it together: I hold the camera horizontally so I can lower it slightly and see the whole court so I can keep track of the action, which helps me decided when and where to shoot. I believe this is because I am a left-eyed shooter, so though it is open, my right eye is blocked by the camera body. Right-eyed people can see the court without moving their camera.

My results are a little different than those who hold vertically, but in all honesty, most of my action imagery is aimed at the moment of conflict, which includes moments like fast breaks and loose ball scrambles, and those kinds of plays often defy composition, so they might be horizontal, vertical, or square.

Horizontal action can be just as powerful as vertical. In this play, Byng Pirate forward Dineh Bohan is fouled driving to the basket. Readers also might recall that Dineh was one of the Byng yearbook students who took my class last summer.

Horizontal action can be just as powerful as vertical. In this play, Byng Pirate forward Dineh Bohan is fouled driving to the basket. Readers also might recall that Dineh was one of the Byng yearbook students who took my class last summer.

The 85mm is Dead; Long Live the 85mm

By , December 20, 2014 11:51 pm
For sports like basketball, particularly if I worked the baseline, the 85mm was capable of making intimate, engaging action photos like this 2001 image of Latta Panther basketball.

For sports like basketball, particularly if I worked the baseline, the 85mm was capable of making intimate, engaging action photos like this 2001 image of Latta Panther basketball.

I bought the AF-Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 in about 1993. I didn’t really need it, but I’d never owned an 85mm, and the focal length had some legend attached to it.

In the film era, the 85mm was an excellent choice for portraits, but it was a little on the short side for sports. Once in a while I shot a basketball game with it, but it never really sang in that role. Then in 2001, I got my first digital camera, which had a smaller sensor, 24mm x 15mm, and the 85mm suddenly delivered for close-in sports like basketball.

At one point a few years later I found a used manual focus 85mm f/2.0 of 1984 vintage, and found it to be a better lens in all respects than the autofocus. In about 2003, I traded it away to help fund an additional digital camera.

After 21 years of hard use, the AF 85mm finally started acting its age; the focus mechanism began to stick and grind, in both manual and autofocus modes. I sent it to Nikon, but they sent it back, no charge, saying they couldn’t fix it because they don’t make parts for it any more. I consider it unusable, but in a pinch you could probably use it in manual focus mode, though it would require a bit of patience.

It’s not like I am without that focal length, since I’ve got several zooms that will do it, and a couple of primes in that same focal length class, but I will still miss it. I made some great images with it over the years.

My AF-Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 sits mounted on one of my D200s;  though it can technically still make images, I consider it retired.

My AF-Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 sits mounted on one of my D200s; though it can technically still make images, I consider it retired.

The Backup Camera

By , December 20, 2014 11:48 pm

With a couple of days off, I spent part of them looking at other photographer’s web sites. Several of them talk about both the art of photography and the technology, which I believe is nicely balanced.

One topic that I’ve seen several times is the idea of owning or carrying a “backup camera.” This idea is almost universal and refers to using one camera exclusively while on a shoot, while carrying a second, lesser camera body in your bag in case your “good” camera dies.

I’m all about redundancy, but I work the “backup camera” differently. For me, the backup camera is a third camera, and it’s sometimes in the cabinet at the office, and sometimes with me. The reason is that in my professional photography, I routinely shoot with at least two cameras, one with a telephoto zoom and one with something wide. No lens changes are ever necessary – I just grab the other camera.

When you see me working, most of the time it will look like this: several cameras with several lenses, used with seamless interchange to allow me to capture the immediacy and intimacy of the moment.

When you see me working, most of the time it will look like this: several cameras with several lenses, used with seamless interchange to allow me to capture the immediacy and intimacy of the moment.

In this scenario, I usually prefer my cameras to be equals with the same capability. Not only does that keep me from preferring one over the other, it means that if one of them craps out on me, the second camera will still give me the results I need.

Having a backup camera, for me, then, means having three identical cameras. The backup camera is locked in the cabinet in my office, and gets rotated into my hands every few days so they all get about the same amount of use.

I can hear the photo.netters now, saying they can’t afford three $5000 cameras, and in my mind that means they can’t afford to be real photographers. As I have said before, most “photographers” don’t need any $5000 cameras – they need to wear out three $500 cameras. Add to that the fact that I believe that using older, less capable gear can make us better photographers by forcing us to use our wits and creativity instead of blasting away at 11 frames per second or cranking the ISO to 102,400.

Top Gun
United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program is a great example of this. Top Gun students get state of the art carried-based fighter jets like the F/A-18 Super Hornet, and instructors customarily fly smaller, simpler aircraft, and virtually always defeated their students in combat scenarios. Why? Because airplanes don’t win battles, pilots do. The exact same thing applies to photography; cameras don’t make great photographs, photographers do.

Bottom line: If you really can’t afford two identical or at least very similar cameras for use in most basic shooting scenarios, it might be a smart play to take  a step back from photography and redefine your priorities: letting go of devotion to the “latest and greatest” technology, and taking hold of using more modest means to make more honest images.

Lessons and Ideas from Long Ago

By , December 17, 2014 4:42 pm
Tres Montosas, a peak on U.S. 60 near Magdalena, New Mexico, September 2000; this image was made with a red filter on a 135mm f/3.5 Nikkor of 1978 vintage.

Tres Montosas, a peak on U.S. 60 near Magdalena, New Mexico, September 2000; this image was made with a red filter on a 135mm f/3.5 Nikkor of 1978 vintage.

On my travel blog, I post images from all of our adventures, including some from quite long ago. The oldest in the collection is a college road trip from 1985.

In 1985, the year I got my first newspaper job, I carried a 28mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.2, a 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, a 105mm f/2.5 and a 200mm f/4.

I bought this Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 used in the mid 1990s. It is an "AI" lens, which dates it as pre-1981 or so. I think I paid $75 for it. It was lightweight and amazingly sharp.

I bought this Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 used in the mid 1990s. It is an “AI” lens, which dates it as pre-1981 or so. I think I paid $75 for it. It was lightweight and amazingly sharp.

In the early years of these adventures, I had between my ears that instead of shooting these trips like I shoot news, I was just going to make “high art.” Looking back, I believe this was a mistake. There’s nothing wrong with attempting to be artistic, but that goal got in the way of recording the event and making memories. I made far fewer images than I probably should have.

At the time, I eschewed zoom lenses. In my defense, at that point in photographic history, zooms weren’t what they have become in the 21st century.

I recall that by 1987 my kit for shooting news included these Nikkor lenses: 20mm f/2.8, 24mm f/2.0, 28mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2.0, a 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, 105mm f/1.8, 180mm f/2.8, and a 300mm f/4.5. It was a pretty standard bag for a news shooter in that era. You could do a lot with it, but it was a lot of very heavy glass.

On a hiking trip in 1990, I took only one lens, a 55mm macro, thinking that I didn’t want to carry all that heavy equipment on a long backpacking trip. It’s a good lens, but not nearly as versatile as it needed to be.

In the 1990s, I bought some nice used lenses, including a 28mm f/3.5 and a 135mm f/3.5, that were super sharp and very lightweight, so that by the time of the 1999 and 2000 photo vacations, I was getting the hang of assembling travel photography gear. Since I still wasn’t a big zoom lens shooter, I knew well how to use the 28mm or the 135mm and “zoom with my feet.”

A buddy of mine gave me this old Minolta with a Tokina 35-105mm f/3/5-4.3 zoom of 1985 vintage. I've never shot anything with it, but my guess is that it's not impressively sharp, but would have been a good choice for a trip to New York City or Denver back in the day.

A buddy of mine gave me this old Minolta with a Tokina 35-105mm f/3/5-4.3 zoom of 1985 vintage. I’ve never shot anything with it, but my guess is that it’s not impressively sharp, but would have been a good choice for a trip to New York City or Denver back in the day.

I was stuck in the “prime lenses are the only lenses” paradigm for a long time. I wasn’t wrong, though, since so many early zooms were junk. Still, looking back, I believe I would have been more successful with a midrange zoom than with one or two primes, particularly if I’d been able to see my goal as more about recording the moment and less about creating perfect art.

Despite having a smaller image sensor than a DSLR, the trump card of the Fuji HS30 EXR is its light weight and super-versatile 24-720mm (equivalent) lens.

Despite having a smaller image sensor than a DSLR, the trump card of the Fuji HS30 EXR is its light weight and super-versatile 24-720mm (equivalent) lens.

My wife Abby and I came across a cattle drive in Mancos, Colorado in October. We both jumped out of the car and tried to chase it down. Abby is pictured here with her Fuji HS30 EXR, a small, light, easy to use and carry bridge/prosumer camera. It would have been close to impossible for her to use a bag full of heavy DSLR gear in a situation like this.

My wife Abby and I came across a cattle drive in Mancos, Colorado in October. We both jumped out of the car and tried to chase it down. Abby is pictured here with her Fuji HS30 EXR, a small, light, easy to use and carry bridge/prosumer camera. It would have been close to impossible for her to use a bag full of heavy DSLR gear in a situation like this.

In 1983, I had a Sigma 28-80mm zoom for a short time. I traded it away by 1985, but sometimes I think I could have put it to good use on trips like A New York Minute in 1985 or Into the Fire in 1990, particularly since most of the images I made then were either in bright light or from a tripod, which would have allowed me to use smaller apertures, at least somewhat improving the image quality.

I guess the good news after all this hemming and hawing is that I have settled in to formula: lightweight zooms either on a digital SLR or built into a bridge/prosumer model. It’s a completely different style of photographer than my daily shooting with big, heavy lenses and multiple pro cameras, but it is more fun and more productive for those occasions.

Today my favorite lens for travel is the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G II ED. It is a compromise between image quality and versatility, but for road trips and hiking jaunts, it excels in letting me capture the moment.

Today my favorite lens for travel is the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G II ED. It is a compromise between image quality and versatility, but for road trips and hiking jaunts, it excels in letting me capture the moment.

What the Camera Sees vs What We Want It to See

By , December 7, 2014 1:56 pm

Much of the time photography is about capturing what we see – not necessarily what is real or correct – and delivering that to our audience. There are many variables, including composition, lens selection, aperture and shutter speed, focus point, position with regard to the background, position with regard to the light, and so on.

One aspect I keep emphasizing is exposure, or more simply, the apparent brightness or darkness of an image. One reason I keep hitting this point is that it’s one thing our cameras can do without any input from us. Our cameras can’t tell the model to smile, they can’t tell us where to stand, they can’t decide for us to be at a cliff at sunset, but they can determine how bright an image appears.

Brightness values come into play more than ever now, during the holiday season, when we are dazzled and amazed by Christmas trees and lighting displays, and are eager to photograph them. The trouble crops up when our camera sees bright lights and says, “Oops, the scene is too bright. I better make it darker.” Camera exposure algorithms are biased to protect highlights (since a pure white tone from a digital sensor contains no detail), so often a camera will, by default, pick an exposure like this…

100mm @ f/16, 1/3 of a second

100mm @ f/16, 1/3 of a second

I tell my photography students that in my day-to-day shooting, I use exposure compensation to finesse brightness for pretty much every image.

I tell my photography students that in my day-to-day shooting, I use exposure compensation to finesse brightness for pretty much every image.

This is not how we perceive Christmas lights, nor does it express to our audience the essence of the scene, which, in my view, harkens back to our childhood perceptions of the beautiful, bright lights of the holidays. Since the camera, presumably, has neither the desire to express this brightness nor childhood experiences on which to draw, we the photographers have to step in with aggressive use of exposure compensation. In the image below, everything is the same except the exposure time; made in aperture priority at f/16, I went from 0.0 exposure compensation to +2.7, which told the camera to change the shutter speed from 1/3rd of a second to 3.6 seconds. As you can see, the image below is much more expressive of the beautiful brightness of holiday lighting.

100mm @ f/16, 3.6 seconds.

100mm @ f/16, 3.6 seconds.

 

The Need to Be Obvious

By , November 30, 2014 1:20 pm

Photography and the internet are no longer just kissing cousins: they are married. They are so deeply integrated by this point in history that neither can exist without the other. Thus, to succeed in photography, one must master the internet, and to succeed on the internet, one must master photography.

You might feel like you are creating something deep and permanent with your fine art images, but in the 21st century, you need to be able to knock someone over, not only with your images, but with your web presence as well.

You might feel like you are creating something deep and permanent with your fine art images, but in the 21st century, you need to be able to knock someone over, not only with your images, but with your web presence as well.

I thought about this as I clicked a few photographer’s links on Linkedin.com, the job search web site. I found one in site particular (name withheld) that, to me, is emblematic of a very serious problem photographers have with the internet: they like to play hide-and-seek with their work. This site featured a grey background with a phone number and an email address, and six categories on the left side of the frame. Clicking on each category showed us about five sample images of each type of photography.

Okay, I get it. “My photography is so good, all I need is this taste teaser and they’ll flock to me.” Let me tell this guy and his ilk, as a magazine editor, I’m skipping his site and his work. I’ve got a thousand things to do today, and they don’t include trying to figure out his stupid web site.

It is sometimes said in the newspaper world that we write articles on a sixth grade level. While that might sound a bit insulting to newspapers and a bit patronizing to readers, it is a dark necessity. Television is produced to be accessible at an even lower level.

If you are a photographer and are looking for work or just to get your work noticed, taking the high road will leave you lonely. Editors are busy, and are frequently far less thoughtful than I am. They neither understand nor care about your spare, mysterious, enigmatic use of negative space. They don’t care about your clever double entendres. They need to know what you can do.

Be obvious.

Not the Place for Greatness

By , November 22, 2014 3:26 pm

In a recent comment session with fellow photographer Wil C. Fry, we talked about an image I made in 2006 at Muley Point, Utah. My wife Abby and I were taking a driving tour loop south from Monticello, Utah, through Cedar Mesa, past Muley Point, down the Moki Dugway, and through Valley of the Gods. It was a beautifully bright, clear day. Abby and I both shot well. Or so we thought.

One of the things we saw and photographed at Muley Point was Monument Valley, about 30 miles south. Despite the sunshine, there was a considerable amount of haze in the distance, and since haze scatters blue light, the spires of Monument Valley looked very blue. But overall, the image expressed the tone of the day, and the impressive distance views of the desert.

This is one of the exposures I made at Muley Point, Utah, in 2006. The tonal quality is very much as I had pictured it, and correctly reflects the brightness values of the scene.

This is one of the exposures I made at Muley Point, Utah, in 2006. The tonal quality is very much as I had pictured it, and correctly reflects the brightness values of the scene.

The noticeably blue haze in the distance seemed to distract me (particularly with my black-and-white, haze-cutting-filter roots), so I decided to ask a web forum, photo.net, for suggestions. Maybe someone there had a similar problem and found a solution, possibly in the form of an Adobe Photoshop action.

Pretty much as soon as I had posted it, someone laid into me: “There’s no way to advise you since this image is horribly overexposed.”

I took the image and my comments down as soon as I read that, because that kind of comment is the way the internet community rolls: one-dimensional, judgmental, completely ill-informed blanket condemnations.

Some part of me thinks I should have called the guy out: your weren’t there, you didn’t shoot this, you don’t know how it looked, and you had no way of knowing what I wanted. But I knew better. No one on the internet ever backs down and thanks you for setting them straight. They usually just call you names.

My takeaway from this is that it is usually a waste of valuable time, energy and creative thought to attempt to get much more than basic advice from web forums and social media. Better advice is to follow your heart, your creative spirit, and your instincts. The internet is not the place for greatness.

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