Anticipating an early voter turnout Tuesday, I drove directly from our home in Byng to Konawa to cover the school bond issue election. It was just after seven in the morning, and the sun was still below the horizon. I immediately noticed that farm ponds had fog above them and anticipated that the Canadian River, which I would shortly cross, would as well.
I drove across the U.S. 377 bridge, parked in a safe spot, put on my highway safety vest, grabbed three cameras and walked to the center of the bridge over the river. For the record, I don’t recommend this, and I did it as a journalist. I know, I know — do as I say, not as I do, but drivers can get distracted in a moment, and it’s not always easy to see in early morning light.
Sunlight caught the rising fog exactly as I had anticipated, and the scene did not disappoint. I shot it with all three cameras — one with a 300mm lens, one with an 80-200mm lens,and one with a wide angle. All three scenes expressed something slightly different about the scene, and I was glad I lugged all the hardware with me.
How many times has someone come up to me with their phone in hand and started telling me, “I didn’t have my camera with me, but…” They then show me an image they made with their phone that tells only part of the story. Despite constantly improving technology in smartphones, they lack something. Maybe they lack the attitude of a camera.
The lesson is: Always have your camera with you. I know this is easy to say if you’re like me and have had cameras within arm’s reach since I was in high school, but it can really pay off.
I get asked this question a lot: can I use my macro lens for portraits? The answer, of course, is yes. It’s a mistake to pigeon-hole lenses, or to lean too heavily on the idea that one kind of photo can only be made by one kind of lens.
Tools in the tool box...
When I talk about portrait lenses, it’s important to note that great portraits are made with every focal length imaginable, from ultrawides to super-telephotos, and it’s critical to remember that every lens is another tool in the photographic tool box.
So what is the issue here? A “classic portrait” lens is generally one of a medium telephoto focal length… 75mm-ish to 180mm-ish, such that we can photograph people at comfortable distances and still fill the frame with their bodies and faces. These lenses are usually thought of as have large maximum apertures.
Many portrait lenses have been venerated for decades as great for this… in 35mm film photography, for example, the 100mm-105mm focal length range was considered the “sweet spot.” I had three 105mm Nikkor lenses, two f/2.5s and an f/1.8. When digital came along and preserved the format size (a sensor size somewhere near the size of a 35mm film frame), those focal lengths translate well.
Okay, Richard. I have a 100mm macro lens. It’s in that focal length range. Is it a good portrait lens? There are a couple of factors that might impair a macro lens’ ability to make great portraits.
1. They are optimized to be their sharpest a very close focus settings. One consequence of this is “hunting,” in which autofocus moves forward and back trying to find the focus, and macro lenses have a huge range in which to hunt.
2. They often included less-than-idea “bokeh,” a term which describes the out of focus area of an image. For example, one of my favorite macro lenses, the AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, is amazingly sharp, but exhibits ratty, seven-sided bokeh. It is not a good portrait lens in most instances.
A zoom in this focal length range can have some of the same drawbacks: they are good at all focal lengths, but aren’t spectacular at any of them. Zoom are also heavy, and can attract a lot of attention and be a little intimidating. An exception to this might be the big f/2.8 zooms, which are very popular among portrait shooters, but also very expensive and very heavy.
My favorite portrait lens is my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G, which is sharp, lightweight, affordable, and exhibits beautiful, smooth bokeh. I can make backgrounds vanish into the ether by shooting with it at f/2.0 or so.
Before you get out the credit card and start buying lenses, consider also that any and every camera and lens can make great portraits in the right circumstances. If you have a macro lens, make some portraits with it. It might be the lens for you.
Lately I’ve been taking a long view of photography, turning it over in my mind and trying to decide what it is, what it isn’t, and who I am in the midst of it. Honestly, I’m feeling a little lost, which I think is true for a lot of photographers from my generation.
In the movie Reds, one of the witnesses says, “Reed thought he was a good poet.” He makes a disgusted face. “He was a terrible poet.” Like Reed, I probably think I am better at some things than I actually am. Some aspects of photography? Sure.
In the middle of all this, I was collared by a nice young lady at our recent AdaFest celebration who wanted to know if I would write a piece about how to process black-and-white film. I ended up writing my column about it, since everything about souping (processing) film is still in my head, along with other uselessly outdated skills like how to win at Missile Command. It was nice that I could share these skills and ideas, but I’m not at all sure I gave anyone anything useful.
I have recently been a little overwhelmed by the “everyone is a photographer” paradigm. Closer to the truth, of course, is that everyone with a camera or even a smartphone is perceived as a photographer.
Part of this misperception is in the idea that technically perfect photos are better photos. An excellent example of this is shown in the next image…
I put this image in a book of my travel photos. Upon showing it to two photographers, they first rolled their eyes at each other, then hesitantly asked me if I “meant” to have all that flare and ghosting in the image. I didn’t even feel obligated to explain it to them, since it was obvious they had made up their minds. But yes, of course I “meant” to include the flare and ghosting. That was the essence of the image: the brilliant Utah sun overwhelms us with light, so beautiful in the blue blue sky. But their urge to see it as a flaw, and thus to see perfect images as a goal, blinded them to its beauty.
One thing I do all the time is have a camera – not a phone with a camera in it – with me when I walk the dogs or work outside. There really is something tangibly positive about making myself use a camera when it is, by definition, less convenient than using my phone.
So am I really overmatched, played out, washed up, old? I will emphasize that what I do best, photojournalism, I do better than most, but maybe I’m feeling the pressure of my craft becoming less valuable. Best AM radio. Best eight track tape. Best leisure suit.
I will continue to do photojournalism while I can, and although I know my audience likes my work, that doesn’t mean they can support it. I love what I do.
My wife Abby and I live on a pretty little patch of green in southern Oklahoma. I garden, tend an orchard, and walk our dogs in this bucolic paradise. I have always enjoyed photographing this land, and when the light is right, it can yield some of the best fine art images in my portfolio.
Lately I’ve been grabbing lenses known for their dream-like imaging capabilities, lenses with large maximum apertures that can produce flattering “bokeh” in the out-of-focus areas of the image. Recently, those lenses have been the AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, and the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.
In the past few days I’ve made a point to lug around my rare and beautifully-made Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 of 1985 vintage.
An interesting phenomena for me is that I get this lens out with the intention of using it, then don’t really use it. The whole point of shooting with this behemoth is to use it at f/2.0, “wide open,” and at this setting it is quite unforgiving. If I miss the focus by a few millimeters, the image is unusable.
With a beautiful late-summer sun setting one day this week, I ran into the house after walking our Irish Wolfhound and watering the garden, and grabbed the 200mm, and ran back into the yard just in time to take advantage of the golden moment and this rare, special lens.
Sure enough, when I reviewed my images after dark, half of them were unusable due to subtle focus errors. The images that were in perfect focus were magnificent, subtly sharp in a dream-like way that made the light on the leaves absolutely sing.
An oddly enduring myth about this lens is that it has “good” or “beautiful” bokeh. This is the classic mistake of confusing selective focus with bokeh. This lens has over-the-top selective focus, since f/2.0 at this focal length can throw the background so far out of focus, but if you examine the bokeh, defined as the quality of the out-of-focus area, you can see that it’s ratty and cluttered.
If you are willing to redefine “bokeh” as simply being all the way out of focus, every lens has “great bokeh” if you just use empty blue sky as the background.
But the main reason I seldom use this magnificent lens is its weight, more than five pounds, all of it in the front. It is a bear to use handheld, and awkward to use on a monopod. It’s easy to say that I don’t like heavy lenses now that I’m older, but I’ve never loved lugging them around, and doing so creates a payoff of diminishing results: huge lenses are only marginally better than not-so-huge lenses.
Finally, no, I don’t ever want to sell it. It’s one of the best examples of cameras from years ago, when lenses were made to last a lifetime.
In the past few weeks I’ve been pondering my strengths and weaknesses. As a result, one immediate and unimportant change has been my deletion of my personal Twitter account. I might have followed 11 people, several of whom stopped posting months ago, and maybe four people followed me. I seldom Tweeted.
More consequential might be my thoughts about videography. I am a competent videographer, but simply don’t have the resource or the motivation to commit myself to making videos, and I don’t want to be a vlogger/vidiot who posts 32 minute rants of myself talking to the camera. I see too much of that, and despise it.
I certainly don’t want to become what I despise.
Since acquiring my first video camera in 2001, the excellent Canon GL-1, I have attempted to integrate video into my web presence, and after all these years I have concluded it’s just not for me. That might change one day if I got a job in the field or could generate tons of income from it, but today, my best videos are just a distraction. I am pretty sure my readership feels the same way: Richard is a great photographer and a good storyteller, but his videos don’t match up.
I have also said in past entries that as video resolution increases, quality falters, and that almost all video is worthless without the most important element: a good script.
So, if you are patrolling richardbarron.net and see a link to a video that doesn’t exist, or see any empty links at all, let me know and I’ll fix it.
As much as photographers seem intent on relishing the power of large-maximum-aperture lenses and their selective focus, I was reminded over the last few days about the perils of overusing this feature, and that we need to keep in mind that it is a tool in the toolbox and not a goal unto itself.
I thought about this when the sun was streaming in through some windows as I got ready for work, and took the time to shoot a few frames. I decided to shoot “wide open,” at f/1.4, the largest maximum aperture of any lens I own, and a genuinely large aperture. Only a few specialized and expensive lenses have these impressively large maximum apertures. Legendary lenses like the Canon 85mm f/1.2, Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 (I had one in college) and 58mm f/1.2 aspheric, the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0, and esoteric glass like the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95 are some examples.
So what draws us to these lenses? What can we construct with these tools? Without a doubt, the first answer is selective focus, often very dramatic selective focus. We can then combine that tool with one like, say, movement, and have our backgrounds just like we want them.
The simplest background in all of photography is a neutral-grey roll of background paper about five feet behind the subject, evenly lit. It’s so simple and uninvolved that it’s barely ever a participant. It works. It works to create a rigid, predicable image that has a useful but narrow set of applications.
The challenge arises, however, when we want to use backgrounds as an element in our images. Whether it be a field of wheat at sunset or the dazzling lights on the Las Vegas Strip at midnight, it becomes a contributor to our image. Will we use this as a compositional and narrative tool, or to show off our power to buy expensive lenses?
There is certainly no paucity of opinion about why it’s so hard to make a living in the 21st century as a photographer. A growing consensus claims the problem is that “everyone is a photographer” because every has a camera. It’s a pretty solid idea, and it’s difficult to refute.
But I have some different notions about it.
If you have seen documentaries like The Corporation or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, you probably have a pretty firm grasp of the idea that right and wrong have little bearing on the actions of corporations, and that corporations are the most powerful institutions in the world. As long as that’s true, photographers will struggle.
In 1991, I learned of an opening for the chief photographer job at a major state university. I applied, as did many in my field, and didn’t get the job, despite the fact that I felt certain I would have been a great choice. The selection was made by a committee, and they picked an applicant who was the most “quailfied” on paper, but was such a terrible jackass they had to fire him 18 months later, and I knew when they hired him it was a mistake.
In 2016, during a period when I felt our editor (who was later fired) was trying to force me out, I applied for a staff photographer position with the media relations department of a very fast-growing organization. I felt I was perfect for that job as well. The position went to someone who seemed to have all the perfect qualifications and accreditations, but early on, I would not only see his work and wonder why it was so weak. I would see him at events we were both covering and be mystified at the way he was photographing the situation. I remember one time I was at the front of a large meeting room photographing a keynote speaker, and getting pretty good stuff, only to look up and see that photographer at the back of the room 30 yards away, and I never saw him move. The images they send to my newspaper are mediocre, far beneath what I would demand from a professional photographer.
Two years ago local hospital hired me to shoot some images of their new medical staff members. They were happy with the images until the people who hired me left or were fired, when the corporation decided they were “going a different direction” with the staff photos.
This year I was approached by a long-time admirer who worked for a growing financial institution, who told me he wanted to bring me on for a number of projects. I shot one for them in March and they paid me, but then I didn’t hear from them in many weeks. I emailed them, and they came back with, “In the past couple of months, the Marketing and Communications Committee of XYZ has discussed various budget items…” Okay, a committee, where ideas and creativity go to die. This was followed by… you can guess: they sent our newspaper an unbelievably terrible photo of their latest groundbreaking ceremony. Good enough for a committee, I guess.
A newspaper in another community sent us some storm damage photos this week, two of which were obviously shot with a cell phone through the windshield of a car as it made its way down the road. How is this good enough for … anyone?
One very frustrating thing corporations do is refuse to tell you not only why they didn’t hire you, but even that they didn’t hire you. “Please contact me and let me know your decision” is always met by silence.
What can we conclude from these odd outcomes?
Corporations have difficulty recognizing talent, and can only understand tangible credentials like certificates and degrees.
Corporations make their money by getting more for less, and are often inclined to try to cheat photographers and other artists in the less-tangible fields by offering them something non-monetary, like “exposure.” I had someone offer me exactly that… “a chance to hand out your business card”… recently.
Money people almost always discard artistic endeavor as being too expensive, and rely on cheaper alternatives, the way that the Chicago Sun-Times did by laying off all 26 of their photographers and training their reporters to take pictures with their phones. An overworked PR clerk with an iPhone seems like enough to the people with tailored suits.
Corporations by their very nature are mostly concerned with the next month or the next quarter. Their vision is to keep the stockholder happy when the next report comes in, no matter what that night cause in five years.
No corporation needs or wants journalists. A journalist takes pictures of people when they get laid off by corporations. The creative and photographic banality is part of why a corporation desires boring, “safe” people. Corporations don’t actually seek out creative people, people who scratch and claw to get to the truth.
I don’t want to sound bitter, and compared to a lot of other photographer’s complaints on social media, I don’t.
Add to this that someone recently posted a link on social media to a CBS story about LGBTQ people being concerned they are being passed over or even fired because they are “out,” openly practicing their sexuality.
Do I think I have lost job opportunities because I am an atheist? Yes. Do I think it’s possible I could be fired because of it? Yes.
I thought about all this as I received yet another grimly disappointing photo, submitted to my newspaper, from a photographer who was chosen for a position for which I applied.
From a friend of mine in the arts...
I just got turned down for a job, the third time that’s happened to me so far this week. Of those jobs, I was phone-interviewed for one, a conversation that lasted seven minutes.
I’ve been an actor and writer for decades. I can handle rejection. Boy, can I. But it’s one thing to face rejection when I know my application was a stretch. It’s another to know for an absolute fact I was qualified and would’ve excelled in the position. That type hurts. It depletes my mana for a while. I’m not gonna lie and say it doesn’t.
But of course, then I dust myself off, square my shoulders and brave the rain again in search of sunnier climes
All is not lost, however, only misplaced. I am employed as a professional photographer, and the community regards me as a rock star. I do good work, and we publish it every day.
As someone who appreciates language and its correct, accurate use, I am aggravated to conclude that the photography community has completely usurped and perverted the word “bokeh.”
Originally, this term, sometimes loosely translated from Japanese as “blur” or “haze,” referred to the quality of out-of-focus portions of a photograph. Thus, it didn’t describe how far out of focus something was, nor did it describe how much of a photo was out of focus.
It’s been vernacularized. Since we live in a society of abbreviators, it has become a catch-all abbreviation for any occasion we use or see selective focus or shallow depth of field.
We’re all using this term incorrectly, which continues to erode the beauty and precision of language. A good analog for it might be “LOL,” which once stood for “Laughing Out Loud,” but which today is a word unto itself. LOL.
Another enduring myth of photography is the sensor size myth. We see it every day: photographers buy large sensors because they have “better bokeh.” In fact, sensors have no effect on bokeh at all, and their effect on selective focus is thoroughly misunderstood. Depth of field is the result of aperture, focal length and magnification. The reason it is so prevalently associated with sensor size is that with a larger sensor, you have to move closer to the subject to fill the frame with the same lens. Moving closer makes the depth of field shallower, but the sensor size does not.
Maybe what fools most of the people most of the time is that photographers don’t move closer and end up with more of the image out of focus, as in the following examples…
This is all part of a sour evolution of photography from mastery to money. Not only do the camera and lens manufacturers want you to believe their myths, they encourage consumers to espouse these myths, and they do. Not only do we hear a lot of “should I buy XYZ?” but also a frightening amount of “you should but XYZ.” It’s an unambiguous victory for commerce, but a crippling obstacle for artistry.
Sometimes when I remember events in my life from when I was younger, I wonder why I didn’t take as many photos as I imagine I should have. I am, after all, a professional photographer, and I should have been the one to document that ski trip in 1990, that nighttime glow-in-the-dark Frisbee game, that beautiful 105mm lens I sold.
So why didn’t I take all those pictures back in the film era?
It wasn’t like that back then. Digital photography, particularly smartphone photograph, has created the misperception that we all need a thousand photos of our lives every day, and if you aren’t photographing every meal and every sunset, you are a flip-phone neo-Luddite.
Shooting lots of frames equalled expensive processing, or in my case, laborious darkroom work. It’s easy to forget that one of digital photography’s most revolutionary aspects is its affordability. You can shoot 10 or 100 or a 1000 images, with very little added cost. Have you priced a roll of film and the price to get it developed lately? It was expensive in 1990, too.
I actually was taking a lot of pictures. If I shot 20 frames at a friend’s birthday party, his wife might have shot three frames with her point-and-shoot.
I often feel this way about the slim number of electives I took in high school. I see kids today active in sports, farm and ranch, yearbook, web development, cheer, and more, and wonder why I wasn’t. But, it wasn’t like that back then. My school allowed one non-academic elective, and for me, it was yearbook.
I want to marry these thoughts with a trend I have been observing recently…
There is a huge hipster/millenial move right now toward shooting film. I certainly find any efforts to amp our creativity to new levels very laudable. I don’t, however, think shooting film is the way I want to go, and here’s why…
If you are scanning your film to create a digital product, you are shooting digitally. The only way to shoot completely analog is to develop your film and print your film using an enlarger. Doing otherwise creates an unnecessary and wasteful step in creating a digital image.
Photographers are feeling out-competed by a crowded market, and want to step aside and be thought of as geniuses or magicians again. I feel this, too. Rank amateurs are learning to photograph the Milky Way by watching YouTube tutorials, taking that away from professionals.
When digital arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, it was the solution to all the problems we faced with film. With film, grain was obvious at even modest ISO settings, film stuck us with one ISO setting for each roll or film, film faced the possibility of accidental exposure ruining film or paper, film required a time-consuming process that created pollutants, film only allowed a limited ability to review images in the field (Polaroids) and and film had a higher-than-digital cost per frame.
Some photographers claim they like the “look” of film. But photographers almost always make some kind of “look” edit in software to their scanned film files, usually in a way they could do better with an original digital file.
It’s absolutely true that I made many great images on photographic film during the first half of my career, but it is equally true that I heard many great songs on AM radio when I was growing up, but I haven’t tuned to an AM radio station to listen to music in 20 years.
I feel convinced that this hipster movement is just a fad. I’m certainly glad that someone out there is having fun with film, I am aware that there are reasons to keep film alive, and I am in possession of a number of great film cameras in good working order. But there are very few new film cameras being made, film is getting harder to obtain and more expensive, and when was the last time you used an enlarger to make prints in a real darkroom?
If you feel like you are struggling creatively, maybe you don’t need either film or a new digital camera. Maybe you need to find a narrative. You need to take your imaging from technical recording to storytelling. You need to push the limits of fundamentals like light and composition. Nothing between your hands will inspire you as much as anything in your heart.
Note: I wrote this here first, but used it as my June 1, 2019 column.