What to Carry When Your Phone Isn’t Enough…

By , June 26, 2016 8:28 pm

… but your cameras are too much.

Abby leans out the passenger-side window of her truck to take pictures of a brooding thunderstorm near Groom, Texas on our last vacation, with her Fujifilm HS30EXR.

Abby leans out the passenger-side window of her truck to take pictures of a brooding thunderstorm near Groom, Texas on our last vacation, with her Fujifilm HS30EXR.

In addition to making great video and very cool fisheye-angle stills, my Ion AirPro3 is waterproof to 50 meters.

In addition to making great video and very cool fisheye-angle stills, my Ion AirPro3 is waterproof to 50 meters.

Readers might recall from our travel blog that my wife Abby and I just returned from a New Mexico getaway. Fewer readers might be aware that despite being professional photographers with access to a fair amount of heavy pro gear, neither Abby nor I bring any of that.

For years now, Abby and I have embraced a doctrine of traveling light. Our goal is to have fun, and the less we can carry, the better. Whether for hiking and camping, or, like on our most recent trip, driving around exploring northern New Mexico, we have settled into having our matching Fujifilm HS30EXRs as our main cameras, with occasional help from my Ion AirPro3 action cam, my tiny but very apt Olympus FE-5020, and very occasionally, our iPhones.

Nothing about your gear is as important as your willingness to make pictures even in adverse conditions, like this New Mexico rainbow I shot in a blowing rain. You can ever see raindrops on the lens, but the message of the beauty of the moment is still conveyed.

Nothing about your gear is as important as your willingness to make pictures even in adverse conditions, like this New Mexico rainbow I shot in a blowing rain. You can ever see raindrops on the lens, but the message of the beauty of the moment is still conveyed.

The Olympus FE-5020 is smaller and lighter than a smartphone, and has a much better lens.

The Olympus FE-5020 is smaller and lighter than a smartphone, and has a much better lens.

Why would I go to a point-and-shoot like the Olympus instead of my iPhone? Quick answer: the lens. A dirty little secret of the camera phone scene is that the “zoom” doesn’t actually “zoom” at all, but simply crops the existing image. The Olympus has an excellent 4.3-21.5mm lens equivalent to 24-120mm (in 35mm film terms) that no phone can touch.

Also, aside from making action movies, why bring an action cam? Quick answer: the lens. My Ion’s lens sees 170º, and is the equivalent to a fisheye lens.

This image was made with my Ion AirPro3's still-frame function, shot with the camera clipped to the driver's-side visor. As you can see, the view is super-wide.

This image was made with my Ion AirPro3’s still-frame function, shot with the camera clipped to the driver’s-side visor. As you can see, the view is super-wide.

Our Fuji cameras are equipped with non-removable 4.2-126mm lenses equivalent to 24-720mm in film terms, allowing me to explore scenes like a sunset we shot near Santa Fe on our first travel day…

This is the wide view of a beautiful New Mexico sunset. Compare it to the next frame, made with the same camera just a second or two later...

This is the wide view of a beautiful New Mexico sunset. Compare it to the next frame, made with the same camera just a second or two later…

The sun touches the edge of the mountains in this super-telephoto view made with the Fujifilm HS30EXR.

The sun touches the edge of the mountains in this super-telephoto view made with the Fujifilm HS30EXR.

At the end of the day, I empty my pockets and dump everything on the motel night stand: it's all small and none of it gets in the way.

At the end of the day, I empty my pockets and dump everything on the motel night stand: it’s all small and none of it gets in the way.

Our Fuji cameras are no longer made, but Fuji’s current line of Finepix cameras is similar. Nikon makes a line they call their “premium compact” cameras. Canon makes Powershot cameras that are in this class.

Abby and I always travel with our dogs, and between checking in at motels, letting the dogs do their business at rest stops, bringing luggage here and there, and handling all our affairs, it makes a big difference having small, lightweight cameras. We also carry our smallest laptop computer (a Macbook Air), our smallest concealed carry sidearms (her Kel-Tec P32 and my Ruger LCP) and our smallest, most compact luggage. Fun is our goal, and with this philosophy, we always have it.

In addition to being fun, lightweight and easy to carry, gems like our matching HS30EXR cameras make great images.

In addition to being fun, lightweight and easy to carry, gems like our matching HS30EXR cameras make great images.

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A Class with Class

By , June 21, 2016 8:39 am
A photography student makes pictures at the pond on the grounds of the Pontotoc Technology Center.

A photography student makes pictures at the pond on the grounds of the Pontotoc Technology Center.

Great things happen in this class.

Great things happen in this class.

My next class is Monday July 11, 18, and 25 from 6 to 9 p.m. It is Intermediate/Advanced Digital Photography, which was named for lack of a better term. It is, in fact, the class in which we take our beginner class skills, the nuts and bolts of photography, and put them into practice.

If you would like to be part of this class, start planning now to attend. To pre-enroll, called Becky McKenzie, Adult Coordinator, Pontotoc Technology Center, 580-310-2267.

Be ready for a photographic adventure as we prowl the spacious grounds of the Pontotoc Technology Center in search of the light and the moments that come together to make great images.

Since the next class is in July, we should have plenty of opportunities to explore the outdoors.

Since the next class is in July, we should have plenty of opportunities to explore the outdoors.

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A Tale of Two Twenty-Eights

By , May 24, 2016 2:58 am

I was digging though my lesser-used gear the other day, looking for a filter. I didn’t find it, but I did pull out a couple lenses that I seldom use: the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8,  and the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8D.

The AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 is small, lightweight, decently sharp, and cost just $74 on Ebay.

The AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 is small, lightweight, decently sharp, and cost just $74 on Ebay.

The 28mm, a fixed focal length lens, known in the game as a “prime” lens, is made mostly of plastic, and weighs just seven ounces. The 28-70mm, which is constructed of steel and brass to professional standards, is huge, and weighs 33 ounces, which is just shy of two pounds. The weight is a huge factor if, like me, you carry two or three camera for long periods, like when I am covering events.

The reason I don’t use them much is that my camera sensors are the so-called APS-C size, approximately 24x15mm, making these focal lengths fairly uninteresting. In fact, in some cases I find that the featherweight 50mm f/1.8 is a good stand-in for either of these, particularly given its nice, big maximum aperture. Additionally, even with 36x24mm sensors, 28mm is only just at the edge of wide angle territory, and 70mm is only just at the edge of telephoto.

The point of this entry is a concept known as diminishing returns. This concept is the bane of other endeavors, such as space travel: putting a man in space took a 66,000-pound rocket, while putting a man on the moon took a 6,540,000-pound rocket. This concept speaks to the value of economy of scale. You can accomplish 90% of your photographic goals with the bottom 10% of your gear.

So the next time you find yourself drooling over a $2400 zoom lens, take a moment to think about what you already have in your bag that could do the job, and instead of spending money, go make pictures.

David and Goliath? No, it's the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 vs the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8.

David and Goliath? No, it’s the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 vs the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8.

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Coloring with Lights

By , May 24, 2016 2:00 am
When in doubt, photographers photograph their equipment. This particular shot, you may notice, has a pleasing color balance, thanks to being lit entirely by white light flash units.

When in doubt, photographers photograph their equipment. This particular shot, you may notice, has a pleasing color balance, thanks to being lit entirely by white light flash units.

By now we should all be getting comfortable with concepts dealing with color, like white balance and saturation. If not, and I don’t mean this sarcastically at all, go back and look at your pictures of people, and ask yourself why most of their faces are too orange or too blue, which, in all honesty, they are. I say this based on the enormous number of images I see every day with bad flesh tones.

When you’re done with that, read on.

Shooting with just the red and blue lights gives about what you'd expect: a purplish image.

Shooting with just the red and blue lights gives about what you’d expect: a purplish image.

This looks like a red gel filter, but it is actually a magenta gel and a yellow gel sandwiched together.

This looks like a red gel filter, but it is actually a magenta gel and a yellow gel sandwiched together.

The other day I was scavenging an abandoned office at my workplace. I came across some Kodak Wratten filters (colored gels) in that search. These 3×3-inch plastic filters were originally used in by the production department to control the various renderings of the halftone products used to reproduce images in our newspaper. Despite the fact that they were damaged and obsolete, I decided I had a use for them: to change the color of light.

I brought them home and cobbled them together with clear tape. I was able to assemble a blue filter and a red-magenta filter, and I taped each one on a flash in my home studio.

Despite looking a bit purple in-hand, this filter is an honest photographic blue.

Despite looking a bit purple in-hand, this filter is an honest photographic blue.

I made a few images, and found I was glad to have this tool in my tool kit. Of course, you don’t necessarily need Wratten filters to change the color of the light. One excellent way to achieve this is by bouncing a flash into something colorful. Often one of the best items for this is the shiny foldable sunshade you see occasionally covering dashboards of parked cars on hot days. You can buy them with the other side in various colors, like red, gold or purple.

This is two white-light flashes with a blue flash as an accent.

This is two white-light flashes with a blue flash as an accent.

This image is lit with two white flash units and a red accent light.

This image is lit with two white flash units and a red accent light.

All-American lighting: a perfect balance of red, white, and blue.

All-American lighting: a perfect balance of red, white, and blue.

Altering the color of portions of your light can fundamentally change the look of your images, and the ability to do so is an excellent item to have in your bag. It can be a lot of fun, and it can throw some fuel on the embers of your creativity.

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Yes, It’s Bokeh

By , May 22, 2016 11:19 am
I made this image of necklaces for sale at the Pontotoc County Free Fair a couple of years ago with my AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 at f/2.8. I consider this image to exhibit "good" bokeh.

I made this image of necklaces for sale at the Pontotoc County Free Fair a couple of years ago with my AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 at f/2.8. I consider this image to exhibit “good” bokeh.

It’s not every day that I get to experience really terrible bokeh in the viewfinder.

Bokeh, as I have discussed before, and with which the internet is obsessed, is originally a Japanese word meaning “blur” or “haze,” is used to describe the quality (not the amount) of the out-of-focus portions of an image. About a grazillion factors influence bokeh, but the most significant is optical design of a lens.

I shot this image of a Bradford pear tree in bloom with my 1993-era AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. As you can see, the bokeh is a bit disappointing.

I shot this image of a Bradford pear tree in bloom with my 1993-era AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. As you can see, the bokeh is a bit disappointing.

I made this image in Santa Fe, New Mexico in October 2014, with my iPhone 5. Many photographers are under the misapprehension that cameras in cell phones don't produce images with bokeh, but in fact all images that have out-of-focus elements have bokeh, just not necessarily appealing.

I made this image in Santa Fe, New Mexico in October 2014, with my iPhone 5. Many photographers are under the misapprehension that cameras in cell phones don’t produce images with bokeh, but in fact all images that have out-of-focus elements have bokeh, just not necessarily appealing.

Bokeh, like anything that falls into the hands of the soulless nitpickers and techno-fanboys of the internet, can become a pointless goal unto itself. The rest of us, who have a reason for taking pictures other than showing off our knowledge of specifications and resolution charts, keep bokeh in the toolbox of photography, and bring it out when we need it to help us express ourselves.

But back to the topic at hand: seeing bad bokeh right there in the viewfinder. I was shooting the final home game of the year for the softball team at the college last month with my broken Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. I carry this lens as a lightweight second to my AF Nikkor 300mm f/4, with which I shoot the bulk of my action photos. At one point, I anticipated a play at first base, which was quite close to me, so I switched to the camera with the Tamron on it and focused on the first baseman…

This is what I saw: a bluntly obvious example of terrible, crosseyed bokeh. Don't believe me? Look at the word "soft" in the next image...

This is what I saw: a bluntly obvious example of terrible, crosseyed bokeh. Don’t believe me? Look at the word “soft” in the next image…

As you can see, this is the real appearance of the word "softball" at the college field; when it's out of focus, it is a bokeh nightmare.

As you can see, this is the real appearance of the word “softball” at the college field; when it’s out of focus, it is a bokeh nightmare.

I broke this 18-200mm Tamron lens while shooting my grandson's Christening in Baltimore in 2011. Abby and I both use newer lenses in this class for travel and event photography, so this one got relegated to a bang-around lens for me at work.

I broke this 18-200mm Tamron lens while shooting my grandson’s Christening in Baltimore in 2011. Abby and I both use newer lenses in this class for travel and event photography, so this one got relegated to a bang-around lens for me at work.

The reason lenses like this tend to have the photography world’s worst bokeh is that they are designed to do it all: be light, small, easy to use, wide-angle , telephoto, and finally, and maybe most importantly, cheap. Lenses with better bokeh tend to be best at just that. Lenses like my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, is not light or small or a versatile zoom or cheap, but lays down beautiful bokeh when used at close range with large apertures.

I have a buddy at work who sometimes uses the word “bokeh-y” to talk about some of my work. The term isn’t exactly correct; what he’s seeing is the use of selective focus with large-aperture lenses.

He’s toying with the idea of buying a AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, which wouldn’t be my first choice, but is cheap, and can deliver nice bokeh when using selective focus.

This is the setup for the image below.

This is the setup for the image below.

I have a another buddy, Scott Andersen, who just bought an AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, and he seems to love it, though I am seeing a slightly ratty bokeh in some of the images he posts. I would love to take a close look at his files one of these days and divine if I am seeing it correctly.

The downside to the 50mm f/1.8 (at least the two examples I use) is that it’s not very sharp at f/1.8, which is why I think the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 is a better choice.

I made this image this morning to show the powerful selective focus capability and the pleasing bokeh exhibited by the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8. To make the in-focus details of this image look sharp, though, required quite a bit of unsharp mask.

I made this image this morning to show the powerful selective focus capability and the pleasing bokeh exhibited by the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8. To make the in-focus details of this image look sharp, though, required quite a bit of unsharp mask.

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Friend or Foe: The Unsharp Mask

By , May 19, 2016 4:47 pm
I made this image at a soccer match earlier this spring. The moment of action was just right, but it's slightly out of focus. Since there is little clutter in the background, I filtered it with a fair amount of unsharp mask. It made the image noisier, but sharp enough to look good in the paper and online.

I made this image at a soccer match earlier this spring. The moment of action was just right, but it’s slightly out of focus. Since there is little clutter in the background, I filtered it with a fair amount of unsharp mask. It made the image noisier, but sharp enough to look good in the paper and online.

In the ocean of photography, there are few waters as muddy as the use of the unsharp mask. This filter, commonly found in Adobe editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom, but also used by a myriad of other programs, uses an algorithm of contrast enhancement to, typically, increase the perceived sharpness of an image. I won’t go into to much detail about how this is accomplished, but I will give some guidelines about its use.

Here is a direct A/B comparison showing what unsharp mask does.

Here is a direct A/B comparison showing what unsharp mask does.

  • Unsharp mask does not add any actual detail to an image. In fact, it is somewhat destructive, particularly if overused.
  • Unsharp mask should never be applied to an image being archived for your files.
  • Unsharp mask should never be applied to an already sharp image, except…
  • Unsharp mask is usually a necessary step when printing images, since most printers yield images with a slightly soft look, and…
  • Some degree of unsharp mask can make photos for web look better on most monitors, most of which don’t display enough pixels per inch to make unsharpened images look good.
  • Unsharp mask will sharpen everything, not just details. It is difficult to use unsharp mask on noisy images, since it sharpens the noise along with the details.
  • With that said, it is possible to use a combination of noise reduction and unsharp mask together to create a usable image from a not sharp file. This combination sacrifices resolution to make an image appear sharper in print on the web.
  • Occasionally I can rescue a not-very-sharp image with unsharp mask. Often this is the case in my work since I shoot news and sports and sometimes get images of great moments that aren’t quite sharp. It’s easy to take it too far, or to hopelessly pound a bunch of unsharp mask into a really soft image.

I use some kind of sharpening on all the images for my web site and social media. In addition to giving my work a little more “pop” than most of the images on the web, it helps overcome the image compression algorithms used by social media sites.

Finally, don’t let any know-it-alls on the internet (including me) tell you to “never” or “always” use the unsharp mask, or tell you your use of it was somehow wrong. It is a tool in the toolbox, for use as your creativity demands.

This close-up of a Minolta shutter speed dial is a 100% pixel view right out of the camera with no unsharp mask applied. Compare it to...

This close-up of a Minolta shutter speed dial is a 100% pixel view right out of the camera with no unsharp mask applied. Compare it to…

...the same shot of a shutter speed dial with way too much unsharp mask.

…the same shot of a shutter speed dial with way too much unsharp mask.

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Decapitation

By , May 11, 2016 1:56 pm

It’s true. I am a “lopper.” I cut off heads.

One of the most common criticisms amateur photographers and non-photographers spout is, “You cut off their heads,” or, “I can’t believe you cut off the top of my head!”

The idea is that all images of people should always include the entire person, head to toe, I guess. It’s one of the dumbest criticisms we face. Composing a photograph as a work of art or self-expression is a lot different than shooting grade school head shots in front of a green screen. Take, for example, this image of my wife Abby, made many years ago…

Abby wears a pair of my red sunglasses, which I use exclusively as a prop.

Abby wears a pair of my red sunglasses, which I use exclusively as a prop.

But but but… where’s the top of her hair!?

Honestly, when people say this, politely walk away. Don’t accept their offers to hire you for their next wedding. They are visionless and uninspired. They expect your images to fit in their cookie cutters.

So why, Richard, did you crop this image the way you did? Simply put, intimacy. We, the viewers, are closer to her, and in particular, we are closer to her eyes. This composition invites you into the moment, like we just looked up and saw her smiling at us. And it works so well.

So if you face this kind of addle criticism, take heart. There are still those of us who understand how images really work.

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The Light Can Make All the Difference

By , April 26, 2016 1:07 pm

Two nights ago as I mowed, I watched, as I always do, the maturing light. About 20 minutes before sunset, with bands of clouds on the horizon, the sun peaked through and struck an early stand of my wife Abby’s favorite flower, Indian Paintbrush, in the pasture. I ran inside to grab a camera with my new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, and scampered back out to find that the bands of clouds had covered the sun and muted the light. I made a few images under the soft light, but really wanted the bright amber hues of the setting sun behind those flowers. Another day, maybe.

Then last night, I got an earlier start, and planned ahead by having my camera in the garage, readier to go. As sunset approached, I was able to make the image I originally pre-visualized.

As you can see from the results, both images are beautiful, but very different. They are both shot with the same camera, from the same spot, at the same time of day, with the same settings. The only difference is the light.

Indian Paintbrush, 85mm f/1.8 at f/2.5, cloudy light.

Indian Paintbrush, 85mm f/1.8 at f/2.5, cloudy light.

Indian Paintbrush, 85mm f/1.8 at f/2.5, sunny light.

Indian Paintbrush, 85mm f/1.8 at f/2.5, sunny light.

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Tested and Failed: the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM

By , April 25, 2016 12:30 pm
I bought the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM hoping it would be the answer to my need for a mid-range, fast zoom lens.

I bought the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM hoping it would be the answer to my need for a mid-range, fast zoom 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. 24-70mm on a 24x36mm sensor is both versatile and potentially boring.

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. 24-70mm on a 24x36mm sensor is both versatile and potentially boring.

Like most professional photographers, I like equipment that is transparent. No, I don’t mean I want my cameras to be made out of clear plastic, though that might be really interesting. I mean that I want my equipment to get out of the way, do it’s job, and allow me to concentrate on the real meat of photography, the moment. I don’t want to worry about or struggle with my gear while the action and the intimacy and the light come and go. One lens I bought in 2011 in hopes of working within this paradigm is the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM for use on my Nikon DSLR cameras with their 15x24mm-sized sensors. I originally picked up this lens just prior to my sister’s wedding (link.) Since my wife and I were traveling to New Orleans for just the weekend, and since the wedding was entirely at night indoors, I wanted a lens that would fill my needs for that event: it would have to be fast-focusing, sharp wide open (f/2.8), have optical image stabilization, and be reasonably well-constructed.

Another view of the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8; despite its optical shortcomings, it is a well-built, good-looking lens.

Another view of the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8; despite its optical shortcomings, it is a well-built, good-looking lens.

This is Michael's 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma I borrowed to shoot my step-daughter's wedding in 2009.

This is Michael’s 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma I borrowed to shoot my step-daughter’s wedding in 2009.

Part of the reason I thought this Sigma might be a good choice was my success with a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX-DG I borrowed from Michael to shoot my step-daughter’s wedding in 2009 (link). I liked everything about the lens except that it wasn’t quite wide enough, and it wasn’t mine. It was sharp wide open, handled well, and made gorgeous 14-point sunstars when stopped down.

My very first field testing of the 17-50mm seemed to go well, but every lens is sharp at f/8. I didn’t spend $600 for this lens to shoot at f/8. I spent this money so I could take low light to its limits, and that would come just a couple of weeks later at the wedding.

Hosted by the New Orleans Athletic Club, the venue was gorgeous, but lit by just four incandescent chandeliers. I shot it all at ISO 3200, at f/2.8, which put me in the 1/60th to 1/125th of a second shutter speed range. This is the low-light margin that tests everything: sensor noise, optical stabilization, lens sharpness, and photographer’s skills. If any one of these factors falls short, image quality suffers, and this lens was the weak link. It just wasn’t sharp wide open, at f/2.8.

Michael and Abby were my second shooters, with the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 and the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lenses respectively, and they stuff was very sharp at apertures like f/2.5 and f/2.0.

This was the lighting for the first test of the Sigma 17-55mm, the New Orleans Athletic Club's ballroom, lit my four incandescent chandeliers.

This was the lighting for the first test of the Sigma 24-70mm, the New Orleans Athletic Club’s ballroom, lit my four incandescent chandeliers.

Of Note...
One item I hit hard in my Intro to Digital Photographer class is white balance. This might seem like an obvious teaching point, but readers might be surprised by how many images submitted to my newspaper have ugly colors casts, particularly yellow and red. The wedding in New Orleans was lit entirely with incandescent lights, and using the appropriate white balance setting saved us a lot of headaches in post-processing.

In the end, my images from New Orleans were great, and my sister and new brother-in-law were very happy with them, but I wasn’t pleased with the Sigma, which stood out as the weak link. I have since shot a couple more weddings with the 17-50mm, and while the images were acceptable, I want more from a big, heavy, expensive lens.

Another possible replacement for the Sigma might be the Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8.

Another possible replacement for the Sigma might be the Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8.

I will look at options. My instinct is to shoot with my 12-24mm f/4 Tokina on one camera, and my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 on the other, but that still doesn’t give me a one-camera travel wedding solution. It will need to be a zoom, and it will need to be wide-to-portrait length. One possibility is picking up a 24x36mm sensor-sized camera on Ebay like the Nikon D700, and using something like my Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8, which is heavy but absolutely dazzlingly sharp. The 24-70mm, 28-70mm, 24-105mm focal lengths on a 24x36mm sensor are approximately equivalent to the 17-50mm, 18-55mm lenses on a 15x24mm sensor. While this is a versatile field of view range, it also has the potential to be bland and boring, and requires us to push hard at the short and long ends to make our images really interesting.

This is the most common lens in photography today, the so-called "kit lens." This is Nikon's Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, but every camera maker has one. If I have to shoot at f/4 or f/5.6 to get sharp results with my Sigma 17-50mm, why don't I just use a kit lens at a quarter of the price and half the weight?

This is the most common lens in photography today, the so-called “kit lens.” This is Nikon’s Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, but every camera maker has one. If I have to shoot at f/4 or f/5.6 to get sharp results with my Sigma 17-50mm, why don’t I just use a kit lens at a quarter of the price and half the weight?

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Getting Organized

By , April 14, 2016 8:58 am
For more than a decade I organized photographic negatives by month, in negative sleeves stored in empty Ektamatic 8x10 photographic paper boxes, mostly because I had so many of them.

For more than a decade I organized photographic negatives by month, in negative sleeves stored in empty Ektamatic 8×10 photographic paper boxes, mostly because I had so many of them.

In many of my classes, people want to know how to organize their photos. They are mostly lost about how to arrange files and folders on their computers. I’ve known many professional journalists – people who should know better – who have essentially no clue how to organize computer stuff. I don’t fault them, though, because the truth is that life in the information age is bafflingly complex, and photography is now an information technology.

An unhappy social media experience...
“Sorry facebook friends trying to get my photo’s [sic] back. Got new cell ph [sic] & when they were transfering  to my new Ph [sic] they lost my STUFF. Not happy…”
My use of photographic film dropped off dramatically from the arrival of my first digital camera, the Nikon D1H, in September 2001, through mid-2005, when we traded our remaining Nikon F100 film camera for a D70S digital camera. This image shows the last film I ever shot.

My use of photographic film dropped off dramatically from the arrival of my first digital camera, the Nikon D1H, in September 2001, through mid-2005, when we traded our remaining Nikon F100 film camera for a D70S digital camera. This image shows the last film I ever shot.

When I got my first professional photography jobs, in college, we organized our image files, which at the time were photographic negatives, in traditional containers like spiral notebooks or cardboard boxes. Even the busiest of us on the busiest days were unlikely to shoot more than six or eight rolls of film – maybe 300 images. I kept the same basic organization until the digital era, ending with my last photographic negatives in May 2005, the year my newspaper traded away our last film camera, a Nikon F100.

On a big news or event day now, I can shoot a thousand or more digital frames in my efforts to provide something for print, something for the web, and something apart from that for social media.

It can be baffling to look at that many images on a screen, and the temptation is to either make no effort to edit them, or to grab the best five or six from a shoot and orphan the remaining files. The worst possible option is to tell your computer to upload them all to your Flickr or SmugMug or 500px or Pinterest account, since, as I have pointed out before, no one has time or desire to look at a thousand photos of anything. And consider that if you don’t have time to look at all your photos, why would anyone else?

On our phones the situation gets even more baffling. I’ve stood in front of someone who searched her phone for two minutes or longer to show me a photo, only to finally just give up. The reason is clear: most people shoot many dozens of photos every day, then make no effort to organize them.

Overheard As I Wrote This...

“I’ve got these photos on my computer at home, but I don’t know how to get them off.”

This is one of my biggest peeves in the digital world: people who print digital photos and bring them to us to scan to make them digital. It represents, in my estimation, a kind of willful ignorance.

CDs and DVDs with analog labeling might seem anachronistic to some, but there have been a number of occasions when finding something organized in this fashion was much more obvious that searching a computer hard drive or a cloud service.

CDs and DVDs with analog labeling might seem anachronistic to some, but there have been a number of occasions when finding something organized in this fashion was much more obvious that searching a computer hard drive or a cloud service.

I discuss all this as I sit at my computer at home and work to finish folder after folder of images. It’s a pretty straightforward process of deleting the genuinely worthless images, grabbing and editing the really captivating pieces, then going back to look at the rest of what’s left behind to see if there might be a pearl among the swine. It’s not a bad workflow, but it comes with a couple of caveats. 1. As you get tired, you tend to get less clear about how you want to edit your images, and 2. If you get in a hurry, you tend to throw out more images so you don’t have to deal with them. This sort of “get finished itis” is one reason I make myself edit in random order sometimes.

I am still amazed sometimes when people come to my newspaper and ask for photographs or their family or friends, but have virtually no additional information, as if every reporter and editor remembers every word we ever published. Or maybe it’s that their world view is so myopic that they really don’t understand how much information is out there.

On our office wall at home is a rack of CDs and DVDs, all with the spines labeled clearly, with names like “Ashford Wedding 2012,” or “Perfect Ten, Anniversary 2014.” It’s an analog approach to organizing digital files, and might be worth consideration if you have difficulty keeping your computer world in order.

Getting organized might be one of the most difficult aspects of photography, as it seems to be in much of life.  Don’t rely on your phone, the cloud, or someone you know. Do it yourself. Take the time to learn how. It is hard work, but in the end, it’s worth it.

Everyone has a different editing style. Some need to see prints in their hands, other prefer slide shows. I have made my editing home the on-screen browser page, analogous to the contact sheet of the film days.

Everyone has a different editing style. Some need to see prints in their hands, other prefer slide shows. I have made my editing home the on-screen browser page, analogous to the contact sheet of the film days.

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Software: The New Darkroom

By , March 15, 2016 4:04 pm
This is a screen shot of the Apple's Photos application in action. Although fairly basic in nature, it does have a few capable features.

This is a screen shot of the Apple’s Photos application in action. Although fairly basic in nature, it does have a few capable features.

For the last 15 or so years, the main terminal for delivering photographs to our audience has been the computer and its accessories instead of their predecessors, enlargers and chemicals. The interface between the photographer and the computer is software, computer programs that allow is to view, edit, and deliver images in the 21st century. Here is a rundown on some of the software with which I have become familiar.

Adobe Photoshop: this is the ultimate in image editing, graphic design, and desktop publishing. It’s power to manipulate every element of an image makes it very attractive, particularly for artists and designers, but also for photographers who want control over every pixel. The down side is that it is expensive and complex, requiring a steeper learning curve than its contemporaries. There are a couple of features that make Photoshop my first choice. One is actions, which allows me to assign a function key to do groups of things to an image all at once; for example, I can create an action that will add yellow, darken the blacks, filter noise, apply the unsharp mask, and save the image, all at the touch of one key. Another is history, which allows me to got back through my edits one step at a time to see what I did and how it worked.

Photoshop is integrated with Adobe Bridge, which acts as a kind of digital contact sheet and file manager. You can do some edits to one image, like noise reduction and white balance, then apply those edits to all the images in Bridge.

My first experience with Photoshop was in 1998, when I was given a beige Apple G3 computer and Adobe Photoshop 5. There have been a long series of incremental upgrades to Photoshop, and it is now part of Creative Cloud.

Adobe Photoshop is currently part of Adobe Creative Cloud, a marketing strategy that proposes to keep subscribers using the newest possible iteration of their software without having to go through versions.

Adobe Photoshop is currently part of Adobe Creative Cloud, a marketing strategy that proposes to keep subscribers using the newest possible iteration of their software without having to go through versions.

Adobe Photoshop’s little brother is Adobe Photoshop Elements, in version 14 and priced at $99 as I write this. In all honesty, unless you are a graphic artist or designer, Elements can do just about anything to an image you will need. For a lot of professional photographers, the biggest item Elements does not have is the ability to work with 16-bit files. There is a comprehensive list of the differences here, but in the end, for day-to-day photo editing, Elements is a powerful and impressive application.

My friend Michael often uses Elements because it starts up faster.

My class is photography, not software or editing, but I do touch on software, and the software I recommend for most of my students is Adobe Photoshop Elements.

My class is photography, not software or editing, but I do touch on software, and the software I recommend for most of my students is Adobe Photoshop Elements.

A pitfall of Photoshop is that it can, as I have discussed on a number of occasions, make pictures lie by adding or removing critical elements, over or under emphasizing elements of human features (from supermodels to war scenes to O. J. Simpson), and creating images that imply someone is saying or doing something they are not. Over the years, such editing has mislead readers and ended the careers of several leading photographers.

Increasing in popularity in recent years is Abobe Lightroom. This combines some features of Photoshop with some features of Bridge, fusing them into a somewhat simplified interface. To me, Lightroom seems like Everyman’s Photoshop. While it has some powerful image management tools, I find its interface less intuitive than Photoshop. I actively dislike the way Lightroom pops hidden toolbars up when you mouse over them.

One serious downside to Lightroom for me as a professional who needs to quickly edit images is the fact that you have to import images into Lightroom before you can work on them, then export them to a file to use them. The reason for this is that Lightroom keeps your edits in its database so they remain “non-destructive,” so you always keep your original photo, but that’s a little patronizing to those of us who figured out how to manage files and edit copies 16 years ago.

This is the Lightroom 6 interface. I'm getting more comfortable, and therefore better, with it since starting to use it last November, but given the choice, I'd still prefer Photoshop.

This is the Lightroom 6 interface. I’m getting more comfortable, and therefore better, with it since starting to use it last November, but given the choice, I’d still prefer Photoshop.

Lightroom provides “Publish Services” like Behance, Facebook, and Flickr, with the option of adding more, it seems to me that over the years, applications that try to hold your hand are destined for the scrap heap. Social media integration is both ineffective and etherial, meaning that one day AOL is on top, the next day MySpace is on top, the day after that Facebook is on top, and so on. As I wrote this, I had no idea what “Behance” was, and going to its web site didn’t clear it up much.

Essentially, I need to double-click a photo, smoothly and quickly edit it, save it, then send it where I need it, to a folder on a server usually. Lightroom fights me at every turn.

Apple computer users, particularly those who use the iPhone and iPad products, are familiar with Apple’s Photos, which until recently was called iPhoto. Apple retired their fairly good Aperture application and merged it with iPhoto to create Photos with the goal of integrating desktop editing with phone and tablet editing. If Lightroom is an amateur product, Photos is the kid’s product. It has the few basic controls, but beyond that doesn’t have the tools, particularly brushes, that are critical for professional editing.

Maybe in the end, the applications that try to do everything for you are for people who always struggled with that. That’s not me: my photos are organized by date, and indexed according to name and caption information, since we had to do this from the start of the digital age, long before Photos and Lightroom even existed, and this will probably be the only organization method that will stand the test of time. The reason for this is that software isn’t developed for your needs, but for the software company’s profits. If it doesn’t make money, it will disappear. Don’t believe me? Remember PictureProject? MyPictureTown? EasyShare? Microsoft Photo Editor?

In conclusion, my first choice for photo editing is Adobe Photoshop, followed quite closely by Photoshop Elements.

As you can see, the editing interface using Photoshop Elements is fairly comprehensive for day-to-day photography. This is version 10, but Elements is now for sale as version 14.

As you can see, the editing interface using Photoshop Elements is fairly comprehensive for day-to-day photography. This is version 10, but Elements is now for sale as version 14.

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Mistakes and Protocols

By , March 12, 2016 1:13 pm
In the days of film photography, one fairly common rookie mistake looked like this. We prevented this by making sure the film wound all the way around the takeup spool at least one full rotation before closing the back of the camera.

In the days of film photography, one fairly common rookie mistake looked like this. We prevented this by making sure the film wound all the way around the takeup spool at least one full rotation before closing the back of the camera.

Someone asked me the other day if I ever seriously screwed up at my job, and what did I do about it. By “serious” I assumed they meant something worse than spelling Marcy “Marcie.” I told them, in hushed tones, that yes, once, I did very seriously screw up. The hushed tones are no long necessary, obviously, since I am coming clean here in my public forum.

I knew at least one photographer who left the rewind crank extended so he could see it in his peripheral vision as it spun counterclockwise when the film fed out of the cassette onto the film plane.

I knew at least one photographer who left the rewind crank extended so he could see it in his peripheral vision as it spun counterclockwise when the film fed out of the cassette onto the film plane.

I once photographed someone with an unloaded camera. I know. Richard? A recruit trick like that? But yes, sure, anyone can make a fundamental mistake. When I discovered my mistake, I slunk back over to the woman I’d photographed and told her a half-lie: the image didn’t work out the way I wanted and could I shoot a few more.

I never made that mistake again, for two reasons: first, my reputation was on the line, and I might not be able to quietly fix it next time, and second, I started religiously using a protocol, which I use to this day. Simply put, I never ever ever closed a camera back (in the film era) or close a camera card door (in the digital realm) without new media installed. The same goes for batteries. Never close a battery door without a charged battery inside.

These protocols are fairly universal. Never start an airplane without removing the “Remove Before Flight” flags. Never holster an unloaded pistol. Never close a circuit breaker someone has opened.

It’s been years since I screwed up big enough to have to reshoot something, but life is full of potential mistakes, and if I do drop the ball, my hope and intention is that I will do whatever it takes to make it right.

It's obvious from their design that these card doors in our Nikon D300S cameras are meant to remind you not to rock and roll without locking and loading.

It’s obvious from their design that these card doors in our Nikon D300S cameras are meant to remind you not to rock and roll without locking and loading.

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In Conclusion

By , March 7, 2016 5:01 pm
Annette and Wil face off last Monday for our session.

Annette and Wil face off last Monday for our session.

I was delighted that one of my students was able to purchase a new Sigma 24-105mm f/4 lens, one of Sigma's new "Art" series.

I was delighted that one of my students was able to purchase a new Sigma 24-105mm f/4 lens, one of Sigma’s new “Art” series.

I finished teaching another intermediate/advance class last week, and I hope I was able to give my students what they needed. It’s an interesting tradeoff; I can show them what inspires me and I can show then how I did it, but only they can decide what inspires them and how they can do it. Photography is an art, and it is difficult and unfair to quantify.

It's always nice to have a cooperative sky.

It’s always nice to have a cooperative sky.

We discovered that my reading glasses made a very interesting shadow.

We discovered that my reading glasses made a very interesting shadow.

I felt we had fun and productive sessions.

Over the years, my students and I have made a few different iterations of this image in the security mirror in the main lobby at the Pontotoc Technology Center.

Over the years, my students and I have made a few different iterations of this image in the security mirror in the main lobby at the Pontotoc Technology Center.

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Up Close and Personal

By , February 14, 2016 5:30 pm
This is the screw thread gauge I photographed this afternoon.

This is the screw thread gauge I photographed this afternoon.

These are my macro lenses, the AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, and the Tokina 100mm f/2.8. Both are excellent, sharp, fun-to-use lenses.

These are my macro lenses, the AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, and the Tokina 100mm f/2.8. Both are excellent, sharp, fun-to-use lenses.

Recently my wife Abby and I were working on a multi-stage garage clean-out project. One result of this is that she finds things that belonged to her father, whose life as a machinist led to him collecting thousands of tools and other items for his craft.

This is the screw gauge in my hand to provide a sense of scale.

This is the screw gauge in my hand to provide a sense of scale.

In our dusty unboxings during the past weeks, we came across a very cool little item I didn’t even know existed: a screw thread gauge. The device has dozens of little steel fins that are marked with widths in fractions of millimeters, and those fins are stacked together on a spindle so you can fan them out and measure the pitch of the threads in a screw.

You can see a notable amount of color aliasing in this 100% view of one of my frames today, created by ultra-sharp rendering of minute details.

You can see a notable amount of color aliasing in this 100% view of one of my frames today, created by ultra-sharp rendering of minute details.

Not only did I think this was a neat tool that I would probably never use, I also thought I should photograph it. I got out my two macro lenses, the AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, and the Tokina 100mm f/2.8. Both are wonderful lenses, and both could do the job. I chose the 60mm for no other reason than I hadn’t used it recently.

I set the thread gauge on the glass surface of my iPad, and cranked up three flash units plus the one of the camera hot shoe. I pointed one flash into a reflector to my left, one into a reflector over my right shoulder, and one in front of me to the right.

The result was pretty satisfying. Not only is the repeating pattern on the gauge intriguing, but the image ended up being dazzlingly sharp. It is so sharp, in fact, that despite my efforts to clean the gauge with compressed air before the shoot, you can see a fair amount of grime in the tiny spaces between the fins. It’s also sufficiently sharp that it created aliasing, the mixing of minute frequencies to create colors in areas of complex detail, right at the focal point.

It was fun doing this, and a nice departure from the kinds of things I shoot every day in my work.

This is another view of the screw thread gauge I photographed this afternoon.

This is another view of the screw thread gauge I photographed this afternoon.

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Yes, but What Then?

By , February 11, 2016 12:29 am
Few uses of my photographs move people more than big, powerful prints. In addition to this wall of prints in my immediate workspace at my office, the walls downstairs are covered with prints, and I seldom go more than a day or two without seeing a customer or visitor slowly strolling along looking at them.

Few uses of my photographs move people more than big, powerful prints. In addition to this wall of prints in my immediate workspace at my office, the walls downstairs are covered with prints, and I seldom go more than a day or two without seeing a customer or visitor slowly strolling along looking at them.

The third night of my Intro to Digital Photography class built around what we can do with what we have learned on the first two nights: the basic theory of how cameras work, and how to use some of our tools to create images.

Although I teach in a very Socratic fashion, I make sure that the last point I hit in the beginner class is that we can do all kinds of great things with our images, including printing them for display or publishing them in books.

Although I teach in a very Socratic fashion, I make sure that the last point I hit in the beginner class is that we can do all kinds of great things with our images, including printing them for display or publishing them in books.

In the digital age, we make a lot of images, and often that’s the end of it, because no one, absolutely no one, has time to look at 500 or 1000 of our images. I’ll go even farther and say that if you do with your images the same thing as everyone else in the 21st century, post them to social media, very few people will see them, and even if they do, they have little chance to make an impact.

Call me old school, but it is my opinion that top quality printing is the best way to create an impressive, expressive photographic product that has the potential to last for decades. The printed work not only looks great, it feels great in the hands, and when it’s new, it even smells great. It has a sense of permanence, importance, significance.

For prints, particularly display prints up to 13×19 inches, Abby and I have owned several photo-quality inkjet printers over the years, our current one being the Epson Stylus Photo 1400. It’s not at the top of the line, but we buy the best paper and ink for it, and the results are spectacular.

Creating items like books and calendars, we use Apple’s Photos app, the latest iteration of what was long-known as iPhoto. Abby’s daughter had the wedding photos we shot for her made into a book at mypublisher.com, and we were all pleased with the result, and there are many other options.

A photo book could be about anything: weddings (here or here or here, all made into books), memorials, holidays, vacations, family reunions, family and community history, anything.

I show some of our prints and books to my students not to brag on our accomplishment, but to say to them. “You can do this with your photography.”

I know so many people with collections of great images of great moments that are hiding inside a smart phone or computer, waiting to be made into something genuinely beautiful.

My wife Abby and I have books of our images made for various purposes, from travel images to individual weddings, and the look and feel of a real, printed book is much more powerful than any web gallery can ever be.

My wife Abby and I have books of our images made for various purposes, from travel images to individual weddings, and the look and feel of a real, printed book is much more powerful than any web gallery can ever be.

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