A fellow photographer and I got into a very interesting discussion recently as I was walking my dogs.
I have a lot of interesting discussions while walking my dogs, since I can put in my ear buds and slip my phone into my back pocket, then talk through stuff as the Wolfhound and the Chuahuahua take their turns around the patch.
The discussion was about the ultimate disposition of our creative work, especially photographs, for both of us, but also my writing. What will become of it all after we are gone?
I told my friend that my first box to check in preserving my vision was to get as many images as I could printed in the newspaper. That was an easy one for me to check off and continue to check off as my newspaper and I thrive.
He said that he had thought about archiving all of his photographs digitally and blasting them into space, to be found ten trillion years later by the Blargons.
Then we sort of settled into the idea that some photographers have made themselves extendedly remembered (though not “immortalized” and all that word entails) by creating large, archival prints of their photographs and selling them throughout the world. The great Ansel Adams comes to mind. You can go to Washington D.C. or Moscow or Santa Fe and see his work, in a form that will last for many years, real, tangible silver photographic prints.
Yet even those will someday be dust.
Also, what photographs are the most significant? Nature and landscape? Portraits? “Fine Art”? News and sports?
As we spoke, he spotted a sunset shot and hung up to make a picture.
Thus, is that the real art and value of the creative things we do? The process? Is our work in writing, photography, sculpting, music, painting, teaching, film making, acting … really just building sand castles?
I made a lot of photographer friends in college. I expect that was because we all hung out in the shared darkroom at the University of Oklahoma’s Copeland Hall, waiting to get in to use one of the two film-processing rooms, or, with a little luck, the one good enlarger among six others that were mostly junk in the printing room.
I was a meticulous darkroom technologist, and became it’s de facto manager. That meant, among other things, cleaning a lot.
Between my immaculate gear, darkroom cleaning habits, and reading tons of literature including Ansel Adams’ The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, I was able to product nice, contrasty prints that had good depth and shadow detail. At one point, one of my classmates nicknamed me “Mister Contrast.”
I’m sure they gave me less-flattering nicknames when I was out of the room, since I wasn’t as patient as I probably could have been about them messing up “my” darkroom.
With a current resurgent interest in photographic film by millenials (mostly), I thought I’d throw out a couple of tips about how to get good contrast.
The times and temperatures listed in the film literature aren’t just loose suggestions. If you are going to process your film right, you need to adhere to them very precisely.
Chemicals aren’t water, and when you use them, you use them up. The more used-up developer is, for example, the less effective it is at converting exposed film into an image, and therefore the picture won’t have as much contrast.
Contrast is wrecked by trying to under-develop or over-develop a print that has been exposed in the enlarger incorrectly. Some photographers used test strips, a series of different exposures on the same sheet of photographic paper, but I had a trial by fire in newspaper, so I got pretty good at guessing exposures pretty closely. Even so, I threw away about every other sheet of paper rather than try to salvage a bad exposure.
Contrast is also wrecked by fog, which can comes about because of light leaks in cameras, white light pollution in the darkroom (which needs to be actually dark), and through the use of expired photographic materials. This is a more complicated issue today since there are about a jillion rolls of expired, unexposed film in the world, and fresh film is very expensive.
I basked in the glow of being “Mister Contrast,” because despite it’s slightly-jealous connotations, it meant I had mastered at least one skill in my then-burgeoning photographic career.
This week I put together a collection of images I made at my newspaper this year under the title “2021: The Year in Pictures.” As I was doing it, I got to feeling pretty good about the work I’ve done in the last twelve insanely stressful months.
But it wasn’t always that way. Earlier this month, various news agencies and photographers across the world were assembling similar collections of their work or the work of their entire staff. Looking at them online, it was easy to lose sight of the value of my work, and to throw up my hands and say, “I give up. I’ll never be as good as these men and women.”
Then I circle back to my folder of photos, and feel better about it.
Why is it so easy to forget the work we do, and why are we threatened by those we perceive as doing it better? Wouldn’t it make more sense to appreciate our successes, learn from our mistakes and/or inadequacies, and build on the great ideas and techniques we see in others?
All that aside, I hope my readers enjoy seeing our community through my photographer’s eyes.
So that leads us to my favorite picture of the year. Many of my friends and readers know that my wife Abby has not been well this year, so my picture of the year is of her, happy and pretty at her family’s annual reunion in October.
An intriguing feature in my Fujifilm X-T10 is film simulation bracketing. When turned on, shooting one frame creates three JPEG files of the shot, each set to one of Fuji’s film simulations. You can choose which three film simulation modes you want in the menu. In this case, I told the camera to create one of each: vivid, sepia, and monochrome…
You can set the camera to use any of its nine film simulations. These frames are straight out of the camera, unedited. As you can see, a feature like this has some interesting potential.
It’s been a completely amazing holiday season for me as a journalist and photographer. Our readers have gotten into the very welcome habit of calling me when they or their groups have a festive event, and I have covered a dozen or more items, from hayrides to sweater contests, and everything else that is photographable about Christmas.
This week a friend of mine asked if I would do the honor of photographing his surprise marriage proposal to his girlfriend under the brightly-lit footbridge near the entrance to Ada’s iconic Wintersmith Park. It sounded like fun, so I agreed. I also invited my good friend and former Ada News intern Mackenzee Crosby to join us, just because we both love being behind the camera.
I mostly shot the event with my AF-S 50mm f/1.4, a wonderful lens that I should make a point to bring out and work with more often. The light in the archway was amazing, and the woman unreluctantly said “yes” to the proposal (whew!), so it was a great, fun opportunity.
At the end of the evening, with the light working so well for us, I asked Mackenzee to pose for a portrait. I made a couple of frames, then reviewed on the monitor, and saw some tell-tale artifacts.
“Wait,” I said, “I’m getting sparkles.”
What I was seeing is a rare but real artifact caused by reflections between the lens and the uv (ultraviolet) filter I keep on the front of all my lenses. It was creating bright butterfly-shaped highlights directly opposite some bright lights in the frame.
I took the filter off, and they instantly disappeared.
Many photographers won’t use a filter on the front of their lenses due to this possibility, arguing that any additional reflective surface in the system can degrade image quality.
Thus the question remains: should your lens be wearing a filter?
A filter on the front of the lens has saved several of my lenses from destruction. Between blowing rain and dust, the occasional camera-drop, colliding with players at sporting events, and, on one occasion, a direct collision with a doorknob, filters have been directly responsible for saving my lenses. It’s a good feeling too: instead of having to send a lens to be repaired, or even replacing it, I fumble through my shoeboxed of filters and find a fresh one to replace the broken or scratched one.
Also, I am often in the field when the front of my lens needs to be cleaned, and usually the only thing I have handy is my shirt tail. Do I want to clean the front element of a $1500 lens with my shirt tale, in the field? I have no problem cleaning an $8 filter with my shirt.
So, yes, a filter is a good idea if you make pictures like I do: every day, in all kinds of harsh conditions. The trick is to keep your eyes open for problems your filter might be giving you, and make good notes about when and how this might happen.
I know it seems shallow, but I like my lenses to look big, heavy, powerful, and intimidating. I hate lenses that look like dog noses or pastry funnels. I like lenses that look like NASA took ten years to design them. I like lenses that seem to be capturing light in a gaping maw of glass.
One such lens that came to me recently from an odd angle is the 1970s-era Sigma – XQ 135mm f/1.8.
I got ahold of this lens recently during a visit from a fellow photographer. He said someone gave it to him free while buying another piece of photo equipment.
The “Scalematic” feature of this lens reads out the field of view at the focus spot, so you can use the lens to measure the size of objects.
It says it is multicoated, but the front element doesn’t have the characteristic blue-green reflection of any of my other multicoated lenses.
Because of the way the t-mount attaches to this lens, there is no mechanical connection to the aperture operating pin, so the lens will only work at its largest aperture, f/1.8. This isn’t really a problem, since we own lenses like this so we can use them wide open.
I shot with it a bit. The contrast is very low, but sharpness is there, though the depth of field at f/1.8 is razor-thin, and it is completely unforgiving of any focus errors.
Many photographers tend to think of large-aperture lenses as “bokeh masters” or “bokeh beasts,” but they often get the fundamentals wrong. “Bokeh” isn’t how far out of focus something is, it’s the characteristics of the out of focus area. Thus, every lens has bokeh, from the humblest kit lens to the newest super-telephoto.
The focus throw, the amount you need to turn the focusing ring, is long. This particular lens has a little bit of grab toward the infinity end of the throw like a lot of lenses this old, since the grease in the mechanism tends to stiffen up over time.
The best thing about this lens is the big, gaping front element combined with its steel and brass construction. It feels like it was made to last.
Year after year I have made images like this: my camera fires when I pull it out of the bag or, in the film years, when I was loading my camera. Sometimes it is a manual exposure, and sometimes it is an aperture-priority frame, and since the camera is in the dark, the shutter speed is long.
In any case, is this art? If so, what are its merits? What does it say or imply?
I am teaching another photography class this month at Pontotoc Technology Center.
On the first night of class, we talk about some of the basics of digital photography, and the topic of sensor size is always part of that discussion.
“A friend of mine wants to buy a ‘full-frame’ camera,” one of my group said.
Photography is full of misnomers and myths, and one of these issues is the idea that “full frame” is some kind of holy grail of sensor sizes. I hate to break it to the full-framers, but what, exactly, is this supposed to be a “full frame” of? It turns out, it describes a sensor that is the same size as a frame of 35mm film.
Over the decades of news photography, I used a lot of 35mm film, but whenever I could, I used larger film, as did most studio, magazine and portrait photographers. The bigger, the better. Having a larger negative meant you could make larger prints, since you didn’t have to enlarge the film area as much.
When digital came along, this idea came with it, and in the early years of digital, it made a giant difference, as most early sensors were quite small, and were prone to noise, bad color, and slow operation. The Kodak DCS 315, for example, had a 13.9 mm x 9.2 mm sensor, about the size of button on a shirt.
As time went by, sensors started to get bigger, until now we have some very large ones. The Fujifilm sells the incredible GFX100S, which sports a whopping 100 megapixel 33mm x 44mm sensor, and is currently being touted as “more than full frame” on their website. They are obviously after my heart, and my wallet.
Well, there’s the rub, really. We’d all love to shoot with these giant sensors with crazy huge resolutions, but the reality is that they are expensive. The GFX100S’s street price is about $6000.
So, maybe is does all come down to economics. My way to get around that is to buy yesterday’s treasures – used cameras – and take advantage of what they still offer even though they’re no longer shiny and new. My current “full frame” (although I just call it a 24x36mm) camera is the Nikon D700.
The main reason I have an use the D700 is that it breathes new life into three of my favorite old film-era lenses, a Sigma 15-30mm, a Nikon 18-35mm, and a Nikon 20mm. These lenses just sat on the shelf until the larger sensor came along, and now that are adding to my bag of tricks.
When I was just 18, I found myself interning at my then-hometown newspaper in Lawton, Oklahoma, under the supervision of a veteran photographer named Bill Dixon.
My first assignment on the first morning there was to ride along with Bill and photograph severe thunderstorm damage at Fort Sill. It was typical Oklahoma late spring tree damage, but that’s always news, so I photograph it to this day.
We drove a “radio car,” a giant, loping Chevrolet sedan with a two-way radio and a scanner. The two-way was on 173.275 Mhz, and we used the FCC-assigned call sign, KYK323. (Both of these are entirely from memory.) The scanner was a Bearcat III, a popular eight channel crystal-controlled police and fire scanner in the 1970s that was obsolete by 1982, but it still worked, since all police, fire and sheriff communications took up about five of those channels.
Bill pulled the car up to the headquarters on the base, a facility where my wife Abby’s uncle Dutch and his son Al commanded at various times in their careers. He told me to get out and photograph the trees on the ground next to a ceremonial cannon. My camera was a Nikon FM. At that time, I only owned three lenses, a Nikon Series E 28mm f/2.8, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, and a Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. The 28mm was on the camera, so I used it.
“Get in there! Fill up the frame!” he barked. I thought I was filling up the frame, but, like a lot of beginners, I wasn’t.
There was only so much room on the page at newspapers in the 1980s. Photos competed with news, graphic, ads, coupons, obituaries, and more, so there’s not a huge amount of room to fiddle around with photographs that don’t convey the message quickly and obviously.
Another key reason to fill up the frame is that we almost always shot on Kodak Tri-X 35mm film, which, while forgiving of exposure mistakes (we call that having “good latitude”), was grainy, and enlarging tiny portions of a tiny frame of grainy film resulted in kind of a mess.
It’s still a good idea to fill up the frame in the digital age, for many of the same reasons. We buy phones and cameras that have millions of pixels, yet too many of the images I see coming my way from every angle feature a lot of sky and grass, with the main subjects (mostly people) crowded into the center of the frame.
So try it yourself. Get yourself set to make a picture, then tell yourself to get closer and fill up the frame. You’ll be surprised how much it can improve your images.
Journalism is a lot of things. It is stressful, urgent, raw, demanding, exciting, dangerous, exhausting, engaging, rewarding.
My particular slice of journalism is slanted toward photojournalism, storytelling with images. I love it. I absolutely love it.
These thoughts came together as I was being courted by a potential employer. I saw a job on Indeed.com and thought it might be worth exploring. The job was in the area of corporate social media, and it was tempting; more money and better benefits. But as I was considering it, this happened…
I am part of a scene, part of a community, part of events like these, beautiful and fun and intimate. I am Richard R. Barron, who has been at The Ada News for 33 years.
Photographer Jim Beckel told me a story about me once: he was covering a high school state golf tournament in Oklahoma City a few years ago, and photographed a girl from Latta. Knowing Latta is in our coverage area, he asked the golfer, “Do you know Richard Barron?” She answered, “You mean ‘Richard R. Barron’?”
So sure, it would be nice to make more money and have better job security and benefits, but what could ever take the place of being Richard R. Barron, photographing double rainbows on the sideline at an Ada Cougar football game?
One thing I like to recommend, and show off, at the end of my beginning photography class, is books I’ve made out of our images.
I got started making these wonderful souvenirs after my daughter-in-law Chele had a beautiful book of pictures Abby and I shot of their wedding in 2009. She used a publishing company called “MyPublisher.com,” and the product was spectacular.
At a school’s 100th anniversary celebration a couple of years ago, I talked to a teacher who had created some of the displays from over the years. Almost all of them featured yearbooks. I love yearbooks, not just because they are permanent and tangible, but because I owe much of my photographic start to being on staff at high school and college yearbooks.
Photo books, yearbooks, newspapers and magazines also have a decided advantage in that they aren’t vulnerable to a potential phenomenon known as the Digital Dark Age, in which there is a possible disappearance of “historical information in the digital age as a direct result of outdated file formats, software, or hardware that becomes corrupt, scarce, or inaccessible as technologies evolve and data decay.”
I know all these things are true, but I am seeing less and less interest in people buying photo books or even printing their photographs. How often do we take out a stack of 4×6 prints of a new grandchild compared to how often we hand someone a smartphone so they can swipe through those pictures?
Some companies that once offered these printing services have stopped doing so, likely because there isn’t money to be made by selling them. MyPublisher.com no longer even exists.
So, readers, help me figure this out. Did you take pictures with a camera that used CDs or floppy disks, that you now have lost? Do you wish you’d made a book or printed those pictures?
Abby and I love photo books and prints on the walls, but are we the only ones?
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine asked if I would consider writing about how to process your own film at home. I told her it was easier than she imagined.
In the business, processing film is called “souping,” and you “soup” film, and say, “it’s in the soup.”
To process your own film, black-and-white or color, you need…
• The film itself. This is becoming a scarce commodity, and freshly-manufactured film is getting very expensive.
• A darkroom or a dark bag, sometimes called a film changing bag. This is essentially a place to transfer your exposed film, in total darkness, onto a spiral reel (in the case of roll film) or a film holder (in the case of sheet film) before immersing your film in developer.
• Reels or holders, tanks, and a way to wash the film in running water. There are two kinds of reels: stainless steel reels, which are harder to use but easier to keep clean, and plastic reels, which are easier to use but tend to accumulate developer stains that are hard to remove and potentially contaminate the process.
• Chemicals. This item tends to be the most intimidating for beginners, since it can seem like alchemy or magic, but it’s not. Photographic chemicals require careful handling, but if you can read and understand basic instructions, using them isn’t any more difficult than making cookies.
• Black-and-white darkroom chemistry is the simplest, since it requires only a few steps, and is usually done at room temperature. The chemicals include developer, stop bath, fixer, and water for washing, and in our hard-water environment, a wetting agent like Kodak’s Photo-Flo.
• Color negative processing, called C-41, can seem more intimidating, but the number of steps for color negatives is the same. The main issue with color is the need to tightly control temperature, usually at approximately 100ºF. When I processed color all the time, my processing tanks sat in a bigger tank full of water with a temperature control unit in it, which automatically kept everything at 100º. The chemicals include developer, blix (a combinations of bleach and fixer) and stabilizer. Processing color slides can be more daunting because there are more steps (around 12, depending on who you ask), but the principals all remain the same.
• Putting film onto developing reels might be the hardest part of the process. You can practice using an exposed roll of film with the lights on, then practice with the lights off. Despite this, many photographers new to film will experience difficulty with this.
• Once your film is wound onto the developing reels, it should be placed, in total darkness, in the developer. Most film processing tanks have traps at the top that allow you to pour chemicals into and out of them while maintaining a seal against light. One way to work this is to place the film on the reel, put the reel in the tank, then pour developer in through the trap.
• Follow the instructions that came with your film or chemicals, or you can find good time and temperature recommendations here (link).
• After thoroughly washing your film, you’ll need a way to dry it. If you don’t have a dedicated film dryer, you can use a blow dryer on a medium setting, but be careful not to stir up too much dust. It will cling to the film and be difficult to remove later.
A note about chemicals: in my decades of processing film in various shared darkrooms, I can tell you that many people don’t realize how easy it is to contaminate chemicals with everything from other chemicals to food. Many people don’t seem to understand that clear liquids in photography might not be water. They get it on their fingers and transfer it to other containers or onto film, never with good results.
Over the years I experimented with all kinds of combinations of film and chemicals. Some of my favorite black-and-white films were Kodak Verichrome Pan Film (which was discontinued decades ago) and Ilford FP4. My favorite developers for black-and-white were Kodak HC-110 and Kodak D-76, and I had a soft spot in my heart for a fine-grained developer called Microdol-X.
Finally, I am of the opinion that if you scan your photographic negatives once you have them processed, they become digital photographs, somewhat rendering the idea of using film in the first place a moot point. If you really want to remain true to the roots of film photography, the final step almost has to be printing your images with an enlarger.
As I promised in my last entry, here are quick reviews of the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and the Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5.
One thing I have heard and sometimes even said is that there are no “bad” large-aperture 50mm lenses, but I can think of two: my original Nikkor 50mm f/1.2, and the lens in this review, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 “pancake” lens of 1984 vintage.
The 50mm f/1.2 seemed like a dream lens when I bought it. It was magnificently made and finished, and commanded respect on the front of my cameras. The only problem with it: it was absolutely unusable unless you stopped it down to f/2.0. The problem with that is that I didn’t pay $300 (in 1983) for an f/1.2 lens just to shoot it at f/2.0. I already owned a 50mm that was sharp at f/2.0, and it did so weighing less than half, and costing a third as much.
Within a few years, I sold the f/1.2 to a collector, where that lens belonged.
In my days, I have owned nearly a dozen 50mm lenses, from the Nikkor-S Auto 50mm f/1.4 of late 1960s vintage to the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G of today, which I use all the time. A good example of work from this lens can be seen in some night work I did on The Plaza at Santa Fe at the end of our 2019 anniversary vacation, The Winding Road (link).
The 50mm focal length on small sensors like 36x24mm or APS-C is something of a double-edged sword: it can create compelling images with a sense of intimacy, but it can also end up creating boring perspectives. As a news photographer, I have to make a point to get out this focal length, and make a point to push it to the edges to get interesting images.
But back to what I said about this 50mm being one of just two “bad” 50mm lenses. I can’t give this lens high marks on anything, because any of my 50mm lenses, including the other Nikkor lenses, and my Fujinon 50mm f/2.2 of 1978 vintage and my Pentax 50mm f/1.4 lenses easily outperform it; sharper, closer focus, better handling, better build. The only 50mm I own that disappoints as much as the pancake lens is a Canon 50mm f/1.8 from the FD era.
The 35-70mm is really just a 50mm with the convenience of a little bit of zoom. Honestly, I can make a 50mm work better than a 35-70mm for almost everything, and it is lighter and brighter than any zoom. I know there are many photographers, including the super-talented R. E. Stinson, who love the 35-70mm (though Robert loves the f/2.8 version), but when I shoot with them, they are just teasing me with focal lengths just out of their reach, like 24mm or 105mm.
Ken Rockwell has nothing but bad things to say about the 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, but in the evening I spent with it, I found nothing to support the idea that it is, “a cheap and crappy lens. This lens simply isn’t very sharp.”
Also from his web site: “Sharpness is the most overrated aspect of lens performance. Lens sharpness seems like it ought to be related to making sharp photos, but it isn’t.” So, meh.
This particular 35-70mm is slightly broken: if you push the zoom or focus ring forward away from the camera, a gap shows up that isn’t supposed to. When I shot with it, I made sure to pull back slightly to keep that from happening.
So I was able to get sharp images with it, and I was able to create compelling compositions, but I ran into the same problem as before; it’s not a fast 50, and it’s not wide enough or long enough.
If someone gives you one of these (someone did give me this one), take it and fool around with it, but don’t pay more than a dollar for it at a garage sale.
I received an unusual gift recently from my friends at People’s Electric Cooperative: a Nikon FG-20 film camera, with three lenses, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, a Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, and a Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5.
The camera had been used by PEC during the film era, often by a good friend of mine, Karen Hudson.
This camera was stored in a cool, dry environment, and is in excellent condition. I happened to have the right batteries for it, and all of its functions work perfectly.
It’s very flattering that people in our community think of me in these situations. The person who gave it to me asked if I would like to have it as a teaching tool, which was right on the money.
The FG-20 was introduced in 1984 during the crest of the film era. At the time, it was meant to be a cheap, lightweight alternative to Nikon’s heavier, higher-end cameras, but as photography evolved, cameras in general got cheaper and, especially, more-plasticky as manufacturers discovered they could charge photographers more for less as they accepted plastic into their lives.
Thus, the FG-20 is built to fairly high standards when compared to many of today’s digital cameras targeting the same market.
I don’t have any intention of shooting film, since I don’t have a darkroom any more, but I will be able to bring this camera to my students and talk about the history of photography with a working example of the kind of camera I used in the early years of my career.
Watch this space for reviews of these lenses coming soon!
Here’s an example of spherochromatism, a type of chromatic aberration that is common to large-aperture lenses in the telephoto range, and is more obvious when focusing closely. This aberration is manifested by unwanted color on either side of the focal plane, usually magenta in the region closer to the lens, and green beyond the focus point. It is more obvious in images like this one…
Much of the time, images are colorful enough or complex enough visually to hide this aberration, but this image from yesterday’s pinto bean pot made it glaringly obvious.
Options? I could run the image through Photoshop or Lightroom and try the “Defringe” and/or “Remove Chromatic Aberration” features, but I tired that with this image, and it wasn’t very effective. I could grayscale the image, since color wasn’t a key aspect of this image.
Spherochromatism isn’t a huge problem, but it’s worth knowing about, and this example of it is quite striking.