50 vs 50

By , September 15, 2014 12:26 pm

Or: Cheap zoom vs cheap prime.

When I talk to my students, either in class or in the field, they often ask me about lenses. They already have one, and it’s almost always the “kit lens” that came with the camera, usually an 18-55mm with a variable maximum aperture, like f/3.5 at 18mm and f/5.6 at 55mm. It’s hard to criticize these lenses because they are generally cheap, lightweight, versatile, and sharp. Sometimes the kits include an additional telephoto lens; Nikon offers a small, lightweight 55-200mm f/4-5.6.

The players in today's comparison are the AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, and the AF Nikkor f/1.8.

The players in today’s comparison are the AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, and the AF Nikkor f/1.8.

Often my recommendation is a “prime” lens, meaning one that isn’t a zoom, and because most people don’t have much budget, I like to recommend the “nifty fifty,” as it has become known, the 50mm f/1.8. Nikon and Canon both make and sell them, and, like the kit zooms, they are cheap, lightweight, versatile and sharp. But of course, they have a trump card: f/1.8.

Alas, my advice about the 50mm often falls on deaf ears, since it is hard to express, no matter how passionately I make my case, the value of a lens they think they already own in the zoom range of their kit lens.

This morning I decided to illustrate, in a concrete and specific way, why I think the 50mm f/1.8 (or, if you have a big budget, the f/1.4 or f/1.2) is an outstanding addition to any photographer’s bag. I did so by shooting the morning glory in our front yard, first with the kit lens, then with the 50mm f/1.8, both at their largest possible aperture for that focal length.

The comparison doesn’t have a big “wow” factor, as much as it has an “ah.” Ultimately it comes down to your imaging goals, but an f/1.8 might be just the thing to take your imaging to the next level.

Made with the 18-55mm at 50mm at its largest aperture for that focal length, f/5.6, this image is sharp, but a little uninspiring.

Made with the 18-55mm at 50mm at its largest aperture for that focal length, f/5.6, this image is sharp, but a little uninspiring.

This is the same scene made with the 50mm f/1.8, at f/1.8. Note how much more gracefully and elegantly the background elements of the image melt away, giving a better sense for the delicacy of the scene.

This is the same scene made with the 50mm f/1.8, at f/1.8. Note how much more gracefully and elegantly the background elements of the image melt away, giving a better sense for the delicacy of the scene.

The Old School Compact

By , September 8, 2014 10:58 am
An Argus C3 camera, popular in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, sits next to a quintessentially compact camera, the Toko P.W. Mighty.

An Argus C3 camera, popular in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, sits next to a quintessentially compact camera, the Toko P.W. Mighty.

“Compact” is a key buzzword in photography. Whether someone is bragging on a camera or recommending one, if they can, they’ll add, “and it’s very compact,” since photographic equipment can range from the size of a cell phone to the size of a steamer trunk.

Abby made this image of me holding the Toko P.W. Mighty last night. Touted as a "spy camera," it was really more of a novelty.

Abby made this image of me holding the Toko P.W. Mighty last night. Touted as a “spy camera,” it was really more of a novelty.

Compact cameras are not new. During the peak of film camera dominance, Olympus was the king of the compact hill, with SLRs like the OM-1 and the XA.

In 2014, the battle for balance between size and quality is still at a fevered pitch, with smart phones beginning to dominate the compact camera market (in fact, most compact digital cameras are disappearing as a result), while the digital SLR is being challenged by the awkwardly-named “mirrorless” class of cameras.

I accept these changes, thanks in part to some wisdom from Star Trek’s Commander Spock, who told me in 1969, “Change is the essential process of all existence.”

I thought about this last night when my wife Abby and I were playing around with some antique cameras she brought back to me from her recent trip to see her daughter in Baltimore. They included an 8mm movie camera, a folding-bellows medium format camera, a Kodak Brownie, an Argus C3, and, most intriguingly, a Toko P.W. Mighty “spy camera.” The Toko is quite tiny, and was made in occupied Japan just after World War II. It took 17.5mm film, which I’m sure I’ve never seen, much less shot.

It was neat that Abby recognized how interesting this little camera is. The shutter runs and the controls work. It’s a fun little piece of history for our collection.

The Toko P. W. Mighty camera poses with a dime for scale.

The Toko P. W. Mighty camera poses with a dime for scale.

Going to the Dark Side, or Eyes on Tomorrow?

By , August 24, 2014 10:38 pm
This is a slightly stylized view I made of our iON Air Pro WiFi 3 camera. Experienced readers will recognize the red reflected light on the bottom of the piece as coming from light striking a red blanket I placed at the bottom of the setup.

This is a slightly stylized view I made of our iON Air Pro WiFi 3 camera. Experienced readers will recognize the red reflected light on the bottom of the piece as coming from light striking a red blanket I placed at the bottom of the setup.

My wife Abby and I recently used some credit card rewards points to buy a camera know as either a point-of-view camera, an action cam, or a wearable camera. Readers might remember that in May Scott AndersEn and I used his GoPro camera to make some intriguing video imaging; Abby liked what she saw, and I have long thought that I would like to improve a largely unpolished aspect of my photography, filmmaking. Thus began a search for some kind of small, lightweight camera designed for action and point-of-view shooting.

The lens of the iON Air Pro 3 summons memories of the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The lens of the iON Air Pro 3 summons memories of the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

After a bit of research, I found myself drawn to a camera made by iON, the iON Air Pro™ 3 Wi-Fi. Cameras like this are designed to be mounted on cars, airplanes, ski helmets, bicycle handlebars, hiking poles, and on and on.

This particular camera is noted for being waterproof, and for having a couple of key features that led me to purchase it: a slide-switch that activates the record mode which makes the device vibrate to tell the use it’s on, and a WiFi “PODZ” unit that allows me to use an app on my iPhone as a remote control and remote monitor.

The iON Air Pro is equipped with a standard 1/4-inch tripod socket, so it will mount on any tripod, and also includes a tiny flexible tripod, a stick-on helmet mount, a sturdy USB cable, and a number of power plugs for different nations. Additionally, I hopped on Amazon and bought a clamp with a tripod screw so I will be able to clamp this thing to any purchase from drain gutters to the bill of my ball cap.

Point-of-view filmmaking is a slippery slope, and it’s easy to make boring or even offensively annoying videos with it, but my hope it to regard this new device as another tool in the tool box of imaging.

As you can see, this perspective from the iON Pro camera is like a fisheye lens, made so as to facilitate getting shots with the super-wide angle of view without really having to aim the camera. Also in this frame you can see that my iPhone is bunnied-up to the iON and is controlling it and being its monitor.

As you can see, this perspective from the iON Pro camera is like a fisheye lens, made so as to facilitate getting shots with the super-wide angle of view without really having to aim the camera. Also in this frame you can see that my iPhone is bunnied-up to the iON and is controlling it and being its monitor.

Shooting Football: a Two-Pronged Attack

By , August 22, 2014 5:40 pm
Shooting football with a wide angle lens requires patience and perseverance, but can provide a sense of intimacy with the action that a telephoto doesn't.

Shooting football with a wide angle lens requires patience and perseverance, but can provide a sense of intimacy with the action that a telephoto doesn’t.

Shot at one of our lesser-lit fields, this image was made at ISO 6400. Despite this, the shutter speed I got at maximum aperture was still long enough that the player on the left is blurry.

Shot at one of our lesser-lit fields, this image was made at ISO 6400. Despite this, the shutter speed I got at maximum aperture was still long enough that the player on the left is blurry.

A friend of mine requested a “how to” specifically on shooting football.

My newspaper’s coverage area has a very exciting sports scene. Seasons seldom go by without one or more of our teams playing deep into playoffs. The Ada Cougars, for example, have 19 football state championships.

Like much of my news photography (and like many other photographers), I aim for a two-pronged attack: one camera with a wide angle, the other with a big-bore telephoto zoom. I use the big zoom for action, but tend to gravitate to the wide angle for features, since it gives me a fundamentally different look, adding to the dynamics of my product.

Filling up the frame with the "moment of conflict" is key to shooting any sport.

Filling up the frame with the “moment of conflict” is key to shooting any sport.

How do we shoot football?

Sports action photos without faces are what we derisively refer to as "body art," and aren't as powerful. The quarterback's face in this image tells an entire story in a single moment.

Sports action photos without faces are what we derisively refer to as “body art,” and aren’t as powerful. The quarterback’s face in this image tells an entire story in a single moment.

  • We need Some Reach. You can’t go onto the field and you can’t control where the players go. With a 24mm x 15mm image sensor (the so-called APS-C size, the most common), a 70-200mm zoom is enough if you use it aggressively. You might be able to sneak by with an 85mm, but you have to be close to the action, and it has to come toward you.
  • We need f/2.8. Years ago I talked about the value of this large maximum aperture, though I sometimes think this falls on deaf ears. In addition to being necessary to let enough light strike the sensor, f/2.8, particularly at focal lengths approaching 200mm, creates the shallow depth of field that helps isolate the action against sometimes busy backgrounds.
  • We need High ISO. Most levels of organized football have limited budgets, and they bought all the lights they could, but almost all the time, it’s on the margins. Some tiny high schools have lights that are scarcely brighter than car headlights. Even so, think high, high ISO rather than flash. Nothing takes the depth and spirit out of an action shot like the bland, deer-in-the-headlights look of direct flash.
  • We Need to Avoid Getting Hurt. You need to be careful and keep your eyes open. 20 years ago in Durant, Oklahoma, a friend of mine and I were shooting a college football game. When the play started coming toward us, I retreated from the sideline, but she stayed put, and got clobbered by two players who totaled about five times her weight. She recovered, but later needed two surgeries on her jaw because of the crash. No image is worth that.

    Football is an intense and passionate sport, best expressed in the eyes and faces of the participants.

    Football is an intense and passionate sport, best expressed in the eyes and faces of the participants.

  • We Need to Remember the Audience. It’s easy to impress yourself but bore your audience with super-sharp pictures of players running alone in the open field. It’s better to have a slightly soft image that shows moments of conflict and competition. You might be pleased with yourself for getting a shot of a touchdown, but if it’s some kid running away from the camera in the open, you don’t have the shot.
  • We Need to Keep Our Head in the Game. Don’t worry about finessing focus by moving those sensors around in the viewfinder. The game and the fans move too fast for that. Select the center sensor and put it on your target, and crop later. Also, if at all possible, shoot RAW files and worry about white balance – often whacky under the Friday night lights – later.
  • We Need to Remember that the Eyes Still Have It. Like all our imaging, it’s not about uniforms or formations, but about the people – their eyes and faces – that matter the most when we are telling their stories.
The lights themselves are one of the characters in the story of nighttime football, as in this image made with a 12-24mm lens.

The lights themselves are one of the characters in the story of nighttime football, as in this image made with a 12-24mm lens.

Made with a 300mm lens, this image brings the viewer deep into an intense moment of conflict. Either of these players alone doing the same thing makes for a much less exciting image, re-emphasizing and reaffirming the need to push hard to find the moment and capture it.

Made with a 300mm lens, this image brings the viewer deep into an intense moment of conflict. Either of these players alone doing the same thing makes for a much less exciting image, re-emphasizing and reaffirming the need to push hard to find the moment and capture it.

A Gorgeous Night for Teaching

By , August 12, 2014 12:00 pm
Beautiful cumulus congestus clouds reflect in the pond at the Pontotoc Technology Center last night.

Beautiful cumulus congestus clouds reflect in the pond at the Pontotoc Technology Center last night.

My students gather to photograph me as I walk toward them in the classic left-right vs front-back motion exercise.

My students gather to photograph me as I walk toward them in the classic left-right vs front-back motion exercise.

My intermediate/advanced photography students and I had a grand night last night that included several photographic epiphanies and a spectacular performance from the light. Everyone had fun and learned a lot.

Some of the participants in this class, like these three girls, are members of the Byng High School Yearbook staff.

Some of the participants in this class, like these three girls, are members of the Byng High School Yearbook staff.

We all pose for a group photo on the bridge over the pond at the Pontotoc Technology Center last night. The evening light was outstanding.

We all pose for a group photo on the bridge over the pond at the Pontotoc Technology Center last night. The evening light was outstanding.

Do It Yourself Go-Pro-Like Camera

By , August 3, 2014 12:53 pm
This little project took about five minutes, used about $5 in parts, and took advantage of a lesser-used camera.

This little project took about five minutes, used about $5 in parts, and took advantage of a lesser-used camera.

I have a buddy, Scott Andersen, who is heavy into GoPro video making. Part of it is his semi-professional work for his church, and part of it is family fun photography. He owned four GoPro cameras until he destroyed one recently. He used GoPro cameras when he visited us in May.

Abby thought the GoPro paradigm was pretty cool, but I concluded that it didn’t make sense for us to buy into a whole new line of cameras, particularly since we have lots of cameras already, and we both have the iPhone 5 that makes high-definition video. I also don’t love the fisheye look that GoPro cameras render.

Then over the past couple of weeks I uploaded some content to my YouTube channel. I don’t normally like to outsource richardbarron.net content, but I started thinking it might be a way to “drive traffic,” as they say in the biz, to my site.

I then thought it might be nice if I had some kind of channel/richardbarron.net promo video, which I am beginning to develop.

I pulled a bunch of video clips from my hard drive, and I have some decent content, but I also want some point-of-view stuff of Abby and me making pictures, hiking, adventuring, etc., and the GoPro video of Scott’s jumped to mind. I decided to engineer something, and it took less than five minutes.

I dug around in the garage and found a plastic clamp that once belonged to my dad. I suppose it was meant to hold boards together when you glued or drilled them. I then got a quarter-inch bolt and two nuts for it. The tripod socket on most cameras is a standard quarter-inch hole. I drilled the handle, stuck the bolt through, and snugged it down with one of the nuts. The other nut then snugs down the camera.

I clamped the assembly onto the hood of my 70-200mm, and it worked fine. See for yourself…

Water of Love, Love of Water

By , July 22, 2014 10:35 pm
A very useful tool of my trade, the white-red-green selectable flashlight; I got this one on the camping supply aisle.

A very useful tool of my trade, the white-red-green selectable flashlight; I got this one on the camping supply aisle.

In my current class, Intro to Digital Photography, I teach a lot of basics. I point out the effects of changing this, changing that, chaining the other, and how best to take advantage of those effects. One thing we discussed last night was shutter speed, and everyone had fun waving their hands in front of each other at 1/8th of a second, then at 1/500th of a second, to get a clearer idea how shutter speed is one key component in building an image.

Since I live in the world of photographing people (mostly) for a living, I tend to come down on the side of faster shutter speeds. Lots of people are fast, from toddlers to professional athletes, and most of the time I try to freeze the action of their movements to illustrate what they are doing for our readers.

One of my students asked me last night, “Richard, what’s a good shutter speed if I want to show movement?”

It’s a great question with a not-as-great answer: practice. Every time we try to illustrate movement, the scene and subjects are a little different, so my advice is to keep experimenting, but with the notion in mind that in photography, a half a second is a really long time, and a minute is an eternity.

The scene of the crime: this angle illustrates the lighting and direction of water flow. The best image of the evening was made on the other bank.

The scene of the crime: this angle illustrates the lighting and direction of water flow. The best image of the evening was made on the other bank.

Then, as luck would have it, I was at Ada’s Wintersmith Park this morning looking for a feature photo, which I found (of a young lady doing her daily run up and down the steps of the amphitheater there), and noticed that the lake was high. Sure enough, the stream below the lake was flowing.

Anyone who has tried to photograph running water in daylight has experienced the same frustration: the relatively fast shutter speeds dictated by the brightness of the daytime light create an image that looks wrong. It is neither amazingly crisp, nor does it seem to express how water flows.

Knowing this, I made a plan to return to the park at dusk, and did so tonight. I set up my Nikon D7100 with the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm zoom on my best tripod as close as I could get without getting wet. I wanted to create as much blur as possible in the swiftly moving water, so I started at 30 seconds at f/22 and ISO 200, but that was entirely too dark. The only number I needed to keep was 30 seconds, so I bumped up to ISO 400 and f/11, and that was just right. The scene was illuminated by fading evening sky through the woods, and orange streetlights on the walking trail. To add an opposite color, I “painted” with my multicolor flashlight set to green.

30 seconds is the threshold exposure for creating really beautiful water blur. Longer exposures create an even deeper "cotton candy" look to the water.

30 seconds is the threshold exposure for creating really beautiful water blur. Longer exposures create an even deeper “cotton candy” look to the water.

Scan While You Can

By , July 18, 2014 8:42 am
Rodeo cowboys ride into the show arena, June 1996. I found this image while searching my archives for another item, and thought it deserved another moment in the light.

Rodeo cowboys ride into the show arena, June 1996. I found this image while searching my archives for another item, and thought it deserved another moment in the light.

Much of the world around us is driven by economics. Exceptions might be institutions like the Smithsonian or the National Archives, but even they are frequently at the mercy of money. That’s a shame, of course, but it’s a reality.

A member of the "Latta Kittens" t-ball team gets hitting advice from a coach in this June 1996 image. It's a nice moment, and doesn't deserve to be forgotten.

A member of the “Latta Kittens” t-ball team gets hitting advice from a coach in this June 1996 image. It’s a nice moment, and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

In photography, one such reality is that, in the shift from film to digital in the last 15 years, less and less emphasis is placed on film and what we can do with it. I am in no way a champion of shooting on film in 2014, but I am aware that, with film rapidly disappearing from our lives, so disappears what we can do with images that exist on film.

A critical example of this is the Nikon LS-2000, an excellent, fairly-high resolution film scanner with some powerful features. We have one here at the office, and it lives in “the morgue” with a bunch of other obsolete equipment. It’s not obsolete because it doesn’t work. It’s obsolete because Nikon quit updating the drivers for it. And they did that not because there was no longer a need to be able to scan film, but because it wasn’t making money for them any more.

I have a fairly decent flatbed scanner at home, the Canon 9000F. It makes superb scans of prints, but only so-so scans from negatives. I also have an older Epson Perfection 1650 scanner at my office. There are still a few affordable film-only scanners for sale, but only from niche companies. To get a truly solid scan, you need a what’s called a drum scan, and drum scanners are astronomically expensive…

Hasselblad Flextight X5 Scanner: $25,700

Blackmagic Design Cintel Scanner$29,995

An alternative is sending your film away to be scanned, but honestly, I spend too much time and effort on my photography to have an overworked technician guess at how my images should look.

Pictures we made on film for decades remain a significant part of our imaging lexicon, and it would be wrong to let them sit in the dark in the top of the closet. Get them out, get them organized, and scan while you can.

A black-and-white negative sits in its carrier prior to being scanned at my office recently. Even a mediocre scan with a flatbed scanner can breathe some life into old images.

A black-and-white negative sits in its carrier prior to being scanned at my office recently. Even a mediocre scan with a flatbed scanner can breathe some life into old images.

The Real Mission is Storytelling

By , July 9, 2014 11:44 am
When I initially approached these guys about taking their picture, they wanted to pose in a big group. I politely explained that it wasn't what I wanted, and asked them to relax and go about their evening. It took a few minutes for them to do so, but you can see how much better this image is than a group of them posing.

When I initially approached these guys about taking their picture, they wanted to pose in a big group. I politely explained that it wasn’t what I wanted, and asked them to relax and go about their evening. It took a few minutes for them to do so, but you can see how much better this image is than a group of them posing.

I’m teaching a beginning digital photography class next week, and 12 of the enrollees are high school yearbook students. It’s fun to have enough people in class, because it can energize the room, but I may find it difficult to convey to high schoolers one of my most important messages: storytelling.

It's easy to make a group photo of troops who are leaving for deployment, but it's vastly more powerful to photograph a moment like this.

It’s easy to make a group photo of troops who are leaving for deployment, but it’s vastly more powerful to photograph a moment like this.

I’ve watched high school photographers at ball games and graduations and class plays and so on, and they almost always fall into the same imaging paradigm: stop the action, get the subjects to grin like apes at the camera, blast away with direct flash, and come away with, essentially, nothing.

So as a high school yearbook photographer, who is your audience? In some very significant ways, you are, only 20, 30, 40 years in the future. What can we offer this audience? If we give them 175 “party pics,” we’ll be doing them a serious disservice, because, as I have discussed before, when you stop a moment to get people to pose for a photo, that photo no longer expresses the moment. It expresses people posing for a photograph, usually predictably and boringly.

I appreciate how hard it might be for a high school kid to say no to, “Hey, take my picture,” or to turn down an opportunity when a bunch of kids are “cheesing” for you. In the smart phone camera era, everyone is conditioned to do that. But I am here to testify: these aren’t the images you want.

Also, of course, is this: you and your friends and everyone else already has hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of these same boring party pics. If you don’t believe me, do a web image search for “group photos,” and look at how similar the photos look, and how they don’t tell us much about the people and the moment.

After the obligatory group photo when the Roff Tigers won a state championship, there was this moment, which is filled with almost infinitely more emotion.

After the obligatory group photo when the Roff Tigers won a state championship, there was this moment, which is filled with almost infinitely more emotion.

So if not party pics, Richard, what? Very simply, we are trying to tell a story with our images. Wait for the moment. Watch for it. It’s not before the game when everyone is goofing off. It’s when the three-pointer hits the rim and bounces out at the buzzer. It’s not when the principal and the debate student pose with the plaque. It’s when the debate student is at a tournament, waiting tensely in the lobby to find out if he’ll finish first or second. It’s not when the dignitary hands a check to the student council president and shakes her hand. It’s when she then holds up the check with tears in her eyes and the crowd goes wild for their achievement. It’s not when the football team grudgingly accepts their runner-up trophy. It’s when tears are streaming down their faces with 00:00 on the clock.

Look through the portfolio of any award-winning photographer and you won’t find party pics or group photos. You will find stories. Look at those images, and begin to explore how you can tell your stories.

There are often a lot of photographers making pictures on senior night, in this case Ada Lady Cougar softball, and those photographers want group photos of the families holding their ribbons and roses, grinning their butts off. But this image brings the story home better than any of those photos, that Blakeley Franz was about to play her last high school softball game.

There are often a lot of photographers making pictures on senior night, in this case Ada Lady Cougar softball, and those photographers want group photos of the families holding their ribbons and roses, grinning their butts off. But this image brings the story home better than any of those photos, that Blakeley Franz was about to play her last high school softball game.

How Photographers Can Miss the Point

By , June 27, 2014 6:39 pm

It’s too easy for photographers to get mired in technical details and forget their message: conveying images that describe the moment.

Here is one example…

Ada Cougar football players hold their quarterback after words were exchanged with the opposition at the end of a play, September 2008.

Ada Cougar football players hold their quarterback after words were exchanged with the opposition at the end of a play, September 2008.

If you look at the image above and are inclined to criticize it on its technical merits – noise, blur, color rendition, resolution – you might have lost sight of the true purpose of photography. If you look at this image and see an emotional moment among competitors, there is still hope for you.

The Geometry of Photography

By , June 27, 2014 7:27 am

or How to Avoid Boring the Audience with Your Wide Angle Lens

Photography is a surprisingly complex visual puzzle. In addition to using a lot of numbers, it is rife with its own jargon: the inverse square law, the exposure triangle, circles of confusion, lighting ratios, the rule of thirds, and on and on.

One excellent use for a wide angle lens is to utilize the directional elements of an image, called leading lines, to draw the viewer into the center of an image, as in this November 2012 high school playoff football game.

One excellent use for a wide angle lens is to utilize the directional elements of an image, called leading lines, to draw the viewer into the center of an image, as in this November 2012 high school playoff football game.

One thing I see again and again, and hear described and debated, that is directly related to the geometry of photography, is the misuse of wide angle lenses. Many images that make very poor use of wide angle lenses pass through my hands every day. Not only do I see tons of images shot with wide angles that simply fail to fill the frame with a basic subject (like group photos with the group in the middle of a mostly empty frame), I also see wide angle images that fail to grasp the most fundamental concept in photography: storytelling.

Proper selection of focal length is one of the ways we tell the viewer our story, but it doesn’t end there. Once we have mounted our 18mm or our 85mm or our 300mm, we can’t just sit back and let it do the work. I see a lot of web forum posts with titles like, “What’s the best portrait lens (or wide angle, or telephoto, etc.) for my Camcon 9000?”

The answer is, of course, “that depends.” And it mostly depends on you.

The most important thing you can do with a wide-angle lens – and I can’t emphasize this enough – is use near-far relationships to invite the audience into your image. Without this essential storytelling element, wide angle shots, particularly landscapes, can easily bore the audience.

Here is a very dull photo of some rebar by the side of the road, shot with a 12mm lens. Compare to...

Here is a very dull photo of some rebar by the side of the road, shot with a 12mm lens. Compare to…

…same scene, same lens, same exposure, same light, but with a very different result. Essentially, all I did was move.

…same scene, same lens, same exposure, same light, but with a very different result. Essentially, all I did was move.

In the end, the success of your images made with a wide angle or ultra wide angle lens will sink or swim on how you use it. It requires a willingness to give up boring, easy perspectives and work to find ways to tell your story with the lines and angles that are available with these incredible tools.

DPI, PPI, IPI

By , June 25, 2014 11:31 am

IPI = Idiots Per Inch.

I continue to be amazed and discouraged that after more than two decades of modern image editing, photo editors and graphic designers still insist on describing images using the term “DPI.” It stands for Dots Per Inch, and it’s kissing cousin is PPI, or Pixels Per Inch, and I am here to tell editors once and for all: DPI and PPI don’t describe image resolution.

The reason this is so discouraging is that imaging professionals should know better. The only number that actually describes digital image resolution usefully is the number of total pixels.

I had an editor ask for a “300 DPI” image just last week. Without any other parameters, a “300 DPI” image could be the size of a postage stamp (1 inch by 1 inch at 300 DPI) or the size of a garage door (270 inches by 180 inches at 300 DPI).

If there’s good news in this miasma of ignorance, it’s that you can easily make a change in the “Image Size” dialog in programs like Photoshop to fool editors into thinking there are getting what they want by simply unchecking the “Resample Image” box and entering “300” in the “Resolution” field. Of course, it doesn’t change the number of pixels in the image, but it satisfies the recipient. They could do it themselves, too, but that may be asking too much.

I’m going to make a point to send this to any and all editors who specify they want a “300 DPI” image.

Behold: same file, same number of pixels, but one says 72 DPI, and other says 300 DPI.

Behold: same file, same number of pixels, but one says 72 DPI, and other says 300 DPI.

At This Point, It’s All Used

By , June 21, 2014 12:33 pm
This is the vertical release on one of my D2H digital SLR cameras. As you can see, it is well-worn. This illustrates two important things I demand from my work cameras: a vertical release, and a body that can take this kind of wear and tear year after year.

This is the vertical release on one of my D2H digital SLR cameras. As you can see, it is well-worn. This illustrates two important things I demand from my work cameras: a vertical release, and a body that can take this kind of wear and tear year after year.

I have never hesitated to recommend buying used photography equipment. All the cameras I currently use for my work as a photojournalist were bought used.

I looked at the camera lineup at nikonusa.com today and decided … Nikon, are you listening? … that I will be buying used cameras for the foreseeable future. Basically, Nikon has split their models into two camps: small-sensor (15x24mm) cameras for hobbyists, and large-sensor (24x36mm) for rich amateurs and pros, and then into three sub-categories.

I, and those like me in the news business, am none of those.

Here is today’s lineup from nikonusa.com

“Entry-level” DSLRs, the D3100 through the D5300. Price range: $450-$750.

“Enthusiast-level” DSLRs, the D7000 and D7100, the Df, and the D610. Price range: $1000 to $2800.

“Professional” DSLRs, the D800 and D800e, and the D4, D4s, and D3x. Price range: $3200 to $8000.

You can have a lot of fun with a camera like this, my wife Abby's Nikon D3000, but it won't be as fun when it's in the shop five times a year due to its lightweight, plastic build.

You can have a lot of fun with a camera like this, my wife Abby’s Nikon D3000, but it won’t be as fun when it’s in the shop five times a year due to its lightweight, plastic build.

Nikon’s small-sensor cameras are like cheap toys in my hands, while their large-sensor cameras are too expensive, by a lot.

What I need:

  • A tough body with responsive autofocus
  • A fairly high frame rate with a big buffer
  • A biggish camera body with an integrated vertical grip
  • Decent high-ISO files
  • Fairly good HD video

What I don’t need:

  • So-called full-frame (Nikon calls it FX, the same size as the obsolete 35mm film frame)
  • More than about 10 megapixels
  • Astronomical ISO performance
  • Stupid features like social media integration, WiFi, or GPS

So, Nikon, make this happen for Richard the photojournalist…

  • A camera body like the Nikon D2h, with
  • About 10 megapixels and
  • A maximum ISO of 12,800, and make it clean
  • A frame rate of about eight frames per second, with a big buffer
  • A price of about $1000

In summary, I need a tough body with good performance, and I don’t care about pixel count, sensor size, or trendy features, and I need a good price.

Nikon’s D300S had all this, but Nikon no longer lists it. I have a D7100 at home for my fine art, commercial and travel photography, but for news, sports, and magazine work, I have absolutely no use for it’s small buffer, intermediate build quality, and 24 megapixels.

In some ways, the bottom end of Nikon’s line, like the D5300, which has some respectable specifications, would be suitable, but in comes in a plasticky, consumer body.

Much of this is fallout from the lingering, pointless megapixel craze. More is better, especially in the West, especially in the eyes of egomaniacal and/or insecure photographers. If someone handed me a 36 megapixel Nikon D800 to use today, I would immediately dial it down to 9 megapixel, even for magazine shooting.

On photo forums like Photo.net, participants often speak of having a “backup” camera, sometimes one of lesser quality than their main camera, but this is a tipoff that they aren’t real photographers, since almost all decent professional photographers shooting events use two or even three cameras at once, and they all need to be of the same ilk. Of course, I would love to have three new Nikon D4S cameras, but who are we kidding? $6000 apiece? I don’t know who is buying these, but it isn’t me or any of the news photographers I know.

My solution to the conundrum of what to do if you shoot news and sports is, as it has been for some time, to tell the big camera companies that their products have shifted away from real photographers like us and toward the measurbators, and that we will be cruising eBay for the foreseeable future, looking for cameras like the D2X, the D300S.

The core camera in my photographic stable is the Nikon D2H. Naysayers who claim that 4.1 megapixels isn't enough or that the camera's high-ISO files are unusable probably don't shoot RAW files and probably aren't particularly good with Adobe's Camera RAW software. In the right hands, this camera can deliver.

The core camera in my photographic stable is the Nikon D2H. Naysayers who claim that 4.1 megapixels isn’t enough or that the camera’s high-ISO files are unusable probably don’t shoot RAW files and probably aren’t particularly good with Adobe’s Camera RAW software. In the right hands, this camera can deliver.

A Complete 180

By , June 14, 2014 7:56 pm
This mimosa behind the garden started blooming just this week. This image was made at f/2.8 at just about the closest focus distance on my AF-Nikkor 180mm.

This mimosa behind the garden started blooming just this week. This image was made at f/2.8 at just about the closest focus distance on my AF-Nikkor 180mm.

As you can see, the 180mm is scarcely bigger than a 70-300mm zoom, yet the images from it are far superior.

As you can see, the 180mm is scarcely bigger than a 70-300mm zoom, yet the images from it are far superior.

The hay guy came by this morning to ask if he could cut and bail the pasture in July like he has every year recently, and it reminded me to grab a camera and photograph the pasture in the coming weeks before he cuts it.

I grabbed the Nikon D7100 tonight, and very deliberately chose one of my favorite lenses, as it has been for 30 years, the 180mm. I’ve owned four iterations of this lens over the years, including tonight’s guest, the AF-Nikkor ED 180mm f/2.8 D.

Tiny white flowers blow in a late spring breeze in a shady spot down by our pond tonight. The 180mm let me set them apart from the background nicely.

Tiny white flowers blow in a late spring breeze in a shady spot down by our pond tonight. The 180mm let me set them apart from the background nicely.

This lens has few vices. It is lightweight, bright, and sharp, and has fairly nice bokeh wide open. It’s only failings are its older autofocus system (non-AF-S) and an itsy bit of chromatic aberration.

It’s possible to get a decent bargain on a used 180mm on sites like eBay, particularly if it’s ugly on the outside but still has good glass.

It felt good in my hands tonight, and I remembered why I like it so much.

A bit of juxtapositional imagining, with the vines wrapping around barbed wire in the west pasture. The excellent selective focus qualities of the 180mm at f/2.8 make this possible.

A bit of juxtapositional imagining, with the vines wrapping around barbed wire in the west pasture. The excellent selective focus qualities of the 180mm at f/2.8 make this possible.

A Lens for the Fun of It

By , June 12, 2014 7:14 pm
Aztec Ruins National Monument's restored great kiva, shot with my Tokina AT-X 10-17mm  f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens.

Aztec Ruins National Monument’s restored great kiva, shot with my Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens.

I sold my first fisheye, a 16mm for 35mm film, to David Wheelock, who was kind enough to send me this photograph of it.

I sold my first fisheye, a 16mm for 35mm film, to David Wheelock, who was kind enough to send me this photograph of it.

In my time, I owned two fisheye lenses. From 1993 until 2004, I had a the Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 AI-S, which I seldom used and sold to a friend when I phased out film and switched to digital, since its image circle was for a 24x36mm image area. I carried it for a while for imaging at my newspaper, where it became known as “Richard’s weird lens.”

In the summer of 2008, I felt the fisheye still held a place in my imaging, so I bought the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5, which was both about half the cost of Nikon’s 10.5mm, and was also a zoom. I didn’t know why zoom would be valuable in a fisheye, but it was there.

Which Begs the Question...
Why would you create a fisheye zoom? I would speculate that almost all lenses designed in the last 15 years were created using CAD/CAM, Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing. It would make sense that programs controlling CAD/CAM are optimized for the creation of the most popular lenses, which are zooms, and that engineers would be inclined to use existing CAD/CAM methods and software to avoid “reinventing the wheel.”
Michael uses my 10-17mm on his Nikon D7000 on a trip to Great Salt Plains in 2011.

Michael uses my 10-17mm on his Nikon D7000 on a trip to Great Salt Plains in 2011.

I always bring my Tokina fisheye to class on “lens night,” and my students get a big kick out of it. It is my impression that almost none of them later consider buying one. The fisheye lens is very specialized, and even when I make a point to use it, I still find that images made with it have a unique look, and, maybe more importantly, it is a fairly difficult lens to use well.

Robert Stinson, right, and I pose with our fisheye lenses, my Tokina 10-17mm, and his Nikkor 10.5mm.

Robert Stinson, right, and I pose with our fisheye lenses, my Tokina 10-17mm, and his Nikkor 10.5mm.

I made this image of Surprise Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, in March 2004, using a Nikon FM2 and the 16mm Fisheye Nikkor I later sold to David Wheelock.

I made this image of Surprise Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, in March 2004, using a Nikon FM2 and the 16mm Fisheye Nikkor I later sold to David Wheelock.

There have been a few occasions when the fisheye field of view, 180˚ from corner to corner of the frame, has been irreplaceable. I can think of three, all in the west, where I was in a place that didn’t allow me enough room to back up and get everything I wanted in the frame: Aztec Ruins National Monument’s great kiva, Arches National Park’s Surprise Arch, and Arches National Park’s Tower Arch.

If the strength of a wide angle lens is its ability to express near-far relationships, the strength of a fisheye is to explode them.

The fisheye can dress up boring images with its wild curves, bring the viewer into spaces a normal or wide angle can’t, and can create a sense of depth like no other lens. It also has the potential for overuse by boring or confusing viewers. It takes a lot of practice to be able to tell when that might happen. From inside the viewfinder, the view is so extreme and entertaining that it’s easy to think everything is looking great.

In terms of build quality and handling, the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 is without peer. Zooming is smooth and obedient, it is quick to focus, and it feels very solid in-hand.

In terms of build quality and handling, the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 is without peer. Zooming is smooth and obedient, it is quick to focus, and it feels very solid in-hand.

This lens is in my bag, and I need to take it out and use it more, if only to keep me out of any photographic ruts.

In New Mexico in March, I partnered it with the excellent AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6, and the combination seemed to cover all bases of travel photography.

This view, made with the 10-17mm, looks almost straight up, and shows Tower Arch to the left, and the tower from which it got its name on the right. I was standing against a sheer wall behind me, so there was no room to back up.

This view, made with the 10-17mm, looks almost straight up, and shows Tower Arch to the left, and the tower from which it got its name on the right. I was standing against a sheer wall behind me, so there was no room to back up.

Scott uses my Tokina fisheye to photograph one of his GoPro cameras. Scott loves the fisheye look.

Scott uses my Tokina fisheye to photograph one of his GoPro cameras. Scott loves the fisheye look.

In a vis-a-vis comparison between the Tokina and the Nikkor, the Nikkor probably has an edge in image quality due to some annoying color fringing with the Tokina, but that advantage is quickly negated by the Tokina’s price and versatility. It is possible to mitigate the color fringing to some degree using software.

A couple of years ago, Scott borrowed Robert‘s 10.5mm and liked it so much that it took Robert a year to get it back from him.

This is a comparison view shot from my front porch. The top image is a regular 12mm lens; the bottom image is the 10-17mm fisheye set to about 15mm. Since the horizon passes through the center of the image, no distortion correction was required for the fisheye view.

This is a comparison view shot from my front porch. The top image is a regular 12mm lens; the bottom image is the 10-17mm fisheye set to about 15mm. Since the horizon passes through the center of the image, no distortion correction was required for the fisheye view.

My recommendation about a lens like this is unambiguous: you know who you are. If you want a fisheye, get one. A lens like this is entertaining to use, but is a formidable challenge to get genuinely compelling images. It takes a lot of practice, but in the right hands, it can deliver.

I made this image in 2012 at Waterholes Canyon near Page, Arizona, and I find the lines and curves very satisfying.

I made this image in 2012 at Waterholes Canyon near Page, Arizona, and I find the lines and curves very satisfying.

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