The Backup Camera

By , December 20, 2014 11:48 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons and Ideas from Long Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Camera Sees vs What We Want It to See

By , December 7, 2014 1:56 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100mm @ f/16, 3.6 seconds.

100mm @ f/16, 3.6 seconds.

 

The Need to Be Obvious

By , November 30, 2014 1:20 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be obvious.

Not the Place for Greatness

By , November 22, 2014 3:26 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stories We Tell

By , November 15, 2014 3:05 pm

I have been the sole full-time photographer for the newspaper in my community for 26 years. In that time, I’ve seen and photographed a lot. There have been a huge number of stories to be told, on every emotional level. The community has come to know and appreciate me, and I am usually welcome. Even on those occasions when the prying eye of my cameras is not welcome, these people mostly know why I have to be there.

I thought of this last night during a moment when my cameras might be seeing more that my subjects might like, the end of the season for the Ada Cougars football team. In the business, we call these photos “dejection art,” and making these pictures requires some skills. The most important of these is to get the picture while staying out of the moment.

In addition to capturing all these moments, I’ve gotten to know the people, and by this time in my career, I now know the children of the people I photographed when I came here in 1988.

An example is the Jack family. When I started working in Ada, the Cougars were on there way to winning their 14th state championship (they have since won five more), led by a talented running back named Tyler Jack. In 1993, Tyler led Ada’s East Central University Tigers to a national championship. Cheering on the sidelines was Marcy Jeffcoat, who became Tyler’s wife. Tyler became a state trooper, and Marcy now teaches in the Ada City Schools. They have two children, Taryn and Tanner. Taryn started for the Lady Cougars softball team as catcher, and Tanner started this year at center. I’m always glad when I run into any of them, and they are always glad to see me.

Last night I was there to tell another story about the Jack family…

Marcy, Tyler and Taryn comfort Tanner after the Ada Cougars loss to Weatherford in the first round of the playoffs last night at ECU's Norris Field.

Marcy, Tyler and Taryn comfort Tanner after the Ada Cougars loss to Weatherford in the first round of the playoffs last night at ECU’s Norris Field.

Exposure Compensation: What and How

By , November 6, 2014 6:13 pm
This is the exposure compensation button on a Nikon camera. Different camera companies put it in different places, or embedded in menus, but they all work the same way: letting us fine tune the brightness values of our images. (Don't mistake this for a similar-looking control near the viewfinder, which is the diopter setting.)

This is the exposure compensation button on a Nikon camera. Different camera companies put it in different places, or embedded in menus, but they all work the same way: letting us fine tune the brightness values of our images. (Don’t mistake this for a similar-looking control near the viewfinder, which is the diopter setting.)

This is an image displayed on the monitor of a modern digital camera. The top frame is set to -1.7 exposure compensation, the middle to 0.0, and the bottom is set to +1.7 exposure compensation.

This is an image displayed on the monitor of a modern digital camera. The top frame is set to -1.7 exposure compensation, the middle to 0.0, and the bottom is set to +1.7 exposure compensation.

The fundamental look of our images is controlled by many factors: subject, composition, lighting, focal length, color. One element of our imaging that stands out as particularly important is exposure. Our images are made of light, so how much or how little light we show in them is at their heart.

I thought of this for two reasons. First, someone emailed me with an exposure question. Second, I happened across yet another raging debate on Photo.net this morning about “expose to the right,” a hot-button issue regarding exposure in the digital age.

Before we dive into exposure control, let me stridently assert this: exposure, like most factors in photography, is subjective. If anyone every tells you that your opinion about exposure is wrong, they’re wrong. We all have a unique perspective on imaging.

The email I received, however, was a fairly straightforward question from someone just learning about photography: “I think I have sufficient lighting but my pictures come out dark. Any suggestions?”

The answer is, thankfully, a reasonably easy one: learn how to use exposure compensation. Exposure compensation is the way we tell the camera to expose the sensor to more or less light. On many cameras, it is controlled by a button with a +/- on it. We push and hold the button and turn a dial (the main command dial on Nikons) left or right to change the amount of exposure compensation, usually by one third of an f/stop at a time. When you bought your camera, this value was set to 0.0. We can change it to values like +0.7 or -2.3, and so on. Plus makes the image brighter, while minus makes it darker.

Of note is that exposure compensation is usually disabled in “green box” auto mode or scene modes, so to use it, you need to be in one of three exposure modes, P=Program, A=Aperture Priority, or S=Shutter Priority (Canon cameras use Av and Tv for the last two). (See The PASM for more on these modes.) Also, note that exposure compensation has no effect in manual mode, because in manual mode, we pick all the settings.

I intentionally shot this image of a law ornament at "minus 2.3" exposure compensation to illustrate a genuinely underexposed image.

I intentionally shot this image of a law ornament at “minus 2.3″ exposure compensation to illustrate a genuinely underexposed image.

This image of the same lawn ornament as above, was made at about +0.3, and looks about right.

This image of the same lawn ornament as above, was made at about +0.3, and looks about right.

I mentioned “expose to the right” earlier, so I should explain: there are those who believe, often very dogmatically, that the histogram (see the image of the display on the back of my camera; the histogram is that thing that looks like little mountain ranges) should be stacked to the right. “Expose to the right” is a worthless tome because it’s only effective some of the time, and treats us as robots who need rules to follow.

In my occupation, news, magazine and sports photography, human faces take priority over other shadows and highlights, so much of the time I try to expose so we can see who, not what.

Exposure can make or break certain images, like this wheatgrass at sunset down by our pond this evening. The camera sees the brightness of the sun in the image and might tend to underexpose it, but vigilant use of exposure compensation results in beautiful moments like these.

Exposure can make or break certain images, like this wheatgrass at sunset down by our pond this evening. The camera sees the brightness of the sun in the image and might tend to underexpose it, but vigilant use of exposure compensation results in beautiful moments like these.

Traveling Cameras and How I Use Them

By , October 28, 2014 5:19 pm
The "dream team" for the road: the Nikon D7100, the Nikkor AF-S 18-200mm, the Tokina 10-17mm, the iON action camera, and the small, lightweight Slik tripod.

The “dream team” for the road: the Nikon D7100, the Nikkor AF-S 18-200mm, the Tokina 10-17mm, the iON action camera, and the small, lightweight Slik tripod.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, when I travel, I like to travel light. I also like to be able to accomplish my photographic goals, which are often quite ambitious.

Like many modern Digital SLRs, the Nikon D7100 allows you to automate bracketing. With the self-timer on five seconds and the bracketing set to five frames at one-stop intervals (shown), you can release the shutter and let the camera do the rest.

Like many modern Digital SLRs, the Nikon D7100 allows you to automate bracketing. With the self-timer on five seconds and the bracketing set to five frames at one-stop intervals (shown), you can release the shutter and let the camera do the rest.

Earlier this year I was able to cash in some credit card rewards points for a Nikon D7100 and a AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II. I took it to the desert in March with quite a bit of success, and it was my main camera on our recent anniversary vacation. After these two week-long adventures, a couple of commercial assignments, using it for teaching, and having it as my primary grab-camera, I now believe that the D7100 with the 18-200mm is an outstanding choice for this type of image making.

As in the desert in March, on the anniversary vacation I partnered the D7100 and the 18-200mm with my Tokina 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 AT-X 107 AF DX fisheye. I also added our new iON Air Pro™ 3 Wi-Fi action camera, and my small, lightweight Slik tripod. Together, the package is small, lightweight, versatile and fun.

One of my photographic goals on the most recent trip was to photograph Utah’s iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, where Abby and I got married ten years earlier, before and at dawn. Part of this desire was the notion that images of this attraction are becoming stale due to its increase in popularity. I wanted to make images that stood out from the thousands of images made of Delicate Arch every day.

I selected five frames from my sequence, loaded them into Adobe Bridge, then told Bridge to open them in Photomatix Pro.

I selected five frames from my sequence, loaded them into Adobe Bridge, then told Bridge to open them in Photomatix Pro.

I was also mindful that a piece of software I use, Photomatix Pro, was recently upgraded to version 5, which included improvements in image rendering, as well as the addition of a number of presets for creation of High Dynamic Range (HDR) images.

Putting these pieces together, I concluded that I would aim to make images at multiple exposure settings (called bracketing), and use Photomatix Pro to render them into an HDR image, then put the finishing touches on them in Adobe Photoshop. The result achieved what I wanted, a beautiful and unique rendering of an over-photographed icon that has special meaning to my wife and me.

This is the result of combining five exposures using the "enhanced" preset in Photomatix Pro, along with a couple of slight tweaks in Photoshop. The lens for this particular shot was the Tokina 10-16mm. Exposures ranged from one to 16 seconds, all at f/11. I think it is magnificent.

This is the result of combining five exposures using the “enhanced” preset in Photomatix Pro, along with a couple of slight tweaks in Photoshop. The lens for this particular shot was the Tokina 10-16mm. Exposures ranged from one to 16 seconds, all at f/11. I think it is magnificent.

The New Selfie on the Block

By , October 21, 2014 8:53 pm
The "action cam," like this iON Air Pro WiFi 3, is the new king of the selfie.

The “action cam,” like this iON Air Pro WiFi 3, is the new king of the selfie.

The marriage of photography and electronic technology is an odd one, and consistently takes imaging to unexpected and unpredictable places.

In the camera phone era, the dominant photograph in the general public’s portfolio is the “hold-away” selfie, so called because the photographer holds the phone as far as he/she can to snap a self portrait or a self-inclusive group photo. The look of these photos got old quickly, in no small part because images of the human face made from within three feet (an arms length) cause a considerable amount of foreshortening (which amateurs often incorrectly refer to as distortion), creating a somewhat unflattering portrait.

You can make hold-away selfies with other cameras, but it’s easier with phones because they are so light, and are usually with us when the good times roll.

Along come action cams. Also known as POV (Point of View) cameras, helmet cams, or the genericization of the brand name GoPro, these cameras feature very light weight, easy mounting on most anything, both video and still capability, and a very wide view angle. The result of this combination is that the photographer can put an action cam on a short stick resembling a hiking pole, and hold it out and up for a marginally better selfie or group than the tired hold-away phone photo.

It’s an improvement over the hold-away selfie, but my feeling is that it will get old quickly, which makes me wonder what the next trend will be.

I photographed this festive group making a "stick selfie" at Arches National Park Utah earlier this month.

I photographed this festive group making a “stick selfie” at Arches National Park Utah earlier this month.

Something Beautiful

By , September 30, 2014 12:29 pm

Since our newspaper started publishing the quarterly Ada Magazine, and I was named its editor, in late 2007, I have included a feature in it called “Something Beautiful.” Its purpose it to feature an inspiring image of something in our area, either by me, my wife Abby, or from submissions from the community.

“Something Beautiful” has proven to be consistently popular, and at least one other newspaper in our chain has borrowed the idea, with similar success.

In fact, if you live in the Ada, Oklahoma area and have an image you think expresses something beautiful, contact me at richard@richardbarron.net with your image, and I will give it due consideration.

Attached are some of my offerings to Ada Magazine‘s readers.

Winter Sunrise

Winter Sunrise

Mimosa Macro

Mimosa Macro

Corporate Headquarters at Sunset

Corporate Headquarters at Sunset

Sunset and Trees

Sunset and Trees

Thunderstorm Tops

Thunderstorm Tops

Rain Tree

Rain Tree

Sunlight Refractions

Sunlight Refractions

Kitten

Kitten

Summer Waterfall

Summer Waterfall

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.

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