A Light Serving of Light

I recently added the excellent AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G to my bag.
I recently added the excellent AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G to my bag.

With the recent addition of the handsome AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to my bag, I noted that this new lens features an aperture with nine rounded blades, unlike its predecessor, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, which has seven straight aperture blades. The reason this matters to me is that I like to use sunstars in some of my imagery to create the impression of brightness in light sources.

To test the sunstar capabilities of the new 50mm, I grabbed some Christmas lights from the rafters in the garage. With my camera on a tripod so everything would be the same except the lens, I shot some test images, all at f/16 at about 1 second, and made a direct comparison between the new f/1.4 and the older f/1.8.

Readers might recall the formula for sunstars: even-numbered aperture blades make sunstars points of that number, while odd-numbered aperture blades make sunstar points equal to twice the number of aperture blades…

This was shot with my older 50mm f/1.8, which has seven straight aperture blades, and as expected produces crisp 14-point sunstars.
This was shot with my older 50mm f/1.8, which has seven straight aperture blades, and as expected produces crisp 14-point sunstars.
Compare this to the previous image. This was made with the 50mm f/1.4, which has nine rounded aperture blades. I admit to being a little surprised at how well it rendered these 18-point sunstars.
Compare this to the previous image. This was made with the 50mm f/1.4, which has nine rounded aperture blades. I admit to being a little surprised at how well it rendered these 18-point sunstars.

I was quite pleased with the result. In recent years, rounded aperture blades have become increasingly common in an effort to give lenses the ability to create more pleasing out-of-focus areas, but this often sacrifices the crisp sunstar effect I love. But I found that while the effect using the 50mm f/1.4 wasn’t quite as dazzling as it was with the f/1.8, it still expressed the feeling of brightness.

This is a fun little trick that can add another layer of interest to certain kinds of photos: adding a shape to the front of your lens to shape the out-of-focus areas. I used aluminum foil because it was handy, but construction paper or opaque plastic works well too.
This is a fun little trick that can add another layer of interest to certain kinds of photos: adding a shape to the front of your lens to shape the out-of-focus areas. I used aluminum foil because it was handy, but construction paper or opaque plastic works well too.

While I had everything set up for sunstars, I thought I would experiment with a funny little do-it-yourself trick that can sometimes be useful: shaping your out-of-focus areas. It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to screw up. In its simplest iteration, you cut a small shape into an opaque object and fit it to the front of your lens.

I used aluminum foil for my experiment, but it made the bokeh a bit too edgy. There are kits available, but part of the fun for me is doing it with household items. This was shot at the largest aperture setting available, in this case f/1.8…

As you can see, this is a pretty simple trick with some eye-catching potential, particularly for very-romanticized portraiture like engagements or babies.
As you can see, this is a pretty simple trick with some eye-catching potential, particularly for very-romanticized portraiture like engagements or babies.
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What Is an “Art” Lens?

One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 "Art" lens, which represents Sigma's efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. Note the "A" badge on the barrel, denoting their "Art" series. However, just because they call it an Art lens doesn't mean you are automatically creating art just because you are using it.
One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 “Art” lens, which represents Sigma’s efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. Note the “A” badge on the barrel, denoting their “Art” series. However, just because they call it an Art lens doesn’t mean you are automatically creating art just because you are using it.

We all want to make amazing images, and we all see amazing images we admire every day. Often we think, “I saw something just like that the other day and tried to photograph it, but my pictures were nothing like that one. What am I doing wrong?”

Often the answer is a nebulous collection of visionary perspective and technical knowledge, with all imagery consisting but one thing: light.

While it is an excellent tool in the toolbox of photography, it is often very tempting to regard selective focus with large-aperture lenses as a goal unto itself, which it is not.
While it is an excellent tool in the toolbox of photography, it is often very tempting to regard selective focus with large-aperture lenses as a goal unto itself, which it is not.

A few years ago, lensmaker Sigma, faced with combating a reputation for poor quality control that resulted in inconsistent products, reorganized and upped their game by introducing their “Art” series of lenses. Bigger, heavier, more expensive, and better built than anything Sigma ever created before, these lenses are aimed at photographers who want the best image quality from larger-maximum-aperture lenses, and who are willing to deal with physically huge and heavy glass. Examples of this line are their 18-35mm f/1.8 Art, 35mm f/1.4 Art, 50mm f/1.4 Art, 24-105mm f/4 Art, and so on.

Primed for Primes
It’s no secret: I love”prime” lenses, which are defined as non-zoom lenses, usually featuring larger maximum apertures than zoom lenses, and which are usually lighter, smaller, and more affordable than their zooming brethren. Much of the time when I can choose between a zoom or a prime, I choose the prime. Though slightly less versatile than zooms, I spent the first part of my career shooting with nothing but primes (since zooms weren’t all that great then), and I am quite comfortable selecting a lens and then “zooming with my feet.”

I have only seen one “Art” series lens, bought by a student of mine last year.

One lens I keep recommending to photographers just starting out who only have the inexpensive "kit" zoom lens that came with their camera is the 50mm, either the pricier f/1.4 (left), or the smaller, more affordable f/1.8 on the right. Both are a good start down the road to lenses with better "art" credentials.
One lens I keep recommending to photographers just starting out who only have the inexpensive “kit” zoom lens that came with their camera is the 50mm, either the pricier f/1.4 (left), or the smaller, more affordable f/1.8 on the right. Both are a good start down the road to lenses with better “art” credentials.

As the popularity of these lenses rose, so did the idea that “Art” was a class, not a brand, of lens, and that we artists wanted one. But removed from its brand, was an “Art” lens really meant to be “the best,” without context, or is the “Art” something more, something etherial, something even magical?

In a conversation with fellow photograph Robert recently, he asked me, “Aren’t all lenses ‘art’ lenses?”

Our AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is certainly capable of creating images in the field of "art" in the right hands and the right circumstance.
Our AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is certainly capable of creating images in the field of “art” in the right hands and the right circumstance.

I speculated that lenses followed an evolution the same way culture did, with a growing interest in technology and capacity, while leaving behind some of the things we loved: older lenses, for example, are generally softer at the edges of the frame (often due to an aberration called spherical aberration, which results in the focus plane of a lens being curved slightly), and most computer-designed lenses have either gotten better at preventing that, or, in the case of cheap ones, hide these sometimes-flattering aberrations beneath other, more garish, problems like distortion and chromatic aberration.

So, I thought, maybe Sigma’s “Art” lenses are designed to bring back some of that old-lens look.

In actuality, Robert is right: all lenses are “Art” lenses because art isn’t a function of equipment or technology, but of the heart and mind.

Sigma’s “Art” series are, in simplest terms, a high-quality product intended to turn around a company struggling with quality-control issues, as well as a big, heavy tool in the toolbox. They are certainly capable of producing art in the hands of an artist.

One thing that "feels" artistic is using large maximum apertures to create powerful selective focus (often wrongly called "bokeh", which is another concept altogether), as I did in this image of Max the Chihuahua I shot yesterday with our AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Pleasing to the eye, shallow depth of field is not art unto itself.
One thing that “feels” artistic is using large maximum apertures to create powerful selective focus (often wrongly called “bokeh”, which is another concept altogether), as I did in this image of Max the Chihuahua I shot yesterday with our AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Pleasing to the eye, shallow depth of field is not art unto itself.
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Old Tricks Still Work

Just because some loudmouth Millennial rolls his eyes and dismissively says, “That’s the oldest trick in the book!” (with an implied “old man!”), doesn’t mean it’s not a good trick. I used one of the oldest tricks in my lexicon recently in class: the hair shake. This works well with people who have long hair that is looking too stiff. Have the subject/model throw their head forward and shake their hair, then quickly sit up, letting their hair fly back. Nine times out of ten it will result in their hair looking wild, free, fun, beautiful. Don’t let them touch it – it will feel strange to your model because they never comb or brush it that way, but it will look amazing.

Karen holds a light and Amber prepares to photograph Jill, who is doing the hair shake trick.
Karen holds a light and Amber prepares to photograph Jill, who is doing the hair shake trick.
Jill smiles after doing to hair shake. She thought it felt odd and wrong, until she got a look at the results.
Jill smiles after doing to hair shake. She thought it felt odd and wrong, until she got a look at the results.
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Always on Duty

This is two extracts in one: a pressboard totem pole sign is juxtaposed against a Coca-Cole machine next door to our Rolla, Missouri motel.
This is two extracts in one: a pressboard totem pole sign is juxtaposed against a Coca-Cole machine next door to our Rolla, Missouri motel.
Abby holds her new puppy at the farm where she bought him. The road trip, to Rolla, Missouri, as always, was an opportunity to make pictures.
Abby holds her new puppy at the farm where she bought him. The road trip, to Rolla, Missouri, as always, was an opportunity to make pictures.

Years ago I was on the sideline at a Stratford, Oklahoma football game with a photographer buddy of mine, Matthew White. Despite the fact that he was just tagging along and wasn’t shooting the game for any agency or even for himself, he couldn’t help himself, and shot it just as thought it was his job.

I turned to him and said, “You can’t turn it off, can you?” I knew he couldn’t because I can’t. No photographer can. It’s not just what we do when we’re clocked in or on a job, it’s who we are.

The closed and dilapidated Totem Pole gift shop featured these handsome fuel pump globes, tributes to the history of Route 66.
The closed and dilapidated Totem Pole gift shop featured these handsome fuel pump globes, tributes to the history of Route 66.
The way the roads are cut into the hillsides in southern Missouri reminds me of my childhood when we lived in places like Independence and Manchester, or when we visited my mom's home to, Flat River. We don't see this kind of roadcuts in Oklahoma.
The way the roads are cut into the hillsides in southern Missouri reminds me of my childhood when we lived in places like Independence and Manchester, or when we visited my mom’s home to, Flat River. We don’t see this kind of roadcuts in Oklahoma.

No one, I think, knows this better than Robert, who has a full-time non-photography job, yet remains a photographer every minute of the day. It shows in his work, which I was showing my wife Abby the other day to a constant litany of “wow” and “that’s incredible” and “these are amazing.”

I thought of this when Abby and I recently travelled to Rolla, Missouri, to buy a new puppy. I wasn’t supposed to be a photographer on this overnight trip, but of course, I couldn’t turn it off. In spite of being the puppy chauffeur, I also took great interest in things like the silhouettes of the state of Will Rogers on the turnpike, the dilapidated Totem Pole gift shop next to our motel, and, of course, photographing the new dog.

Abby and I had breakfast at Waffle House, which brought back memories for both of us. I think most readers can relate to an image like this.
Abby and I had breakfast at Waffle House, which brought back memories for both of us. I think most readers can relate to an image like this.

It is this willingness to be the photographer all the time that sets us apart from the incessant visual chatter of the 10,000-selfies crowd. Instead of “hey, how about a picture?” we are always looking at the light, the textures, the lines, and the shadows, to try to decide how to express something.

That’s the key thought of this post, I believe: the selfie makers are trying to impress someone, and the photographers are trying to express something.

This view looks west from the restaurant over Interstate 44 in northeast Oklahoma. At one time, it housed the world's largest McDonald's restaurant, but it has since been more practically commercialized. My sister and I were fascinated by this view when we were kids.
This view looks west from the restaurant over Interstate 44 in northeast Oklahoma. At one time, it housed the world’s largest McDonald’s restaurant, but it has since been more practically commercialized. My sister and I were fascinated by this view when we were kids.
Abby rides the glass elevator at the restaurant over Interstate 44. I happen to think an image like this is ten times better than a "selfie" in the same spot.
Abby rides the glass elevator at the restaurant over Interstate 44. I happen to think an image like this is ten times better than a “selfie” in the same spot.
Looking the other way is this statue of Will Rogers, after whom the turnpike below is named. In the 1970s when we stopped here, the large windows had huge vertical blinds to keep out blinding sunrises and sunsets. There now have retractable vertical curtains.
Looking the other way is this statue of Will Rogers, after whom the turnpike below is named. In the 1970s when we stopped here, the large windows had huge vertical blinds to keep out blinding sunrises and sunsets. There now have retractable vertical curtains.
On the way home from Rolla, we passed under the restaurant over Interstate 44, and I made a point to have a camera ready to shoot it. Thought not a particularly spectacular image, it does give the viewer some perspective on how this features looks from the outside.
On the way home from Rolla, we passed under the restaurant over Interstate 44, and I made a point to have a camera ready to shoot it. Thought not a particularly spectacular image, it does give the viewer some perspective on how this features looks from the outside.
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Fact and Myth: “Full Frame” vs “Cropped”

I recently sold some older gear to get ahold of this Nikon D700. With 94,325 frames through it when I bought it, it is about halfway through it's life expectancy. The D700 is larger and heavier than most of my other cameras, and it is a luxury to look through a film-sized viewfinder.
I recently sold some older gear to get ahold of this Nikon D700. With 94,325 frames through it when I bought it, it is about halfway through it’s life expectancy. The D700 is larger and heavier than most of my other cameras, and it is a luxury to look through a film-sized viewfinder.

For a couple of decades now, a cacophony of myth and misinformation has stemmed from digital photography regarding sensor size. This all started because professional and advanced amateur digital photography was rooted, for economic reasons, in 35mm film photography.

Not only does the Nikon D700 have a bigger sensor, it has a bigger, and much heavier body.
Not only does the Nikon D700 have a bigger sensor, it has a bigger, and much heavier body.

Driven mostly by the engines of sales and popularity, not necessity or creativity or technical superiority, the 35mm film frame, at 36x24mm, and originally derived from an industrious camera maker wanting to take advantage of surplus film from the burgeoning 1930s motion picture industry, became the standard bearer for image size by the end of the 20th century.

I recently decided to do a little used-for-used sell-and-buy on Ebay to get my hands on a Nikon D700, one of Nikon’s earliest digital cameras equipped with a sensor the size of a 35mm film frame, 36x24mm, sometimes referred to by the misleading name “full frame” because it is the same size as a full frame of film. Nikon calls it “FX,” in contrast to their smaller 24x15mm sensors, which it calls “DX.” 24x15mm sensors are often mistakenly called “cropped” sensors by laymen who don’t fully understand the origins of image size. If it has to have a name, it is most accurately described by its size in millimeters or by the film size closest to it, APS-C (Advanced Photo System type-C).

The lazy-writing web world often calls full frame “FF” in forum posts.

  • Do full frame sensors have “better depth of field”? No. I was eager to debunk this one because I already knew the answer, and because it is an embarrassment to photography that everyone is so eager to believe this. Depth of field is controlled by two factors: magnification and aperture. The reason this myth seems to be true is that to get the same composition on a 36x24mm as on a smaller sensor, one has to either get closer or use a longer focal length, both of which increase magnification to create shallower depth of field. At identical distances, focal lengths and apertures, depth of field is identical. If you don’t believe me, here is the proof…
To prevent confirmation bias, I won't say which of these images is made with which sensor size. 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Vs...
To prevent confirmation bias, I won’t say which of these images is made with which sensor size. 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Vs…
... 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Can you tell me which one is which?
… 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Can you tell me which one is which?
  • Is an aperture of f/2 on a larger sensor “equivalent” in light gathering capacity to f/1.4 on a smaller sensor? No. I heard this one asserted by Tony and Chelsea Northrup on their YouTube channel, and I couldn’t believe my ears at the time. (They also refer to “ISO” as a name – “Eyesoh,” which it is not). I have no idea how they came to this conclusion, but this and the popularity of their channel has done nothing but muddy the waters on issues like this. Simply put, f number is a fraction describing the ratio between the focal length of a lens and the diameter of the opening. A 50mm f/2, for example, has an opening of 25mm. 50 divided by 2 equals 25. A specific aperture value lets the same amount of light through the lens regardless of what size of film or sensor is on the other side.

    Nikon badges all of its 36x24mm sensor cameras with this "FX" badge.
    Nikon badges all of its 36x24mm sensor cameras with this “FX” badge.
  • Will a larger sensor give life back to my wide angle lenses? Yes, with some caveats. A 20mm lens that was a mediocre lens on a smaller sensor has now been restored to its film-days glory as an ultra wide lens. While this is certainly nice if you have a bunch of old wide angle lenses, today many manufacturers make very wide angle lenses for smaller sensors. I have several myself, and I am able to get as wide as I need, including ultra-ultra-wide using my 10-17mm fisheye and uncurving it in Photoshop.
I shot this today with my 18-35mm at 18mm on the D700.
I shot this today with my 18-35mm at 18mm on the D700.
I shot this today with my 12-24mm at 12mm on the D300S.
I shot this today with my 12-24mm at 12mm on the D300S.
  • Will my telephoto lenses will be less telephoto-y on a larger sensor? Yes. This is the reason sports and wildlife photographers got away from large and medium format film as soon as 35mm was available: just as larger sensors make wide angles wider, they make telephotos wider, since they are projecting their images onto a larger surface. Many top sports and bird photographers very much prefer 24x15mm sensors for just this reason, and this has been a leading marketing tag for Nikon’s flagship 24x15mm camera, the D500.
These are some of the wide angle lenses my office and I own that will see the light of day more now that I have a 36x24mm sensor. From left to right are the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8, the AF Nikkor 20mm, the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, and the Sigma AF 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5.
These are some of the wide angle lenses my office and I own that will see the light of day more now that I have a 36x24mm sensor. From left to right are the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8, the AF Nikkor 20mm, the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, and the Sigma AF 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5.
  • Are larger sensors better at capturing low-light scenes due to the pixels themselves being larger? Yes. If you compare a 36x24mm sensor against a 24x15mm sensor of the same pixel count, assuming the sensors are of the same era and treated with the same renderings, noise will be lower in the larger sensor. This is true because the pixels themselves, the tiny light-sensing devices inside the integrated circuit in the middle of the camera, are larger, and can gather more light, thus requiring less amplification of the signals they produce. In practice, though, this rule doesn’t hold much water. There are many smaller-sensor cameras that make incredibly low-noise images, and most cameras with larger than “full frame” sensors do not.
Though quite rare, I was able to spot this Nikon D700 "street photographer" on the Plaza in Santa Fe, one place you would expect to see a jillion street photographers. Of note is the not-very-good lens he has mounted on it.
Though quite rare, I was able to spot this Nikon D700 “street photographer” on the Plaza in Santa Fe, one place you would expect to see a jillion street photographers. Of note is the not-very-good lens he has mounted on it.

The craving for lower noise at higher ISOs is a symptom of photographers being too lazy to master what matters most, light. Additionally, there is a lot of pretense on the photo forums (like photo.net, which recently changed formats and is now unviewable) about, “wanting to do more street photography.” The truth is that most of time people who make this claim just want to be able to say, “I have this camera and that lens,” and don’t make very many photos. All you have to do to discover this truth is walk the streets and count the photographers: ≈ 0.

  • Are “multiplier” or “crop factor” numbers useful? No. These numbers are all over the place, and only exist so camera makers can muddy the waters of what you should buy. 1.5x “crop factor” or 2x “multiplier” is only helpful if you go from one format to the other constantly while shooting. A far better way to understand this is to know your camera, and know what does what. For example, suppose your camera is a “four thirds” format (18x13mm). A 14mm is a wide angle lens, and a 200mm is a super-telephoto.
  • Is it worth it to “upgrade” to a larger sensor? No. Anyone who asks this question isn’t ready to take advantage of the subtle differences offered by a larger sensor, and larger sensors are disproportionally more expensive. If you need a larger sensor, you already know it.
You can see from the brassing and smoothing of the working surfaces of my "new" used Nikon D700 that it's been put to work. This is how I prefer to buy cameras, since I am going to wear them out myself in short order.
You can see from the brassing and smoothing of the working surfaces of my “new” used Nikon D700 that it’s been put to work. This is how I prefer to buy cameras, since I am going to wear them out myself in short order.
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Strengths and Weaknesses: the Nikon D80

The Nikon D80 is a fairly straightforward camera - not fancy, but capable of delivering great images.
The Nikon D80 is a fairly straightforward camera – not fancy, but capable of delivering great images.
The badge on the left front of the D80 is smart-looking.
The badge on the left front of the D80 is smart-looking.

People on the street, and students in my class, sometimes tell me their ten year old camera has died, and ask if it would be worth getting it repaired. The answer is usually no, because so many cameras that fetched top-dollar when they were new are no longer worth much on the resale market, yet would be very expensive to repair.

In smaller hands like my wife's, and especially with smaller lenses, the D80 is nicely compact and lightweight.
In smaller hands like my wife’s, and especially with smaller lenses, the D80 is nicely compact and lightweight.
In addition to the standard PASM options, the exposure mode dial on the Nikon D80 features the amateur "green box" all-auto mode, as well as several not-very-effective "scene"modes.
In addition to the standard PASM options, the exposure mode dial on the Nikon D80 features the amateur “green box” all-auto mode, as well as several not-very-effective “scene”modes.

Almost all the cameras on the street are in the “amateur” or “advanced amateur” class, a group of photographic tools that have gotten much more affordable over the years. That leaves us with two options: replace the camera that originally cost $1200 (like my wife Abby’s 2005-era Nikon D70S) with a much better one in the $400-$600 range (like the Canon EOS Rebel T5 with its kit lens for just $399), or poke around Ebay or Craigslist or pawn shops for a used version of our dead camera.

The D80 only takes one card, and the door for it is small. On one of my D80s, the slot is now sticky, and it's hard to eject the card.
The D80 only takes one card, and the door for it is small. On one of my D80s, the slot is now sticky, and it’s hard to eject the card.
If you have older AF Nikkor lenses, the D80 will autofocus them, thanks to the inclusion of an in-camera focus motor, which drives this little linkage that resembles the tip of a screwdriver on the lens mount.
If you have older AF Nikkor lenses, the D80 will autofocus them, thanks to the inclusion of an in-camera focus motor, which drives this little linkage that resembles the tip of a screwdriver on the lens mount.

An excellent example of this is the Nikon D80. When it first appeared on the market 10 years ago, this camera retailed for $1000, but today even the cleanest ones on Ebay are never more than about $180. For me, this is exactly the kind of bargain that allows us to use and enjoy perfectly good technology, that once fetched big money, at nearly giveaway prices.

The control cluster on the top right of the Nikon D80 has a good-sized LCD readout and buttons that will be familiar to most Nikon users.
The control cluster on the top right of the Nikon D80 has a good-sized LCD readout and buttons that will be familiar to most Nikon users.

I have a couple of D80s, both bought used, that deliver amazing image quality, image quality that is honestly very hard to beat. It takes a lot of photographer and a lot of necessity to generate a situation in which older, used cameras can’t deliver great pictures.

I have a 13x19 inch print of this image of Arizona's Antelope Canyon hanging in my office. Made with the 2006-era technology of Nikon's D80, the image quality, even printed this big, is astonishing.
I have a 13×19 inch print of this image of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon hanging in my office. Made with the 2006-era technology of Nikon’s D80, the image quality, even printed this big, is astonishing.
I've shot a few weddings with the D80, and the client was always happy with the result.
I’ve shot a few weddings with the D80, and the client was always happy with the result.

I’ve said this before, as have others, but it bears asserting again: you don’t need to upgrade your camera. You need to wear it out.

The Nikon D80’s strengths are…

  • Lightweight and unobtrusive
  • Easy to use, well-place controls
  • Will autofocus older AF Nikkor lenses as well as newer AF-S lenses
  • Decently large LCD display on the top of the camera which is missing on all of Nikon’s D3xxx and 5xxx intro-level cameras
  • Delivers sharp, clean 10 megapixel images at low and medium ISO settings
  • Very affordable in the 2017 market

The D80’s weaknesses are…

  • Slowish frame rate of 3 frames per second, which is too slow for sports
  • Noisy images at higher ISO settings
  • A little small for full-sized hands
  • Plastic construction makes it a bit fragile
  • Exposure control dial doesn’t have a lock and is easily moved to another setting
  • Exposure mode dial is filled with useless amateur “scene mode” options

If you are thinking about picking up a D80 is a pawn shop or from the web, and the price is right, make your move. This camera will make good pictures.

The top of the Nikon D80 is good-looking and has controls where they are needed.
The top of the Nikon D80 is good-looking and has controls where they are needed.
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How to Rock the Sunset

I made this super-telephoto sunset image a couple of years ago on the north side of Ada, Oklahoma. One reason it works so well is that I hurriedly (because the sun sets faster than you think) found a compositional element - the tree - to anchor the image. Without it, it's just a mug shot of the sun.
I made this super-telephoto sunset image a couple of years ago on the north side of Ada, Oklahoma. One reason it works so well is that I hurriedly (because the sun sets faster than you think) found a compositional element – the tree – to anchor the image. Without it, it’s just a mug shot of the sun.
In my corner of the world, southeast Oklahoma, the sky can do magic, like this after-sunset image that resembles musical notes.
In my corner of the world, southeast Oklahoma, the sky can do magic, like this after-sunset image that resembles musical notes.

Those who follow me on social media might recall that my current batch of students were disappointed that it rained during last week’s class, forcing us inside.

Tonight’s forecast is more likely to produce a sunset opportunity.

In addition to the sun and sky, objects around us take on very different, and often beautiful, appearances at sunset, like the windows of this bus in Latta, Oklahoma.
In addition to the sun and sky, objects around us take on very different, and often beautiful, appearances at sunset, like the windows of this bus in Latta, Oklahoma.
Sunset is lovely time to photograph people too. In addition to highlighting their hair and creating depth around the shoulders and head, "edge light" as it is sometimes called also means the face is illuminated by the open sky, and is softer. Also, the subject, in this case my wife Abby, doesn't have to squint into bright daylight.
Sunset is lovely time to photograph people too. In addition to highlighting their hair and creating depth around the shoulders and head, “edge light” as it is sometimes called also means the face is illuminated by the open sky, and is softer. Also, the subject, in this case my wife Abby, doesn’t have to squint into bright daylight.

All photographers with any experience know that a good sunset can be difficult to pin down, and it’s always a smarter move to be ready to shoot sunrises and sunsets when they come to you, not when you come to them.

Readers also know that I like to use the sun itself as a compositional element, often trying to emphasize its brightness by choosing a lens that makes good “sunstars” at small apertures.

Judicious use of exposure compensation can make a huge difference, since your camera doesn’t know if you are going for shadow detail or highlight detail, and will often split the difference. Don’t be afraid to crank in +3 or -4 or any other value to tell the camera what you want. I’ve seen too many disappointing sunset attempts by photographers with disappointed faces asking me, “What did I do wrong?”

There is a lot to be said for sticking around after the sun dips below the horizon as well. The so-called “blue hour” can sometimes offer amazing color values as the sun’s light strikes clouds high in the atmosphere.

Sunsets aren't always about color. The light as dusk approaches can take many forms, as in this low-angle shot of wheat grass in our pasture. This scene looked nothing like this just an hour earlier.
Sunsets aren’t always about color. The light as dusk approaches can take many forms, as in this low-angle shot of wheat grass in our pasture. This scene looked nothing like this just an hour earlier.
Springtime in America's midsection can produce some absolutely amazing visuals, like this developing thunderstorm near our home in Byng, Oklahoma.
Springtime in America’s midsection can produce some absolutely amazing visuals, like this developing thunderstorm near our home in Byng, Oklahoma.
Although temping to shoot sunsets with a wide angle lens to see a sunset from one edge of the horizon to the other, sometimes sunsets can be about subtle, fleeting moments of light, like the last rays of the sun glimmering through our walnut tree.
Although temping to shoot sunsets with a wide angle lens to see a sunset from one edge of the horizon to the other, sometimes sunsets can be about subtle, fleeting moments of light, like the last rays of the sun glimmering through our walnut tree.
My photography students and I made this image a few years ago. Using an element as a shape for silhouette can completely change the look of an image.
My photography students and I made this image a few years ago. Using an element as a shape for silhouette can completely change the look of an image.
A branch of a tree combines with subtle after-dusk clouds to make an elegant, evocative image.
A branch of a tree combines with subtle after-dusk clouds to make an elegant, evocative image.

The light changes quickly at sunrise and sunset, so we need to be ready to change quickly as well.

As with any photograph endeavor, the best results are achieved through a willingness to explore and experiment, and the realization that not every evening will deliver magic, but with persistence, we can eventually capture  magic and share it with our audience.

If you can be near a body of water or other reflective surface at sunset, you can throw that into the mix. This image, made at our home in Byng, Oklahoma, was made about 20 minutes after sunset.
If you can be near a body of water or other reflective surface at sunset, you can throw that into the mix. This image, made at our home in Byng, Oklahoma, was made about 20 minutes after sunset.
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Pretentious Jonesing for Film

Blue light shines through a big, old Pentax K-Mount 50mm f/1.4 lens.
Blue light shines through a big, old Pentax K-Mount 50mm f/1.4 lens.

Periodically my photographer friends and I will talk about how much we miss film, particularly how much we miss certain cameras and lenses. Wouldn’t it be neat, we speculate, to get back into shooting film, if we only had a camera.

The top panel of the Pentax K1000 is a model of simplicity: shutter release, shutter speed dial, film counter and film advance lever.
The top panel of the Pentax K1000 is a model of simplicity: shutter release, shutter speed dial, film counter and film advance lever.

But, of course, film cameras are still around. I’ve got one in my hand as I write this.

I pulled the Pentax K1000 out of the display case in the entryway at our office. This camera is one of the most basic, simple, easy-to-use cameras ever. Its simplicity made it popular with photography teachers, since the camera is entirely manual, and required students to learn how to do everything.

I could shoot film right now if I wanted to, but the truth is, digital photography is overwhelmingly popular because it is overwhelmingly better than film. That wasn’t the case 15 years ago, but today, digital imaging technology has surpassed film tech in all respects.

Few things make photographers smile more than a large maximum aperture lens, like this Pentax 50mm f/1.4.
Few things make photographers smile more than a large maximum aperture lens, like this Pentax 50mm f/1.4.

So despite the fact that I have this perfectly-workable Pentax, I have no desire or intention to try to buy film, shoot it, and have it processed somewhere, then either print it or have it scanned.

We photographers are happy in our digital world, and despite Jonesing for the old days, we live in the new world of photography.

There are few cameras as straightforward and fundamental as the venerable Pentax K-1000. This one was used for many years by reporters at my newspaper before being retired to the downstairs display case. It works perfectly to this day.
There are few cameras as straightforward and fundamental as the venerable Pentax K-1000. This one was used for many years by reporters at my newspaper before being retired to the downstairs display case. It works perfectly to this day.
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Why Isn’t My Fifty Nifty?

What's the difference between this $440 50mm and this $80 kit lens? Nothing at f/11.
What’s the difference between this $440 50mm and this $80 kit lens? Nothing at f/11.

There is a saying among gun owners. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people with guns.”

This slogan is an ideal analog to what I often see when people buy a new lens like the marvelous and under-recognized 50mm f/1.8. “Lenses don’t make pictures. People make pictures with lenses.”

For decades almost every SLR camera you saw at camera stores had a 50mm on it, often the cheap, light, forgiving, sharp 50mm f/1.8. To this day, they remain an excellent addition to anyone's camera bag.
For decades almost every SLR camera you saw at camera stores had a 50mm on it, often the cheap, light, forgiving, sharp 50mm f/1.8. To this day, they remain an excellent addition to anyone’s camera bag.

This lens has earned it the nickname “Nifty Fifty” over the years because it is affordable and capable of delivering beautiful results. But…

Any lens is a tool, and if you use a tool wrong, it won’t give you the results you want. All lenses are the same at f/11 in midday sun with your knees locked. A 50mm f/1.8 and an 18-55mm kit lens are the same at f/11. You might as well shoot with your phone or a point-and-shoot.

Taking advantage of tools like large-aperture lenses requires aggressive techniques, including moving yourself and using those large apertures. You didn’t buy an f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens to shoot it in Program mode or worse, green box mode, and have the camera choose every mediocre compromise it can.

So if you find yourself with a nifty little 50mm in your hands, take it to the limits – get close, shoot wide open, see the light. Only then can you discover why a lens like this is a great tool.

This image was made with a 50mm lens at f/16. Calling it lackluster is an understatement.
This image was made with a 50mm lens at f/16. Calling it lackluster is an understatement.
This was made with the same 50mm as the previous image, same position, same light, same ISO, same white balance. The only difference is it was shot at f/1.8. Suddenly the image is interesting.
This was made with the same 50mm as the previous image, same position, same light, same ISO, same white balance. The only difference is it was shot at f/1.8. Suddenly the image is interesting.
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A Long and Difficult Recovery

…or This Image is Full of Surprises

As I was writing a post for my social blog, The Giant Muh, I needed some images. I scrolled through the folder of stuff from our October anniversary trip with my wife Abby, The Endless Sky, and found an image I thought would be worthless because I overexposed it…

As you can see, the brightness value for the moon is off the chart. My hope when shooting it was to achieve a better balance between the bright moon and the cliffs as the predawn sky started to illuminate them.
As you can see, the brightness value for the moon is off the chart. My hope when shooting it was to achieve a better balance between the bright moon and the cliffs as the predawn sky started to illuminate them.

When I shot it, I was disappointed, but I kept the frame in-camera and continued my Canyonlands hike with longtime friend Scott Andersen. As the light matured and the day went on, we made many successful images, and had a great time.

Scott's image from that moment, made from a slightly lower angle, was a success.
Scott’s image from that moment, made from a slightly lower angle, was a success.

I didn’t give the image much more thought.

Today when I saw the image, I attempted to get some detail out of the moon using Adobe Photoshop’s recovery slider, without much effect.

Then I rather whimsically thought, “I’ll run it through my Nik Collection’s single image tone mapping high dynamic range (HDR) filter (which is free – read more here [link]) and see what happens.”

Honestly, I didn’t think there was much detail in the image – the blacks looked black and the moon looked white. I was amazed, then, when the Nik filter was able to extract a very interesting and detailed image…

I'm not claiming that this is the definitive way to shoot the moon in predawn light. What this image illustrates is that there is often much more in our digital image files, particularly in RAW files, than we might initially think.
I’m not claiming that this is the definitive way to shoot the moon in predawn light. What this image illustrates is that there is often much more in our digital image files, particularly in RAW files, than we might initially think.
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Flare and Ghosting

I was shooting last night at a basketball tournament with a lens with a notable tendency to exhibit ghosting, the Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5. You can see the obvious blue blobs adjacent to the ceiling lights.
I was shooting last night at a basketball tournament with a lens with a notable tendency to exhibit ghosting, the Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5. You can see the obvious blue blobs adjacent to the ceiling lights.

You see the terms “flare” and “ghosting” bantered around a lot, particularly when reading the photography web about lenses. Put simply, these terms describe reflections that occur inside lens elements within lenses and filters, and reflections between the lens and the imaging sensor.

The Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5 is prone to ghosting because of its huge, bulging front element. The ghosts are usually blue because of the blue multicoating on the surface of the element.
The Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5 is prone to ghosting because of its huge, bulging front element. The ghosts are usually blue because of the blue multicoating on the surface of the element.

Flare, sometimes called “veiling glare,” is a tendency for light to fill the frame and obscure the subject, and ghosting is the appearance of objects in the frame often shaped like blobs or like the shape of the lens’ aperture.

Some lenses are resistant to flare, while others will flare with little provocation. Generally, but not always, single focal length (“prime”) lenses flare less than zoom lenses (which have more, often many more, lens elements inside), and generally, top quality lenses flare less than cheap lenses, and “fast” (large aperture) lenses flare more than lenses of more modest maximum apertures.

I hunted down this image today with the expressed purpose of creating flare. It wasn't hard, since I chose a lens, my Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8, notoriously prone to flare, and a subject, the blinding sun, one of the chief causes of flare and ghosting.
I hunted down this image today with the expressed purpose of creating flare. It wasn’t hard, since I chose a lens, my Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8, notoriously prone to flare, and a subject, the blinding sun, one of the chief causes of flare and ghosting.

Flare and ghosting are almost always a consequence of having bright light source in the frame; a window, a street light, the sun, or headlights, for example. Lens hoods, which I always use to protect my lenses, are not very effective at controlling flare because they are often not quite large enough, and you will often see me shading my lens with my hand when shooting into a bright light source.

Flare and ghosting are reduced by using smaller apertures.

Finally, flare and ghosting, while referred to as an aberration in technical talk, can often contribute to the success of an image. Some fine art photographers use older lenses, for example, to convey a sense of “vintage” in their images. I know a wedding photographer whose entire look is based on flare at sunset. In my own work, I often use flare and ghosting to convey a sense of brightness that might not otherwise be expressable.

This wildflower image works in part through my use of flare and ghosting, which you can see running top left to bottom right. This scattering of light helps express the brightness and slight dream-like quality of the moment.
This wildflower image works in part through my use of flare and ghosting, which you can see running top left to bottom right. This scattering of light helps express the brightness and slight dream-like quality of the moment.
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We’ve Only Just Begun

I have another Intro to Digital Photography class starting Monday, and I always get a little buzzed about it in advance. I think about arriving, writing my name and website on the dry erase board, looking around. I see people look up at me in anticipation, some of them with questions on the tips of their tongues.

Most of the people in my classes are equipped with this type of gear: a "kit." This is my wife's Nikon D3000, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, and a 70-300mm f/4-5.6. In the right hands, a kit like this is capable of amazing things.
Most of the people in my classes are equipped with this type of gear: a “kit.” This is my wife’s Nikon D3000, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, and a 70-300mm f/4-5.6. In the right hands, a kit like this is capable of amazing things.

Their cameras are old and new, expensive and austere, well-used and right out of the box. (Sometimes they are still in the box.)

On my way to cover basketball in Tupelo, Oklahoma a couple of nights ago, I spotted a colorful sunset and some trees by the roadside, and decided to add this 14x teleconverter to my 300mm.
On my way to cover basketball in Tupelo, Oklahoma a couple of nights ago, I spotted a colorful sunset and some trees by the roadside, and decided to add this 14x teleconverter to my 300mm.

Their experiences are as diverse as their cameras. Maybe they got that camera for Christmas. Maybe they shot film years ago and are just now deciding to enter the digital age. Maybe they have kids who they want to photograph. Maybe they want to make extra money with their cameras. Maybe their bosses want them to shoot photos for the business.

One thing they will have in common: they want to learn.

The Intro classes are nuts and bolts. How often should you charge the battery? What kind of media card do I need for video? What’s the best lens for shooting seniors and babies?

No matter what you are shooting, remember that no picture is worth the risk of injury or death, and you should always make safety a priority. I always, for example, pull all the way off the road when I stop to shoot something, as I did a couple of nights ago.
No matter what you are shooting, remember that no picture is worth the risk of injury or death, and you should always make safety a priority. I always, for example, pull all the way off the road when I stop to shoot something, as I did a couple of nights ago.

One of my goals in the Intro class is to take the magic and mystery out of photography, to let all my students that it doesn’t take a $10,000 camera, and it isn’t rocket science. Photography is fun, powerful, and exciting. You can do this. You can make beautiful pictures.

The 300mm plus a 1.4x converter equals 420mm, which really fills up the frame, adding real drama and beauty to things like sunsets.
The 300mm plus a 1.4x converter equals 420mm, which really fills up the frame, adding real drama and beauty to things like sunsets.
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First Look: AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G

Our new AF-S Nikkor 50mm F/1.4G is pictured mounted on my Nikon D7100.
Our new AF-S Nikkor 50mm F/1.4G is pictured mounted on my Nikon D7100.

It seems that every January my wife Abby and I log in to our credit card rewards site to see how many points we have accumulated in the past year. She then picks out a couple of items and gives the rest of the points to me. This year I was able to purchase a new iPad Pro, as well as the topic of this post, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.

I consider this lens to belong to both of us, which is true for everything we own, really.

I let Abby have the first turn with it, and she was delighted. She remarked that it showed fast, decisive autofocus and a nice bright viewfinder image, and it felt about right in her slender hands. She photographed Max the Chihuahua with it first, and as you can see, the results were pleasing…

Max looks up at me from Abby's lap is this image made with our new 50mm f/1.4 lens set at f/1.8 and about 1/125fh of a second at ISO 800. As you can see, it is tack sharp, and the background melts away gracefully.
Max looks up at me from Abby’s lap is this image made with our new 50mm f/1.4 lens set at f/1.8 and about 1/125fh of a second at ISO 800. As you can see, it is tack sharp, and the background melts away gracefully.
The AF Nikkor f/1.8D, left, sits next to its replacement, the larger and more modern AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
The AF Nikkor f/1.8D, left, sits next to its replacement, the larger and more modern AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.

I know what you’re going to say: Richard, don’t you always recommend the much cheaper 50mm f/1.8? Yes I do, and the truth is that I would never have paid cash for the f/1.4, but with a large number of accumulated rewards points made it easier to spring for its luxury. And the more I thought about it, the more I decided I wanted to have at least one f/1.4 lens in my bag.

Considerable larger than the f/1.8 it replaces, this lens comes with a large plastic bayonet-mounted hood. Mounted on my D7100, it makes a handsome, well-balanced package.

The 50mm f/1.4 is a smart-looking lens, seen here mounted on my Nikon D7100.
The 50mm f/1.4 is a smart-looking lens, seen here mounted on my Nikon D7100.
From left to right are my next-generation large-aperture lenses, the AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f1.8G.
From left to right are my next-generation large-aperture lenses, the AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f1.8G.

Though there was nothing wrong with my old 50mm f/1.8, it is missing a feature common to the new Nikkors, AF-S, which uses motors inside the lens to move the focussing elements. This benefit is twofold, with focus being faster and internal, as well as allowing the photographer to turn the focus ring any time to focus manually.

Finally, we usually own and shoot with large-aperture lenses at their largest apertures, since we didn’t pay a premium price to shoot them at f/11, which even the cheapest 18-55mm kits lens does with ease. One of my goals with the lens will be to push the limits selective focus at very large apertures. I’ve only shot a few frames with it wide open (f/1.4), but early tests indicate what I expected: depth of field of just a few millimeters, powerful selective focus, and pleasing bokeh.

I am excited to have this tool in my toolbox.

After Christmas I kept these lights out of the decoration boxes in the rafters for just this purpose: experimenting with very large apertures. As you can see, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 exhibits acceptable sharpness in the focus area, and beautiful out-of-focus regions. I look forward to experimenting with it more, then putting this lens into service for things like weddings, night photography, and portraits.
After Christmas I kept these lights out of the decoration boxes in the rafters for just this purpose: experimenting with very large apertures. As you can see, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 exhibits acceptable sharpness in the focus area, and beautiful out-of-focus regions. I look forward to experimenting with it more, then putting this lens into service for things like weddings, night photography, and portraits.
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2016: The Year in Pictures

What does a year of my images at The Ada News look like? Here are some samples of my work from 2016…

January

House Fire
House Fire
House Fire
House Fire
Basketball
Basketball
Basketball
Basketball
Basketball
Basketball
Sunrise
Sunrise
Basketball
Basketball
Little Mustang
Little Mustang
Basketball
Basketball

February

Senior Night
Senior Night
Train
Train
Basketball
Basketball
Basketball
Basketball
Painting
Painting
Stray
Stray
Sunset
Sunset

March

Dejection
Dejection
Baseball
Baseball
Windy Day
Windy Day
Baseball
Baseball
Baseball
Baseball

April

Tornado Damage
Tornado Damage
Baseball
Baseball
Color Run
Color Run
Senior Night
Senior Night
Candlelight Vigil
Candlelight Vigil
Sunshine after Rain
Sunshine after Rain

May

Soccer
Soccer
Softball
Softball
Baseball
Baseball
Dejection
Dejection
Manhunt
Manhunt
Manhunt
Manhunt
Graduation
Graduation
Graduation
Graduation
Graduation
Graduation
Basketball Camp
Basketball Camp
Basketball Fan
Basketball Fan
Red Nose Day
Red Nose Day
Playing in the Park
Playing in the Park

June

Playing in the Park
Playing in the Park
Splash Park
Splash Park
Relay for Life
Relay for Life

July

Art in the Park
Art in the Park
Baseball Mom
Baseball Mom
Young Cowboys
Young Cowboys
Giant Turtle Races
Giant Turtle Races
Dog in the Park
Dog in the Park
Peach Parade
Peach Parade
Sunset at Ball Park
Sunset at Ball Park
State Champions
State Champions

August

School Circle
School Circle
Baseball
Baseball
Media Day
Media Day
Media Day
Media Day
Baseball
Baseball
Girls Playing
Girls Playing
Police Shooting
Police Shooting
Injury
Injury
Baseball
Baseball
Foggy Morning
Foggy Morning
AdaFest
AdaFest
Tetherball
Tetherball
Sideline
Sideline
Football
Football

September

Baseball
Baseball
Baseball
Baseball
Bonfire
Bonfire
Fumble
Fumble
Baseball
Baseball
Selfies
Selfies
Game Night
Game Night
Press Box
Press Box
Halftime
Halftime
Free Fair
Free Fair
Free Fair
Free Fair
Softball
Softball
Sunrise
Sunrise
Royalty
Royalty

October

Alumni Softball
Alumni Softball
Coin Toss
Coin Toss
National Anthem
National Anthem
Pink Smoke
Pink Smoke
House of Horrors
House of Horrors

November

Football
Football
Football
Football
Champions
Champions
Flags
Flags
Salute
Salute
Little Dribblers
Little Dribblers
House Fire
House Fire

December

Basketball
Basketball
Christmas Tea
Christmas Tea
Basketball
Basketball
Wax Museum
Wax Museum
Basketball
Basketball
Basketball
Basketball
Photographer
Photographer
Christmas Parade
Christmas Parade
Christmas Parade
Christmas Parade
Ribbon Cutting
Ribbon Cutting
Christmas Lights
Christmas Lights
Christmas Decorations
Christmas Decorations
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Everyone Is a Photographer

While the part-time "photographers" were staring at their phones, I was making this picture.
While the part-time “photographers” were staring at their phones, I was making this picture.
Prayer banners catch morning sunshine at H2O Church in downtown Ada Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. The banners were placed in honor of Avery Anderson who was injured in a two-vehicle accident July 27 at the intersection of County roads 1570 and 3610 in the Lovelady area, and remains hospitalized in Oklahoma City. This seems like a fairly straightforward image, with two glaring exceptions... 1. The caption is factual, and written by a professional journalist, and 2., no one else thought to shoot it this way.
Prayer banners catch morning sunshine at H2O Church in downtown Ada Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. The banners were placed in honor of Avery Anderson who was injured in a two-vehicle accident July 27 at the intersection of County roads 1570 and 3610 in the Lovelady area, and remains hospitalized in Oklahoma City. This seems like a fairly straightforward image, with two glaring exceptions… 1. The caption is factual, and written by a professional journalist, and 2., no one else thought to shoot it this way.

The film era of photography, which despite the epic surge of digital is the largest era of imaging, was filled with institutions. Kodak. The Brooks Institute. Winona School of Photography. They are all gone now, relics of both a bygone era and their lack of vision for the future. They were all part of a mentality that a professional photographer was like a doctor or a lawyer: someone with special training and knowledge who could do things with film, chemistry, and printing that others could not.

Then, digital. Affordable digital photography meant that many of the mysteries and specialties of photography disappeared. There is still some tech to it, but most of the things about photography that were out of reach for the average person – a darkroom, and enlarger, some knowledge of chemistry – are arcane.

More significantly than all that, though, is cost. Once we have a device or two in our hands – a digital SLR and a smart phone, typically – there are no additional costs. No film. No processing. No printing. No photo albums. The hobby of photography is, to a degree, free where it used to be expensive.

There's no "I" in "team," and there aren't any photographers in it either. Dare to step away from the crowd and make something unique.
There’s no “I” in “team,” and there aren’t any photographers in it either. Dare to step away from the crowd and make something unique.

This giant paradigm shift led to a perception shift, an illusory one, one represented by the piano paradox: what kind of piano should I buy so I can play like Chopin? We see this paradox invading many other areas of our lives: preppers buy expensive sights for their rifles and think they can shoot like Navy SEALS. Soccer moms buy expensive kitchen accessories and think they can cook like Wolfgang Puck. Joggers buy expensive running shoes think they can run like Usain Bolt.

The fallacy of this line of thinking is that photography is not usually about the tools used to create photographs, but about the vision of the person making the images.

In some ways, this is, at its core, about the idea that money can take the place of talent, hard work, and training, but I have said again and again: You can’t buy mastery; you have to earn it. It’s not the equipment in your hands that makes you a photographer; it’s the equipment between your ears.

A man who authorities say struck an Ada police officer with a vehicle was shot by the officer Aug. 17. As I photographed this, two things happened. 1: I was surround by people with phones who were taking pictures, none of which looked anything like this, and 2: these people around me at the scene were telling me things about the scene that I knew were not true.
A man who authorities say struck an Ada police officer with a vehicle was shot by the officer Aug. 17. As I photographed this, two things happened. 1: I was surround by people with phones who were taking pictures, none of which looked anything like this, and 2: these people around me at the scene were telling me things about the scene that I knew were not true.

So what do I recommend?

  • I urge you to quit reading about cameras and software and start reading about making pictures. The first book I would tell you to read is Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams. There is nothing about pixels or bokeh in it, but you can follow the process of turning a vision into an image.
  • When you daydream about photography, look at pictures made with cameras, not of cameras.
  • Stop patting yourself on the back for buying something, and start making an effort to see light and shadows, lines and motion, color and form.
  • I would urge you to take my class: once we have learned about our equipment, we can forget about it and learn about how images can move the human heart and change the human condition.
  • I would urge you to put down your phone and look up, look around, see the world in a different way.
I dug out my long-retired Kodak DCS720x the other day. I was its only owner, which means that all these scratches and worn-off paint are mine. Doing this to a camera might be a sign that your really are a photographer.
I dug out my long-retired Kodak DCS720x the other day. I was its only owner, which means that all these scratches and worn-off paint are mine. Doing this to a camera might be a sign that your really are a photographer.

So no, not everyone is a photographer. Everyone is taking pictures, yes, but in all the most important ways, they aren’t photographers. Their pictures are self-referential noise, and aren’t expressive in any important way.

You can make your images expressive, impressive, important. Once you open your heart and start to understand the purpose of self-expression, you can be a photographer.

As provocative as this image is, I am sure that 99% of the images made at this spot on this day were grinning-like-apes selfies, and nowhere nearly as interesting as this.
As provocative as this image is, I am sure that 99% of the images made at this spot on this day were grinning-like-apes selfies, and nowhere nearly as interesting as this.
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