It’s Christmas time again, and with it we photographers find ourselves photographing something very pure to our imaging instincts: Christmas lights. Beautiful and dazzling to the eyes, we love photographing them for several reasons. They are everywhere, they are fun to shoot, and they summon the children inside us who looked on them with amazement all those years ago.
I think about this as I photograph lights for a living, and last night as I photographed the Christmas tree and lights at home. I did a fun little experiment that illustrates the value of mastering aperture: shooting the same scene at apertures through the entire range. It is powerfully illustrative of the effects of aperture…
Made with my 50mm f/1.8 lens, one of the best and most affordable lenses in anyone’s bag, these three images are identical except for aperture, which, as you can see, makes a huge difference. Wide open, the out-of-focus highlights are round, at f/2.8, they take on the heptagonal shape of the aperture blades, and at f/22, each bright point of light takes on the classic “sunstar” look.
All three of these unique looks has a place in our photography, and all are right there at our fingertips.
A friend on social media recently sent me a private message saying he had trouble with a storage media card. He asked which brands and types I use, and if I ever had any trouble with them. I told him without hesitation that I very rarely have storage media problems, and if I do, it always shows up in a step everyone should do every time they insert a card into a camera: formatting your storage media card.
The idea is simple. Have the computer inside the camera “reset” the card, creating what computerists call a file allocation table (FAT) exactly the way the camera needs it.
The camera creates the data (folders, tables, markers, etc.) that meets its needs, and marks your card as empty. It also checks for any errors (“bad sectors”) on the card, and if there is a problem, it will let you know then, before it’s time to shoot.
Your card then behaves as if it was brand new.
This also has a very significant benefit of forcing the photographer to establish the workflow of saving their files to a computer instead of storing them in-camera, since formatting a card will erase all the images on it. I’ve known many photographers over the years who can’t find their photos because they are buried among thousands of other photos somewhere on their cards in their cameras. I’ve also known many students and fellow photographers who are ready to shoot except the instant they trip the shutter, they see the “Card Full” massage.
But errant technology management isn’t new or at all uncommon. I find a surprising number of students have their cameras set to medium or small file size. I’m not even sure why – their cameras don’t arrive that way, and they haven’t changed much else. Maybe someone told them they could cram more photos onto their cards that way, which is true, but sadly, they have changed one of the few menu items in their cameras that can completely destroy their images.
Put simply, when you change the size of the image in your camera, you are telling it to throw away pixels, pixels you bought. Never, ever change the file size in your camera.
Yesterday afternoon after a brief electrical power interruption, I noticed that house wasn’t staying cool. I checked and found that the compressor and its fan outside the house were not running. A new compressor would be very expensive, and was not happy about it.
To help distract myself, I mowed and weed-whacked for a while, then when it got dark, I set out to complete a pointless but interesting (thus maybe not entirely pointless) task of taking apart a couple of long-dead digital cameras, a Nikon D100 and a Kodak DCS760.
I got both years ago on eBay for a small fraction of their retail price, shot several years of images with them, then stuck them in a box in anticipation of a day like today. Both cameras date from the early 2000s, when digital photography was still evolving by leaps and bounds.
Despite both cameras being rendered hopelessly outdated by the “futuretrash” paradigm, each made some amazing pictures in my hands.
This isn’t a step-by-step tutorial about how to tear these things down, but a look at what’s inside these two cameras, with a few observations about how they were put together.
The DCS760 was put together as what we used to call a “Frankencamera,” meaning it was two distinct things, a film camera and a digital sensor, stitched together clumsily.
The D100 seemed to be more elegantly designed, as though it was designed from the start as a digital.
Both seemed like a miracle of science when compared to cameras from the beginning of my career when I honestly had no idea this kind of technology would come along.
Both cameras had a lot of electronic bulk that I expect I would not see in newer cameras with more advanced design and assembly techniques.
Both cameras were sturdy, and put up a fight when I tried to get inside. I don’t envy anyone ever tasked with repairing them.
I recently inherited an orphaned Fujifilm point-and-shoot camera from the dusty drawers of my newsroom. A previous editor bought it last September without consulting me, just prior to the company issuing everyone in news, sports and photography (me) a new iPhone 6S. Now everyone in the building shoots with their phones (even me, sometimes), so there was no reason at all to buy this camera. EXIF data shows that fewer than 300 images were made with this camera. I imagine this kind of oddly wasteful spending happens at every business on the planet.
So I’ve been carrying this thing around for a few days, thinking I’ll use it. The point-and-shoot vs the smartphone contest isn’t quite settled yet, despite the overwhelming prevalence of smartphones. The point-and-shoot camera’s trump cards are its more intuitive and available controls, and real optical zoom lenses. A less but still real consideration is how shooting pictures with your phone, particularly in groups, makes you look like a trend-follower, and the most disturbing trend is seeing people making smartphone images of their lives instead of experiencing their lives firsthand. In some ways, it’s like watching your children grow up on a television screen.
I’ve made one or two images for my newspaper with this camera, the Fujifilm Finepix AX-665. There’s nothing special about the camera, and I’m actually glad about that, since I find it frustrating that controls on digital cameras have constantly been repositioned by engineers, often ending up back where they started, to stimulate interest and sales instead of serving the real needs of photographers.
The AX-665 has the welcome four-way selector under the right thumb, and the equally welcome zoom rocker just above it, so I don’t have to hunt for them. The lens is sharp and focuses close (though not true-macro close), but the zoom range only covers the blandest coverage angles. It’s easy to understand how smartphones are taking market share from these cameras, given their zoom ranges. That’s why I like my Olympus point-and-shoot so much better: it has a nice wide angle at the short end of the zoom, wider than any smartphone.
For me, the bottom line is, despite the shortcomings of one machine of photography vs the other, is this: every camera is a tool in the toolbox of photography, and the most important thing you can do with it is express yourself.
Readers might recall from our travel blog that my wife Abby and I just returned from a New Mexico getaway. Fewer readers might be aware that despite being professional photographers with access to a fair amount of heavy pro gear, neither Abby nor I bring any of that.
For years now, Abby and I have embraced a doctrine of traveling light. Our goal is to have fun, and the less we can carry, the better. Whether for hiking and camping, or, like on our most recent trip, driving around exploring northern New Mexico, we have settled into having our matching Fujifilm HS30EXRs as our main cameras, with occasional help from my Ion AirPro3 action cam, my tiny but very apt Olympus FE-5020, and very occasionally, our iPhones.
Why would I go to a point-and-shoot like the Olympus instead of my iPhone? Quick answer: the lens. A dirty little secret of the camera phone scene is that the “zoom” doesn’t actually “zoom” at all, but simply crops the existing image. The Olympus has an excellent 4.3-21.5mm lens equivalent to 24-120mm (in 35mm film terms) that no phone can touch.
Also, aside from making action movies, why bring an action cam? Quick answer: the lens. My Ion’s lens sees 170º, and is the equivalent to a fisheye lens.
Our Fuji cameras are equipped with non-removable 4.2-126mm lenses equivalent to 24-720mm in film terms, allowing me to explore scenes like a sunset we shot near Santa Fe on our first travel day…
Our Fuji cameras are no longer made, but Fuji’s current line of Finepix cameras is similar. Nikon makes a line they call their “premium compact” cameras. Canon makes Powershot cameras that are in this class.
Abby and I always travel with our dogs, and between checking in at motels, letting the dogs do their business at rest stops, bringing luggage here and there, and handling all our affairs, it makes a big difference having small, lightweight cameras. We also carry our smallest laptop computer (a Macbook Air), our smallest concealed carry sidearms (her Kel-Tec P32 and my Ruger LCP) and our smallest, most compact luggage. Fun is our goal, and with this philosophy, we always have it.
Four years ago I posted a piece about experimenting with infrared imaging, making photographs with visible light filtered out to some degree. The camera I used at the time was the bulky, heavy, cumbersome Kodak DCS720x, which I selected because it has a removable infrared filter, which, when removed, allowed infrared energy through to the sensor.
That camera, though, is a dinosaur, and while I was getting to know its infrared abilities, I simply never brought it anywhere.
With my infrared experiments at a standstill, I was searching for something else not long ago and came across a YouTube video of a photographer who showed us how to make infrared images with the Sony Cybershop F828, using a magnet to move the IR-blocking filter out of the optical path. I was interested.
I grabbed my F828, which I bought on eBay for $50, a tripod, and my 720nm filter, and set out to see if this camera might be the one to deliver. I played around with it for a few minutes, making a few images from the front porch. Unlike the Kodak, the Sony is a live view camera, so I could actually see an image in the viewfinder.
I’ll let my readers decide if the result is interesting.
My readers know that as a small town news photographer, I cover a lot of, well, small town stuff. One thing I have always loved is small town sports, and how the whole town comes out to the games and has a great time. Saturday, I worked a basketball twin bill, girls and boys basketball at Vanoss High School, who was hosting nearby rival Latta.
I felt inspired for some reason to bring my iON action cam and mount it on the hot shoe of my cameras and made a short video of game night…
It is often temping to try to quantify our lives. In a world of chaos and the unknown, it is comforting to remember that 2+2=4, and imagine that our existences make that kind of straightforward sense.
I have written on a number of occasions about the value of intimacy in photography, and I have also talked about the idea that many people buy and talk about photographic equipment much more than they actually use that equipment to make pictures, or if they do make pictures, they are emotionally dead and technically perfect, or are simply aimed at proving a technical point. Super-sharp pictures of cat whiskers come to mind.
But why is it so hard to make intimacy at the center of photography?
Computers, pixel counts, sharpness charts, noise ratings, buffer sizes, and so on are concrete and specific, and most importantly, are not intimate. It’s easy enough to master noise reduction software and defragging hard drives, but it’s not as easy to find genuinely intimate moments, and even harder still to photograph them.
One serious problem with photographing human moments, as I have discussed before, is that the camera itself can interfere with moments, causing people to lock up and pose. It’s difficult to keep that from dominating your imaging, but it can be done. The world is full of emotionally empty images, particularly in the age of the ubiquitous “selfie.”
I’ll tell you who cares about noise, sensor size and bokeh: computer geeks and other photographers.
I thought about these ideas last weekend at my wife’s family’s annual reunion. Abby and I have been making pictures at this event since we got married 11 years ago. In all that time, we have made a priority out of capturing genuine, intimate moments. As the years have flown by, we’ve used a variety of cameras, but the actual camera has never made all that much difference. The only thing that really matters is that we are comfortable using it, and that we are comfortable not using it when we want to be part of the action.
In the last three years, Abby and I have gotten very comfortable with the Fujifilm HS30EXR, a small, lightweight “crossover” camera that never gets in the way of taking pictures or getting in them. This year’s reunion was no different; we both had a great time and made great images, never worrying about frame rates, noise factors or sensor size. We freely handed our cameras to other family members, who were instantly comfortable using them in both the “viewfinder mode,” like a DSLR, or in “monitor mode,” like when shooting with a smartphone, since the camera automatically switches between the two modes using a small sensor on the eyepiece.
The Fuji might not be the camera for you, but consider that the best camera for you might be the one that gets out of the way and lets you and your subject have fun.
In the end, as the years go by and Abby and I capture more and more of these great memories, no one will ever ask which camera we used, and no one will talk about shutter speed or aperture. They will take about the great times we all had, and recorded, of those people we loved, and the ones who are no longer with us, but who were with us over the years, in our memories and our images.
My newspaper bought a Nikon D300S digital SLR for me in June. I posted a first look at the camera and made some initial observations. Here, then, are my impressions of the camera after its first 7500 frames.
The autofocus is fast, but isn’t as well buffered as I like, and has a tendency to bite on the background instead of the subject. Tweaking and patience has made it work.
Despite the promise of 8 frames per second with the bigger EN-EL4 battery, I suspect it barely runs at 7 fps.
The buffer with RAW files is just 12 frames, and while it flushes files quickly to the class 10 SD card, the buffer is still not quite big enough for sports, particularly baseball.
Image quality in the ISO stratosphere is pretty good; I’ve shot football at ISO 4000 and the result has been decently clean.
Cleaner medium ISOs in the 800-1600 range have breathed new life into an old lens, my 70-300mm f/4-5.6 ED. Since this lens needs to be stopped down to f/6.3 to be sharp at 300mm, higher ISOs save the day for softball and baseball action. My 300mm f/4 ED AF is a great lens, but the 70-300mm is three times lighter, and more versatile.
The D300S is lighter than my older D2H, but not any smaller. Larger cameras are fine for my hands, but the lighter body is definitely appreciated.
7500 frames in two months equals 45,000 frames in a year, but that’s only my primary camera, and June and July are our slowest months. If you add to that what I shoot with other cameras (I always shoot with two, sometimes three), the total might be about 100,000 frames a year, which doesn’t surprise me.
In conclusion, the Nikon D300S is an excellent addition to my photographic toolbox.
It’s mid August, and our newspaper is doing what all newspapers do this time of year: working on our football preview section. It’s a pretty big deal in our community, since the schools in our coverage area have long and storied Friday Night Lights histories.
One thing we do for the football preview is what we call “media day.” Parents, teachers and students know it as picture day or photo day, and it involves getting the entire football team for each school dressed out and lined up for a group photo, head shots, senior photos, coach groups, and feature images. Honestly, it doesn’t challenge me photographically, but I understand its importance to my newspaper and our community.
We cover seven high schools and a college, so I probably photograph close to 400 kids each year. In the film days, that meant shooting a lot of film, and souping and printing it all, but these days, digital has powerfully streamlined the process. Also in the film era, I shot these media days using two cameras and a camera bag with loads of film in it; big, heavy cameras and lenses. I was younger then. I am 52 now, and every chance I get, I lighten my load. My neck, shoulders and back are telling me more than ever to take care of them.
My go-to camera/lens combo for media days is a Nikon D80 with an 18-55mm “kit” lens. It is smaller and lighter than anything else I have, and still gives me the color and sharpness I need. The lens isn’t exactly a performer, but I don’t really demand much of it, since these media days are in bright daylight.
I guess if you added up around 400 kids by 27 seasons, you get 10,000 or more players. That’s a lot of kids. The work of photographing them can seem mundane and tiresome at times, but I am happy to do it when I remind myself that I am making memories and recording history.
I am a naturalist. Nature, I believe, is our best friend and the most important thing in our lives. Without nature we are, literally, nothing.
The day after Abby and I got married at the majestic Delicate Arch at Arches National Park, Utah, we hiked with some friends on a nice trail at Arches called the Primitive Loop. Although the day started cold and windy, by noon it was a magnificent October day in southern Utah. Near the end of the loop trail, Abby knelt down to photograph a small purple flower growing in the sand next to the trail. Another member of our party blundered up and pulled it out of the ground and asked, “What’s this?” After seeing the shock and anger on Abby’s face, he stuffed it back into the ground, but of course, by then it was done: you can’t “unkill” a flower.
I tell you this because a friend of ours surprised and dismayed us recently by carrying his unmanned aerial vehicle, or “drone,” to Delicate Arch, and once there launched it and flew it around for a bit to make video.
It can be pretty upsetting, honestly, when people are openly disrespectful of others and of nature because they think something is cool, or worse, when they don’t care if something is disruptive because they think it will make them money or fame. Add to that the fact that beautiful sites like Delicate Arch are under attack by their discovery by the public; there are far more visitors to the Arch today than even the first time I saw it in 2002. This creates “The Grand Canyon Effect,” in which the number of visitors reaches a critical mass and renders the experience cheap and touristy. In that circumstance, the last thing I want to see is your stupid buzzing drone making more noise and spoiling the view even more than it already is.
Like not being able to unkill the flower, you can’t unruin someone’s natural experience.
When I pointed out on Facebook that flying his drone was both inappropriate and illegal, at first he seemed to apologize, but later deleted my comment. He left the video up, and kept a comment saying it was “cool even if it is illegal.” There’s the rub, really. Ultimately, most people don’t care about the experience of the National Parks or the peace and quite that helps preserve their sanctity, as long as they get some “cool” pictures or video to plaster all over social media.
Abby and I love photographing our National Parks, but we never do it at the cost of nature or the experience of others.
Another problem with drone photography is its obnoxious overuse. It is one of those self-referential activities that becomes a goal unto itself, and tends to undermine the photographic and film-making goals. Most drone photography simply says, “Look, I have a drone.”
“…I see the world And I’m looking from a high place Way above it all Standing on higher ground…” ~Alan Parsons Project
At this point in my career, the firefighters in my community know that I will ask if I can stand on their fire trucks, or if they have it deployed, their ladder truck, to make pictures. Just a few days ago, at the scene of a water rescue, I asked the owner of a flatbed trash truck if I could climb on it, and he obliged.
There are very few things I won’t climb on or ride in that are high up or flying. Not only is this an excellent strategy for getting a clearer view of everything in my photos, and a smart play for making images that are out of the ordinary, I love climbing on stuff.
This shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise for those who have read the pages of our travel blog or my photo blog and seen the extremes I’ll explore for an image. Even when I can’t get on something high or in something flying, I tend to try to get my camera as high or low as I am able to reach, for the same reason: seeing things and photographing them from a different perspective.
One of my assignments today was to photograph the venerable four-stage rocket ship playground piece in Ada’s Glenwood Park. It’s been around for decades. I remembered at least one previous occasions on which I squoze through the holes and ladders to reach the top to photograph a child who was playing up there, and today I decided to climb it again, just to be climbing. I vaguely remembered that it swayed back and forth with my movements the last time I was up there, and sure enough, I was right. I have to admit that as it was swaying, I thought it would be hysterically funny (in a tragic way) if it fell over and the headline in my own newspaper would say I was killed in a rocket crash.
My newspaper recently handed me a new Nikon D300s. I’ve been asking for a new camera for some time, and the corporation was able to get the D300s at a deep discount since it has been discontinued.
Despite being “older” technology (which in the tech world means “not the very latest”), I am finding out early on that this camera is very capable, and able to make the images I need.
It is well-built and has all the features I need
Its sensor is about one full exposure value cleaner than my other work cameras; I was able to shoot some basketball at ISO 6400 and it was very usable
It controls are similar to my D200
The viewfinder and monitor are big and bright
I got the MB-D10 vertical grip; unlike grips for cameras like the D100 and D200, it only holds one battery, but with a BL-3 battery chamber cover, I can use the big, powerful battery from my D2Hs, which allow the D300s to run at 8 frames per second
So far the camera seems to have no vices at all, and I look forward to more reviews as I get more experience with it.
A longstanding (and often over-cited) maxim in photography is, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” It’s not a great maxim, since it can become an excuse for not bringing the right camera for the right imaging task.
On the other hand, having a camera of some kind is always better than having no camera, and in the smartphone era, most of us have a fairly decent point-and-shoot built into our lives. That was the case for me last October when my wife Abby and I wanted to take a “day off” from our usual vacation itinerary of exploring photo ops and just walk around the small town of Madrid, New Mexico with our dogs. Madrid is, by the way, one of the dog-friendliest towns we’ve ever experienced.
Additionally, I wanted to play around with the WordPress app on my iPhone 5 and post a few of my iPhone images from the trip on PhotoLoco, our shared experimental photography gallery.
The resulting images were predictable: I got passable point-and-shoot images right out of the camera, but in order to be of any use or interest to me, I would need to punch them up a bit. In the field for the WordPress posts, I used a free app in my iPhone called Photoshop Express. I was able to use a couple of the built-in filters to play around with color and tone, and ended up remotely posting something I genuinely liked.
I should note that this activity differs markedly from the typical Facebooker/Instagrammer/Tumblrer/Twitterer, almost all of whom post overwhelming numbers of very similar, and therefore boring, images.
Another tool I use to enhance my iPhone photos, especially the ones in which contrast was overwhelming, is Photomatix Pro. In addition to being an excellent app for blending several bracketed images together to form one High Dynamic Range image, it also allows single-image enhancement, including contrast management.
Not every photo made with the iPhone needs to be heavily edited, but it’s nice to experiment with the tools available and have another avenue of expression at my disposal.
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 sometimes in the cabinet at the office, and sometimes with me. 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.
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.
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.