The 2017 Solar Eclipse

I made this lunar eclipse sequence (six images placed in one frame using Adobe Photoshop) in September 2015, using my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 lens with a Nikkor 1.4x teleconverter. Even with an effective 560mm focal length, most of the frame was empty.
I made this lunar eclipse sequence (six images placed in one frame using Adobe Photoshop) in September 2015, using my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 lens with a Nikkor 1.4x teleconverter. Even with an effective 560mm focal length, most of the frame was empty.
The web is full of eclipse path maps like this one from NASA. Click it to view it larger.
The web is full of eclipse path maps like this one from NASA. Click it to view it larger.

There is a fair amount of excitement building around the first total eclipse of the sun in the United States in 72 years, on August 21, 2017. Undoubtedly, millions of people will be attempting to view and photograph it, mostly with marginal success using their smartphone cameras.

My wife Abby and I have been planning for this for some time, and expect to include my sister Nicole and her husband Tracey. Our hope is to be in our mother’s home town, Park Hills, Missouri, (known as Flat River for most of her life) on the morning of the eclipse, to stake out a spot from which to witness, and photograph, this event.

Disposable paper eclipse glasses like these are available in ten packs on sites like eBay and Amazon.
Disposable paper eclipse glasses like these are available in ten packs on sites like eBay and Amazon.

Photographing a solar eclipse is challenging. I’ve never photographed, or even seen, one, though Abby and I have photographed several lunar eclipses, and many of the same principals apply.

  • A coworker of mine has a Sigma 150-500mm and a 200-500mm Nikkor, both good starting points for photographing the upcoming color eclipse.
    A coworker of mine has a Sigma 150-500mm and a 200-500mm Nikkor, both good starting points for photographing the upcoming color eclipse.

    Firstly, as you will read on most sites about the upcoming eclipse, don’t look directly at the sun, even for a second or two, and even if it is partially eclipsed by the moon. The only time it is safe to look at it with your naked eye is during the totality, when the disk of the sun is completely covered by the moon.

  • The weather will play a huge role in viewing this event: read a forecast and try to be someplace with clear skies. Even with planning, there is a chance it might be obscured by clouds.
  • I bought some disposable eclipse glasses, and have looked directly at the sun with them on. They seem to be effective, although I don’t exactly trust them, so I won’t be staring through them at the sun for more than a second or two.
  • Though they appear large in the sky compared to stars and planets, the sun and moon actually occupy a very small area of the sky. Filling the frame with these celestial bodies requires either an astronomical telescope or a very long telephoto lens.
  • When the disk of the sun is visible, normal exposures are not effective without a neutral density filter, in these cases sometimes sold as a solar filter. These act as powerful “sunglasses,” since the photosphere (the surface of the sun) is much brighter than anything on earth.
  • When the sun is eclipsed by the moon, exposure values are hundreds of times darker than before. Camera settings can go from f/16 at 1/1000th of a second to f/4 at one, two, ten seconds or longer depending on conditions. The most interesting thing to photograph during the totality is the solar corona, which is very faint compared to the photosphere.
  • Cell phones, point-and-shoot cameras, and cameras with the ever-popular “kit lens” will be unable to fill the frame with anything useful during an eclipse, as we have see time and again during lunar eclipses.
  • A rock-solid tripod will be indispensable, particularly during totality when exposures will be long.
  • The ultimate solution to this photographic puzzle would be to use a real (and very expensive) astronomical telescope.
  • Someone recently told me the best approach of all would be to find a spot, relax, and enjoy the eclipse, then buy a photograph or enjoy all the posts on the web. That’s certainly a valid point of view, but I am a photographer, and feel like I should be shooting this, which I will very much enjoy.

There are maps and other useful information at the Eclipse 2017 web site.

Abby made this 2007 eclipse photo with her 75-300mm lens at 300mm, giving an idea of how small the sun and moon appear even with this long telephoto.
Abby made this 2007 eclipse photo with her 75-300mm lens at 300mm, giving an idea of how small the sun and moon appear even with this long telephoto.
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Other Photographers and Our Egos

A passel of photographers photographs Antelope Canyon in May 2012.
A passel of photographers photographs Antelope Canyon in May 2012.

A friend of mine, who I regard as a very talented photographer, recently asked me for some advice about photographing the American West. Among her destinations was Mesa Arch, a beautiful, easy-to-reach attraction at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, which I have visited many times.

I told her that this feature is classically photographed in the morning, since the sun rises in the opening of the arch, with a beautiful canyon below and mountains in the distance. The light strikes to red wall of the canyon below and causes the underside of the feature to take on deep red hues.

Mesa Arch at Canyonlands is illuminated by handsome morning light in this 2002 image. The light bounces up from canyons below to causing the underside of the arch to take on a deep red. In the distance are the La Sal Mountains.
Mesa Arch at Canyonlands is illuminated by handsome morning light in this 2002 image. The light bounces up from canyons below to causing the underside of the arch to take on a deep red. In the distance are the La Sal Mountains.

The only drawback, I told her, is that it’s been “discovered,” so she should expect to see a large number of photographers there at sunrise.

“I really want to see Mesa Arch, but I hate the idea of a lot of photographers because I will feel inferior,” she replied.

Years ago I wrote a piece about how I can sometimes be tempted to get outside my game when I am in the presence of other professional photographers. I’m sure this is true for other professions as well, and why conferences and think tanks are useful for showing us way of doing things we might not see.

The other side of that, of course, is that we don’t want to let the herd mentality take us to what I like to call the “force op,” or forced photo opportunity, in which you let other photographers define you creatively.

I told my friend that the Grand View Point at Canyonlands is "better than the Grand Canyon," which I think it is for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are far fewer visitors.
I told my friend that the Grand View Point at Canyonlands is “better than the Grand Canyon,” which I think it is for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are far fewer visitors.

But there is a little trick that will help relieve you of the burden of feeling competitive with other photographers. Now that digital imaging has taken some of the mystery, and particularly the surprise,  out of photography, all we have to do is stand behind someone and look at their monitor to see what kinds of images they are making. Often, even most of the time, I am surprised and discouraged by how badly photographers are composing their pictures. “Why is this guy even here with his $10,000 worth of equipment,” I ask myself, “when he can’t compose his way out of a wet paper sack?”

In some ways, painters and sculptors are freer than photographers because their art starts with vision and imagination, and I admire that.
In some ways, painters and sculptors are freer than photographers because their art starts with vision and imagination, and I admire that.

Also, don’t let anyone’s equipment intimidate you, and even more importantly, don’t let them talk about their equipment to you. If they do, it will be all they talk about, and they will have nothing interesting to say about the art of photography.

Ultimately photography should be about expressing ourselves and sharing our vision of our lives and our worlds, not worrying about how we look when we’re making our images or what others might think about our equipment or skills. When it comes to comparisons, it is certainly worth looking at the work of others, but not with the purpose of copying it. I should serve as inspiration.

Everyone takes pictures now. The only genuine value in them is your vision.

Despite the traditional "best" shot of Mesa Arch being a sunrise shot, my favorite image of it so far is one I made right after sunset. Not only was the light beautiful, but there were no other photographers present, and I feel the image is unique. When you see this image, or another you admire, don't try to copy it. Ask yourself how you and your creative vision might express it.
Despite the traditional “best” shot of Mesa Arch being a sunrise shot, my favorite image of it so far is one I made right after sunset. Not only was the light beautiful, but there were no other photographers present, and I feel the image is unique. When you see this image, or another you admire, don’t try to copy it. Ask yourself how you and your creative vision might express it.
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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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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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Decapitation

It’s true. I am a “lopper.” I cut off heads.

One of the most common criticisms amateur photographers and non-photographers spout is, “You cut off their heads,” or, “I can’t believe you cut off the top of my head!”

The idea is that all images of people should always include the entire person, head to toe, I guess. It’s one of the dumbest criticisms we face. Composing a photograph as a work of art or self-expression is a lot different than shooting grade school head shots in front of a green screen. Take, for example, this image of my wife Abby, made many years ago…

Abby wears a pair of my red sunglasses, which I use exclusively as a prop.
Abby wears a pair of my red sunglasses, which I use exclusively as a prop.

But but but… where’s the top of her hair!?

Honestly, when people say this, politely walk away. Don’t accept their offers to hire you for their next wedding. They are visionless and uninspired. They expect your images to fit in their cookie cutters.

So why, Richard, did you crop this image the way you did? Simply put, intimacy. We, the viewers, are closer to her, and in particular, we are closer to her eyes. This composition invites you into the moment, like we just looked up and saw her smiling at us. And it works so well.

So if you face this kind of addle criticism, take heart. There are still those of us who understand how images really work.

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What About Angles?

I shot tonight's example images with my AF 60mm Micro-Nikkor, a lens I own because it came with a camera I bought on Ebay. Despite its accidental service, I find that it is an extraordinarily capable macro lens.
I shot tonight’s example images with my AF 60mm Micro-Nikkor, a lens I own because it came with a camera I bought on Ebay. Despite its accidental service, I find that it is an extraordinarily capable macro lens.

There’s a lot of talk, usually to, rather than among, photographers, about angle. People on the street tell me they “loved the angle you got” in a photo on the sport page, or they’ll see me working and say, “trying to get just the right angle, huh?”

Honestly, the whole angle thing is made up by television. We photographers don’t ever use the word “angle” in our work, mostly because we don’t need to use it. Instead of thinking about an angle (15º, 37º, 55º, what?), real photographers decide where to be and move there much more organically, even instinctively. Instead of thinking “I need to shoot this from a high angle,” we just climb on something. Instead of thinking “I should move 30º to the left,” we just move and watch until the image comes together.

But with everything creative and artistic, there are exceptions, and the most important exception about angle in photography is in lighting. Sometimes the slightest change in the angle of the light, either by moving the light or moving the camera, can change the entire character of an image.

Consider then, the next two images, which I made after changing a small 12-volt light bulb and finding the burned out bulb visually interesting.

Both images are made at the same exposure, with the same lens, and without moving the lights. The only change was movement slightly down as I searched for exactly what I wanted, but as you can see, it didn’t change the composition much, but it did change the light, both in the subject, and in what was illuminated in the background.

This was my first shot at the broken bulb, lit with three flash units, two behind and one into a reflector over my right shoulder. I was very pleased with the result.
This was my first shot at the broken bulb, lit with three flash units, two behind and one into a reflector over my right shoulder. I was very pleased with the result.
The next frame I made was shot with the same lights, lens, and exposure; the only thing that changed was that I moved down a few inches to get a better view of the filament. As you can see, it brought a brighter background into the frame, and the character of the image is quite different than my first try.
The next frame I made was shot with the same lights, lens, and exposure; the only thing that changed was that I moved down a few inches to get a better view of the filament. As you can see, it brought a brighter background into the frame, and the character of the image is quite different than my first try.
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Doing an Exploratory

This is the view out the kitchen window this morning; more snow and cold weather are on the way.
This is the view out the kitchen window this morning; more snow and cold weather are on the way.

As I might have mentioned before, I am in the process of editing, in my spare moments, the hundreds of images I shot on our October anniversary vacation, A Perfect Ten. Working on these images has been a very satisfying experience, since so many of my jaunts yielded excellent images, most of which I was not able to include in the trip report. I am, however, publishing many of them on my photo blog, and here on the teaching blog.

Today, as my wife sleeps in her recliner because snow and sleet kept her from going to work, I am again chewing on some of those images. In that process, I ran across one in particular that seemed to reach into my sense of adventure, an image I made in an area I visited for the first time, just north of Delicate Arch in the vicinity of Echo Arch (according to the kiosk at the visitor center – if you know better, please let me know.)

The reason I like this image so much is…

  • Its monochromatic lighting resulted in an excellent black-and-white red-filter rendering
  • It is an angle from which I never shot before and yields a new view of an old haunt
  • It shows Echo Arch at the very bottom of the frame and the Delicate Arch area (though the actual arch is concealed by terrain) at the top
  • It invites me to come and romp in the adventure playground of southern Utah
  • The utter complexity of the image is intriguing, and invites the eye to explore it

Editing these images is great fun. I’m sure I will come across many more teaching points as I explore them.

This image was made just above Echo Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, last October. The more I look at it, the more interesting it gets. You can see it bigger by clicking on it. I shot it with my Nikon D7100 and the excellent AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm .
This image was made just above Echo Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, last October. The more I look at it, the more interesting it gets. You can see it bigger by clicking on it. I shot it with my Nikon D7100 and the excellent AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm .
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The Right Idea

The photographer in the image in this post is using the latter-day technique of shooting from an angle that’s hard to get while looking through a viewfinder.

Looking up or down with a wide angle lens at a ladder, hillside, ski slope, swing set, church, Christmas tree, hiking trail, fountain, radio tower, Ferris wheel… you get the idea … anything that has lines and forms that can be used to invite our viewer into the image… can create very exciting compositions.

This was harder to do in the film days because the framing is just a guess, since the camera is so high or low that we can’t see what it’s seeing. But in the digital era, we can instantly review what we just shot and fit whatever might need to be fixed.

Don’t hesitate to play around with unusual angles and compositions. It can really pay off.

A photographer makes a low-angle shot looking up a ladder at New Mexico's Taos Pueblo in October 2014.
A photographer makes a low-angle shot looking up a ladder at New Mexico’s Taos Pueblo in October 2014.
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A Mild but Interesting Epiphany about My Shooting

A Byng Lady Pirate is fouled during tournament play last week at Bill Koller Field House. The lighting there isn't great, so I often opt to shoot with my 50mm f/1.8 at f/2.0. The horizontal composition captured this moment of conflict well.
A Byng Lady Pirate is fouled during tournament play last week at Bill Koller Field House. The lighting there isn’t great, so I often opt to shoot with my 50mm f/1.8 at f/2.0. The horizontal composition captured this moment of conflict well.
I got someone to make an image of me peeking over the top of my camera at a game recently. Being able to see what's going on around me helps me decide when and where to shoot.
I got someone to make an image of me peeking over the top of my camera at a game recently. Being able to see what’s going on around me helps me decide when and where to shoot.

Years ago, Scott Andersen was working as a photography stringer (biz speak for freelancer) for the Associated Press in Oklahoma City. Since OKC isn’t too far off, our paths would cross when we were shooting, particularly when we were both working college sports. Once day at an Oklahoma University basketball game, he and I were shooting, and he looked over at me and incredulously asked, “You shoot basketball horizontal?”

Yes, I do hold my camera horizontally (landscape mode) rather than vertically for basketball. I’ve always been more comfortable shooting it that way, though I didn’t really analyze the mechanics of it until recently.

I was shooting a college basketball at ECU‘s Kerr Activities Center here in Ada and thought for a moment about what exactly I was doing, when I put it together: I hold the camera horizontally so I can lower it slightly and see the whole court so I can keep track of the action, which helps me decided when and where to shoot. I believe this is because I am a left-eyed shooter, so though it is open, my right eye is blocked by the camera body. Right-eyed people can see the court without moving their camera.

My results are a little different than those who hold vertically, but in all honesty, most of my action imagery is aimed at the moment of conflict, which includes moments like fast breaks and loose ball scrambles, and those kinds of plays often defy composition, so they might be horizontal, vertical, or square.

Horizontal action can be just as powerful as vertical. In this play, Byng Pirate forward Dineh Bohan is fouled driving to the basket. Readers also might recall that Dineh was one of the Byng yearbook students who took my class last summer.
Horizontal action can be just as powerful as vertical. In this play, Byng Pirate forward Dineh Bohan is fouled driving to the basket. Readers also might recall that Dineh was one of the Byng yearbook students who took my class last summer.
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The Geometry of Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a very dull photo of some rebar by the side of the road, shot with a 12mm lens. Compare to...
Here is a very dull photo of some rebar by the side of the road, shot with a 12mm lens. Compare to…
…same scene, same lens, same exposure, same light, but with a very different result. Essentially, all I did was move.
…same scene, same lens, same exposure, same light, but with a very different result. Essentially, all I did was move.

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

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“When their Bones are Picked Clean and the Clean Bones Gone…”

This is my image of a wooden cross on a grave marker at Violet Cemetery in Konawa, Oklahoma, as it came out of the camera, with no editing.
This is my image of a wooden cross on a grave marker at Violet Cemetery in Konawa, Oklahoma, as it came out of the camera, with no editing.

I worked a baseball game in Asher, Oklahoma, yesterday, which is about 28 miles from our home in Byng. The light was nice and it was quite warm out. My route to the game took me past Konawa’s Violet Cemetery, noted for supposedly having a tombstone in it with the inscription, “Killed by Human Wolves.” I mostly regard it as a legend, but there was nice late afternoon light on my way home from the game, so I stopped to look for it.

I didn’t find the inscription, but I made a few nice photos. The light was very warm due to a combination of high cloud cover and smoke from distant grass fires.

As I shot, with my Sony F828, I felt certain that I would convert my images to black-and-white, since the color content was unimpressive and a little distracting, while the tones and textures provided a strong sense of mood.

I also noted three tombstones close together that read…

  • Our Baby, son of Buster and Tina Sharp, Sept. 17, 1920
  • Our Baby, son of Buster and Tina Sharp, June 21, 1923
  • Our Baby, son of Buster and Tina Sharp, July 2, 1926

I wondered how difficult it must have been for the Sharps.

Back at the office, I felt I had strong images, particularly one of a wooden cross on a granite grave stone. I did, as I had anticipated, render it in black-and-white, using Photoshop’s channel mixer dialog to simulate using a yellow filter with black-and-white film. I then used the levels dialog to fine tune the tones and make them deeper and bolder.

I ended up pleased with the result.

This is my image of a wooden cross on a grave marker at Violet Cemetery after editing with the channel mixer and the levels dialog.
This is my image of a wooden cross on a grave marker at Violet Cemetery after editing with the channel mixer and the levels dialog.
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Boots and Bones

A tangled tree stands against a clear sky in the countryside near Ryan, Oklahoma, Sunday, January 19, 2014.
A tangled tree stands against a clear sky in the countryside near Ryan, Oklahoma, Sunday, January 19, 2014.
The tool of my trade today: the Nikon D3000 with the Tamron 18-250mm.
The tool of my trade today: the Nikon D3000 with the Tamron 18-250mm.

My wife Abby and I went to her hometown (link) of Ryan, Oklahoma, yesterday. After a nice lunch, she and her family caught up on the latest news about town, while I decided to walk toward the Red River, which is not far, and make some pictures.

The day was clear and warm.

The only DSLR we had with us was Abby’s Nikon D3000, which I like to shoot sometimes because it gives me a better perspective on the cameras I see in the hands of my students. On it was the Tamron 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3, a lens about which I have decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is convenient, but on the other hand, the wide end isn’t quite wide enough. It also suffers optically at the long end.

I passed the barn on the south end of the patch. The sun is shining through a series of small holes in the sheet metal.
I passed the barn on the south end of the patch. The sun is shining through a series of small holes in the sheet metal.
I saw several bones, presumable bovine, on the trail.
I saw several bones, presumable bovine, on the trail.

I didn’t make it as far as the River, but I followed a fence about half a mile into a pasture, where I found some steers grazing. I circled one of the ponds in the vicinity, and while I was at it I startled the steers enough to make them all gallop away to the west.

I moved along the ribbons of cattle trails, which made hiking easier than bushwhacking the rough terrain. I found some bones, which I photographed.

Warm light accentuates the color of the fence I followed west into a pasture. I shot this at 250mm.
Warm light accentuates the color of the fence I followed west into a pasture. I shot this at 250mm.
These steers were decidedly curious, but so shy they ran away as I got close.
These steers were decidedly curious, but so shy they ran away as I got close.
It's easier to squeeze through a gap in the cattle gate than to actually open it.
It’s easier to squeeze through a gap in the cattle gate than to actually open it.

I came across a ravine, which I followed for some time. In it were numerous gnarled trees and low brush. Judging from the tracks, the cattle followed the ravine as well.

After an hour chasing the light and the features of the farm, I made my way back to the house.

The point of this post is that you can’t sit in the living room and let your camera collect dust. To make new pictures, you have to explore. The walk I made on this day was easy, fun, and quiet. The light was inviting. The air was clear. And the images I made were all very satisfying.

Back at the house, late afternoon light through blinds helped create this image of some Christmas leftovers. I shot this with my iPhone 5.
Back at the house, late afternoon light through blinds helped create this image of some Christmas leftovers. I shot this with my iPhone 5.
Abby's sister Gail was riding her horse Abe when we called, and didn't take off her spurs, so I asked if I could photograph her boots.
Abby’s sister Gail was riding her horse Abe when we called, and didn’t take off her spurs, so I asked if I could photograph her boots.
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Sunstars, Selective Focus, and Other Holidays Tips

This image, made in a window at dusk, utilizes the excellent selective focus qualities of the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 lens.
This image, made in a window at dusk, utilizes the excellent selective focus qualities of the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 lens.

Since it is the Christmas season and the Christmas lights season, I thought I would share a couple of tips about photographing the tinsel and glitter.

  • Turn off that flash. If you shoot in AUTO (also know as “green box mode”) while trying to photograph a Christmas tree or a parade, your camera will probably respond to the relative darkness with flash. Pick another exposure mode (see The PASM) and turn off the flash.
  • See the light. Holiday lighting is very dim compared to normal lighting conditions. Prepare accordingly; you’re going to need a large-aperture lens (the 50mm f/1.8 in many camera bags is a great choice) or a tripod, or both.
  • Be aggressive with exposure compensation. The +/- selector is your best friend, and unless you are in manual mode (exposure compensation only effects automatic exposure modes), you’ll probably need a lot of +. The exposure sensors will see the bright lights and adjust accordingly, often resulting in pinpoint lights and large, black backgrounds. That doesn’t convey the sense of glowing light that makes Christmas beautiful.
  • Use aperture to your advantage. This is not the time to let the camera pick medium apertures. Go one way or the other all the way. Big apertures in the range of f/1.4 through f/2.8 can give you those shallow depths of field and powerful selective focus, while very small aperture like f/22 render most everything in focus, plus improve the look of points of light by emphasizing the “sunstar” effect.
  • Think high ISO. If shooting moving subjects like a Christmas parade or a child under a Christmas tree, add higher ISO to that large aperture. Trust me – these scenes are not as bright as they seem, and camera and subject motion will become a factor unless you crank open the lens and crank up the ISO. Think ISO 3200 at f/2.
  • Don’t forget to have Christmas. This is a big one, and it’s hard, since everyone seems to want to a be a photographer. Getting good pictures of Christmas memories is secondary to actually experiencing the event that becomes those memories. Put down the camera or let someone else take a few pictures and watch the parade, open your presents, drink your egg nog. It’s your holiday too.
The bright points of light in this image, made at f/22 for 30 seconds, convey a sense of brightness and sparkle thanks to the "sunstar" effect. The lens was an AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.
The bright points of light in this image, made at f/22 for 30 seconds, convey a sense of brightness and sparkle thanks to the “sunstar” effect. The lens was an AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.
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Why Is Decay So Interesting?

Royal blue walls, door, and window, made this auto repair shop south of downtown Oklahoma City which we photographed in August 2001, very visually interesting.
Royal blue walls, door, and window, made this auto repair shop south of downtown Oklahoma City which we photographed in August 2001, very visually interesting.

Several years ago R. E. and I had an interesting conversation while photographing a decaying blue wall at a downtown Oklahoma City auto repair shop. The shop, and all the businesses around it, is gone due to construction of the crosstown expressway, so our images from that day can’t be reshot.

Robert shot with his Nikon F4 and a very old but excellent 20mm f/4 Nikkor. His setup was old school in the best sense of old school. One thing that is absolutely true about Robert is that his first priority is always imaging, not equipment.

He and I pondered that day the concept of decay, and why it is so photographically interesting…

  • It is visually complex; decay is full of tiny, chaotic details.
  • It is unusual, particularly to viewers who live and work in highly civilized environments.
  • It leads to unstructured composition, lines and areas that are beyond what we normally photograph, thus allowing us to break the rules of composition.

I am particularly attracted to decay that involves color, since I think it draws the viewer into the image more dramatically.

Maybe the most compelling aspect of making images of decay is that it represents our ultimately futile efforts to order our chaotic universe. It’s all food for thought, but as I think about it, I’ll continue to photograph it.

Watch us photograph the blue wall here…

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Chasing the Light

The delicate beauty of a deep purple iris shines in late afternoon light.
The delicate beauty of a deep purple iris shines in late afternoon light.

I live in the county, and springtime is everything you might imagine it is here. It’s a little like a Norman Rockwell painting, only without the Depression-era school children fishing from the pond.

We’ve had adequate rain this spring, and with that, everything has been green. In addition to the extra mowing that I need to do when there is enough rain, there are also more imaging opportunities. When I finished mowing the pasture tonight, the light was so nice and everything was so green that I grabbed a camera – the Nikon D80 with a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 on it – and set out to make pictures of the iris (my favorite flower) that blooms on the other end of the patch where our defacto Mother-in-law Dorothy lived.

Our tools for the shoot: the Nikon D80 with a third-party battery grip, with the excellent Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
Our tools for the shoot: the Nikon D80 with a third-party battery grip, with the excellent Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.

I like my D80s, although they aren’t as robustly built as the pro hardware I use at work every day. It’s a trade-off for their lightweight compactness. The Tamron is a capable lens, but it, too, isn’t built like the super-heavy Nikkor I use to shoot news day after day.

Initially, I had some success, especially with the deep purple iris along the fence by the barn. The maturing late afternoon light cooperated, and I was pleased. I also got some decent images of the gold-and-lilac colored iris near the rock wall by the road. It is a particularly photogenic color combination. I also noticed that the light purple/dark purple iris was blooming wildly, but was in full shadow. I almost gave up and went inside. I was covered in grass and dust from mowing. But I decided that the light might change in my favor, so I stuck around and watched as it crept into the rose garden and finally touched one iris, then another, just enough that it made beautiful, delicate images with much more evening-light subtlety that the solid-purple iris I’d photographed just 20 minutes earlier.

Before the night was over, I picked a red rose and a peace rose from Dorothy’s garden and brought them to my wife.

A more complex and rewarding image: a two-color iris is illuminated by the last of the evening light.
A more complex and rewarding image: a two-color iris is illuminated by the last of the evening light.
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