Always Be Ready to Make the Picture

The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a wide angle lens.
The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a wide angle lens.

Anticipating an early voter turnout Tuesday, I drove directly from our home in Byng to Konawa to cover the school bond issue election. It was just after seven in the morning, and the sun was still below the horizon. I immediately noticed that farm ponds had fog above them and anticipated that the Canadian River, which I would shortly cross, would as well.

I drove across the U.S. 377 bridge, parked in a safe spot, put on my highway safety vest, grabbed three cameras and walked to the center of the bridge over the river. For the record, I don’t recommend this, and I did it as a journalist. I know, I know — do as I say, not as I do, but drivers can get distracted in a moment, and it’s not always easy to see in early morning light.

The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 70mm lens.
The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 70mm lens.

Sunlight caught the rising fog exactly as I had anticipated, and the scene did not disappoint. I shot it with all three cameras — one with a 300mm lens, one with an 80-200mm lens,and one with a wide angle. All three scenes expressed something slightly different about the scene, and I was glad I lugged all the hardware with me.

How many times has someone come up to me with their phone in hand and started telling me, “I didn’t have my camera with me, but…” They then show me an image they made with their phone that tells only part of the story. Despite constantly improving technology in smartphones, they lack something. Maybe they lack the attitude of a camera.

The lesson is: Always have your camera with you. I know this is easy to say if you’re like me and have had cameras within arm’s reach since I was in high school, but it can really pay off.

The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 300mm lens.
The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 300mm lens.

Evening Walk

Photography for the sole purpose of expressive myself and the moment… all these images were made with my AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 at about f/2.2…

Flowers catch last light in the garden.
Flowers catch last light in the garden.
Hawken the mighty Irish Wolfhound keeps a watchful eye on me.
Hawken the mighty Irish Wolfhound keeps a watchful eye on me.
Morning glory vines cling to the fence in the front yard.
Morning glory vines cling to the fence in the front yard.
A morning glory vine curves away from the front fence.
A morning glory vine curves away from the front fence.
Poke berries dangle in the back yard.
Poke berries dangle in the back yard.
Vines on the back fence catch last light.
Vines on the back fence catch last light.

So Many Levels, So Many Layers

My friend Sabrina works as a photographer in the Sulphur, Oklahoma area.
My friend Sabrina works as a photographer in the Sulphur, Oklahoma area.
Sabrina has maybe the smallest feet of any adult I've ever met.
Sabrina has maybe the smallest feet of any adult I’ve ever met.

Lately I’ve been taking a long view of photography, turning it over in my mind and trying to decide what it is, what it isn’t, and who I am in the midst of it. Honestly, I’m feeling a little lost, which I think is true for a lot of photographers from my generation.

In the movie Reds, one of the witnesses says, “Reed thought he was a good poet.” He makes a  disgusted face. “He was a terrible poet.” Like Reed, I probably think I am better at some things than I actually am. Some aspects of photography? Sure.

It's true that I will photograph anything, any time, but it's also true that with so many photographers shooting everything all the time, a shot like this gets diluted into obscurity.
It’s true that I will photograph anything, any time, but it’s also true that with so many photographers shooting everything all the time, a shot like this gets diluted into obscurity.

In the middle of all this, I was collared by a nice young lady at our recent AdaFest celebration who wanted to know if I would write a piece about how to process black-and-white film. I ended up writing my column about it, since everything about souping (processing) film is still in my head, along with other uselessly outdated skills like how to win at Missile Command. It was nice that I could share these skills and ideas, but I’m not at all sure I gave anyone anything useful.

I have recently been a little overwhelmed by the “everyone is a photographer” paradigm. Closer to the truth, of course, is that everyone with a camera or even a smartphone is perceived as a photographer.

Part of this misperception is in the idea that technically perfect photos are better photos. An excellent example of this is shown in the next image…

Canyonlands National Park, Utah, November 2002
Canyonlands National Park, Utah, November 2002

I put this image in a book of my travel photos. Upon showing it to two photographers, they first rolled their eyes at each other, then hesitantly asked me if I “meant” to have all that flare and ghosting in the image. I didn’t even feel obligated to explain it to them, since it was obvious they had made up their minds. But yes, of course I “meant” to include the flare and ghosting. That was the essence of the image: the brilliant Utah sun overwhelms us with light, so beautiful in the blue blue sky. But their urge to see it as a flaw, and thus to see perfect images as a goal, blinded them to its beauty.

Photographers are always helping each other and glad to see each other.
Photographers are always helping each other and glad to see each other.

One thing I do all the time is have a camera – not a phone with a camera in it – with me when I walk the dogs or work outside. There really is something tangibly positive about making myself use a camera when it is, by definition, less convenient than using my phone.

So am I really overmatched, played out, washed up, old? I will emphasize that what I do best, photojournalism, I do better than most, but maybe I’m feeling the pressure of my craft becoming less valuable. Best AM radio. Best eight track tape. Best leisure suit.

I will continue to do photojournalism while I can, and although I know my audience likes my work, that doesn’t mean they can support it. I love what I do.

This is a happy accident of photography, shot from ground level with no effort to see through the viewfinder or on the monitor. The image is of our sweet little Chihuahua Summer, who, like most dogs, wil come to you out of curiosity when you kneel, sit, or lie down.
This is a happy accident of photography, shot from ground level with no effort to see through the viewfinder or on the monitor. The image is of our sweet little Chihuahua Summer, who, like most dogs, wil come to you out of curiosity when you kneel, sit, or lie down.

Why Not Video?

All the cameras I carry are able to make video. The question really becomes, "Am I able to make video?"
All the cameras I carry are able to make video. The question really becomes, “Am I able to make video?”

In the past few weeks I’ve been pondering my strengths and weaknesses. As a result, one immediate and unimportant change has been my deletion of my personal Twitter account. I might have followed 11 people, several of whom stopped posting months ago, and maybe four people followed me. I seldom Tweeted.

More consequential might be my thoughts about videography. I am a competent videographer, but simply don’t have the resource or the motivation to commit myself to making videos, and I don’t want to be a vlogger/vidiot who posts 32 minute rants of myself talking to the camera. I see too much of that, and despise it.

I would be very interested to know how much of the video shot every day is actually viewed by the person shooting it, versus how much of it is crammed onto social media where it waits for "likes."
I would be very interested to know how much of the video shot every day is actually viewed by the person shooting it, versus how much of it is crammed onto social media where it waits for “likes.”

I certainly don’t want to become what I despise.

Since acquiring my first video camera in 2001, the excellent Canon GL-1, I have attempted to integrate video into my web presence, and after all these years I have concluded it’s just not for me. That might change one day if I got a job in the field or could generate tons of income from it, but today, my best videos are just a distraction. I am pretty sure my readership feels the same way: Richard is a great photographer and a good storyteller, but his videos don’t match up.

I have also said in past entries that as video resolution increases, quality falters, and that almost all video is worthless without the most important element: a good script.

So, if you are patrolling richardbarron.net and see a link to a video that doesn’t exist, or see any empty links at all, let me know and I’ll fix it.

The Canon GL-1 is a camcorder from a by-gone era, but it did one thing amazingly well: sound. Note the shotgun mic on top. We photographed our wedding with this camera, and you can hear every word.
The Canon GL-1 is a camcorder from a by-gone era, but it did one thing amazingly well: sound. Note the shotgun mic on top. We photographed our wedding with this camera, and you can hear every word.

The Sometime Lost Narrative of Large Apertures

This image of my reading glasses on the lid of one of our laptop computers takes my AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to it's limit: closest focus and largest aperture. Is this art, or a technology demonstrator?
This image of my reading glasses on the lid of one of our laptop computers takes my AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to it’s limit: closest focus and largest aperture. Is this art, or a technology demonstrator?

As much as photographers seem intent on relishing the power of large-maximum-aperture lenses and their selective focus, I was reminded over the last few days about the perils of overusing this feature, and that we need to keep in mind that it is a tool in the toolbox and not a goal unto itself.

I thought about this when the sun was streaming in through some windows as I got ready for work, and took the time to shoot a few frames. I decided to shoot “wide open,” at f/1.4, the largest maximum aperture of any lens I own, and a genuinely large aperture. Only a few specialized and expensive lenses have these impressively large maximum apertures. Legendary lenses like the Canon 85mm f/1.2, Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 (I had one in college) and 58mm  f/1.2 aspheric, the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0, and esoteric glass like the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95 are some examples.

So what draws us to these lenses? What can we construct with these tools? Without a doubt, the first answer is selective focus, often very dramatic selective focus. We can then combine that tool with one like, say, movement, and have our backgrounds just like we want them.

It's easy to take selective focus to it's limit, as I did in this 200mm f/2.0 image of some souvenirs, but what does it add to the narrative? In my opinion, all it says is, "I can shoot at large apertures."
It’s easy to take selective focus to it’s limit, as I did in this 200mm f/2.0 image of some souvenirs, but what does it add to the narrative? In my opinion, all it says is, “I can shoot at large apertures.”

The simplest background in all of photography is a neutral-grey roll of background paper about five feet behind the subject, evenly lit. It’s so simple and uninvolved that it’s barely ever a participant.  It works. It works to create a rigid, predicable image that has a useful but narrow set of applications.

The challenge arises, however, when we want to use backgrounds as an element in our images. Whether it be a field of wheat at sunset or the dazzling lights on the Las Vegas Strip at midnight, it becomes a contributor to our image. Will we use this as a compositional and narrative tool, or to show off our power to buy expensive lenses?

This is a beautiful image of mimosa blossoms in our back yard. The strong selective focus creates a narrative that says, "This natural beauty extends farther than our immediate view," and invites the viewer to look for more.
This is a beautiful image of mimosa blossoms in our back yard. The strong selective focus creates a narrative that says, “This natural beauty extends farther than our immediate view,” and invites the viewer to look for more.

Making a Living as a Photographer

I saw this sign taped to the floor at a graduation I was covering recently, and I ignored it.
I saw this sign taped to the floor at a graduation I was covering recently, and I ignored it.

There is certainly no paucity of opinion about why it’s so hard to make a living in the 21st century as a photographer. A growing consensus claims the problem is that “everyone is a photographer” because every has a camera. It’s a pretty solid idea, and it’s difficult to refute.

But I have some different notions about it.

If you have seen documentaries like The Corporation or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Roomyou probably have a pretty firm grasp of the idea that right and wrong have little bearing on the actions of corporations, and that corporations are the most powerful institutions in the world. As long as that’s true, photographers will struggle.

Some examples…

  1. In 1991, I learned of an opening for the chief photographer job at a major state university. I applied, as did many in my field, and didn’t get the job, despite the fact that I felt certain I would have been a great choice. The selection was made by a committee, and they picked an applicant who was the most “quailfied” on paper, but was such a terrible jackass they had to fire him 18 months later, and I knew when they hired him it was a mistake.
  2. In 2016,  during a period when I felt our editor (who was later fired) was trying to force me out, I applied for a staff photographer position with the media relations department of a very fast-growing organization. I felt I was perfect for that job as well. The position went to someone who seemed to have all the perfect qualifications and accreditations, but early on, I would not only see his work and wonder why it was so weak. I would see him at events we were both covering and be mystified at the way he was photographing the situation. I remember one time I was at the front of a large meeting room photographing a keynote speaker, and getting pretty good stuff, only to look up and see that photographer at the back of the room 30 yards away, and I never saw him move. The images they send to my newspaper are mediocre, far beneath what I would demand from a professional photographer.

    There is certainly no shortage of bullies in the workplace, and one of their favorite tricks is to use the work "just" to denigrate your work. I had an editor tell me once that this image was, "just a bunch of clouds."
    There is certainly no shortage of bullies in the workplace, and one of their favorite tricks is to use the work “just” to denigrate your work. I had an editor tell me once that this image was, “just a bunch of clouds.”
  3. Two years ago local hospital hired me to shoot some images of their new medical staff members. They were happy with the images until the people who hired me left or were fired, when the corporation decided they were “going a different direction” with the staff photos.
  4. This year I was approached by a long-time admirer who worked for a growing financial institution, who told me he wanted to bring me on for a number of projects. I shot one for them in March and they paid me, but then I didn’t hear from them in many weeks. I emailed them, and they came back with, “In the past couple of months, the Marketing and Communications Committee of XYZ has discussed various budget items…” Okay, a committee, where ideas and creativity go to die. This was followed by… you can guess: they sent our newspaper an unbelievably terrible photo of their latest groundbreaking ceremony. Good enough for a committee, I guess.
  5. A newspaper in another community sent us some storm damage photos this week, two of which were obviously shot with a cell phone through the windshield of a car as it made its way down the road. How is this good enough for … anyone?

One very frustrating thing corporations do is refuse to tell you not only why they didn’t hire you, but even that they didn’t hire you. “Please contact me and let me know your decision” is always met by silence.

What can we conclude from these odd outcomes?

  1. Corporations have difficulty recognizing talent, and can only understand tangible credentials like certificates and degrees.
  2. Corporations make their money by getting more for less, and are often inclined to try to cheat photographers and other artists in the less-tangible fields by offering them something non-monetary, like “exposure.” I had someone offer me exactly that… “a chance to hand out your business card”… recently.
  3. Money people almost always discard artistic endeavor as being too expensive, and rely on cheaper alternatives, the way that the Chicago Sun-Times did by laying off all 26 of their photographers and training their reporters to take pictures with their phones. An overworked PR clerk with an iPhone seems like enough to the people with tailored suits.
  4. Corporations by their very nature are mostly concerned with the next month or the next quarter. Their vision is to keep the stockholder happy when the next report comes in, no matter what that night cause in five years.
  5. No corporation needs or wants journalists. A journalist takes pictures of people when they get laid off by corporations. The creative and photographic banality is part of why a corporation desires boring, “safe” people. Corporations don’t actually seek out creative people, people who scratch and claw to get to the truth.

I don’t want to sound bitter, and compared to a lot of other photographer’s complaints on social media, I don’t.

Add to this that someone recently posted a link on social media to a CBS story about LGBTQ people being concerned they are being passed over or even fired because they are “out,” openly practicing their sexuality.

Do I think I have lost job opportunities because I am an atheist? Yes. Do I think it’s possible I could be fired because of it? Yes.

I thought about all this as I received yet another grimly disappointing photo, submitted to my newspaper, from a photographer who was chosen for a position for which I applied.

From a friend of mine in the arts...

I just got turned down for a job, the third time that’s happened to me so far this week. Of those jobs, I was phone-interviewed for one, a conversation that lasted seven minutes.
I’ve been an actor and writer for decades. I can handle rejection. Boy, can I. But it’s one thing to face rejection when I know my application was a stretch. It’s another to know for an absolute fact I was qualified and would’ve excelled in the position. That type hurts. It depletes my mana for a while. I’m not gonna lie and say it doesn’t.
But of course, then I dust myself off, square my shoulders and brave the rain again in search of sunnier climes

All is not lost, however, only misplaced. I am employed as a professional photographer, and the community regards me as a rock star. I do good work, and we publish it every day.

Corporations don't care if you walk or crawl to get your photos, as long as they don't have to pay for it.
Corporations don’t care if you walk or crawl to get your photos, as long as they don’t have to pay for it.

The Word “Bokeh” Has Been Completely Usurped

As much as I love making beautiful images, and as much as I love using selective focus, I don't say that this image has "lots of bokeh," because it doesn't.
As much as I love making beautiful images, and as much as I love using selective focus, I don’t say that this image has “lots of bokeh,” because it doesn’t.

As someone who appreciates language and its correct, accurate use, I am aggravated to conclude that the photography community has completely usurped and perverted the word “bokeh.”

Old lenses like this 1960s-era Minolta 28mm have very different looks than today's computer-designed lenses.
Old lenses like this 1960s-era Minolta 28mm have very different looks than today’s computer-designed lenses.

Originally, this term, sometimes loosely translated from Japanese as “blur” or “haze,” referred to the quality of out-of-focus portions of a photograph. Thus, it didn’t describe how far out of focus something was, nor did it describe how much of a photo was out of focus.

It’s been vernacularized. Since we live in a society of abbreviators, it has become a catch-all abbreviation for any occasion we use or see selective focus or shallow depth of field.

“Wow. Look at all that bokeh!”

“You need a 50mm f/1.2 to get more bokeh!”

“I’m a bokeh slut.”

“This lens is a bokeh beast.”

“This tree’s leaves look like bokeh.”

Selective focus is an excellent tool in the photographic toolbox, but it should never be a goal into itself.
Selective focus is an excellent tool in the photographic toolbox, but it should never be a goal into itself.

We’re all using this term incorrectly, which continues to erode the beauty and precision of language. A good analog for it might be “LOL,” which once stood for “Laughing Out Loud,” but which today is a word unto itself. LOL.

I used the "portrait" mode on my iPhone 7 Plus. It creates a false selective focus with a false bokeh, which I guess we could call fokeh.
I used the “portrait” mode on my iPhone 7 Plus. It creates a false selective focus with a false bokeh, which I guess we could call fokeh.

Another enduring myth of photography is the sensor size myth. We see it every day: photographers buy large sensors because they have “better bokeh.” In fact, sensors have  no effect on bokeh at all, and their effect on selective focus is thoroughly misunderstood. Depth of field is the result of aperture, focal length and magnification. The reason it is so prevalently associated with sensor size is that with a larger sensor, you have to move closer to the subject to fill the frame with the same lens. Moving closer makes the depth of field shallower, but the sensor size does not.

Maybe what fools most of the people most of the time is that photographers don’t move closer and end up with more of the image out of focus, as in the following examples…

This is an image made with my d700 - a so-called "full-frame" camera (a 36x24mm sensor) - with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 at f/2. Compare it to...
This is an image made with my d700 – a so-called “full-frame” camera (a 36x24mm sensor) – with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 at f/2. Compare it to…
... this image made with the same lens, same aperture, same distance, same ISO, same lighting. The only difference is the size of the sensor - the Nikon D80 has a so-called "cropped" sensor (24mm x 15mm). Look at the out-of-focus area. See any difference?
… this image made with the same lens, same aperture, same distance, same ISO, same lighting. The only difference is the size of the sensor – the Nikon D80 has a so-called “cropped” sensor (24mm x 15mm). Look at the out-of-focus area. See any difference?

Sorry full-framiacs.

This is all part of a sour evolution of photography from mastery to money. Not only do the camera and lens manufacturers want you to believe their myths, they encourage consumers to espouse these myths, and they do. Not only do we hear a lot of “should I buy XYZ?” but also a frightening amount of “you should but XYZ.” It’s an unambiguous victory for commerce, but a crippling obstacle for artistry.

These are plums I grew this spring. I photographed them with my AF-S 35mm f/1.8 at f/2.0.
These are plums I grew this spring. I photographed them with my AF-S 35mm f/1.8 at f/2.0.

Imaging Today and in the Film Era

This 2001 Ilford FP-4 Plus film image of a mesa in northwestern New Mexico is an excellent example of the kind of tonal quality film can produce.
This 2001 Ilford FP-4 Plus film image of a mesa in northwestern New Mexico is an excellent example of the kind of tonal quality film can produce.

Sometimes when I remember events in my life from when I was younger, I wonder why I didn’t take as many photos as I imagine I should have. I am, after all, a professional photographer, and I should have been the one to document that ski trip in 1990, that nighttime glow-in-the-dark Frisbee game, that beautiful 105mm lens I sold.

So why didn’t I take all those pictures back in the film era?

  • It wasn’t like that back then. Digital photography, particularly smartphone photograph, has created the misperception that we all need a thousand photos of our lives every day, and if you aren’t photographing every meal and every sunset, you are a flip-phone neo-Luddite.
  • Shooting lots of frames equalled expensive processing, or in my case, laborious darkroom work. It’s easy to forget that one of digital photography’s most revolutionary aspects is its affordability. You can shoot 10 or 100 or a 1000 images, with very little added cost. Have you priced a roll of film and the price to get it developed lately? It was expensive in 1990, too.
  • I actually was taking a lot of pictures. If I shot 20 frames at a friend’s birthday party, his wife might have shot three frames with her point-and-shoot.

I often feel this way about the slim number of electives I took in high school. I see kids today active in sports, farm and ranch, yearbook, web development, cheer, and more, and wonder why I wasn’t. But, it wasn’t like that back then. My school allowed one non-academic elective, and for me, it was yearbook.

Before there was Lightroom, there was the light table, which allowed us to look at our film and edit it.
Before there was Lightroom, there was the light table, which allowed us to look at our film and edit it.

I want to marry these thoughts with a trend I have been observing recently…

This is a film scan from December 1999. At that time in our newspaper's history, we were able to use color photos a couple of times a week, and they required a little bit of planning, so I at a basketball game I might shoot one roll of color film alongside eight rolls of black-and-white.
This is a film scan from December 1999. At that time in our newspaper’s history, we were able to use color photos a couple of times a week, and they required a little bit of planning, so I at a basketball game I might shoot one roll of color film alongside eight rolls of black-and-white.

There is a huge hipster/millenial move right now toward shooting film. I certainly find any efforts to amp our creativity to new levels very laudable. I don’t, however, think shooting film is the way I want to go, and here’s why…

  • If you are scanning your film to create a digital product, you are shooting digitally. The only way to shoot completely analog is to develop your film and print your film using an enlarger. Doing otherwise creates an unnecessary and wasteful step in creating a digital image.
  • Photographers are feeling out-competed by a crowded market, and want to step aside and be thought of as geniuses or magicians again. I feel this, too. Rank amateurs are learning to photograph the Milky Way by watching YouTube tutorials, taking that away from professionals.
  • When digital arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, it was the solution to all the problems we faced with film. With film, grain was obvious at even modest ISO settings, film stuck us with one ISO setting for each roll or film, film faced the possibility of accidental exposure ruining film or paper, film required a time-consuming process that created pollutants, film only allowed a limited ability to review images in the field (Polaroids) and and film had a higher-than-digital cost per frame.
  • Some photographers claim they like the “look” of film. But photographers almost always make some kind of “look” edit in software to their scanned film files, usually in a way they could do better with an original digital file.
I made this black-and-white film image at Palo Duro Canyon in May 2002. It was one of the last times I shot film on a hiking trip.
I made this black-and-white film image at Palo Duro Canyon in May 2002. It was one of the last times I shot film on a hiking trip.

It’s absolutely true that I made many great images on photographic film during the first half of my career, but it is equally true that I heard many great songs on AM radio when I was growing up, but I haven’t tuned to an AM radio station to listen to music in 20 years.

I feel convinced that this hipster movement is just a fad. I’m certainly glad that someone out there is having fun with film, I am aware that there are reasons to keep film alive, and I am in possession of a number of great film cameras in good working order. But there are very few new film cameras being made, film is getting harder to obtain and more expensive, and when was the last time you used an enlarger to make prints in a real darkroom?

If you feel like you are struggling creatively, maybe you don’t need either film or a new digital camera. Maybe you need to find a narrative. You need to take your imaging from technical recording to storytelling. You need to push the limits of fundamentals like light and composition. Nothing between your hands will inspire you as much as anything in your heart.

I bought a cheap knockoff of a "Lensball" last year, hoping it would bring something new to my imaging options. At $17, there's really no down side to it.
I bought a cheap knockoff of a “Lensball” last year, hoping it would bring something new to my imaging options. At $17, there’s really no down side to it.

Note: I wrote this here first, but used it as my June 1, 2019 column.

A Nod to My Old School

I spotted our friend, aspiring journalist Ashlynd, at the scrimmage and made this image. Kodak digital cameras had a unique, and appealing, color pallet.
I spotted our friend, aspiring journalist Ashlynd, at the scrimmage and made this image. Kodak digital cameras had a unique, and appealing, color pallet.

Sometimes I like to get out old gear and shoot with it, with the goal of making certain I don’t rely too heavily on technology to get my job done well. Yesterday I was inspired to dig my Kodak DCS 720x out of its box at the bottom of the gear cabinet to shoot a football scrimmage at the local college, and although that technology is from 2001, I made some great images with it. Look for them in my newspaper next week!

I read recently that Kodak only made about 1600 720x cameras. I’m not surprised, as the company was already deep into its inexorable slide toward bankruptcy.

The Kodak DCS 720x sits next to one of my Nikon D2Hs, making it look tiny by comparison. Despite its age, the Kodak can still make great images in the right hands.
The Kodak DCS 720x sits next to one of my Nikon D2Hs, making it look tiny by comparison. Despite its age, the Kodak can still make great images in the right hands.

The Sweet Morning Fog

I shot this on my way to work this morning, fortuitous that my first assignment required a different route to work than I usually take. I jumped out of my car and half-ran across a mostly-empty four-lane highway to get into position.

Steam billows over a farm pond between Byng and Ada, Oklahoma Saturday morning, March 16; shot with the Nikon D300S and the AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8.
Steam billows over a farm pond between Byng and Ada, Oklahoma Saturday morning, March 16; shot with the Nikon D300S and the AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8.

A Look Back: the FujiFilm FinePix S4500

The Fujifilm FinePix S4500 Digital Camera
The Fujifilm FinePix S4500 Digital Camera
Our son-in-law Tom Reeves uses his FinePix S4500 to photograph the World War II National Memorial in Washington DC in 2013.
Our son-in-law Tom Reeves uses his FinePix S4500 to photograph the World War II National Memorial in Washington DC in 2013.

My wife Abby and I gave this camera, the Fujifilm FinePix S4500, to Abby’s daughter Chele and her husband Tom in 2013. Tom used it extensively on a trip we made to visit him that year in Baltimore, to photograph a D.C. walking tour.

Abby and I have several FinePix cameras (like the HS30EXR,) which have become our favorites when we place having fun at the top of the list, like when we are hiking, on the road, or at an event like family reunions. Smaller cameras like the these, in a class referred to as bridge, walkaround or crossover, allow the handling of a DSLR while offering the convenience of a point-and-shoot or even a smartphone.

I made this wide angle view of an exterior while working in December using the S4500. As you can see, it is sharp, and color is good.
I made this wide angle view of an exterior while working in December using the S4500. As you can see, it is sharp, and color is good.
Later that evening made this image of the House on Goose Hill at the telephoto end of the S4500's zoom. I is not as sharp as the wide angle end, but usable.
Later that evening made this image of the House on Goose Hill at the telephoto end of the S4500’s zoom. I is not as sharp as the wide angle end, but usable.
  • The S4500 features a versatile wide-to-telephoto zoom lens, but doesn’t not have a zoom ring or a manual focus ring, relying instead on a W and T rocker switch around the shutter release for zooming. There is no option for manual focusing, though I seldom use manual focus on my other bridge cameras.
  • In hand, this camera handles like a camera, not like a toy or a computer, which is why Abby and I were attracted to it.
A big plus to cameras in this class is the huge zoom range they offer, making it a one-camera solution for all kinds of photography.
A big plus to cameras in this class is the huge zoom range they offer, making it a one-camera solution for all kinds of photography.
  • The sensor in this camera is quite small at 6.17mm x 4.55 mm, both to keep the camera compact, and to make it cheaper to manufacture.

    14 Megapixels is enough, particularly when each pixel is so small crammed into a sensor the size of a raisin.
    14 Megapixels is enough, particularly when each pixel is so small crammed into a sensor the size of a raisin.
  • There is an electronic viewfinder and a display on the back of the camera. For my work, an electronic or optical viewfinder is a must, though I know most people get along fine with the arm’s-length view that smartphones provide.
  • Color is good; this is a Fuji strength for me, though not everyone agrees.
  • High ISO noise makes the camera unusable in low light. I tried to make a feature photo of the score table at a basketball tournament, and it was a mess.
  • The S4500 has a real PASM exposure dial, a must for me. Of course, it can fall back on green box (red in Fuji’s case) mode and scene modes, which I never use.
  • Like a lot of lenses on this class of cameras, this 24-500mm “equivalent” zoom is a jack of all trades but master of none. It is an especially mediocre telephoto.
The FinePix S4500 has a pretty standard control setup. Zooming is via a ring around the shutter release.
The FinePix S4500 has a pretty standard control setup. Zooming is via a ring around the shutter release.
  • Other controls are where I like them, though over the years I’ve worked with so many cameras (due to teaching photography), I almost always have to search for where electronics engineers put them. Making the same functions a little different in every camera generation and every brand doesn’t really serve photography, but is all about marketing and creating entertainment in camera sales.
Tom, Robert and I make pictures in a mirrored display near the Capitol in Washington D.C.
Tom, Robert and I make pictures in a mirrored display near the Capitol in Washington D.C.

Like all tools in our photographic tool box, the FinePix S4500 has a place. It is fun and easy to use, lightweight and quiet, and does a lot more than a smartphone. I am very glad we got this one for Tom and Chele.

Tom and Chele share a moment as they make pictures with their FinePix S4500.
Tom and Chele share a moment as they make pictures with their FinePix S4500.

Super Blood Wolf Moon

The lunar eclipse of Jan. 20-21, 2019 is the last total lunar eclipse visible across the United States for the next 18 years.
The lunar eclipse of Jan. 20-21, 2019 is the last total lunar eclipse visible across the United States for the next 18 years.

I hosted a lunar eclipse party for the so-called Super Blood Wolf Moon Sunday night, Jan. 20 into the early morning hours of Jan. 21. I felt it went exactly as I had hoped, with between ten and 20 in attendance, some watching, some making pictures.

The earth's moon is visible in the upper left portion of this frame as it becomes eclipsed by the shadow of the earth Sunday night, Jan. 20, 2019. The constellation Orion is visible in the upper right section of the frame, shot from the Pontotoc Technology Center in Ada. I made this images with my aging but excellent AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.
The earth’s moon is visible in the upper left portion of this frame as it becomes eclipsed by the shadow of the earth Sunday night, Jan. 20, 2019. The constellation Orion is visible in the upper right section of the frame, shot from the Pontotoc Technology Center in Ada. I made this images with my aging but excellent AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.
My old 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor isn't a telescope, but it can make decent pictures of the moon.
My old 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor isn’t a telescope, but it can make decent pictures of the moon.

The evening was cold and got colder as the wind gradually picked up. My entourage stuck around in their camp chairs and blankets until the moon turned reddish with a touch of purple and blue, then packed up and went home as the wind continued to increase. The cold got sharp enough that I got my camp coat, the warmest garment I own.

I made the tight images of the moon in its phases with my 1985-vintage Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 IF-ED, mated to its excellent Nikon TC-14 teleconverter. On my Nikon D7100, a camera with a 25mm x 15mm sensor, the full moon still  fills up less than a sixth of the frame.

A group of intrepid sky gazers brave cold temperatures as they watch as the lunar Eclipse of Jan. 20, 2019 at the Pontotoc Technology Center.
A group of intrepid sky gazers brave cold temperatures as they watch as the lunar Eclipse of Jan. 20, 2019 at the Pontotoc Technology Center.

As the totality approached, exposures changed drastically, from the bright-daylight values of the moon in total sun, to brightness values so dim it wasn’t always easy to find the moon easily.

Details are visible in this images as the Earth's shadow creeps upwards on the face of the moon Sunday night, Jan. 20.
Details are visible in this images as the Earth’s shadow creeps upwards on the face of the moon Sunday night, Jan. 20.

This eclipse had a different look to it than the last lunar eclipse I photographed in 2015, which was yellow and orange, and more contrasty against the night sky.

I was so glad I was able to host an event like this.

The moon moves into the shadow of the earth in this 75-minute composite image of the lunar eclipse Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, viewed from the Pontotoc Technology Center in Ada.
The moon moves into the shadow of the earth in this 75-minute composite image of the lunar eclipse Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, viewed from the Pontotoc Technology Center in Ada.

The Basics

You would think the nature of basic camera operations like aperture and shutter speed would be fundamental to teaching photography, but a surprising number of students, even college students who have had a photography class, know next to nothing about them.
You would think the nature of basic camera operations like aperture and shutter speed would be fundamental to teaching photography, but a surprising number of students, even college students who have had a photography class, know next to nothing about them.

My newspaper and I had another intern the last couple of weeks, a nice young college kid named Ashlynd. She is very enthusiastic about becoming a journalist, and we can already tell she’s going to be a good writer.

Ashlynd told me she didn’t much care for her college photography classes, echoing a number of students who came to me over the years needing help with very basic photographic skills, skills they should have gotten from previous instructors.

Yes, I understand that college is held to a different standard than other fields of instruction. At the same time, I wonder how college students get into photography classes without demonstrating some understanding of their prerequisites. I remember being vetted by an instructor in college before I was allowed to get into her class, though I don’t know how a lot of my classmates managed to get in.

Seriously. Students tell me all the time, “That professor didn’t tell me about aperture or shutter speed or ISO or…” You get the idea.

I appreciate the idea that the purpose of college is to educate at the next level, but I also appreciate that if you don’t learn the very basics, it’s difficult to advance. I also appreciate all the really great college photography instructors who can set aside their egos and cater to their students. The students and their families, after all, are paying for it.

Making a simple portrait of our neighbor's dog seems like very basic photography, but people come to me all the time asking me how I did it, and I'm happy to help them.
Making a simple portrait of our neighbor’s dog seems like very basic photography, but people come to me all the time asking me how I did it, and I’m happy to help them.

I’ve been teaching since 2007. When I teach Intro to Digital Photography at the Pontotoc Technology Center, I start at the beginning. That’s the only way it can work. Almost everyone in those classes is holding a camera that is set to shoot the way it was when they opened the box, attached a lens, charged the battery, and started shooting. In the biz we refer to this setting as “green box mode,” since most cameras have a big green box or icon on the exposure mode dial, often marked with an “A” or the word “Auto.” This setting essentially takes over almost all the settings, making a potentially powerful camera into a point-and-shoot.

Is there a solution to college kids who don’t get what they need from classes? Is there such a thing as remedial photography?

I’ll marry this idea to one I experienced in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2013. Oklahoman photographer Jim Beckel and I were photographing the historic plaza when we came across a group of photographers shooting with some very expensive, very new-looking equipment, who seemed to be struggling to express what they were seeing. They asked us to make a group photo for them when they told us they’d just taken a class from someone (I don’t remember his name or the name of the class or school.) They all rolled their eyes simultaneously, and one of them said, “He was quite a character!”

I hope no one I am instructing ever refers to me that way.

Finally, I am a firm believer that students who are having fun taking pictures are dramatically more likely to remain engaged, and retain more of the craft we are teaching.

A young photography student named Jennifer takes pictures in my class at the Pontotoc Technology Center a few years ago. I hope I gave her what she needed.
A young photography student named Jennifer takes pictures in my class at the Pontotoc Technology Center a few years ago. I hope I gave her what she needed.

And the Moon Shall Become as Blood

I have a revelation for you: the night of January 20 into the very early parts of January 21, all of North America that has clear weather will be able to see, and photograph, a total lunar eclipse. I hope to photograph it myself, as does my wife Abby.

The moon takes on various shades of amber during the September 2015 total lunar eclipse. The dim, red light is created by sunlight refracting through earth's atmosphere.
The moon takes on various shades of amber during the September 2015 total lunar eclipse. The dim, red light is created by sunlight refracting through earth’s atmosphere.

Here are a few tips and tricks…

  • Longer is better. If you have a telephoto lens, consider that despite its impressive appearance in the sky, the moon is actually quite small, about 0.5 degrees, smaller in apparent size than your fingernail held at arm’s length. To fill up the frame with the moon, you need as much telephoto as you can get. If you have a 300mm, you will probably be disappointed at how small the moon is in the frame. Adding a teleconverter can help, but a cheap teleconverter can rob so much sharpness, the image ends up much worse.

    As formidable as this combination of the Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 and its TC-14 teleconverter looks, it's still not really long enough for photographing objects the size of the sun and moon.
    As formidable as this combination of the Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 and its TC-14 teleconverter looks, it’s still not really long enough for photographing objects the size of the sun and moon.
  • If there is an astronomy club near you, consider joining. You will have shared access to real astronomical telescopes that eclipse (pun intended) photographic lenses.
  • The moon moves surprisingly fast across the sky. Exposures of more that a few seconds will likely result in the moon appearing as an oval blur instead of an amber disc. Larger apertures and higher ISO settings are your friend, but the next level is to put your camera on a telescope with a drive mechanism that tracks objects across the sky, leaving you free to use lower ISOs and longer shutter speeds for maximum sharpness.
  • It’s January. It will probably be cold outside. Bundle up. You’ll probably spend some time standing around waiting unless you’re lucky to live in a dark area…
  • Find a dark area. The full moon is quite bright, but by the time it’s in full eclipse, it might be dim enough that you have trouble locating it; I did a couple of times three years ago. If you are in the city, it might be difficult to get around all the light pollution.
  • Don’t believe the absurd things you hear about eclipses and other stellar phenomena. Eclipses aren’t omens. Mars will never look as big as the moon. Asteroids are not going to crash into the earth. There are no space ships hiding behind comets. The world is not flat… eclipses are obvious proof of that. Before you spread bad memes, learn some good science. And have fun photographing the eclipse next month.
This is an assembled composite from seven images made at 20-minute intervals of the Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, lunar eclipse.
This is an assembled composite from seven images made at 20-minute intervals of the Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, lunar eclipse.

Find out when and where to photograph the next lunar eclipse here (link). 

Geotagging, Selfies, Crowds, and the Menace to Nature

I last visited the majestic, awe-inspiring Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River south of Page, Arizona in 2015. I don't anticipate seeing it again, at least not when it's crowded.
I last visited the majestic, awe-inspiring Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River south of Page, Arizona in 2015. I don’t anticipate seeing it again, at least not when it’s crowded.

An article on Petapixel recently brought to my attention the fact that due to recent invasions by huge numbers of tourists at an easy-to-access but previously only sparsely visited location, Horseshoe Bend, which I have visited twice, now has a new $750,000 steel railing at the overlook.

My experience with Horseshoe Bend is the same as anyone else's: I was part of a very large number of people trying to enjoy the experience of a very beautiful natural place.
My experience with Horseshoe Bend is the same as anyone else’s: I was part of a very large number of people trying to enjoy the experience of a very beautiful natural place.
Abby and I got married at Arches National Park's beautiful and evocative Delicate Arch, which, fortunately, was not at all crowded on that October morning. This image was made six years later, on a sunny afternoon, packed with visitors.
Abby and I got married at Arches National Park’s beautiful and evocative Delicate Arch, which, fortunately, was not at all crowded on that October morning. This image was made six years later, on a sunny afternoon, packed with visitors.

I’ve been aware for some time that crowds are discovering and choking places that were once only inhabited by a few dedicated naturalists or photographers.

The worst of these, in my opinion, has to be Antelope Canyon, which I saw in 2012, and to which I have no intention of returning. It has been taken over by geotaggers and their phones, and because it is so popular, holds little appeal to me. On that visit, a women in our tour group put away her camera halfway through the tour. When I asked her why, she said, “This isn’t relaxing.”

Geotagging is using the GPS coordinates to mark the location associated with your photos, allowing others to easily find it and visit it.

It is also significant that locations swarming with visitors dilute the value of photos you might make there: sure, you have a nice image, but so do all the hundreds or thousands of people huddled around you. Instead of creating a unique image, you are part of a group of stenographers.

Visitors make pictures at Antelope Canyon in 2012. This is a splendid example of a beautiful natural phenomenon being crassly commercialized.
Visitors make pictures at Antelope Canyon in 2012. This is a splendid example of a beautiful natural phenomenon being crassly commercialized.

Even our beloved Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park, which I have had the privilege of visiting nine times,  including when  Abby and I got married there in 2004,  may soon have restricted visitation or even require a permit.

Then, to make matters worse...
A pair of artworks by renowned painters Salvador Dali and Francisco Goya were damaged over in Russia after a group of girls posing for selfies accidentally knocked over the structure on which they were being displayed.
While it is true that our National Parks belong to all of us, such privilege also comes with it an implicit mandate of responsibility to protect and respect the natural world. This image was made at Mather Point at Grand Canyon National Park in April 2015.
While it is true that our National Parks belong to all of us, such privilege also comes with it an implicit mandate of responsibility to protect and respect the natural world. This image was made at Mather Point at Grand Canyon National Park in April 2015.

There is a little bit of good news, though: if it takes a fair amount of physical effort, like hiking 10 miles for example, most of the population are too lazy and out of shape to do it.

A friend photographed me on the Joint Trail at Canyonlands in 2016. It is a moderately difficult, moderately long day hike, and unlike features close to roads and cities, we had it nearly to ourselves.
A friend photographed me on the Joint Trail at Canyonlands in 2016. It is a moderately difficult, moderately long day hike, and unlike features close to roads and cities, we had it nearly to ourselves.

So what is the essential cause of this issue, why does it matter, and what can we do? Is this just a symptom of an Earth with 7.7 billion people on it? Do we have the internet to blame? Social trends? The selfish selfie scene?

By their very nature, people are destructive to many of the natural phenomena we hold in high regard, not just by their appearance, but also by their consumption and erosion of natural features. Their footfalls and Twinkie wrappers are far more damaging than their appearance in our images.

A truth to remember, though, is that we all want to create beautiful photographs, we all want to record and preserve our memories, and we all want to show off our experiences. It’s hard to be too critical of tourists and photographers while being one of them.

What can we do to both protect and experience these beautiful places?

  • Visit during off-peak seasons
  • Visit when the weather discourages visitors, like when it’s super-cold
  • Get to the trail head before the sun comes up, and get off the trail before the crowds start to thicken
  • Obey and defend the Leave No Trace paradigm

Despite some locations being “discovered,” there are still wild, unspoiled spots in the world, worthy of our exploration and our respect.

In 2014, I photographer Delicate Arch in Arches National Park on a cold pre-dawn October morning. As a result, I had beautiful, unique light, and was completely alone at an otherwise crowded location.
In 2014, I photographer Delicate Arch in Arches National Park on a cold pre-dawn October morning. As a result, I had beautiful, unique light, and was completely alone at an otherwise crowded location.