With the recent addition of the handsome AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to my bag, I noted that this new lens features an aperture with nine rounded blades, unlike its predecessor, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, which has seven straight aperture blades. The reason this matters to me is that I like to use sunstars in some of my imagery to create the impression of brightness in light sources.
To test the sunstar capabilities of the new 50mm, I grabbed some Christmas lights from the rafters in the garage. With my camera on a tripod so everything would be the same except the lens, I shot some test images, all at f/16 at about 1 second, and made a direct comparison between the new f/1.4 and the older f/1.8.
Readers might recall the formula for sunstars: even-numbered aperture blades make sunstars points of that number, while odd-numbered aperture blades make sunstar points equal to twice the number of aperture blades…
I was quite pleased with the result. In recent years, rounded aperture blades have become increasingly common in an effort to give lenses the ability to create more pleasing out-of-focus areas, but this often sacrifices the crisp sunstar effect I love. But I found that while the effect using the 50mm f/1.4 wasn’t quite as dazzling as it was with the f/1.8, it still expressed the feeling of brightness.
While I had everything set up for sunstars, I thought I would experiment with a funny little do-it-yourself trick that can sometimes be useful: shaping your out-of-focus areas. It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to screw up. In its simplest iteration, you cut a small shape into an opaque object and fit it to the front of your lens.
I used aluminum foil for my experiment, but it made the bokeh a bit too edgy. There are kits available, but part of the fun for me is doing it with household items. This was shot at the largest aperture setting available, in this case f/1.8…
We all want to make amazing images, and we all see amazing images we admire every day. Often we think, “I saw something just like that the other day and tried to photograph it, but my pictures were nothing like that one. What am I doing wrong?”
Often the answer is a nebulous collection of visionary perspective and technical knowledge, with all imagery consisting but one thing: light.
A few years ago, lensmaker Sigma, faced with combating a reputation for poor quality control that resulted in inconsistent products, reorganized and upped their game by introducing their “Art” series of lenses. Bigger, heavier, more expensive, and better built than anything Sigma ever created before, these lenses are aimed at photographers who want the best image quality from larger-maximum-aperture lenses, and who are willing to deal with physically huge and heavy glass. Examples of this line are their 18-35mm f/1.8 Art, 35mm f/1.4 Art, 50mm f/1.4 Art, 24-105mm f/4 Art, and so on.
Primed for Primes
It’s no secret: I love”prime” lenses, which are defined as non-zoom lenses, usually featuring larger maximum apertures than zoom lenses, and which are usually lighter, smaller, and more affordable than their zooming brethren. Much of the time when I can choose between a zoom or a prime, I choose the prime. Though slightly less versatile than zooms, I spent the first part of my career shooting with nothing but primes (since zooms weren’t all that great then), and I am quite comfortable selecting a lens and then “zooming with my feet.”
I have only seen one “Art” series lens, bought by a student of mine last year.
As the popularity of these lenses rose, so did the idea that “Art” was a class, not a brand, of lens, and that we artists wanted one. But removed from its brand, was an “Art” lens really meant to be “the best,” without context, or is the “Art” something more, something etherial, something even magical?
In a conversation with fellow photograph Robert recently, he asked me, “Aren’t all lenses ‘art’ lenses?”
I speculated that lenses followed an evolution the same way culture did, with a growing interest in technology and capacity, while leaving behind some of the things we loved: older lenses, for example, are generally softer at the edges of the frame (often due to an aberration called spherical aberration, which results in the focus plane of a lens being curved slightly), and most computer-designed lenses have either gotten better at preventing that, or, in the case of cheap ones, hide these sometimes-flattering aberrations beneath other, more garish, problems like distortion and chromatic aberration.
So, I thought, maybe Sigma’s “Art” lenses are designed to bring back some of that old-lens look.
In actuality, Robert is right: all lenses are “Art” lenses because art isn’t a function of equipment or technology, but of the heart and mind.
Sigma’s “Art” series are, in simplest terms, a high-quality product intended to turn around a company struggling with quality-control issues, as well as a big, heavy tool in the toolbox. They are certainly capable of producing art in the hands of an artist.
Just because some loudmouth Millennial rolls his eyes and dismissively says, “That’s the oldest trick in the book!” (with an implied “old man!”), doesn’t mean it’s not a good trick. I used one of the oldest tricks in my lexicon recently in class: the hair shake. This works well with people who have long hair that is looking too stiff. Have the subject/model throw their head forward and shake their hair, then quickly sit up, letting their hair fly back. Nine times out of ten it will result in their hair looking wild, free, fun, beautiful. Don’t let them touch it – it will feel strange to your model because they never comb or brush it that way, but it will look amazing.
Years ago I was on the sideline at a Stratford, Oklahoma football game with a photographer buddy of mine, Matthew White. Despite the fact that he was just tagging along and wasn’t shooting the game for any agency or even for himself, he couldn’t help himself, and shot it just as thought it was his job.
I turned to him and said, “You can’t turn it off, can you?” I knew he couldn’t because I can’t. No photographer can. It’s not just what we do when we’re clocked in or on a job, it’s who we are.
No one, I think, knows this better than Robert, who has a full-time non-photography job, yet remains a photographer every minute of the day. It shows in his work, which I was showing my wife Abby the other day to a constant litany of “wow” and “that’s incredible” and “these are amazing.”
I thought of this when Abby and I recently travelled to Rolla, Missouri, to buy a new puppy. I wasn’t supposed to be a photographer on this overnight trip, but of course, I couldn’t turn it off. In spite of being the puppy chauffeur, I also took great interest in things like the silhouettes of the state of Will Rogers on the turnpike, the dilapidated Totem Pole gift shop next to our motel, and, of course, photographing the new dog.
It is this willingness to be the photographer all the time that sets us apart from the incessant visual chatter of the 10,000-selfies crowd. Instead of “hey, how about a picture?” we are always looking at the light, the textures, the lines, and the shadows, to try to decide how to express something.
That’s the key thought of this post, I believe: the selfie makers are trying to impress someone, and the photographers are trying to express something.
Periodically my photographer friends and I will talk about how much we miss film, particularly how much we miss certain cameras and lenses. Wouldn’t it be neat, we speculate, to get back into shooting film, if we only had a camera.
But, of course, film cameras are still around. I’ve got one in my hand as I write this.
I pulled the Pentax K1000 out of the display case in the entryway at our office. This camera is one of the most basic, simple, easy-to-use cameras ever. Its simplicity made it popular with photography teachers, since the camera is entirely manual, and required students to learn how to do everything.
I could shoot film right now if I wanted to, but the truth is, digital photography is overwhelmingly popular because it is overwhelmingly better than film. That wasn’t the case 15 years ago, but today, digital imaging technology has surpassed film tech in all respects.
So despite the fact that I have this perfectly-workable Pentax, I have no desire or intention to try to buy film, shoot it, and have it processed somewhere, then either print it or have it scanned.
We photographers are happy in our digital world, and despite Jonesing for the old days, we live in the new world of photography.
I have another Intro to Digital Photography class starting Monday, and I always get a little buzzed about it in advance. I think about arriving, writing my name and website on the dry erase board, looking around. I see people look up at me in anticipation, some of them with questions on the tips of their tongues.
Their cameras are old and new, expensive and austere, well-used and right out of the box. (Sometimes they are still in the box.)
Their experiences are as diverse as their cameras. Maybe they got that camera for Christmas. Maybe they shot film years ago and are just now deciding to enter the digital age. Maybe they have kids who they want to photograph. Maybe they want to make extra money with their cameras. Maybe their bosses want them to shoot photos for the business.
One thing they will have in common: they want to learn.
The Intro classes are nuts and bolts. How often should you charge the battery? What kind of media card do I need for video? What’s the best lens for shooting seniors and babies?
One of my goals in the Intro class is to take the magic and mystery out of photography, to let all my students that it doesn’t take a $10,000 camera, and it isn’t rocket science. Photography is fun, powerful, and exciting. You can do this. You can make beautiful pictures.
The film era of photography, which despite the epic surge of digital is the largest era of imaging, was filled with institutions. Kodak. The Brooks Institute. Winona School of Photography. They are all gone now, relics of both a bygone era and their lack of vision for the future. They were all part of a mentality that a professional photographer was like a doctor or a lawyer: someone with special training and knowledge who could do things with film, chemistry, and printing that others could not.
Then, digital. Affordable digital photography meant that many of the mysteries and specialties of photography disappeared. There is still some tech to it, but most of the things about photography that were out of reach for the average person – a darkroom, and enlarger, some knowledge of chemistry – are arcane.
More significantly than all that, though, is cost. Once we have a device or two in our hands – a digital SLR and a smart phone, typically – there are no additional costs. No film. No processing. No printing. No photo albums. The hobby of photography is, to a degree, free where it used to be expensive.
This giant paradigm shift led to a perception shift, an illusory one, one represented by the piano paradox: what kind of piano should I buy so I can play like Chopin? We see this paradox invading many other areas of our lives: preppers buy expensive sights for their rifles and think they can shoot like Navy SEALS. Soccer moms buy expensive kitchen accessories and think they can cook like Wolfgang Puck. Joggers buy expensive running shoes think they can run like Usain Bolt.
The fallacy of this line of thinking is that photography is not usually about the tools used to create photographs, but about the vision of the person making the images.
In some ways, this is, at its core, about the idea that money can take the place of talent, hard work, and training, but I have said again and again: You can’t buy mastery; you have to earn it. It’s not the equipment in your hands that makes you a photographer; it’s the equipment between your ears.
So what do I recommend?
I urge you to quit reading about cameras and software and start reading about making pictures. The first book I would tell you to read is Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams. There is nothing about pixels or bokeh in it, but you can follow the process of turning a vision into an image.
When you daydream about photography, look at pictures made with cameras, not of cameras.
Stop patting yourself on the back for buying something, and start making an effort to see light and shadows, lines and motion, color and form.
I would urge you to take my class: once we have learned about our equipment, we can forget about it and learn about how images can move the human heart and change the human condition.
I would urge you to put down your phone and look up, look around, see the world in a different way.
So no, not everyone is a photographer. Everyone is taking pictures, yes, but in all the most important ways, they aren’t photographers. Their pictures are self-referential noise, and aren’t expressive in any important way.
You can make your images expressive, impressive, important. Once you open your heart and start to understand the purpose of self-expression, you can be a photographer.
There are all kinds of photography instructors: temperamental, detached, arrogant, nurturing, impatient, narcissistic, moody, thoughtful, energetic. I once ran into some photography students in Santa Fe who described their instructor as “quite a character.”
In all the teaching I’ve done, I never wanted to be remembered like that.
Near the end of my beginner class, I bring some of my photographic product – books, posters, prints – to class. It’s not to show off, though I have to admit there is a little show-off in it. The real reason is to say to my students that you can do this. It’s not a magic trick. It didn’t cost $10,000. It’s photography, and you can do it!
It’s not often I get to say something positive about the internet. Such was the case in my recent dealings with Hike Moab, a trail guide service in Moab, Utah.
I came across this site in a recent image search I made while composing a post for another entry in this blog. I searched for “the fiery furnace arches,” hoping to discover not only some new ideas about photographing it, but also which of my own images showed up in the search. I do this periodically not just out of vanity, but also to weigh my search engine optimization (SEO) success.
The result of the search included this image…
I made this image in April 2011, on a trip called Art in Every Stone, which I made with Robert Stinson. I moused-over the image, expecting to see richardbarron.net. Instead I saw moabhiking.com. I clicked through to find my image on a page promoting the site’s Fiery Furnace guided tour. Obviously they did an image search as well, found this image, and grabbed it for their page.
I composed an email to the address on the site, politely asking them to remove the image, which is good practice. I didn’t expect to hear back from them.
I did think it odd that a company that gives guided tours of amazing places like The Fiery Furnace didn’t have their own images of it.
I heard back the next day with this refreshingly upbeat and respectful reply…
“My Apologies Richard! Consider it removed! -Mac, Hike Moab.”
I checked the site, and it was, in fact, removed. It wasn’t what I expected, but something I definitely appreciated. In the digital age, we expect intellectual property theft to be rampant and unchecked, but once in a while it’s great to find someone who does the right thing because it’s the right thing. Props, Mac!
In October 2016, my wife Abby and I traveled to the American West for our twelfth anniversary, a journey we make as often as we are able. We love the west, and were married in southern Utah in 2004 at Arches National Park.
The trip report, The Endless Sky, posted on our travel blog, was among my favorites, but I didn’t expect to hear this from two of my photographer friends…
From Wil C. Fry
These photos are tremendous, somehow better than your usual. It has me wondering whether you learned some new technique, or used a different camera, or processed them with new software. Or perhaps the light was simply better this time… Or maybe it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
From Dan Marsh
I too am curious, have you learned something new and different, or are you simply getting better with each trip? These are some of the best you’ve ever done.
So to answer their question about what’s changed: essentially, nothing. I don’t exactly agree that these are head and shoulders above my past efforts. I will say that yes, it is an evolving craft, and one I hope I continue to hone and improve. But part of me says that my audience sees only the new product, and only half-remembers some of our great trips in the past.
In fact, while reviewing the travel blog, I have to say that there are many pages from many trips that compare favorably, but those pages have faded somewhat into history. It’s easy to do in the internet era, particularly one that is so trend-centric, but paradigms like “that’s so 2013” or “what have you done for me lately” are troubling because they can dismiss an entire body of work for no valid reason.
As far as technicalities go, no, I haven’t made any important changes to my workflow. I mostly shoot RAW files and edit them in Adobe Photoshop, though sometimes I make JPEG images, following the same basic editing strategies. My priorities are color, light, composition, and location, location, location. The images in this entry also speak volumes about equipment and how much less important it is that the photographer. Some of these images were made with cameras such as the Nikon D100 and the Minolta DiMage 7i, incorrectly regarded as unable to deliver. As you can see, particularly from the earlier images, great photographs are made by great photographers, not by expensive equipment.
Year after year Abby and I go to southern Utah and the Colorado Plateau, but I would love to expand our reach: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Death Valley, and many more locations are on our short list.
That’s the rub, really. My best images from our travels come from visiting the best places. And that’s what makes the adventures, not just the images, great.
Here are some images from over the years, from adventures I think competed well with my most recent efforts. I look at each of these images as one of those moments of success for which we as photographers all strive. They are chronological from oldest to newest, and you can click them to view them larger…
In conclusion, I encourage all my readers, and everyone wanting to learn and grow photographically, to dig deeper into my rather extensive content, not only on the travel blog, but at the photo blog as well. It is my hope there is greatness deep within.
I am a little late to this party, but it’s still a neat trick, one I finally tried last night: lighting steel wool and photographing it.
You will need:
The finest-grit steel wool you can buy. I found mine, labeled #0000, in the paint department at Wal Mart.
A large whisk, preferably with a handle or loop on the end, with a piece of string or wire tied to the loop.
An ignition source like a lighter. I use the long ones that are made to light a grill or camp fire.
A large, open area where it is safe and legal to have an open fire.
Some way to safely extinguish the fire and deal with hot embers.
A hat and gloves.
A tripod and a camera with a controllable shutter capable of an exposure of at least 15 seconds.
Unroll a pad of steel wool and fluff it out, then push it through the openings in the whisk. The looser the steel wool, the better it will burn because more oxygen can get to it.
The idea is to open the shutter and light the steel wool, then move the whisk with the burning wool inside to “paint” with the light its fire creates. Most internet tutorials recommend spinning the whisk, since it will move through the air faster and burn brighter and because it throws off neat-looking sparks. It did that last night and liked the results.
Working in the dark with an unpredictable medium like burning metal is slightly dangerous, which is why I wore work gloves and a hat. Coordinating shutter opening and lighting the metal is awkward too, since it doesn’t always light right up, and since brightness of the surroundings and the burning metal vary. These images were made with a 15mm lens at f/16, ISO 200, for 30 seconds.
Yesterday afternoon after a brief electrical power interruption, I noticed that house wasn’t staying cool. I checked and found that the compressor and its fan outside the house were not running. A new compressor would be very expensive, and was not happy about it.
To help distract myself, I mowed and weed-whacked for a while, then when it got dark, I set out to complete a pointless but interesting (thus maybe not entirely pointless) task of taking apart a couple of long-dead digital cameras, a Nikon D100 and a Kodak DCS760.
I got both years ago on eBay for a small fraction of their retail price, shot several years of images with them, then stuck them in a box in anticipation of a day like today. Both cameras date from the early 2000s, when digital photography was still evolving by leaps and bounds.
Despite both cameras being rendered hopelessly outdated by the “futuretrash” paradigm, each made some amazing pictures in my hands.
This isn’t a step-by-step tutorial about how to tear these things down, but a look at what’s inside these two cameras, with a few observations about how they were put together.
The DCS760 was put together as what we used to call a “Frankencamera,” meaning it was two distinct things, a film camera and a digital sensor, stitched together clumsily.
The D100 seemed to be more elegantly designed, as though it was designed from the start as a digital.
Both seemed like a miracle of science when compared to cameras from the beginning of my career when I honestly had no idea this kind of technology would come along.
Both cameras had a lot of electronic bulk that I expect I would not see in newer cameras with more advanced design and assembly techniques.
Both cameras were sturdy, and put up a fight when I tried to get inside. I don’t envy anyone ever tasked with repairing them.
I recently inherited an orphaned Fujifilm point-and-shoot camera from the dusty drawers of my newsroom. A previous editor bought it last September without consulting me, just prior to the company issuing everyone in news, sports and photography (me) a new iPhone 6S. Now everyone in the building shoots with their phones (even me, sometimes), so there was no reason at all to buy this camera. EXIF data shows that fewer than 300 images were made with this camera. I imagine this kind of oddly wasteful spending happens at every business on the planet.
So I’ve been carrying this thing around for a few days, thinking I’ll use it. The point-and-shoot vs the smartphone contest isn’t quite settled yet, despite the overwhelming prevalence of smartphones. The point-and-shoot camera’s trump cards are its more intuitive and available controls, and real optical zoom lenses. A less but still real consideration is how shooting pictures with your phone, particularly in groups, makes you look like a trend-follower, and the most disturbing trend is seeing people making smartphone images of their lives instead of experiencing their lives firsthand. In some ways, it’s like watching your children grow up on a television screen.
I’ve made one or two images for my newspaper with this camera, the Fujifilm Finepix AX-665. There’s nothing special about the camera, and I’m actually glad about that, since I find it frustrating that controls on digital cameras have constantly been repositioned by engineers, often ending up back where they started, to stimulate interest and sales instead of serving the real needs of photographers.
The AX-665 has the welcome four-way selector under the right thumb, and the equally welcome zoom rocker just above it, so I don’t have to hunt for them. The lens is sharp and focuses close (though not true-macro close), but the zoom range only covers the blandest coverage angles. It’s easy to understand how smartphones are taking market share from these cameras, given their zoom ranges. That’s why I like my Olympus point-and-shoot so much better: it has a nice wide angle at the short end of the zoom, wider than any smartphone.
For me, the bottom line is, despite the shortcomings of one machine of photography vs the other, is this: every camera is a tool in the toolbox of photography, and the most important thing you can do with it is express yourself.
Readers will recall I recently posted about the power of a good macro lens. Just a few days ago, a coworker expressed an interest in macro photography, particularly in taking it to an extreme. He says he is interested in extreme close-ups of spiders and insects.
Dedicated macro lenses (which Nikon calls “micro”) are indispensable for this purpose. Such lenses are also the only lenses optically fit to take advantage of extension rings, which sit between the camera and the lens, allowing even closer focusing.
It was with this in mind that I got out my Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro and attached it to my 32-year-old Nikon 27.5mm PK-13 extension ring. Originally sold to go with the manual focus 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikko (a great lens I sold about 12 years ago), this accessory doesn’t have any electrical contacts, so it won’t talk to modern cameras, but it will operate in manual exposure mode. In most situations at the magnifications this combination provide, manual focusing is definitely recommended.
I also mentioned reversing rings a couple of years ago, and while you can certainly get super-close-up with a reversing ring, it would be difficult photographing living creatures with one because it requires the slow process of focusing with the lens wide open, then setting the aperture before shooting.
Extension rings are available in various sizes, and can be stacked to add even more extension.
My coworker who wants to explore this option is also an accomplished bird watcher and photographer. I will be interested to see what he can do with this setup, particularly with spiders, and what lens and/or extension tube combination he ends up buying.