A Light Serving of Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are few cameras as straightforward and fundamental as the venerable Pentax K-1000. This one was used for many years by reporters at my newspaper before being retired to the downstairs display case. It works perfectly to this day.
There are few cameras as straightforward and fundamental as the venerable Pentax K-1000. This one was used for many years by reporters at my newspaper before being retired to the downstairs display case. It works perfectly to this day.
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We’ve Only Just Begun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 300mm plus a 1.4x converter equals 420mm, which really fills up the frame, adding real drama and beauty to things like sunsets.
The 300mm plus a 1.4x converter equals 420mm, which really fills up the frame, adding real drama and beauty to things like sunsets.
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2016: The Year in Pictures

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

January

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

February

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

March

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

April

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

May

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

June

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

July

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

August

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

September

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

October

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

November

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

December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do I recommend?

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

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

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

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

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!

Yes, I want to teach them the nuts and bolts of photography, but we all know there is much more.
Yes, I want to teach them the nuts and bolts of photography, but we all know there is much more.
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Props to These Guys

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…

The Fiery Furnace, a maze of sandstone fins in Arches National Park, takes on amber hues as sunset approaches.
The Fiery Furnace, a maze of sandstone fins in Arches National Park, takes on amber hues as sunset approaches.

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!

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What’s Changed, If Anything?

This is a five-frame high dynamic range image of the Needles Overlook at Hatch Point, Utah, made this October with my 10-17mm fisheye, uncurved in Photoshop.
This is a five-frame high dynamic range image of the Needles Overlook at Hatch Point, Utah, made this October with my 10-17mm fisheye, uncurved in Photoshop.

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.

This is one of the variations of an image I made at Delicate Arch in 2014 on our tenth anniversary trip, an image I think competes with any I have made before or since.
This is one of the variations of an image I made at Delicate Arch in 2014 on our tenth anniversary trip, an image I think competes with any I have made before or since.

I think, for example, that our 2014 anniversary trip A Perfect Ten was as good as The Endless Sky. Some of my recent solo hiking trips Siren Song, Off the Map and My Two Cents, compete well too.

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…

A summer thunderstorm starts to clear over the Pecos River near Villanueva, New Mexico, July 1999.
A summer thunderstorm starts to clear over the Pecos River near Villanueva, New Mexico, July 1999.
The Very Large Array radio telescope facility in New Mexico gathers sunset light in September 2000.
The Very Large Array radio telescope facility in New Mexico gathers sunset light in September 2000.
The seldom-visited gypsum dune field on the west end of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas, collects warm evening light in April 2003.
The seldom-visited gypsum dune field on the west end of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas, collects warm evening light in April 2003.
I photographed this mission graveyard on the Bisti Highway south of Farmington, New Mexico on a bitterly cold morning in November 2003.
I photographed this mission graveyard on the Bisti Highway south of Farmington, New Mexico on a bitterly cold morning in November 2003.
The last rays of setting sun catch snow in the La Sal Mountains with the Windows Section of Arches National Park, Utah, in the foreground, in March 2004.
The last rays of setting sun catch snow in the La Sal Mountains with the Windows Section of Arches National Park, Utah, in the foreground, in March 2004.
A tree branch takes on the appearance of a bird set against the setting sun at Arches National Park, Utah, on our wedding day, October 12, 2004.
A tree branch takes on the appearance of a bird set against the setting sun at Arches National Park, Utah, on our wedding day, October 12, 2004.
A large boulder forms a passage for the trail through Little Wild Horse Canyon in the San Rafael Swell in central Utah, March 2005.
A large boulder forms a passage for the trail through Little Wild Horse Canyon in the San Rafael Swell in central Utah, March 2005.
The shelf of a thunderstorm show extensive mammatus clouds at Badlands National Park, South Dakota, July 2005.
The shelf of a thunderstorm show extensive mammatus clouds at Badlands National Park, South Dakota, July 2005.
This classic version of the northern approach to Monument Valley was made in October 2006.
This classic version of the northern approach to Monument Valley was made in October 2006.
This image of Big Bend National Park in Texas, shot in March 2007, shows a thunderstorm that tried to drown us just an hour before.
This image of Big Bend National Park in Texas, shot in March 2007, shows a thunderstorm that tried to drown us just an hour before.
My second visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado was in July 2007, and included this image showing hikers as very small figures ascending the highest of the dunes.
My second visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado was in July 2007, and included this image showing hikers as very small figures ascending the highest of the dunes.
I made this image at sunset at the Green River Overlook at Canyonlands National Park, Utah, in October 2008.
I made this image at sunset at the Green River Overlook at Canyonlands National Park, Utah, in October 2008.
Early morning sun shines through a doorway on a frigid November 2009 morning at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
Early morning sun shines through a doorway on a frigid November 2009 morning at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
This image was made at the moment of sunset at the Fiery Furnace at Arches National Park, Utah, in October 2010.
This image was made at the moment of sunset at the Fiery Furnace at Arches National Park, Utah, in October 2010.
This sunset view looks west down Interstate 40 in east central New Mexico in April 2011.
This sunset view looks west down Interstate 40 in east central New Mexico in April 2011.
The Strip at Las Vegas lights up as dusk settles on the City in October 2011.
The Strip at Las Vegas lights up as dusk settles on the City in October 2011.
Illuminates by open sky, Waterholes Canyon is a seldom-visited slot canyon near Page, Arizona. This image is from May 2012.
Illuminates by open sky, Waterholes Canyon is a seldom-visited slot canyon near Page, Arizona. This image is from May 2012.
Many features across the country bear the name Chimney Rock, including this one at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, photographed in March 2014.
Many features across the country bear the name Chimney Rock, including this one at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, photographed in March 2014.
Also from March 2014, in Northern New Mexico, I thought this image was an extraordinary expression of both a wonderful moment, and the tradition of great photographer of the American West.
Also from March 2014, in Northern New Mexico, I thought this image was an extraordinary expression of both a wonderful moment, and the tradition of great photographer of the American West.
Of all the times I have visited Delicate Arch (including getting married there), the signature formation of southern Utah and beyond, I made this image before dawn in October 2014, and it might be my favorite of them all.
Of all the times I have visited Delicate Arch (including getting married there), the signature formation of southern Utah and beyond, I made this image before dawn in October 2014, and it might be my favorite of them all.
This is an April 2015 sunset shot of Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona.
This is an April 2015 sunset shot of Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona.

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.

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Do Try This at Home!

Special effects photos always make more sense to the audience if we put something in them, like a mountain, a silhouetted fence, a camping tent, or, in this case, my car.
Special effects photos always make more sense to the audience if we put something in them, like a mountain, a silhouetted fence, a camping tent, or, in this case, my car.

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:

Between the steel wool, the whisk, and some wire, this whole project cost about $3.
Between the steel wool, the whisk, and some wire, this whole project cost about $3.
  • 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.

I only tried about five pads of steel wool last night, and this ended up being the best of the bunch. I deliberately made these images at dusk so there would be some color to the sky.
I only tried about five pads of steel wool last night, and this ended up being the best of the bunch. I deliberately made these images at dusk so there would be some color to the sky.
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Sensory Perception

At the heart of every digital camera is one of these: an integrated circuit with tiny picture elements - "pixels" - that record light. Most have filters like anti-aliasing and infrared filters, and most have a Bayer Pattern Array filter. This is the modern equivalent of film.
At the heart of every digital camera is one of these: an integrated circuit with tiny picture elements – “pixels” – that record light. Most have filters like anti-aliasing and infrared filters, and most have a Bayer Pattern Array filter. This is the modern equivalent of film.

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.

This is the sensor board from the Kodak DCS760. That's not my handwriting, so I don't know if it was marked this way from the factory or by someone who repaired it at some point.
This is the sensor board from the Kodak DCS760. That’s not my handwriting, so I don’t know if it was marked this way from the factory or by someone who repaired it at some point.
Just a few steps into dismantling this camera already makes it look like a skeleton.
Just a few steps into dismantling this camera already makes it look like a skeleton.

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.

I only had to remove about ten screws to get the back off the DCS760.
I only had to remove about ten screws to get the back off the DCS760.
The grip handle on the right side of the D100 holds this large flash capacitor.
The grip handle on the right side of the D100 holds this large flash capacitor.
  • 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.
The "Frankencamera" aspect of the DCS760 is abundantly clear in this view showing empty space where a film cassette, on the left, and the space for film to wind, on the right, are empty.
The “Frankencamera” aspect of the DCS760 is abundantly clear in this view showing empty space where a film cassette, on the left, and the space for film to wind, on the right, are empty.
You can see many bulky capacitors and other circuits on the bottom of the D100.
You can see many bulky capacitors and other circuits on the bottom of the D100.
This image shows three sizes of image sensor. On the left is the Minolta DiMage 7i at 5mm x 7mm, in the middle is the Kodak DSC760 sensor at 28mm x 19mm, and on the right it Nikon's D100 sensor, which measures 24mm x 15mm. All three sensors deliver approximately six million pixels.
This image shows three sizes of image sensor. On the left is the Minolta DiMage 7i at 5mm x 7mm, in the middle is the Kodak DSC760 sensor at 28mm x 19mm, and on the right it Nikon’s D100 sensor, which measures 24mm x 15mm. All three sensors deliver approximately six million pixels.
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Point and Watch

I photographed this cicada on the fence in our front yard this morning with the Fujifilm AX-655.
I photographed this cicada on the fence in our front yard this morning with the Fujifilm AX-655.

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.

My Olympus FE-5020 is the best point-and-shoot camera I've ever owned, because it has a sharp lens capable of a very effective wide angle of view.
My Olympus FE-5020 is the best point-and-shoot camera I’ve ever owned, because it has a sharp lens capable of a very effective wide angle of view.

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.

This is the orphaned Fuji Finepix AX-655 that has fallen into my hands. I hope to have some fun making great pictures with it.
This is the orphaned Fuji Finepix AX-655 that has fallen into my hands. I hope to have some fun making great pictures with it.
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Cities of the Interior

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.

I attached my 32-year-old Nikon 27.5mm extension tube to my Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, allowing me to make super-macro images.
I attached my 32-year-old Nikon 27.5mm extension tube to my Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, allowing me to make super-macro images.

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.

For comparison, here is an image of one of the stainless steel rings I wear on the opposite hand from my wedding ring, shot at the closest focus distance with a regular non-macro lens.
For comparison, here is an image of one of the stainless steel rings I wear on the opposite hand from my wedding ring, shot at the closest focus distance with a regular non-macro lens.

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.

I made this image of one of my stainless steel rings at the maximum magnification I can make, combining the excellent Tokina 100mm f/2.8 with an old Nikon 27.5mm extension ring. This image rivals the abilities of the naked eye.
I made this image of one of my stainless steel rings at the maximum magnification I can make, combining the excellent Tokina 100mm f/2.8 with an old Nikon 27.5mm extension ring. This image rivals the abilities of the naked eye.
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