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.
It’s not every day that I get to experience really terrible bokeh in the viewfinder.
Bokeh, as I have discussed before, and with which the internet is obsessed, is originally a Japanese word meaning “blur” or “haze,” is used to describe the quality (not the amount) of the out-of-focus portions of an image. About a grazillion factors influence bokeh, but the most significant is optical design of a lens.
Bokeh, like anything that falls into the hands of the soulless nitpickers and techno-fanboys of the internet, can become a pointless goal unto itself. The rest of us, who have a reason for taking pictures other than showing off our knowledge of specifications and resolution charts, keep bokeh in the toolbox of photography, and bring it out when we need it to help us express ourselves.
But back to the topic at hand: seeing bad bokeh right there in the viewfinder. I was shooting the final home game of the year for the softball team at the college last month with my broken Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. I carry this lens as a lightweight second to my AF Nikkor 300mm f/4, with which I shoot the bulk of my action photos. At one point, I anticipated a play at first base, which was quite close to me, so I switched to the camera with the Tamron on it and focused on the first baseman…
The reason lenses like this tend to have the photography world’s worst bokeh is that they are designed to do it all: be light, small, easy to use, wide-angle , telephoto, and finally, and maybe most importantly, cheap. Lenses with better bokeh tend to be best at just that. Lenses like my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, is not light or small or a versatile zoom or cheap, but lays down beautiful bokeh when used at close range with large apertures.
I have a buddy at work who sometimes uses the word “bokeh-y” to talk about some of my work. The term isn’t exactly correct; what he’s seeing is the use of selective focus with large-aperture lenses.
He’s toying with the idea of buying a AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, which wouldn’t be my first choice, but is cheap, and can deliver nice bokeh when using selective focus.
I have a another buddy, Scott Andersen, who just bought an AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, and he seems to love it, though I am seeing a slightly ratty bokeh in some of the images he posts. I would love to take a close look at his files one of these days and divine if I am seeing it correctly.
The downside to the 50mm f/1.8 (at least the two examples I use) is that it’s not very sharp at f/1.8, which is why I think the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 is a better choice.
I finished teaching another intermediate/advance class last week, and I hope I was able to give my students what they needed. It’s an interesting tradeoff; I can show them what inspires me and I can show then how I did it, but only they can decide what inspires them and how they can do it. Photography is an art, and it is difficult and unfair to quantify.
Recently my wife Abby and I were working on a multi-stage garage clean-out project. One result of this is that she finds things that belonged to her father, whose life as a machinist led to him collecting thousands of tools and other items for his craft.
In our dusty unboxings during the past weeks, we came across a very cool little item I didn’t even know existed: a screw thread gauge. The device has dozens of little steel fins that are marked with widths in fractions of millimeters, and those fins are stacked together on a spindle so you can fan them out and measure the pitch of the threads in a screw.
Not only did I think this was a neat tool that I would probably never use, I also thought I should photograph it. I got out my two macro lenses, the AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, and the Tokina 100mm f/2.8. Both are wonderful lenses, and both could do the job. I chose the 60mm for no other reason than I hadn’t used it recently.
I set the thread gauge on the glass surface of my iPad, and cranked up three flash units plus the one of the camera hot shoe. I pointed one flash into a reflector to my left, one into a reflector over my right shoulder, and one in front of me to the right.
The result was pretty satisfying. Not only is the repeating pattern on the gauge intriguing, but the image ended up being dazzlingly sharp. It is so sharp, in fact, that despite my efforts to clean the gauge with compressed air before the shoot, you can see a fair amount of grime in the tiny spaces between the fins. It’s also sufficiently sharp that it created aliasing, the mixing of minute frequencies to create colors in areas of complex detail, right at the focal point.
It was fun doing this, and a nice departure from the kinds of things I shoot every day in my work.
The third night of my Intro to Digital Photography class built around what we can do with what we have learned on the first two nights: the basic theory of how cameras work, and how to use some of our tools to create images.
In the digital age, we make a lot of images, and often that’s the end of it, because no one, absolutely no one, has time to look at 500 or 1000 of our images. I’ll go even farther and say that if you do with your images the same thing as everyone else in the 21st century, post them to social media, very few people will see them, and even if they do, they have little chance to make an impact.
Call me old school, but it is my opinion that top quality printing is the best way to create an impressive, expressive photographic product that has the potential to last for decades. The printed work not only looks great, it feels great in the hands, and when it’s new, it even smells great. It has a sense of permanence, importance, significance.
For prints, particularly display prints up to 13×19 inches, Abby and I have owned several photo-quality inkjet printers over the years, our current one being the Epson Stylus Photo 1400. It’s not at the top of the line, but we buy the best paper and ink for it, and the results are spectacular.
Creating items like books and calendars, we use Apple’s Photos app, the latest iteration of what was long-known as iPhoto. Abby’s daughter had the wedding photos we shot for her made into a book at mypublisher.com, and we were all pleased with the result, and there are many other options.
A photo book could be about anything: weddings (here or here or here, all made into books), memorials, holidays, vacations, family reunions, family and community history, anything.
I show some of our prints and books to my students not to brag on our accomplishment, but to say to them. “You can do this with your photography.”
I know so many people with collections of great images of great moments that are hiding inside a smart phone or computer, waiting to be made into something genuinely beautiful.