Photography is a much more complex visual puzzle than its pervasiveness implies. Sure, everyone is a photographer, but not everyone is an artist. I might give the ratio of artists to everyone else as about 99:1. For every 100 people taking pictures, 99 of them are making pictures of their grandkids or the sunset or the deer in the pasture or the soccer match, while one of them has a real eye for the subtleties of imaging: composition, exposure, lighting, emotion, intimacy, storytelling, etc.
This isn’t a criticism of you and your pictures. The devil is in the details, and most people who want to take pictures are at the start of the journey toward art. If anything, this is a call to action. Look at images. Look at art. Look at the work of the masters. We all started in the same place. Maybe it’s time to put your camera down for a minute and look at the light, look at the human faces, feel the emotion of the moment. Time to grow?
One of the more specious ideas about art, and thus photography, is that you can use tricks and rules to push your photography into an artistic state. One of the most common examples of this is the Rule of Thirds.
The conventional wisdom about the Rule of Thirds is that images are stronger if you divide your image area nine even squares, then try to place significant compositional elements within those squares. To me, the Rule of Thirds isn’t just bad advice, it is a restriction on creativity and self-expression that tells us to make images according to someone else’s vision of who we are. It isn’t a good route to the end goal of photography: storytelling.
Consider a technique that I regard as far more valid than the Rule of Thirds: leading lines.
I use leading lines all the time, since I need to tell a story to an impatient readership, and want to keep them “engaged,” as we say in marketing. I love the way we employ wide angle lenses for this, creating compositions that direct the viewer to the middle of the frame.
None of this matters if you cling to the idea that a piece of equipment will do this for you.
Instead of debating 18mm vs 35mm or large format vs APS-C, consider getting into better shape, being healthier, and once you are there, consider giving up your fear and prejudice and make a point to go the places you want to photograph.
I have been adding more photographers to my social media list lately, hopefully to inspire my work, but also in an effort to distance myself from the young white girl latte scene. One of those photographers posted a link on Petapixel about long-time photojournalist David Burnett’s recent switch from Digital Single Lens Reflex (DLSR) to mirrorless.
First of all, despite its apparent surge in popularity, when most people hear this news, they ask, “What’s mirrorless?” In simplest terms, mirrorless cameras are interchangeable lens digital cameras that use their sensors as viewfinders, reading data instantly and showing it to us on the back of the camera or in an electronic viewfinder, eliminating the need for a mirror to redirect light into an optical viewfinder. No mirror = mirrorless.
Name that Product!
I find this choice of name to describe an entire class of photographic tool to be flawed: it’s named after what is isn’t. It’s like saying my car is dieseless, which it is, but that doesn’t describe anything about the car. I can rattle off a couple of better names (for example Direct-to-Sensor (DTS), but my impression is the name, like it or not, is here to stay.
In some important ways, these cameras are a fusion of the DLSR with the bridge/crossover/point-and-shot cameras we’ve had for years, which use the electronic viewfinder, but with a fixed lens. Smartphones use the same viewfinding scheme.
The reason we have so many DSLRs instead of mirrorless is that electronic viewfinder technology has, until the last few years, lacked instantaneous feedback. There was a lag between the scene and the viewfinder; even a small lag can result in a completely missed photo. With a consumer point-and-shoot, lag wasn’t an issue because those kinds of cameras weren’t tasked with shooting action of any kind, so a little lag matched the photography.
Electronic viewfinder technology has caught up, and these viewfinders are virtually instantaneous.
A lot of web authors assert that mirrorless is taking over, but so far, I don’t see it in the field or in the classroom. Of the dozens or hundreds of photographers I know, only a few like Tina Davis and Doug Hoke seem to be shooting mirrorless every day. I had good talks with both of them about their mirrorless experience and both seem to love everything about them.
A surprise bonus of mirrorless is that because the distance from the lens to the sensor is much shorter, it allows many more lenses to be used with an adaptor. Beautiful optical glass that went idle at the end of the film era can have new life breathed into it on these cameras.
When I first wrote about mirrorless in 2011, those cameras of that era typically had micro 4/3 sensors, which were roughly half the size of a 35mm film frame, and in that infancy had some growing pains. Today, however, we are seeing surprisingly fast, capable mirrorless cameras with 36x24mm sensors, or in the case of Fuji and Hasselblad, 44x33mm sensors. Coupled with better viewfinder technology and faster hardware in the cameras, I am ready to retract at least some of what I said seven years ago about mirrorless, and proclaim that its era is, or is about to be, at hand.
Fellow photographer Robert and I were musing on the phone yesterday about the demise of “digital film,” a product that tried to gain traction in the late 1990s when the future of photography was still hazy. The idea of digital film was to manufacture a cassette that could be inserted into existing film camera so they could make digital photos.
For my birthday one year, my wife Abby bought nearly a dozen antique cameras and hid them around the house for me to find like Easter eggs.
It turned out that one company, Silicon Film, got as far as a prototype before camera makers managed to get the price of purpose-built digital cameras into the affordable range.
Why would anyone have gone this route instead of just buying a Nikon D1? Well, we all had tons of great 35mm film equipment sitting around, for which we paid a lot, and which was still working fine. What if, instead of shelving all those Nikon F100s and F5s and Canon ESO-1s, and shelling out $5000 for a D1 or 1D, we could insert a cassette with a digital sensor in place of a film cassette?
It turned out the idea was mostly vaporware, and while most people believe this was due to technical hurdles, I believe it was at least as much the fault of marketing and profitability obstacles: why sell accessories at small margins when we could be selling new cameras at huge markups?
Today we see more attempts at the concept like PSEUDO, I’m Back and Frankencamera (though RE-35 was a branding experiment and April Fool’s joke) and I wish them luck.
A Call to Action?
One concern that remains difficult to solve even after all this time is how to trigger the sensor so it knows when to record. My idea, which I haven’t seen iterated on the web, is a tiny infrared beam striking the shutter blade that switches on the sensor when the shutter begins to move.
Finally, with excellent, affordable digital cameras in abundance all around us, why would even be of interest in 2018? Answer: for the same reason lomography has it’s niche, to allow us to expand artistically. There are millions of idle film cameras sitting on shelves from our own home here in Oklahoma to the towering apartments of Hong Kong that could be put to use in some worthwhile endeavor.
As an artist, I find this idea very compelling. As Robert and I talked, one question he asked was, “So are we talking about shooting with old glass?” Yes, I think so. Old lenses, though often not as sharp (since they were designed and built by hand in a bygone era) can create images with a unique and engaging character. Oklahoman photographer Doug Hoke does this all the time when he shoots 40-year-old lenses on his mirrorless cameras. Filters in smartphone applications like Instagram mimic the look of film and old lenses.
I love this idea, and not just for 35mm. My wife and I have more than a dozen old cameras sitting around of various formats, including a beautiful, working 100-year-old Kodak No. 2A Folding Cartridge Premo 116 format conventional film camera making a 4.5 x 2.5 inch image, and a couple of Polaroids that make 4 x 5 inch images. If there were a way to make digital pictures with any or all of these machines, I would happily do so, and in doing, hopefully open up another artistic avenue for my work.
Some years ago I wrote “HD Garbage” in which I talked about the commercialism of imaging and filmmaking, particularly the urge to buy more products to replace perfectly good products because their tech, especially their resolution (and by extension their perceived quality), is regarded as outdated. It’s part of a bigger aspect of mercantilism that insists we make foolish financial decisions in order to “upgrade” whether it’s really an upgrade or not.
One of the most disappointing aspects of technology is that it leads talentless people to generate content that is misperceived as good, which leads to the “my uncle” paradigm: “My uncle has a nice camera. He can shoot your wedding.”
In the biggest picture, we see commercialism selling us the idea that we need more, better technology to improve our entertainment, while at the same time we are a less-happy, less-healthy people, and most entertainment is not only unworthy of high definition, it is unworthy of being viewed. Another 72-inch super-high-definition television will never be able to make that scriptless $350,000,000 super-hero movie into a life-changing moment.
A friend of mine is a huge brand-name fanboy. He is constantly pining for the next big thing, with still-frame and video resolution being at the top of his list. Yet I’ve never seen a single second of HD or 4K video from him. Not one.
Far and Away...
Last night at the game I saw what I see a lot: photographers with very expensive “full frame” (36mm x 24mm image sensor) cameras with the same lens I am using, a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. As much as the photography world touts this sensor size as the answer, I find it ironic and annoying that these photographers are always 30 yards farther from the play than I am. I know what they are getting: tiny figures in the center of the frame with lots of grass below and sky above, and I sometimes confirm it by sneaking a peak at the backs of their camera. As far as I am concerned, smaller sensors, in my case 24mm x 15mm, are a solution, not a problem. My stuff looks great.
On a more upbeat note, I love covering local sports, specifically high school sports. The reasons for this is the legitimacy of emotional investment: the chance that a college or professional athlete has any real connection to you is slim. I heard a comedian say recently about professional sports that, “You’re really rooting for the uniform.”
The kids I cover in our community, on the other hand, are the children of the kids I covered 25 years ago, and everyone on the sidelines or in the stands has a dog in the fight.
This video is from a thing Ada fans have been doing since before I came to The Ada News in 1988. At the start of the fourth quarter, the band plays a song called “Light Up,” and the kids all come down and dance, then at a specific point in the song, they rush together with the cheerleaders and cheer…
This video is a memory and a moment. Nothing about it is improved or destroyed by its resolution. The next time you consider if your video would be improved by a new phone or camera, take out your existing phone or camera and shoot with it. Take a film class. Watch how films are made. Learn how to storyboard and write a script. Only when you have accomplished this, and are making films, will you go beyond the fallacy of yearning to buy more.
Readers of our travel blog saw that our trip to my mother’s hometown in Missouri to witness and photograph the total eclipse of the sun of August 21, 2017 was a complete success.
Photographically, the challenge for me was exposure. I’d never even seen a total eclipse before, and could only guess. The solar corona, an aura of energetic plasma that represents the most visible and photographable attraction of an eclipse, is as much as a million times dimmer than the photosphere of the sun. The internet was little help for numbers on this exposure, which surprised and annoyed me.
For this eclipse, the best exposure was f/8, 1/80th of a second at ISO 640.
I used my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 coupled with its well-matched TC-14 1.4x teleconverter to make a 560mm f/4.5, which I stopped down to f/8 for maximum sharpness and to tame this lens’s slight inclination toward chromatic aberrations. This lens is from the era before autofocus, but was build at a time when quality construction and expensive materials made a photographic instrument of unchallenged capability. In its day, sports photographers often thought and dreamed of little else than this “sweet piece of glass.”
I got my 400mm in 1997 from the long-defunct Photo-Fax.com, a service that catered to us, we who wanted to pay discount prices for top-dollar gear. It’s the longest lens I own.
With the teleconverter, the 560mm focal length was beginning to be long enough to fill the frame with the moon blocking the sun, showing the solar corona…
If you were building an eclipse camera on a budget from scratch, I might consider one of the new Sigma or Tamron 150-600mm lenses. Both companies make 1.4x teleconverters, which makes the 600mm into 840mm, but also robs the lens of a full f/stop of light. (Do the math: f/number = focal length ÷ aperture diameter.) Shooting at f/8.8 results in shutter speeds duing totality of 1/10 at medium ISOs. It’s also worth considering that most telephoto lenses aren’t incredibly sharp at full aperture, and the situation gets complicated.
It probably goes without saying that a sturdy tripod is a must.
Alternatively, you could opt for renting a super telephoto. You can get a Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 AF-S for a weekend for $400 or so.
Don’t bother with the super-cheap 500mm catadioptric (mirror) lenses. They really are junk.
Finally, there are many fine astronomical telescopes with camera adaptors that will do the trick, but their prices are also astronomical.
In less than seven years, another total eclipse will cross the United States, and the path of totality will be even closer to home than this one. On April 8, 2024, Abby and I hope to be in the vicinity of Idabel, Oklahoma, just 148 miles from our home. With the experience I gained from this time, I will plan to expand my goals to include more cameras, more lenses, and more photographic schemes, and hopefully take the next eclipse to the next level.
The first total solar eclipse to cross the continental Unites States in many years is just six days away, and along with half the country, my wife Abby and I are preparing to photograph it.
When I first discovered this event, five years ago, I wrote a blog post called Assignment: Team Blackout. It was my feeling that Abby and I and a few friends and/or fellow photographers would make a two-day trip of it, and it would be fun and easy.
As those five years have passed, and especially in the last few weeks, I am having misgivings about the whole idea, since it is starting to be reported that everyone and their dogs (and our dogs) will be mass-migrating to a spot under the path of totality to witness and photograph this event.
I was excited, but now I am just stressed. I have a mental image of Abby and me sitting in the truck on I-44, without moving for five hours, because the highway system is totally overwhelmed by the flood of dilettantes and dabblers, and not only will we miss the event, it will be boring and miserable.
That’s a worst-case scenario, of course. It is based partly on the fact that a Quality Inn already sold a reservation out from under us, one we made months ago. It also takes into account media frenzy that loves to froth at the mouth in advance of a disaster.
My photographic plan is fairly straightforward. I am relatively uninterested in photographing the crescent photosphere. Of main interest to me is the stellar corona visible during totality, the beautiful but faint, airy, high-temperature aura of plasma that is only visible during an eclipse or with expensive masking instruments. A second-tier item would be Bailey’s beads, which is the sun diffracted around mountains and valleys on the lunar surface, and the “diamond ring” effect just as the sun disappears behind the moon.
It is never safe to look directly at the sun, even with sunglasses, and should only be attempted with ISO certified “eclipse glasses.”
If it’s cloudy where we are, I will be disappointed, although my sister, who hopes to join us along with her husband, pointed out, day will still become night and it will remain an experience to remember.
I am in the middle of one of the busiest times of the year: back to school. This involves, among many other things, putting together our newspaper’s football preview section. The photography, of course, falls almost entirely on me, and involves making hundreds of images, from player headshots to team photos to features of our “players to watch.”
One of my best strategies in these crazy busy August days is to stay as much caught up with my editing as I can. As I speak, I’ve shot four football media days and one softball media day, all on top of my regular schedule, and I have edited and submitted every image. No one ever waits on Richard at my office.
This “best practice” applies to all photographers. Unedited images sitting in your camera or on a computer hard drive somewhere might as well not even exist. No one likes to wait, and editors and clients hate waiting for their pictures. Don’t believe me? Wait a month before you start to edit a wedding you shot, and enjoy the constant phalanx of phone calls and emails. “Where are our pictures?!?”
Another reason this is a best practice is that staying ahead of the ball lets you stay better organized, both mechanically and in your head. I have seen students and fellow photographers browse through thousands of images on the backs of their cameras, on their phones, or, and this is the worst, one media card after another, trying to find just one image in a sea of images. Here’s a tip. You can’t find “Johnson Wedding 2016” in your camera or on your phone, but I found “Reeves-Milligan Wedding” in just a few seconds on my laptop. I just opened a search and typed the words.
If this kind of organization isn’t your thing, it might be worth considering hiring someone to do it for you – an office manager or editing partner. Most of the complaints I hear and read about photographers are about timeliness and organization. And nothing can sour your reputation like angering your customers.
A friend of mine, who I regard as a very talented photographer, recently asked me for some advice about photographing the American West. Among her destinations was Mesa Arch, a beautiful, easy-to-reach attraction at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, which I have visited many times.
I told her that this feature is classically photographed in the morning, since the sun rises in the opening of the arch, with a beautiful canyon below and mountains in the distance. The light strikes to red wall of the canyon below and causes the underside of the feature to take on deep red hues.
The only drawback, I told her, is that it’s been “discovered,” so she should expect to see a large number of photographers there at sunrise.
“I really want to see Mesa Arch, but I hate the idea of a lot of photographers because I will feel inferior,” she replied.
Years ago I wrote a piece about how I can sometimes be tempted to get outside my game when I am in the presence of other professional photographers. I’m sure this is true for other professions as well, and why conferences and think tanks are useful for showing us way of doing things we might not see.
The other side of that, of course, is that we don’t want to let the herd mentality take us to what I like to call the “force op,” or forced photo opportunity, in which you let other photographers define you creatively.
But there is a little trick that will help relieve you of the burden of feeling competitive with other photographers. Now that digital imaging has taken some of the mystery, and particularly the surprise, out of photography, all we have to do is stand behind someone and look at their monitor to see what kinds of images they are making. Often, even most of the time, I am surprised and discouraged by how badly photographers are composing their pictures. “Why is this guy even here with his $10,000 worth of equipment,” I ask myself, “when he can’t compose his way out of a wet paper sack?”
Also, don’t let anyone’s equipment intimidate you, and even more importantly, don’t let them talk about their equipment to you. If they do, it will be all they talk about, and they will have nothing interesting to say about the art of photography.
Ultimately photography should be about expressing ourselves and sharing our vision of our lives and our worlds, not worrying about how we look when we’re making our images or what others might think about our equipment or skills. When it comes to comparisons, it is certainly worth looking at the work of others, but not with the purpose of copying it. I should serve as inspiration.
Everyone takes pictures now. The only genuine value in them is your vision.
My young friend Mackenzee Crosby was just accepted to Oklahoma University and intends to go to journalism school. These events left me reminiscing about my own experiences at OU in the early 1980s.
My educational experiences as an instructor have reenforced what I have always believed, that education is very learner-defined, meaning that it depends very much on how motivated the student is to absorb what the instructor is offering.
College, by extension, isn’t as valuable as it could be because many people get through it just to get through it. On the occasions when I taught college, students were all over the place: lazy, excited, cynical, fun, bored, motivated, selfish, ambitious.
I will add that as the years have passed, a college degree is worth less. For a while the mantra was “you need a master’s degree,” and now it is, “you need a doctorate.”
In any case, I learned very little of my actual tradecraft from classes I took. The overwhelming majority of my skills came from my motivation to be a journalist: shooting, working in the darkroom, getting published in the yearbook and the student newspaper, and getting work from various media. I couldn’t wait until a journalism class was over so I could go do some journalism.
I had in mind during my college years that yearbook and magazine represented better quality than newspaper, so much of the time, I tried to get the sharpest and finest quality from my work, and preferred to sell it to glossy publications instead of dailies. Having been a newspaper intern in the summers of 1982 and 1983, I knew that newspaper photography was, as a fellow photographer said to me at the time, “meatball photography.”
I got to know several of my fellow student photographers well, but none more than Scott AndersEn and Robert Stinson, who remain close friends and respected fellow photographers to this day.
My film of choice was usually Kodak Tri-X rated at about ISO 250, souped in Kodak Microdol-X, using the 1:3 dilution, 75 degrees for 13 minutes, thought at the time to produce better grain and sharpness. I experimented with all kinds of products, but came back to those again and again.
I had three camera bodies, a Nikon FM, which I bought in January 1982, a Nikon FM2, which I got in 1983, and a Nikon FE2, bought in 1984 when a friend suggested it instead of another FM2. All of them had the MD-12 motor drive.
I had four lenses in my basic bag through college, a 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, a 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor, a 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor, and a 200mm f/4 Nikkor. The 105mm was my go-to favorite, since it was sharp, light, bright, and easy to use. Near the end of my college life I got a 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor.
I used the darkroom in Copeland Hall, which was shared by newspaper and yearbook students, and which was often quite a mess. Most photographers and dilettantes never understood that the chemicals – developer, fixer, stop bath, wetting agent – were anything other than water, and tended to spill them, contaminate them, use them up and not replace them. I became the de facto manager of the darkroom, and cleaned it all the time.
I had a crush on at least four of our Sooner Yearbook staffers, but no one on the Oklahoma Daily staff. I never dated any of them, though I certainly tried, and was mostly alone for my time in college.
I used all my own darkroom gear, including tanks, reels, and chemicals, since I could almost guarantee the other photographers would compromise the supplies in the darkroom. During finals week in an art class in 1983, I souped some slide film in the chemistry they provided, which had been contaminated, and which ruined my film, forcing an urgent reshoot.
Once, when I was walking home with my backpack stuffed with photo gear, I heard some frat turds yelling at me, “Hey, nurd!” Yeah, frat guys in college: a topic for another day.
At one point I dropped by The Tulsa World and showed some of my stuff to the managing editor, who kept asking, “You’re a student?”
In the fall of 1985, I got a call from The Shawnee News-Star, and started my career as a news photographer.
My newspaper and I recently covered the Ada Lady Cougars area and state tournament basketball playoffs and the Latta Panthers drive to the state basketball championship game in Oklahoma City. I remember quite vividly as I was working the most important aspects of these events, their dramatic climaxes, that I was only thinking about one thing: how to get the moment.
I wasn’t thinking about shutter speeds or apertures or pixel counts or how to set exposure compensation. All those things were happening in the background of my mind. In the foreground were the faces I’d photographed all season long, and the people behind them who were experiencing the best or worst days of their young lives.
My point is, of course, that we need to be prepared. Plan plan plan. And don’t just plan to have the right gear in your hands, plan to be in the right place. Plan to be comfortable with your exposure settings and white balance settings and ISO settings long before the moment starts.
If it’s 13 seconds before the end of the game and your team is either about to leap into a dog pile or bury their faces in their towels to hide their tears, and you are trying to decide if aperture priority is better than shutter priority, you aren’t ready.
Now is the time to get ready. If your tenth grade daughter is slated to start for the softball team in September, now is the time to go to softball field and shoot, then sit at home and realize everything you did right and everything you did wrong, and decide now how to fix it.
When you are comfortable rolling in +0.7 exposure compensation without really looking, based only on a glance at the monitor… when you are comfortable switching from the camera with the wide angle on it to the camera with the telephoto on it… when you are ready to imagine what is going on in the hearts of the winners and losers of those games instead of what’s going on inside yours, you might be ready.
For the first 16 years of my career as a photojournalist, starting with my first newspaper internship in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1982, my craft was entirely mechanical and analog. I made pictures exclusively on photographic film, and printed them on photographic paper using a darkroom, an enlarger, and processing chemistry of various kinds.
A dominant part of this process for the newspaper industry was the Kodak Ektamatic print processor. Designed to be a very quick way to make prints, the Ektamatic processor used activator and stabilizer instead of developer and fixer. Instead of a properly fixed and washed black-and-white print, it produced a damp, ready to use, supposedly temporary print in just eight seconds.
Anyone who used one of these, and most of us did, remembers one thing about these prints more than anything else: the smell. The stabilizer used a potent mixture of acetic and boric acids to rapidly neutralize the developer and make the image temporarily light safe. It was a vinegar-like smell, only somehow sharper.
Cleaning this processor involved taking it apart and scrubbing the rollers, then adding fresh chemicals using bottles that sat upside down on top of the machine so they could refill the trays using valves that screwed onto the bottles. It needed to be cleaned a couple of times a week, but I can tell from my prints when I waited five or six days because there are streaks on the prints.
My analog craft tapered off somewhat after September 1998, when my company bought a Nikon LS-2000 film scanner and an Apple PowerMac G3 computer to run it. I still processed film, but instead of printing it with an enlarger, I scanned the negatives and saved the files on a server for the newsroom to use.
I cite this transition as part of the impetus for one of my earliest photographic trips to the desert, Villanueva.
Reviewing these images started late last year when my coworker LeaAnn Wells was looking for an old newspaper in the storage are we call the “morgue.” It’s a smallish room, and had filled with so much clutter that when LeaAnn tried to stand on something to reach papers on a high shelf, she almost came crashing down. She and I vowed to clean up the place, which was filled with, for example, 300 copies of the 2006 football preview section, where we really only need about five copies.
Knowing that if everyone is in charge, no one is in charge, I took point in this cleanup effort, and have thrown away maybe a ton of worthless duplicates of newspapers, dust mites, rat turds, and even 50 bags of cooking show coupons and free chicken broth.
In the midst of all this, I found, near the bottom of the piles, a huge box full of my own Ektamatic prints from many years ago, and decided to try to get them in some order and preserve them.
Making Me Look Bad...
One thing I despised was being caught between management urging me to use less material and editorial demanding I use more. Publishers and accountants would tell me something like, “We used too much film and paper last month. Try to use less.” Which I would. Then editors would say something like, “Why can’t I get more shots from this?” or “Why are you printing this so small?”
One thing I was able to affirm by looking through these thousands of images is that I was good. It’s easy for me to forget that I have done solid work for my entire career, particularly during periods when I wasn’t appreciated by management. But I look through these slicks and see that I shot well year after year after year.
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.