The Rule of Thirds

The Las Vegas, Nevada, strip is an adventure in photography.
The Las Vegas, Nevada, strip is an adventure in photography.
I made this portrait in 1984 with my Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. It can be argued that we like the Rule of Thirds because it mimics the human face, but from that day until this one, I never used a "rule" of any kind to make portraits. I followed my heart.
I made this portrait in 1984 with my Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. It can be argued that we like the Rule of Thirds because it mimics the human face, but from that day until this one, I never used a “rule” of any kind to make portraits. I followed my heart.

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?

What did I see when I made this image? Light, shadow, the looming shape, a messenger and potential harbinger, but no "thirds."
What did I see when I made this image? Light, shadow, the looming shape, a messenger and potential harbinger, but no “thirds.”

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.

I saw this on a kiosk in a visitor center in a National Park. It isn't bad advice, but it isn't inspirational advice either.
I saw this on a kiosk in a visitor center in a National Park. It isn’t bad advice, but it isn’t inspirational advice either.

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.

You can reverse-engineer lots of photographs into the Rule of Thirds, but like this one, they didn't start with it.
You can reverse-engineer lots of photographs into the Rule of Thirds, but like this one, they didn’t start with it.
A wide angle lens on your wish list might be a solution in search of a problem if you imagine it will change how you compose photographs. Instead of a lens, consider movement and light.
A wide angle lens on your wish list might be a solution in search of a problem if you imagine it will change how you compose photographs. Instead of a lens, consider movement and light.

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.

Every photography makes suggestions. This one uses leading lines to suggest, "what's at the end of this path?"
Every photography makes suggestions. This one uses leading lines to suggest, “what’s at the end of this path?”
0

Mirrorless: The Next Big Thing?

From the humblest cell phone camera to the priciest medium format digital, the pixel-based imaging sensor is at the heart of all digital photography.
From the humblest cell phone camera to the priciest medium format digital, the pixel-based imaging sensor is at the heart of all digital photography.
Four photographers with DSLR cameras shoot next to me last night at the Ada Cougar Activity Center.
Four photographers with DSLR cameras shoot next to me last night at the Ada Cougar Activity Center.

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.

Tina Davis works with her Sony A6000 mirrorless camera last night. I tried it for a few seconds and found it had potential, though it didn't focus quite as fast as my Nikons.
Tina Davis works with her Sony A6000 mirrorless camera last night. I tried it for a few seconds and found it had potential, though it didn’t focus quite as fast as my Nikons.

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.

Bonus Time!
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.

Behind the lens in the DSLR camera is a mirror that flips out of the way to let light shine onto the sensor. It was inherited from the film SLR, and may be on its way to extinction.
Behind the lens in the DSLR camera is a mirror that flips out of the way to let light shine onto the sensor. It was inherited from the film SLR, and may be on its way to extinction.
0

Teaching Old Glass New Tricks

Old camera and lenses, like this Exa with a 50mm f/2.8 lens from 1950s vintage, are fine, interesting and compelling machines that fire up my imagination.
Old camera and lenses, like this Exa with a 50mm f/2.8 lens from 1950s vintage, are fine, interesting and compelling machines that fire up my imagination.

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.

inspiration...
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.

Despite my nostalgia for film and its creative potential, I watched a lot of people, mostly reporters, ruin a lot of film with bad technique. This piece of film was wound onto the developing reel with a clumsy hand, causing it to stick to another portion of the roll, preventing developer from getting to it.
Despite my nostalgia for film and its creative potential, I watched a lot of people, mostly reporters, ruin a lot of film with bad technique. This piece of film was wound onto the developing reel with a clumsy hand, causing it to stick to another portion of the roll, preventing developer from getting to it.

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?

This is my Nikon F3 with my rare and excellent 25-50mm f/4 on it. I sold it about 15 years ago, and kinda miss it ever since.
This is my Nikon F3 with my rare and excellent 25-50mm f/4 on it. I sold it about 15 years ago, and kinda miss it ever since.

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.

Once upon a time, this 100-year-old Kodak camera was someone's brand new prize.
Once upon a time, this 100-year-old Kodak camera was someone’s brand new prize.

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.

I found this exposed roll of 116 film in an antique camera my wife Abby gave me for my birthday. Although I don't know anyone who can process it, if I did, I would have it processed because it holds a mystery.
I found this exposed roll of 116 film in an antique camera my wife Abby gave me for my birthday. Although I don’t know anyone who can process it, if I did, I would have it processed because it holds a mystery.
0

As Resolution Increases, Quality Falters

Amelia Holtzman wears pink sparkle makeup for "Pink Out Night" duriing pregame activities at the Ada football matchup against Bethany Friday night. At first she wanted to pose for me, but I asked her to watch the happenings. I thought it expressed Pink Out Night very nicely.
Amelia Holtzman wears pink sparkle makeup for “Pink Out Night” duriing pregame activities at the Ada football matchup against Bethany Friday night. At first she wanted to pose for me, but I asked her to watch the happenings. I thought it expressed Pink Out Night very nicely.

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.”

This is an Ada High Color Guard member I photographed in 1989 whose name is think is Cheri Platt. I had a huge crush on her, since I was single and 26 at the time. Ask yourself: is this memory diminished or ruined in any way by being a "low resolution" film image?
This is an Ada High Color Guard member I photographed in 1989 whose name is think is Cheri Platt. I had a huge crush on her, since I was single and 26 at the time. Ask yourself: is this memory diminished or ruined in any way by being a “low resolution” film image?

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.
Justin McFarlane stiff-arms an opponent in last night's game against Bethany. I was about eight yards ahead of the play, which came toward me. At 200mm with my 24mm x 15mm image sensor, the frame filled up nicely. The "full frame" crowd was 30 yards down field, missing this image.
Justin McFarlane stiff-arms an opponent in last night’s game against Bethany. I was about eight yards ahead of the play, which came toward me. At 200mm with my 24mm x 15mm image sensor, the frame filled up nicely. The “full frame” crowd was 30 yards down field, missing this image.

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.

Ada fans gather together in September 1989 in the exact same spot at Norris Field on the ECU campus as they did last night. No one enjoys moments or memories based on their technology.
Ada fans gather together in September 1989 in the exact same spot at Norris Field on the ECU campus as they did last night. No one enjoys moments or memories based on their technology.
2+

The Great American Eclipse: Until Next Time…

A total solar eclipse is a beautiful and inspirational sight. I was happy to bring my wife Abby and meet up with my sister Nicole and her husband Tracey to see and photograph it.
A total solar eclipse is a beautiful and inspirational sight. I was happy to bring my wife Abby and meet up with my sister Nicole and her husband Tracey to see and photograph it.
Abby uses her eclipse glasses to peek at the last crescent of the sun as the totality approaches. Behind her is my camera with my 400mm + TC-14 teleconverter.
Abby uses her eclipse glasses to peek at the last crescent of the sun as the totality approaches. Behind her is my camera with my 400mm + TC-14 teleconverter.

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.

My 400mm with its excellent TC-14 teleconverter stands ready to photograph the solar eclipse, just seconds before the totality.
My 400mm with its excellent TC-14 teleconverter stands ready to photograph the solar eclipse, just seconds before the totality.
This is the aperture ring on my 400mm. With the teleconverter on, the aperture values are actually (not "effectively") one f/stop smaller, so when it's set at f/5.6, it's actually f/8.
This is the aperture ring on my 400mm. With the teleconverter on, the aperture values are actually (not “effectively”) one f/stop smaller, so when it’s set at f/5.6, it’s actually f/8.

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.”

My first frames were pretty dark, followed by two adjustments which resulted in the "correct" exposure to show off the beauty and elegance of the solar corona.
My first frames were pretty dark, followed by two adjustments which resulted in the “correct” exposure to show off the beauty and elegance of the solar corona.

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…

This is the totality right out of the camera, uncropped. At 560mm on a 24x15mm (APS-C) sensor, it filled up the frame adequately.
This is the totality right out of the camera, uncropped. At 560mm on a 24x15mm (APS-C) sensor, it filled up the frame adequately.

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.

A co-worker of mine has Nikon's newest 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, which could fill up the frame with an eclipse pretty effectively at 500mm.
A co-worker of mine has Nikon’s newest 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, which could fill up the frame with an eclipse pretty effectively at 500mm.

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 "diamond ring" effect happens in the brief moments when the sun begins to emerge from behind the moon. As you can see in this frame, the brightness of the photosphere is starting to overwhelm the lens and the sensor.
The “diamond ring” effect happens in the brief moments when the sun begins to emerge from behind the moon. As you can see in this frame, the brightness of the photosphere is starting to overwhelm the lens and the sensor.
0

More Thoughts About the Eclipse

This is a test image of the sun I made today under hazy skies, shot with my 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor, my 1.4x Nikon teleconverter, and a small piece of "eclipse glasses" film on the 39mm drop-in filter in the lens.
This is a test image of the sun I made today under hazy skies, shot with my 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor, my 1.4x Nikon teleconverter, and a small piece of “eclipse glasses” film on the 39mm drop-in filter in the lens.

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.

During tests today to photograph the sun, this 39mm filter got stuck in the filter holder, possibly cross-threaded, and had to be forcibly removed with a Vice-Grip, permanently damaging it. Fortunately, it is an obsolete #82A color correction filter, and I have three other filters that will work.
During tests today to photograph the sun, this 39mm filter got stuck in the filter holder, possibly cross-threaded, and had to be forcibly removed with a Vice-Grip, permanently damaging it. Fortunately, it is an obsolete #82A color correction filter, and I have three other filters that will work.

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.

Pro Tip...
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.

This is the camera-end of my 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor with the excellent 1.4x converter attached. The 39mm filter sits in a slot, shown here pulled out and laid on the lens so you can see the piece of "eclipse glasses" I am using as a solar filter.
This is the camera-end of my 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor with the excellent 1.4x converter attached. The 39mm filter sits in a slot, shown here pulled out and laid on the lens so you can see the piece of “eclipse glasses” I am using as a solar filter.
0

My Favorite Place: Done

My young friends the Redman girls, Kaitlyn, Dixie, and Elizabeth, pose for a photograph at Ada Lady Cougar softball media day earlier this month. Kaitlyn and Elizabeth played and have graduated, and Dixie is a junior.
My young friends the Redman girls, Kaitlyn, Dixie, and Elizabeth, pose for a photograph at Ada Lady Cougar softball media day earlier this month. Kaitlyn and Elizabeth played and have graduated, and Dixie is a junior.

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 is my screen at work yesterday, with my last image enlarged. As tempting as it is to imagine an "app" will help you get organized, it really comes down to your own ability and willingness to organize.
This is my screen at work yesterday, with my last image enlarged. As tempting as it is to imagine an “app” will help you get organized, it really comes down to your own ability and willingness to organize.

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.

The inability to find images makes you look foolish and incompetent, and has potentially disastrous consequences for your photographer-client relationship. It only took a few seconds to find these results, since I was well-organized.
The inability to find images makes you look foolish and incompetent, and has potentially disastrous consequences for your photographer-client relationship. It only took a few seconds to find these results, since I was well-organized.

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.

The Coalgate senior football players share a laugh at their team's media day last week.
The Coalgate senior football players share a laugh at their team’s media day last week.
0

Other Photographers and Our Egos

A passel of photographers photographs Antelope Canyon in May 2012.
A passel of photographers photographs Antelope Canyon in May 2012.

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.

Mesa Arch at Canyonlands is illuminated by handsome morning light in this 2002 image. The light bounces up from canyons below to causing the underside of the arch to take on a deep red. In the distance are the La Sal Mountains.
Mesa Arch at Canyonlands is illuminated by handsome morning light in this 2002 image. The light bounces up from canyons below to causing the underside of the arch to take on a deep red. In the distance are the La Sal Mountains.

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.

I told my friend that the Grand View Point at Canyonlands is "better than the Grand Canyon," which I think it is for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are far fewer visitors.
I told my friend that the Grand View Point at Canyonlands is “better than the Grand Canyon,” which I think it is for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are far fewer visitors.

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?”

In some ways, painters and sculptors are freer than photographers because their art starts with vision and imagination, and I admire that.
In some ways, painters and sculptors are freer than photographers because their art starts with vision and imagination, and I admire that.

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.

Despite the traditional "best" shot of Mesa Arch being a sunrise shot, my favorite image of it so far is one I made right after sunset. Not only was the light beautiful, but there were no other photographers present, and I feel the image is unique. When you see this image, or another you admire, don't try to copy it. Ask yourself how you and your creative vision might express it.
Despite the traditional “best” shot of Mesa Arch being a sunrise shot, my favorite image of it so far is one I made right after sunset. Not only was the light beautiful, but there were no other photographers present, and I feel the image is unique. When you see this image, or another you admire, don’t try to copy it. Ask yourself how you and your creative vision might express it.
1+

Learning the Trade: College

Robert Stinson poses under a streetlamp on the South Oval at Oklahoma University in January 1984. We were both photographers at OU back then, and remain friends to this day. I shot it with my Nikon FM2 on a tripod, with my 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, and Plus-X Pan Film.
Robert Stinson poses under a streetlamp on the South Oval at Oklahoma University in January 1984. We were both photographers at OU back then, and remain friends to this day. I shot it with my Nikon FM2 on a tripod, with my 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, and Plus-X Pan Film.
I cheated a little to make this image of a 1984 snowball fight: I asked my sister's roommate to pose for it. I made this with my 105mm on Plus-X Pan Film.
I cheated a little to make this image of a 1984 snowball fight: I asked my sister’s roommate to pose for it. I made this with my 105mm on Plus-X Pan Film.

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.”

I made this portrait of my friend Anna Maria in 1983. Shot on Kodak Panatomic-X film, ISO 32, with my 105mm. The light is a two-flash setup, one bounced off the wall to my left, and the other behind her. I thought she was beautiful in 1983, and I was not wrong.
I made this portrait of my friend Anna Maria in 1983. Shot on Kodak Panatomic-X film, ISO 32, with my 105mm. The light is a two-flash setup, one bounced off the wall to my left, and the other behind her. I thought she was beautiful in 1983, and I was not wrong.
Using a red filter and Tri-X Pan Film, this is one of my earliest "fine art" attempts.
Using a red filter and Tri-X Pan Film, this is one of my earliest “fine art” attempts.

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 made this image of a pie-in-the-face event for the Sooner Yearbook in 1984. This was the day I met Scott Andersen, who was shooting it for the Oklahoma Daily student newspaper. It was shot on Kodak Plus-X Film with my 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor.
I made this image of a pie-in-the-face event for the Sooner Yearbook in 1984. This was the day I met Scott Andersen, who was shooting it for the Oklahoma Daily student newspaper. It was shot on Kodak Plus-X Film with my 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor.
This is my official "candid" self-portrait for the colophon of the 1985 Sooner Yearbook. I am holding a Nikon FM2 with my 105mm f/2.5.
This is my official “candid” self-portrait for the colophon of the 1985 Sooner Yearbook. I am holding a Nikon FM2 with my 105mm f/2.5.

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.

It seemed like a big deal at the time to have a sideline pass to photograph Oklahoma football.
It seemed like a big deal at the time to have a sideline pass to photograph Oklahoma football.
A young lady I was courting at the time holds my then-new Nikon FE2 with the 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor. She was a twirler for the band at rival Oklahoma State.
A young lady I was courting at the time holds my then-new Nikon FE2 with the 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor. She was a twirler for the band at rival Oklahoma State.

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.

This is the Nikon FE2 at the end of its life in 2003, right before I sold it.
This is the Nikon FE2 at the end of its life in 2003, right before I sold it.
One of my roommates, Matthew Hyubich, poses for an illustration of students falling asleep while studying, which I made for the Sooner Yearbook with my 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor.
One of my roommates, Matthew Hyubich, poses for an illustration of students falling asleep while studying, which I made for the Sooner Yearbook with my 50mm f/1.2 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.

Oklahoma University tried to do a "Hands Across OU" thing while Hands Across America was going on, but it came up short, as in this image I shot with my 200mm f/4 Nikkor on Tri-X Pan Film.
Oklahoma University tried to do a “Hands Across OU” thing while Hands Across America was going on, but it came up short, as in this image I shot with my 200mm f/4 Nikkor on Tri-X Pan Film.

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 shot this from the parking garage above the ticket office at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium before an OU football game. A few seconds later I dropped clip-on metal lens hood from my 105mm Nikkor lens to the ground below. Fortunately, it didn't hit anyone.
I shot this from the parking garage above the ticket office at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium before an OU football game. A few seconds later I dropped clip-on metal lens hood from my 105mm Nikkor lens to the ground below. Fortunately, it didn’t hit anyone.
Robert lived in a basement apartment for a while during that period, and installed this chair by hanging it from some pipes.
Robert lived in a basement apartment for a while during that period, and installed this chair by hanging it from some pipes.

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.

This was one of my favorite images from the era, of the bonfire prior to the 1984 OU-Texas game, shot with my 105mm f/2.5.
This was one of my favorite images from the era, of the bonfire prior to the 1984 OU-Texas game, shot with my 105mm f/2.5.
0

Now We’re Ready to Shoot

The traditional trophy scrum is just the start of what's going on during these moments, and one of the easiest and most obvious to shoot.
The traditional trophy scrum is just the start of what’s going on during these moments, and one of the easiest and most obvious to shoot.
A happy moment that was over in about three seconds: Menee Thomsen congratulates Kenzie Dean after the Lady Cougars won the area championship game.
A happy moment that was over in about three seconds: Menee Thomsen congratulates Kenzie Dean after the Lady Cougars won the area championship game.

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.

I had my camera at "low ready" with my eyes on the game when I saw this kid charge the basket. I was ready, and shot this without even thinking.
I had my camera at “low ready” with my eyes on the game when I saw this kid charge the basket. I was ready, and shot this without even thinking.

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.

A tough moment: the Ada Lady Cougars reassure each other as their state tournament hopes slip out of reach.
A tough moment: the Ada Lady Cougars reassure each other as their state tournament hopes slip out of reach.

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.

Another fleeting moment: with just seconds left and their state championship win assured, the Latta Panthers can't hold back their emotions.
Another fleeting moment: with just seconds left and their state championship win assured, the Latta Panthers can’t hold back their emotions.

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.

Part of being read to make pictures is being ready to shoot the hard ones along with the easy ones, like this stressed-out moment for coach Christy Jennings as her team struggles to come from behind in their area championship game.
Part of being read to make pictures is being ready to shoot the hard ones along with the easy ones, like this stressed-out moment for coach Christy Jennings as her team struggles to come from behind in their area championship game.
0

From Paper to Papers

From my first day on the job as a news photographer in May 1982 until The Ada News bought a scanner in September 1998, I made prints like this, using Kodak Ektamatic SC paper and an Kodak Ektamatic processor.
From my first day on the job as a news photographer in May 1982 until The Ada News bought a scanner in September 1998, I made prints like this, using Kodak Ektamatic SC paper and an Kodak Ektamatic processor.
While working an Ada High baseball game I shot a frame of this airplane landing at the Ada airport. The next day I took my pilot check ride in this very aircraft and became a licensed private pilot.
While working an Ada High baseball game I shot a frame of this airplane landing at the Ada airport. The next day I took my pilot check ride in this very aircraft and became a licensed private pilot.

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.

Toughman contest fans react to the action at the Pontotoc Country Fairgrounds in April 1998. Because sticky labels wouldn't adhere to the damp surface of a fresh Ektamatic print, we often just wrote names and places on the prints with felt tip pens or paper-clipped a note with caption information to the print.
Toughman contest fans react to the action at the Pontotoc Country Fairgrounds in April 1998. Because sticky labels wouldn’t adhere to the damp surface of a fresh Ektamatic print, we often just wrote names and places on the prints with felt tip pens or paper-clipped a note with caption information to the print.

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.

A young women reacts with dismay at the scene of a quadruple-fatality accident involving a funeral procession west of Ada Friday, May 29, 1992.
A young women reacts with dismay at the scene of a quadruple-fatality accident involving a funeral procession west of Ada Friday, May 29, 1992.
It wasn't all "good old days," particularly when you consider the thousands of head shots I had to print over the years for products like our football special.
It wasn’t all “good old days,” particularly when you consider the thousands of head shots I had to print over the years for products like our football special.

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.

Vanoss fans Norman Hurley and Randi Jean Hurley cheer for the Wolves during state championship action at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City March 6, 1998.
Vanoss fans Norman Hurley and Randi Jean Hurley cheer for the Wolves during state championship action at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City March 6, 1998.
I worked with four Ektamatic print processors over the years, like this one, in the lower center part of the frame in the darkroom in Shawnee, Oklahoma in the late 1980s.
I worked with four Ektamatic print processors over the years, like this one, in the lower center part of the frame in the darkroom in Shawnee, Oklahoma in the late 1980s.
For most of my career, I received my photo assignments on cards like this. Each newspaper had a slightly different iteration, but they all conveyed the same information. Only in the last few years have I switched us to an application-based photo assignment system.
For most of my career, I received my photo assignments on cards like this. Each newspaper had a slightly different iteration, but they all conveyed the same information. Only in the last few years have I switched us to an application-based photo assignment system.

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.

This whole project started when a coworker nearly fell while trying to find an old newspaper in the "morgue," the storage room where we keep old printed copies of our newspaper.
This whole project started when a coworker nearly fell while trying to find an old newspaper in the “morgue,” the storage room where we keep old printed copies of our newspaper.
When a reporter shot some film, he or she would attach this little slip of paper to it, which I would paperclip to the print.
When a reporter shot some film, he or she would attach this little slip of paper to it, which I would paperclip to the print.

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?”
For a while at The Ada News in the late 1980s we published a picture page of my sports images every Monday. The public loved them, but we never have that kind of space in the daily any more.
For a while at The Ada News in the late 1980s we published a picture page of my sports images every Monday. The public loved them, but we never have that kind of space in the daily any more.

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.

Colby Jackson and Johnny Jackson play sword fight in their yard in Ada on Feb. 14, 1998.
Colby Jackson and Johnny Jackson play sword fight in their yard in Ada on Feb. 14, 1998.
1+

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.
0

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.
0

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.
0

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.
0