Anticipating an early voter turnout Tuesday, I drove directly from our home in Byng to Konawa to cover the school bond issue election. It was just after seven in the morning, and the sun was still below the horizon. I immediately noticed that farm ponds had fog above them and anticipated that the Canadian River, which I would shortly cross, would as well.
I drove across the U.S. 377 bridge, parked in a safe spot, put on my highway safety vest, grabbed three cameras and walked to the center of the bridge over the river. For the record, I don’t recommend this, and I did it as a journalist. I know, I know — do as I say, not as I do, but drivers can get distracted in a moment, and it’s not always easy to see in early morning light.
Sunlight caught the rising fog exactly as I had anticipated, and the scene did not disappoint. I shot it with all three cameras — one with a 300mm lens, one with an 80-200mm lens,and one with a wide angle. All three scenes expressed something slightly different about the scene, and I was glad I lugged all the hardware with me.
How many times has someone come up to me with their phone in hand and started telling me, “I didn’t have my camera with me, but…” They then show me an image they made with their phone that tells only part of the story. Despite constantly improving technology in smartphones, they lack something. Maybe they lack the attitude of a camera.
The lesson is: Always have your camera with you. I know this is easy to say if you’re like me and have had cameras within arm’s reach since I was in high school, but it can really pay off.
I get asked this question a lot: can I use my macro lens for portraits? The answer, of course, is yes. It’s a mistake to pigeon-hole lenses, or to lean too heavily on the idea that one kind of photo can only be made by one kind of lens.
Tools in the tool box...
When I talk about portrait lenses, it’s important to note that great portraits are made with every focal length imaginable, from ultrawides to super-telephotos, and it’s critical to remember that every lens is another tool in the photographic tool box.
So what is the issue here? A “classic portrait” lens is generally one of a medium telephoto focal length… 75mm-ish to 180mm-ish, such that we can photograph people at comfortable distances and still fill the frame with their bodies and faces. These lenses are usually thought of as have large maximum apertures.
Many portrait lenses have been venerated for decades as great for this… in 35mm film photography, for example, the 100mm-105mm focal length range was considered the “sweet spot.” I had three 105mm Nikkor lenses, two f/2.5s and an f/1.8. When digital came along and preserved the format size (a sensor size somewhere near the size of a 35mm film frame), those focal lengths translate well.
Okay, Richard. I have a 100mm macro lens. It’s in that focal length range. Is it a good portrait lens? There are a couple of factors that might impair a macro lens’ ability to make great portraits.
1. They are optimized to be their sharpest a very close focus settings. One consequence of this is “hunting,” in which autofocus moves forward and back trying to find the focus, and macro lenses have a huge range in which to hunt.
2. They often included less-than-idea “bokeh,” a term which describes the out of focus area of an image. For example, one of my favorite macro lenses, the AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, is amazingly sharp, but exhibits ratty, seven-sided bokeh. It is not a good portrait lens in most instances.
A zoom in this focal length range can have some of the same drawbacks: they are good at all focal lengths, but aren’t spectacular at any of them. Zoom are also heavy, and can attract a lot of attention and be a little intimidating. An exception to this might be the big f/2.8 zooms, which are very popular among portrait shooters, but also very expensive and very heavy.
My favorite portrait lens is my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G, which is sharp, lightweight, affordable, and exhibits beautiful, smooth bokeh. I can make backgrounds vanish into the ether by shooting with it at f/2.0 or so.
Before you get out the credit card and start buying lenses, consider also that any and every camera and lens can make great portraits in the right circumstances. If you have a macro lens, make some portraits with it. It might be the lens for you.
My wife Abby and I live on a pretty little patch of green in southern Oklahoma. I garden, tend an orchard, and walk our dogs in this bucolic paradise. I have always enjoyed photographing this land, and when the light is right, it can yield some of the best fine art images in my portfolio.
Lately I’ve been grabbing lenses known for their dream-like imaging capabilities, lenses with large maximum apertures that can produce flattering “bokeh” in the out-of-focus areas of the image. Recently, those lenses have been the AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, and the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.
In the past few days I’ve made a point to lug around my rare and beautifully-made Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 of 1985 vintage.
An interesting phenomena for me is that I get this lens out with the intention of using it, then don’t really use it. The whole point of shooting with this behemoth is to use it at f/2.0, “wide open,” and at this setting it is quite unforgiving. If I miss the focus by a few millimeters, the image is unusable.
With a beautiful late-summer sun setting one day this week, I ran into the house after walking our Irish Wolfhound and watering the garden, and grabbed the 200mm, and ran back into the yard just in time to take advantage of the golden moment and this rare, special lens.
Sure enough, when I reviewed my images after dark, half of them were unusable due to subtle focus errors. The images that were in perfect focus were magnificent, subtly sharp in a dream-like way that made the light on the leaves absolutely sing.
An oddly enduring myth about this lens is that it has “good” or “beautiful” bokeh. This is the classic mistake of confusing selective focus with bokeh. This lens has over-the-top selective focus, since f/2.0 at this focal length can throw the background so far out of focus, but if you examine the bokeh, defined as the quality of the out-of-focus area, you can see that it’s ratty and cluttered.
If you are willing to redefine “bokeh” as simply being all the way out of focus, every lens has “great bokeh” if you just use empty blue sky as the background.
But the main reason I seldom use this magnificent lens is its weight, more than five pounds, all of it in the front. It is a bear to use handheld, and awkward to use on a monopod. It’s easy to say that I don’t like heavy lenses now that I’m older, but I’ve never loved lugging them around, and doing so creates a payoff of diminishing results: huge lenses are only marginally better than not-so-huge lenses.
Finally, no, I don’t ever want to sell it. It’s one of the best examples of cameras from years ago, when lenses were made to last a lifetime.
As much as photographers seem intent on relishing the power of large-maximum-aperture lenses and their selective focus, I was reminded over the last few days about the perils of overusing this feature, and that we need to keep in mind that it is a tool in the toolbox and not a goal unto itself.
I thought about this when the sun was streaming in through some windows as I got ready for work, and took the time to shoot a few frames. I decided to shoot “wide open,” at f/1.4, the largest maximum aperture of any lens I own, and a genuinely large aperture. Only a few specialized and expensive lenses have these impressively large maximum apertures. Legendary lenses like the Canon 85mm f/1.2, Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 (I had one in college) and 58mm f/1.2 aspheric, the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0, and esoteric glass like the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95 are some examples.
So what draws us to these lenses? What can we construct with these tools? Without a doubt, the first answer is selective focus, often very dramatic selective focus. We can then combine that tool with one like, say, movement, and have our backgrounds just like we want them.
The simplest background in all of photography is a neutral-grey roll of background paper about five feet behind the subject, evenly lit. It’s so simple and uninvolved that it’s barely ever a participant. It works. It works to create a rigid, predicable image that has a useful but narrow set of applications.
The challenge arises, however, when we want to use backgrounds as an element in our images. Whether it be a field of wheat at sunset or the dazzling lights on the Las Vegas Strip at midnight, it becomes a contributor to our image. Will we use this as a compositional and narrative tool, or to show off our power to buy expensive lenses?
As someone who appreciates language and its correct, accurate use, I am aggravated to conclude that the photography community has completely usurped and perverted the word “bokeh.”
Originally, this term, sometimes loosely translated from Japanese as “blur” or “haze,” referred to the quality of out-of-focus portions of a photograph. Thus, it didn’t describe how far out of focus something was, nor did it describe how much of a photo was out of focus.
It’s been vernacularized. Since we live in a society of abbreviators, it has become a catch-all abbreviation for any occasion we use or see selective focus or shallow depth of field.
We’re all using this term incorrectly, which continues to erode the beauty and precision of language. A good analog for it might be “LOL,” which once stood for “Laughing Out Loud,” but which today is a word unto itself. LOL.
Another enduring myth of photography is the sensor size myth. We see it every day: photographers buy large sensors because they have “better bokeh.” In fact, sensors have no effect on bokeh at all, and their effect on selective focus is thoroughly misunderstood. Depth of field is the result of aperture, focal length and magnification. The reason it is so prevalently associated with sensor size is that with a larger sensor, you have to move closer to the subject to fill the frame with the same lens. Moving closer makes the depth of field shallower, but the sensor size does not.
Maybe what fools most of the people most of the time is that photographers don’t move closer and end up with more of the image out of focus, as in the following examples…
This is all part of a sour evolution of photography from mastery to money. Not only do the camera and lens manufacturers want you to believe their myths, they encourage consumers to espouse these myths, and they do. Not only do we hear a lot of “should I buy XYZ?” but also a frightening amount of “you should but XYZ.” It’s an unambiguous victory for commerce, but a crippling obstacle for artistry.
It’s no secret that I am a lens guy. Old and new, cheap and expensive, I think photographic lenses are fascinating. I have quite a few lenses, from the tiny, dusty, fixed-focus, brassed-up lenses on my Kodak Retina, to the heavy, complex f/2.8 sports and news zooms I use every day. But if you ask me to name an all-time favorite… wow. All those lenses. But, my all-time favorite lens has to be the 85mm.
I have owned three, the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 of 1990s vintage, the Nikkor 85mm f/2.0 of early-80s heritage, and my current 85mm, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G.
Over the years I read that the oldest of the three, the f/2.0, wasn’t great, but my experience differed. It was an amazing lens. The least of the three was the AF from the 90s, optically similar to the others, but built with a lot of plastic, including a plastic bushing in the focus chain that wore out and made the lens stiff. Eventually Nikon stopped supporting it so I could no longer get it repaired, and I stopped using it. I eventually gave it away.
My current 85mm is a real gem. I wrote about it a couple of times right after I got it, but I thought it would be helpful to mention that after three years with this lens in my bag, I use it as often as I can, from weddings to portraits to commercial work, with lots of occasions when I grab it to photograph my wife Abby or our dogs.
Our photographer friend Robert used it to photograph Abby and me in November, and those images are among my favorite all-time images of us.
In class in October, I handed this 85mm to a photography student, Daniel O’Danielle, who used it for about 30 minutes. The next week, she had a new one on her camera. I also recently talked about this lens with another photographer who has one, Dan Marsh, who also sang praises about it.
I thought of all this last night at sunset. I grabbed the 85mm once again and walked out to photograph the peach blossoms in my orchard. It didn’t disappoint me.
I hosted a lunar eclipse party for the so-called SuperBloodWolf Moon Sunday night, Jan. 20 into the early morning hours of Jan. 21. I felt it went exactly as I had hoped, with between ten and 20 in attendance, some watching, some making pictures.
The evening was cold and got colder as the wind gradually picked up. My entourage stuck around in their camp chairs and blankets until the moon turned reddish with a touch of purple and blue, then packed up and went home as the wind continued to increase. The cold got sharp enough that I got my camp coat, the warmest garment I own.
I made the tight images of the moon in its phases with my 1985-vintage Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 IF-ED, mated to its excellent Nikon TC-14 teleconverter. On my Nikon D7100, a camera with a 25mm x 15mm sensor, the full moon still fills up less than a sixth of the frame.
As the totality approached, exposures changed drastically, from the bright-daylight values of the moon in total sun, to brightness values so dim it wasn’t always easy to find the moon easily.
This eclipse had a different look to it than the last lunar eclipse I photographed in 2015, which was yellow and orange, and more contrasty against the night sky.
I was so glad I was able to host an event like this.
My wife Abby owns a 1986 Toyota MR-2 mid-engine roadster. She is its only owner. It’s not her main vehicle, and she doesn’t drive it very often: parts on it are worn out, its technology is a couple of generations old, and it doesn’t do very many things better than her current vehicle, a Nissan Frontier pickup.
But it does do one thing better: it’s fun to drive.
I tell you this because all winter I used my “SUV” cameras, matching Nikon D300S digital cameras, for everything, and when things started to get sunny and green, I decided to give them a break for a few days and shoot with the much older Nikon D2H cameras I have locked up in my office. I don’t use them very often: parts on it are worn out, its technology is a couple of generations old, and it doesn’t do very many things better than the new cameras.
But like Abby’s roadster, the D2H does something very well: it’s fun to shoot. It features perfect, lightning-fast autofocus and an effortless eight frames per second frame rate. Nobody needs the speed and handling of a sports car, but it’s fun. The D2H is also one of the best-built cameras and feels great in-hand.
It’s also fun to make really powerful photos with outdated cameras because it shows the “upgraders” that it really is the photographer, not the camera, making pictures.
I know at least one gearhead out there is going to want to chime in with, “but it’s only a 4.1-megapixel camera, Richard. What if you want to print big?”
I always hear this talk from people who never actually make big prints.
You need to come to my office and look at my big prints… 24×36 inch… and tell me which ones were made with the D2H. You won’t be able to.
So what doesn’t the D2H do well? It doesn’t do well at ISO 1600 and above. It doesn’t have a big, luxurious viewfinder, and it doesn’t have a big, bright monitor on the back. Otherwise, though, this camera does pretty well for 15-year-old technology.
In the month since the end of the basketball season, the D2H has been my main camera for baseball and softball, sunny sky sports, giving the D300Ss a nice rest period, and allowing me to make great pictures and have great fun doing it.
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.
My friend Jamie and I recently reminisced about my first trip to Utah 15 years ago this month, so I took a look at the trip report, which I rewrote and expanded a few years ago. One thing I noted was how great my travel camera at the time, the Minolta DiMage 7i, did, particularly with its beautiful color rendition and spectacular 14-point sunstars.
Add to that the arrival of the holidays, and it’s a perfect time to revisit sunstars, an excellent tool in our photographic toolbox.
I talked about sunstars a time or two before. They are created by lenses as rays extending outward from bright points of light, and help us express a feeling of brightness and brilliance in a scene. Most lenses produce some kind of sunstars, but some lenses produce better ones than others.
The formula for sunstars is pretty basic: if your lens has even-numbered aperture blades, it will produce that number of sunstar rays (six-bladed apertures make six-pointed sunstars.) If you lens has an odd number of aperture blades, your lens should produce twice that number of sunstar rays (seven-bladed apertures make 14-point sunstars.)
That’s the formula, anyway. In practice, it doesn’t always work our quite that way, and in testing today, I had a couple of surprises.
I grabbed some of my lenses I thought would be good sunstar producers and took them out to our Shumard oak tree. With clear skies and brilliant autumn sunshine, I know I would coax most of them into nice-looking sunstars. Most of these lenses are older AF Nikkor lenses with straight seven-blades apertures.
It wasn’t so much a controlled test or a lens shootout, as much as it was me getting a better feel for which lenses I currently own can produce sunstars and to what degree.
All these test images were shot at f/16, a very small aperture, since larger apertures don’t really produce sunstars.
The lack of real aperture blades is also why smartphones produce sunblobs instead of sunstars.
It was fun to run in and out of the house with a different lens each time. Hopefully I have conveyed the power of the this effect, one of my favorites.