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.
I recently used a combination of online coupons and rewards points to “buy” a lens for no dollars, an Opteka 500mm f/6.3DG catadioptric, or “mirror,” lens. If you know anything about my cameras and lenses, you know that I have several lenses in this focal length range, all of which are better mechanically and optically better than this odd piece of hardware.
Catadioptric lenses use the same optical setup of concentric mirrors as very large space telescopes (like the Hubble) to fold the light path, making them much smaller than their refracting counterparts.
Why did I want one?
I wanted to be able to teach first-hand about this class of lenses and how they work.
I missed the first 500mm mirror lens I owned (a Nikon).
I wanted to play around with it.
Play around with it? Is that a real thing? Yes; to me there is no better learning tool than experimentation with the new and the unknown.
I wanted to photograph it.
I wanted to challenge myself to make good images with substandard hardware.
So what is this lens like?
Mechanically, focus is super-stiff, but it may loosen up as I use it.
Optically, I have been surprised that it actually has a sharp zone, though it is shallow and elusive.
Though advertised as “f/6.3”, even the best mirror lenses are only that fast in the center of the image, and vignetting (falloff) is very noticeable, such that I estimate it is about f/11’s brightness at the corners.
It is more compact and better-looking than my Nikkor was, though its engraving, metals and rubber grip ring all seem cheap.
It uses a t-mount to connect to the camera (so you can change camera brands by getting a different t-mount), which screws into the lens, and can unscrew during focusing if it’s not tight on the lens.
It came with the world’s cheapest teleconverter, a 2x, presumably so it could be advertised as both a 500mm and a 1000mm, but it’s impossible to use with the teleconverter due to a dark viewfinder image, an amplification of any camera movement, and the fact that even the best teleconverter is a quality thief.
Mirror lens are noted for their unusual, doughnut-shaped bokeh, which this lens certainly exhibits. Most photographers regard this as “bad bokeh,” but I’ll be treating like a tool in the toolbox.
I’ve already gotten a couple of images shot with it in the daily, so in the strictest sense, it is a pro lens, though I imagine this a case of my ability to extract something decent from fairly weak raw files. Time will tell, I guess, if this nonvestment was worth it, but so far, I’ve had fun with it.
Finally, a couple of posts ago, I talked about my lovely little AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 and why a young photographer friend of mine, Mackenzee Crosby, should buy it instead of the far more expensive Sigma 35mm f1.4, especially since the Sigma was made for a larger imaging sensors than she owned.
She ended up buying the Sigma, which she received as she was walking out the door to attend Monday’s Open Mic Nyte. She and I were able to play with it a bit, and I photographed it. It is heavy and focused smoothly, but I couldn’t tell much else.
I expect she was temped by the elusive maximum aperture, f/1.4, which is tempting. It’s hard for me to flaw her for wanting great hardware – when I was her age, I paid a small fortune for a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 that turned out to be optically disappointing. I hope the Sigma works out for her. My only advice about it would be: wear it out.
I teach the aperture formula to my students because it’s worth knowing why we use inverse, seemingly counterintuitive, numbers to express aperture values: big numbers = small apertures, and small numbers = large apertures. We get this by the formula: focal length divided by lens diameter (at the front opening) equals aperture value. Example: a 50mm lens with a 36mm diameter … 50 ÷ 36 ≈ 1.4. The 50 mm lens in this example has an f/1.4 maximum aperture.
I thought of this recently at Open Mic Nyte, where I have become a regular, and where I like to bring a different lens every time as my “featured lens.” Last Monday, I lugged along my heavy, beautifully-made Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF, a lens which dates back to the late 1970s, and which I acquired in the late 1990s.
If you do the aperture math like in the first paragraph, you find that to get to f2, a 200mm lens needs a 100mm (almost four inches) diameter front element.
To say that this lens is rare is an understatement, since I not only do I seldom use mine, I have never seen another one in the field.
Made of steel and brass, with 11 very large optical glass elements, it weighs 5.3 pounds, and is even heavier than it looks in-hand. It is as smooth to operate as any device I have ever held. Its optics, however, lag behind today’s modern computer-drafted lenses, so it can be a bit quirky to shoot well.
As I researched this post, I discovered several vloggers who asserted that lenses like this, and it’s insanely expensive modern autofocus version, are “hubris” lenses, created by the company and purchased by the customer in the milieu of “the best money can buy,” and not very useful.
One vlogger went as far as to say this lens is for “bokeh sluts.”
Shooting at f/2.0 with this lens makes a very difficult challenge to get the focus where you want it. Since depth of field is a matter of millimeters, moving the focus ring a tiny amount can result of a uselessly out-of-focus image. Of course, you could stop down to f/2.8 or f/4.0, but that defeats the entire idea of carrying and shooting a 200mm f/2. In fact, I have no idea how this lens performs stopped down because I never shoot it stopped down.
I always feel good when I make a point to get this lens out and use it. It certainly creates a unique look with its razor-thin depth of field and deep, deep selective focus. But I think for me, it is a combination of having something no one else can wield and my love of how finely crafted old Nikkor lenses were before the autofocus era.
For much of my career in the film era, one of my favorite lenses was the Nikkor 35mm f/2. The focal length was great in the 35mm film era, and remains great in the digital era for several sensor sizes. Like its brother the 50mm, the 35mm prime (fixed focal length) can be manufactured inexpensively, can be made with a large maximum aperture, and remains small, lightweight, and inconspicuous.
A talented young friend of mine, Mackenzee Crosby, asked me recently about the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. She shoots with a camera sporting a 24mm x 15mm sensor, so the Sigma isn’t really the right choice.
Ken Rockwell has a review of the Sigma, and spells it out pretty clearly about it: “Do not use this lens on Nikon DX cameras simply because the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX is as good optically, better mechanically and compatibility wise, and is smaller, lighter and less expensive.”
Not the lens for me...
I read that the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 requires recalibration every few months using a USB dock and Sigma software, which to me is a bright red flag. When I spend $600, $800, $1200 for a lens, I expect it to serve me long, well, and reliably, not requiring a “patch” every few months to keep it running.
I recommended a lens to her that I have learned to love over the years, the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX. Not only is this lens three or four times less expensive than the Sigma, it is lighter, smaller, and can render backgrounds – the real kernel of this class of lenses – just as beautifully as the Sigma.
As far as rendering backgrounds far out of focus, called selective focus, is concerned, the most powerful tool in the toolbox is the telephoto, not the wider-ish f/1.4s and f/1.8s. I recently talked about my 85mm, but the big guns, longer telephotos like the 70-200mm f/2.8, the 300mm f/2.8, and longer are the real kings.
Also for what it’s worth, I am incredulous that some photographers I know own very expensive large-aperture lenses that they use stopped down two or three stops. The only difference between a 135mm f/1.8 art lens shot at f/4.5 and a 70-300mm kit lens shot at f/4.5 is $1500.
Also, Richard, (you might be asking), why are my friends getting such amazing images with the Sigma 35mm? It’s simply that by shooting on a larger sensor, the 35mm focal length gives a wider field of view, requiring the photographer to get closer in order to fill the frame. Closer + large aperture = shallow depth of field.
If you don’t have a large-maximum-aperture prime (single-focal-length, non-zoom) lens in your bag now, in the fall, before the Christmas season, it’s time to get one. Not only are the customary low-light seasons approaching, it is also time to photograph high school seniors, a growing, popular subset of photography. I had the opportunity to photograph a high school senior this weekend, my great niece (in-law) Teddy, who I have been photographing since she was five.
I can recommend many large-aperture lenses because I have them and use them – the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and the f/1.8, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 – but every camera manufacturer makes great large-aperture lenses.
My 85mm has been my go-to lens for recent commercial work, low light venues like Open Mic Nyte, and for the session recently with Teddy. In addition to being in the classic frame-filling-at-comfortable-distances category, it also can deliver absolutely game-changing selective focus, smoothly and delicately washing backgrounds and foregrounds into smooth, complimentary picture elements.
Even Larger Apertures...
Fellow news photographer and Oklahoman photo chief Doug Hoke and I had lunch when I was in the Metro recently to cover playoffs. Among many other topics, we talked about a lens he’s been enjoying, a Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95. He’s able to use this exotic glass thanks to the fact that his mirrorless cameras have the sensor right behind the lens mount, allowing him to use pretty much any lens in existence, albeit with limitations.
Sometimes my students ask me, “What lens should I get for…?” and the answer is often a non-zoom, or prime. That can be a hard sell sometimes, since zoom lenses are perceived as both more versatile and more fun. But I am here to say that I am often happiest and getting the best stuff when I have a prime in my hands.
Nothing is without a tradeoff, though. In addition to being more expensive than the kit lens that came with your camera, a large-aperture prime is more demanding on your skills and patience. For example, when you shoot a 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, the depth of field is only a few millimeters, so if your focus is off by a couple of inches, not only is it out of focus, it’s way out of focus.
Also, some of these lenses exhibit aberrations, optical flaws, like distortion, chromatic aberration, field curvature, and, especially in the case of my 50mm f/1.4 and my 85mm f/1.8, spherochromatism, in which objects in the near out-of-focus areas take on magenta fringing, and object beyond the focus take on green fringing.
We accept these aberrations and even learn to live with them, although shooting at a smaller aperture makes them go away (except for distortion), because we didn’t spend $1900 on f/1.2 to shoot at f/4. We could do that with our $300 lenses.
Finally is the notion that, “If you don’t have a script, you don’t have a movie,” and my session with Teddy had a strong narrative, both from our planning what to do when and where, but also from the fact that my wife and I have been photographing her since she was five.
Readers of our travel blog saw that our trip to my mother’s hometown in Missouri to witness and photograph the total eclipse of the sun of August 21, 2017 was a complete success.
Photographically, the challenge for me was exposure. I’d never even seen a total eclipse before, and could only guess. The solar corona, an aura of energetic plasma that represents the most visible and photographable attraction of an eclipse, is as much as a million times dimmer than the photosphere of the sun. The internet was little help for numbers on this exposure, which surprised and annoyed me.
For this eclipse, the best exposure was f/8, 1/80th of a second at ISO 640.
I used my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 coupled with its well-matched TC-14 1.4x teleconverter to make a 560mm f/4.5, which I stopped down to f/8 for maximum sharpness and to tame this lens’s slight inclination toward chromatic aberrations. This lens is from the era before autofocus, but was build at a time when quality construction and expensive materials made a photographic instrument of unchallenged capability. In its day, sports photographers often thought and dreamed of little else than this “sweet piece of glass.”
I got my 400mm in 1997 from the long-defunct Photo-Fax.com, a service that catered to us, we who wanted to pay discount prices for top-dollar gear. It’s the longest lens I own.
With the teleconverter, the 560mm focal length was beginning to be long enough to fill the frame with the moon blocking the sun, showing the solar corona…
If you were building an eclipse camera on a budget from scratch, I might consider one of the new Sigma or Tamron 150-600mm lenses. Both companies make 1.4x teleconverters, which makes the 600mm into 840mm, but also robs the lens of a full f/stop of light. (Do the math: f/number = focal length ÷ aperture diameter.) Shooting at f/8.8 results in shutter speeds duing totality of 1/10 at medium ISOs. It’s also worth considering that most telephoto lenses aren’t incredibly sharp at full aperture, and the situation gets complicated.
It probably goes without saying that a sturdy tripod is a must.
Alternatively, you could opt for renting a super telephoto. You can get a Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 AF-S for a weekend for $400 or so.
Don’t bother with the super-cheap 500mm catadioptric (mirror) lenses. They really are junk.
Finally, there are many fine astronomical telescopes with camera adaptors that will do the trick, but their prices are also astronomical.
In less than seven years, another total eclipse will cross the United States, and the path of totality will be even closer to home than this one. On April 8, 2024, Abby and I hope to be in the vicinity of Idabel, Oklahoma, just 148 miles from our home. With the experience I gained from this time, I will plan to expand my goals to include more cameras, more lenses, and more photographic schemes, and hopefully take the next eclipse to the next level.