The Sweet Little 35mm

Hawken, our ten month old Irish Wolfhound, puts his paws on the gate at the back of the garage. Shot with my AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 at f/1.8, it is sharp, and exhibits a pleasing selective focus.
Hawken, our ten month old Irish Wolfhound, puts his paws on the gate at the back of the garage. Shot with my AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 at f/1.8, it is sharp, and exhibits a pleasing selective focus.
I bought my first 35mm lens, the venerable Nikkor f/2.0, in 1987. I later sold it to modernize, but sometimes miss its build and feel.
I bought my first 35mm lens, the venerable Nikkor f/2.0, in 1987. I later sold it to modernize, but sometimes miss its build and feel.

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.”

My AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 makes a nice, compact package on my D7100.
My AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 makes a nice, compact package on my D7100.
Shooting into the partially shaded setting sun can be a challenge for a lesser lens, but in most situations, the 35mm f/1.8 makes it sing.
Shooting into the partially shaded setting sun can be a challenge for a lesser lens, but in most situations, the 35mm f/1.8 makes it sing.
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 saw this guy shooting at an event in June with a Canon 85mm f/1.2. Big lens or small, this guy was too far from the subject to take advantage of focal length or aperture.
I saw this guy shooting at an event in June with a Canon 85mm f/1.2. Big lens or small, this guy was too far from the subject to take advantage of focal length or aperture.
One minor flaw of the AF-S 35mm f/1.8 is its tendency to flare pink in the background. It's fixable in Photoshop, but it is a flaw.
One minor flaw of the AF-S 35mm f/1.8 is its tendency to flare pink in the background. It’s fixable in Photoshop, but it is a flaw.

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.

If you are really serious about creaming your backgrounds into washes of soft colors, nothing challenges longer telephotos, like in this image, made with my AS Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 at f/2.8.
If you are really serious about creaming your backgrounds into washes of soft colors, nothing challenges longer telephotos, like in this image, made with my AS Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 at f/2.8.
The 35mm f/1.8's most endearing feature has to be its compact size and light weight, making it a perfect inconspicuous street lens.
The 35mm f/1.8’s most endearing feature has to be its compact size and light weight, making it a perfect inconspicuous street lens.

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.

I consider the 35mm f/1.8 an excellent, nearly viceless lens, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone shooting a Nikon with a 24mm x 15mm sensor.
I consider the 35mm f/1.8 an excellent, nearly viceless lens, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone shooting a Nikon with a 24mm x 15mm sensor.
Abby smiles for me as I photograph her near the famous Bellagio Fountains on the Las Vegas Strip, shot with the 35mm f/1.8 wide open. Note how gracefully the lights and colors are rendered by this lens.
Abby smiles for me as I photograph her near the famous Bellagio Fountains on the Las Vegas Strip, shot with the 35mm f/1.8 wide open. Note how gracefully the lights and colors are rendered by this lens.
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Your Next Lens

Our great niece Teddy Lauren Brown poses for a classic letter-jacket senior portrait Saturday evening in Duncan, Oklahoma. This image was made with one of my all-time favorite lenses, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, mounted on my Nikon D7100.
Our great niece Teddy Lauren Brown poses for a classic letter-jacket senior portrait Saturday evening in Duncan, Oklahoma. This image was made with one of my all-time favorite lenses, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, mounted on my Nikon D7100.

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.

This is my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. Lately it has been my favorite lens for everything from portraits of our dogs to commercial work. I can't say enough good things about it.
This is my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. Lately it has been my favorite lens for everything from portraits of our dogs to commercial work. I can’t say enough good things about it.

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.

Teddy poses in a hay field east on Duncan, Oklahoma. At the risk of editorializing, our little Teddy has certainly grown up.
Teddy poses in a hay field east on Duncan, Oklahoma. At the risk of editorializing, our little Teddy has certainly grown up.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we took advantage of a characteristic of large-aperture lenses, their inclination to flare when light strikes their large front elements. This moody look was exactly what we wanted, and movie fans will laugh to learn that we called this the "Gladiator" pose.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we took advantage of a characteristic of large-aperture lenses, their inclination to flare when light strikes their large front elements. This moody look was exactly what we wanted, and movie fans will laugh to learn that we called this the “Gladiator” pose.
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.

Teddy and I put our heads together as we create her senior pictures Saturday afternoon into evening. My wife and I shot her brother's senior pictures four years ago.
Teddy and I put our heads together as we create her senior pictures Saturday afternoon into evening. My wife and I shot her brother’s senior pictures four years ago.
Teddy poses in one of Aunt Judy's ponds. A lot of photographers would have followed her in, but I don't like the water.
Teddy poses in one of Aunt Judy’s ponds. A lot of photographers would have followed her in, but I don’t like the water.

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.

My wife Abby poses with Teddy when she was just five years old. The fact that Teddy has been comfortable being photographed by us was a big plus for our session Saturday.
My wife Abby poses with Teddy when she was just five years old. The fact that Teddy has been comfortable being photographed by us was a big plus for our session Saturday.
You can see in my subject's hair clear presence of spherochromatism, a color aberration characteristic of many large-aperture lenses.
You can see in my subject’s hair clear presence of spherochromatism, a color aberration characteristic of many large-aperture lenses.

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.

Teddy hopes to go to nursing school, so one of the outfits she brought was medial scrubs and a stethoscope. For this image, we posed her on one of the bridges at Abby's aunt Judy's pond, where we were enjoying our family reunion.
Teddy hopes to go to nursing school, so one of the outfits she brought was medial scrubs and a stethoscope. For this image, we posed her on one of the bridges at Abby’s aunt Judy’s pond, where we were enjoying our family reunion.
Teddy is a very natural model, and we always have fun photographing her.
Teddy is a very natural model, and we always have fun photographing her.

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.

Our great niece Teddy poses for one of her senior pictures Saturday. We were both pleased with the whole shoot, which I shot entirely with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.
Our great niece Teddy poses for one of her senior pictures Saturday. We were both pleased with the whole shoot, which I shot entirely with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.
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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.
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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.
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The 2017 Solar Eclipse

I made this lunar eclipse sequence (six images placed in one frame using Adobe Photoshop) in September 2015, using my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 lens with a Nikkor 1.4x teleconverter. Even with an effective 560mm focal length, most of the frame was empty.
I made this lunar eclipse sequence (six images placed in one frame using Adobe Photoshop) in September 2015, using my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 lens with a Nikkor 1.4x teleconverter. Even with an effective 560mm focal length, most of the frame was empty.
The web is full of eclipse path maps like this one from NASA. Click it to view it larger.
The web is full of eclipse path maps like this one from NASA. Click it to view it larger.

There is a fair amount of excitement building around the first total eclipse of the sun in the United States in 72 years, on August 21, 2017. Undoubtedly, millions of people will be attempting to view and photograph it, mostly with marginal success using their smartphone cameras.

My wife Abby and I have been planning for this for some time, and expect to include my sister Nicole and her husband Tracey. Our hope is to be in our mother’s home town, Park Hills, Missouri, (known as Flat River for most of her life) on the morning of the eclipse, to stake out a spot from which to witness, and photograph, this event.

Disposable paper eclipse glasses like these are available in ten packs on sites like eBay and Amazon.
Disposable paper eclipse glasses like these are available in ten packs on sites like eBay and Amazon.

Photographing a solar eclipse is challenging. I’ve never photographed, or even seen, one, though Abby and I have photographed several lunar eclipses, and many of the same principals apply.

  • A coworker of mine has a Sigma 150-500mm and a 200-500mm Nikkor, both good starting points for photographing the upcoming color eclipse.
    A coworker of mine has a Sigma 150-500mm and a 200-500mm Nikkor, both good starting points for photographing the upcoming color eclipse.

    Firstly, as you will read on most sites about the upcoming eclipse, don’t look directly at the sun, even for a second or two, and even if it is partially eclipsed by the moon. The only time it is safe to look at it with your naked eye is during the totality, when the disk of the sun (the photosphere) is completely covered by the moon.

  • The weather will play a huge role in viewing this event: read a forecast and try to be someplace with clear skies. Even with planning, there is a chance it might be obscured by clouds.
  • I bought some disposable eclipse glasses, and have looked directly at the sun with them on. They seem to be effective, although I don’t exactly trust them, so I won’t be staring through them at the sun for more than a second or two.
  • Though they appear large in the sky compared to stars and planets, the sun and moon actually occupy a very small area of the sky. Filling the frame with these celestial bodies requires either an astronomical telescope or a very long telephoto lens.
  • When the disk of the sun is visible, normal exposures are not effective without a neutral density filter, in these cases sometimes sold as a solar filter. These act as powerful “sunglasses,” since the photosphere (the surface of the sun) is much brighter than anything on earth.
  • When the sun is eclipsed by the moon, exposure values are hundreds of times darker than before. Camera settings can go from f/16 at 1/1000th of a second to f/4 at one, two, ten seconds or longer depending on conditions. The most interesting thing to photograph during the totality is the solar corona, which is very faint compared to the photosphere.
  • Cell phones, point-and-shoot cameras, and cameras with the ever-popular “kit lens” will be unable to fill the frame with anything useful during an eclipse, as we have see time and again during lunar eclipses.
  • A rock-solid tripod will be indispensable, particularly during totality when exposures will be long.
  • The ultimate solution to this photographic puzzle would be to use a real (and very expensive) astronomical telescope.
  • Someone recently told me the best approach of all would be to find a spot, relax, and enjoy the eclipse, then buy a photograph or enjoy all the posts on the web. That’s certainly a valid point of view, but I am a photographer, and feel like I should be shooting this, which I will very much enjoy.

There are maps and other useful information at the Eclipse 2017 web site.

Abby made this 2007 eclipse photo with her 75-300mm lens at 300mm, giving an idea of how small the sun and moon appear even with this long telephoto.
Abby made this 2007 eclipse photo with her 75-300mm lens at 300mm, giving an idea of how small the sun and moon appear even with this long telephoto.
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A Little More 50mm Magic

A quiet moment: my wife was asleep and I was doing laundry when I spotted the light being perfect on this metal lizard sculpture on one of our glass end tables. Few lenses could have rendered this image as gracefully as the 50mm f/1.4.
A quiet moment: my wife was asleep and I was doing laundry when I spotted the light being perfect on this metal lizard sculpture on one of our glass end tables. Few lenses could have rendered this image as gracefully as the 50mm f/1.4.
Regardless of the camera format you use, the 50mm lens remains easy to manufacture due to its size in human terms - not so small as to require delicate engineering, and not so large as to require lots of expensive optical glass.
Regardless of the camera format you use, the 50mm lens remains easy to manufacture due to its size in human terms – not so small as to require delicate engineering, and not so large as to require lots of expensive optical glass.

When I recommend a prime (non-zoom) lens, one of the first I encourage someone to buy is a 50mm, which is a great choice for a lot of reasons: it’s lightweight, small, affordable, and, above all, offers a large maximum aperture. In a world in which top large-aperture zoom lenses can cost $2500, it’s nice to have an option that might cost a tenth that.

It’s easy to see why such a lens would appeal for low-light sports action, kids blowing out birthday candles, and magic moments under the Christmas tree. I grab mine all the time at home, from photos of my lovely wife, our derpy dogs, or the beauty of nature on our little patch of the country.

Our black walnut tree takes on the mix of light just at sunset at our home recently. The 50mm f/1.4's excellent selective focus ability and pleasing bokeh rendered the background as a wash of soft color.
Our black walnut tree takes on the mix of light just at sunset at our home recently. The 50mm f/1.4’s excellent selective focus ability and pleasing bokeh rendered the background as a wash of soft color.
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Amping and Upping the Game

My AF-S 300mm f/4 Nikkor is shown mounted on my Tamron 1.4x teleconverter, on my Nikon D300S, at Thursday's Allen Mustangs baseball playoff game.
My AF-S 300mm f/4 Nikkor is shown mounted on my Tamron 1.4x teleconverter, on my Nikon D300S, at Thursday’s Allen Mustangs baseball playoff game.

Last fall my newspaper bought me a new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4 telephoto lens to replace my nearly 20-year old AF 300mm. I’ve been shooting with it nonstop since then, since it is a bread-and-butter lens for long sports like baseball, softball, soccer, daytime football, tennis, and golf.

As baseball season has evolved this spring, I decided to up my game by adding my 1.4x teleconverter to my 300mm, making it a 420mm f/5.6. The 300mm already filled up the frame nicely, but I was looking for more.

Shooting super tight like that has some serious drawbacks, drawbacks that will completely discourage amateurs from keeping it up. The biggest problem is that your action moves out of the frame, or the frame moves away from the action, with little provocation. The other problem is that since the subjects are moving so much in the frame, the focus tends to bite on the background.

It's all about eyes and faces, and nothing gets into them better than a super telephoto lens like a 300mm or longer.
It’s all about eyes and faces, and nothing gets into them better than a super telephoto lens like a 300mm or longer.

I was shooting playoffs last week next to Oklahoman photographer Sarah Phipps, who was shooting with her 400mm, and she said, “There’s something about the crowd that attracts the focus,” noting that some of her image were back focused. It’s a burden we all must bear.

Amateurs deal with these issues by zooming out. Much of the time I see their 70-300mm zooms at their widest settings, since they can see more of the field that way. But their images definitely suffer. It’s one of the reasons I sometimes prefer a “prime” (fixed focal length) lens – I can’t, and therefore don’t, zoom out when the action fills up the frame.

I have a 400mm, but it’s heavy and awkward on its monopod, so almost all the time, I shoot with the new 300mm and my Tamron 1.4 converter. I was surprised at how well this cheaper converter took to the new 300, but I think it’s just that the 300mm is so sharp that when the converter takes its sharpness down a notch, it’s still on one of the top rungs of sharpness.

From the first base dugout at Oklahoma City's Dolese Youth Park, the 300mm plus the 1.4x teleconverter really fills up the frame with second base action.
From the first base dugout at Oklahoma City’s Dolese Youth Park, the 300mm plus the 1.4x teleconverter really fills up the frame with second base action.
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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.
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Fact and Myth: “Full Frame” vs “Cropped”

I recently sold some older gear to get ahold of this Nikon D700. With 94,325 frames through it when I bought it, it is about halfway through it's life expectancy. The D700 is larger and heavier than most of my other cameras, and it is a luxury to look through a film-sized viewfinder.
I recently sold some older gear to get ahold of this Nikon D700. With 94,325 frames through it when I bought it, it is about halfway through it’s life expectancy. The D700 is larger and heavier than most of my other cameras, and it is a luxury to look through a film-sized viewfinder.

For a couple of decades now, a cacophony of myth and misinformation has stemmed from digital photography regarding sensor size. This all started because professional and advanced amateur digital photography was rooted, for economic reasons, in 35mm film photography.

Not only does the Nikon D700 have a bigger sensor, it has a bigger, and much heavier body.
Not only does the Nikon D700 have a bigger sensor, it has a bigger, and much heavier body.

Driven mostly by the engines of sales and popularity, not necessity or creativity or technical superiority, the 35mm film frame, at 36x24mm, and originally derived from an industrious camera maker wanting to take advantage of surplus film from the burgeoning 1930s motion picture industry, became the standard bearer for image size by the end of the 20th century.

I recently decided to do a little used-for-used sell-and-buy on Ebay to get my hands on a Nikon D700, one of Nikon’s earliest digital cameras equipped with a sensor the size of a 35mm film frame, 36x24mm, sometimes referred to by the misleading name “full frame” because it is the same size as a full frame of film. Nikon calls it “FX,” in contrast to their smaller 24x15mm sensors, which it calls “DX.” 24x15mm sensors are often mistakenly called “cropped” sensors by laymen who don’t fully understand the origins of image size. If it has to have a name, it is most accurately described by its size in millimeters or by the film size closest to it, APS-C (Advanced Photo System type-C).

The lazy-writing web world often calls full frame “FF” in forum posts.

  • Do full frame sensors have “better depth of field”? No. I was eager to debunk this one because I already knew the answer, and because it is an embarrassment to photography that everyone is so eager to believe this. Depth of field is controlled by two factors: magnification and aperture. The reason this myth seems to be true is that to get the same composition on a 36x24mm as on a smaller sensor, one has to either get closer or use a longer focal length, both of which increase magnification to create shallower depth of field. At identical distances, focal lengths and apertures, depth of field is identical. If you don’t believe me, here is the proof…
To prevent confirmation bias, I won't say which of these images is made with which sensor size. 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Vs...
To prevent confirmation bias, I won’t say which of these images is made with which sensor size. 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Vs…
... 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Can you tell me which one is which?
… 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Can you tell me which one is which?
  • Is an aperture of f/2 on a larger sensor “equivalent” in light gathering capacity to f/1.4 on a smaller sensor? No. I heard this one asserted by Tony and Chelsea Northrup on their YouTube channel, and I couldn’t believe my ears at the time. (They also refer to “ISO” as a name – “Eyesoh,” which it is not). I have no idea how they came to this conclusion, but this and the popularity of their channel has done nothing but muddy the waters on issues like this. Simply put, f number is a fraction describing the ratio between the focal length of a lens and the diameter of the opening. A 50mm f/2, for example, has an opening of 25mm. 50 divided by 2 equals 25. A specific aperture value lets the same amount of light through the lens regardless of what size of film or sensor is on the other side.

    Nikon badges all of its 36x24mm sensor cameras with this "FX" badge.
    Nikon badges all of its 36x24mm sensor cameras with this “FX” badge.
  • Will a larger sensor give life back to my wide angle lenses? Yes, with some caveats. A 20mm lens that was a mediocre lens on a smaller sensor has now been restored to its film-days glory as an ultra wide lens. While this is certainly nice if you have a bunch of old wide angle lenses, today many manufacturers make very wide angle lenses for smaller sensors. I have several myself, and I am able to get as wide as I need, including ultra-ultra-wide using my 10-17mm fisheye and uncurving it in Photoshop.
I shot this today with my 18-35mm at 18mm on the D700.
I shot this today with my 18-35mm at 18mm on the D700.
I shot this today with my 12-24mm at 12mm on the D300S.
I shot this today with my 12-24mm at 12mm on the D300S.
  • Will my telephoto lenses will be less telephoto-y on a larger sensor? Yes. This is the reason sports and wildlife photographers got away from large and medium format film as soon as 35mm was available: just as larger sensors make wide angles wider, they make telephotos wider, since they are projecting their images onto a larger surface. Many top sports and bird photographers very much prefer 24x15mm sensors for just this reason, and this has been a leading marketing tag for Nikon’s flagship 24x15mm camera, the D500.
These are some of the wide angle lenses my office and I own that will see the light of day more now that I have a 36x24mm sensor. From left to right are the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8, the AF Nikkor 20mm, the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, and the Sigma AF 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5.
These are some of the wide angle lenses my office and I own that will see the light of day more now that I have a 36x24mm sensor. From left to right are the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8, the AF Nikkor 20mm, the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, and the Sigma AF 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5.
  • Are larger sensors better at capturing low-light scenes due to the pixels themselves being larger? Yes. If you compare a 36x24mm sensor against a 24x15mm sensor of the same pixel count, assuming the sensors are of the same era and treated with the same renderings, noise will be lower in the larger sensor. This is true because the pixels themselves, the tiny light-sensing devices inside the integrated circuit in the middle of the camera, are larger, and can gather more light, thus requiring less amplification of the signals they produce. In practice, though, this rule doesn’t hold much water. There are many smaller-sensor cameras that make incredibly low-noise images, and most cameras with larger than “full frame” sensors do not.
Though quite rare, I was able to spot this Nikon D700 "street photographer" on the Plaza in Santa Fe, one place you would expect to see a jillion street photographers. Of note is the not-very-good lens he has mounted on it.
Though quite rare, I was able to spot this Nikon D700 “street photographer” on the Plaza in Santa Fe, one place you would expect to see a jillion street photographers. Of note is the not-very-good lens he has mounted on it.

The craving for lower noise at higher ISOs is a symptom of photographers being too lazy to master what matters most, light. Additionally, there is a lot of pretense on the photo forums (like photo.net, which recently changed formats and is now unviewable) about, “wanting to do more street photography.” The truth is that most of time people who make this claim just want to be able to say, “I have this camera and that lens,” and don’t make very many photos. All you have to do to discover this truth is walk the streets and count the photographers: ≈ 0.

  • Are “multiplier” or “crop factor” numbers useful? No. These numbers are all over the place, and only exist so camera makers can muddy the waters of what you should buy. 1.5x “crop factor” or 2x “multiplier” is only helpful if you go from one format to the other constantly while shooting. A far better way to understand this is to know your camera, and know what does what. For example, suppose your camera is a “four thirds” format (18x13mm). A 14mm is a wide angle lens, and a 200mm is a super-telephoto.
  • Is it worth it to “upgrade” to a larger sensor? No. Anyone who asks this question isn’t ready to take advantage of the subtle differences offered by a larger sensor, and larger sensors are disproportionally more expensive. If you need a larger sensor, you already know it.
You can see from the brassing and smoothing of the working surfaces of my "new" used Nikon D700 that it's been put to work. This is how I prefer to buy cameras, since I am going to wear them out myself in short order.
You can see from the brassing and smoothing of the working surfaces of my “new” used Nikon D700 that it’s been put to work. This is how I prefer to buy cameras, since I am going to wear them out myself in short order.
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Why Isn’t My Fifty Nifty?

What's the difference between this $440 50mm and this $80 kit lens? Nothing at f/11.
What’s the difference between this $440 50mm and this $80 kit lens? Nothing at f/11.

There is a saying among gun owners. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people with guns.”

This slogan is an ideal analog to what I often see when people buy a new lens like the marvelous and under-recognized 50mm f/1.8. “Lenses don’t make pictures. People make pictures with lenses.”

For decades almost every SLR camera you saw at camera stores had a 50mm on it, often the cheap, light, forgiving, sharp 50mm f/1.8. To this day, they remain an excellent addition to anyone's camera bag.
For decades almost every SLR camera you saw at camera stores had a 50mm on it, often the cheap, light, forgiving, sharp 50mm f/1.8. To this day, they remain an excellent addition to anyone’s camera bag.

This lens has earned it the nickname “Nifty Fifty” over the years because it is affordable and capable of delivering beautiful results. But…

Any lens is a tool, and if you use a tool wrong, it won’t give you the results you want. All lenses are the same at f/11 in midday sun with your knees locked. A 50mm f/1.8 and an 18-55mm kit lens are the same at f/11. You might as well shoot with your phone or a point-and-shoot.

Taking advantage of tools like large-aperture lenses requires aggressive techniques, including moving yourself and using those large apertures. You didn’t buy an f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens to shoot it in Program mode or worse, green box mode, and have the camera choose every mediocre compromise it can.

So if you find yourself with a nifty little 50mm in your hands, take it to the limits – get close, shoot wide open, see the light. Only then can you discover why a lens like this is a great tool.

This image was made with a 50mm lens at f/16. Calling it lackluster is an understatement.
This image was made with a 50mm lens at f/16. Calling it lackluster is an understatement.
This was made with the same 50mm as the previous image, same position, same light, same ISO, same white balance. The only difference is it was shot at f/1.8. Suddenly the image is interesting.
This was made with the same 50mm as the previous image, same position, same light, same ISO, same white balance. The only difference is it was shot at f/1.8. Suddenly the image is interesting.
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Flare and Ghosting

I was shooting last night at a basketball tournament with a lens with a notable tendency to exhibit ghosting, the Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5. You can see the obvious blue blobs adjacent to the ceiling lights.
I was shooting last night at a basketball tournament with a lens with a notable tendency to exhibit ghosting, the Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5. You can see the obvious blue blobs adjacent to the ceiling lights.

You see the terms “flare” and “ghosting” bantered around a lot, particularly when reading the photography web about lenses. Put simply, these terms describe reflections that occur inside lens elements within lenses and filters, and reflections between the lens and the imaging sensor.

The Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5 is prone to ghosting because of its huge, bulging front element. The ghosts are usually blue because of the blue multicoating on the surface of the element.
The Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5 is prone to ghosting because of its huge, bulging front element. The ghosts are usually blue because of the blue multicoating on the surface of the element.

Flare, sometimes called “veiling glare,” is a tendency for light to fill the frame and obscure the subject, and ghosting is the appearance of objects in the frame often shaped like blobs or like the shape of the lens’ aperture.

Some lenses are resistant to flare, while others will flare with little provocation. Generally, but not always, single focal length (“prime”) lenses flare less than zoom lenses (which have more, often many more, lens elements inside), and generally, top quality lenses flare less than cheap lenses, and “fast” (large aperture) lenses flare more than lenses of more modest maximum apertures.

I hunted down this image today with the expressed purpose of creating flare. It wasn't hard, since I chose a lens, my Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8, notoriously prone to flare, and a subject, the blinding sun, one of the chief causes of flare and ghosting.
I hunted down this image today with the expressed purpose of creating flare. It wasn’t hard, since I chose a lens, my Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8, notoriously prone to flare, and a subject, the blinding sun, one of the chief causes of flare and ghosting.

Flare and ghosting are almost always a consequence of having bright light source in the frame; a window, a street light, the sun, or headlights, for example. Lens hoods, which I always use to protect my lenses, are not very effective at controlling flare because they are often not quite large enough, and you will often see me shading my lens with my hand when shooting into a bright light source.

Flare and ghosting are reduced by using smaller apertures.

Finally, flare and ghosting, while referred to as an aberration in technical talk, can often contribute to the success of an image. Some fine art photographers use older lenses, for example, to convey a sense of “vintage” in their images. I know a wedding photographer whose entire look is based on flare at sunset. In my own work, I often use flare and ghosting to convey a sense of brightness that might not otherwise be expressable.

This wildflower image works in part through my use of flare and ghosting, which you can see running top left to bottom right. This scattering of light helps express the brightness and slight dream-like quality of the moment.
This wildflower image works in part through my use of flare and ghosting, which you can see running top left to bottom right. This scattering of light helps express the brightness and slight dream-like quality of the moment.
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First Look: AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G

Our new AF-S Nikkor 50mm F/1.4G is pictured mounted on my Nikon D7100.
Our new AF-S Nikkor 50mm F/1.4G is pictured mounted on my Nikon D7100.

It seems that every January my wife Abby and I log in to our credit card rewards site to see how many points we have accumulated in the past year. She then picks out a couple of items and gives the rest of the points to me. This year I was able to purchase a new iPad Pro, as well as the topic of this post, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.

I consider this lens to belong to both of us, which is true for everything we own, really.

I let Abby have the first turn with it, and she was delighted. She remarked that it showed fast, decisive autofocus and a nice bright viewfinder image, and it felt about right in her slender hands. She photographed Max the Chihuahua with it first, and as you can see, the results were pleasing…

Max looks up at me from Abby's lap is this image made with our new 50mm f/1.4 lens set at f/1.8 and about 1/125fh of a second at ISO 800. As you can see, it is tack sharp, and the background melts away gracefully.
Max looks up at me from Abby’s lap is this image made with our new 50mm f/1.4 lens set at f/1.8 and about 1/125fh of a second at ISO 800. As you can see, it is tack sharp, and the background melts away gracefully.
The AF Nikkor f/1.8D, left, sits next to its replacement, the larger and more modern AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
The AF Nikkor f/1.8D, left, sits next to its replacement, the larger and more modern AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.

I know what you’re going to say: Richard, don’t you always recommend the much cheaper 50mm f/1.8? Yes I do, and the truth is that I would never have paid cash for the f/1.4, but with a large number of accumulated rewards points made it easier to spring for its luxury. And the more I thought about it, the more I decided I wanted to have at least one f/1.4 lens in my bag.

Considerable larger than the f/1.8 it replaces, this lens comes with a large plastic bayonet-mounted hood. Mounted on my D7100, it makes a handsome, well-balanced package.

The 50mm f/1.4 is a smart-looking lens, seen here mounted on my Nikon D7100.
The 50mm f/1.4 is a smart-looking lens, seen here mounted on my Nikon D7100.
From left to right are my next-generation large-aperture lenses, the AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f1.8G.
From left to right are my next-generation large-aperture lenses, the AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f1.8G.

Though there was nothing wrong with my old 50mm f/1.8, it is missing a feature common to the new Nikkors, AF-S, which uses motors inside the lens to move the focussing elements. This benefit is twofold, with focus being faster and internal, as well as allowing the photographer to turn the focus ring any time to focus manually.

Finally, we usually own and shoot with large-aperture lenses at their largest apertures, since we didn’t pay a premium price to shoot them at f/11, which even the cheapest 18-55mm kits lens does with ease. One of my goals with the lens will be to push the limits selective focus at very large apertures. I’ve only shot a few frames with it wide open (f/1.4), but early tests indicate what I expected: depth of field of just a few millimeters, powerful selective focus, and pleasing bokeh.

I am excited to have this tool in my toolbox.

After Christmas I kept these lights out of the decoration boxes in the rafters for just this purpose: experimenting with very large apertures. As you can see, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 exhibits acceptable sharpness in the focus area, and beautiful out-of-focus regions. I look forward to experimenting with it more, then putting this lens into service for things like weddings, night photography, and portraits.
After Christmas I kept these lights out of the decoration boxes in the rafters for just this purpose: experimenting with very large apertures. As you can see, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 exhibits acceptable sharpness in the focus area, and beautiful out-of-focus regions. I look forward to experimenting with it more, then putting this lens into service for things like weddings, night photography, and portraits.
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The Gift of Aperture

Someone asked me the other day which shooting mode I use most, and I told them 90% of the time I shoot in Aperture Priority.
Someone asked me the other day which shooting mode I use most, and I told them 90% of the time I shoot in Aperture Priority.

It’s Christmas time again, and with it we photographers find ourselves photographing something very pure to our imaging instincts: Christmas lights. Beautiful and dazzling to the eyes, we love photographing them for several reasons. They are everywhere, they are fun to shoot, and they summon the children inside us who looked on them with amazement all those years ago.

I think about this as I photograph lights for a living, and last night as I photographed the Christmas tree and lights at home. I did a fun little experiment that illustrates the value of mastering aperture: shooting the same scene at apertures through the entire range. It is powerfully illustrative of the effects of aperture…

Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/1.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/1.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/2.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/2.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/22.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/22.

Made with my 50mm f/1.8 lens, one of the best and most affordable lenses in anyone’s bag, these three images are identical except for aperture, which, as you can see, makes a huge difference. Wide open, the out-of-focus highlights are round, at f/2.8, they take on the heptagonal shape of the aperture blades, and at f/22, each bright point of light takes on the classic “sunstar” look.

All three of these unique looks has a place in our photography, and all are right there at our fingertips.

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More Praise for the “Travel Lens”

This image didn't succeed because of my lens choice. The lens was just a tool in the tool box. The most important factor for this image was being at the right place at the right time, and being willing to get out of my car and shoot it despite traffic and the cold.
This image didn’t succeed because of my lens choice. The lens was just a tool in the tool box. The most important factor for this image was being at the right place at the right time, and being willing to get out of my car and shoot it despite traffic and the cold.

My wife Abby and I just returned from our 12th anniversary vacation. We had a great time, and made a lot of great images. Most of those images were made with a lens that has become indispensable for travel, the so-called “walk around” or “travel” lens.

There are a number of iterations of this lens for the various formats (seniors sizes.) In my case the Nikon D7100 sensor is 24mm x 15mm, so my travel lens of choice is the AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G II. On other occasions (and for Abby on our most recent vacation), we use the Fuji HS30EXR “crossover” camera with a non-interchangeable 4.2mm-126mm, which performs a very similar role. For Nikon’s 24mm x 36mm sensor, there is a 28-300mm fits the same role.

The more I use the Nikon D7100 paired with the AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G II for travel photography, the happier I am with them.
The more I use the Nikon D7100 paired with the AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G II for travel photography, the happier I am with them.

In summary, we ask a lot of this class of lenses: be a good wide angle, be a good telephoto, be lightweight, be convenient. In exchange, there are some things we don’t ask of these lenses and they can’t deliver: no large maximum aperture, not very sharp wide open, not quick-focusing enough for sports, and so-on.

Our friend Scott Andersen adopted a slightly different philosophy for travel and hiking, electing to carry more equipment for more specialized work. He joined me for a long hike on this most recent vacation, and carried a Tokina 11-20mm, a Nikkor 50mm, a Nikkor 18-140mm, and a Nikkor 55-300mm, obviously hoping to take advantage of the different strengths of each lens.

If broad overviews are you thing, the 18mm end of the 18-200mm can deliver. Compare this image to the next one, made from the same spot with the same lens...
If broad overviews are you thing, the 18mm end of the 18-200mm can deliver. Compare this image to the next one, made from the same spot with the same lens…

Only you can decide what you like to shoot and what you need in your bag, but I strongly recommend a lens like the 18-200mm for travel, hiking, casual street photography, and more. If I were going to Europe for a month, for example, I would bring this lens and maybe my AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 for the occasional low-light scenario.

Finally, a lot of internet forum members, and I, urge anyone in a lens-buying mood to consider that if paying for more lenses means going on fewer trips or seeing fewer things, that’s probably a mistake. Sitting at home with eight lenses will never be as satisfying as spending ten days on the road with one lens and your imagination.

This image of Candlestick Tower at Canyonlands National Park in Utah was made at the 200mm end of my 18-200mm "travel" lens.
This image of Candlestick Tower at Canyonlands National Park in Utah was made at the 200mm end of my 18-200mm “travel” lens.
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In Praise of the 300mm

The 300mm has the kind of reach that can make the difference between ordinary sports photos and impressive ones, like this image shot earlier this year at Sulphur, Oklahoma.
The 300mm has the kind of reach that can make the difference between ordinary sports photos and impressive ones, like this image shot earlier this year at Sulphur, Oklahoma.

Earlier this year I “bought” (using credit card thank you points) a new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. Regarded as a portrait lens both for its natural perspective at face-filling distances and for its ability to throw backgrounds out of focus when shot at apertures close to its maximum, I am delighted with it. I recently shot a wedding with it, and the images were amazing.

But if you are outdoors and want a lens that will take all this to a new level, you might consider a large-aperture super telephoto. For me, few lenses rival the 300mm, both for its amazing reach and for its ability to render backgrounds completely out of focus.

In April 1985, Scott Andersen and I were walking around New York City when we came across a photographer with a 300mm f/2.8 Nikkor on a monopod. At first we couldn’t quite figure out what he was shooting, but a half a block down the street we saw his pouting fashion model. He was using the 300mm to isolate his subject on the street and throw the background well out of focus.

This is the kind of reach you can get with a 300mm lens, in this case my personally-owned AF Nikkor 300mm f/2.8. Notice that the background is beautifully out of focus and flattering. No matter how hard you try, you'll never get gorgeous selective focus like this with a zoom.
This is the kind of reach you can get with a 300mm lens, in this case my personally-owned AF Nikkor 300mm f/2.8. Notice that the background is beautifully out of focus and flattering. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never get gorgeous selective focus like this with a zoom.

Flash forward 31 years. For years I’ve used a wonderful AF 300mm f/4 Nikkor that my newspaper got used on eBay. It was a workhorse, and occasionally combined with a Tokina 1.4x teleconverter and the so-called 1.5 “crop sensor” factor of my cameras, I had all the reach I needed.

Worth Repeating...
I know I say this a lot, but I am seeing a distinct uptick in a number of people around me who think they can buy a skill by buying a lens, and that’s just not true. Remember: You can’t buy mastery; you have to earn it.
I photographed the workhorse AF 300mm f/4 at a baseball game last spring, showing much of the paint on the metal surfaces showing brass from years of service. This lens died last week.
I photographed the workhorse AF 300mm f/4 at a baseball game last spring, showing much of the paint on the metal surfaces showing brass from years of service. This lens died last week.

Last week the old 300mm f/4’s focus locked up and wouldn’t budge, just as my outdoor playoffs – baseball, soccer, softball, and daytime football – were starting. I tried to fill the gap with hope and a cheap consumer 70-300mm, but I was really feeling the loss. When the repair estimate came back at nearly $500, about what we paid for it in the first place and certainly more than it was worth, I urged my publisher Amy Johns to buy me a new one, and she agreed without hesitation. Props to her for recognizing the value of photography and the equipment it requires, and the value of respecting her staff and their needs.

I had the lens shipped overnight, and put it right into service at a regional playoff baseball game. That’s the way I roll. No test frames. No “playing with it.” Trial by fire.

Before I shot with this beautiful new lens, I photographed it on my desk at work. I later removed the tripod collar, and will probably never use it again.
Before I shot with this beautiful new lens, I photographed it on my desk at work. I later removed the tripod collar, and will probably never use it again.
A closer look at the AF-S 300mm f/4 shows the simple, straightforward controls, including the focus ring, the auto/manual focus switch, the focus limit switch, and the aperture ring. Aperture rings are on their way out of Nikon lens design to save weight and complexity, but still remain on some older designs.
A closer look at the AF-S 300mm f/4 shows the simple, straightforward controls, including the focus ring, the auto/manual focus switch, the focus limit switch, and the aperture ring. Aperture rings are on their way out of Nikon lens design to save weight and complexity, but still remain on some older designs.

I wasn’t disappointed, though I knew I wouldn’t be. Lenses aren’t magic wands. I have a career of experience with the 300mm, and I knew this new one, the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4 ED-IF, would do the job, and due to improvements in autofocus and lens coating technology, it would do it better. Focus is quick and on the money, images are tack sharp, backgrounds are super-clean, and although it is not Nikon’s lightest 300mm, it is lighter and feels better in my hands than the old 300mm.

A coworker saw this lens as I was unboxing it and asked, “It’s just a 300mm?” The prevailing view among many photographers is that a fixed focal length lens, a so-called “prime,” isn’t versatile or exciting enough, but my experience is that my use of prime lenses is responsible for most of my really great images. The 300mm is one of those lenses.

Here is the first frame through my new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4. Thanks to the f/4 maximum aperture, you'd never guess this was shot through the backstop net.
Here is the first frame through my new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4. Thanks to the f/4 maximum aperture, you’d never guess this was shot through the backstop net.
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