Skyward

The eclipsed moon and the constellation Orion are visible in this view of the night sky Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019. This image was made with the Nikon D700 and a 20mm f/2.8 AF Nikkor lens.
The eclipsed moon and the constellation Orion are visible in this view of the night sky Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019. This image was made with the Nikon D700 and a 20mm f/2.8 AF Nikkor lens.
The author's 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor points skyward toward the lunar eclipse of Jan. 20, 2019.
The author’s 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor points skyward toward the lunar eclipse of Jan. 20, 2019.
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Super Blood Wolf Moon

The lunar eclipse of Jan. 20-21, 2019 is the last total lunar eclipse visible across the United States for the next 18 years.
The lunar eclipse of Jan. 20-21, 2019 is the last total lunar eclipse visible across the United States for the next 18 years.

I hosted a lunar eclipse party for the so-called Super Blood Wolf 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 earth's moon is visible in the upper left portion of this frame as it becomes eclipsed by the shadow of the earth Sunday night, Jan. 20, 2019. The constellation Orion is visible in the upper right section of the frame, shot from the Pontotoc Technology Center in Ada. I made this images with my aging but excellent AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.
The earth’s moon is visible in the upper left portion of this frame as it becomes eclipsed by the shadow of the earth Sunday night, Jan. 20, 2019. The constellation Orion is visible in the upper right section of the frame, shot from the Pontotoc Technology Center in Ada. I made this images with my aging but excellent AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.
My old 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor isn't a telescope, but it can make decent pictures of the moon.
My old 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor isn’t a telescope, but it can make decent pictures of the moon.

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.

A group of intrepid sky gazers brave cold temperatures as they watch as the lunar Eclipse of Jan. 20, 2019 at the Pontotoc Technology Center.
A group of intrepid sky gazers brave cold temperatures as they watch as the lunar Eclipse of Jan. 20, 2019 at the Pontotoc Technology Center.

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.

Details are visible in this images as the Earth's shadow creeps upwards on the face of the moon Sunday night, Jan. 20.
Details are visible in this images as the Earth’s shadow creeps upwards on the face of the moon Sunday night, Jan. 20.

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.

The moon moves into the shadow of the earth in this 75-minute composite image of the lunar eclipse Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, viewed from the Pontotoc Technology Center in Ada.
The moon moves into the shadow of the earth in this 75-minute composite image of the lunar eclipse Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, viewed from the Pontotoc Technology Center in Ada.
1+

A Camera Like a Sports Car

The Nikon D2H digital camera was Nikon's news and sports flagship camera in 2003. I have three working D2Hs, and I get them out once in a while and make great images with them.
The Nikon D2H digital camera was Nikon’s news and sports flagship camera in 2003. I have three working D2Hs, and I get them out once in a while and make great images with them.

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.

Abby has owned her Toyota MR-2 since she bought it new in 1986.
Abby has owned her Toyota MR-2 since she bought it new in 1986.

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?”

  1. I always hear this talk from people who never actually make big prints.
  2. 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.
Want to get more compliments on your sports photos? Your first purchase should be a lens, followed by some training in how to use it. Your camera, whatever it is, isn't the problem.
Want to get more compliments on your sports photos? Your first purchase should be a lens, followed by some training in how to use it. Your camera, whatever it is, isn’t the problem.

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.

What makes an image like this work is attentive sports photography technique, and a decent lens, in this case my AF-S 300mm f/4.
What makes an image like this work is attentive sports photography technique, and a decent lens, in this case my AF-S 300mm f/4.
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Teaching Old Glass New Tricks

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

Fellow photographer Robert and I were musing on the phone yesterday about the demise of “digital film,” a product that tried to gain traction in the late 1990s when the future of photography was still hazy. The idea of digital film was to manufacture a cassette that could be inserted into existing film camera so they could make digital photos.

inspiration...
For my birthday one year, my wife Abby bought nearly a dozen antique cameras and hid them around the house for me to find like Easter eggs.

It turned out that one company, Silicon Film, got as far as a prototype before camera makers managed to get the price of purpose-built digital cameras into the affordable range.

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

Why would anyone have gone this route instead of just buying a Nikon D1? Well, we all had tons of great 35mm film equipment sitting around, for which we paid a lot, and which was still working fine. What if, instead of shelving all those Nikon F100s and F5s and Canon ESO-1s, and shelling out $5000 for a D1 or 1D, we could insert a cassette with a digital sensor in place of a film cassette?

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

It turned out the idea was mostly vaporware, and while most people believe this was due to technical hurdles, I believe it was at least as much the fault of marketing and profitability obstacles: why sell accessories at small margins when we could be selling new cameras at huge markups?

Today we see more attempts at the concept like PSEUDO, I’m Back and Frankencamera (though RE-35 was a branding experiment and April Fool’s joke) and I wish them luck.

A Call to Action?
One concern that remains difficult to solve even after all this time is how to trigger the sensor so it knows when to record. My idea, which I haven’t seen iterated on the web, is a tiny infrared beam striking the shutter blade that switches on the sensor when the shutter begins to move.

Finally, with excellent, affordable digital cameras in abundance all around us, why would even be of interest in 2018? Answer: for the same reason lomography has it’s niche, to allow us to expand artistically. There are millions of idle film cameras sitting on shelves from our own home here in Oklahoma to the towering apartments of Hong Kong that could be put to use in some worthwhile endeavor.

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

As an artist, I find this idea very compelling. As Robert and I talked, one question he asked was, “So are we talking about shooting with old glass?” Yes, I think so. Old lenses, though often not as sharp (since they were designed and built by hand in a bygone era) can create images with a unique and engaging character. Oklahoman photographer Doug Hoke does this all the time when he shoots 40-year-old lenses on his mirrorless cameras. Filters in smartphone applications like Instagram mimic the look of film and old lenses.

I love this idea, and not just for 35mm. My wife and I have more than a dozen old cameras sitting around of various formats, including a beautiful, working 100-year-old Kodak No. 2A Folding Cartridge Premo 116 format  conventional film camera making a 4.5 x 2.5 inch image, and a couple of Polaroids that make 4 x 5 inch images. If there were a way to make digital pictures with any or all of these machines, I would happily do so, and in doing, hopefully open up another artistic avenue for my work.

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

Brilliant afternoon sun shines behind Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah in November 2002, the first time I photographed it. Note the beautiful 14-point sunstar made by the Minolta DiMage 7i's seven-bladed aperture.
Brilliant afternoon sun shines behind Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah in November 2002, the first time I photographed it. Note the beautiful 14-point sunstar made by the Minolta DiMage 7i’s seven-bladed aperture.
My AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 sits on a camera recently.
My AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 sits on a camera recently.

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.

The nine-bladed apertures of many telephoto lenses, like my 200mm f/2.0, stopped down to f/16, create subtle 18-point sunstars.
The nine-bladed apertures of many telephoto lenses, like my 200mm f/2.0, stopped down to f/16, create subtle 18-point sunstars.
I photographed this Kokopelli-esque cactus at Dog Canyon in southern New Mexico in 2010, with a Fuji camera whose lens had a six-bladed aperture. As you can see, the six-point sunstar tends to fan out the light, and isn't as pretty as other sunstars. I noticed just last night that the movie "Lone Survivor" was filmed with lenses with six-bladed apertures.
I photographed this Kokopelli-esque cactus at Dog Canyon in southern New Mexico in 2010, with a Fuji camera whose lens had a six-bladed aperture. As you can see, the six-point sunstar tends to fan out the light, and isn’t as pretty as other sunstars. I noticed just last night that the movie “Lone Survivor” was filmed with lenses with six-bladed apertures.

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.

The AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 has seven straight (not curved) aperture blades, and makes gorgeous, brilliant sunstars.
The AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 has seven straight (not curved) aperture blades, and makes gorgeous, brilliant sunstars.
I've had the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 since 2005, but seldom used it because of many better options for 24x15mm sensors.
I’ve had the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 since 2005, but seldom used it because of many better options for 24x15mm sensors.

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.

The AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 design dates back to its manual-focus cousin. This lens produces very nice sunstars, evoking a sense of brightness for the viewer.
The AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 design dates back to its manual-focus cousin. This lens produces very nice sunstars, evoking a sense of brightness for the viewer.
Predictably, my 20-year-old AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, with its seven straight aperture blades, sets the standard for beautiful sunstars.
Predictably, my 20-year-old AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, with its seven straight aperture blades, sets the standard for beautiful sunstars.
The disappointment for the day was from my AF 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, which I got for almost nothing on Ebay a few years ago. With seven straight aperture blades, I expected sunstar performance like the 20mm and the 50mm, but as you can see, it's a bit lackluster by comparison.
The disappointment for the day was from my AF 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, which I got for almost nothing on Ebay a few years ago. With seven straight aperture blades, I expected sunstar performance like the 20mm and the 50mm, but as you can see, it’s a bit lackluster by comparison.
I haven't shot with my AF 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 for years because I didn't have 36x24mm sensor, but getting a Nikon D700 recently changed that, and breathed new life into this lens. The sunstar with this lens is quite surprising, since the seven aperture blades are curved, but I have to say I was impressed. If you count, there are 28 rays of light in the sunstar.
I haven’t shot with my AF 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 for years because I didn’t have 36x24mm sensor, but getting a Nikon D700 recently changed that, and breathed new life into this lens. The sunstar with this lens is quite surprising, since the seven aperture blades are curved, but I have to say I was impressed. If you count, there are 28 rays of light in the sunstar.

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.

Part of what attracts me to the sunstar produced by my long-dead Minolta DiMage 7i is the bluish halo in the sunstar, which to me conveys a sense of the brilliance of the light.
Part of what attracts me to the sunstar produced by my long-dead Minolta DiMage 7i is the bluish halo in the sunstar, which to me conveys a sense of the brilliance of the light.
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Funny Lenses and Expensive Lenses

My new free Opteka 500mm f/6.3DG lens sits on one of my D200s earlier this week.
My new free Opteka 500mm f/6.3DG lens sits on one of my D200s earlier this week.
Circular bokeh is a real thing with mirror lenses, as in this out of focus area I made this week with the Opteka 500mm.
Circular bokeh is a real thing with mirror lenses, as in this out of focus area I made this week with the Opteka 500mm.

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.

The black disk in the center of the front of the Opteka 500mm is an optical mirror, the second in the folded light path.
The black disk in the center of the front of the Opteka 500mm is an optical mirror, the second in the folded light path.

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.
One of my first efforts with the Opteka 500mm was this wheat grass at sunrise. I found it ethereal and beautiful.
One of my first efforts with the Opteka 500mm was this wheat grass at sunrise. I found it ethereal and beautiful.

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.
The Opteka 500mm looks ridiculous on its no-name 2x teleconverter, and performs even worse.
The Opteka 500mm looks ridiculous on its no-name 2x teleconverter, and performs even worse.

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.

I shot this police and fire escorted motorcycle toy drive yesterday with the Opteka 500mm, and while it wasn't nearly as sharp as, say, my 300mm f/4, it was quite workable.
I shot this police and fire escorted motorcycle toy drive yesterday with the Opteka 500mm, and while it wasn’t nearly as sharp as, say, my 300mm f/4, it was quite workable.

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.

The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 dwarfs the tiny Nikon 3100 digital camera.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 dwarfs the tiny Nikon 3100 digital camera.

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.

This is the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 on my friend's camera. It is much heavier, larger, and more expensive than my own AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Time and her work will tell if this lens is a champ.
This is the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 on my friend’s camera. It is much heavier, larger, and more expensive than my own AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Time and her work will tell if this lens is a champ.
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A Lens from a Bygone Era

The Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF is as finely-crafted a lens as I have ever owned.
The Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF is as finely-crafted a lens as I have ever owned.

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.

Shot from just a few feet away, and just a few feet from the background, this image of an Open Mic Nyte guest shows just how thin the 200mm's depth of field is at f/2.
Shot from just a few feet away, and just a few feet from the background, this image of an Open Mic Nyte guest shows just how thin the 200mm’s depth of field is at f/2.
My Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 sits nose-down on its retractable, built-in lens hood. It looks big and heavy, but feels even heavier to hold than it looks.
My Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 sits nose-down on its retractable, built-in lens hood. It looks big and heavy, but feels even heavier to hold than it looks.

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.

If you look closely at this image from Monday's Open Mic Nyte, you will see the speaker's left eye is in focus, but her right eye isn't.
If you look closely at this image from Monday’s Open Mic Nyte, you will see the speaker’s left eye is in focus, but her right eye isn’t.
The Nikkor 200mm f/2 is even heavier than it looks, made of steel, brass, and exotic optical glass.
The Nikkor 200mm f/2 is even heavier than it looks, made of steel, brass, and exotic optical glass.

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.”

Very shallow depth of field can be an important tool in the toolbox, particularly when we are trying to express intimacy or, paradoxically, isolation.
Very shallow depth of field can be an important tool in the toolbox, particularly when we are trying to express intimacy or, paradoxically, isolation.
This image from Open Mic Nyte shows the peril of shooting at f2, even for someone experienced in manual focus as I am: his beard is in focus but neither of his eyes are.
This image from Open Mic Nyte shows the peril of shooting at f2, even for someone experienced in manual focus as I am: his beard is in focus but neither of his eyes are.

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.

The Nikkor 200mm f/2 is equipped with a tray to hold a gelatin filter, which I have never used. Note the build quality of body and aperture ring, constructed in the era before plastic, massed-produced lenses became the norm.
The Nikkor 200mm f/2 is equipped with a tray to hold a gelatin filter, which I have never used. Note the build quality of body and aperture ring, constructed in the era before plastic, massed-produced lenses became the norm.

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.

The fit and finish on my Nikkor 200mm f/2.0, though worn, is absolutely luxurious.
The fit and finish on my Nikkor 200mm f/2.0, though worn, is absolutely luxurious.

 

1+

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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