My wife Abby owns a 1986 Toyota MR-2 mid-engine roadster. She is its only owner. It’s not her main vehicle, and she doesn’t drive it very often: parts on it are worn out, its technology is a couple of generations old, and it doesn’t do very many things better than her current vehicle, a Nissan Frontier pickup.
But it does do one thing better: it’s fun to drive.
I tell you this because all winter I used my “SUV” cameras, matching Nikon D300S digital cameras, for everything, and when things started to get sunny and green, I decided to give them a break for a few days and shoot with the much older Nikon D2H cameras I have locked up in my office. I don’t use them very often: parts on it are worn out, its technology is a couple of generations old, and it doesn’t do very many things better than the new cameras.
But like Abby’s roadster, the D2H does something very well: it’s fun to shoot. It features perfect, lightning-fast autofocus and an effortless eight frames per second frame rate. Nobody needs the speed and handling of a sports car, but it’s fun. The D2H is also one of the best-built cameras and feels great in-hand.
It’s also fun to make really powerful photos with outdated cameras because it shows the “upgraders” that it really is the photographer, not the camera, making pictures.
I know at least one gearhead out there is going to want to chime in with, “but it’s only a 4.1-megapixel camera, Richard. What if you want to print big?”
I always hear this talk from people who never actually make big prints.
You need to come to my office and look at my big prints… 24×36 inch… and tell me which ones were made with the D2H. You won’t be able to.
So what doesn’t the D2H do well? It doesn’t do well at ISO 1600 and above. It doesn’t have a big, luxurious viewfinder, and it doesn’t have a big, bright monitor on the back. Otherwise, though, this camera does pretty well for 15-year-old technology.
In the month since the end of the basketball season, the D2H has been my main camera for baseball and softball, sunny sky sports, giving the D300Ss a nice rest period, and allowing me to make great pictures and have great fun doing it.
Fellow photographer Robert and I were musing on the phone yesterday about the demise of “digital film,” a product that tried to gain traction in the late 1990s when the future of photography was still hazy. The idea of digital film was to manufacture a cassette that could be inserted into existing film camera so they could make digital photos.
For my birthday one year, my wife Abby bought nearly a dozen antique cameras and hid them around the house for me to find like Easter eggs.
It turned out that one company, Silicon Film, got as far as a prototype before camera makers managed to get the price of purpose-built digital cameras into the affordable range.
Why would anyone have gone this route instead of just buying a Nikon D1? Well, we all had tons of great 35mm film equipment sitting around, for which we paid a lot, and which was still working fine. What if, instead of shelving all those Nikon F100s and F5s and Canon ESO-1s, and shelling out $5000 for a D1 or 1D, we could insert a cassette with a digital sensor in place of a film cassette?
It turned out the idea was mostly vaporware, and while most people believe this was due to technical hurdles, I believe it was at least as much the fault of marketing and profitability obstacles: why sell accessories at small margins when we could be selling new cameras at huge markups?
Today we see more attempts at the concept like PSEUDO, I’m Back and Frankencamera (though RE-35 was a branding experiment and April Fool’s joke) and I wish them luck.
A Call to Action?
One concern that remains difficult to solve even after all this time is how to trigger the sensor so it knows when to record. My idea, which I haven’t seen iterated on the web, is a tiny infrared beam striking the shutter blade that switches on the sensor when the shutter begins to move.
Finally, with excellent, affordable digital cameras in abundance all around us, why would even be of interest in 2018? Answer: for the same reason lomography has it’s niche, to allow us to expand artistically. There are millions of idle film cameras sitting on shelves from our own home here in Oklahoma to the towering apartments of Hong Kong that could be put to use in some worthwhile endeavor.
As an artist, I find this idea very compelling. As Robert and I talked, one question he asked was, “So are we talking about shooting with old glass?” Yes, I think so. Old lenses, though often not as sharp (since they were designed and built by hand in a bygone era) can create images with a unique and engaging character. Oklahoman photographer Doug Hoke does this all the time when he shoots 40-year-old lenses on his mirrorless cameras. Filters in smartphone applications like Instagram mimic the look of film and old lenses.
I love this idea, and not just for 35mm. My wife and I have more than a dozen old cameras sitting around of various formats, including a beautiful, working 100-year-old Kodak No. 2A Folding Cartridge Premo 116 format conventional film camera making a 4.5 x 2.5 inch image, and a couple of Polaroids that make 4 x 5 inch images. If there were a way to make digital pictures with any or all of these machines, I would happily do so, and in doing, hopefully open up another artistic avenue for my work.
My friend Jamie and I recently reminisced about my first trip to Utah 15 years ago this month, so I took a look at the trip report, which I rewrote and expanded a few years ago. One thing I noted was how great my travel camera at the time, the Minolta DiMage 7i, did, particularly with its beautiful color rendition and spectacular 14-point sunstars.
Add to that the arrival of the holidays, and it’s a perfect time to revisit sunstars, an excellent tool in our photographic toolbox.
I talked about sunstars a time or two before. They are created by lenses as rays extending outward from bright points of light, and help us express a feeling of brightness and brilliance in a scene. Most lenses produce some kind of sunstars, but some lenses produce better ones than others.
The formula for sunstars is pretty basic: if your lens has even-numbered aperture blades, it will produce that number of sunstar rays (six-bladed apertures make six-pointed sunstars.) If you lens has an odd number of aperture blades, your lens should produce twice that number of sunstar rays (seven-bladed apertures make 14-point sunstars.)
That’s the formula, anyway. In practice, it doesn’t always work our quite that way, and in testing today, I had a couple of surprises.
I grabbed some of my lenses I thought would be good sunstar producers and took them out to our Shumard oak tree. With clear skies and brilliant autumn sunshine, I know I would coax most of them into nice-looking sunstars. Most of these lenses are older AF Nikkor lenses with straight seven-blades apertures.
It wasn’t so much a controlled test or a lens shootout, as much as it was me getting a better feel for which lenses I currently own can produce sunstars and to what degree.
All these test images were shot at f/16, a very small aperture, since larger apertures don’t really produce sunstars.
The lack of real aperture blades is also why smartphones produce sunblobs instead of sunstars.
It was fun to run in and out of the house with a different lens each time. Hopefully I have conveyed the power of the this effect, one of my favorites.
I recently used a combination of online coupons and rewards points to “buy” a lens for no dollars, an Opteka 500mm f/6.3DG catadioptric, or “mirror,” lens. If you know anything about my cameras and lenses, you know that I have several lenses in this focal length range, all of which are better mechanically and optically better than this odd piece of hardware.
Catadioptric lenses use the same optical setup of concentric mirrors as very large space telescopes (like the Hubble) to fold the light path, making them much smaller than their refracting counterparts.
Why did I want one?
I wanted to be able to teach first-hand about this class of lenses and how they work.
I missed the first 500mm mirror lens I owned (a Nikon).
I wanted to play around with it.
Play around with it? Is that a real thing? Yes; to me there is no better learning tool than experimentation with the new and the unknown.
I wanted to photograph it.
I wanted to challenge myself to make good images with substandard hardware.
So what is this lens like?
Mechanically, focus is super-stiff, but it may loosen up as I use it.
Optically, I have been surprised that it actually has a sharp zone, though it is shallow and elusive.
Though advertised as “f/6.3”, even the best mirror lenses are only that fast in the center of the image, and vignetting (falloff) is very noticeable, such that I estimate it is about f/11’s brightness at the corners.
It is more compact and better-looking than my Nikkor was, though its engraving, metals and rubber grip ring all seem cheap.
It uses a t-mount to connect to the camera (so you can change camera brands by getting a different t-mount), which screws into the lens, and can unscrew during focusing if it’s not tight on the lens.
It came with the world’s cheapest teleconverter, a 2x, presumably so it could be advertised as both a 500mm and a 1000mm, but it’s impossible to use with the teleconverter due to a dark viewfinder image, an amplification of any camera movement, and the fact that even the best teleconverter is a quality thief.
Mirror lens are noted for their unusual, doughnut-shaped bokeh, which this lens certainly exhibits. Most photographers regard this as “bad bokeh,” but I’ll be treating like a tool in the toolbox.
I’ve already gotten a couple of images shot with it in the daily, so in the strictest sense, it is a pro lens, though I imagine this a case of my ability to extract something decent from fairly weak raw files. Time will tell, I guess, if this nonvestment was worth it, but so far, I’ve had fun with it.
Finally, a couple of posts ago, I talked about my lovely little AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 and why a young photographer friend of mine, Mackenzee Crosby, should buy it instead of the far more expensive Sigma 35mm f1.4, especially since the Sigma was made for a larger imaging sensors than she owned.
She ended up buying the Sigma, which she received as she was walking out the door to attend Monday’s Open Mic Nyte. She and I were able to play with it a bit, and I photographed it. It is heavy and focused smoothly, but I couldn’t tell much else.
I expect she was temped by the elusive maximum aperture, f/1.4, which is tempting. It’s hard for me to flaw her for wanting great hardware – when I was her age, I paid a small fortune for a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 that turned out to be optically disappointing. I hope the Sigma works out for her. My only advice about it would be: wear it out.
I teach the aperture formula to my students because it’s worth knowing why we use inverse, seemingly counterintuitive, numbers to express aperture values: big numbers = small apertures, and small numbers = large apertures. We get this by the formula: focal length divided by lens diameter (at the front opening) equals aperture value. Example: a 50mm lens with a 36mm diameter … 50 ÷ 36 ≈ 1.4. The 50 mm lens in this example has an f/1.4 maximum aperture.
I thought of this recently at Open Mic Nyte, where I have become a regular, and where I like to bring a different lens every time as my “featured lens.” Last Monday, I lugged along my heavy, beautifully-made Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF, a lens which dates back to the late 1970s, and which I acquired in the late 1990s.
If you do the aperture math like in the first paragraph, you find that to get to f2, a 200mm lens needs a 100mm (almost four inches) diameter front element.
To say that this lens is rare is an understatement, since I not only do I seldom use mine, I have never seen another one in the field.
Made of steel and brass, with 11 very large optical glass elements, it weighs 5.3 pounds, and is even heavier than it looks in-hand. It is as smooth to operate as any device I have ever held. Its optics, however, lag behind today’s modern computer-drafted lenses, so it can be a bit quirky to shoot well.
As I researched this post, I discovered several vloggers who asserted that lenses like this, and it’s insanely expensive modern autofocus version, are “hubris” lenses, created by the company and purchased by the customer in the milieu of “the best money can buy,” and not very useful.
One vlogger went as far as to say this lens is for “bokeh sluts.”
Shooting at f/2.0 with this lens makes a very difficult challenge to get the focus where you want it. Since depth of field is a matter of millimeters, moving the focus ring a tiny amount can result of a uselessly out-of-focus image. Of course, you could stop down to f/2.8 or f/4.0, but that defeats the entire idea of carrying and shooting a 200mm f/2. In fact, I have no idea how this lens performs stopped down because I never shoot it stopped down.
I always feel good when I make a point to get this lens out and use it. It certainly creates a unique look with its razor-thin depth of field and deep, deep selective focus. But I think for me, it is a combination of having something no one else can wield and my love of how finely crafted old Nikkor lenses were before the autofocus era.
For much of my career in the film era, one of my favorite lenses was the Nikkor 35mm f/2. The focal length was great in the 35mm film era, and remains great in the digital era for several sensor sizes. Like its brother the 50mm, the 35mm prime (fixed focal length) can be manufactured inexpensively, can be made with a large maximum aperture, and remains small, lightweight, and inconspicuous.
A talented young friend of mine, Mackenzee Crosby, asked me recently about the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. She shoots with a camera sporting a 24mm x 15mm sensor, so the Sigma isn’t really the right choice.
Ken Rockwell has a review of the Sigma, and spells it out pretty clearly about it: “Do not use this lens on Nikon DX cameras simply because the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX is as good optically, better mechanically and compatibility wise, and is smaller, lighter and less expensive.”
Not the lens for me...
I read that the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 requires recalibration every few months using a USB dock and Sigma software, which to me is a bright red flag. When I spend $600, $800, $1200 for a lens, I expect it to serve me long, well, and reliably, not requiring a “patch” every few months to keep it running.
I recommended a lens to her that I have learned to love over the years, the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX. Not only is this lens three or four times less expensive than the Sigma, it is lighter, smaller, and can render backgrounds – the real kernel of this class of lenses – just as beautifully as the Sigma.
As far as rendering backgrounds far out of focus, called selective focus, is concerned, the most powerful tool in the toolbox is the telephoto, not the wider-ish f/1.4s and f/1.8s. I recently talked about my 85mm, but the big guns, longer telephotos like the 70-200mm f/2.8, the 300mm f/2.8, and longer are the real kings.
Also for what it’s worth, I am incredulous that some photographers I know own very expensive large-aperture lenses that they use stopped down two or three stops. The only difference between a 135mm f/1.8 art lens shot at f/4.5 and a 70-300mm kit lens shot at f/4.5 is $1500.
Also, Richard, (you might be asking), why are my friends getting such amazing images with the Sigma 35mm? It’s simply that by shooting on a larger sensor, the 35mm focal length gives a wider field of view, requiring the photographer to get closer in order to fill the frame. Closer + large aperture = shallow depth of field.
If you don’t have a large-maximum-aperture prime (single-focal-length, non-zoom) lens in your bag now, in the fall, before the Christmas season, it’s time to get one. Not only are the customary low-light seasons approaching, it is also time to photograph high school seniors, a growing, popular subset of photography. I had the opportunity to photograph a high school senior this weekend, my great niece (in-law) Teddy, who I have been photographing since she was five.
I can recommend many large-aperture lenses because I have them and use them – the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and the f/1.8, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 – but every camera manufacturer makes great large-aperture lenses.
My 85mm has been my go-to lens for recent commercial work, low light venues like Open Mic Nyte, and for the session recently with Teddy. In addition to being in the classic frame-filling-at-comfortable-distances category, it also can deliver absolutely game-changing selective focus, smoothly and delicately washing backgrounds and foregrounds into smooth, complimentary picture elements.
Even Larger Apertures...
Fellow news photographer and Oklahoman photo chief Doug Hoke and I had lunch when I was in the Metro recently to cover playoffs. Among many other topics, we talked about a lens he’s been enjoying, a Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95. He’s able to use this exotic glass thanks to the fact that his mirrorless cameras have the sensor right behind the lens mount, allowing him to use pretty much any lens in existence, albeit with limitations.
Sometimes my students ask me, “What lens should I get for…?” and the answer is often a non-zoom, or prime. That can be a hard sell sometimes, since zoom lenses are perceived as both more versatile and more fun. But I am here to say that I am often happiest and getting the best stuff when I have a prime in my hands.
Nothing is without a tradeoff, though. In addition to being more expensive than the kit lens that came with your camera, a large-aperture prime is more demanding on your skills and patience. For example, when you shoot a 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, the depth of field is only a few millimeters, so if your focus is off by a couple of inches, not only is it out of focus, it’s way out of focus.
Also, some of these lenses exhibit aberrations, optical flaws, like distortion, chromatic aberration, field curvature, and, especially in the case of my 50mm f/1.4 and my 85mm f/1.8, spherochromatism, in which objects in the near out-of-focus areas take on magenta fringing, and object beyond the focus take on green fringing.
We accept these aberrations and even learn to live with them, although shooting at a smaller aperture makes them go away (except for distortion), because we didn’t spend $1900 on f/1.2 to shoot at f/4. We could do that with our $300 lenses.
Finally is the notion that, “If you don’t have a script, you don’t have a movie,” and my session with Teddy had a strong narrative, both from our planning what to do when and where, but also from the fact that my wife and I have been photographing her since she was five.
Readers of our travel blog saw that our trip to my mother’s hometown in Missouri to witness and photograph the total eclipse of the sun of August 21, 2017 was a complete success.
Photographically, the challenge for me was exposure. I’d never even seen a total eclipse before, and could only guess. The solar corona, an aura of energetic plasma that represents the most visible and photographable attraction of an eclipse, is as much as a million times dimmer than the photosphere of the sun. The internet was little help for numbers on this exposure, which surprised and annoyed me.
For this eclipse, the best exposure was f/8, 1/80th of a second at ISO 640.
I used my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 coupled with its well-matched TC-14 1.4x teleconverter to make a 560mm f/4.5, which I stopped down to f/8 for maximum sharpness and to tame this lens’s slight inclination toward chromatic aberrations. This lens is from the era before autofocus, but was build at a time when quality construction and expensive materials made a photographic instrument of unchallenged capability. In its day, sports photographers often thought and dreamed of little else than this “sweet piece of glass.”
I got my 400mm in 1997 from the long-defunct Photo-Fax.com, a service that catered to us, we who wanted to pay discount prices for top-dollar gear. It’s the longest lens I own.
With the teleconverter, the 560mm focal length was beginning to be long enough to fill the frame with the moon blocking the sun, showing the solar corona…
If you were building an eclipse camera on a budget from scratch, I might consider one of the new Sigma or Tamron 150-600mm lenses. Both companies make 1.4x teleconverters, which makes the 600mm into 840mm, but also robs the lens of a full f/stop of light. (Do the math: f/number = focal length ÷ aperture diameter.) Shooting at f/8.8 results in shutter speeds duing totality of 1/10 at medium ISOs. It’s also worth considering that most telephoto lenses aren’t incredibly sharp at full aperture, and the situation gets complicated.
It probably goes without saying that a sturdy tripod is a must.
Alternatively, you could opt for renting a super telephoto. You can get a Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 AF-S for a weekend for $400 or so.
Don’t bother with the super-cheap 500mm catadioptric (mirror) lenses. They really are junk.
Finally, there are many fine astronomical telescopes with camera adaptors that will do the trick, but their prices are also astronomical.
In less than seven years, another total eclipse will cross the United States, and the path of totality will be even closer to home than this one. On April 8, 2024, Abby and I hope to be in the vicinity of Idabel, Oklahoma, just 148 miles from our home. With the experience I gained from this time, I will plan to expand my goals to include more cameras, more lenses, and more photographic schemes, and hopefully take the next eclipse to the next level.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.