A Light Serving of Light

I recently added the excellent AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G to my bag.
I recently added the excellent AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G to my bag.

With the recent addition of the handsome AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to my bag, I noted that this new lens features an aperture with nine rounded blades, unlike its predecessor, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, which has seven straight aperture blades. The reason this matters to me is that I like to use sunstars in some of my imagery to create the impression of brightness in light sources.

To test the sunstar capabilities of the new 50mm, I grabbed some Christmas lights from the rafters in the garage. With my camera on a tripod so everything would be the same except the lens, I shot some test images, all at f/16 at about 1 second, and made a direct comparison between the new f/1.4 and the older f/1.8.

Readers might recall the formula for sunstars: even-numbered aperture blades make sunstars points of that number, while odd-numbered aperture blades make sunstar points equal to twice the number of aperture blades…

This was shot with my older 50mm f/1.8, which has seven straight aperture blades, and as expected produces crisp 14-point sunstars.
This was shot with my older 50mm f/1.8, which has seven straight aperture blades, and as expected produces crisp 14-point sunstars.
Compare this to the previous image. This was made with the 50mm f/1.4, which has nine rounded aperture blades. I admit to being a little surprised at how well it rendered these 18-point sunstars.
Compare this to the previous image. This was made with the 50mm f/1.4, which has nine rounded aperture blades. I admit to being a little surprised at how well it rendered these 18-point sunstars.

I was quite pleased with the result. In recent years, rounded aperture blades have become increasingly common in an effort to give lenses the ability to create more pleasing out-of-focus areas, but this often sacrifices the crisp sunstar effect I love. But I found that while the effect using the 50mm f/1.4 wasn’t quite as dazzling as it was with the f/1.8, it still expressed the feeling of brightness.

This is a fun little trick that can add another layer of interest to certain kinds of photos: adding a shape to the front of your lens to shape the out-of-focus areas. I used aluminum foil because it was handy, but construction paper or opaque plastic works well too.
This is a fun little trick that can add another layer of interest to certain kinds of photos: adding a shape to the front of your lens to shape the out-of-focus areas. I used aluminum foil because it was handy, but construction paper or opaque plastic works well too.

While I had everything set up for sunstars, I thought I would experiment with a funny little do-it-yourself trick that can sometimes be useful: shaping your out-of-focus areas. It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to screw up. In its simplest iteration, you cut a small shape into an opaque object and fit it to the front of your lens.

I used aluminum foil for my experiment, but it made the bokeh a bit too edgy. There are kits available, but part of the fun for me is doing it with household items. This was shot at the largest aperture setting available, in this case f/1.8…

As you can see, this is a pretty simple trick with some eye-catching potential, particularly for very-romanticized portraiture like engagements or babies.
As you can see, this is a pretty simple trick with some eye-catching potential, particularly for very-romanticized portraiture like engagements or babies.
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How to Rock the Sunset

I made this super-telephoto sunset image a couple of years ago on the north side of Ada, Oklahoma. One reason it works so well is that I hurriedly (because the sun sets faster than you think) found a compositional element - the tree - to anchor the image. Without it, it's just a mug shot of the sun.
I made this super-telephoto sunset image a couple of years ago on the north side of Ada, Oklahoma. One reason it works so well is that I hurriedly (because the sun sets faster than you think) found a compositional element – the tree – to anchor the image. Without it, it’s just a mug shot of the sun.
In my corner of the world, southeast Oklahoma, the sky can do magic, like this after-sunset image that resembles musical notes.
In my corner of the world, southeast Oklahoma, the sky can do magic, like this after-sunset image that resembles musical notes.

Those who follow me on social media might recall that my current batch of students were disappointed that it rained during last week’s class, forcing us inside.

Tonight’s forecast is more likely to produce a sunset opportunity.

In addition to the sun and sky, objects around us take on very different, and often beautiful, appearances at sunset, like the windows of this bus in Latta, Oklahoma.
In addition to the sun and sky, objects around us take on very different, and often beautiful, appearances at sunset, like the windows of this bus in Latta, Oklahoma.
Sunset is lovely time to photograph people too. In addition to highlighting their hair and creating depth around the shoulders and head, "edge light" as it is sometimes called also means the face is illuminated by the open sky, and is softer. Also, the subject, in this case my wife Abby, doesn't have to squint into bright daylight.
Sunset is lovely time to photograph people too. In addition to highlighting their hair and creating depth around the shoulders and head, “edge light” as it is sometimes called also means the face is illuminated by the open sky, and is softer. Also, the subject, in this case my wife Abby, doesn’t have to squint into bright daylight.

All photographers with any experience know that a good sunset can be difficult to pin down, and it’s always a smarter move to be ready to shoot sunrises and sunsets when they come to you, not when you come to them.

Readers also know that I like to use the sun itself as a compositional element, often trying to emphasize its brightness by choosing a lens that makes good “sunstars” at small apertures.

Judicious use of exposure compensation can make a huge difference, since your camera doesn’t know if you are going for shadow detail or highlight detail, and will often split the difference. Don’t be afraid to crank in +3 or -4 or any other value to tell the camera what you want. I’ve seen too many disappointing sunset attempts by photographers with disappointed faces asking me, “What did I do wrong?”

There is a lot to be said for sticking around after the sun dips below the horizon as well. The so-called “blue hour” can sometimes offer amazing color values as the sun’s light strikes clouds high in the atmosphere.

Sunsets aren't always about color. The light as dusk approaches can take many forms, as in this low-angle shot of wheat grass in our pasture. This scene looked nothing like this just an hour earlier.
Sunsets aren’t always about color. The light as dusk approaches can take many forms, as in this low-angle shot of wheat grass in our pasture. This scene looked nothing like this just an hour earlier.
Springtime in America's midsection can produce some absolutely amazing visuals, like this developing thunderstorm near our home in Byng, Oklahoma.
Springtime in America’s midsection can produce some absolutely amazing visuals, like this developing thunderstorm near our home in Byng, Oklahoma.
Although temping to shoot sunsets with a wide angle lens to see a sunset from one edge of the horizon to the other, sometimes sunsets can be about subtle, fleeting moments of light, like the last rays of the sun glimmering through our walnut tree.
Although temping to shoot sunsets with a wide angle lens to see a sunset from one edge of the horizon to the other, sometimes sunsets can be about subtle, fleeting moments of light, like the last rays of the sun glimmering through our walnut tree.
My photography students and I made this image a few years ago. Using an element as a shape for silhouette can completely change the look of an image.
My photography students and I made this image a few years ago. Using an element as a shape for silhouette can completely change the look of an image.
A branch of a tree combines with subtle after-dusk clouds to make an elegant, evocative image.
A branch of a tree combines with subtle after-dusk clouds to make an elegant, evocative image.

The light changes quickly at sunrise and sunset, so we need to be ready to change quickly as well.

As with any photograph endeavor, the best results are achieved through a willingness to explore and experiment, and the realization that not every evening will deliver magic, but with persistence, we can eventually capture  magic and share it with our audience.

If you can be near a body of water or other reflective surface at sunset, you can throw that into the mix. This image, made at our home in Byng, Oklahoma, was made about 20 minutes after sunset.
If you can be near a body of water or other reflective surface at sunset, you can throw that into the mix. This image, made at our home in Byng, Oklahoma, was made about 20 minutes after sunset.
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The Gift of Aperture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coloring with Lights

When in doubt, photographers photograph their equipment. This particular shot, you may notice, has a pleasing color balance, thanks to being lit entirely by white light flash units.
When in doubt, photographers photograph their equipment. This particular shot, you may notice, has a pleasing color balance, thanks to being lit entirely by white light flash units.

By now we should all be getting comfortable with concepts dealing with color, like white balance and saturation. If not, and I don’t mean this sarcastically at all, go back and look at your pictures of people, and ask yourself why most of their faces are too orange or too blue, which, in all honesty, they are. I say this based on the enormous number of images I see every day with bad flesh tones.

When you’re done with that, read on.

Shooting with just the red and blue lights gives about what you'd expect: a purplish image.
Shooting with just the red and blue lights gives about what you’d expect: a purplish image.
This looks like a red gel filter, but it is actually a magenta gel and a yellow gel sandwiched together.
This looks like a red gel filter, but it is actually a magenta gel and a yellow gel sandwiched together.

The other day I was scavenging an abandoned office at my workplace. I came across some Kodak Wratten filters (colored gels) in that search. These 3×3-inch plastic filters were originally used in by the production department to control the various renderings of the halftone products used to reproduce images in our newspaper. Despite the fact that they were damaged and obsolete, I decided I had a use for them: to change the color of light.

I brought them home and cobbled them together with clear tape. I was able to assemble a blue filter and a red-magenta filter, and I taped each one on a flash in my home studio.

Despite looking a bit purple in-hand, this filter is an honest photographic blue.
Despite looking a bit purple in-hand, this filter is an honest photographic blue.

I made a few images, and found I was glad to have this tool in my tool kit. Of course, you don’t necessarily need Wratten filters to change the color of the light. One excellent way to achieve this is by bouncing a flash into something colorful. Often one of the best items for this is the shiny foldable sunshade you see occasionally covering dashboards of parked cars on hot days. You can buy them with the other side in various colors, like red, gold or purple.

This is two white-light flashes with a blue flash as an accent.
This is two white-light flashes with a blue flash as an accent.
This image is lit with two white flash units and a red accent light.
This image is lit with two white flash units and a red accent light.
All-American lighting: a perfect balance of red, white, and blue.
All-American lighting: a perfect balance of red, white, and blue.

Altering the color of portions of your light can fundamentally change the look of your images, and the ability to do so is an excellent item to have in your bag. It can be a lot of fun, and it can throw some fuel on the embers of your creativity.

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The Light Can Make All the Difference

Two nights ago as I mowed, I watched, as I always do, the maturing light. About 20 minutes before sunset, with bands of clouds on the horizon, the sun peaked through and struck an early stand of my wife Abby’s favorite flower, Indian Paintbrush, in the pasture. I ran inside to grab a camera with my new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, and scampered back out to find that the bands of clouds had covered the sun and muted the light. I made a few images under the soft light, but really wanted the bright amber hues of the setting sun behind those flowers. Another day, maybe.

Then last night, I got an earlier start, and planned ahead by having my camera in the garage, readier to go. As sunset approached, I was able to make the image I originally pre-visualized.

As you can see from the results, both images are beautiful, but very different. They are both shot with the same camera, from the same spot, at the same time of day, with the same settings. The only difference is the light.

Indian Paintbrush, 85mm f/1.8 at f/2.5, cloudy light.
Indian Paintbrush, 85mm f/1.8 at f/2.5, cloudy light.
Indian Paintbrush, 85mm f/1.8 at f/2.5, sunny light.
Indian Paintbrush, 85mm f/1.8 at f/2.5, sunny light.
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Tested and Failed: the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM

I bought the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM hoping it would be the answer to my need for a mid-range, fast zoom lens.
I bought the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM hoping it would be the answer to my need for a mid-range, fast zoom lens.
One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 "Art" lens, which represents Sigma's efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. 24-70mm on a 24x36mm sensor is both versatile and potentially boring.
One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 “Art” lens, which represents Sigma’s efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. 24-70mm on a 24x36mm sensor is both versatile and potentially boring.

Like most professional photographers, I like equipment that is transparent. No, I don’t mean I want my cameras to be made out of clear plastic, though that might be really interesting. I mean that I want my equipment to get out of the way, do it’s job, and allow me to concentrate on the real meat of photography, the moment. I don’t want to worry about or struggle with my gear while the action and the intimacy and the light come and go. One lens I bought in 2011 in hopes of working within this paradigm is the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM for use on my Nikon DSLR cameras with their 15x24mm-sized sensors. I originally picked up this lens just prior to my sister’s wedding (link.) Since my wife and I were traveling to New Orleans for just the weekend, and since the wedding was entirely at night indoors, I wanted a lens that would fill my needs for that event: it would have to be fast-focusing, sharp wide open (f/2.8), have optical image stabilization, and be reasonably well-constructed.

Another view of the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8; despite its optical shortcomings, it is a well-built, good-looking lens.
Another view of the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8; despite its optical shortcomings, it is a well-built, good-looking lens.
This is Michael's 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma I borrowed to shoot my step-daughter's wedding in 2009.
This is Michael’s 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma I borrowed to shoot my step-daughter’s wedding in 2009.

Part of the reason I thought this Sigma might be a good choice was my success with a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX-DG I borrowed from Michael to shoot my step-daughter’s wedding in 2009 (link). I liked everything about the lens except that it wasn’t quite wide enough, and it wasn’t mine. It was sharp wide open, handled well, and made gorgeous 14-point sunstars when stopped down.

My very first field testing of the 17-50mm seemed to go well, but every lens is sharp at f/8. I didn’t spend $600 for this lens to shoot at f/8. I spent this money so I could take low light to its limits, and that would come just a couple of weeks later at the wedding.

Hosted by the New Orleans Athletic Club, the venue was gorgeous, but lit by just four incandescent chandeliers. I shot it all at ISO 3200, at f/2.8, which put me in the 1/60th to 1/125th of a second shutter speed range. This is the low-light margin that tests everything: sensor noise, optical stabilization, lens sharpness, and photographer’s skills. If any one of these factors falls short, image quality suffers, and this lens was the weak link. It just wasn’t sharp wide open, at f/2.8.

Michael and Abby were my second shooters, with the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 and the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lenses respectively, and they stuff was very sharp at apertures like f/2.5 and f/2.0.

This was the lighting for the first test of the Sigma 17-55mm, the New Orleans Athletic Club's ballroom, lit my four incandescent chandeliers.
This was the lighting for the first test of the Sigma 24-70mm, the New Orleans Athletic Club’s ballroom, lit my four incandescent chandeliers.
Of Note...
One item I hit hard in my Intro to Digital Photographer class is white balance. This might seem like an obvious teaching point, but readers might be surprised by how many images submitted to my newspaper have ugly colors casts, particularly yellow and red. The wedding in New Orleans was lit entirely with incandescent lights, and using the appropriate white balance setting saved us a lot of headaches in post-processing.

In the end, my images from New Orleans were great, and my sister and new brother-in-law were very happy with them, but I wasn’t pleased with the Sigma, which stood out as the weak link. I have since shot a couple more weddings with the 17-50mm, and while the images were acceptable, I want more from a big, heavy, expensive lens.

Another possible replacement for the Sigma might be the Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8.
Another possible replacement for the Sigma might be the Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8.

I will look at options. My instinct is to shoot with my 12-24mm f/4 Tokina on one camera, and my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 on the other, but that still doesn’t give me a one-camera travel wedding solution. It will need to be a zoom, and it will need to be wide-to-portrait length. One possibility is picking up a 24x36mm sensor-sized camera on Ebay like the Nikon D700, and using something like my Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8, which is heavy but absolutely dazzlingly sharp. The 24-70mm, 28-70mm, 24-105mm focal lengths on a 24x36mm sensor are approximately equivalent to the 17-50mm, 18-55mm lenses on a 15x24mm sensor. While this is a versatile field of view range, it also has the potential to be bland and boring, and requires us to push hard at the short and long ends to make our images really interesting.

This is the most common lens in photography today, the so-called "kit lens." This is Nikon's Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, but every camera maker has one. If I have to shoot at f/4 or f/5.6 to get sharp results with my Sigma 17-50mm, why don't I just use a kit lens at a quarter of the price and half the weight?
This is the most common lens in photography today, the so-called “kit lens.” This is Nikon’s Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, but every camera maker has one. If I have to shoot at f/4 or f/5.6 to get sharp results with my Sigma 17-50mm, why don’t I just use a kit lens at a quarter of the price and half the weight?
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The Plus-X Conundrum

This is an image I made early in my senior year in high school. Made with direct flash on Kodak's Plus-X Pan Film, ISO 125, it has that ugly, hard look with a blacked-out background.
This is an image I made early in my senior year in high school. Made with direct flash on Kodak’s Plus-X Pan Film, ISO 125, it has that ugly, hard look with a blacked-out background.
Compare the last image to this one: it's the same girl (Teresa Belcher), having a laugh at an event called "Little Mac Night." Thanks to it being early in the year as well, and outdoors, I was able to shoot with the existing light, creating a vastly more natural-looking image.
Compare the last image to this one: it’s the same girl (Teresa Belcher), having a laugh at an event called “Little Mac Night.” Thanks to it being early in the year as well, and outdoors, I was able to shoot with the existing light, creating a vastly more natural-looking image.

In April 1979, I was quite proud to be selected to be on the Talon Yearbook staff the following year. At that time, I imagined I would be a writer. During the following year on the staff, however, I discovered that I wasn’t at all interested in writing feature stories, but very much was in interested in being a photographer. I actually wrote very little for the Talon in 1979-1980, but I hung out in the darkroom constantly.

Our yearbook advisor doled out film to us with the eyedropper of necessity. Film was expensive compared to the yearbook’s budget.

However, on a yearbook staff picnic, our advisor’s toddler daughter started chasing some bubbles, and all three of us photographers took pictures. It was a precious moment, but back in class on Monday morning he spent considerable time and effort shaming us about “wasting” film. Thirty years later when I sent him a scan of one of those frames, he was incredibly grateful for it. Ugh.

This was made on a memorably cold, rainy night at a playoff football game in November 1980. Shot with direct flash on Plus-X, it fails to capture the rain falling, or that bright-and-dark stadium light that so many of my football images in my career exhibit.
This was made on a memorably cold, rainy night at a playoff football game in November 1980. Shot with direct flash on Plus-X, it fails to capture the rain falling, or that bright-and-dark stadium light that so many of my football images in my career exhibit.
Here's how we make fan photos in the latter-day, with sky-high ISOs that allow us to express not only what's going on, but where and in what conditions. And do you know who cares that this image is grainy? Other photographers and computer geeks.
Here’s how we make fan photos in the latter-day, with sky-high ISOs that allow us to express not only what’s going on, but where and in what conditions. And do you know who cares that this image is grainy? Other photographers and computer geeks.

Anyway, the film we were issued was Kodak’s venerable Plus-X Pan Film, described in its day as a “medium-speed [‘speed’ referring to sensitivity] panchromatic film with fine grain.” It’s easy to look at its ISO of 125 today and express dismay that it was regarded as “medium speed,” but it was partnered with Panatomic-X at ISO 32 on the “low” side, and Tri-X at ISO 400 as the “high speed” offering. So yes, it was a medium speed film in the world of film, but in trying to capture the movement, motion and energy of high school, it was, in reality, quite slow.

I’m sure our yearbook advisor was attracted to the “fine grain” aspect of the film. Yearbooks are printed on glossy paper and with finer screens (higher resolutions) than newspapers, and there are times when the photos are used quite large. In recent years, I have quite a lot of experience with glossy, high-quality magazine printing as the editor of Ada Magazine, and every edition of my magazine has several images that are “full-bleed double-truck,” meaning they fill the two pages that face each other all the way to the edges of the pages.

These experiences, as well as many years in newspaper using film and later digital, has made it pretty obvious that our yearbook advisor couldn’t have been more wrong in making us use Plus-X. The biggest shortcoming of Plus-X is its ISO of 125. In the studio or in bright sunlight, that’s fine, but so many of the events in the lives of high school kids, their events and classes and plays and games, are at night, indoors, and otherwise in very limited light, and at ISO 125, our only option for shooting these events was direct flash.

Another big downside to direct flash is the unnatural and unflattering way it renders faces, which are the most important thing we are photographing as photojournalists. I made this image in a park at dusk, and the Plus-X ISO 125 film in my camera ruled out shooting with existing light.
Another big downside to direct flash is the unnatural and unflattering way it renders faces, which are the most important thing we are photographing as photojournalists. I made this image in a park at dusk, and the Plus-X ISO 125 film in my camera ruled out shooting with existing light.

For those readers of the smart-phone-only ilk, direct flash happens when we put an electronic flash (in high school I had the ubiquitous Vivitar 283) on the hot shoe of our camera. It provides light that I have previously described as “worst light ever.” It didn’t take much of a search of my high school negatives to find examples that adjudicate this assertion.

Direct flash has that blacked-out-background look because light obeys the inverse square law, so each time you double the distance from the light source, it’s four times darker, and often the backgrounds are two or three times farther away than the subject.

Another downside to direct flash is that you have to wait, sometimes as long as eight seconds, for the flash to recycle and flash again, and eight seconds is an eternity when telling moments are happening in front of you.

Imagine how difficult it must be to capture peak action at a football game if you take this picture (September 1980), then wait eight seconds for your flash to cycle before you can take another.
Imagine how difficult it must be to capture peak action at a football game if you take this picture, then wait eight seconds for your flash to cycle before you can take another.

There’s the rub. Using a 125 ISO film forced us to use direct flash. But in our yearbook advisor’s eyes, anyway, a higher ISO film like Tri-X would make our images “too grainy.” Our choices, then, were fine-grained, direct-flash non-moments, or grainier, better-lit images of real moments.

The choice to me, as a career photojournalist, is obvious. If I had it to do over again, I would load up with Tri-X, and for much of the night and indoor stuff, I would expose it at ISO 1600 and increase the development time, which is known as “push processing.” The results would be grainy moments, but there would be so many more moments.

In the end, of course, yearbook readers don’t care about fine grain, they care about their memories, and shooting like a photojournalist, not like a studio photographer, is the way to capture the best of them.

Boy Scouts present the colors at the first Ada Cougars football game I ever covered, October 28, 1988. It was still quite early in my career, but it was already very clear to me that fast films (in this case, Kodak T-Max P3200), even when they are grainy, made images like this possible. This image was later awarded first place in feature photos by the Oklahoma Press Association.
Boy Scouts present the colors at the first Ada Cougars football game I ever covered, October 28, 1988. It was still quite early in my career, but it was already very clear to me that fast films (in this case, Kodak T-Max P3200), even when they are grainy, made images like this possible. This image was later awarded first place in feature photos by the Oklahoma Press Association.
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Water of Love, Love of Water

A very useful tool of my trade, the white-red-green selectable flashlight; I got this one on the camping supply aisle.
A very useful tool of my trade, the white-red-green selectable flashlight; I got this one on the camping supply aisle.

In my current class, Intro to Digital Photography, I teach a lot of basics. I point out the effects of changing this, changing that, chaining the other, and how best to take advantage of those effects. One thing we discussed last night was shutter speed, and everyone had fun waving their hands in front of each other at 1/8th of a second, then at 1/500th of a second, to get a clearer idea how shutter speed is one key component in building an image.

Since I live in the world of photographing people (mostly) for a living, I tend to come down on the side of faster shutter speeds. Lots of people are fast, from toddlers to professional athletes, and most of the time I try to freeze the action of their movements to illustrate what they are doing for our readers.

One of my students asked me last night, “Richard, what’s a good shutter speed if I want to show movement?”

It’s a great question with a not-as-great answer: practice. Every time we try to illustrate movement, the scene and subjects are a little different, so my advice is to keep experimenting, but with the notion in mind that in photography, a half a second is a really long time, and a minute is an eternity.

The scene of the crime: this angle illustrates the lighting and direction of water flow. The best image of the evening was made on the other bank.
The scene of the crime: this angle illustrates the lighting and direction of water flow. The best image of the evening was made on the other bank.

Then, as luck would have it, I was at Ada’s Wintersmith Park this morning looking for a feature photo, which I found (of a young lady doing her daily run up and down the steps of the amphitheater there), and noticed that the lake was high. Sure enough, the stream below the lake was flowing.

Anyone who has tried to photograph running water in daylight has experienced the same frustration: the relatively fast shutter speeds dictated by the brightness of the daytime light create an image that looks wrong. It is neither amazingly crisp, nor does it seem to express how water flows.

Knowing this, I made a plan to return to the park at dusk, and did so tonight. I set up my Nikon D7100 with the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm zoom on my best tripod as close as I could get without getting wet. I wanted to create as much blur as possible in the swiftly moving water, so I started at 30 seconds at f/22 and ISO 200, but that was entirely too dark. The only number I needed to keep was 30 seconds, so I bumped up to ISO 400 and f/11, and that was just right. The scene was illuminated by fading evening sky through the woods, and orange streetlights on the walking trail. To add an opposite color, I “painted” with my multicolor flashlight set to green.

30 seconds is the threshold exposure for creating really beautiful water blur. Longer exposures create an even deeper "cotton candy" look to the water.
30 seconds is the threshold exposure for creating really beautiful water blur. Longer exposures create an even deeper “cotton candy” look to the water.
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Coming Soon to an America Near You

Adans watch fireworks from the banks of Wintersmith Lake.
Adans watch fireworks from the banks of Wintersmith Lake.

I’ve been shooting various Independence Day celebrations for my entire career. Our community, Ada, Oklahoma, has a big day-long party in Wintersmith Park. It starts at 7 am with the Fireball Classic 5k/10k run, and ends 14 hours later with a fireworks display over the lake in the park. Many Adans set up tents and make a day out of it.

One slightly vexing problem for a lot of would-be photographers is the formula for photographing fireworks. Complicating matters is that many of today’s cameras have a not-very-effective “fireworks” mode on the exposure mode dial.

Three floral shells burst in the sky above Ada's Wintersmith Park.
Three floral shells burst in the sky above Ada’s Wintersmith Park.

But I’m here to make it easy. You need…

A lens that focuses "beyond infinity" sounds theatrical and impossible, but some are actually made this way because of differential expansion of some of the specialized glass elements inside.
A lens that focuses “beyond infinity” sounds theatrical and impossible, but some are actually made this way because of differential expansion of some of the specialized glass elements inside.
  • A rock-solid tripod
  • A digital SLR or other camera with the ability to make manual exposures for up to 30-seconds.
  • A lens, probably a zoom, that can be focused manually and has either a focus distance scale or a hard stop at the infinity setting (some lenses focus beyond infinity, which is a place for another, more philosophical discussion.)
  • A spot about as close as you can get to the source of the fireworks.
Independence Day is more than just the fireworks show at the end of the day; have fun making pictures of the Americana.
Independence Day is more than just the fireworks show at the end of the day; have fun making pictures of the Americana.

Find your spot early enough that you don’t have people sit or stand in front of you. On top of a wall or at the edge of water might work. With the camera on the tripod, focus to infinity. Make your shutter speed “B” or “Bulb,” which allows the shutter to stay open as long as you hold the shutter release down. Make your ISO about 200, and your aperture somewhere around f/11.

Be ready to tweak these settings if they don’t give you what you want.

As the fireworks show starts, watch the floral shells lift into the air. Anticipate when they will burst, and try to open the shutter just before they do. Hold the shutter open as more shells burst. The longer you hold the shutter open, the more bursts will accumulate on the image. I find that two or three is enough, but your taste may vary.

Be aware that longer shutter speeds also accumulate more smoke and haze that is illuminated by the fireworks themselves.

There are other tricks of the trade. Some shooters will bring a black card (or a black hat or other black object), open the shutter, then move the card out of the way during the period of the motion of the fireworks that he wants to capture, then covering the lens again and waiting for the next chance to add to the image.

The true essence of photographing fireworks is to let your creative self have fun, both in the process and at the destination.

Fireworks are extremely satisfying to photograph because there is no "correct" image, and they have the potential to dazzle the eye.
Fireworks are extremely satisfying to photograph because there is no “correct” image, and they have the potential to dazzle the eye.
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Commanding the Light: Polarizers

Over the years I have collected a number of polarizers, but you really only need one, big enough for your biggest diameter lens (in my case, 77mm) and a step-up ring which will allow you to put bigger filters on smaller lenses.
Over the years I have collected a number of polarizers, but you really only need one, big enough for your biggest diameter lens (in my case, 77mm) and a step-up ring which will allow you to put bigger filters on smaller lenses.
Now you see it, now you don't: the light emitted by computer monitors is strongly polarized.
Now you see it, now you don’t: the light emitted by computer monitors is strongly polarized.

In recent entries I talked about the use of filters in black-and-white film photography, and ways to emulate them using digital image files and editing features such as Adobe Photoshop’s channel mixer.

Unlike black-and-white filters, which pass their own color, but don’t pass opposite colors, polarizers pass light that is polarized in the same direction as the polarizer, and don’t pass light that is polarized at a 90˚ angle to the filter’s setting. I could go on about the mechanics of this process, but in photographic terms, results matter more than anything else.

The two main purposes of a polarizer are to control reflections, and to manipulate the blue part of the sky. There are other uses, but these are the reasons to carry a polarizer on a regular basis.

A polarizer can be used to suppress reflections, like this one of the street in my car window.
A polarizer can be used to suppress reflections, like this one of the street in my car window.
Polarizers can also be used to improve the appearance of sky areas in an image, since blue sky light is usually more polarized than clouds or objects on the ground.
Polarizers can also be used to improve the appearance of sky areas in an image, since blue sky light is usually more polarized than clouds or objects on the ground.

There are a couple of serious downsides to using a polarizer:

  • It absorbs between one and three EV of light, meaning one to three f/stops or shutter values, and
  • Light isn’t usually polarized evenly over the area of the image, which can result in a darker area of, for instance, the sky, which can be hard to fix in post-production

    Beware the "hot spot," particularly with wider-angle lenses, like in this 18mm image at New Mexico's Plaza Blanca. The uneven darkening of the sky from clumsy use of a polarizer can be difficult to remove.
    Beware the “hot spot,” particularly with wider-angle lenses, like in this 18mm image at New Mexico’s Plaza Blanca. The uneven darkening of the sky from clumsy use of a polarizer can be difficult to remove.

Using polarizers is pretty straightforward on a digital SLR: rotate the movable ring on the front of the filter until you see the result you want. On bridge/crossover cameras, it’s more complicated, since the exposure system of the camera will make the image in the viewfinder or display on the back of the camera lighter or darker to compensate for the action of the polarizer. With cameras like that (in my case, the Minolta DiMage 7i and the Fuji S200EXR and HS30EXR), I typically let the camera focus and set exposure, then I manually lock the exposure, then rotate the polarizer for the best effect.

Polarizers use a literal “rule of thumb,” meaning that if you point your thumb at the sun, and keep your index finger at a 90˚angle to it, anywhere your index finger can point will be the area of greatest polarization of the sky.

Also of note: when rotating your polarizer, turn it in the direction your would screw on a filter, or you might end up accidentally removing it while trying to use it.

In my day-to-day news and sports photography, I don’t use a polarizer very often, but in my travels, particularly in the American West, I find that careful use of this filter can dramatically improve my photographic expression.

A polarizer and careful attention to exposure can yield beautiful, dramatic skies like this one near Shiprock Peak in northwestern New Mexico.
A polarizer and careful attention to exposure can yield beautiful, dramatic skies like this one near Shiprock Peak in northwestern New Mexico.
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Observations on Film, Filtration and Our Roots

Wall, branches and vines, Byars, Oklahoma, December 1999, made on 6x7 Verichrome Pan Film with a deep orange filter.
Wall, branches and vines, Byars, Oklahoma, December 1999, made on 6×7 Verichrome Pan Film with a deep orange filter.
This is my 105mm f/1.8 Nikkor near the end of its life. As you can see from the hood and the focus ring, I got a lot of use out of it.
This is my 105mm f/1.8 Nikkor near the end of its life. As you can see from the hood and the focus ring, I got a lot of use out of it.

I touched on black-and-white filters in an entry not long ago after a photographer webfriend of mine, Tom Clark, said he was returning to black-and-white film combined with one of his very favorite lenses, the Nikkor 105mm f/1.8. I had one of these jewels for most of my film-based shooting career, and it was an amazing piece of glass. I used it hard and eventually used it up, and got rid of it some years ago.

Tom’s post started me thinking about black-and-white and medium format imaging, but the fire was stoked a week later when a nice young lay named Michaeli came to my office to borrow a lupe so she could examine her medium format color slides. I showed her a few prints of some of my 6×7 stuff from back in the day, and she really enjoyed them.

Micheali, who preferred that I did not included her last name, looks over some of my 6x7 prints. I am very pleased when I learn that photographers from her generation are interested in film and medium format photography.
Micheali, who preferred that I did not included her last name, looks over some of my 6×7 prints. I am very pleased when I learn that photographers from her generation are interested in film and medium format photography.

I have no film cameras at the moment. I believe Robert still has a Nikon F4, but I don’t know if he ever shoots with it any more. Like most of us, the commerce of imaging has led us to think digital. All my work is digital now, and it is very rewarding, but I did some great work on film, and it’s fun to remember.

This is the original digital file, an image of the iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, made in 2005.
This is the original digital file, an image of the iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, made in 2005.

One aspect of shooting film that I was thinking about last night, and looking up extensively on my iPad as Abby and I watched television, is black-and-white filtration. As much as I tried, I never really mastered it, probably because I only had limited occasion to shoot scenics in black-and-white (see the 1985 through 2003 entries on The Traveller to see some of my attempts), and by the time I was making a point to travel and shoot the land several times a year, I was mostly shooting digital.

One thing I did create last night was a very dramatic example, using Adobe Photoshop’s channel mixer’s black-and-white presets, of red vs blue filtration.

This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated blue filter.
This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated blue filter.
This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated red filter.
This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated red filter.

As you can see, back in the day, a filter could make or break a black-and-white image.

The way we tell our stories in photography is often so much about how we render tonal qualities.

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Worst Lighting Ever

Most digital cameras have a pop-up flash, like this one atop the viewfinder of a digital SLR. An important exception is that professional cameras don't have this feature.
Most digital cameras have a pop-up flash, like this one atop the viewfinder of a digital SLR. An important exception is that professional cameras don’t have this feature.
"Green Box," or full-auto, exposure mode takes over everything, including popping up the on-camera flash as it deems necessary.
“Green Box,” or full-auto, exposure mode takes over everything, including popping up the on-camera flash as it deems necessary.

“The difference between pornography and erotica is lighting.” ~Gloria Leonard

Wil C. Fry has recently discussed various flash options for his photography through some assignments he found on The Strobist, so I thought I’d weigh in on a point I try to make with my students over and over: there is really no way to light a subject worse than with direct flash.

Much of the time, beginner photographers don’t have any knowledge about their camera at all, and in particular they have no idea how to light something. Their cameras are usually set to “Green Box” (sometimes labeled “auto”) mode, which is fully automated. In addition to taking over most of the menu settings, this full-auto mode also pops up the on-camera flash when there isn’t, in the opinion of the camera, enough light.

I do this simple a vs b illustration in class. On the left, direct flash from the pop-up on the camera, and on the right, a single flash bounced onto a wall to my left. Of note are the unnatural, oily-looking facial features in the direct-flash example, and the natural, window-like look of the bounced flash.
I do this simple a vs b illustration in class. On the left, direct flash from the pop-up on the camera, and on the right, a single flash bounced onto a wall to my left. Of note are the unnatural, oily-looking facial features in the direct-flash example, and the natural, window-like look of the bounced flash.
This is my off-camera flash with its slave Velcroed on top, mounted on a bendy-legged tabletop tripod.
This is my off-camera flash with its slave Velcroed on top, mounted on a bendy-legged tabletop tripod.

I’ll grant you that the little flash that’s built into the top of many digital SLRs has probably made the difference between getting something and getting nothing, but I’ll also say that in my entire career, I’ve never seen an image I loved that was made with direct on-camera flash.

In my day-to-day news shooting, I carry two flashes. I typically put one on the hot shoe of my camera, which has a movable head so I can bounce the light off a wall or ceiling, and the other on a tiny tripod, which I can set somewhere or have someone (like a reporter) hold. The flash on the tripod has a small device called a slave, which fires the flash when it detects another flash, like the one from my camera. For as little effort and weight as this setup has, it can make a huge difference.

The game-changer recently is that the newest digital SLR camera have super-clean high ISOs available, such that you can almost shoot in total darkness. Thus, the pop-up flash is just about out of a job.

I shot this mother and daughter studying together for a story two years ago, using one flash on my camera and one with a slave unit on a small tripod.
I shot this mother and daughter studying together for a story two years ago, using one flash on my camera and one with a slave unit on a small tripod.
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Night Sky with D7100: First Try

A huge number of stars are revealed in this image of the night sky at ISO 6400 f/2.8 for 30 seconds. And although the Milky Way Galaxy was not visible to the naked eye, it is faintly apparent in the center of this image.
A huge number of stars are revealed in this image of the night sky at ISO 6400 f/2.8 for 30 seconds. And although the Milky Way Galaxy was not visible to the naked eye, it is faintly apparent in the center of this image.

The Nikon D7100 that recently came into my possession is the first camera I have owned that is capable of really ridiculously high ISO settings, and is purportedly capable of delivering reasonably clean images at those settings. By “ridiculous” I mean 25,600 ISO, which was unthinkable in the film era. Additionally, the camera has a built-in intervalometer, which can be programmed to shoot any number of frames at any interval.

One thing I wanted to try with these capabilities was photographing the night sky. I am planning a springtime hiking trip, and want to integrate night photography into it.

I live in an area of relatively low light pollution (though my home in the Oklahoma doesn’t compete with, for example, the high desert or mountain peaks.) It happens that tonight after dark, the moon hadn’t risen yet, so I got started.

My first stab was just kind of an exposure test. ISO 6400, 20mm AF Nikkor f/2.8 @ f/2.8, for 30 seconds. This wasn’t a bad guess, and resulted in an image with thousands of stars visible on a field somewhat contaminated by light pollution. Next, I mounted my Tokina 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5, set at 10mm and f/3.5 for 30 seconds. In both images, I used my headlamp, set to red, to softly paint the tree limbs red.

The results of both attempts reveal that I need much more reading and practicing on the subject, but that this camera has the potential to make some extraordinary night sky images.

This image was made at 10mm, f/3.5, for 30 seconds, and shows nearly an entire hemisphere of the sky. Among other things, the Pleiades are plainly visible.
This image was made at 10mm, f/3.5, for 30 seconds, and shows nearly an entire hemisphere of the sky. Among other things, the Pleiades are plainly visible.
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Boots and Bones

A tangled tree stands against a clear sky in the countryside near Ryan, Oklahoma, Sunday, January 19, 2014.
A tangled tree stands against a clear sky in the countryside near Ryan, Oklahoma, Sunday, January 19, 2014.
The tool of my trade today: the Nikon D3000 with the Tamron 18-250mm.
The tool of my trade today: the Nikon D3000 with the Tamron 18-250mm.

My wife Abby and I went to her hometown (link) of Ryan, Oklahoma, yesterday. After a nice lunch, she and her family caught up on the latest news about town, while I decided to walk toward the Red River, which is not far, and make some pictures.

The day was clear and warm.

The only DSLR we had with us was Abby’s Nikon D3000, which I like to shoot sometimes because it gives me a better perspective on the cameras I see in the hands of my students. On it was the Tamron 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3, a lens about which I have decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is convenient, but on the other hand, the wide end isn’t quite wide enough. It also suffers optically at the long end.

I passed the barn on the south end of the patch. The sun is shining through a series of small holes in the sheet metal.
I passed the barn on the south end of the patch. The sun is shining through a series of small holes in the sheet metal.
I saw several bones, presumable bovine, on the trail.
I saw several bones, presumable bovine, on the trail.

I didn’t make it as far as the River, but I followed a fence about half a mile into a pasture, where I found some steers grazing. I circled one of the ponds in the vicinity, and while I was at it I startled the steers enough to make them all gallop away to the west.

I moved along the ribbons of cattle trails, which made hiking easier than bushwhacking the rough terrain. I found some bones, which I photographed.

Warm light accentuates the color of the fence I followed west into a pasture. I shot this at 250mm.
Warm light accentuates the color of the fence I followed west into a pasture. I shot this at 250mm.
These steers were decidedly curious, but so shy they ran away as I got close.
These steers were decidedly curious, but so shy they ran away as I got close.
It's easier to squeeze through a gap in the cattle gate than to actually open it.
It’s easier to squeeze through a gap in the cattle gate than to actually open it.

I came across a ravine, which I followed for some time. In it were numerous gnarled trees and low brush. Judging from the tracks, the cattle followed the ravine as well.

After an hour chasing the light and the features of the farm, I made my way back to the house.

The point of this post is that you can’t sit in the living room and let your camera collect dust. To make new pictures, you have to explore. The walk I made on this day was easy, fun, and quiet. The light was inviting. The air was clear. And the images I made were all very satisfying.

Back at the house, late afternoon light through blinds helped create this image of some Christmas leftovers. I shot this with my iPhone 5.
Back at the house, late afternoon light through blinds helped create this image of some Christmas leftovers. I shot this with my iPhone 5.
Abby's sister Gail was riding her horse Abe when we called, and didn't take off her spurs, so I asked if I could photograph her boots.
Abby’s sister Gail was riding her horse Abe when we called, and didn’t take off her spurs, so I asked if I could photograph her boots.
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Sunstars, Selective Focus, and Other Holidays Tips

This image, made in a window at dusk, utilizes the excellent selective focus qualities of the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 lens.
This image, made in a window at dusk, utilizes the excellent selective focus qualities of the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 lens.

Since it is the Christmas season and the Christmas lights season, I thought I would share a couple of tips about photographing the tinsel and glitter.

  • Turn off that flash. If you shoot in AUTO (also know as “green box mode”) while trying to photograph a Christmas tree or a parade, your camera will probably respond to the relative darkness with flash. Pick another exposure mode (see The PASM) and turn off the flash.
  • See the light. Holiday lighting is very dim compared to normal lighting conditions. Prepare accordingly; you’re going to need a large-aperture lens (the 50mm f/1.8 in many camera bags is a great choice) or a tripod, or both.
  • Be aggressive with exposure compensation. The +/- selector is your best friend, and unless you are in manual mode (exposure compensation only effects automatic exposure modes), you’ll probably need a lot of +. The exposure sensors will see the bright lights and adjust accordingly, often resulting in pinpoint lights and large, black backgrounds. That doesn’t convey the sense of glowing light that makes Christmas beautiful.
  • Use aperture to your advantage. This is not the time to let the camera pick medium apertures. Go one way or the other all the way. Big apertures in the range of f/1.4 through f/2.8 can give you those shallow depths of field and powerful selective focus, while very small aperture like f/22 render most everything in focus, plus improve the look of points of light by emphasizing the “sunstar” effect.
  • Think high ISO. If shooting moving subjects like a Christmas parade or a child under a Christmas tree, add higher ISO to that large aperture. Trust me – these scenes are not as bright as they seem, and camera and subject motion will become a factor unless you crank open the lens and crank up the ISO. Think ISO 3200 at f/2.
  • Don’t forget to have Christmas. This is a big one, and it’s hard, since everyone seems to want to a be a photographer. Getting good pictures of Christmas memories is secondary to actually experiencing the event that becomes those memories. Put down the camera or let someone else take a few pictures and watch the parade, open your presents, drink your egg nog. It’s your holiday too.
The bright points of light in this image, made at f/22 for 30 seconds, convey a sense of brightness and sparkle thanks to the "sunstar" effect. The lens was an AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.
The bright points of light in this image, made at f/22 for 30 seconds, convey a sense of brightness and sparkle thanks to the “sunstar” effect. The lens was an AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.
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