Kodak DCS: A Look Back

The Kodak DCS 720x stands tall on its Kodak digital section. It's battery weighs more than a modern smartphone.
The Kodak DCS 720x stands tall on its Kodak digital section. It’s battery weighs more than a modern smartphone.
Coalgate Wildcat basketball fans get ready for an area playoff game. I made this image with my Kodak DCS 720x, which, as you can see, makes beautiful purple tones.
Coalgate Wildcat basketball fans get ready for an area playoff game. I made this image with my Kodak DCS 720x, which, as you can see, makes beautiful purple tones.

By now we all know the Kodak narrative: an innovative company has incredible success in the film era, then gets bloated with old management ideas and an arrogant “people will always need film” paradigm, then goes belly-up when they can’t compete. It’s a good lesson in the idea that no entity is immune to the fortunes of economics.

I thought about this when I recently came across a web post about a camera system that crossed my path some years ago, the Kodak DCS. The article delves all the way back into the 1990s with the intro of the first-generation of digital cameras, the NC-2000 based on the Nikon N90, and talks about how much photographers hated them compared to film. Fortunately, I didn’t come to the digital party until 2001, when these primitive beasts had been retired.

The "In Cooperation with Nikon" didn't last much longer, as Kodak rapidly fell behind leaders like Nikon and Canon.
The “In Cooperation with Nikon” didn’t last much longer, as Kodak rapidly fell behind leaders like Nikon and Canon.
Kodak's last digital SLRs came with an infrared filter with no anti-aliasing.
Kodak’s last digital SLRs came with an infrared filter with no anti-aliasing.

Readers might recall that on occasions I get out my ancient Nikon/Kodak DCS-720x and play with it. On at least one of these occasions I speculated my DCS 720x might be a candidate for infrared explorations, and though I was able to create a few interesting experimental images, I seldom dig it out of the box to do that, and later had better luck with a Sony F828.

Readers will also recall that my Kodak DCS 760 died years ago, and in August 2016, I took it apart, which was very fun and revealed a lot about how they were made. It’s worth reading if you have a minute (link.)

I made this image with the 720x with the infrared filter removed and a deep red filter placed on the lens. It creates a powerfully surreal near-infrared look.
I made this image with the 720x with the infrared filter removed and a deep red filter placed on the lens. It creates a powerfully surreal near-infrared look.

I originally got the 720x in 2003 when Kodak discontinued it and dumped the remaining supply of them on Ebay, for a tenth the original list price. In 2006 I saw a 760 on Ebay for just a couple of hundred dollars and thought it would be worth at least experiencing.

I asked a fellow photographer, Robert, to drag out his inoperable 760 and photograph it for this article, and his image reminded me that these behemoths came with a huge right-hand grip strap, which I hated and removed.
I asked a fellow photographer, Robert, to drag out his inoperable 760 and photograph it for this article, and his image reminded me that these behemoths came with a huge right-hand grip strap, which I hated and removed.

Even Kodak’s slick literature can’t make up its mind what these cameras are called. The one I have remaining, for example, is variously called the Nikon/Kodak DCS720x, Nikon/Kodak DCS-720x, the Kodak DCS720x, the Kodak DCS-720x, and the Kodak DCS 720x.

I asked a petite coworker to pose with the Kodak 720x. As you can see, it would be quite a challenge for her to work with this machine.
I asked a petite coworker to pose with the Kodak 720x. As you can see, it would be quite a challenge for her to work with this machine.

Kodak’s vision of digital photography by 2001 was to produce two very different cameras in the same Nikon F5 body: a slow, low-ISO, low-frame-rate, higher resolution (6MP) 760, and a faster, very-high-ISO, low resolution (2MP) 720x. The Canon versions of these cameras were the 560 and the 520.

One fundamental issue with Kodak digital cameras, particularly with their digital SLRs, is reliability. Although my 720x is still operable, both 760s I’ve knows, mine and Robert’s, died years ago with zero possibility of repair because of Kodak’s vacancy. Ken Rockwell also notes this in his review of the Kodak DCS 14n.

Despite this, it’s still fun to dig out the behemothic DCS 720x, charge its clunky battery, and squeeze off a few frames.

I shot this image of our friend Taylor Treat, Miss Oklahoma 2009, in the ECU homecoming parade with my 760. Since this camera's ISO ranges from 80 to 400, bright daylight is its forte.
I shot this image of our friend Taylor Treat, Miss Oklahoma 2009, in the ECU homecoming parade with my 760. Since this camera’s ISO ranges from 80 to 400, bright daylight is its forte.
High-ISO noise at ISO 400 is unheard of today, but in 2001, it was clearly present in files from the 760.
High-ISO noise at ISO 400 is unheard of today, but in 2001, it was clearly present in files from the 760.

Of note on the bad side for both the 760 and the 720x:

  • The buttons on the back are fundamental to the operation of the camera, yet are small and hard to push; I sometimes hurt my thumbnail using them.
  • Due to a long-expired capacitor or button battery, the camera can never remember the date, and interrupts every startup with a message that says, “Date/Time is incorrect,” which requires a reply of “OK.” It thereafter thinks it is March 2023.
  • In the 2017 world of huge viewfinders and three-inch back-of-camera monitors, the tightly cropped viewfinder of the Kodaks and their dim, two-inch monitor are hard to abide.

    The chunky NiMH battery and the two PCM/CIA cards insert on the left side of the 760 and 720x.
    The chunky NiMH battery and the two PCM/CIA cards insert on the left side of the 760 and 720x.
  • The front-to-back depth of the camera is huge, and though I have long fingers, I can barely reach all the controls. Coupled with its weight, this contributed to some tendonitis in my right elbow when I was using this camera a lot.
  • Battery life with the huge, heavy nickel metal hydride batteries was terrible. I always had to carry an extra battery.

    Every time I turned on my 720x from the day I got it until today, I saw this message, which is every bit as tiresome as it sounds.
    Every time I turned on my 720x from the day I got it until today, I saw this message, which is every bit as tiresome as it sounds.
  • The camera is covered in awkward, large ports for AC power, Firewire, and a 15-pin shutter release.
  • The media cards are PCM/CIA-based; I never owned such a device, and have adaptors that allow me to use Compact Flash cards.
  • The 600 and 700 series cameras had two card slots, but once when I was using both cards, it got into some kind of feedback loop, and each card had a folder inside called FOLDER01, each of which had a folder in it called FOLDER01, and each of those had a folder in it called FOLDER01, presumably forever until I turned off the camera or removed the cards. I never found the images, and had to reshoot the event.
If you think I am exaggerating the size and weight of the 760 and 720x, look at this image with the 720x next to two of its contemporaries, the Nikon D200 and the Nikon D2H.
If you think I am exaggerating the size and weight of the 760 and 720x, look at this image with the 720x next to two of its contemporaries, the Nikon D200 and the Nikon D2H.
  • The 720x could certainly rock the ISO stratosphere, as in this Blake Shelton concert from 2006.
    The 720x could certainly rock the ISO stratosphere, as in this Blake Shelton concert from 2006.

    Although you can program it to convert its RAW files into JPEGs, the JPEGs are uselessly noisy and flat.

  • These RAW files are best edited with Kodak DCS Photo Desk, which was never supported by Mac OS X, meaning any computers in the last 15 years (I can’t speak for Windows). They will open in Adobe Camera RAW, but look pretty shabby.
  • Instead of the now-standard RGB Bayer pattern array, this high-ISO DCS cameras (the 620x and the 720x) had CMY arrays in an effort to increase sensor sensitivity by using less-absobative dyes, meaning that even the best editing favored some colors and ruined others. The 720x, for example, makes gorgeous purples, but not once was I able to get an orange tone to look right.
  • The infrared filter is mounted in front of the mirror so it can be easily removed or replaced with an anti-aliasing filter (which was not cheap), so the camera was prone to some unexpected reflections between the sensor and the filter that weren’t visible in the viewfinder, usually pink.
This is the kind of aliasing the 720x can produce with little provocation. It can be partially removed with software, at the expense of sharpness.
This is the kind of aliasing the 720x can produce with little provocation. It can be partially removed with software, at the expense of sharpness.
On bright days with blue skies, these cameras could make beautiful images.
On bright days with blue skies, these cameras could make beautiful images.
I made this image of my father in law in December 2004 with the 720x and my long-gone Nikkor 24mm f/2.0. Despite a bit of aliasing in the edges, it remains a seminal portrait of the man, who passed away in 2010.
I made this image of my father in law in December 2004 with the 720x and my long-gone Nikkor 24mm f/2.0. Despite a bit of aliasing in the edges, it remains a seminal portrait of the man, who passed away in 2010.

On the other hand, I made some great images with these cameras, so here are the good things about them…

  • High-ISO images from the 720x were always very clean, thank to the Photo Desk software. I often shot sports at ISO 4000 or 5000 when the occasion called for it. The camera’s contemporaries like the Nikon D1H didn’t do as well in the ISO stratosphere.
  • Since there was no anti-aliasing filter in either of these cameras, pixel-for-pixel sharpness was unchallenged by anything else in the era.
  • Focus was super-fast and on-the-money thanks to these cameras being based on the excellent Nikon F5 film camera. I thought building on the best film body of the era was a smart move, but Kodak’s next, and last, digital SLR, the SLRn/Pro 14n, was based on the cheap, consumer F80.
  • The overbuilt quality of these cameras made them feel very rugged.
This was the last image I made with my 760, of a gardener in Roff, Oklahoma for a magazine story. The next frame gave me an error massage, and that was it for the 760.
This was the last image I made with my 760, of a gardener in Roff, Oklahoma for a magazine story. The next frame gave me an error massage, and that was it for the 760.
For a while in the early 2000s, the 720x was the undisputed high-ISO champ, creating sharp, clean images at ISOs up to 5000.
For a while in the early 2000s, the 720x was the undisputed high-ISO champ, creating sharp, clean images at ISOs up to 5000.
I shot the Wellington's, Rodd and Kathy, for a magazine story, using the 760, and the results were a complete success. Detail in the images is excellent.
I shot the Wellington’s, Rodd and Kathy, for a magazine story, using the 760, and the results were a complete success. Detail in the images is excellent.

Despite their shortcomings, I was able to make memorable, high-quality images for my newspaper that still look great today, using both the 760 and the 720x.

One characteristic of a really great camera is to do its job in the background and get out of the photographer’s way so we can do our jobs, and some aspects of the Kodak’s failed to do that.

I will continue to pull out the old Kodak once in a while and play around with it. But I will probably never do photojournalism with it again.

It's easy today to laugh at a 2 megapixel camera, but in all honesty, I have 13 x 19 inch prints from the 720x that look great. Resolution is the most overrated and misunderstood specification in imaging today.
It’s easy today to laugh at a 2 megapixel camera, but in all honesty, I have 13 x 19 inch prints from the 720x that look great. Resolution is the most overrated and misunderstood specification in imaging today.
The awkward giantness of Kodak's DSLR cameras is bluntly symbolic of the company itself: overbuilt, overconfident, and ultimately a failure.
The awkward giantness of Kodak’s DSLR cameras is bluntly symbolic of the company itself: overbuilt, overconfident, and ultimately a failure.
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A Sunstar Extra

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

My friend Jamie and I recently reminisced about my first trip to Utah 15 years ago this month, so I took a look at the trip report, which I rewrote and expanded a few years ago. One thing I noted was how great my travel camera at the time, the Minolta DiMage 7i, did, particularly with its beautiful color rendition and spectacular 14-point sunstars.

Add to that the arrival of the holidays, and it’s a perfect time to revisit sunstars, an excellent tool in our photographic toolbox.

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

I talked about sunstars a time or two before. They are created by lenses as rays extending outward from bright points of light, and help us express a feeling of brightness and brilliance in a scene. Most lenses produce some kind of sunstars, but some lenses produce better ones than others.

The formula for sunstars is pretty basic: if your lens has even-numbered aperture blades, it will produce that number of sunstar rays (six-bladed apertures make six-pointed sunstars.) If you lens has an odd number of aperture blades, your lens should produce twice that number of sunstar rays (seven-bladed apertures make 14-point sunstars.)

That’s the formula, anyway. In practice, it doesn’t always work our quite that way, and in testing today, I had a couple of surprises.

I grabbed some of my lenses I thought would be good sunstar producers and took them out to our Shumard oak tree. With clear skies and brilliant autumn sunshine, I know I would coax most of them into nice-looking sunstars. Most of these lenses are older AF Nikkor lenses with straight seven-blades apertures.

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

It wasn’t so much a controlled test or a lens shootout, as much as it was me getting a better feel for which lenses I currently own can produce sunstars and to what degree.

All these test images were shot at f/16, a very small aperture, since larger apertures don’t really produce sunstars.

The lack of real aperture blades is also why smartphones produce sunblobs instead of sunstars.

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

It was fun to run in and out of the house with a different lens each time. Hopefully I have conveyed the power of the this effect, one of my favorites.

Part of what attracts me to the sunstar produced by my long-dead Minolta DiMage 7i is the bluish halo in the sunstar, which to me conveys a sense of the brilliance of the light.
Part of what attracts me to the sunstar produced by my long-dead Minolta DiMage 7i is the bluish halo in the sunstar, which to me conveys a sense of the brilliance of the light.
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iPhone 7 in Low Light: Not So Great

The Ada Couganns sit on Main Street and watch a skit set on a flatbed truck. The bottom of this image is in deep nighttime shadows, and full of noise.
The Ada Couganns sit on Main Street and watch a skit set on a flatbed truck. The bottom of this image is in deep nighttime shadows, and full of noise.
This is a 100% crop of a group photo I made at the pep rally, showing the noisy levels from the iPhone 7 Plus. The face is Kelly Maloy's. I have known the Maloy family since before the beginning of time.
This is a 100% crop of a group photo I made at the pep rally, showing the noisy levels from the iPhone 7 Plus. The face is Kelly Maloy’s. I have known the Maloy family since before the beginning of time.

I recently had a “web only” photo opportunity, since we published early in advance of the Veteran’s Day weekend. I decided that since I didn’t need print quality from my images, it would be a chance to take the camera in my iPhone 7 Plus, which my newspaper provides, to it’s limits to find out how well it’s camera performs in low light.

The event I chose was a nighttime, outdoor pep rally in downtown Ada, which was illuminated by street lights and traffic signals. The internet seemed confident that the iPhone would do the job, and recommended an app called NightCamera, which I downloaded and used.

The verdict? I wasn’t as impressed as the internet was, and although I was able to make some passable images that did the job, the overall image quality was disappointing. The f/1.8 lens combined with a maximum ISO 1600 to produce shutter speed in the 1/30th to 1/8th range. The images are surprisingly noisy, far moreso than a digital SLR set at much higher ISOs. The shadow detail dropped off harshly, leaving faces too dark even with in-camera brightening.

Though the NightCam app has pretty good control features, I can't recommend it due to it's annoying ad policy, which in interferes with basic operation.
Though the NightCam app has pretty good control features, I can’t recommend it due to it’s annoying ad policy, which in interferes with basic operation.

The main reason I’m telling you this is to set the web straight: despite all the fawning over the iPhone 7 and similar camera phones, DSLRs and large-aperture lenses remain well in the lead for low-light and almost-no-light situations.

The Ada Cougars football team players and fans enjoy a pep rally on Main Street in Ada.
The Ada Cougars football team players and fans enjoy a pep rally on Main Street in Ada.
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Funny Lenses and Expensive Lenses

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

I recently used a combination of online coupons and rewards points to “buy” a lens for no dollars, an Opteka 500mm f/6.3DG catadioptric, or “mirror,” lens. If you know anything about my cameras and lenses, you know that I have several lenses in this focal length range, all of which are better mechanically and optically better than this odd piece of hardware.

Catadioptric lenses use the same optical setup of concentric mirrors as very large space telescopes (like the Hubble) to fold the light path, making them much smaller than their refracting counterparts.

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

Why did I want one?

  • I wanted to be able to teach first-hand about this class of lenses and how they work.
  • I missed the first 500mm mirror lens I owned (a Nikon).
  • I wanted to play around with it.
  • Play around with it? Is that a real thing? Yes; to me there is no better learning tool than experimentation with the new and the unknown.
  • I wanted to photograph it.
  • I wanted to challenge myself to make good images with substandard hardware.
One of my first efforts with the Opteka 500mm was this wheat grass at sunrise. I found it ethereal and beautiful.
One of my first efforts with the Opteka 500mm was this wheat grass at sunrise. I found it ethereal and beautiful.

So what is this lens like?

  • Mechanically, focus is super-stiff, but it may loosen up as I use it.
  • Optically, I have been surprised that it actually has a sharp zone, though it is shallow and elusive.
  • Though advertised as “f/6.3”, even the best mirror lenses are only that fast in the center of the image, and vignetting (falloff) is very noticeable, such that I estimate it is about f/11’s brightness at the corners.
  • It is more compact and better-looking than my Nikkor was, though its engraving, metals and rubber grip ring all seem cheap.
  • It uses a t-mount to connect to the camera (so you can change camera brands by getting a different t-mount), which screws into the lens, and can unscrew during focusing if it’s not tight on the lens.
  • It came with the world’s cheapest teleconverter, a 2x, presumably so it could be advertised as both a 500mm and a 1000mm, but it’s impossible to use with the teleconverter due to a dark viewfinder image, an amplification of any camera movement, and the fact that even the best teleconverter is a quality thief.
  • Mirror lens are noted for their unusual, doughnut-shaped bokeh, which this lens certainly exhibits. Most photographers regard this as “bad bokeh,” but I’ll be treating like a tool in the toolbox.
The Opteka 500mm looks ridiculous on its no-name 2x teleconverter, and performs even worse.
The Opteka 500mm looks ridiculous on its no-name 2x teleconverter, and performs even worse.

I’ve already gotten a couple of images shot with it in the daily, so in the strictest sense, it is a pro lens, though I imagine this a case of my ability to extract something decent from fairly weak raw files. Time will tell, I guess, if this nonvestment was worth it, but so far, I’ve had fun with it.

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

Finally, a couple of posts ago, I talked about my lovely little AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 and why a young photographer friend of mine, Mackenzee Crosby, should buy it instead of the far more expensive Sigma 35mm f1.4, especially since the Sigma was made for a larger imaging sensors than she owned.

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

She ended up buying the Sigma, which she received as she was walking out the door to attend Monday’s Open Mic Nyte. She and I were able to play with it a bit, and I photographed it. It is heavy and focused smoothly, but I couldn’t tell much else.

I expect she was temped by the elusive maximum aperture, f/1.4, which is tempting. It’s hard for me to flaw her for wanting great hardware – when I was her age, I paid a small fortune for a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 that turned out to be optically disappointing. I hope the Sigma works out for her. My only advice about it would be: wear it out.

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

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

I teach the aperture formula to my students because it’s worth knowing why we use inverse, seemingly counterintuitive, numbers to express aperture values: big numbers = small apertures, and small numbers = large apertures. We get this by the formula: focal length divided by lens diameter (at the front opening) equals aperture value. Example: a 50mm lens with a 36mm diameter … 50 ÷ 36 ≈ 1.4. The 50 mm lens in this example has an f/1.4 maximum aperture.

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

I thought of this recently at Open Mic Nyte, where I have become a regular, and where I like to bring a different lens every time as my “featured lens.” Last Monday, I lugged along my heavy, beautifully-made Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF, a lens which dates back to the late 1970s, and which I acquired in the late 1990s.

If you do the aperture math like in the first paragraph, you find that to get to f2, a 200mm lens needs a 100mm (almost four inches) diameter front element.

To say that this lens is rare is an understatement, since I not only do I seldom use mine, I have never seen another one in the field.

Made of steel and brass, with 11 very large optical glass elements, it weighs 5.3 pounds, and is even heavier than it looks in-hand. It is as smooth to operate as any device I have ever held. Its optics, however, lag behind today’s modern computer-drafted lenses, so it can be a bit quirky to shoot well.

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

As I researched this post, I discovered several vloggers who asserted that lenses like this, and it’s insanely expensive modern autofocus version, are “hubris” lenses, created by the company and purchased by the customer in the milieu of “the best money can buy,” and not very useful.

One vlogger went as far as to say this lens is for “bokeh sluts.”

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

Shooting at f/2.0 with this lens makes a very difficult challenge to get the focus where you want it. Since depth of field is a matter of millimeters, moving the focus ring a tiny amount can result of a uselessly out-of-focus image. Of course, you could stop down to f/2.8 or f/4.0, but that defeats the entire idea of carrying and shooting a 200mm f/2. In fact, I have no idea how this lens performs stopped down because I never shoot it stopped down.

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

I always feel good when I make a point to get this lens out and use it. It certainly creates a unique look with its razor-thin depth of field and deep, deep selective focus. But I think for me, it is a combination of having something no one else can wield and my love of how finely crafted old Nikkor lenses were before the autofocus era.

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

 

1+

The Sweet Little 35mm

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

For much of my career in the film era, one of my favorite lenses was the Nikkor 35mm f/2. The focal length was great in the 35mm film era, and remains great in the digital era for several sensor sizes. Like its brother the 50mm, the 35mm prime (fixed focal length) can be manufactured inexpensively, can be made with a large maximum aperture, and remains small, lightweight, and inconspicuous.

A talented young friend of mine, Mackenzee Crosby, asked me recently about the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. She shoots with a camera sporting a 24mm x 15mm sensor, so the Sigma isn’t really the right choice.

Ken Rockwell has a review of the Sigma, and spells it out pretty clearly about it: “Do not use this lens on Nikon DX cameras simply because the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX is as good optically, better mechanically and compatibility wise, and is smaller, lighter and less expensive.”

My AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 makes a nice, compact package on my D7100.
My AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 makes a nice, compact package on my D7100.
Shooting into the partially shaded setting sun can be a challenge for a lesser lens, but in most situations, the 35mm f/1.8 makes it sing.
Shooting into the partially shaded setting sun can be a challenge for a lesser lens, but in most situations, the 35mm f/1.8 makes it sing.
Not the lens for me...
I read that the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 requires recalibration every few months using a USB dock and Sigma software, which to me is a bright red flag. When I spend $600, $800, $1200 for a lens, I expect it to serve me long, well, and reliably, not requiring a “patch” every few months to keep it running.
I saw this guy shooting at an event in June with a Canon 85mm f/1.2. Big lens or small, this guy was too far from the subject to take advantage of focal length or aperture.
I saw this guy shooting at an event in June with a Canon 85mm f/1.2. Big lens or small, this guy was too far from the subject to take advantage of focal length or aperture.
One minor flaw of the AF-S 35mm f/1.8 is its tendency to flare pink in the background. It's fixable in Photoshop, but it is a flaw.
One minor flaw of the AF-S 35mm f/1.8 is its tendency to flare pink in the background. It’s fixable in Photoshop, but it is a flaw.

I recommended a lens to her that I have learned to love over the years, the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX. Not only is this lens three or four times less expensive than the Sigma, it is lighter, smaller, and can render backgrounds – the real kernel of this class of lenses – just as beautifully as the Sigma.

As far as rendering backgrounds far out of focus, called selective focus, is concerned, the most powerful tool in the toolbox is the telephoto, not the wider-ish f/1.4s and f/1.8s. I recently talked about my 85mm, but the big guns, longer telephotos like the 70-200mm f/2.8, the 300mm f/2.8, and longer are the real kings.

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

Also for what it’s worth, I am incredulous that some photographers I know own very expensive large-aperture lenses that they use stopped down two or three stops. The only difference between a 135mm f/1.8 art lens shot at f/4.5 and a 70-300mm kit lens shot at f/4.5 is $1500.

Also, Richard, (you might be asking), why are my friends getting such amazing images with the Sigma 35mm? It’s simply that by shooting on a larger sensor, the 35mm focal length gives a wider field of view, requiring the photographer to get closer in order to fill the frame. Closer + large aperture = shallow depth of field.

I consider the 35mm f/1.8 an excellent, nearly viceless lens, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone shooting a Nikon with a 24mm x 15mm sensor.
I consider the 35mm f/1.8 an excellent, nearly viceless lens, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone shooting a Nikon with a 24mm x 15mm sensor.
Abby smiles for me as I photograph her near the famous Bellagio Fountains on the Las Vegas Strip, shot with the 35mm f/1.8 wide open. Note how gracefully the lights and colors are rendered by this lens.
Abby smiles for me as I photograph her near the famous Bellagio Fountains on the Las Vegas Strip, shot with the 35mm f/1.8 wide open. Note how gracefully the lights and colors are rendered by this lens.
2+

Your Next Lens

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

If you don’t have a large-maximum-aperture prime (single-focal-length, non-zoom) lens in your bag now, in the fall, before the Christmas season, it’s time to get one. Not only are the customary low-light seasons approaching, it is also time to photograph high school seniors, a growing, popular subset of photography. I had the opportunity to photograph a high school senior this weekend, my great niece (in-law) Teddy, who I have been photographing since she was five.

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

I can recommend many large-aperture lenses because I have them and use them – the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and the f/1.8, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 – but every camera manufacturer makes great large-aperture lenses.

My 85mm has been my go-to lens for recent commercial work, low light venues like Open Mic Nyte, and for the session recently with Teddy. In addition to being in the classic frame-filling-at-comfortable-distances category, it also can deliver absolutely game-changing selective  focus, smoothly and delicately washing backgrounds and foregrounds into smooth, complimentary picture elements.

Teddy poses in a hay field east on Duncan, Oklahoma. At the risk of editorializing, our little Teddy has certainly grown up.
Teddy poses in a hay field east on Duncan, Oklahoma. At the risk of editorializing, our little Teddy has certainly grown up.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we took advantage of a characteristic of large-aperture lenses, their inclination to flare when light strikes their large front elements. This moody look was exactly what we wanted, and movie fans will laugh to learn that we called this the "Gladiator" pose.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we took advantage of a characteristic of large-aperture lenses, their inclination to flare when light strikes their large front elements. This moody look was exactly what we wanted, and movie fans will laugh to learn that we called this the “Gladiator” pose.
Even Larger Apertures...
Fellow news photographer and Oklahoman photo chief Doug Hoke and I had lunch when I was in the Metro recently to cover playoffs. Among many other topics, we talked about a lens he’s been enjoying, a Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95. He’s able to use this exotic glass thanks to the fact that his mirrorless cameras have the sensor right behind the lens mount, allowing him to use pretty much any lens in existence, albeit with limitations.

Sometimes my students ask me, “What lens should I get for…?” and the answer is often a non-zoom, or prime. That can be a hard sell sometimes, since zoom lenses are perceived as both more versatile and more fun. But I am here to say that I am often happiest and getting the best stuff when I have a prime in my hands.

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

Nothing is without a tradeoff, though. In addition to being more expensive than the kit lens that came with your camera, a large-aperture prime is more demanding on your skills and patience. For example, when you shoot a 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, the depth of field is only a few millimeters, so if your focus is off by a couple of inches, not only is it out of focus, it’s way out of focus.

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

Also, some of these lenses exhibit aberrations, optical flaws, like distortion, chromatic aberration, field curvature, and, especially in the case of my 50mm f/1.4 and my 85mm f/1.8, spherochromatism, in which objects in the near out-of-focus areas take on magenta fringing, and object beyond the focus take on green fringing.

We accept these aberrations and even learn to live with them, although shooting at a smaller aperture makes them go away (except for distortion), because we didn’t spend $1900 on f/1.2 to shoot at f/4. We could do that with our $300 lenses.

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

Finally is the notion that, “If you don’t have a script, you don’t have a movie,” and my session with Teddy had a strong narrative, both from our planning what to do when and where, but also from the fact that my wife and I have been photographing her since she was five.

Our great niece Teddy poses for one of her senior pictures Saturday. We were both pleased with the whole shoot, which I shot entirely with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.
Our great niece Teddy poses for one of her senior pictures Saturday. We were both pleased with the whole shoot, which I shot entirely with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.
0

As Resolution Increases, Quality Falters

Amelia Holtzman wears pink sparkle makeup for "Pink Out Night" duriing pregame activities at the Ada football matchup against Bethany Friday night. At first she wanted to pose for me, but I asked her to watch the happenings. I thought it expressed Pink Out Night very nicely.
Amelia Holtzman wears pink sparkle makeup for “Pink Out Night” duriing pregame activities at the Ada football matchup against Bethany Friday night. At first she wanted to pose for me, but I asked her to watch the happenings. I thought it expressed Pink Out Night very nicely.

Some years ago I wrote “HD Garbage”  in which I talked about the commercialism of imaging and filmmaking, particularly the urge to buy more products to replace perfectly good products because their tech, especially their resolution (and by extension their perceived quality), is regarded as outdated. It’s part of a bigger aspect of mercantilism that insists we make foolish financial decisions in order to “upgrade” whether it’s really an upgrade or not.

One of the most disappointing aspects of technology is that it leads talentless people to generate content that is misperceived as good, which leads to the “my uncle” paradigm: “My uncle has a nice camera. He can shoot your wedding.”

This is an Ada High Color Guard member I photographed in 1989 whose name is think is Cheri Platt. I had a huge crush on her, since I was single and 26 at the time. Ask yourself: is this memory diminished or ruined in any way by being a "low resolution" film image?
This is an Ada High Color Guard member I photographed in 1989 whose name is think is Cheri Platt. I had a huge crush on her, since I was single and 26 at the time. Ask yourself: is this memory diminished or ruined in any way by being a “low resolution” film image?

In the biggest picture, we see commercialism selling us the idea that we need more, better technology to improve our entertainment, while at the same time we are a less-happy, less-healthy people, and most entertainment is not only unworthy of high definition, it is unworthy of being viewed. Another 72-inch super-high-definition television will never be able to make that scriptless $350,000,000 super-hero movie into a life-changing moment.

A friend of mine is a huge brand-name fanboy. He is constantly pining for the next big thing,  with still-frame and video resolution being at the top of his list. Yet I’ve never seen a single second of HD or 4K video from him. Not one.

Far and Away...
Last night at the game I saw what I see a lot: photographers with very expensive “full frame” (36mm x 24mm image sensor) cameras with the same lens I am using, a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom.  As much as the photography world touts this sensor size as the answer, I find it ironic and annoying that these photographers are always 30 yards farther from the play than I am. I know what they are getting: tiny figures in the center of the frame with lots of grass below and sky above, and I sometimes confirm it by sneaking a peak at the backs of their camera. As far as I am concerned, smaller sensors, in my case 24mm x 15mm, are a solution, not a problem. My stuff looks great.
Justin McFarlane stiff-arms an opponent in last night's game against Bethany. I was about eight yards ahead of the play, which came toward me. At 200mm with my 24mm x 15mm image sensor, the frame filled up nicely. The "full frame" crowd was 30 yards down field, missing this image.
Justin McFarlane stiff-arms an opponent in last night’s game against Bethany. I was about eight yards ahead of the play, which came toward me. At 200mm with my 24mm x 15mm image sensor, the frame filled up nicely. The “full frame” crowd was 30 yards down field, missing this image.

On a more upbeat note, I love covering local sports, specifically high school sports. The reasons for this is the legitimacy of emotional investment: the chance that a college or professional athlete has any real connection to you is slim. I heard a comedian say recently about professional sports that, “You’re really rooting for the uniform.”

The kids I cover in our community, on the other hand, are the children of the kids I covered 25 years ago, and everyone on the sidelines or in the stands has a dog in the fight.

This video is from a thing Ada fans have been doing since before I came to The Ada News in 1988. At the start of the fourth quarter, the band plays a song called “Light Up,” and the kids all come down and dance, then at a specific point in the song, they rush together with the cheerleaders and cheer…

This video is a memory and a moment. Nothing about it is improved or destroyed by its resolution. The next time you consider if your video would be improved by a new phone or camera, take out your existing phone or camera and shoot with it. Take a film class. Watch how films are made. Learn how to storyboard and write a script. Only when you have accomplished this, and are making films, will you go beyond the fallacy of yearning to buy more.

Ada fans gather together in September 1989 in the exact same spot at Norris Field on the ECU campus as they did last night. No one enjoys moments or memories based on their technology.
Ada fans gather together in September 1989 in the exact same spot at Norris Field on the ECU campus as they did last night. No one enjoys moments or memories based on their technology.
2+

The Great American Eclipse: Until Next Time…

A total solar eclipse is a beautiful and inspirational sight. I was happy to bring my wife Abby and meet up with my sister Nicole and her husband Tracey to see and photograph it.
A total solar eclipse is a beautiful and inspirational sight. I was happy to bring my wife Abby and meet up with my sister Nicole and her husband Tracey to see and photograph it.
Abby uses her eclipse glasses to peek at the last crescent of the sun as the totality approaches. Behind her is my camera with my 400mm + TC-14 teleconverter.
Abby uses her eclipse glasses to peek at the last crescent of the sun as the totality approaches. Behind her is my camera with my 400mm + TC-14 teleconverter.

Readers of our travel blog saw that our trip to my mother’s hometown in Missouri to witness and photograph the total eclipse of the sun of August 21, 2017 was a complete success.

Photographically, the challenge for me was exposure. I’d never even seen a total eclipse before, and could only guess. The solar corona, an aura of energetic plasma that represents the most visible and photographable attraction of an eclipse, is as much as a million times dimmer than the photosphere of the sun. The internet was little help for numbers on this exposure, which surprised and annoyed me.

For this eclipse, the best exposure was f/8, 1/80th of a second at ISO 640.

My 400mm with its excellent TC-14 teleconverter stands ready to photograph the solar eclipse, just seconds before the totality.
My 400mm with its excellent TC-14 teleconverter stands ready to photograph the solar eclipse, just seconds before the totality.
This is the aperture ring on my 400mm. With the teleconverter on, the aperture values are actually (not "effectively") one f/stop smaller, so when it's set at f/5.6, it's actually f/8.
This is the aperture ring on my 400mm. With the teleconverter on, the aperture values are actually (not “effectively”) one f/stop smaller, so when it’s set at f/5.6, it’s actually f/8.

I used my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 coupled with its well-matched TC-14 1.4x teleconverter to make a 560mm f/4.5, which I stopped down to f/8 for maximum sharpness and to tame this lens’s slight inclination toward chromatic aberrations. This lens is from the era before autofocus, but was build at a time when quality construction and expensive materials made a photographic instrument of unchallenged capability. In its day, sports photographers often thought and dreamed of little else than this “sweet piece of glass.”

My first frames were pretty dark, followed by two adjustments which resulted in the "correct" exposure to show off the beauty and elegance of the solar corona.
My first frames were pretty dark, followed by two adjustments which resulted in the “correct” exposure to show off the beauty and elegance of the solar corona.

I got my 400mm in 1997 from the long-defunct Photo-Fax.com, a service that catered to us, we who wanted to pay discount prices for top-dollar gear. It’s the longest lens I own.

With the teleconverter, the 560mm focal length was beginning to be long enough to fill the frame with the moon blocking the sun, showing the solar corona…

This is the totality right out of the camera, uncropped. At 560mm on a 24x15mm (APS-C) sensor, it filled up the frame adequately.
This is the totality right out of the camera, uncropped. At 560mm on a 24x15mm (APS-C) sensor, it filled up the frame adequately.

If you were building an eclipse camera on a budget from scratch, I might consider one of the new Sigma or Tamron 150-600mm lenses. Both companies make 1.4x teleconverters, which makes the 600mm into 840mm, but also robs the lens of a full f/stop of light. (Do the math: f/number = focal length ÷ aperture diameter.) Shooting at f/8.8 results in shutter speeds duing totality of 1/10 at medium ISOs. It’s also worth considering that most telephoto lenses aren’t incredibly sharp at full aperture, and the situation gets complicated.

A co-worker of mine has Nikon's newest 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, which could fill up the frame with an eclipse pretty effectively at 500mm.
A co-worker of mine has Nikon’s newest 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, which could fill up the frame with an eclipse pretty effectively at 500mm.

It probably goes without saying that a sturdy tripod is a must.

Alternatively, you could opt for renting a super telephoto. You can get a Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 AF-S for a weekend for $400 or so.

Don’t bother with the super-cheap 500mm catadioptric (mirror) lenses. They really are junk.

Finally, there are many fine astronomical telescopes with camera adaptors that will do the trick, but their prices are also astronomical.

In less than seven years, another total eclipse will cross the United States, and the path of totality will be even closer to home than this one. On April 8, 2024, Abby and I hope to be in the vicinity of Idabel, Oklahoma, just 148 miles from our home. With the experience I gained from this time, I will plan to expand my goals to include more cameras, more lenses, and more photographic schemes, and hopefully take the next eclipse to the next level.

The "diamond ring" effect happens in the brief moments when the sun begins to emerge from behind the moon. As you can see in this frame, the brightness of the photosphere is starting to overwhelm the lens and the sensor.
The “diamond ring” effect happens in the brief moments when the sun begins to emerge from behind the moon. As you can see in this frame, the brightness of the photosphere is starting to overwhelm the lens and the sensor.
0

More Thoughts About the Eclipse

This is a test image of the sun I made today under hazy skies, shot with my 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor, my 1.4x Nikon teleconverter, and a small piece of "eclipse glasses" film on the 39mm drop-in filter in the lens.
This is a test image of the sun I made today under hazy skies, shot with my 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor, my 1.4x Nikon teleconverter, and a small piece of “eclipse glasses” film on the 39mm drop-in filter in the lens.

The first total solar eclipse to cross the continental Unites States in many years is just six days away, and along with half the country, my wife Abby and I are preparing to photograph it.

When I first discovered this event, five years ago, I wrote a blog post called Assignment: Team Blackout. It was my feeling that Abby and I and a few friends and/or fellow photographers would make a two-day trip of it, and it would be fun and easy.

As those five years have passed, and especially in the last few weeks, I am having misgivings about the whole idea, since it is starting to be reported that everyone and their dogs (and our dogs) will be mass-migrating to a spot under the path of totality to witness and photograph this event.

During tests today to photograph the sun, this 39mm filter got stuck in the filter holder, possibly cross-threaded, and had to be forcibly removed with a Vice-Grip, permanently damaging it. Fortunately, it is an obsolete #82A color correction filter, and I have three other filters that will work.
During tests today to photograph the sun, this 39mm filter got stuck in the filter holder, possibly cross-threaded, and had to be forcibly removed with a Vice-Grip, permanently damaging it. Fortunately, it is an obsolete #82A color correction filter, and I have three other filters that will work.

I was excited, but now I am just stressed. I have a mental image of Abby and me sitting in the truck on I-44, without moving for five hours, because the highway system is totally overwhelmed by the flood of dilettantes and dabblers, and not only will we miss the event, it will be boring and miserable.

That’s a worst-case scenario, of course. It is based partly on the fact that a Quality Inn already sold a reservation out from under us, one we made months ago. It also takes into account media frenzy that loves to froth at the mouth in advance of a disaster.

My photographic plan is fairly straightforward. I am relatively uninterested in photographing the crescent photosphere. Of main interest to me is the stellar corona visible during totality, the beautiful but faint, airy, high-temperature aura of plasma that is only visible during an eclipse or with expensive  masking instruments. A second-tier item would be Bailey’s beads, which is the sun diffracted around mountains and valleys on the lunar surface, and the “diamond ring” effect just as the sun disappears behind the moon.

Pro Tip...
It is never safe to look directly at the sun, even with sunglasses, and should only be attempted with ISO certified “eclipse glasses.”

If it’s cloudy where we are, I will be disappointed, although my sister, who hopes to join us along with her husband, pointed out, day will still become night and it will remain an experience to remember.

This is the camera-end of my 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor with the excellent 1.4x converter attached. The 39mm filter sits in a slot, shown here pulled out and laid on the lens so you can see the piece of "eclipse glasses" I am using as a solar filter.
This is the camera-end of my 400mm f/3.5 Nikkor with the excellent 1.4x converter attached. The 39mm filter sits in a slot, shown here pulled out and laid on the lens so you can see the piece of “eclipse glasses” I am using as a solar filter.
0

My Favorite Place: Done

My young friends the Redman girls, Kaitlyn, Dixie, and Elizabeth, pose for a photograph at Ada Lady Cougar softball media day earlier this month. Kaitlyn and Elizabeth played and have graduated, and Dixie is a junior.
My young friends the Redman girls, Kaitlyn, Dixie, and Elizabeth, pose for a photograph at Ada Lady Cougar softball media day earlier this month. Kaitlyn and Elizabeth played and have graduated, and Dixie is a junior.

I am in the middle of one of the busiest times of the year: back to school. This involves, among many other things, putting together our newspaper’s football preview section. The photography, of course, falls almost entirely on me, and involves making hundreds of images, from player headshots to team photos to features of our “players to watch.”

One of my best strategies in these crazy busy August days is to stay as much caught up with my editing as I can. As I speak, I’ve shot four football media days and one softball media day, all on top of my regular schedule, and I have edited and submitted every image. No one ever waits on Richard at my office.

This is my screen at work yesterday, with my last image enlarged. As tempting as it is to imagine an "app" will help you get organized, it really comes down to your own ability and willingness to organize.
This is my screen at work yesterday, with my last image enlarged. As tempting as it is to imagine an “app” will help you get organized, it really comes down to your own ability and willingness to organize.

This “best practice” applies to all photographers. Unedited images sitting in your camera or on a computer hard drive somewhere might as well not even exist. No one likes to wait, and editors and clients hate waiting for their pictures. Don’t believe me? Wait a month before you start to edit a wedding you shot, and enjoy the constant phalanx of phone calls and emails. “Where are our pictures?!?

Another reason this is a best practice is that staying ahead of the ball lets you stay better organized, both mechanically and in your head. I have seen students and fellow photographers browse through thousands of images on the backs of their cameras, on their phones, or, and this is the worst, one media card after another, trying to find just one image in a sea of images. Here’s a tip. You can’t find “Johnson Wedding 2016” in your camera or on your phone, but I found “Reeves-Milligan Wedding” in just a few seconds on my laptop. I just opened a search and typed the words.

The inability to find images makes you look foolish and incompetent, and has potentially disastrous consequences for your photographer-client relationship. It only took a few seconds to find these results, since I was well-organized.
The inability to find images makes you look foolish and incompetent, and has potentially disastrous consequences for your photographer-client relationship. It only took a few seconds to find these results, since I was well-organized.

If this kind of organization isn’t your thing, it might be worth considering hiring someone to do it for you – an office manager or editing partner. Most of the complaints I hear and read about photographers are about timeliness and organization. And nothing can sour your reputation like angering your customers.

The Coalgate senior football players share a laugh at their team's media day last week.
The Coalgate senior football players share a laugh at their team’s media day last week.
0

JPEG Dazzle vs RAW to the Rescue

Brilliant late afternoon sun shines through cottonwood trees along Utah's Indian Creek. The beautiful colors and tonal qualities were captured and preserved using the RAW file format.
Brilliant late afternoon sun shines through cottonwood trees along Utah’s Indian Creek. The beautiful colors and tonal qualities were captured and preserved using the RAW file format.

As the photographic world knows, or at least loudly claims, amateur photographers shoot JPEG files and pros shoot RAW. I know this because photographers who make these claims trumpet them loudly, often with wearable memes like “I shoot RAW” t-shirts. There are even a few pictures floating around the web of photographers wearing such gear while holding a film camera, and at least one popular webizen has dubbed film to be “real raw.”

Many different software programs, like Adobe Photoshop in this screen shot, allow you to select the white balance of a RAW file after you have shot it.
Many different software programs, like Adobe Photoshop in this screen shot, allow you to select the white balance of a RAW file after you have shot it.

The day your camera was born, it was set to make JPEG files. When you pulled it out of that good-new-smelling Styrofoam clamshell and charged up the battery and were ready to shoot, you were shooting JPEGs. There’s nothing wrong with that. JPEG is robust and easy to use. Almost all of the images you see on the web, and every image you see here richardbarron.net, is a JPEG file.

When I first tell my students about raw files, I explain to them that while you might like the results of shooting JPEG files, those files are married to your camera settings. If you have your camera set to “vivid” color, for example, you are stuck with a vividly-colored image. The same goes for white balance – you are mostly stuck with the white balance you set in your camera – except that you can get white balance very wrong when you are shooting. RAW files are a great way to avoid this marriage of settings. Although your RAW file might be tagged as vivid color or tungsten white balance, you can change those values as soon as you open the image.

Why is this? The biggest reason is that JPEG files contain 8 bits per channel, meaning they contain 256 brightness levels per color: red, green and blue. RAW files record 12 bits of data, creating and storing 4,096 brightness levels per color, or 14 bits, creating 16,384 different brightness levels per color. Add to this the fact that we paid for all those colors when we bought our cameras, and then throw most of them away when we make JPEGs, RAW files make even more sense.

On the left is the unedited RAW file. On the right is the JPEG. Initially, it's easy to get carried away with JPEG settings that make an image stand out. But there's a lot more to shooting RAW than first impressions.
On the left is the unedited RAW file. On the right is the JPEG. Initially, it’s easy to get carried away with JPEG settings that make an image stand out. But there’s a lot more to shooting RAW than first impressions.

My students and I were shooting recently on the bridge over the pond at the Pontotoc Technology Center, and ran across some beautiful light. We took turns posing for each other, and the JPEGs looked great right out of the camera. In fact, since I had my settings on vivid, the images popped beautifully, and really made a great first impression.

I shoot in many circumstances that require settling for incorrect or ugly white balance, under or over exposures, and challenging lighting scenarios (like sports and spot news), and I am always glad when I can fine tune everything back at the office.

The top image came right of the camera, shot in rapidly changing conditions (sunrise in the Utah desert); the bottom image was "fixed" using Adobe's camera raw dialog, with just a click or two. If the image was a JPEG, I would have considerable difficulty dialing out all those blue/cyan hues.
The top image came right of the camera, shot in rapidly changing conditions (sunrise in the Utah desert); the bottom image was “fixed” using Adobe’s camera raw dialog, with just a click or two. If the image was a JPEG, I would have considerable difficulty dialing out all those blue/cyan hues.

I can’t begin to count the occasions when having a RAW file saved an image. I tell my students to start by setting their cameras to shoot both JPEG and RAW files, but as the years go by, I have less and less use for that tagalong JPEG.

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Phonetography Phun

I found this interesting juxtaposition of a curved anthill and a red wall in downtown Ada recently, and made this image with my iPhone 7 using Instagram.
I found this interesting juxtaposition of a curved anthill and a red wall in downtown Ada recently, and made this image with my iPhone 7 using Instagram.
The iPhone 7 Plus is one of this year's models that has a dual-lens camera.
The iPhone 7 Plus is one of this year’s models that has a dual-lens camera.

As consumers and the camera industry are well aware, the most common type of photography in the world today is smartphone photography, and the most popular smartphone is the iPhone. My wife Abby and I have iPhones, and their sophisticated, convenient, built-in cameras have all but silenced our point-and-shoot cameras.

As I explore the most recent iteration of these, the iPhone 7 Plus, I am finding both its virtues and its flaws.

The iPhone is equipped with two lenses integrated with software to hopefully imitate the powerful selective focus of a large-aperture prime lens, but it has limitations and flaws, including this, a clumsy software implementation that resulted in a "gap" in the out of focus area behind the bush.
The iPhone is equipped with two lenses integrated with software to hopefully imitate the powerful selective focus of a large-aperture prime lens, but it has limitations and flaws, including this, a clumsy software implementation that resulted in a “gap” in the out of focus area behind the bush.

My favorite way to use my iPhone to make pictures is through Instagram, which includes interesting filter looks and makes sharing on social media easy. Instagram’s game changer for me, though, is its square format. It leads to me to compose images differently, since more of my photography involves choose between vertical and horizontal compositions.

The built-in LED flash built into your phone has the same drawbacks as the built-in flash on any camera: it's not ver powerful, it blinds the subject, and it produces very unnatural-looking light.
The built-in LED flash built into your phone has the same drawbacks as the built-in flash on any camera: it’s not ver powerful, it blinds the subject, and it produces very unnatural-looking light.

Some ideas that might up your phonetography game…

  • Keep your phone clean. In particular, keep that tiny lens free of fingerprints. I see tons of phone photos that are hazy and fog-like, and this is because the lens is covered in schmoogies.
  • Get closer. This has been an essential piece of my teaching for years, and it applies to phonetography as much as any other. The pixels for which you pined and paid over the years are wasted with sky above and floor below in most iPhone images.
  • Unless you are shooting square frames, pay attention to mode: portrait vs landscape. Most people hold their phone vertically out of habit, and it defines both their photographs and their videos, often inappropriately. It’s easy to turn a phone on it’s side, but too often we see horizontal scenes represented by vertical compositions.
  • Steady is better. Even the biggest phones are lightweight, so it becomes very important to hold them steady. If you don’t have a steady hand, consider a mass-based steadycam, tripod or monopod.
  • Don’t bother with the “pinch to zoom” feature. On most phones, it just crops the pixels in the same way you can when editing later.
  • Although trendy, getting a light source in your phone photos can make quite a mess, and this technique calls for more lens that the phone can muster.

All of the basic rules of photography apply to the phonetography. Keeping that in mind, the camera in your phone is another great tool in the photography toolbox.

A tiny, clear surface like the lens of your phone's camera is easy to cover with fingerprint, pocket lint, and dog saliva. Keep it clean.
A tiny, clear surface like the lens of your phone’s camera is easy to cover with fingerprint, pocket lint, and dog saliva. Keep it clean.
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More Stars, More Stripes, More Fun

Motorcyclists and police officers line up to escort runners in the 50th Annual Fireball Classic half-marathon, 10k , and 5k race Tuesday morning, July 4, 2017 in Wintersmith Park. This image was on the front page of the July 6 Ada News.
Motorcyclists and police officers line up to escort runners in the 50th Annual Fireball Classic half-marathon, 10k , and 5k race Tuesday morning, July 4, 2017 in Wintersmith Park. This image was on the front page of the July 6 Ada News.

On a couple of occasions before, I have described how much fun I have covering Ada’s Independence Day celebrations in historic Wintersmith Park. Our community goes all-out, starting with the Fireball Classic half-marathon, 10k, and 5k races (this year was the 50th), followed by kids games, then grown-up games, then fireworks at dark over Wintersmith Lake.

I dug around in the morgue and found this page, my first opportunity to cover Ada's July 4 fun, 1989. "PYAT" in the headline refers to the long-defunct group Proud Young Americans for Truth.
I dug around in the morgue and found this page, my first opportunity to cover Ada’s July 4 fun, 1989. “PYAT” in the headline refers to the long-defunct group Proud Young Americans for Truth.

Having shot this event year after year has been more than a pleasure, it’s been a privilege to offer my view of this historic family-friendly piece of Americana.

A happy coincidence of ads and free space let us use a nice package of my images in color on pages 5 and 6 Thursday. It is my hope that everyone enjoyed the images, and that they spend many years tacked to bulletin boards and stuck on refrigerator doors.
A happy coincidence of ads and free space let us use a nice package of my images in color on pages 5 and 6 Thursday. It is my hope that everyone enjoyed the images, and that they spend many years tacked to bulletin boards and stuck on refrigerator doors.
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The 2017 Solar Eclipse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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