If you don’t have a large-maximum-aperture prime (single-focal-length, non-zoom) lens in your bag now, in the fall, before the Christmas season, it’s time to get one. Not only are the customary low-light seasons approaching, it is also time to photograph high school seniors, a growing, popular subset of photography. I had the opportunity to photograph a high school senior this weekend, my great niece (in-law) Teddy, who I have been photographing since she was five.
I can recommend many large-aperture lenses because I have them and use them – the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and the f/1.8, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 – but every camera manufacturer makes great large-aperture lenses.
My 85mm has been my go-to lens for recent commercial work, low light venues like Open Mic Nyte, and for the session recently with Teddy. In addition to being in the classic frame-filling-at-comfortable-distances category, it also can deliver absolutely game-changing selective focus, smoothly and delicately washing backgrounds and foregrounds into smooth, complimentary picture elements.
Even Larger Apertures...
Fellow news photographer and Oklahoman photo chief Doug Hoke and I had lunch when I was in the Metro recently to cover playoffs. Among many other topics, we talked about a lens he’s been enjoying, a Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95. He’s able to use this exotic glass thanks to the fact that his mirrorless cameras have the sensor right behind the lens mount, allowing him to use pretty much any lens in existence, albeit with limitations.
Sometimes my students ask me, “What lens should I get for…?” and the answer is often a non-zoom, or prime. That can be a hard sell sometimes, since zoom lenses are perceived as both more versatile and more fun. But I am here to say that I am often happiest and getting the best stuff when I have a prime in my hands.
Nothing is without a tradeoff, though. In addition to being more expensive than the kit lens that came with your camera, a large-aperture prime is more demanding on your skills and patience. For example, when you shoot a 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, the depth of field is only a few millimeters, so if your focus is off by a couple of inches, not only is it out of focus, it’s way out of focus.
Also, some of these lenses exhibit aberrations, optical flaws, like distortion, chromatic aberration, field curvature, and, especially in the case of my 50mm f/1.4 and my 85mm f/1.8, spherochromatism, in which objects in the near out-of-focus areas take on magenta fringing, and object beyond the focus take on green fringing.
We accept these aberrations and even learn to live with them, although shooting at a smaller aperture makes them go away (except for distortion), because we didn’t spend $1900 on f/1.2 to shoot at f/4. We could do that with our $300 lenses.
Finally is the notion that, “If you don’t have a script, you don’t have a movie,” and my session with Teddy had a strong narrative, both from our planning what to do when and where, but also from the fact that my wife and I have been photographing her since she was five.
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.”
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.
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.
Readers of our travel blog saw that our trip to my mother’s hometown in Missouri to witness and photograph the total eclipse of the sun of August 21, 2017 was a complete success.
Photographically, the challenge for me was exposure. I’d never even seen a total eclipse before, and could only guess. The solar corona, an aura of energetic plasma that represents the most visible and photographable attraction of an eclipse, is as much as a million times dimmer than the photosphere of the sun. The internet was little help for numbers on this exposure, which surprised and annoyed me.
For this eclipse, the best exposure was f/8, 1/80th of a second at ISO 640.
I used my Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 coupled with its well-matched TC-14 1.4x teleconverter to make a 560mm f/4.5, which I stopped down to f/8 for maximum sharpness and to tame this lens’s slight inclination toward chromatic aberrations. This lens is from the era before autofocus, but was build at a time when quality construction and expensive materials made a photographic instrument of unchallenged capability. In its day, sports photographers often thought and dreamed of little else than this “sweet piece of glass.”
I got my 400mm in 1997 from the long-defunct Photo-Fax.com, a service that catered to us, we who wanted to pay discount prices for top-dollar gear. It’s the longest lens I own.
With the teleconverter, the 560mm focal length was beginning to be long enough to fill the frame with the moon blocking the sun, showing the solar corona…
If you were building an eclipse camera on a budget from scratch, I might consider one of the new Sigma or Tamron 150-600mm lenses. Both companies make 1.4x teleconverters, which makes the 600mm into 840mm, but also robs the lens of a full f/stop of light. (Do the math: f/number = focal length ÷ aperture diameter.) Shooting at f/8.8 results in shutter speeds duing totality of 1/10 at medium ISOs. It’s also worth considering that most telephoto lenses aren’t incredibly sharp at full aperture, and the situation gets complicated.
It probably goes without saying that a sturdy tripod is a must.
Alternatively, you could opt for renting a super telephoto. You can get a Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 AF-S for a weekend for $400 or so.
Don’t bother with the super-cheap 500mm catadioptric (mirror) lenses. They really are junk.
Finally, there are many fine astronomical telescopes with camera adaptors that will do the trick, but their prices are also astronomical.
In less than seven years, another total eclipse will cross the United States, and the path of totality will be even closer to home than this one. On April 8, 2024, Abby and I hope to be in the vicinity of Idabel, Oklahoma, just 148 miles from our home. With the experience I gained from this time, I will plan to expand my goals to include more cameras, more lenses, and more photographic schemes, and hopefully take the next eclipse to the next level.
The first total solar eclipse to cross the continental Unites States in many years is just six days away, and along with half the country, my wife Abby and I are preparing to photograph it.
When I first discovered this event, five years ago, I wrote a blog post called Assignment: Team Blackout. It was my feeling that Abby and I and a few friends and/or fellow photographers would make a two-day trip of it, and it would be fun and easy.
As those five years have passed, and especially in the last few weeks, I am having misgivings about the whole idea, since it is starting to be reported that everyone and their dogs (and our dogs) will be mass-migrating to a spot under the path of totality to witness and photograph this event.
I was excited, but now I am just stressed. I have a mental image of Abby and me sitting in the truck on I-44, without moving for five hours, because the highway system is totally overwhelmed by the flood of dilettantes and dabblers, and not only will we miss the event, it will be boring and miserable.
That’s a worst-case scenario, of course. It is based partly on the fact that a Quality Inn already sold a reservation out from under us, one we made months ago. It also takes into account media frenzy that loves to froth at the mouth in advance of a disaster.
My photographic plan is fairly straightforward. I am relatively uninterested in photographing the crescent photosphere. Of main interest to me is the stellar corona visible during totality, the beautiful but faint, airy, high-temperature aura of plasma that is only visible during an eclipse or with expensive masking instruments. A second-tier item would be Bailey’s beads, which is the sun diffracted around mountains and valleys on the lunar surface, and the “diamond ring” effect just as the sun disappears behind the moon.
It is never safe to look directly at the sun, even with sunglasses, and should only be attempted with ISO certified “eclipse glasses.”
If it’s cloudy where we are, I will be disappointed, although my sister, who hopes to join us along with her husband, pointed out, day will still become night and it will remain an experience to remember.
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 “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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a fair amount of excitement building around the first total eclipse of the sun in the United States in 72 years, on August 21, 2017. Undoubtedly, millions of people will be attempting to view and photograph it, mostly with marginal success using their smartphone cameras.
My wife Abby and I have been planning for this for some time, and expect to include my sister Nicole and her husband Tracey. Our hope is to be in our mother’s home town, Park Hills, Missouri, (known as Flat River for most of her life) on the morning of the eclipse, to stake out a spot from which to witness, and photograph, this event.
Photographing a solar eclipse is challenging. I’ve never photographed, or even seen, one, though Abby and I have photographed several lunar eclipses, and many of the same principals apply.
Firstly, as you will read on most sites about the upcoming eclipse, don’t look directly at the sun, even for a second or two, and even if it is partially eclipsed by the moon. The only time it is safe to look at it with your naked eye is during the totality, when the disk of the sun (the photosphere) is completely covered by the moon.
The weather will play a huge role in viewing this event: read a forecast and try to be someplace with clear skies. Even with planning, there is a chance it might be obscured by clouds.
I bought some disposable eclipse glasses, and have looked directly at the sun with them on. They seem to be effective, although I don’t exactly trust them, so I won’t be staring through them at the sun for more than a second or two.
Though they appear large in the sky compared to stars and planets, the sun and moon actually occupy a very small area of the sky. Filling the frame with these celestial bodies requires either an astronomical telescope or a very long telephoto lens.
When the disk of the sun is visible, normal exposures are not effective without a neutral density filter, in these cases sometimes sold as a solar filter. These act as powerful “sunglasses,” since the photosphere (the surface of the sun) is much brighter than anything on earth.
When the sun is eclipsed by the moon, exposure values are hundreds of times darker than before. Camera settings can go from f/16 at 1/1000th of a second to f/4 at one, two, ten seconds or longer depending on conditions. The most interesting thing to photograph during the totality is the solar corona, which is very faint compared to the photosphere.
Cell phones, point-and-shoot cameras, and cameras with the ever-popular “kit lens” will be unable to fill the frame with anything useful during an eclipse, as we have see time and again during lunar eclipses.
A rock-solid tripod will be indispensable, particularly during totality when exposures will be long.
The ultimate solution to this photographic puzzle would be to use a real (and very expensive) astronomical telescope.
Someone recently told me the best approach of all would be to find a spot, relax, and enjoy the eclipse, then buy a photograph or enjoy all the posts on the web. That’s certainly a valid point of view, but I am a photographer, and feel like I should be shooting this, which I will very much enjoy.
When I recommend a prime (non-zoom) lens, one of the first I encourage someone to buy is a 50mm, which is a great choice for a lot of reasons: it’s lightweight, small, affordable, and, above all, offers a large maximum aperture. In a world in which top large-aperture zoom lenses can cost $2500, it’s nice to have an option that might cost a tenth that.
It’s easy to see why such a lens would appeal for low-light sports action, kids blowing out birthday candles, and magic moments under the Christmas tree. I grab mine all the time at home, from photos of my lovely wife, our derpy dogs, or the beauty of nature on our little patch of the country.
A friend of mine, who I regard as a very talented photographer, recently asked me for some advice about photographing the American West. Among her destinations was Mesa Arch, a beautiful, easy-to-reach attraction at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, which I have visited many times.
I told her that this feature is classically photographed in the morning, since the sun rises in the opening of the arch, with a beautiful canyon below and mountains in the distance. The light strikes to red wall of the canyon below and causes the underside of the feature to take on deep red hues.
The only drawback, I told her, is that it’s been “discovered,” so she should expect to see a large number of photographers there at sunrise.
“I really want to see Mesa Arch, but I hate the idea of a lot of photographers because I will feel inferior,” she replied.
Years ago I wrote a piece about how I can sometimes be tempted to get outside my game when I am in the presence of other professional photographers. I’m sure this is true for other professions as well, and why conferences and think tanks are useful for showing us way of doing things we might not see.
The other side of that, of course, is that we don’t want to let the herd mentality take us to what I like to call the “force op,” or forced photo opportunity, in which you let other photographers define you creatively.
But there is a little trick that will help relieve you of the burden of feeling competitive with other photographers. Now that digital imaging has taken some of the mystery, and particularly the surprise, out of photography, all we have to do is stand behind someone and look at their monitor to see what kinds of images they are making. Often, even most of the time, I am surprised and discouraged by how badly photographers are composing their pictures. “Why is this guy even here with his $10,000 worth of equipment,” I ask myself, “when he can’t compose his way out of a wet paper sack?”
Also, don’t let anyone’s equipment intimidate you, and even more importantly, don’t let them talk about their equipment to you. If they do, it will be all they talk about, and they will have nothing interesting to say about the art of photography.
Ultimately photography should be about expressing ourselves and sharing our vision of our lives and our worlds, not worrying about how we look when we’re making our images or what others might think about our equipment or skills. When it comes to comparisons, it is certainly worth looking at the work of others, but not with the purpose of copying it. I should serve as inspiration.
Everyone takes pictures now. The only genuine value in them is your vision.
My young friend Mackenzee Crosby was just accepted to Oklahoma University and intends to go to journalism school. These events left me reminiscing about my own experiences at OU in the early 1980s.
My educational experiences as an instructor have reenforced what I have always believed, that education is very learner-defined, meaning that it depends very much on how motivated the student is to absorb what the instructor is offering.
College, by extension, isn’t as valuable as it could be because many people get through it just to get through it. On the occasions when I taught college, students were all over the place: lazy, excited, cynical, fun, bored, motivated, selfish, ambitious.
I will add that as the years have passed, a college degree is worth less. For a while the mantra was “you need a master’s degree,” and now it is, “you need a doctorate.”
In any case, I learned very little of my actual tradecraft from classes I took. The overwhelming majority of my skills came from my motivation to be a journalist: shooting, working in the darkroom, getting published in the yearbook and the student newspaper, and getting work from various media. I couldn’t wait until a journalism class was over so I could go do some journalism.
I had in mind during my college years that yearbook and magazine represented better quality than newspaper, so much of the time, I tried to get the sharpest and finest quality from my work, and preferred to sell it to glossy publications instead of dailies. Having been a newspaper intern in the summers of 1982 and 1983, I knew that newspaper photography was, as a fellow photographer said to me at the time, “meatball photography.”
I got to know several of my fellow student photographers well, but none more than Scott AndersEn and Robert Stinson, who remain close friends and respected fellow photographers to this day.
My film of choice was usually Kodak Tri-X rated at about ISO 250, souped in Kodak Microdol-X, using the 1:3 dilution, 75 degrees for 13 minutes, thought at the time to produce better grain and sharpness. I experimented with all kinds of products, but came back to those again and again.
I had three camera bodies, a Nikon FM, which I bought in January 1982, a Nikon FM2, which I got in 1983, and a Nikon FE2, bought in 1984 when a friend suggested it instead of another FM2. All of them had the MD-12 motor drive.
I had four lenses in my basic bag through college, a 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, a 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor, a 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor, and a 200mm f/4 Nikkor. The 105mm was my go-to favorite, since it was sharp, light, bright, and easy to use. Near the end of my college life I got a 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor.
I used the darkroom in Copeland Hall, which was shared by newspaper and yearbook students, and which was often quite a mess. Most photographers and dilettantes never understood that the chemicals – developer, fixer, stop bath, wetting agent – were anything other than water, and tended to spill them, contaminate them, use them up and not replace them. I became the de facto manager of the darkroom, and cleaned it all the time.
I had a crush on at least four of our Sooner Yearbook staffers, but no one on the Oklahoma Daily staff. I never dated any of them, though I certainly tried, and was mostly alone for my time in college.
I used all my own darkroom gear, including tanks, reels, and chemicals, since I could almost guarantee the other photographers would compromise the supplies in the darkroom. During finals week in an art class in 1983, I souped some slide film in the chemistry they provided, which had been contaminated, and which ruined my film, forcing an urgent reshoot.
Once, when I was walking home with my backpack stuffed with photo gear, I heard some frat turds yelling at me, “Hey, nurd!” Yeah, frat guys in college: a topic for another day.
At one point I dropped by The Tulsa World and showed some of my stuff to the managing editor, who kept asking, “You’re a student?”
In the fall of 1985, I got a call from The Shawnee News-Star, and started my career as a news photographer.
Last fall my newspaper bought me a new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4 telephoto lens to replace my nearly 20-year old AF 300mm. I’ve been shooting with it nonstop since then, since it is a bread-and-butter lens for long sports like baseball, softball, soccer, daytime football, tennis, and golf.
As baseball season has evolved this spring, I decided to up my game by adding my 1.4x teleconverter to my 300mm, making it a 420mm f/5.6. The 300mm already filled up the frame nicely, but I was looking for more.
Shooting super tight like that has some serious drawbacks, drawbacks that will completely discourage amateurs from keeping it up. The biggest problem is that your action moves out of the frame, or the frame moves away from the action, with little provocation. The other problem is that since the subjects are moving so much in the frame, the focus tends to bite on the background.
I was shooting playoffs last week next to Oklahoman photographer Sarah Phipps, who was shooting with her 400mm, and she said, “There’s something about the crowd that attracts the focus,” noting that some of her image were back focused. It’s a burden we all must bear.
Amateurs deal with these issues by zooming out. Much of the time I see their 70-300mm zooms at their widest settings, since they can see more of the field that way. But their images definitely suffer. It’s one of the reasons I sometimes prefer a “prime” (fixed focal length) lens – I can’t, and therefore don’t, zoom out when the action fills up the frame.
I have a 400mm, but it’s heavy and awkward on its monopod, so almost all the time, I shoot with the new 300mm and my Tamron 1.4 converter. I was surprised at how well this cheaper converter took to the new 300, but I think it’s just that the 300mm is so sharp that when the converter takes its sharpness down a notch, it’s still on one of the top rungs of sharpness.
Two rounds of thunderstorms rolled through our home in Byng, Oklahoma last night. The first one skirted us to the north, so from our point of view, we had an excellent view of the right flank of the storm. It was the first time in the last couple of years that all the factors came together for me to make good lightning photos: little or no rain at my site, a very electrically-active thunderstorm, a lack of obscuring rain on my side of the storm, and no danger of being struck by lightning.
It Does Happen
Years ago I was standing in my garage trying to photograph lightning when a bolt hit a tree across the pasture. Not only was it insanely loud and bright, a feeder of it made it to the garage. I was leaning on the metal door track at the time, and electricity passed through it into my right arm. I was lucky I wasn’t injured or even killed.
So, if we see a thunderstorm like this and want to photograph it, what do we need, and how do we do it? We need…
A camera with manual controls of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus
A sturdy tripod or other way to hold the camera rock-steady
A lens that will fill the frame with what we want to shoot (I know that’s vague, but stay with me.)
The patience of Job
Last night my wife and I saw and heard an approaching thunderstorm. At first I went out onto the back deck, but only made a few frames there and decided the storm, moving from my left to right looking north, was about to be hidden by the house, so I relocated to the front deck.
Using my Nikon D700, a 36x24mm sensor DLSR, I started with my 20mm, a very wide angle lens. Mounted on a tripod, I set the ISO at 400, my aperture at f/8, and my shutter speed at 20 seconds. My 20mm has a hard stop at infinity, which is where I set focus. (Don’t try to use autofocus – it will never bite on anything in the dark.)
At that point, the patience plays a big role. Unlike fireworks, traffic, or Christmas parades (all of which are photographing lights) thunderstorms are irregular and unpredictable, so by the time you get set up, it could be too late, or the timing could be just right. Last night was such a “just right” night.
Within five minutes I felt the storm had moved away from me sufficiently to warrant switching to a 50mm lens, and I felt I wanted a slightly darker product than I was seeing on the monitor, so I changed to f/11 at 30 seconds. The 50mm filled the frame with the densest part of the lightning, and I felt several images looked good.
My newspaper and I recently covered the Ada Lady Cougars area and state tournament basketball playoffs and the Latta Panthers drive to the state basketball championship game in Oklahoma City. I remember quite vividly as I was working the most important aspects of these events, their dramatic climaxes, that I was only thinking about one thing: how to get the moment.
I wasn’t thinking about shutter speeds or apertures or pixel counts or how to set exposure compensation. All those things were happening in the background of my mind. In the foreground were the faces I’d photographed all season long, and the people behind them who were experiencing the best or worst days of their young lives.
My point is, of course, that we need to be prepared. Plan plan plan. And don’t just plan to have the right gear in your hands, plan to be in the right place. Plan to be comfortable with your exposure settings and white balance settings and ISO settings long before the moment starts.
If it’s 13 seconds before the end of the game and your team is either about to leap into a dog pile or bury their faces in their towels to hide their tears, and you are trying to decide if aperture priority is better than shutter priority, you aren’t ready.
Now is the time to get ready. If your tenth grade daughter is slated to start for the softball team in September, now is the time to go to softball field and shoot, then sit at home and realize everything you did right and everything you did wrong, and decide now how to fix it.
When you are comfortable rolling in +0.7 exposure compensation without really looking, based only on a glance at the monitor… when you are comfortable switching from the camera with the wide angle on it to the camera with the telephoto on it… when you are ready to imagine what is going on in the hearts of the winners and losers of those games instead of what’s going on inside yours, you might be ready.