It’s Christmas time again, and with it we photographers find ourselves photographing something very pure to our imaging instincts: Christmas lights. Beautiful and dazzling to the eyes, we love photographing them for several reasons. They are everywhere, they are fun to shoot, and they summon the children inside us who looked on them with amazement all those years ago.
I think about this as I photograph lights for a living, and last night as I photographed the Christmas tree and lights at home. I did a fun little experiment that illustrates the value of mastering aperture: shooting the same scene at apertures through the entire range. It is powerfully illustrative of the effects of aperture…
Made with my 50mm f/1.8 lens, one of the best and most affordable lenses in anyone’s bag, these three images are identical except for aperture, which, as you can see, makes a huge difference. Wide open, the out-of-focus highlights are round, at f/2.8, they take on the heptagonal shape of the aperture blades, and at f/22, each bright point of light takes on the classic “sunstar” look.
All three of these unique looks has a place in our photography, and all are right there at our fingertips.
A friend on social media recently sent me a private message saying he had trouble with a storage media card. He asked which brands and types I use, and if I ever had any trouble with them. I told him without hesitation that I very rarely have storage media problems, and if I do, it always shows up in a step everyone should do every time they insert a card into a camera: formatting your storage media card.
The idea is simple. Have the computer inside the camera “reset” the card, creating what computerists call a file allocation table (FAT) exactly the way the camera needs it.
The camera creates the data (folders, tables, markers, etc.) that meets its needs, and marks your card as empty. It also checks for any errors (“bad sectors”) on the card, and if there is a problem, it will let you know then, before it’s time to shoot.
Your card then behaves as if it was brand new.
This also has a very significant benefit of forcing the photographer to establish the workflow of saving their files to a computer instead of storing them in-camera, since formatting a card will erase all the images on it. I’ve known many photographers over the years who can’t find their photos because they are buried among thousands of other photos somewhere on their cards in their cameras. I’ve also known many students and fellow photographers who are ready to shoot except the instant they trip the shutter, they see the “Card Full” massage.
But errant technology management isn’t new or at all uncommon. I find a surprising number of students have their cameras set to medium or small file size. I’m not even sure why – their cameras don’t arrive that way, and they haven’t changed much else. Maybe someone told them they could cram more photos onto their cards that way, which is true, but sadly, they have changed one of the few menu items in their cameras that can completely destroy their images.
Put simply, when you change the size of the image in your camera, you are telling it to throw away pixels, pixels you bought. Never, ever change the file size in your camera.
There are all kinds of photography instructors: temperamental, detached, arrogant, nurturing, impatient, narcissistic, moody, thoughtful, energetic. I once ran into some photography students in Santa Fe who described their instructor as “quite a character.”
In all the teaching I’ve done, I never wanted to be remembered like that.
Near the end of my beginner class, I bring some of my photographic product – books, posters, prints – to class. It’s not to show off, though I have to admit there is a little show-off in it. The real reason is to say to my students that you can do this. It’s not a magic trick. It didn’t cost $10,000. It’s photography, and you can do it!
It’s not often I get to say something positive about the internet. Such was the case in my recent dealings with Hike Moab, a trail guide service in Moab, Utah.
I came across this site in a recent image search I made while composing a post for another entry in this blog. I searched for “the fiery furnace arches,” hoping to discover not only some new ideas about photographing it, but also which of my own images showed up in the search. I do this periodically not just out of vanity, but also to weigh my search engine optimization (SEO) success.
The result of the search included this image…
I made this image in April 2011, on a trip called Art in Every Stone, which I made with Robert Stinson. I moused-over the image, expecting to see richardbarron.net. Instead I saw moabhiking.com. I clicked through to find my image on a page promoting the site’s Fiery Furnace guided tour. Obviously they did an image search as well, found this image, and grabbed it for their page.
I composed an email to the address on the site, politely asking them to remove the image, which is good practice. I didn’t expect to hear back from them.
I did think it odd that a company that gives guided tours of amazing places like The Fiery Furnace didn’t have their own images of it.
I heard back the next day with this refreshingly upbeat and respectful reply…
“My Apologies Richard! Consider it removed! -Mac, Hike Moab.”
I checked the site, and it was, in fact, removed. It wasn’t what I expected, but something I definitely appreciated. In the digital age, we expect intellectual property theft to be rampant and unchecked, but once in a while it’s great to find someone who does the right thing because it’s the right thing. Props, Mac!
In October 2016, my wife Abby and I traveled to the American West for our twelfth anniversary, a journey we make as often as we are able. We love the west, and were married in southern Utah in 2004 at Arches National Park.
The trip report, The Endless Sky, posted on our travel blog, was among my favorites, but I didn’t expect to hear this from two of my photographer friends…
From Wil C. Fry
These photos are tremendous, somehow better than your usual. It has me wondering whether you learned some new technique, or used a different camera, or processed them with new software. Or perhaps the light was simply better this time… Or maybe it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
From Dan Marsh
I too am curious, have you learned something new and different, or are you simply getting better with each trip? These are some of the best you’ve ever done.
So to answer their question about what’s changed: essentially, nothing. I don’t exactly agree that these are head and shoulders above my past efforts. I will say that yes, it is an evolving craft, and one I hope I continue to hone and improve. But part of me says that my audience sees only the new product, and only half-remembers some of our great trips in the past.
In fact, while reviewing the travel blog, I have to say that there are many pages from many trips that compare favorably, but those pages have faded somewhat into history. It’s easy to do in the internet era, particularly one that is so trend-centric, but paradigms like “that’s so 2013” or “what have you done for me lately” are troubling because they can dismiss an entire body of work for no valid reason.
As far as technicalities go, no, I haven’t made any important changes to my workflow. I mostly shoot RAW files and edit them in Adobe Photoshop, though sometimes I make JPEG images, following the same basic editing strategies. My priorities are color, light, composition, and location, location, location. The images in this entry also speak volumes about equipment and how much less important it is that the photographer. Some of these images were made with cameras such as the Nikon D100 and the Minolta DiMage 7i, incorrectly regarded as unable to deliver. As you can see, particularly from the earlier images, great photographs are made by great photographers, not by expensive equipment.
Year after year Abby and I go to southern Utah and the Colorado Plateau, but I would love to expand our reach: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Death Valley, and many more locations are on our short list.
That’s the rub, really. My best images from our travels come from visiting the best places. And that’s what makes the adventures, not just the images, great.
Here are some images from over the years, from adventures I think competed well with my most recent efforts. I look at each of these images as one of those moments of success for which we as photographers all strive. They are chronological from oldest to newest, and you can click them to view them larger…
In conclusion, I encourage all my readers, and everyone wanting to learn and grow photographically, to dig deeper into my rather extensive content, not only on the travel blog, but at the photo blog as well. It is my hope there is greatness deep within.
My wife Abby and I just returned from our 12th anniversary vacation. We had a great time, and made a lot of great images. Most of those images were made with a lens that has become indispensable for travel, the so-called “walk around” or “travel” lens.
There are a number of iterations of this lens for the various formats (seniors sizes.) In my case the Nikon D7100 sensor is 24mm x 15mm, so my travel lens of choice is the AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G II. On other occasions (and for Abby on our most recent vacation), we use the Fuji HS30EXR “crossover” camera with a non-interchangeable 4.2mm-126mm, which performs a very similar role. For Nikon’s 24mm x 36mm sensor, there is a 28-300mm fits the same role.
In summary, we ask a lot of this class of lenses: be a good wide angle, be a good telephoto, be lightweight, be convenient. In exchange, there are some things we don’t ask of these lenses and they can’t deliver: no large maximum aperture, not very sharp wide open, not quick-focusing enough for sports, and so-on.
Our friend Scott Andersen adopted a slightly different philosophy for travel and hiking, electing to carry more equipment for more specialized work. He joined me for a long hike on this most recent vacation, and carried a Tokina 11-20mm, a Nikkor 50mm, a Nikkor 18-140mm, and a Nikkor 55-300mm, obviously hoping to take advantage of the different strengths of each lens.
Only you can decide what you like to shoot and what you need in your bag, but I strongly recommend a lens like the 18-200mm for travel, hiking, casual street photography, and more. If I were going to Europe for a month, for example, I would bring this lens and maybe my AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 for the occasional low-light scenario.
Finally, a lot of internet forum members, and I, urge anyone in a lens-buying mood to consider that if paying for more lenses means going on fewer trips or seeing fewer things, that’s probably a mistake. Sitting at home with eight lenses will never be as satisfying as spending ten days on the road with one lens and your imagination.
Earlier this year I “bought” (using credit card thank you points) a new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. Regarded as a portrait lens both for its natural perspective at face-filling distances and for its ability to throw backgrounds out of focus when shot at apertures close to its maximum, I am delighted with it. I recently shot a wedding with it, and the images were amazing.
But if you are outdoors and want a lens that will take all this to a new level, you might consider a large-aperture super telephoto. For me, few lenses rival the 300mm, both for its amazing reach and for its ability to render backgrounds completely out of focus.
In April 1985, Scott Andersen and I were walking around New York City when we came across a photographer with a 300mm f/2.8 Nikkor on a monopod. At first we couldn’t quite figure out what he was shooting, but a half a block down the street we saw his pouting fashion model. He was using the 300mm to isolate his subject on the street and throw the background well out of focus.
Flash forward 31 years. For years I’ve used a wonderful AF 300mm f/4 Nikkor that my newspaper got used on eBay. It was a workhorse, and occasionally combined with a Tokina 1.4x teleconverter and the so-called 1.5 “crop sensor” factor of my cameras, I had all the reach I needed.
I know I say this a lot, but I am seeing a distinct uptick in a number of people around me who think they can buy a skill by buying a lens, and that’s just not true. Remember: You can’t buy mastery; you have to earn it.
Last week the old 300mm f/4’s focus locked up and wouldn’t budge, just as my outdoor playoffs – baseball, soccer, softball, and daytime football – were starting. I tried to fill the gap with hope and a cheap consumer 70-300mm, but I was really feeling the loss. When the repair estimate came back at nearly $500, about what we paid for it in the first place and certainly more than it was worth, I urged my publisher Amy Johns to buy me a new one, and she agreed without hesitation. Props to her for recognizing the value of photography and the equipment it requires, and the value of respecting her staff and their needs.
I had the lens shipped overnight, and put it right into service at a regional playoff baseball game. That’s the way I roll. No test frames. No “playing with it.” Trial by fire.
I wasn’t disappointed, though I knew I wouldn’t be. Lenses aren’t magic wands. I have a career of experience with the 300mm, and I knew this new one, the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4 ED-IF, would do the job, and due to improvements in autofocus and lens coating technology, it would do it better. Focus is quick and on the money, images are tack sharp, backgrounds are super-clean, and although it is not Nikon’s lightest 300mm, it is lighter and feels better in my hands than the old 300mm.
A coworker saw this lens as I was unboxing it and asked, “It’s just a 300mm?” The prevailing view among many photographers is that a fixed focal length lens, a so-called “prime,” isn’t versatile or exciting enough, but my experience is that my use of prime lenses is responsible for most of my really great images. The 300mm is one of those lenses.
I have been surprised in recent years by the number of professional photographers who have told me that they either hate shooting weddings, haven’t shot a wedding in years, or won’t shoot weddings at all. I will acknowledge that weddings can be crazy and stressful, but when I am asked, I will shoot them. It is also true that in recent years I am asked less and less, probably due to the perception that professional photographers cost too much, and that some uncle or friend with a “nice” camera can do it for $100.
Nevertheless, I am asked to shoot weddings once in a while, mainly by friends and relatives who know me and trust me with creating images of a very significant moment in their lives. Overall I have been glad to do it, and have always had fun. I’ve tried various gear combinations, always centered around the same philosophy that governs my work as a news photographer: two cameras, one with a wide angle and one with a telephoto.
For my sister’s wedding in 2011 I bought a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8, but have been consistently disappointed by it, so for a wedding of a friend (and former student) two weeks ago I decided to go with one of my all-time favorite wide angle lenses, my Tokina 12-24mm f/4, on one camera, and my new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 on the other. The combination is now without a doubt my go-to combination for weddings. I felt that I never missed a shot, was ready to both reach out with the 85 and go broad with the 12-24.
I was very happy with the shoot and the hardware, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this combination for anyone who wanted to shoot weddings.
Many people seem amazed and delighted when I tell them, or show them pictures, of our wedding at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. It is an amazing, beautiful spot, and the morning we got married there we had beautiful blue skies, abundant sunshine, and few visitors. But it’s not always like that.
The trouble is that Arches has, like so many once-wild places, been “discovered.” By that I mean that a combination of the internet and digital photography, huge numbers of people have decided to make sites like Delicate Arch their destination. They see gorgeous images of scenes like that and want a piece of it themselves.
The flaw in that kind of thinking is that at this point in digital history, places like Delicate Arch don’t have as much to offer because of the very discovery that made them popular. We’ve all seen these images too many times. I’ll grant you that there is some photographic potential yet to be cultivated there, but you have to take more steps toward the unusual to do it. Sunrise. In the snow. With the Milky Way behind it. And so on.
But we still see droves of self-important-looking photographers gathered on the approaches to Delicate Arch or in The Windows Section, with their $6000 cameras on their $1200 tripods, squinting joylessly at the target, making the same picture I made the first time, and every time, I go there.
It’s played out. It has become one of the “windshield tourism” National Parks. Even though my wife Abby and I have something of a special claim to the place, when we go there, we don’t take very much equipment, and we don’t take very many pictures.
But there is hope. Canyonlands.
There are parts of Canyonlands National Park that see only a handful of visitors every year. In The Maze District, for example, the rangers will warn you when you check in at the Hans Flat Ranger Station that, “You must be capable of self-sustenance and self-rescue.” Presumably this means they can’t come rescue you if you have a flat tire or a heart attack, or that it will cost thousands of dollars and will disturb the other visitors. When Dennis Udink and I visited The Maze in 2012, though, we only saw five other people during our three-day stay.
Even in the easier-to-access sections of Canyonlands, there are only a handful of roadside turnouts. The rest of the park is scattered trail heads and many miles of trails, most of which I have hiked, but many of which, unlike the trails in Arches, remain on my to-do list. Some of the Canyonlands trails are long enough and difficult enough to require multi-day backpacking trips to make it from one end to the other.
Canyonlands is four and a half times larger than Arches, but receives about two and a half times fewer visitors. The most difficult marked trail at Arches is the Primitive Loop trail, so named, I expect, to at least somewhat discourage non-hikers from attempting the hike, which is 7.2 miles long and crosses varied terrain. Still, nearly every trail at Canyonlands is more difficult and primitive than the Primitive Loop.
Land of Lakes?
In November 2007, a park ranger told me that in the early 1960s, the director of the Park Service and the director of the Bureau of Reclamations each wanted to use the area that is now Canyonlands. It’s discouraging to imagine anyone ever considering covering this amazing area in water behind a dam, and I am glad and grateful the Park Service director got his way.
By the time you get more than a few hundred yards down the trails at Canyonlands, the only people you will see are fit, well-equipped, determined hikers. Not only are the trails more challenging at Canyonlands, they’re more fun, pass through more varied and beautiful terrain, and make better pictures.
At the most fundamental level of my outdoorism is, I believe, my desire to get as far away from civilization as I can, and the farther I get, the smaller and more humble I feel, and the more I feel like I am really accomplishing something amazing and unique. Canyonlands is one place where I can do that.
I am a little late to this party, but it’s still a neat trick, one I finally tried last night: lighting steel wool and photographing it.
You will need:
The finest-grit steel wool you can buy. I found mine, labeled #0000, in the paint department at Wal Mart.
A large whisk, preferably with a handle or loop on the end, with a piece of string or wire tied to the loop.
An ignition source like a lighter. I use the long ones that are made to light a grill or camp fire.
A large, open area where it is safe and legal to have an open fire.
Some way to safely extinguish the fire and deal with hot embers.
A hat and gloves.
A tripod and a camera with a controllable shutter capable of an exposure of at least 15 seconds.
Unroll a pad of steel wool and fluff it out, then push it through the openings in the whisk. The looser the steel wool, the better it will burn because more oxygen can get to it.
The idea is to open the shutter and light the steel wool, then move the whisk with the burning wool inside to “paint” with the light its fire creates. Most internet tutorials recommend spinning the whisk, since it will move through the air faster and burn brighter and because it throws off neat-looking sparks. It did that last night and liked the results.
Working in the dark with an unpredictable medium like burning metal is slightly dangerous, which is why I wore work gloves and a hat. Coordinating shutter opening and lighting the metal is awkward too, since it doesn’t always light right up, and since brightness of the surroundings and the burning metal vary. These images were made with a 15mm lens at f/16, ISO 200, for 30 seconds.
Yesterday afternoon after a brief electrical power interruption, I noticed that house wasn’t staying cool. I checked and found that the compressor and its fan outside the house were not running. A new compressor would be very expensive, and was not happy about it.
To help distract myself, I mowed and weed-whacked for a while, then when it got dark, I set out to complete a pointless but interesting (thus maybe not entirely pointless) task of taking apart a couple of long-dead digital cameras, a Nikon D100 and a Kodak DCS760.
I got both years ago on eBay for a small fraction of their retail price, shot several years of images with them, then stuck them in a box in anticipation of a day like today. Both cameras date from the early 2000s, when digital photography was still evolving by leaps and bounds.
Despite both cameras being rendered hopelessly outdated by the “futuretrash” paradigm, each made some amazing pictures in my hands.
This isn’t a step-by-step tutorial about how to tear these things down, but a look at what’s inside these two cameras, with a few observations about how they were put together.
The DCS760 was put together as what we used to call a “Frankencamera,” meaning it was two distinct things, a film camera and a digital sensor, stitched together clumsily.
The D100 seemed to be more elegantly designed, as though it was designed from the start as a digital.
Both seemed like a miracle of science when compared to cameras from the beginning of my career when I honestly had no idea this kind of technology would come along.
Both cameras had a lot of electronic bulk that I expect I would not see in newer cameras with more advanced design and assembly techniques.
Both cameras were sturdy, and put up a fight when I tried to get inside. I don’t envy anyone ever tasked with repairing them.
Regular readers will recall that much of July is a very slow period for me, followed by a nothing short of frantic period in August when my newspaper and I cover all manner of news and sports at area high schools and the college.
Among other challenges, I ask myself at every turn about which lenses will work in which circumstance. Although I am in possession of industry-standard lenses, I ask myself this for a very important reason: my body. I am not 26 any more – in fact, I am twice that age, and though I am in great health, it is now a very legitimate consideration to try to carry lighter gear when I can. It’s hard for young photographer to appreciate this idea, since their bones and joints recover faster and hurt less than someone my age when we carry 15 pounds of hardware vs when we carry 1.5 pounds.
But Richard, what about image quality? Don’t you want the very best? That’s the rub, really: knowing when a lighter, smaller lens can deliver a top-quality image, and when it can’t.
I have four lenses of various focal lengths that I use for shooting fall sports…
The AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8. This lens is big and heavy, versatile, focuses instantly and accurately, and is sharp at f/2.8 at all focal lengths. It is indispensable in low-light situations where I am at the margins of every element, like high school football at night.
The AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8. This lens is the dark horse winner for its lighter weight, sharpness wide open, and superb selective focus. Its main drawback is lack of versatility: no zoom means I need to be in the right place or get there in a hurry.
The AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6. This lens is even lighter than the 180mm, and the bigger zoom range than the 80-200mm makes it an apparent winner for sports action. But the fact that so much is crammed into such a small package, and the fact that it’s so inexpensive, means that everything is a compromise. This lens isn’t very sharp at the longer focal lengths unless it is stopped down to f/6.3, meaning that it is really only useful in bright daylight. It also doesn’t create particularly appealing selective focus.
The AF Nikkor 300mm f/4. I love this lens for the long reach it gives me for far-away sports like baseball, tennis and soccer, but my back and neck hate it because it is heavier than other options, and it is front-heavy. For some, a monopod might seem to be in order, but I find that monopods are too restrictive of camera movement, and add to the weight of the entire package, which is noticeable when moving, which is all the time.
So what’s the answer? Smart selection. Bright daylight softball? The 70-300mm. 6 pm-start football? The 300mm. Friday night lights? The 80-200mm. Feature photos when I need f/2.8 but not the weight? The 180mm.
One aspect of my Intro to Digital Photography class is on the third and final night, during which I talk about what to do with our images. I show and tell about how to organize, edit, save, archive, share, and display our images. Since I am about to start another class, I’ve been recently pondering something that troubles me a bit: photographers or picture-taking civilians who take hundreds or thousand of images and then fail to do anything with them.
The occasions that come to mind are three hiking trips I made with three different photographer friends, one in 2011, one in 2013. and one in 2014. We had great times, and these three photographers are three of the best I have ever known, so it is utterly baffling to me when they tell me that after we spent all that time on the road and the trail, and captured thousands of images of what I thought were some amazing moments, that they haven’t done anything at all with their images.
I honestly don’t understand this line of reasoning, and I would be happy to hear a real explanation.
Part of why it bothers me is that I know their images are head and shoulders above the everyday images made in those places when we were there, and that their elegance and beauty would enrich us all.
Instead, they sit in a folder on the desktop of a laptop computer somewhere.
Maybe the point of this entry is to encourage anyone who has a folder full of great unshared images to open it and start to explore their potential. Even if most of the images in that folder are throw-aways (most of mine are), there are certainly pearls amongst them. Set them free!
I recently inherited an orphaned Fujifilm point-and-shoot camera from the dusty drawers of my newsroom. A previous editor bought it last September without consulting me, just prior to the company issuing everyone in news, sports and photography (me) a new iPhone 6S. Now everyone in the building shoots with their phones (even me, sometimes), so there was no reason at all to buy this camera. EXIF data shows that fewer than 300 images were made with this camera. I imagine this kind of oddly wasteful spending happens at every business on the planet.
So I’ve been carrying this thing around for a few days, thinking I’ll use it. The point-and-shoot vs the smartphone contest isn’t quite settled yet, despite the overwhelming prevalence of smartphones. The point-and-shoot camera’s trump cards are its more intuitive and available controls, and real optical zoom lenses. A less but still real consideration is how shooting pictures with your phone, particularly in groups, makes you look like a trend-follower, and the most disturbing trend is seeing people making smartphone images of their lives instead of experiencing their lives firsthand. In some ways, it’s like watching your children grow up on a television screen.
I’ve made one or two images for my newspaper with this camera, the Fujifilm Finepix AX-665. There’s nothing special about the camera, and I’m actually glad about that, since I find it frustrating that controls on digital cameras have constantly been repositioned by engineers, often ending up back where they started, to stimulate interest and sales instead of serving the real needs of photographers.
The AX-665 has the welcome four-way selector under the right thumb, and the equally welcome zoom rocker just above it, so I don’t have to hunt for them. The lens is sharp and focuses close (though not true-macro close), but the zoom range only covers the blandest coverage angles. It’s easy to understand how smartphones are taking market share from these cameras, given their zoom ranges. That’s why I like my Olympus point-and-shoot so much better: it has a nice wide angle at the short end of the zoom, wider than any smartphone.
For me, the bottom line is, despite the shortcomings of one machine of photography vs the other, is this: every camera is a tool in the toolbox of photography, and the most important thing you can do with it is express yourself.
Earlier this year, Google started offering a collection of plug-in filters under the name Nik Collection. Prior to this move, I was hesitant to spend the $499 for this software, which Google later lowered to $149, feeling that I could accomplish most of the looks it offered without spending the money. But Google’s offering is now free, so many photographers, myself included, downloaded and installed this software.
This software isn’t a stand-alone application, but a set of plug-ins that work with Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom, and Apple’s out-of-production Aperture.
I have only begun to play around with these filters, but so far, I’ve found them to be capable and fun, and I recommend you get them here (link) and try them. The only caveat is one I have stressed since the days of high dynamic range (HDR) overuse: these filters are just a tool in the toolbox, and can easily be used too often and too strongly. But with discretion and taste, they are a good tool.