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.
Yesterday I posted this photo on Facebook of myself showing many of the new images I recently printed and hung in the halls at my newspaper. Cue Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition…
Props to our Publisher Amy Johns for facilitating getting these big prints made.
One Facebooker asked me how I go about picking images for such a display, and the answer is one I have always stressed when teaching: ruthless editing.
Like all of us in the 21st century, I make a lot of pictures. But unlike almost everyone else, I know the value of editing, and how an audience is able to view and enjoy images, and how that comes together to express a message.
These principals were essential as I gathered images for this project, which I am pleased to say is a work in progress. As it stands today, there are 32 new images on the walls, culled from a folder of about 300 images.
The process isn’t easy; over the years I have been privileged to cover thousands of events in our community, and the result is tens of thousands of images. The subset of these images for this project is recent digital color images.
This is also the difficult process we face each year when contest time rolls around.
With that in mind, I decided to challenge myself even farther and get this collection down to just five images, taken from the collection of 32 pieces that are now on the walls. I decided to find an image that represents each broad class of photography: portrait, sports, spot news, feature, and nature.
I was amazed and disappointed recently when I had to reject a number of poster-sized prints my office and I had printed at a profession printer, because despite my exact words “preserve the aspect ratio” of the photos, eight of the 22-image batch had been squished to fit the poster. My disappointment came from the fact that a professional print ship should know better.
But I am aware that many of my readers might not know what this means. In short, almost all of the images of news and sports that I shoot are cropped to a custom aspect ratio for compositional purposes. Aspect ratio is the relationship between the width and the height of an image. Some of my images are square, some are long, thin rectangles, and so on. What the printer did wrong was to either let their machine resize the images, or did it manually, to fit inside a 20×24-inch box so it would fit to the size of the posters I ordered. I was clear in my order that if an image was a square, it should stay square, and if it was long and thin, it should stay that way, and they could trim the print to match the aspect ratio of the image.
My guess is that one employee took my order and another filled it. I’m not terribly upset about it because they understood their mistake and fixed it at once, but it did mean lost time and productivity for me even though I was perfectly clear when placing my order.
The public might not realize that news photographers live a life of feast or famine. At the first of March, we spend twelve hour days darting between basketball playoffs, car crashes, assignments for special sections, and baseball team photo days.
Then when school’s out, editors impatiently tap their feet as we can only give them a photo of a kid in the splash park or somebody running a weed eater.
Then, July 4 happens. In Ada, it’s a huge deal. It starts in Wintersmith Park at 7 am with the Fireball Classic 10k/5k race, Oklahoma’s oldest such event. That’s followed by kid’s games in the park in the morning, then grow-up’s games in the afternoon. Finally, Wintersmith Lake is surrounded by spectators for the traditional Independence Day fireworks display.
For me, it is one of the busiest days of the year, and one of the funnest. It always makes great photos, everyone is always glad to see me, and I always have a great time.
Readers will recall I recently posted about the power of a good macro lens. Just a few days ago, a coworker expressed an interest in macro photography, particularly in taking it to an extreme. He says he is interested in extreme close-ups of spiders and insects.
Dedicated macro lenses (which Nikon calls “micro”) are indispensable for this purpose. Such lenses are also the only lenses optically fit to take advantage of extension rings, which sit between the camera and the lens, allowing even closer focusing.
It was with this in mind that I got out my Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro and attached it to my 32-year-old Nikon 27.5mm PK-13 extension ring. Originally sold to go with the manual focus 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikko (a great lens I sold about 12 years ago), this accessory doesn’t have any electrical contacts, so it won’t talk to modern cameras, but it will operate in manual exposure mode. In most situations at the magnifications this combination provide, manual focusing is definitely recommended.
I also mentioned reversing rings a couple of years ago, and while you can certainly get super-close-up with a reversing ring, it would be difficult photographing living creatures with one because it requires the slow process of focusing with the lens wide open, then setting the aperture before shooting.
Extension rings are available in various sizes, and can be stacked to add even more extension.
My coworker who wants to explore this option is also an accomplished bird watcher and photographer. I will be interested to see what he can do with this setup, particularly with spiders, and what lens and/or extension tube combination he ends up buying.
Readers might recall from our travel blog that my wife Abby and I just returned from a New Mexico getaway. Fewer readers might be aware that despite being professional photographers with access to a fair amount of heavy pro gear, neither Abby nor I bring any of that.
For years now, Abby and I have embraced a doctrine of traveling light. Our goal is to have fun, and the less we can carry, the better. Whether for hiking and camping, or, like on our most recent trip, driving around exploring northern New Mexico, we have settled into having our matching Fujifilm HS30EXRs as our main cameras, with occasional help from my Ion AirPro3 action cam, my tiny but very apt Olympus FE-5020, and very occasionally, our iPhones.
Why would I go to a point-and-shoot like the Olympus instead of my iPhone? Quick answer: the lens. A dirty little secret of the camera phone scene is that the “zoom” doesn’t actually “zoom” at all, but simply crops the existing image. The Olympus has an excellent 4.3-21.5mm lens equivalent to 24-120mm (in 35mm film terms) that no phone can touch.
Also, aside from making action movies, why bring an action cam? Quick answer: the lens. My Ion’s lens sees 170º, and is the equivalent to a fisheye lens.
Our Fuji cameras are equipped with non-removable 4.2-126mm lenses equivalent to 24-720mm in film terms, allowing me to explore scenes like a sunset we shot near Santa Fe on our first travel day…
Our Fuji cameras are no longer made, but Fuji’s current line of Finepix cameras is similar. Nikon makes a line they call their “premium compact” cameras. Canon makes Powershot cameras that are in this class.
Abby and I always travel with our dogs, and between checking in at motels, letting the dogs do their business at rest stops, bringing luggage here and there, and handling all our affairs, it makes a big difference having small, lightweight cameras. We also carry our smallest laptop computer (a Macbook Air), our smallest concealed carry sidearms (her Kel-Tec P32 and my Ruger LCP) and our smallest, most compact luggage. Fun is our goal, and with this philosophy, we always have it.
I was digging though my lesser-used gear the other day, looking for a filter. I didn’t find it, but I did pull out a couple lenses that I seldom use: the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, and the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8D.
The 28mm, a fixed focal length lens, known in the game as a “prime” lens, is made mostly of plastic, and weighs just seven ounces. The 28-70mm, which is constructed of steel and brass to professional standards, is huge, and weighs 33 ounces, which is just shy of two pounds. The weight is a huge factor if, like me, you carry two or three camera for long periods, like when I am covering events.
The reason I don’t use them much is that my camera sensors are the so-called APS-C size, approximately 24x15mm, making these focal lengths fairly uninteresting. In fact, in some cases I find that the featherweight 50mm f/1.8 is a good stand-in for either of these, particularly given its nice, big maximum aperture. Additionally, even with 36x24mm sensors, 28mm is only just at the edge of wide angle territory, and 70mm is only just at the edge of telephoto.
The point of this entry is a concept known as diminishing returns. This concept is the bane of other endeavors, such as space travel: putting a man in space took a 66,000-pound rocket, while putting a man on the moon took a 6,540,000-pound rocket. This concept speaks to the value of economy of scale. You can accomplish 90% of your photographic goals with the bottom 10% of your gear.
So the next time you find yourself drooling over a $2400 zoom lens, take a moment to think about what you already have in your bag that could do the job, and instead of spending money, go make pictures.
By now we should all be getting comfortable with concepts dealing with color, like white balance and saturation. If not, and I don’t mean this sarcastically at all, go back and look at your pictures of people, and ask yourself why most of their faces are too orange or too blue, which, in all honesty, they are. I say this based on the enormous number of images I see every day with bad flesh tones.
When you’re done with that, read on.
The other day I was scavenging an abandoned office at my workplace. I came across some Kodak Wratten filters (colored gels) in that search. These 3×3-inch plastic filters were originally used in by the production department to control the various renderings of the halftone products used to reproduce images in our newspaper. Despite the fact that they were damaged and obsolete, I decided I had a use for them: to change the color of light.
I brought them home and cobbled them together with clear tape. I was able to assemble a blue filter and a red-magenta filter, and I taped each one on a flash in my home studio.
I made a few images, and found I was glad to have this tool in my tool kit. Of course, you don’t necessarily need Wratten filters to change the color of the light. One excellent way to achieve this is by bouncing a flash into something colorful. Often one of the best items for this is the shiny foldable sunshade you see occasionally covering dashboards of parked cars on hot days. You can buy them with the other side in various colors, like red, gold or purple.
Altering the color of portions of your light can fundamentally change the look of your images, and the ability to do so is an excellent item to have in your bag. It can be a lot of fun, and it can throw some fuel on the embers of your creativity.