Cleaning Your Gear

By , May 22, 2014 1:40 pm
In the real world of photography, lens hoods are the first line of defense against filth and damage.

In the real world of photography, lens hoods are the first line of defense against filth and damage.

I got a text from a buddy of mine asking for the best method for cleaning the surface of his lens. He said there were a “couple of water droplet stains” on the front surface, though he didn’t say if it was on the front element of the lens itself or a filter on the lens.

First things first. In the photography world we have a cute little maxim: it is better to keep your lens clean than to keep cleaning your lens.

This principle is meant for photographers working in the field day after day, not equipment fetishists who take the gear out of aluminum cases once every three months to look upon it like treasure, and its meaning is pretty plain: use a hood and a filter, and keep your fingers off the optical surfaces. That’s all.

Be aware that the number one way to put schmear on the front of your lens is by removing and replacing lens caps. I don’t even own a lens cap.

You can take my word for it. I shoot every day, often in trying weather condition of blowing dust, rain, snow, heat and cold, and I might clean my lens surfaces four times a year. They stay pretty clean.

Some items I seldom use and don't recommend: film  cleaner, lens cleaning fluid, anti-static brush, and cleaning cloth. These items are almost always outclassed by some canned air and my shirt tail.

Some items I seldom use and don’t recommend: film cleaner, lens cleaning fluid, anti-static brush, and cleaning cloth. These items are almost always outclassed by some canned air and my shirt tail.

There’s the rub, really. If you guard your gear like a virgin and have to have it spotless and gleaming, your priority probably isn’t photography. A little bit of dust, dirt, rain spots, even scratches, seldom effect the quality of your images.

On those rare occasions when I do clean my gear, I keep it simple and use…

  • Canned air on all the surfaces to remove dust.
  • A toothbrush to remove dirt in the hard-to-reach areas where canned air doesn’t work.
  • Q-Tips for glass surfaces like viewfinder eyepieces, LCD displays and monitors.
  • Clean, soft-weave cotton (like a t-shirt) for optical surfaces. If needed, I will breathe on them to create a small amount of solvent (pure water).
  • Kodak Lens Cleaner, used in very tiny amounts, is reserved for the most stubborn filth on a lens, which is almost never.

Since the inception of digital photography in 1999, a recurring problem has been the accumulation of dust on the imaging sensor. In recent years, camera makers have installed sonic “shakers” on the front surface of the sensor to remove dust, which is usually collected by a piece of sticky tape at the bottom of the sensor box. Only some of my cameras have this feature, and none of the cameras I use at work have it. Cleaning the imaging sensor follows the same principles as cleaning the lens surfaces…

  • Be gentle. The sensor is more delicate than optical surfaces.
  • I use canned air and it’s never been a problem, probably because I’ve been handling canned air for my entire career. The trick is to keep the can perfectly upright and use short bursts of air.
  • I don’t use anything that requires me to actually touch the surface of the sensor. If it’s really that dirty, it needs professional help.

After working in the rain, it’s temping to think your prized photographic possessions will be ruined by water getting inside. I’ve worked many situations in rain, blowing rain, snow, and even getting accidentally sprayed with water by firefighters.

  • Instead of plastic bags and duct tape around my gear, I have better results with keeping cameras under my rain poncho and only bringing them out to shoot.
  • I keep a small towel or wash cloth with me and wipe off rain as it accumulates.
  • Back at home or at the office, if my gear has really gotten soaked, I simply use a blow dryer set on medium to drive out any residual water.

The bottom line for any of this is to recognize that there is a big difference between “field clean” and “showroom clean,” and a little bit of dust, dirt, rain spots, and fingerprints are part of the life for anyone who actually takes pictures, and as a rule, they don’t ruin our images.

This is the mount of my 20-year-old AF Nikkor 85mm. If you are worried about buying used equipment that is in "mint" condition, if you clean your gear obsessively, if you concern yourself with removing every speck of dust from a lens, or if you think that wear marks on cameras "lower their value," perhaps photography isn't for you.

This is the mount of my 20-year-old AF Nikkor 85mm. If you are worried about buying used equipment that is in “mint” condition, if you clean your gear obsessively, if you concern yourself with removing every speck of dust from a lens, or if you think that wear marks on cameras “lower their value,” perhaps photography isn’t for you.

Smart Phone Photography: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By , May 5, 2014 3:22 pm
The maple tree in the front yard filters the sun on a warm spring day; the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8, with its seven straight aperture blades, delivers a bright, clear, dazzling sunstar to help express the moment.

The maple tree in the front yard filters the sun on a warm spring day; the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8, with its seven straight aperture blades, delivers a bright, clear, dazzling sunstar to help express the moment.

This is the same scene as the image above it, but shot with my iPhone 5. Note that the sun overwhelmed the image sensor and the lens, leading to the sun being a bright blob surrounded by an odd cluster of pink flare.

This is the same scene as the image above it, but shot with my iPhone 5. Note that the sun overwhelmed the image sensor and the lens, leading to the sun being a bright blob surrounded by an odd cluster of pink flare.

Smart phone photography, taking pictures with the camera built into a modern multipurpose cellular telephone, is here to stay. Even the most “old school” among us has come to appreciate that the cameras in our phones can replace the point-and-shoot cameras we once toted around, at least in some cases.

The good…

This is a super-macro image of the camera and LED light on my iPhone 5. The lens is about the size of a match head. Despite using a Q-Tip and some canned air, this was about as clean as I could get it.

This is a super-macro image of the camera and LED light on my iPhone 5. The lens is about the size of a match head. Despite using a Q-Tip and some canned air, this was about as clean as I could get it.

  • Smart phones are always with us
  • Smart phones in 2014 are fully integrated with social media like Flickr, SmugMug, and Shutterfly
  • Smart phones are less conspicuous, allowing a certain level of intimacy and candidness

The bad…

  • Smart phone photography tends toward mundanity and silliness, such as…
  • The smart phone scene is rife with trends like Instagram filters and hold-away selfies
  • Shooting with a smart phone leads the photographer take his craft less seriously and subjects take him less seriously
  • Smart phones, like very small point-and-shoot cameras, are easy to lose and easy to steal

The ugly…

  • Tiny image sensor plus tiny lens equals diminished image quality on several levels, such as the lack of selective focus and high-ISO noise
  • Social media integration means images are always in JPEG format instead of RAW
  • The tiny lenses collect tiny dust, which can interfere with image quality
  • So far, anyway, there are no interchangeable lens smart phones, meaning you are stuck with the characteristics of a single, compromise lens

The really ugly…

An odd take on convenience photography, the iPad photographer.

An odd take on convenience photography, the iPad photographer.

  • Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off their entire photography department, 24 photographers in favor of training their reporters to take pictures with smart phone. No one, not even the managers who did that, believes that smart phones can, on any level, replace bigger, better cameras and, more importantly, real, full-time professional photographers.

The trump card of the cell phone camera is decidedly its convenience, not its quality. As a result, that’s when I use them, when quality takes a back seat to handiness. If that sounds like a microcosm of western life, it is. Thus is the struggle of the artist, to guard against shallowness and sacrificing our vision because of convenience.

I’m not a futurist, and I could be completely off base about this, but I believe that smart phone photography can coexist within the rest of the art.  It would be a conceit to imagine that those of us who consider ourselves artists are above the clutter of commerce, so it might be a smarter play for photographers to see their art, along with their lives and careers, in balance.

Another potentially maddening thing about embracing technology like this is that in two or three years, it will seem antiquated, as more and more impressive devices appear. That can be something of an impairment to creativity, since it is easy to fall into a downward tech spiral, instead of an upward creative curve. The solution to this curse it to stay on task: creative photography.

A nice family recently hired me to make senior pictures of their son and group photos of the whole family. I feel certain I could not, despite all my experience, have come up with images like this if I was shooting with a smart phone camera.

A nice family recently hired me to make senior pictures of their son and group photos of the whole family. I feel certain I could not, despite all my experience, have come up with images like this if I was shooting with a smart phone camera.

Face Off: Nikkor 18-55mm vs Nikkor 18-70mm

By , April 25, 2014 1:07 pm
The 18-55mm vs the 18-70mm

The 18-55mm vs the 18-70mm

I was poking around on kenrockwell.com the other day. Rockwell is equally liked and despised by the web community. Some cite him as example, while others tag him with appellations like Krockwell. I know he likes it that way, or he would be less inclined to contradict himself from one article to the next. Despite his inclination to be dramatic, he knows some stuff.

I was looking at his lens reviews when I came across one for a lens with which I have rather a lot of experience, the AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G. I’ve had one of these in my pro bag for several months after the Nikon D70, which was in use by our reporters, died. I use this lens in a very general role, as my standard wide angle, and find that most of what I shoot with it is at the 18mm setting.

from KenRockwell.com
This is a serious lens, not a “kit lens” or a cheap replacement for a lens cap sold as part of a kit as with most other cameras. The fast f/3.5~4.5 speed should be your clue; the cheapies are all f/3.5~5.6. The 18-55 is a cheapie, but good.

The “cheapie” he mentions, the 18-55mm, is the lens I see most – by a lot – in the field and in my classes. Nikon, Canon and others have made this lens the more-or-less universal normal lens for digital, and with good reason: it is cheap, lightweight, and mostly easy to use. While it is true that for the cost and weight, it’s a good lens, it’s got a couple of big drawbacks…

  • It has almost no focus ring for manual focus. You have to grip a sliver at the front of the lens, which is hard to find unless you stop and look for it.
  • At 55mm, it’s maximum aperture is f/5.6, which is not only limiting when shooting in low light, it makes for a very dark viewfinder.
  • It looks stupid and/or amateurish. I know this last one is pure vanity, but I own the fact that I like to look like I know what I’m doing.

The 18-70mm, on the other hand, has an actual focusing ring, is at about f/4 at the 55mm setting, and, by virtue of its bigger filter and hood, looks like a real lens.

R. E. used this lens on a hiking trip we took three years ago, and liked the results.

Both lenses are decently sharp, but I give the edge to the 18-70mm, which is sharp at all focal lengths and all apertures. This lens is hovering in the $125 range on Ebay as I write this. If you’ve already got an 18-55mm, keep shooting with it, but if you are in need of something in this range and see a bargain on the 18-70mm, grab it. It’s a good piece of glass.

Either of these lenses do the job, but in my experience, the 18-70mm has the edge.

Either of these lenses do the job, but in my experience, the 18-70mm has the edge.

 

Stepping Up with Stepping Rings

By , April 12, 2014 6:27 pm
Just for fun, I stacked as many of these new stepping rings together as I could. It's a pretty funny way to get a 72mm filter on a lens with a 52mm thread, but it works.

Just for fun, I stacked as many of these new stepping rings together as I could. It’s a pretty funny way to get a 72mm filter on a lens with a 52mm thread, but it works.

When I got ahold of the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm recently, I discovered it took 72mm filters. Great, I though, my 77mm polarizer won’t fit on it. In fact, I had a number of polarizers sitting around (49mm, 52mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, and 77mm), none of which fit the new lens.

I found a cheap 72mm polarizer, but decided to stop the madness and not buy any more polarizers. I poked around on Amazon.com and bought a set of stepping rings, which are also called step-up rings.

The set of seven was only $15, and included incremental sizes from 49mm to 77mm. I might have to stack more than one stepping ring, but I will now be able to get a polarizer on any lens I own.

When I got this set of stepping rings in the mail the other day, they were in an envelope with a single bulge in the middle, so I had no idea what they were. It turns out they were all screwed together.

When I got this set of stepping rings in the mail the other day, they were in an envelope with a single bulge in the middle, so I had no idea what they were. It turns out they were all screwed together.

Commanding the Light: Polarizers

By , April 10, 2014 8:52 am
Over the years I have collected a number of polarizers, but you really only need one, big enough for your biggest diameter lens (in my case, 77mm) and a step-up ring which will allow you to put bigger filters on smaller lenses.

Over the years I have collected a number of polarizers, but you really only need one, big enough for your biggest diameter lens (in my case, 77mm) and a step-up ring which will allow you to put bigger filters on smaller lenses.

Now you see it, now you don't: the light emitted by computer monitors is strongly polarized.

Now you see it, now you don’t: the light emitted by computer monitors is strongly polarized.

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

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

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

A polarizer can be used to suppress reflections, like this one of the street in my car window.

A polarizer can be used to suppress reflections, like this one of the street in my car window.

Polarizers can also be used to improve the appearance of sky areas in an image, since blue sky light is usually more polarized than clouds or objects on the ground.

Polarizers can also be used to improve the appearance of sky areas in an image, since blue sky light is usually more polarized than clouds or objects on the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long and the Short of It: Superzooms

By , April 7, 2014 2:50 pm
The AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6  sits between Tamron's 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 and the Tamron 18-250mm f/5.6-6.3.

The AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 sits between Tamron’s 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 and the Tamron 18-250mm f/5.6-6.3.

I recently returned from a hiking and photography trip to New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. I’ve gone on many such trips over the years, and as I explore more venues and venture deeper into wild places, I tend to gravitate toward lighter, more versatile photographic equipment. I’ve had quite a bit of success with crossover cameras like the Fuji HS30EXR, which I used on two recent jaunts, Terra Sanctus and The Metro.

Greg Smith made this image of me shooting with the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 at the Penistaja Badlands in northwestern New Mexico last month. I was very pleased with the result.

Greg Smith made this image of me shooting with the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 at the Penistaja Badlands in northwestern New Mexico last month. I was very pleased with the result.

One piece of gear I recently added to my stable was the Nikon D7100 digital SLR and one of Nikon’s current “superzoom” lenses, the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G-II ED. I ended up pairing it for the trip with my Tokina 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 AT-X fisheye. Between the two, I felt like I could accomplish all my photographic goals. In the end, I made about 95% of my images with the Nikkor.

Superzoom lenses typically start at about 18mm (for sensors that are 15x24mm, which most of them are), which is a wide but not superwide focal length, and zoom to somewhere in the vicinity of 200mm to 300mm, which is a telephoto length with a fair amount of reach.

It’s temping to say that superzoom lenses are jacks of all trades and masters of none, but that’s not really true, since the superzoom definitely masters convenience. In fact, a good superzoom has no peer. It excels at occasions like travel, hiking, and casual family affairs like holidays and reunions.

The biggest limitation of a superzoom lens its maximum aperture, which at its widest focal length is usually f/3.5, while at the telephoto end is typically f/5.6 or even f/6.3, and that’s not insignificant. f/6.3 is a pretty small aperture, making lenses like these poor choices for news, sports, and casual events in low light like stage performances, nighttime parades, or indoor holiday gatherings.

I made this image in Silverton, Colorado, with the Nikkor superzoom at 18mm.

I made this image in Silverton, Colorado, with the Nikkor superzoom at 18mm.

My wife Abby and I have two additional superzooms, a Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3, and a Tamron 18-250 f/3.5-6.3. I used the 18-250mm extensively in 2012 on a trip to The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. They are both fair lenses, but neither is up to the mechanical and optical quality of the Nikkor. The Nikkor, on the other hand, is noticeably bigger, heavier, and more expensive. The Nikkor has Vibration Reduction (VR), which I believe is not as effective as the camera makers claim.

It’s worth noting that the compromising nature of most superzoom lenses results in a fair amount of distortion and other aberrations, as well as a tendency to perform better, often much better, at the wide focal length end.

If I were constructing a camera system from the ground up, the superzoom would not be my first choice, but after adding a large-aperture wide angle and an f/2.8 telephoto zoom, a superzoom definitely has a place in my photography.

I made this image in Silverton, Colorado, with the Nikkor superzoom at 200mm, from the same spot as the 18mm shot in the previous image, producing a very different look.

I made this image in Silverton, Colorado, with the Nikkor superzoom at 200mm, from the same spot as the 18mm shot in the previous image, producing a very different look.

To Focus or Not to Focus

By , March 20, 2014 12:44 pm
This is the focus pin, sometimes referred to as the autofocus "screwdriver", on a Nikon camera with its own built-in focus motor.

This is the focus pin, sometimes referred to as the autofocus “screwdriver”, on a Nikon camera with its own built-in focus motor.

A young photographer asked me today to recommend a camera, saying she had exhausted the capability of her point-and-shoot camera. A friend or two told her to buy a Canon. I agreed that if a Canon fits her style and meets her needs, Canon cameras are great. I added that since I am primarily a Nikon shooter, I know a little more about their offerings, and jotted down a couple of suggestions, including the Nikon D5300 and the camera is replaced, the D5200. Both have great image quality, high-definition video, are lightweight, and offer an articulating monitor.

“Don’t you have to have a motor for the lens to focus?” the photographer asked, and I tried to explain it as succinctly as I could.

This is the mount of the Nikon D3000. Note that it does not have an autofocus pin because it does not have a built-in focus motor.

This is the mount of the Nikon D3000. Note that it does not have an autofocus pin because it does not have a built-in focus motor.

  • All of Nikon’s digital SLR cameras will take almost every Nikkor lens ever made, dating all the way back to the 1950s (noting that the very old ones needed to be updated so the aperture ring is “AI” so it won’t damage the lens mount on the camera.
  • Nikon currently make a large selection of AF-S lens, which stands for AutoFocus Silentwave. These lenses have a focus motor built into them, so the camera does not need a motor (and even if it has a motor, the camera automatically uses the one in the lens.)
  • Nikon still makes a few AF lenses, which will autofocus, but only if there is an autofocus motor in the camera.
  • Nikon actually still lists a handful of manual focus lenses in their catalog, though I doubt they are widely available. There are also a very large number of manual focus lenses for sale on sites like Ebay. They work fine on all of Nikon’s digital SLRs as well, but the photographer has to set everything by hand, including aperture, shutter speed, and, of course, focus.

The cameras I recommended, the D5300 and D5200, don’t have focus motors in them, so AF-S lenses will autofocus with them, but AF lenses will not. That said, AF lenses work fine with these cameras, but the photographer needs to focus the lens by hand.

As an aside, Canon lenses made before 1987 can’t be used at all with new Canon cameras. That was the year Canon changed lens mounts entirely, from the F-mount to the EOS-mount. It upset a lot of photographers at the time, but it allowed Canon to leap ahead of Nikon in autofocus technology, a gap Nikon couldn’t close until they introduced AF-S lenses.

Finally, I would urge anyone getting into digital SLR photography to learn to manually focus. There are times when you can’t convince a camera’s autofocus system to focus where you want, and there may be times when you use non-autofocus cameras. It’s a valuable skill.

This is the slot in an AF Nikkor lens that accepts the so-called focus "screwdriver" of a camera with its own focus motor.

This is the slot in an AF Nikkor lens that accepts the so-called focus “screwdriver” of a camera with its own focus motor.

The Persistence of Memory

By , March 18, 2014 5:44 pm
This is a previously unscanned, unprinted image from Villanueva State Park on my 1999 New Mexico photo tour.

This is a previously unscanned, unprinted image from Villanueva State Park on my 1999 New Mexico photo tour.

I recently updated and re-edited a post on our travel blog from a photography trip I made to New Mexico in 1999, Villanueva. Named after the tiny village on the Pecos River where I borrowed a summer house, the original purpose of the expedition was to shoot black-and-white, mostly medium format, film.

The re-edited trip report reflects that spirit of photography at its roots: careful, ponderous black-and-white compositions that spoke to the history of photography and the elegance of the desert.

After publishing the re-edit, and being very happy with it, I revisited my negatives and my journal comments from the trip. It turns out that the reality isn’t nearly as romantic as the trip report indicates. For starters, I wasn’t just shooting medium format, and I wasn’t just shooting black-and-white. The truth is that I was shooting whatever extra, unusual, experimental, and expired film I had sitting on my shelves.

Those films include…

  • Kodak Professional 400 35mm color negative film. The company that sold us film in 1999 accidentally send us five 100-foot rolls of this film. When I tried to send it back, they sent me the correct film (36-exposure Fuji film), and told me I could keep the 100-foot rolls, no charge. I never saw this film in any Kodak catalogs, and it yielded fairly terrible results, so it might have been some kind of repackaged grey market fraud.

    This is the small travel diary I carried for a while. It filled up pretty fast; the first entry is this July 1999 trip, and the last entry in it is October 2002.

    This is the small travel diary I carried for a while. It filled up pretty fast; the first entry is this July 1999 trip, and the last entry in it is October 2002.

  • One roll of Kodak Plus-X 35mm film that had expired in 1990. I never bought Plus-X and didn’t like it, so I have no idea where I got it.
  • Kodak T-Max 400 medium format. This was another film that was gathering dust on the shelves at my office, because even though I wanted to shoot medium format at work, I almost never did.
  • Fuji Super G 100 medium format color film. I’m sure I had some of this stockpiled at the office as well, and just never used it. I seem to recall that it was past its expiration date.
  • Fuji Super G 400 35mm film. I only shot one roll of this, exclusively “snapshots.”
  • Kodak T-Max 400 35mm. I shot about two rolls of this, which was my go-to film at work. These, too, were expired rolls.
  • Kodak Verichrome Pan medium format black-and-white. This film gave the best results of the trip, thanks to its wide latitude, excellent tonal quality, and ideal response to filtration. Kodak stopped making Verichrome just three years later.
Travel Journal, July 1999

The air here is so clear, just like I remembered. Nature is far more the master on a daily basis, far sturdier, far less caring than at home.

Mountains are so much more significant than we are. Then again, a mountain can’t reach out and kill me.

Ansel and Georgia saw this same desert light. It still has an excellence.

Over the years I have attempted to reduce the number and weight of cameras I carry when I travel, both because it is more fun to travel light, and to prevent the kind of hybridization of imaging that occurred in travels such as Villanueva. The problem with too many cameras and too many films is that it requires too much attention, attention that should be on spent on composition, light, the moment.

I’ve done a pretty good job learning this lesson, though it took a while. Lately I usually travel with just one camera and a superzoom lens, and a tiny point-and-shoot in my pocket. My energy, hopefully, is spent on the genuinely important things in photography, including the most important one, having fun.

This previously unscanned and unprinted negative was shot in the village of Villanueva. Like the image at the top of this entry, it was made on the excellent Verichrome Pan medium format film.

This previously unscanned and unprinted negative was shot in the village of Villanueva. Like the image at the top of this entry, it was made on the excellent Verichrome Pan medium format film.

“When their Bones are Picked Clean and the Clean Bones Gone…”

By , March 15, 2014 1:51 pm
This is my image of a wooden cross on a grave marker at Violet Cemetery in Konawa, Oklahoma, as it came out of the camera, with no editing.

This is my image of a wooden cross on a grave marker at Violet Cemetery in Konawa, Oklahoma, as it came out of the camera, with no editing.

I worked a baseball game in Asher, Oklahoma, yesterday, which is about 28 miles from our home in Byng. The light was nice and it was quite warm out. My route to the game took me past Konawa’s Violet Cemetery, noted for supposedly having a tombstone in it with the inscription, “Killed by Human Wolves.” I mostly regard it as a legend, but there was nice late afternoon light on my way home from the game, so I stopped to look for it.

I didn’t find the inscription, but I made a few nice photos. The light was very warm due to a combination of high cloud cover and smoke from distant grass fires.

As I shot, with my Sony F828, I felt certain that I would convert my images to black-and-white, since the color content was unimpressive and a little distracting, while the tones and textures provided a strong sense of mood.

I also noted three tombstones close together that read…

  • Our Baby, son of Buster and Tina Sharp, Sept. 17, 1920
  • Our Baby, son of Buster and Tina Sharp, June 21, 1923
  • Our Baby, son of Buster and Tina Sharp, July 2, 1926

I wondered how difficult it must have been for the Sharps.

Back at the office, I felt I had strong images, particularly one of a wooden cross on a granite grave stone. I did, as I had anticipated, render it in black-and-white, using Photoshop’s channel mixer dialog to simulate using a yellow filter with black-and-white film. I then used the levels dialog to fine tune the tones and make them deeper and bolder.

I ended up pleased with the result.

This is my image of a wooden cross on a grave marker at Violet Cemetery after editing with the channel mixer and the levels dialog.

This is my image of a wooden cross on a grave marker at Violet Cemetery after editing with the channel mixer and the levels dialog.

Keeping Dry, or at Least Less Wet

By , March 15, 2014 1:41 pm
Oops. A car sits stranded in floodwater on Ada's west side this morning.

Oops. A car sits stranded in floodwater on Ada’s west side this morning.

Years ago I bought a camera raincoat, a waterproof nylon and Velcro cover, for the combination of an SLR and my big 300mm f/2.8. I used it off and on for a few years on the relatively rare occasions when rain and an outdoor event coincided.

I thought of that today as our community was inundated with an unusually heavy rainstorm; it appeared on radar that an area of low pressure was repeatedly funneling moist, unstable air over us.

I went around town to shoot the usual boiler-plate flooding art: cars splashing through bumper-deep water, police cars blocking low water crossings, kids playing in puddles. I got pretty wet doing it, mostly because at my last stop, I stepped in a deep puddle, then another burst of rain came down.

Not only did I get my shoes dry, they were piping hot when I put them back on.

Not only did I get my shoes dry, they were piping hot when I put them back on.

For shooting in the driving rain like that, I find that solutions like the camera raincoat are awkward and not all that effective. I usually just carry a towel with me, and hide the camera under my jacket until I need to shoot with it.

With sports in the rain, I need my best gear, but for shooting what we in the biz call “weather art,” I’ll grab my oldest, most beat-up camera and lens combo, in this case a Nikon D100 and a broken Tamron 18-200mm. In fact, when I was shooting a stalled car earlier today, the driver said, “I hope it doesn’t get your camera wet,” to which I replied, “It’s my rain camera, so I don’t really care how wet it gets.”

The rain camera with the rain lens also has the advantage of being a one-camera solution, so I can get in and out of the car without getting as soaking wet as I might with a whole bag of gear.

Back at the office I loaded my images to my computer and simultaneously used a blow dryer to dry my shoes. You can use a blow dryer on a camera that’s been soaked by the rain, but beware that higher heat settings have the potential to melt plastics, and that you might be blowing hot dust onto your sensor.

Despite its challenges, I was very happy to see the rain today.

A pickup truck carefully navigates a flooded intersection in Ada this morning.

A pickup truck carefully navigates a flooded intersection in Ada this morning.

“Should I Upgrade?”

By , March 5, 2014 7:58 pm

“You cannot buy mastery. You have to earn it.” ~James Yeager of Tactical Response

This image of Squaw Flat Campground, Canyonlands National Park, was made at midday with a modern digital SLR camera.

This image of Squaw Flat Campground, Canyonlands National Park, was made at midday with a modern digital SLR camera.

James is talking about guns, which is all he ever discusses. In spite of his advocation, it is advice we can expand to all areas of our lives, particularly photography.

I know I harp on this a lot, but I still think it’s a key issue in photography. If you are considering upgrading, you are either a professional who has outgrown his equipment, or an amateur who has more money than talent. An odd twist to this assessment is that a real professional photographer can do more with a $1 garage sale camera than a rich amateur can with a $6000 DSLR.

I keep coming back to this subject because “Should I upgrade?” is the number one topic on photography forums on the web, even in an era in which we should know better. Not, “Is this light too contrasty?” or “Should my model brush her hair a different way?” or “What time of day is best for shooting Antelope Canyon?” These are the real questions of photography. The essence.

Buying things is a distraction. To quote webizen Ken Rockwell, “A camera’s job is to get out of your way.”

A fellow photographer turned her nose up at me recently when she observed that I was shooting with the Nikon D2H, a camera of 2003 vintage. I smiled and kept shooting. My audience isn’t other photographers, it is the reader of our newspaper, our magazine, and my web site. A new camera might make my job easier, but it wouldn’t really make my product better. Nor would it have made my 2010 and 2012 Oklahoma Press Association’s First Place in Photography awards, which the other photographer has never won despite her $6000 camera, any more or less meaningful.

I know. That last sentence seemed like bragging. The point of it was, of course, that once again, you can’t buy mastery, you have to earn it.

Another paraphrase of Yeager: ” ‘What can I do to my camera to make it shoot better?’ Wear it out.”

This image of Squaw Flat was made at first light with a $200 Olympus point-and-shoot camera.

This image of Squaw Flat was made at first light with a $200 Olympus point-and-shoot camera.

The Messy Days of Photography

By , March 1, 2014 12:20 pm
Robert looks at an image in the Oklahoma University Copeland Hall journalism darkroom in 1984. The enlarger in the corner behind him was the "good" enlarger because it had a color head you could use to control contrast with multi-grade black-and-white paper. Everyone wanted to use it, so we often waited until the middle of the night to print.

Robert looks at an image in the Oklahoma University Copeland Hall journalism darkroom in 1984. The enlarger in the corner behind him was the “good” enlarger because it had a color head you could use to control contrast with multi-grade black-and-white paper. Everyone wanted to use it, so we often waited until the middle of the night to print.

A young journalism student named Darlene works on an assignment in the darkroom at Copeland Hall. She had penetratingly dark, beautiful eyes, and came to my house to let me photograph her.

A young journalism student named Darlene works on an assignment in the darkroom at Copeland Hall. She had penetratingly dark, beautiful eyes, and came to my house to let me photograph her.

1984. College. I am the Chief Photographer for the Oklahoma Daily newspaper and the Sooner Yearbook. It’s 4 a.m., and Robert and I have been printing since midnight. The Kodak Indicator Stop Bath has turned purple on us twice as we exhausted it. The Dektol print developer is getting brown. Robert lifts a print out of the fixer and holds it up in the amber glow of the safelights. He frowns. “I’m just not pleased,” he says.

It was a messy time in photography. Not only was the chemicalness of photography demanding and volatile, I shared the darkroom in Copeland Hall with other photographers, almost none of whom seemed to understand the difference between fixer and water. As much as I cleaned, I couldn’t keep up with the mess.

My main shooting method was 35mm Kodak Tri-X, possibly the most popular black-and-white film of all time. I usually exposed it at ISO 250 or so, and souped (processed) it in a developer called Microdol-X at 1:3 dilution. You can poke around on the net and read all sorts of opinions about this combination, but it worked very well for me. Good sharpness, good tone, fine grain.

In the summer of 1984, I worked briefly at Color Chrome, a photo lab in Norman, Oklahoma, making custom color prints. It was a different kind of messy than the black-and-white darkroom, but it was still pretty messy. The funniest thing about working there was that the setup, with each person in a separate room, connected by a shared dark hallway, required us to carry our exposed paper to the processor at the end of the hall. To keep from bumping into each other in the total darkness, we simply said, “Hello… hello… hello… hello…” until we got to the processor.

For most of my film career, I used this device, a bulk film loader, to load 100-foot rolls of black-and-white film into 36-exposure cassettes. The process worked pretty well, and was decidedly cheaper than buying individual boxes of film.

For most of my film career, I used this device, a bulk film loader, to load 100-foot rolls of black-and-white film into 36-exposure cassettes. The process worked pretty well, and was decidedly cheaper than buying individual boxes of film.

Toward the end of my college days, I hooked up with the Associated Press office in Oklahoma City, where I was sometimes able to scrounge work as a stringer. It was during this time that I first started using a product called Crone-C, which was an additive for Kodak’s D-76 developer. Supposedly it helped increase ISO sensitivity and improved shadow detail. I was not amazed by it. We used it to try to boost our Tri-X to ISO 3200 and beyond, with iffy results at best. It smelled suspiciously like isopropyl alcohol.

In late 1985, I was hired by the Shawnee News-Star in Shawnee, Oklahoma. I was partnered with Ed Blochowiak, a seasoned and talented photographer. We shared a tiny darkroom with a light-trap rotating door, allowing people to come and go without exposing film or paper. Ed had a number of different chemicals in that darkroom, most of which I’d never used.

Kodak Recording Film 2475, possibly the worst photographic film I ever used.

Kodak Recording Film 2475, possibly the worst photographic film I ever used.

Diafine was interesting in that you could process your film at any temperature from 65˚ to 75˚ with no adjustment in developing time. It was a two-part developer, three minutes in the “A” solution, then three minutes in the “B” solution. I used Acufine during that same period, which was a short-time developer for push processing film to high ISOs. Ed also had some DK-50, which I tried repeatedly and hated. Finally, there was HC-110, which remained one of my favorite developers until the demise of black-and-white. There was also some oddball trick to push process Tri-X to ISO 6400 that involved HC-110 and allowing the film to bask in the vapors from hydrogen peroxide. It didn’t work.

There was a handsome handmade cabinet under the enlarger. I think Ed may have made it himself. In it were wood slats perfectly sized to hold row after row of Kodak film boxes. The cabinet held old, expired, and experimental film because in those days, we didn’t use boxed film; we hand loaded Tri-X using the infamous Watson bulk loaders.

One of the oddest and least successful of the boxed films was Kodak Recording Film 2475, which Kodak marketed to police surveillance teams. It was a holdover from the 1960s, and gave much poorer results that push-processed Tri-X. Still, I pulled out a box or two once in a while to play with it. The real comedy of the film was that it was Estar-based plastic, and was insanely curly. It was like trying to uncoil a Slinky.

This is a corner of the small darkroom Ed Blochowiak and I shared in the 1980s. Note the chemistry: in pouches on the pegboard are developers DK-50, D-76, Microdol-X, and Dektol. On the shelf to the right are developers Diafine and Acufine. The sink holds tanks for fixer and rinsing.

This is a corner of the small darkroom Ed Blochowiak and I shared in the 1980s. Note the chemistry: in pouches on the pegboard are developers DK-50, D-76, Microdol-X, and Dektol. On the shelf to the right are developers Diafine and Acufine. The sink holds tanks for fixer and rinsing.

When I started working in Shawnee, I had a Nikon FM, a Nikon FM2, and a Nikon FE2, with Nikkor lenses: a 28mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.2, a 105mm f/2.5, and a 200mm f/4. It was a pretty decent setup in those days for someone right out of college. Despite their capability, I yearned for better lenses, particularly with larger maximum apertures, and within a year I also owned a 24mm f/2.0, a 105mm f/1.8, a 180mm f/2.8, and a 300mm f/4.5.

My obsessive penchant for carrying backups for everything was adjudicated on my first day in Shawnee, when the shutter blades literally fell out of my FM when I opened it to load it.

In 1988, I came to The Ada News, which at the time still had the word “evening” in the title. My first day here I was evaluated by a college student who ran the darkroom prior to me. After she pronounced, “Yes, he knows what he’s doing,” and left, I spent four hours cleaning up her awful mess. But since I wasn’t partnered with anyone else and I could keep my darkroom how I wanted it, my messy days of photography were over.

Scott, Robert and I gathered at Oklahoma State's Lewis Field one very cold night in December 1991 to cover the Ada Cougar's in a state championship game.

Scott, Robert and I gathered at Oklahoma State’s Lewis Field one very cold night in December 1991 to cover the Ada Cougar’s in a state championship game.

Observations on Film, Filtration and Our Roots

By , February 27, 2014 10:50 am
Wall, branches and vines, Byars, Oklahoma, December 1999, made on 6x7 Verichrome Pan Film with a deep orange filter.

Wall, branches and vines, Byars, Oklahoma, December 1999, made on 6×7 Verichrome Pan Film with a deep orange filter.

This is my 105mm f/1.8 Nikkor near the end of its life. As you can see from the hood and the focus ring, I got a lot of use out of it.

This is my 105mm f/1.8 Nikkor near the end of its life. As you can see from the hood and the focus ring, I got a lot of use out of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated blue filter.

This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated blue filter.

This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated red filter.

This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated red filter.

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

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

In through the Out Door

By , February 25, 2014 10:32 am
The super-macro shot looks like the edge of a quarter, but it is actually the edge of a dime.

The super-macro shot looks like the edge of a quarter, but it is actually the edge of a dime.

There’s a fun accessory in the photographic world that has gone out of favor due to the prevalence of zoom lenses that claim to also be macro lenses. I say “claim” because a lens that tries to be a jack of all trades tends to be master of none.

I bought this little accessory for three reasons:

  • I never owned one before
  • It was only $10
  • I have a lens, an AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 that I don’t really like or use, that will go with it perfectly.

The accessory is called a reversing ring, and it’s a very simple device. It allows you to put a lens on the camera backwards. The result is super-macro images. It represents one way to get into super-macro photography for very little investment.

On the left is an image made with my AF-Nikkor 60mm macro lens at its closest focus setting; on the right is the same subject shot with the AF Nikkor 28mm on a reversing ring.

On the left is an image made with my AF-Nikkor 60mm macro lens at its closest focus setting; on the right is the same subject shot with the AF Nikkor 28mm on a reversing ring.

While the results can be pretty amazing, this arrangement does have disadvantages…

  • You can’t adjust focus, meaning you are stuck with one magnification, and you focus the image by moving forward and back in very small increments.
  • If you have an older Nikkor lens like my AF 28mm, you can open the aperture for a brighter image to focus, then stop down to shoot, but if you have a new AF-S Nikkor with a “G” in its name, there is no aperture ring, so you are stuck trying to compose and focus at the smallest aperture.
  • The t-number, which combines with f stop to indicate actual light reaching the sensor, is quite low at these high magnifications, which will thus require more light.

Despite the difficulties, the reversing ring is a fun little accessory to have in you bag.

This is the 28mm as it appears mounted on a camera using a reversing ring.

This is the 28mm as it appears mounted on a camera using a reversing ring.

Desperately Seeking Sunstars

By , February 24, 2014 8:42 pm
The sun sets on our old Walnut tree earlier this month. Note that the sun is surrounded by 14 rays of light. This is a 14-point sunstar.

The sun sets on our old Walnut tree earlier this month. Note that the sun is surrounded by 14 rays of light. This is a 14-point sunstar.

Since I am one of those photographers with no “off” switch, I have a camera with me pretty much all the time. At work, that’s obvious, since taking pictures is my job. But it’s that way for me at home, too.

My aging but excellent Minolta DiMage 7i.

My aging but excellent Minolta DiMage 7i.

One of the cameras I sometimes grab at home is my very old Minolta DiMage 7i. I often keep it hanging on a nail next to my computer as kind of a “grab cam” for times when, for example, fleeting sunlight comes through a vase in the kitchen window. It’s right there, and, because of its age and condition (well-used), I am not at all concerned about getting pasta sauce on it or having a dog knock it out of my hands.

It’s got an ace, though, that a lot of newer cameras, by virtue of their lenses, don’t have: a straight seven-bladed aperture. Lensmakers in the latter day have gotten into their heads that everyone wants every lens to exhibit “good bokeh,” and that making lenses with curved aperture blades instead of traditional straight ones is the way to do it.

This is Michael's 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma lens for Nikon. In addition to having nine straight aperture blades that yield wonderful sunstars, it is well built, and optically excellent. (Photo by Michael D. Zeiler)

This is Michael’s 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma lens for Nikon. In addition to having nine straight aperture blades that yield wonderful sunstars, it is well built, and optically excellent. (Photo by Michael D. Zeiler)

I was also thinking about all this last night as my wife and I watched the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The event was quite spectacular, and to enhance the look, the stadium featured lots of spotlights. Television likes to exploit these lights to enhance their visuals.

This view shows the seven straight aperture blades of the AF-Nikkor 50mm f/1.8.

This view shows the seven straight aperture blades of the AF-Nikkor 50mm f/1.8.

The real question is: why do we use sunstars, and how do they help us express our vision? Our audience typically sees our images either printed or on a computer monitor of some kind, and the brightness values of these display methods are limited. As we view the scene we photograph, our eyes see all the values, from the darkest shadows to, in many cases, the brilliance of the sun. Since prints and monitors can never express this brightness range, it is then up to us to use photographic elements to express them.

This is a crop from an image I made at Gallo Cliff Shelter at Chaco Canyon in 2009, using my Tokina 12-24mm. The lens has nine curved aperture blades, but at smaller apertures, it can be coaxed into making nice sunstars like this one.

This is a crop from an image I made at Gallo Cliff Shelter at Chaco Canyon in 2009, using my Tokina 12-24mm. The lens has nine curved aperture blades, but at smaller apertures, it can be coaxed into making nice sunstars like this one.

Although the sun in this image does help convey the sense of light in this image on the Delicate Arch trail at Arches National Park, the six-point sunstar just isn't as nice as a 14 or 18 point sunstar. This was made with my Fuji S200EXR.

Although the sun in this image does help convey the sense of light in this image on the Delicate Arch trail at Arches National Park, the six-point sunstar just isn’t as nice as a 14 or 18 point sunstar. This was made with my Fuji S200EXR.

The formula is pretty simple: even-numbered aperture blade produce that number of sunstar points (eight blades, for example, give eight points), while an odd number of blades gives twice that number of sunstar rays (nine blades make 18-point sunstars.) The television cameras at the Olympics, and most television cameras, had six-bladed apertures, so all the spotlights were rendered with six-point sunstars. Now that you know this (if you didn’t already) you won’t be able to look at television again without counting the sunstar points.

Sunstars, at least in my own photography, help me express to the audience the sense of brightness of the brightest items in my image, and the sharper and more beautiful the sunstars, the more my viewers will understand and appreciate my message.

This image, an experiment in painting with light, is what inspired me to write this entry. It was made with the Sigma 24-70mm borrowed from Michael. When I viewed it recently I was really impressed at the spectacular sunstar on the right side of the frame.

This image, an experiment in painting with light, is what inspired me to write this entry. It was made with the Sigma 24-70mm borrowed from Michael. When I viewed it recently I was really impressed at the spectacular sunstar on the right side of the frame.

 

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