At This Point, It’s All Used

By , June 21, 2014 12:33 pm
This is the vertical release on one of my D2H digital SLR cameras. As you can see, it is well-worn. This illustrates two important things I demand from my work cameras: a vertical release, and a body that can take this kind of wear and tear year after year.

This is the vertical release on one of my D2H digital SLR cameras. As you can see, it is well-worn. This illustrates two important things I demand from my work cameras: a vertical release, and a body that can take this kind of wear and tear year after year.

I have never hesitated to recommend buying used photography equipment. All the cameras I currently use for my work as a photojournalist were bought used.

I looked at the camera lineup at nikonusa.com today and decided … Nikon, are you listening? … that I will be buying used cameras for the foreseeable future. Basically, Nikon has split their models into two camps: small-sensor (15x24mm) cameras for hobbyists, and large-sensor (24x36mm) for rich amateurs and pros, and then into three sub-categories.

I, and those like me in the news business, am none of those.

Here is today’s lineup from nikonusa.com

“Entry-level” DSLRs, the D3100 through the D5300. Price range: $450-$750.

“Enthusiast-level” DSLRs, the D7000 and D7100, the Df, and the D610. Price range: $1000 to $2800.

“Professional” DSLRs, the D800 and D800e, and the D4, D4s, and D3x. Price range: $3200 to $8000.

You can have a lot of fun with a camera like this, my wife Abby's Nikon D3000, but it won't be as fun when it's in the shop five times a year due to its lightweight, plastic build.

You can have a lot of fun with a camera like this, my wife Abby’s Nikon D3000, but it won’t be as fun when it’s in the shop five times a year due to its lightweight, plastic build.

Nikon’s small-sensor cameras are like cheap toys in my hands, while their large-sensor cameras are too expensive, by a lot.

What I need:

  • A tough body with responsive autofocus
  • A fairly high frame rate with a big buffer
  • A biggish camera body with an integrated vertical grip
  • Decent high-ISO files
  • Fairly good HD video

What I don’t need:

  • So-called full-frame (Nikon calls it FX, the same size as the obsolete 35mm film frame)
  • More than about 10 megapixels
  • Astronomical ISO performance
  • Stupid features like social media integration, WiFi, or GPS

So, Nikon, make this happen for Richard the photojournalist…

  • A camera body like the Nikon D2h, with
  • About 10 megapixels and
  • A maximum ISO of 12,800, and make it clean
  • A frame rate of about eight frames per second, with a big buffer
  • A price of about $1000

In summary, I need a tough body with good performance, and I don’t care about pixel count, sensor size, or trendy features, and I need a good price.

Nikon’s D300S had all this, but Nikon no longer lists it. I have a D7100 at home for my fine art, commercial and travel photography, but for news, sports, and magazine work, I have absolutely no use for it’s small buffer, intermediate build quality, and 24 megapixels.

In some ways, the bottom end of Nikon’s line, like the D5300, which has some respectable specifications, would be suitable, but in comes in a plasticky, consumer body.

Much of this is fallout from the lingering, pointless megapixel craze. More is better, especially in the West, especially in the eyes of egomaniacal and/or insecure photographers. If someone handed me a 36 megapixel Nikon D800 to use today, I would immediately dial it down to 9 megapixel, even for magazine shooting.

On photo forums like Photo.net, participants often speak of having a “backup” camera, sometimes one of lesser quality than their main camera, but this is a tipoff that they aren’t real photographers, since almost all decent professional photographers shooting events use two or even three cameras at once, and they all need to be of the same ilk. Of course, I would love to have three new Nikon D4S cameras, but who are we kidding? $6000 apiece? I don’t know who is buying these, but it isn’t me or any of the news photographers I know.

My solution to the conundrum of what to do if you shoot news and sports is, as it has been for some time, to tell the big camera companies that their products have shifted away from real photographers like us and toward the measurbators, and that we will be cruising eBay for the foreseeable future, looking for cameras like the D2X, the D300S.

The core camera in my photographic stable is the Nikon D2H. Naysayers who claim that 4.1 megapixels isn't enough or that the camera's high-ISO files are unusable probably don't shoot RAW files and probably aren't particularly good with Adobe's Camera RAW software. In the right hands, this camera can deliver.

The core camera in my photographic stable is the Nikon D2H. Naysayers who claim that 4.1 megapixels isn’t enough or that the camera’s high-ISO files are unusable probably don’t shoot RAW files and probably aren’t particularly good with Adobe’s Camera RAW software. In the right hands, this camera can deliver.

A Complete 180

By , June 14, 2014 7:56 pm
This mimosa behind the garden started blooming just this week. This image was made at f/2.8 at just about the closest focus distance on my AF-Nikkor 180mm.

This mimosa behind the garden started blooming just this week. This image was made at f/2.8 at just about the closest focus distance on my AF-Nikkor 180mm.

As you can see, the 180mm is scarcely bigger than a 70-300mm zoom, yet the images from it are far superior.

As you can see, the 180mm is scarcely bigger than a 70-300mm zoom, yet the images from it are far superior.

The hay guy came by this morning to ask if he could cut and bail the pasture in July like he has every year recently, and it reminded me to grab a camera and photograph the pasture in the coming weeks before he cuts it.

I grabbed the Nikon D7100 tonight, and very deliberately chose one of my favorite lenses, as it has been for 30 years, the 180mm. I’ve owned four iterations of this lens over the years, including tonight’s guest, the AF-Nikkor ED 180mm f/2.8 D.

Tiny white flowers blow in a late spring breeze in a shady spot down by our pond tonight. The 180mm let me set them apart from the background nicely.

Tiny white flowers blow in a late spring breeze in a shady spot down by our pond tonight. The 180mm let me set them apart from the background nicely.

This lens has few vices. It is lightweight, bright, and sharp, and has fairly nice bokeh wide open. It’s only failings are its older autofocus system (non-AF-S) and an itsy bit of chromatic aberration.

It’s possible to get a decent bargain on a used 180mm on sites like eBay, particularly if it’s ugly on the outside but still has good glass.

It felt good in my hands tonight, and I remembered why I like it so much.

A bit of juxtapositional imagining, with the vines wrapping around barbed wire in the west pasture. The excellent selective focus qualities of the 180mm at f/2.8 make this possible.

A bit of juxtapositional imagining, with the vines wrapping around barbed wire in the west pasture. The excellent selective focus qualities of the 180mm at f/2.8 make this possible.

A Lens for the Fun of It

By , June 12, 2014 7:14 pm
Aztec Ruins National Monument's restored great kiva, shot with my Tokina AT-X 10-17mm  f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens.

Aztec Ruins National Monument’s restored great kiva, shot with my Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 Fisheye lens.

I sold my first fisheye, a 16mm for 35mm film, to David Wheelock, who was kind enough to send me this photograph of it.

I sold my first fisheye, a 16mm for 35mm film, to David Wheelock, who was kind enough to send me this photograph of it.

In my time, I owned two fisheye lenses. From 1993 until 2004, I had a the Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 AI-S, which I seldom used and sold to a friend when I phased out film and switched to digital, since its image circle was for a 24x36mm image area. I carried it for a while for imaging at my newspaper, where it became known as “Richard’s weird lens.”

In the summer of 2008, I felt the fisheye still held a place in my imaging, so I bought the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5, which was both about half the cost of Nikon’s 10.5mm, and was also a zoom. I didn’t know why zoom would be valuable in a fisheye, but it was there.

Which Begs the Question...
Why would you create a fisheye zoom? I would speculate that almost all lenses designed in the last 15 years were created using CAD/CAM, Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing. It would make sense that programs controlling CAD/CAM are optimized for the creation of the most popular lenses, which are zooms, and that engineers would be inclined to use existing CAD/CAM methods and software to avoid “reinventing the wheel.”
Michael uses my 10-17mm on his Nikon D7000 on a trip to Great Salt Plains in 2011.

Michael uses my 10-17mm on his Nikon D7000 on a trip to Great Salt Plains in 2011.

I always bring my Tokina fisheye to class on “lens night,” and my students get a big kick out of it. It is my impression that almost none of them later consider buying one. The fisheye lens is very specialized, and even when I make a point to use it, I still find that images made with it have a unique look, and, maybe more importantly, it is a fairly difficult lens to use well.

Robert Stinson, right, and I pose with our fisheye lenses, my Tokina 10-17mm, and his Nikkor 10.5mm.

Robert Stinson, right, and I pose with our fisheye lenses, my Tokina 10-17mm, and his Nikkor 10.5mm.

I made this image of Surprise Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, in March 2004, using a Nikon FM2 and the 16mm Fisheye Nikkor I later sold to David Wheelock.

I made this image of Surprise Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, in March 2004, using a Nikon FM2 and the 16mm Fisheye Nikkor I later sold to David Wheelock.

There have been a few occasions when the fisheye field of view, 180˚ from corner to corner of the frame, has been irreplaceable. I can think of three, all in the west, where I was in a place that didn’t allow me enough room to back up and get everything I wanted in the frame: Aztec Ruins National Monument’s great kiva, Arches National Park’s Surprise Arch, and Arches National Park’s Tower Arch.

If the strength of a wide angle lens is its ability to express near-far relationships, the strength of a fisheye is to explode them.

The fisheye can dress up boring images with its wild curves, bring the viewer into spaces a normal or wide angle can’t, and can create a sense of depth like no other lens. It also has the potential for overuse by boring or confusing viewers. It takes a lot of practice to be able to tell when that might happen. From inside the viewfinder, the view is so extreme and entertaining that it’s easy to think everything is looking great.

In terms of build quality and handling, the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 is without peer. Zooming is smooth and obedient, it is quick to focus, and it feels very solid in-hand.

In terms of build quality and handling, the Tokina AT-X 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 is without peer. Zooming is smooth and obedient, it is quick to focus, and it feels very solid in-hand.

This lens is in my bag, and I need to take it out and use it more, if only to keep me out of any photographic ruts.

In New Mexico in March, I partnered it with the excellent AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6, and the combination seemed to cover all bases of travel photography.

This view, made with the 10-17mm, looks almost straight up, and shows Tower Arch to the left, and the tower from which it got its name on the right. I was standing against a sheer wall behind me, so there was no room to back up.

This view, made with the 10-17mm, looks almost straight up, and shows Tower Arch to the left, and the tower from which it got its name on the right. I was standing against a sheer wall behind me, so there was no room to back up.

Scott uses my Tokina fisheye to photograph one of his GoPro cameras. Scott loves the fisheye look.

Scott uses my Tokina fisheye to photograph one of his GoPro cameras. Scott loves the fisheye look.

In a vis-a-vis comparison between the Tokina and the Nikkor, the Nikkor probably has an edge in image quality due to some annoying color fringing with the Tokina, but that advantage is quickly negated by the Tokina’s price and versatility. It is possible to mitigate the color fringing to some degree using software.

A couple of years ago, Scott borrowed Robert‘s 10.5mm and liked it so much that it took Robert a year to get it back from him.

This is a comparison view shot from my front porch. The top image is a regular 12mm lens; the bottom image is the 10-17mm fisheye set to about 15mm. Since the horizon passes through the center of the image, no distortion correction was required for the fisheye view.

This is a comparison view shot from my front porch. The top image is a regular 12mm lens; the bottom image is the 10-17mm fisheye set to about 15mm. Since the horizon passes through the center of the image, no distortion correction was required for the fisheye view.

My recommendation about a lens like this is unambiguous: you know who you are. If you want a fisheye, get one. A lens like this is entertaining to use, but is a formidable challenge to get genuinely compelling images. It takes a lot of practice, but in the right hands, it can deliver.

I made this image in 2012 at Waterholes Canyon near Page, Arizona, and I find the lines and curves very satisfying.

I made this image in 2012 at Waterholes Canyon near Page, Arizona, and I find the lines and curves very satisfying.

Coming Soon to an America Near You

By , June 10, 2014 10:43 pm
Adans watch fireworks from the banks of Wintersmith Lake.

Adans watch fireworks from the banks of Wintersmith Lake.

I’ve been shooting various Independence Day celebrations for my entire career. Our community, Ada, Oklahoma, has a big day-long party in Wintersmith Park. It starts at 7 am with the Fireball Classic 5k/10k run, and ends 14 hours later with a fireworks display over the lake in the park. Many Adans set up tents and make a day out of it.

One slightly vexing problem for a lot of would-be photographers is the formula for photographing fireworks. Complicating matters is that many of today’s cameras have a not-very-effective “fireworks” mode on the exposure mode dial.

Three floral shells burst in the sky above Ada's Wintersmith Park.

Three floral shells burst in the sky above Ada’s Wintersmith Park.

But I’m here to make it easy. You need…

A lens that focuses "beyond infinity" sounds theatrical and impossible, but some are actually made this way because of differential expansion of some of the specialized glass elements inside.

A lens that focuses “beyond infinity” sounds theatrical and impossible, but some are actually made this way because of differential expansion of some of the specialized glass elements inside.

  • A rock-solid tripod
  • A digital SLR or other camera with the ability to make manual exposures for up to 30-seconds.
  • A lens, probably a zoom, that can be focused manually and has either a focus distance scale or a hard stop at the infinity setting (some lenses focus beyond infinity, which is a place for another, more philosophical discussion.)
  • A spot about as close as you can get to the source of the fireworks.
Independence Day is more than just the fireworks show at the end of the day; have fun making pictures of the Americana.

Independence Day is more than just the fireworks show at the end of the day; have fun making pictures of the Americana.

Find your spot early enough that you don’t have people sit or stand in front of you. On top of a wall or at the edge of water might work. With the camera on the tripod, focus to infinity. Make your shutter speed “B” or “Bulb,” which allows the shutter to stay open as long as you hold the shutter release down. Make your ISO about 200, and your aperture somewhere around f/11.

Be ready to tweak these settings if they don’t give you what you want.

As the fireworks show starts, watch the floral shells lift into the air. Anticipate when they will burst, and try to open the shutter just before they do. Hold the shutter open as more shells burst. The longer you hold the shutter open, the more bursts will accumulate on the image. I find that two or three is enough, but your taste may vary.

Be aware that longer shutter speeds also accumulate more smoke and haze that is illuminated by the fireworks themselves.

There are other tricks of the trade. Some shooters will bring a black card (or a black hat or other black object), open the shutter, then move the card out of the way during the period of the motion of the fireworks that he wants to capture, then covering the lens again and waiting for the next chance to add to the image.

The true essence of photographing fireworks is to let your creative self have fun, both in the process and at the destination.

Fireworks are extremely satisfying to photograph because there is no "correct" image, and they have the potential to dazzle the eye.

Fireworks are extremely satisfying to photograph because there is no “correct” image, and they have the potential to dazzle the eye.

Color Spaces and Color Pallets

By , June 9, 2014 2:17 pm
This image of my wife Abby isn't about numbers and charts; it is about a beautiful moment with a beautiful woman.

This image of my wife Abby isn’t about numbers and charts; it is about a beautiful moment with a beautiful woman.

A friend was playing around with the menu settings of my Nikon D7100 not long ago, and asked me, “Now, why would you have it set to sRGB?”

sRGB, for those of you who don’t know, is a color space, which is a way various devices, from cameras to computers to printers to the internet, describe color to each other.

I told my friend that I picked it because I felt it would be more compatible with different devices and operating systems, but the truth, of course, is that color space, for almost all of us, is irrelevant.

You can search for a color space chart on the internet. It is a chart with some numbers on it. Like a lot of the world of cameras and other fetish properties, it is a good way to distract yourself from actually taking pictures.

I’m not saying there is no reason to select one color space or another. I am saying that almost no one except the highest level professional, studio, huge-agency photographers, who need to be able to manage the minutia of color at every step of the process, every day, for high-dollar clients, needs to worry about color space at all. sRGB contains all the color information you and I will ever need.

If you’re a computer geek and think you can prove me wrong with numbers, I can prove you wrong with a spectacular portfolio, online, published, and printed.

If you are worried about color space, you’re not taking enough pictures. The only color that really matters is what you see in the world. Perception of color is human and organic, and isn’t about numbers or charts; it is about vision.

If you look at this image and wonder if it was shot in Adobe color space or sRGB, the answer is simple: it was shot in the morning.

If you look at this image and wonder if it was shot in Adobe color space or sRGB, the answer is simple: it was shot in the morning.

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

comments Comments Off
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.

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