One aspect of my Intro to Digital Photography class is on the third and final night, during which I talk about what to do with our images. I show and tell about how to organize, edit, save, archive, share, and display our images. Since I am about to start another class, I’ve been recently pondering something that troubles me a bit: photographers or picture-taking civilians who take hundreds or thousand of images and then fail to do anything with them.
The occasions that come to mind are three hiking trips I made with three different photographer friends, one in 2011, one in 2013. and one in 2014. We had great times, and these three photographers are three of the best I have ever known, so it is utterly baffling to me when they tell me that after we spent all that time on the road and the trail, and captured thousands of images of what I thought were some amazing moments, that they haven’t done anything at all with their images.
I honestly don’t understand this line of reasoning, and I would be happy to hear a real explanation.
Part of why it bothers me is that I know their images are head and shoulders above the everyday images made in those places when we were there, and that their elegance and beauty would enrich us all.
Instead, they sit in a folder on the desktop of a laptop computer somewhere.
Maybe the point of this entry is to encourage anyone who has a folder full of great unshared images to open it and start to explore their potential. Even if most of the images in that folder are throw-aways (most of mine are), there are certainly pearls amongst them. Set them free!
I recently inherited an orphaned Fujifilm point-and-shoot camera from the dusty drawers of my newsroom. A previous editor bought it last September without consulting me, just prior to the company issuing everyone in news, sports and photography (me) a new iPhone 6S. Now everyone in the building shoots with their phones (even me, sometimes), so there was no reason at all to buy this camera. EXIF data shows that fewer than 300 images were made with this camera. I imagine this kind of oddly wasteful spending happens at every business on the planet.
So I’ve been carrying this thing around for a few days, thinking I’ll use it. The point-and-shoot vs the smartphone contest isn’t quite settled yet, despite the overwhelming prevalence of smartphones. The point-and-shoot camera’s trump cards are its more intuitive and available controls, and real optical zoom lenses. A less but still real consideration is how shooting pictures with your phone, particularly in groups, makes you look like a trend-follower, and the most disturbing trend is seeing people making smartphone images of their lives instead of experiencing their lives firsthand. In some ways, it’s like watching your children grow up on a television screen.
I’ve made one or two images for my newspaper with this camera, the Fujifilm Finepix AX-665. There’s nothing special about the camera, and I’m actually glad about that, since I find it frustrating that controls on digital cameras have constantly been repositioned by engineers, often ending up back where they started, to stimulate interest and sales instead of serving the real needs of photographers.
The AX-665 has the welcome four-way selector under the right thumb, and the equally welcome zoom rocker just above it, so I don’t have to hunt for them. The lens is sharp and focuses close (though not true-macro close), but the zoom range only covers the blandest coverage angles. It’s easy to understand how smartphones are taking market share from these cameras, given their zoom ranges. That’s why I like my Olympus point-and-shoot so much better: it has a nice wide angle at the short end of the zoom, wider than any smartphone.
For me, the bottom line is, despite the shortcomings of one machine of photography vs the other, is this: every camera is a tool in the toolbox of photography, and the most important thing you can do with it is express yourself.
Earlier this year, Google started offering a collection of plug-in filters under the name Nik Collection. Prior to this move, I was hesitant to spend the $499 for this software, which Google later lowered to $149, feeling that I could accomplish most of the looks it offered without spending the money. But Google’s offering is now free, so many photographers, myself included, downloaded and installed this software.
This software isn’t a stand-alone application, but a set of plug-ins that work with Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom, and Apple’s out-of-production Aperture.
I have only begun to play around with these filters, but so far, I’ve found them to be capable and fun, and I recommend you get them here (link) and try them. The only caveat is one I have stressed since the days of high dynamic range (HDR) overuse: these filters are just a tool in the toolbox, and can easily be used too often and too strongly. But with discretion and taste, they are a good tool.
Yesterday I posted this photo on Facebook of myself showing many of the new images I recently printed and hung in the halls at my newspaper. Cue Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition…
Props to our Publisher Amy Johns for facilitating getting these big prints made.
One Facebooker asked me how I go about picking images for such a display, and the answer is one I have always stressed when teaching: ruthless editing.
Like all of us in the 21st century, I make a lot of pictures. But unlike almost everyone else, I know the value of editing, and how an audience is able to view and enjoy images, and how that comes together to express a message.
These principals were essential as I gathered images for this project, which I am pleased to say is a work in progress. As it stands today, there are 32 new images on the walls, culled from a folder of about 300 images.
The process isn’t easy; over the years I have been privileged to cover thousands of events in our community, and the result is tens of thousands of images. The subset of these images for this project is recent digital color images.
This is also the difficult process we face each year when contest time rolls around.
With that in mind, I decided to challenge myself even farther and get this collection down to just five images, taken from the collection of 32 pieces that are now on the walls. I decided to find an image that represents each broad class of photography: portrait, sports, spot news, feature, and nature.
I was amazed and disappointed recently when I had to reject a number of poster-sized prints my office and I had printed at a profession printer, because despite my exact words “preserve the aspect ratio” of the photos, eight of the 22-image batch had been squished to fit the poster. My disappointment came from the fact that a professional print ship should know better.
But I am aware that many of my readers might not know what this means. In short, almost all of the images of news and sports that I shoot are cropped to a custom aspect ratio for compositional purposes. Aspect ratio is the relationship between the width and the height of an image. Some of my images are square, some are long, thin rectangles, and so on. What the printer did wrong was to either let their machine resize the images, or did it manually, to fit inside a 20×24-inch box so it would fit to the size of the posters I ordered. I was clear in my order that if an image was a square, it should stay square, and if it was long and thin, it should stay that way, and they could trim the print to match the aspect ratio of the image.
My guess is that one employee took my order and another filled it. I’m not terribly upset about it because they understood their mistake and fixed it at once, but it did mean lost time and productivity for me even though I was perfectly clear when placing my order.
The public might not realize that news photographers live a life of feast or famine. At the first of March, we spend twelve hour days darting between basketball playoffs, car crashes, assignments for special sections, and baseball team photo days.
Then when school’s out, editors impatiently tap their feet as we can only give them a photo of a kid in the splash park or somebody running a weed eater.
Then, July 4 happens. In Ada, it’s a huge deal. It starts in Wintersmith Park at 7 am with the Fireball Classic 10k/5k race, Oklahoma’s oldest such event. That’s followed by kid’s games in the park in the morning, then grow-up’s games in the afternoon. Finally, Wintersmith Lake is surrounded by spectators for the traditional Independence Day fireworks display.
For me, it is one of the busiest days of the year, and one of the funnest. It always makes great photos, everyone is always glad to see me, and I always have a great time.
Readers will recall I recently posted about the power of a good macro lens. Just a few days ago, a coworker expressed an interest in macro photography, particularly in taking it to an extreme. He says he is interested in extreme close-ups of spiders and insects.
Dedicated macro lenses (which Nikon calls “micro”) are indispensable for this purpose. Such lenses are also the only lenses optically fit to take advantage of extension rings, which sit between the camera and the lens, allowing even closer focusing.
It was with this in mind that I got out my Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro and attached it to my 32-year-old Nikon 27.5mm PK-13 extension ring. Originally sold to go with the manual focus 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikko (a great lens I sold about 12 years ago), this accessory doesn’t have any electrical contacts, so it won’t talk to modern cameras, but it will operate in manual exposure mode. In most situations at the magnifications this combination provide, manual focusing is definitely recommended.
I also mentioned reversing rings a couple of years ago, and while you can certainly get super-close-up with a reversing ring, it would be difficult photographing living creatures with one because it requires the slow process of focusing with the lens wide open, then setting the aperture before shooting.
Extension rings are available in various sizes, and can be stacked to add even more extension.
My coworker who wants to explore this option is also an accomplished bird watcher and photographer. I will be interested to see what he can do with this setup, particularly with spiders, and what lens and/or extension tube combination he ends up buying.
Readers might recall from our travel blog that my wife Abby and I just returned from a New Mexico getaway. Fewer readers might be aware that despite being professional photographers with access to a fair amount of heavy pro gear, neither Abby nor I bring any of that.
For years now, Abby and I have embraced a doctrine of traveling light. Our goal is to have fun, and the less we can carry, the better. Whether for hiking and camping, or, like on our most recent trip, driving around exploring northern New Mexico, we have settled into having our matching Fujifilm HS30EXRs as our main cameras, with occasional help from my Ion AirPro3 action cam, my tiny but very apt Olympus FE-5020, and very occasionally, our iPhones.
Why would I go to a point-and-shoot like the Olympus instead of my iPhone? Quick answer: the lens. A dirty little secret of the camera phone scene is that the “zoom” doesn’t actually “zoom” at all, but simply crops the existing image. The Olympus has an excellent 4.3-21.5mm lens equivalent to 24-120mm (in 35mm film terms) that no phone can touch.
Also, aside from making action movies, why bring an action cam? Quick answer: the lens. My Ion’s lens sees 170º, and is the equivalent to a fisheye lens.
Our Fuji cameras are equipped with non-removable 4.2-126mm lenses equivalent to 24-720mm in film terms, allowing me to explore scenes like a sunset we shot near Santa Fe on our first travel day…
Our Fuji cameras are no longer made, but Fuji’s current line of Finepix cameras is similar. Nikon makes a line they call their “premium compact” cameras. Canon makes Powershot cameras that are in this class.
Abby and I always travel with our dogs, and between checking in at motels, letting the dogs do their business at rest stops, bringing luggage here and there, and handling all our affairs, it makes a big difference having small, lightweight cameras. We also carry our smallest laptop computer (a Macbook Air), our smallest concealed carry sidearms (her Kel-Tec P32 and my Ruger LCP) and our smallest, most compact luggage. Fun is our goal, and with this philosophy, we always have it.
I was digging though my lesser-used gear the other day, looking for a filter. I didn’t find it, but I did pull out a couple lenses that I seldom use: the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, and the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8D.
The 28mm, a fixed focal length lens, known in the game as a “prime” lens, is made mostly of plastic, and weighs just seven ounces. The 28-70mm, which is constructed of steel and brass to professional standards, is huge, and weighs 33 ounces, which is just shy of two pounds. The weight is a huge factor if, like me, you carry two or three camera for long periods, like when I am covering events.
The reason I don’t use them much is that my camera sensors are the so-called APS-C size, approximately 24x15mm, making these focal lengths fairly uninteresting. In fact, in some cases I find that the featherweight 50mm f/1.8 is a good stand-in for either of these, particularly given its nice, big maximum aperture. Additionally, even with 36x24mm sensors, 28mm is only just at the edge of wide angle territory, and 70mm is only just at the edge of telephoto.
The point of this entry is a concept known as diminishing returns. This concept is the bane of other endeavors, such as space travel: putting a man in space took a 66,000-pound rocket, while putting a man on the moon took a 6,540,000-pound rocket. This concept speaks to the value of economy of scale. You can accomplish 90% of your photographic goals with the bottom 10% of your gear.
So the next time you find yourself drooling over a $2400 zoom lens, take a moment to think about what you already have in your bag that could do the job, and instead of spending money, go make pictures.
By now we should all be getting comfortable with concepts dealing with color, like white balance and saturation. If not, and I don’t mean this sarcastically at all, go back and look at your pictures of people, and ask yourself why most of their faces are too orange or too blue, which, in all honesty, they are. I say this based on the enormous number of images I see every day with bad flesh tones.
When you’re done with that, read on.
The other day I was scavenging an abandoned office at my workplace. I came across some Kodak Wratten filters (colored gels) in that search. These 3×3-inch plastic filters were originally used in by the production department to control the various renderings of the halftone products used to reproduce images in our newspaper. Despite the fact that they were damaged and obsolete, I decided I had a use for them: to change the color of light.
I brought them home and cobbled them together with clear tape. I was able to assemble a blue filter and a red-magenta filter, and I taped each one on a flash in my home studio.
I made a few images, and found I was glad to have this tool in my tool kit. Of course, you don’t necessarily need Wratten filters to change the color of the light. One excellent way to achieve this is by bouncing a flash into something colorful. Often one of the best items for this is the shiny foldable sunshade you see occasionally covering dashboards of parked cars on hot days. You can buy them with the other side in various colors, like red, gold or purple.
Altering the color of portions of your light can fundamentally change the look of your images, and the ability to do so is an excellent item to have in your bag. It can be a lot of fun, and it can throw some fuel on the embers of your creativity.
It’s not every day that I get to experience really terrible bokeh in the viewfinder.
Bokeh, as I have discussed before, and with which the internet is obsessed, is originally a Japanese word meaning “blur” or “haze,” is used to describe the quality (not the amount) of the out-of-focus portions of an image. About a grazillion factors influence bokeh, but the most significant is optical design of a lens.
Bokeh, like anything that falls into the hands of the soulless nitpickers and techno-fanboys of the internet, can become a pointless goal unto itself. The rest of us, who have a reason for taking pictures other than showing off our knowledge of specifications and resolution charts, keep bokeh in the toolbox of photography, and bring it out when we need it to help us express ourselves.
But back to the topic at hand: seeing bad bokeh right there in the viewfinder. I was shooting the final home game of the year for the softball team at the college last month with my broken Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. I carry this lens as a lightweight second to my AF Nikkor 300mm f/4, with which I shoot the bulk of my action photos. At one point, I anticipated a play at first base, which was quite close to me, so I switched to the camera with the Tamron on it and focused on the first baseman…
The reason lenses like this tend to have the photography world’s worst bokeh is that they are designed to do it all: be light, small, easy to use, wide-angle , telephoto, and finally, and maybe most importantly, cheap. Lenses with better bokeh tend to be best at just that. Lenses like my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, is not light or small or a versatile zoom or cheap, but lays down beautiful bokeh when used at close range with large apertures.
I have a buddy at work who sometimes uses the word “bokeh-y” to talk about some of my work. The term isn’t exactly correct; what he’s seeing is the use of selective focus with large-aperture lenses.
He’s toying with the idea of buying a AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, which wouldn’t be my first choice, but is cheap, and can deliver nice bokeh when using selective focus.
I have a another buddy, Scott Andersen, who just bought an AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, and he seems to love it, though I am seeing a slightly ratty bokeh in some of the images he posts. I would love to take a close look at his files one of these days and divine if I am seeing it correctly.
The downside to the 50mm f/1.8 (at least the two examples I use) is that it’s not very sharp at f/1.8, which is why I think the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 is a better choice.
In the ocean of photography, there are few waters as muddy as the use of the unsharp mask. This filter, commonly found in Adobe editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom, but also used by a myriad of other programs, uses an algorithm of contrast enhancement to, typically, increase the perceived sharpness of an image. I won’t go into to much detail about how this is accomplished, but I will give some guidelines about its use.
Unsharp mask does not add any actual detail to an image. In fact, it is somewhat destructive, particularly if overused.
Unsharp mask should never be applied to an image being archived for your files.
Unsharp mask should never be applied to an already sharp image, except…
Unsharp mask is usually a necessary step when printing images, since most printers yield images with a slightly soft look, and…
Some degree of unsharp mask can make photos for web look better on most monitors, most of which don’t display enough pixels per inch to make unsharpened images look good.
Unsharp mask will sharpen everything, not just details. It is difficult to use unsharp mask on noisy images, since it sharpens the noise along with the details.
With that said, it is possible to use a combination of noise reduction and unsharp mask together to create a usable image from a not sharp file. This combination sacrifices resolution to make an image appear sharper in print on the web.
Occasionally I can rescue a not-very-sharp image with unsharp mask. Often this is the case in my work since I shoot news and sports and sometimes get images of great moments that aren’t quite sharp. It’s easy to take it too far, or to hopelessly pound a bunch of unsharp mask into a really soft image.
I use some kind of sharpening on all the images for my web site and social media. In addition to giving my work a little more “pop” than most of the images on the web, it helps overcome the image compression algorithms used by social media sites.
Finally, don’t let any know-it-alls on the internet (including me) tell you to “never” or “always” use the unsharp mask, or tell you your use of it was somehow wrong. It is a tool in the toolbox, for use as your creativity demands.
One of the most common criticisms amateur photographers and non-photographers spout is, “You cut off their heads,” or, “I can’t believe you cut off the top of my head!”
The idea is that all images of people should always include the entire person, head to toe, I guess. It’s one of the dumbest criticisms we face. Composing a photograph as a work of art or self-expression is a lot different than shooting grade school head shots in front of a green screen. Take, for example, this image of my wife Abby, made many years ago…
But but but… where’s the top of her hair!?
Honestly, when people say this, politely walk away. Don’t accept their offers to hire you for their next wedding. They are visionless and uninspired. They expect your images to fit in their cookie cutters.
So why, Richard, did you crop this image the way you did? Simply put, intimacy. We, the viewers, are closer to her, and in particular, we are closer to her eyes. This composition invites you into the moment, like we just looked up and saw her smiling at us. And it works so well.
So if you face this kind of addle criticism, take heart. There are still those of us who understand how images really work.
Two nights ago as I mowed, I watched, as I always do, the maturing light. About 20 minutes before sunset, with bands of clouds on the horizon, the sun peaked through and struck an early stand of my wife Abby’s favorite flower, Indian Paintbrush, in the pasture. I ran inside to grab a camera with my new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, and scampered back out to find that the bands of clouds had covered the sun and muted the light. I made a few images under the soft light, but really wanted the bright amber hues of the setting sun behind those flowers. Another day, maybe.
Then last night, I got an earlier start, and planned ahead by having my camera in the garage, readier to go. As sunset approached, I was able to make the image I originally pre-visualized.
As you can see from the results, both images are beautiful, but very different. They are both shot with the same camera, from the same spot, at the same time of day, with the same settings. The only difference is the light.
Like most professional photographers, I like equipment that is transparent. No, I don’t mean I want my cameras to be made out of clear plastic, though that might be really interesting. I mean that I want my equipment to get out of the way, do it’s job, and allow me to concentrate on the real meat of photography, the moment. I don’t want to worry about or struggle with my gear while the action and the intimacy and the light come and go. One lens I bought in 2011 in hopes of working within this paradigm is the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM for use on my Nikon DSLR cameras with their 15x24mm-sized sensors. I originally picked up this lens just prior to my sister’s wedding (link.) Since my wife and I were traveling to New Orleans for just the weekend, and since the wedding was entirely at night indoors, I wanted a lens that would fill my needs for that event: it would have to be fast-focusing, sharp wide open (f/2.8), have optical image stabilization, and be reasonably well-constructed.
Part of the reason I thought this Sigma might be a good choice was my success with a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX-DG I borrowed from Michael to shoot my step-daughter’s wedding in 2009 (link). I liked everything about the lens except that it wasn’t quite wide enough, and it wasn’t mine. It was sharp wide open, handled well, and made gorgeous 14-point sunstars when stopped down.
My very first field testing of the 17-50mm seemed to go well, but every lens is sharp at f/8. I didn’t spend $600 for this lens to shoot at f/8. I spent this money so I could take low light to its limits, and that would come just a couple of weeks later at the wedding.
Hosted by the New Orleans Athletic Club, the venue was gorgeous, but lit by just four incandescent chandeliers. I shot it all at ISO 3200, at f/2.8, which put me in the 1/60th to 1/125th of a second shutter speed range. This is the low-light margin that tests everything: sensor noise, optical stabilization, lens sharpness, and photographer’s skills. If any one of these factors falls short, image quality suffers, and this lens was the weak link. It just wasn’t sharp wide open, at f/2.8.
Michael and Abby were my second shooters, with the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 and the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lenses respectively, and they stuff was very sharp at apertures like f/2.5 and f/2.0.
One item I hit hard in my Intro to Digital Photographer class is white balance. This might seem like an obvious teaching point, but readers might be surprised by how many images submitted to my newspaper have ugly colors casts, particularly yellow and red. The wedding in New Orleans was lit entirely with incandescent lights, and using the appropriate white balance setting saved us a lot of headaches in post-processing.
In the end, my images from New Orleans were great, and my sister and new brother-in-law were very happy with them, but I wasn’t pleased with the Sigma, which stood out as the weak link. I have since shot a couple more weddings with the 17-50mm, and while the images were acceptable, I want more from a big, heavy, expensive lens.
I will look at options. My instinct is to shoot with my 12-24mm f/4 Tokina on one camera, and my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 on the other, but that still doesn’t give me a one-camera travel wedding solution. It will need to be a zoom, and it will need to be wide-to-portrait length. One possibility is picking up a 24x36mm sensor-sized camera on Ebay like the Nikon D700, and using something like my Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8, which is heavy but absolutely dazzlingly sharp. The 24-70mm, 28-70mm, 24-105mm focal lengths on a 24x36mm sensor are approximately equivalent to the 17-50mm, 18-55mm lenses on a 15x24mm sensor. While this is a versatile field of view range, it also has the potential to be bland and boring, and requires us to push hard at the short and long ends to make our images really interesting.