It’s spring, and despite a rather dire situation in the world, nature on our small patch of Oklahoma is unstoppably beautiful. 85mm f/1.4 wide open.
There is a fair amount of excitement building around the first total eclipse of the sun in the United States in 72 years, on August 21, 2017. Undoubtedly, millions of people will be attempting to view and photograph it, mostly with marginal success using their smartphone cameras.
My wife Abby and I have been planning for this for some time, and expect to include my sister Nicole and her husband Tracey. Our hope is to be in our mother’s home town, Park Hills, Missouri, (known as Flat River for most of her life) on the morning of the eclipse, to stake out a spot from which to witness, and photograph, this event.
Photographing a solar eclipse is challenging. I’ve never photographed, or even seen, one, though Abby and I have photographed several lunar eclipses, and many of the same principals apply.
Firstly, as you will read on most sites about the upcoming eclipse, don’t look directly at the sun, even for a second or two, and even if it is partially eclipsed by the moon. The only time it is safe to look at it with your naked eye is during the totality, when the disk of the sun (the photosphere) is completely covered by the moon.
- The weather will play a huge role in viewing this event: read a forecast and try to be someplace with clear skies. Even with planning, there is a chance it might be obscured by clouds.
- I bought some disposable eclipse glasses, and have looked directly at the sun with them on. They seem to be effective, although I don’t exactly trust them, so I won’t be staring through them at the sun for more than a second or two.
- Though they appear large in the sky compared to stars and planets, the sun and moon actually occupy a very small area of the sky. Filling the frame with these celestial bodies requires either an astronomical telescope or a very long telephoto lens.
- When the disk of the sun is visible, normal exposures are not effective without a neutral density filter, in these cases sometimes sold as a solar filter. These act as powerful “sunglasses,” since the photosphere (the surface of the sun) is much brighter than anything on earth.
- When the sun is eclipsed by the moon, exposure values are hundreds of times darker than before. Camera settings can go from f/16 at 1/1000th of a second to f/4 at one, two, ten seconds or longer depending on conditions. The most interesting thing to photograph during the totality is the solar corona, which is very faint compared to the photosphere.
- Cell phones, point-and-shoot cameras, and cameras with the ever-popular “kit lens” will be unable to fill the frame with anything useful during an eclipse, as we have see time and again during lunar eclipses.
- A rock-solid tripod will be indispensable, particularly during totality when exposures will be long.
- The ultimate solution to this photographic puzzle would be to use a real (and very expensive) astronomical telescope.
- Someone recently told me the best approach of all would be to find a spot, relax, and enjoy the eclipse, then buy a photograph or enjoy all the posts on the web. That’s certainly a valid point of view, but I am a photographer, and feel like I should be shooting this, which I will very much enjoy.
There are maps and other useful information at the Eclipse 2017 web site.
A friend of mine, who I regard as a very talented photographer, recently asked me for some advice about photographing the American West. Among her destinations was Mesa Arch, a beautiful, easy-to-reach attraction at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, which I have visited many times.
I told her that this feature is classically photographed in the morning, since the sun rises in the opening of the arch, with a beautiful canyon below and mountains in the distance. The light strikes to red wall of the canyon below and causes the underside of the feature to take on deep red hues.
The only drawback, I told her, is that it’s been “discovered,” so she should expect to see a large number of photographers there at sunrise.
“I really want to see Mesa Arch, but I hate the idea of a lot of photographers because I will feel inferior,” she replied.
Years ago I wrote a piece about how I can sometimes be tempted to get outside my game when I am in the presence of other professional photographers. I’m sure this is true for other professions as well, and why conferences and think tanks are useful for showing us way of doing things we might not see.
The other side of that, of course, is that we don’t want to let the herd mentality take us to what I like to call the “force op,” or forced photo opportunity, in which you let other photographers define you creatively.
But there is a little trick that will help relieve you of the burden of feeling competitive with other photographers. Now that digital imaging has taken some of the mystery, and particularly the surprise, out of photography, all we have to do is stand behind someone and look at their monitor to see what kinds of images they are making. Often, even most of the time, I am surprised and discouraged by how badly photographers are composing their pictures. “Why is this guy even here with his $10,000 worth of equipment,” I ask myself, “when he can’t compose his way out of a wet paper sack?”
Also, don’t let anyone’s equipment intimidate you, and even more importantly, don’t let them talk about their equipment to you. If they do, it will be all they talk about, and they will have nothing interesting to say about the art of photography.
Ultimately photography should be about expressing ourselves and sharing our vision of our lives and our worlds, not worrying about how we look when we’re making our images or what others might think about our equipment or skills. When it comes to comparisons, it is certainly worth looking at the work of others, but not with the purpose of copying it. I should serve as inspiration.
Everyone takes pictures now. The only genuine value in them is your vision.
For a couple of decades now, a cacophony of myth and misinformation has stemmed from digital photography regarding sensor size. This all started because professional and advanced amateur digital photography was rooted, for economic reasons, in 35mm film photography.
Driven mostly by the engines of sales and popularity, not necessity or creativity or technical superiority, the 35mm film frame, at 36x24mm, and originally derived from an industrious camera maker wanting to take advantage of surplus film from the burgeoning 1930s motion picture industry, became the standard bearer for image size by the end of the 20th century.
I recently decided to do a little used-for-used sell-and-buy on Ebay to get my hands on a Nikon D700, one of Nikon’s earliest digital cameras equipped with a sensor the size of a 35mm film frame, 36x24mm, sometimes referred to by the misleading name “full frame” because it is the same size as a full frame of film. Nikon calls it “FX,” in contrast to their smaller 24x15mm sensors, which it calls “DX.” 24x15mm sensors are often mistakenly called “cropped” sensors by laymen who don’t fully understand the origins of image size. If it has to have a name, it is most accurately described by its size in millimeters or by the film size closest to it, APS-C (Advanced Photo System type-C).
The lazy-writing web world often calls full frame “FF” in forum posts.
- Do full frame sensors have “better depth of field”? No. I was eager to debunk this one because I already knew the answer, and because it is an embarrassment to photography that everyone is so eager to believe this. Depth of field is controlled by two factors: magnification and aperture. The reason this myth seems to be true is that to get the same composition on a 36x24mm as on a smaller sensor, one has to either get closer or use a longer focal length, both of which increase magnification to create shallower depth of field. At identical distances, focal lengths and apertures, depth of field is identical. If you don’t believe me, here is the proof…
- Is an aperture of f/2 on a larger sensor “equivalent” in light gathering capacity to f/1.4 on a smaller sensor? No. I heard this one asserted by Tony and Chelsea Northrup on their YouTube channel, and I couldn’t believe my ears at the time. (They also refer to “ISO” as a name – “Eyesoh,” which it is not). I have no idea how they came to this conclusion, but this and the popularity of their channel has done nothing but muddy the waters on issues like this. Simply put, f number is a fraction describing the ratio between the focal length of a lens and the diameter of the opening. A 50mm f/2, for example, has an opening of 25mm. 50 divided by 2 equals 25. A specific aperture value lets the same amount of light through the lens regardless of what size of film or sensor is on the other side.
- Will a larger sensor give life back to my wide angle lenses? Yes, with some caveats. A 20mm lens that was a mediocre lens on a smaller sensor has now been restored to its film-days glory as an ultra wide lens. While this is certainly nice if you have a bunch of old wide angle lenses, today many manufacturers make very wide angle lenses for smaller sensors. I have several myself, and I am able to get as wide as I need, including ultra-ultra-wide using my 10-17mm fisheye and uncurving it in Photoshop.
- Will my telephoto lenses will be less telephoto-y on a larger sensor? Yes. This is the reason sports and wildlife photographers got away from large and medium format film as soon as 35mm was available: just as larger sensors make wide angles wider, they make telephotos wider, since they are projecting their images onto a larger surface. Many top sports and bird photographers very much prefer 24x15mm sensors for just this reason, and this has been a leading marketing tag for Nikon’s flagship 24x15mm camera, the D500.
- Are larger sensors better at capturing low-light scenes due to the pixels themselves being larger? Yes. If you compare a 36x24mm sensor against a 24x15mm sensor of the same pixel count, assuming the sensors are of the same era and treated with the same renderings, noise will be lower in the larger sensor. This is true because the pixels themselves, the tiny light-sensing devices inside the integrated circuit in the middle of the camera, are larger, and can gather more light, thus requiring less amplification of the signals they produce. In practice, though, this rule doesn’t hold much water. There are many smaller-sensor cameras that make incredibly low-noise images, and most cameras with larger than “full frame” sensors do not.
The craving for lower noise at higher ISOs is a symptom of photographers being too lazy to master what matters most, light. Additionally, there is a lot of pretense on the photo forums (like photo.net, which recently changed formats and is now unviewable) about, “wanting to do more street photography.” The truth is that most of time people who make this claim just want to be able to say, “I have this camera and that lens,” and don’t make very many photos. All you have to do to discover this truth is walk the streets and count the photographers: ≈ 0.
- Are “multiplier” or “crop factor” numbers useful? No. These numbers are all over the place, and only exist so camera makers can muddy the waters of what you should buy. 1.5x “crop factor” or 2x “multiplier” is only helpful if you go from one format to the other constantly while shooting. A far better way to understand this is to know your camera, and know what does what. For example, suppose your camera is a “four thirds” format (18x13mm). A 14mm is a wide angle lens, and a 200mm is a super-telephoto.
- Is it worth it to “upgrade” to a larger sensor? No. Anyone who asks this question isn’t ready to take advantage of the subtle differences offered by a larger sensor, and larger sensors are disproportionally more expensive. If you need a larger sensor, you already know it.
Those who follow me on social media might recall that my current batch of students were disappointed that it rained during last week’s class, forcing us inside.
Tonight’s forecast is more likely to produce a sunset opportunity.
All photographers with any experience know that a good sunset can be difficult to pin down, and it’s always a smarter move to be ready to shoot sunrises and sunsets when they come to you, not when you come to them.
Readers also know that I like to use the sun itself as a compositional element, often trying to emphasize its brightness by choosing a lens that makes good “sunstars” at small apertures.
Judicious use of exposure compensation can make a huge difference, since your camera doesn’t know if you are going for shadow detail or highlight detail, and will often split the difference. Don’t be afraid to crank in +3 or -4 or any other value to tell the camera what you want. I’ve seen too many disappointing sunset attempts by photographers with disappointed faces asking me, “What did I do wrong?”
There is a lot to be said for sticking around after the sun dips below the horizon as well. The so-called “blue hour” can sometimes offer amazing color values as the sun’s light strikes clouds high in the atmosphere.
The light changes quickly at sunrise and sunset, so we need to be ready to change quickly as well.
As with any photograph endeavor, the best results are achieved through a willingness to explore and experiment, and the realization that not every evening will deliver magic, but with persistence, we can eventually capture magic and share it with our audience.
It’s true. I am a “lopper.” I cut off heads.
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.
There’s a lot of talk, usually to, rather than among, photographers, about angle. People on the street tell me they “loved the angle you got” in a photo on the sport page, or they’ll see me working and say, “trying to get just the right angle, huh?”
Honestly, the whole angle thing is made up by television. We photographers don’t ever use the word “angle” in our work, mostly because we don’t need to use it. Instead of thinking about an angle (15º, 37º, 55º, what?), real photographers decide where to be and move there much more organically, even instinctively. Instead of thinking “I need to shoot this from a high angle,” we just climb on something. Instead of thinking “I should move 30º to the left,” we just move and watch until the image comes together.
But with everything creative and artistic, there are exceptions, and the most important exception about angle in photography is in lighting. Sometimes the slightest change in the angle of the light, either by moving the light or moving the camera, can change the entire character of an image.
Consider then, the next two images, which I made after changing a small 12-volt light bulb and finding the burned out bulb visually interesting.
Both images are made at the same exposure, with the same lens, and without moving the lights. The only change was movement slightly down as I searched for exactly what I wanted, but as you can see, it didn’t change the composition much, but it did change the light, both in the subject, and in what was illuminated in the background.
As I might have mentioned before, I am in the process of editing, in my spare moments, the hundreds of images I shot on our October anniversary vacation, A Perfect Ten. Working on these images has been a very satisfying experience, since so many of my jaunts yielded excellent images, most of which I was not able to include in the trip report. I am, however, publishing many of them on my photo blog, and here on the teaching blog.
Today, as my wife sleeps in her recliner because snow and sleet kept her from going to work, I am again chewing on some of those images. In that process, I ran across one in particular that seemed to reach into my sense of adventure, an image I made in an area I visited for the first time, just north of Delicate Arch in the vicinity of Echo Arch (according to the kiosk at the visitor center – if you know better, please let me know.)
The reason I like this image so much is…
- Its monochromatic lighting resulted in an excellent black-and-white red-filter rendering
- It is an angle from which I never shot before and yields a new view of an old haunt
- It shows Echo Arch at the very bottom of the frame and the Delicate Arch area (though the actual arch is concealed by terrain) at the top
- It invites me to come and romp in the adventure playground of southern Utah
- The utter complexity of the image is intriguing, and invites the eye to explore it
Editing these images is great fun. I’m sure I will come across many more teaching points as I explore them.
The photographer in the image in this post is using the latter-day technique of shooting from an angle that’s hard to get while looking through a viewfinder.
Looking up or down with a wide angle lens at a ladder, hillside, ski slope, swing set, church, Christmas tree, hiking trail, fountain, radio tower, Ferris wheel… you get the idea … anything that has lines and forms that can be used to invite our viewer into the image… can create very exciting compositions.
This was harder to do in the film days because the framing is just a guess, since the camera is so high or low that we can’t see what it’s seeing. But in the digital era, we can instantly review what we just shot and fit whatever might need to be fixed.
Don’t hesitate to play around with unusual angles and compositions. It can really pay off.
Years ago, Scott Andersen was working as a photography stringer (biz speak for freelancer) for the Associated Press in Oklahoma City. Since OKC isn’t too far off, our paths would cross when we were shooting, particularly when we were both working college sports. Once day at an Oklahoma University basketball game, he and I were shooting, and he looked over at me and incredulously asked, “You shoot basketball horizontal?”
Yes, I do hold my camera horizontally (landscape mode) rather than vertically for basketball. I’ve always been more comfortable shooting it that way, though I didn’t really analyze the mechanics of it until recently.
I was shooting a college basketball at ECU‘s Kerr Activities Center here in Ada and thought for a moment about what exactly I was doing, when I put it together: I hold the camera horizontally so I can lower it slightly and see the whole court so I can keep track of the action, which helps me decided when and where to shoot. I believe this is because I am a left-eyed shooter, so though it is open, my right eye is blocked by the camera body. Right-eyed people can see the court without moving their camera.
My results are a little different than those who hold vertically, but in all honesty, most of my action imagery is aimed at the moment of conflict, which includes moments like fast breaks and loose ball scrambles, and those kinds of plays often defy composition, so they might be horizontal, vertical, or square.
or How to Avoid Boring the Audience with Your Wide Angle Lens
Photography is a surprisingly complex visual puzzle. In addition to using a lot of numbers, it is rife with its own jargon: the inverse square law, the exposure triangle, circles of confusion, lighting ratios, the rule of thirds, and on and on.
One thing I see again and again, and hear described and debated, that is directly related to the geometry of photography, is the misuse of wide angle lenses. Many images that make very poor use of wide angle lenses pass through my hands every day. Not only do I see tons of images shot with wide angles that simply fail to fill the frame with a basic subject (like group photos with the group in the middle of a mostly empty frame), I also see wide angle images that fail to grasp the most fundamental concept in photography: storytelling.
Proper selection of focal length is one of the ways we tell the viewer our story, but it doesn’t end there. Once we have mounted our 18mm or our 85mm or our 300mm, we can’t just sit back and let it do the work. I see a lot of web forum posts with titles like, “What’s the best portrait lens (or wide angle, or telephoto, etc.) for my Camcon 9000?”
The answer is, of course, “that depends.” And it mostly depends on you.
The most important thing you can do with a wide-angle lens – and I can’t emphasize this enough – is use near-far relationships to invite the audience into your image. Without this essential storytelling element, wide angle shots, particularly landscapes, can easily bore the audience.
In the end, the success of your images made with a wide angle or ultra wide angle lens will sink or swim on how you use it. It requires a willingness to give up boring, easy perspectives and work to find ways to tell your story with the lines and angles that are available with these incredible tools.
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.