Manual Focus: Follow or Pre-Focus?

Like the 400mm, my 200mm f/2.0 is a very large-maximum-aperutre lens, and like the 400, I use it wide open. The result is clean backgrounds and fast shutter speeds, with the downside of having razor-thin depth of field.
Like the 400mm, my 200mm f/2.0 is a very large-maximum-aperutre lens, and like the 400, I use it wide open. The result is clean backgrounds and fast shutter speeds, with the downside of having razor-thin depth of field.

I own two genuinely spectacular vintage manual focus Nikon lenses: the 200mm f/2.0 and the 400mm f/3.5. Both are capable of incredible imaging, since both were made during an era of craftsmanship in photographic manufacturing unmatched by any today.

As this player prepares to round his way toward home, I had to follow him with the focus as he ran.
As this player prepares to round his way toward home, I had to follow him with the focus as he ran.

I don’t use these lenses as often as I think I should, and the reason is simple: they don’t have autofocus. I shoot a lot of sports, and autofocus, especially the very precise and fast autofocus in my Nikon D2H cameras, is a problem solver. Select the center sensor as your starting point and bam! Instant focus.

With these two manual focus gems, though, I am the focus mechanism, and I take a little pride in the notion that after 15 years of using autofocus, I can still focus, shoot, and chew gum at the same time.

There are a lot of techniques for managing focus manually, but the main means are follow focus, which, like it sounds, is where you follow the action and focus continually as it moves, and pre-focus, where you try to predict where the action will happen and set your focus to that point.

Both have advantages, and both have drawbacks. If you have a pretty good eye and decent hand-eye coordination, follow-focus keeps pace with what’s happening on the field, whether it’s a runner storming down the baseline in baseball, or a basketball forward driving to the goal.

The author wields his 1980s-era 400mm recently.
The author wields his 1980s-era 400mm recently.

Pre-focus works really well for sports in which players start or stop at a specific location. For example, all batters in baseball start in the batter’s box, and all basketball action ends up in the vicinity of the basket. Pre-focusing on areas like that can produce very impressive results.

A friend of mine in the Houston area sometimes shoot Houston Rockets basketball, and prior to the game he mounts a camera behind the glass of the backboard on the court. He pre-focuses his lens on an area just in front of the edge of the basket, since allowing the autofocus to operate while he is away from his camera would be unreliable. He then shoots with the camera using a remote release.

Most of the time when I pre-focus I remain ready to follow focus. For example: I will be pre-focused on home plate in anticipation of a runner scoring, aware that the throw might get away from the catcher and allow the other runner to take third base.

Like everything else in photography, manual focusing takes a lot of practice. Many younger photographers might think of it as a dead art, but as long as I want to be able to shoot with some of history’s greatest older lenses, I am keeping my skills, and therefore my photos, sharp.

Using my 400mm, I pre-focused on this batter laying down a bunt. You don't have to concentrate on the player moving when you pre-focus, but it limits you to a small zone of sharpness.
Using my 400mm, I pre-focused on this batter laying down a bunt. You don’t have to concentrate on the player moving when you pre-focus, but it limits you to a small zone of sharpness.

Favorite Images: Portraits

Dorothy and Paul, 2011 (85mm)
Dorothy and Paul, 2011 (85mm)
Lissa and Chloe, 2008 (80-200mm at 120mm)
Lissa and Chloe, 2008 (80-200mm at 120mm)
Abby, 2004 (28-70mm at 70mm)
Abby, 2004 (28-70mm at 70mm)

Building a list of my top five favorite portraits was even more difficult than deciding on my top five travel images. For one thing, my portraiture spans a much longer period, reaching all the way back to the early 1980s. Another factor is that I married a woman, Abby, I consider to be among the most beautiful of all the women I have ever known, and images of her quickly overpopulated my list.

Karen, 2001 (105mm)
Karen, 2001 (105mm)
Abby, 2004 (105mm)
Abby, 2004 (105mm)
Tracy, 2008 (28-70mm at 70mm)
Tracy, 2008 (28-70mm at 70mm)

My portraits have always been of a fairly straightforward style. I realize that there are many hundreds of styles of portraiture in photography, and within those many are an almost infinite number of personal styles. There are also many non-stylized forms of portraiture in the world too, like the pictures you might get made of your two-year-old at Wal Mart’s front-of-the-store studio (at which the “photograpers” are literally trained not to be creative.)

Thea, Jamie, Sarah Jo, and Nicole, 2005 (50mm)
Thea, Jamie, Sarah Jo, and Nicole, 2005 (50mm)
Darlene, 1984 (50mm)
Darlene, 1984 (50mm)

I also make many images of people that I do not consider portraits, because they don’t express anything about the people except how their faces look; studio mug shots, guest speakers behind lecturnes, people making award presentations, etc., as part of my job as a newspaper photographer.

Jamie and Samantha, 2001 (105mm)
Jamie and Samantha, 2001 (105mm)
Beth and Trudy, 2009 (18-200mm at 86mm)
Beth and Trudy, 2009 (18-200mm at 86mm)
Melissa, 2002 (85mm)
Melissa, 2002 (85mm)
Ann, 2009 (18-70mm at 50mm)
Ann, 2009 (18-70mm at 50mm)

One important difference between much of my photojournalism and my portraiture is that in the first, I am trying to capture a moment, and in the second I am trying to capture a spirit. What really makes a portrait for me is capturing something about that spirit of the people I am photographing. For example, an image of a curious child captures something essential about that person. An image of a model for a magazine ad does not. Children are expressing themselves when they play, while models, for the most part, are just doing what they are told.

Russell, 1987 (180mm)
Russell, 1987 (180mm)
Anna, 1983 (105mm)
Anna, 1983 (105mm)

There are a lot of variables. In the end, I’ll say that the spirit I hope to capture is mostly revealed in the eyes of my subjects. They are known as “Windows of the Soul” for a reason, that they are the most emotionally revealing aspect of the human form.

Abby, 2009 (70-200mm at 70mm)
Abby, 2009 (70-200mm at 70mm)

As part of this discussion, I am including lens focal length in the captions, since it can be a significant, though not all-encompassing, factor in the creation of a portrait. You might notice that I tend toward the 85mm to 105mm region when choosing a portrait lens, focal lengths which are often regarded as “classic” portrait lenses, and for good reason. These focal lengths allow us to fill the frame with a human face while doing so at a natural, conversational distance.

Mitchell, 2004 (70-300mm at 105mm)
Mitchell, 2004 (70-300mm at 105mm)
Kristina, 2002 (18-200mm at 200mm)
Kristina, 2002 (18-200mm at 200mm)
Michelle, 2008 (85mm)
Michelle, 2008 (85mm)

Portraits aren’t always about flattering a subject or making a subject beautiful, although many of my images are of beautiful people. Sometimes they can be about ruggedness, loneliness, suffering, playfulness, sadness, companionship, and on and on. The only real requirement is that we see who is inside.

Kathy, 1988 (35mm)
Kathy, 1988 (35mm)
Abby, 2005 (70-300mm at 105mm)
Abby, 2005 (70-300mm at 105mm)
Masha, 1999 (105mm)
Masha, 1999 (105mm)

As with the travel photos before, I was able to cull this list down only so far, at which point I just couldn’t cut any more. The images collected here are the result after one round after another of editing, deleting, rethinking, etc. The “top five” changed as often as I looked at them. I’ll leave it to you to pick your top five.

Paul, 2011 (50mm)
Paul, 2011 (50mm)
Abby, 2004 (85mm)
Abby, 2004 (85mm)
Hershel, 2004 (24mm)
Hershel, 2004 (24mm)
Abby, 2003 (105mm)
Abby, 2003 (105mm)

 

Tech Pan and the Great Grainlessness Quest

Long before the digital revolution, my friends and I struggled to find the ideal way to express our photographic vision using film. Film was a fickle mistress at best, since it took a fair amount of finesse plus a huge amount of memorization to utilize film.

A lot of photographers in the film era settled on a favorite film. My grandfather used nothing but Kodachrome. Another friend of mine used nothing but Fujichrome Velvia.

This was the first frame I ever shot using Technical Pan Film, of water running in a stainless steel film developing tank. It was a dazzlingly sharp and grainless shot that was completely uninteresting.
This was the first frame I ever shot using Technical Pan Film, of water running in a stainless steel film developing tank. It was a dazzlingly sharp and grainless shot that was completely uninteresting.

I, on the other hand, was very much into black-and-white. When the mood strikes, I still gravitate toward the simplicity and elegance of a grayscale image. To that end, I worked with a lot of different black-and-white films over the years. I tried AgfaPan APX100, Ilford’s 400 and 1600 films, and even the occasional NeoPan 400.

In the end, I kept coming back to Kodak films. I never loved the tone I got from Pan-X or Plus-X, preferring the tonal range of the ever-forgiving Tri-X, a 400-speed film, but at the cost of a fair amount of grain. For a while I was souping my Tri-X in Microdol-X, a supposed fine grain developer. In terms of tonal quality and utter forgiveness of exposure errors, I loved Kodak’s Verichrome Pan Film, which was only available in 120 size.

It was with all these variables in mind that my photographer friends and I were pretty excited when, in the early 1980s, Kodak introduced Kodak Technical Pan Film. Developed as a lithographic film (meaning that it was not a continuous-tone film, but pure blacks and white only) for industrial uses, Kodak introduced with the film it’s own developer, Technidol, a compensating developer that allowed the film to be used for full-tone imaging. When processed in Technidol, Tech Pan was rated at about ISO 25, but promised to have the grain and resolution of large format image, like a 4×5-inch view camera makes, from a 35mm camera.

We eagerly loaded up and … uh, what now? The immediate problem was that anything in our regular photographic pantheon we wanted to shoot required 400 speed or higher film. To use Tech Pan, we had to make up stuff to shoot. That, of course, resulted in super-sharp, super-fine-grained images of our desk lamps. Then we discovered just how difficult it was to print this film, which was manufactured on a super-thin Estar-AH plastic base, which showed absolutely every speck of dust no matter how clean we kept our darkrooms.

In the end, I wasn’t really able to integrate Tech Pan into my work flow. In total, I doubt I shot more than ten rolls of it. Once in a while we found a legitimate use for it, but by then the film and/or the developer had expired, and had to replaced before we could shoot. I have maybe five memorable images made with Technical Pan Film.

This is one of the very few legitimately interesting images I made on Technical Pan Film, in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma in about 1984.
This is one of the very few legitimately interesting images I made on Technical Pan Film, in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma in about 1984.

Favorite Images: Travel

Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, November 2003. I love this image for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it evokes memories of a great trip to a compelling and mysterious place. Still, it's not in the top five.
Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, November 2003. I love this image for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it evokes memories of a great trip to a compelling and mysterious place. Still, it's not in the top five.
R. E., Needles Overlook, Hatch Point, Utah, April 2011.
R. E., Needles Overlook, Hatch Point, Utah, April 2011.

My friend R. E. called me from San Diego the other day. He was selling a few of his fine art photographs at an arts festival. It was somewhat impromptu on his part, so he only had five images for sale. As we talked, he posed the question, “What are your five favorite images?”

The Very Large Array, Magdalena, New Mexico, September 2000; I have been to the VLA on two other occasions, but never found better light; this one didn't make the coveted top five list.
The Very Large Array, Magdalena, New Mexico, September 2000; I have been to the VLA on two other occasions, but never found better light; this one didn't make the coveted top five list.
Gypsum dunes and grass, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, April 2003; I had this area of the park to myself, and as the sun set, I made a number of images that told the story. Still, this didn't make the top five.
Gypsum dunes and grass, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, April 2003; I had this area of the park to myself, and as the sun set, I made a number of images that told the story. Still, this didn't make the top five.

Wow. Five. I’m not sure I could even get down to five categories. Nevertheless, in an effort to answer the challenge, I have been digging though my Image Archive hard drive as I write this. Since it is fairly unlikely I could get this down to five images from everything I’ve shot (I’m a professional photographer, after all), I’ll make this my first installment: travel photos. It still won’t be easy.

I should also add that a list like this is likely to change on an almost daily basis, and there are literally thousands more images I could sneak in here that I feel would be just as worthy. All of these images appear in our travel blog, The Traveller.

Capulin Volcano, New Mexico, July 2004; I made this image right after a thunderstorm moved through the area. Great lines, evocative colors, but not in the top five.
Capulin Volcano, New Mexico, July 2004; I made this image right after a thunderstorm moved through the area. Great lines, evocative colors, but not in the top five.
Clouds over the San Rafael Reef, Utah, prior to sunrise, October 2008; like a lot of my images, this one was an "I have to stop and shoot this" picture on my way from one place to another. Though it is unusual and strikingly beautiful, it didn't make the top five.
Clouds over the San Rafael Reef, Utah, prior to sunrise, October 2008; like a lot of my images, this one was an "I have to stop and shoot this" picture on my way from one place to another. Though it is unusual and strikingly beautiful, it didn't make the top five.

I created an entry similar to this two years ago, when I saw a blog entry by Los Angeles photographer and friend Tom Clark called “Eleven Images.” It inspired me, but I was only able to cull down to fifteen of my own images at the time.

Devil's Hall trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, November 2006; this image gets a lot of ooas and aaahs when I show it to my students, and it certainly is beautiful, but it's not quite a top five image.
Devil's Hall trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, November 2006; this image gets a lot of ooas and aaahs when I show it to my students, and it certainly is beautiful, but it's not quite a top five image.
This is the most recent image of the bunch; Las Vegas, Nevada at dusk, October 2011. I keep looking at this image with amazement, yet it didn't quite squeak into my top five.
This is the most recent image of the bunch; Las Vegas, Nevada at dusk, October 2011. I keep looking at this image with amazement, yet it didn't quite squeak into my top five.

I have to say that whenever I look through all these images, no matter the reason, I get very nostalgic about the places and times and moments. I want to go back and do it all again; it was that fun.

Grand View Point, Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, April 2011; I shoot a lot of images here, and this place never fails to amaze me with its beauty. This image, though, didn't have what it takes to move into the top five.
Grand View Point, Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, April 2011; I shoot a lot of images here, and this place never fails to amaze me with its beauty. This image, though, didn't have what it takes to move into the top five.
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, November 2010; this was a good shoot, and yielded many great images like this one. Despite my best efforts, this didn't quite take top five honors.
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, November 2010; this was a good shoot, and yielded many great images like this one. Despite my best efforts, this didn't quite take top five honors.
Sunrise on the Abajo Mountains, Monticello, Utah, October 2006; I shot this from our motel front door as Abby and I were loading the car for our trip home. Amazing, yet not quite in the top five.
Sunrise on the Abajo Mountains, Monticello, Utah, October 2006; I shot this from our motel front door as Abby and I were loading the car for our trip home. Amazing, yet not quite in the top five.

But back to the photos. As I cull, I dismiss most images, even ones I like. The only images I am dragging to my “Top 5?” folder are the ones I see and say, “I love that image!” After looking through all my travel photos from all our trips in the past 25 years, I got down to 28 images that I “love.” Hmm. It looks like I’ll have 23 honorable mentions.

Clearing thunderstorm with mammatocumulus clouds, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, July 2005; this has a big "wow" factor, yet still doesn't climb into the top five.
Clearing thunderstorm with mammatocumulus clouds, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, July 2005; this has a big "wow" factor, yet still doesn't climb into the top five.
Abajo Mountains and ranch from near the Utah-Colorado border, March 2004; Michael Zeiler and I stopped to shoot this on our way from Farmington, New Mexico to Moab, Utah, and promptly got his Honda Element stuck in mud from snowmelt. Despite the hardship and the beauty of the moment, not a top five contender.
Abajo Mountains and ranch from near the Utah-Colorado border, March 2004; Michael Zeiler and I stopped to shoot this on our way from Farmington, New Mexico to Moab, Utah, and promptly got his Honda Element stuck in mud from snowmelt. Despite the hardship and the beauty of the moment, not a top five contender.
U. S. 60 and Ladron Peak, New Mexico after sunset, April 2006; this was one of the loneliest places I ever photographed, and I hope that is conveyed by the image. Still, it didn't break into the top five.
U. S. 60 and Ladron Peak, New Mexico after sunset, April 2006; this was one of the loneliest places I ever photographed, and I hope that is conveyed by the image. Still, it didn't break into the top five.
Sunset, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, July 2005; I love the leading lines and textural exploration offered by this image, but it's still not a top five member.
Sunset, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, July 2005; I love the leading lines and textural exploration offered by this image, but it's still not a top five member.
Dead tree and sky, Arches National Park, Utah, October 2004; my wife thinks this tree looks like a bird of prey. Great lines and light, not quite top five.
Dead tree and sky, Arches National Park, Utah, October 2004; my wife thinks this tree looks like a bird of prey. Great lines and light, not quite top five.

If you’ve read this far, you probably realize that in spite of my quippy captions, all of these images warrant consideration. I am proud of the work I have created in my travels over the years, as proud as I am of the vast cadre of images I have provided as a news photographer. It is immensely satisfying, and it adjudicates all the hours of devotion, from the early days in the darkroom trying to get a decent black-and-white print, to all those long, lonely hikes in the wilderness that didn’t really offer any imaging potential, to the times I skimped and saved to afford photo gear.

Sunset, Fiery Furnace, Arches National Park, Utah, October 2010; the light changed about as fast as this sentence: "nice, nicer, beautiful, spec-freaking-tacular." Even so, it didn't make the top five.
Sunset, Fiery Furnace, Arches National Park, Utah, October 2010; the light changed about as fast as this sentence: "nice, nicer, beautiful, spec-freaking-tacular." Even so, it didn't make the top five.
David Martin and I were almost drowned by a flash flood less than an hour before I made this image of sunset at Big Bend National Park in Texas, March 2007. This one came close to the top five.
David Martin and I were almost drowned by a flash flood less than an hour before I made this image of sunset at Big Bend National Park in Texas, March 2007. This one came close to the top five.
This image on the Grand View Point trail at Canyonlands National Park, Utah, October 2008, combines compelling lines and telephoto compression to express the vastness of the desert. It was also a close contender for the top five.
This image on the Grand View Point trail at Canyonlands National Park, Utah, October 2008, combines compelling lines and telephoto compression to express the vastness of the desert. It was also a close contender for the top five.
Sunset at Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, October 2005; I got married at Delicate Arch, and my wife and I return to photograph it often. In spite of this, there are many, many great images of this icon of the southwest by many great photographers. One reason I am partial to this image is my closeness to the subject. Still, it didn't quite make the top five.
Sunset at Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, October 2005; I got married at Delicate Arch, and my wife and I return to photograph it often. In spite of this, there are many, many great images of this icon of the southwest by many great photographers. One reason I am partial to this image is my closeness to the subject. Still, it didn't quite make the top five.

Often when I read top five or top ten or top 25 lists, like of movies or CDs or books, I find myself strongly disagreeing with editor’s choices. That is certainly your prerogative as you read this. If you think one of these images belongs somewhere else, or you have seen an image on The Traveller you think belongs here, let me know. I might have overlooked something wonderful.

Sunrise through door, Gallo Cliff Shelter, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, November 2009; if you haven't been to Chaco, plan a camping trip and spend a few days. It is one of the quietest, most contemplative places I have ever been. This image, though, still didn't make the top five.
Sunrise through door, Gallo Cliff Shelter, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, November 2009; if you haven't been to Chaco, plan a camping trip and spend a few days. It is one of the quietest, most contemplative places I have ever been. This image, though, still didn't make the top five.
Sunset on Candlestick Tower, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, October 2008; images like this go deep, both visually and metaphorically. This one, however, just fell short of being a top five image.
Sunset on Candlestick Tower, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, October 2008; images like this go deep, both visually and metaphorically. This one, however, just fell short of being a top five image.
U. S. 163 looking south toward Monument Valley, Utah, October 2006; everyone who has approached Monument Valley from the north has this image. It's an American classic, and this one is mine. That doesn't, however, make it a top five contender.
U. S. 163 looking south toward Monument Valley, Utah, October 2006; everyone who has approached Monument Valley from the north has this image. It's an American classic, and this one is mine. That doesn't, however, make it a top five contender.

Finally, here are the top five images, not in any particular order:

Power lines and U. S. 380, New Mexico, April 2006. I made this image one early morning driving from Socorro, New Mexico to see the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested. Leading lines, hypnotic light, and the vast desert put this image in the top five.
Power lines and U. S. 380, New Mexico, April 2006. I made this image one early morning driving from Socorro, New Mexico to see the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested. Leading lines, hypnotic light, and the vast desert put this image in the top five.
Sky before sunrise, U. S. 666, western New Mexico, November 2002. My friends and I were up early to drive from Gallup to Moab, Utah, when we saw this. I was itching to shoot something, and I know I had something good, but I had no idea at the time it would work out this well.
Sky before sunrise, U. S. 666, western New Mexico, November 2002. My friends and I were up early to drive from Gallup to Moab, Utah, when we saw this. I was itching to shoot something, and I know I had something good, but I had no idea at the time it would work out this well.
In my many visits to Grand View Point at Canyonlands in Utah, I have never seen it as clear as it was on this evening in March, 2004. The detail and expression of vast distance in this image is simply amazing.
In my many visits to Grand View Point at Canyonlands in Utah, I have never seen it as clear as it was on this evening in March, 2004. The detail and expression of vast distance in this image is simply amazing.
Though often photographed, the Green River Overlook at Canyonlands never ceases to amaze me. I made this image in October 2008.
Though often photographed, the Green River Overlook at Canyonlands never ceases to amaze me. I made this image in October 2008.
Of all my images of the American southwest, this one of a mission graveyard south of Farmington, New Mexico in November 2003 might be the most evocative and provocative. It brings a human element into landscape elements, and always reminds me why I love to make pictures.
Of all my images of the American southwest, this one of a mission graveyard south of Farmington, New Mexico in November 2003 might be the most evocative and provocative. It brings a human element into landscape elements, and always reminds me why I love to make pictures.

Adobe Photoshop’s Photomerge Function

This Hoover Dam fisheye image was one rendering of the scene. I also had success shooting this as a two-panel panorama.
This Hoover Dam fisheye image was one rendering of the scene. I also had success shooting this as a two-panel panorama.

While there are several software suites available to create panoramic images from multiple frames, the one I use is Adobe Photoshop’s photomerge function. The reason is simple: I have Photoshop. I don’t make that many panorama shots, so I don’t feel the need to spend more money or clutter my workflow with another piece of software.

Panorama photography, like high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, is useful only very occasionally, and has the potential to be the overused tool in the toolbox. Applied sparingly, however, it can add to a portfolio of images in some situations.

One recent situation in which I utilized this tool was when photographing Hoover Dam. I have some very wide-angle lenses, including a 10-17mm fisheye, but on the day we visited, the lenses alone weren’t quite cutting it.

This is the left-side image of the Hoover Dam panorama.
This is the left-side image of the Hoover Dam panorama.

To make the images from which you will later construct your panorama only requires that you keep your horizon in roughly the same place in all the frames, and that you include a small amount of overlap between them. I usually use just two or three frames for my panoramas, but you could use as many as you want to achieve up to and including a 360˚ image.

This is the right-side image of the Hoover Dam panorama.
This is the right-side image of the Hoover Dam panorama.

To use the photomerge function, you simply select the images you want to combine in Adobe Bridge, select Tools>Photoshop>Photomerge… from the dialog, and let it go to work. There are some options, but the automatic selection works pretty well. If your images aren’t in order from left to right, you need to rename them in alphabetical order so Photoshop tries to put them in the right place. Also, if the images aren’t closely-aligned enough, Photoshop will give you an error message. If this happens, try using another blending method in the photomerge dialog.

In the examples shown here, you might note my hand at the top of the frames, particularly in the right-side panel. The sun was right above the river to the south, and giving me a massive flare, even with the excellent lens hood provided with my Tokina 12-24mm. Removing my hand from the top of the frame was easy, using a combination of the rubber stamp tool and the spot healing brush.

I made some 10mm fisheye frames from this same spot, and while they include much of the same scenery, the panorama has a very different feel to it.

This two-panel panorama of Hoover Dam looks downriver from the center of the dam. (Click, then click again, to see the image larger.)
This two-panel panorama of Hoover Dam looks downriver from the center of the dam. (Click, then click again, to see the image larger.)

Bright and Dark, Colors and Greys

There is a pretty good monitor calibration program built into Apple's Macintosh operating system.
There is a pretty good monitor calibration program built into Apple's Macintosh operating system.

A former student of mine emailed me this the other day: “I have taken you class and really enjoyed it. I have two questions. First when I view pictures on my laptop (HP) in CS5 they look good, I will lighten and darken then I go to print and they will not be the same color.  Is there a program or something I can put on my laptop to show true colors that I will get when I print? Second I was out this weekend and saw a beautiful tree all sprawling out, I put focus on a small limb on the tree in front and the tree I was after came out flat or not special.  What should I have focused on to show the mighty of this tree?”

Good questions.

  1. Color management is a significant part of digital image management. An important first step is to calibrate your monitor. If you don’t know how, there’s a nice tutorial here.
  2. Making an image lighter or darker will always have an effect on the way colors are rendered due to complexities in the relationships between color and brightness. With programs like Adobe Photoshop, I am happier when I adjust brightness using the levels dialog, although I also get pretty decent results with the curves dialog. If an image is particularly flat (low in contrast), for example, I take the highlight and shadow sliders in the levels dialog and drag them toward the middle of the histogram. I use the gamma slider more sparingly, since it can induce a lot of noise, especially in the shadows.
  3. Photographing a tree is the same as photographing anything else, in that you need to find a way to use the camera to express what you are seeing or how you are feeling. It’s not always easy, and it can be frustrating when you try to photograph a scene and are unable to translate it into a satisfying photograph. The only real remedy for that is practice. None of us succeed every time we pick up a camera, and we all have tons of failed images. So try not to lose heart and keep shooting and learning.
I love questions like this. It shows me that people really do want to learn how to make better pictures.

Whether it is a giant oak like this one my friend Michael is photographing at Oklahoma University, or a tiny trembling leaf, the final image should express your vision and feelings about the subject.
Whether it is a giant oak like this one my friend Michael is photographing at Oklahoma University, or a tiny trembling leaf, the final image should express your vision and feelings about the subject.

Bright Lights, Big Photos

Abby watches a performance of the famous Bellagio Fountains.
Abby watches a performance of the famous Bellagio Fountains.

My wife Abby and I have just returned from our annual anniversary vacation, our seventh. We usually head west, often to Moab, Utah, where we married. This year, however, we decided to try something different and sample the photographic fruits offered by Las Vegas, Nevada.

Neither Abby nor I gamble, but we both love to take pictures and it had been many years since either of us had been to Vegas.

Photographing the desert City of Lights, or any big city like New York or Chicago or Dallas, is harder than one might realize. It seems like you could just point and shoot your point-and-shoot camera in any direction and get instant results. The trouble is a place as complex and visually stimulating as Las Vegas has a tendency to overwhelm the senses and cloud the photographic eye.

The same rules apply to shooting a big city as apply to most situations.

The lights and traffic on the Las Vegas Strip fill the night with luminosity. It's easy for a camera to underexpose an image like this, yielding nothing but bright lights on a black background, but that misses out on the feel of cities like Las Vegas.
The lights and traffic on the Las Vegas Strip fill the night with luminosity. It's easy for a camera to underexpose an image like this, yielding nothing but bright lights on a black background, but that misses out on the feel of cities like Las Vegas.
  • Wide overview shots tend to bore viewers. If you shoot with a wide angle, try to explore near-far relationships, which will engage the eye and draw the viewer into the image.
  • Get high and low. We all know what a city street looks like from eye level. Show us how it looks from a glass elevator 55 stories up, or from the bottom of a subway station stairs. Keep us interested in your images.
  • Try to shoot when the light is nice. There are some shots you can make in the middle of the day, but for the most part, the best time to shoot a brightly-lit city is at dawn or dusk, when the lights from buildings and signs combine with amber hues of sunrises and sunsets or blue hughes before sunrise and after sunset.
  • If you are photographing your friends or relatives in a place like Las Vegas, try to photograph them engaged in some activity, even one as simple as walking down the street, rather than stopping them and making them pose. Some of my best, most natural images of Abby from last week were of her taking pictures on the street or watching the Bellagio Fountains.

    The angles on the walkways in this image bring the viewer's eye to the center of the image.
    The angles on the walkways in this image bring the viewer's eye to the center of the image.
  • You can do the “Party Pic” group pose if you must, but it shares little about the place you are visiting and the activities you are doing, so consider saving them for the living room when you get home.
  • Use the light from the city itself instead of the flash on your camera. This is especially effective if you have a lens with a large maximum aperture, like the venerable 50mm f/1.8. The flash on your camera will tend to overwhelm objects close by and leave the lights in the distance darker than your eye perceives them, robbing your images of the very “City of Lights” look you are attempting to capture.
  • Don’t let anyone bully you out of taking pictures in a public place (unless it puts you in danger). Public streets and the things that happen on them in plain view are not generally protected by privacy laws (the so-called “reasonable expectation of privacy’). If a security guard tells you you can’t photograph his building from a public street, he’s not only wrong, he’s interfering with your rights as a citizen. (If you are on private property, however, it is a very different matter.)
  • Abby and I saw a lot of people taking pictures and videos with their smart phones, but considering their limitations, I would recommend something more capable. A consumer-priced digital SLR is enough to photograph the bright lights and big city, in the right hands.
  • Don’t take any of this advice too seriously. They’re just tips after all. Go have fun.
I spotted this elegant stainless steel planter along a sidewalk at City Center in Las Vegas. Note how the lines from the glass rail on the left side guide to eye to the casino lights in the distance.
I spotted this elegant stainless steel planter along a sidewalk at City Center in Las Vegas. Note how the lines from the glass rail on the left side guide to eye to the casino lights in the distance.

The Way We Shoot Weddings

Wedding photography should evoke memories of the emotions in play at the event, like this playful moment from Abby's daughter's wedding in 2009.
Wedding photography should evoke memories of the emotions in play at the event, like this playful moment from Abby’s daughter’s wedding in 2009.

I am not a wedding photographer by trade, nor is my wife. Once in a while, though, when the occasion calls, she and I will join together and shoot a wedding, like when Abby’s daughter got married in 2009, or last night when two friends of ours wed in Ada’s Wintersmith Park. On other occasions, I have teamed up with other photographers, like the time Michael Zeiler and I shot a traditional Jewish wedding (my first) for a friend of his, or Robert Stinson. Michael and Robert were, by the way, among the many photographers who shot our wedding in 2004.

Regardless of the combination of photographers, the way we shoot weddings is essentially the same way I shoot everything else: photojournalistically. Not only is my strength in photojournalism, I feel that it represents the events and emotions in play at weddings. Other photographers might not agree, and certainly there are other styles, many more formal, for shooting weddings. But when I am at these events, in my head I am “covering” the wedding.

In this image of Abby's from last night's beautiful ceremony in Wintersmith Park, you can see me in the background; shooting from two very different perspectives in one of the strengths Abby and I bring to event photography.
In this image of Abby’s from last night’s beautiful ceremony in Wintersmith Park, you can see me in the background; shooting from two very different perspectives in one of the strengths Abby and I bring to event photography.

Abby works the same way, and like when we hike and shoot together in the wild, we fill in each other’s gaps nicely. The fact that we are roaming around shooting in this style also keeps us out of the trap of being micromanaged by some major player at the wedding, often the mother of the bride, who feels she knows more about photographing her daughter’s wedding than anyone else possibly could. This character, by the way, is a leading reason why many talented photographers don’t like to shoot weddings.

Abby and I had a great time shooting our friends wedding last night. Though we were not the official, paid photographer, I feel that the images we made will stand as some of the best from the evening.

I made this image when working with Michael Zeiler at a traditional Jewish wedding in Oklahoma City; surely this will evoke more vivid memories for everyone than an image of this man posing for the camera.
I made this image when working with Michael Zeiler at a traditional Jewish wedding in Oklahoma City; surely this will evoke more vivid memories for everyone than an image of this man posing for the camera.

Why Fine Art Photography?

Matthew White, a talented news and sports photographer from Houston, and I just spent some of the Labor Day weekend shooting, both cameras and firearms. He is quite skilled with both. One thing we discussed, and not for the first time, is why I am interested in fine art photography. He is not, yet I sense in him a great curiosity about why we who shoot fine art images are interested in it and why we like it.

Animated and energetic, Matt talks about his recent photographic adventures Saturday night.
Animated and energetic, Matt talks about his recent photographic adventures Saturday night.

My answer is, ultimately, I don’t know.

I will say that there is something inside every artist that drives us to explore our craft. I know that’s true for Matthew too, but in a different direction. He shoots a lot of technically challenging subjects, and honing his skills at that is driven by the desire, like all of us who truly believe in our crafts, toward perfection.

Maybe inside the fine art photographer is a desire to shoot an ever-widening cadre of subjects and the way we render those subjects. It’s an exciting moment to see something we’ve seen a hundred times and then see it for the first time, in a way that we can make it into a compelling image. I experienced that this morning as I was making breakfast from the lovely home-grown hen’s eggs Abby’s co-worker sends home for me. I have eaten dozens of these eggs, and while I photographed them on several occasions, it hadn’t occurred to me until this morning as I cracked the first one how beautiful and complex the shells looked after I poured the contents into a mixing bowl. I literally ran into the other room and grabbed a camera with my 100mm macro lens on it, while my onions were sautéing, to shoot these shells. I set them on the windowsill and the light was just right.

In the middle of our conversation Friday night, Matt told me that he and Michelle passed several handsome old barns on their drive here from Houston, but that he just “didn’t get” why anyone would stop to photograph them. I smiled to myself when he said that because earlier in the week I had done exactly that, though with disappointing results (the sky was too bright and wasn’t yielding to my efforts to get some tone in it, so I put it on my “go back” list.)

In the end, the pursuit of any endeavor is, of course, a very personal one, particularly if we are emotionally invested in that endeavor. For me as the years have passed, I have tried to expand my photographic vision and the way I communicate that to my audience, and it has borne results both tangible and intangible.

The fine lines of the cracks in these broken egg shells form a visual puzzle a bit like a map, something that was new in my photographic pantheon.
The fine lines of the cracks in these broken egg shells form a visual puzzle a bit like a map, something that was new in my photographic pantheon.

Update: The Barber Peak Experiment

I am reenergizing this after a dormancy period. Please consider participating. I had a lot of fun with these two new images…

Magnetic Field of Dreams
Magnetic Field of Dreams
Another Five Billion Years or So
Another Five Billion Years or So
This is the original image, scanned from a 35mm negative. Click it, then click it again to download the full-sized version so you can edit it.
This is the original image, scanned from a 35mm negative. Click it, then click it again to download the full-sized version so you can edit it.

It stared in 2000, on a trip called The Shooting Spree. Coming south out of Farmington, New Mexico, just after sunset, I saw the moon rising to my left. As I moved along, I saw a handsome peak ahead, Barber Peak, and stopped to photograph the moon rising behind it. At the time, I was mostly shooting black-and-white film, and didn’t have all that much experience with shooting the night sky in the desert. I made three exposures at about f/8, of 30 seconds, one minute, and 90 seconds. With the ISO 32 film I was using, all three frames ended up too thin (that’s filmspeak for underexposed or underdeveloped), and the best of them, made at 90 seconds, doesn’t print or scan very well.

I still thought it was a seminal moment, and, after some ponderance, decided to play around with it in Photoshop, and share it with a few friends and see what they could make of it. I got some interesting results.

My readers are welcome to download the full-size version by clicking on the thumbnail at left, then clicking that image to get to the full-sized file, then saving it to your hard drive. When you are done editing it, email the result to me  at groups@richardbarron.net and I will post it here.

Here are the results of the first round of efforts, including a couple of my own, which were quite amusing. They might give you some ideas about what you’d like to do with this image…

Sunmoon Synchronicity
Sunmoon Synchronicity
Six Prints None the Richer
Six Prints None the Richer
Image by Brenda Wheelock
Image by Brenda Wheelock
Image by Michael D. Zeiler
Image by Michael D. Zeiler
Image by R. E. Stinson
Image by R. E. Stinson

When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best

At our newspaper and magazine, as well as at home, a lot of images pass through my hands, including a lot of images that are emailed to me. Much of the time the images are correctly formatted and pretty much ready to use, but we still get a fair number of images that are mishandled and need to be fixed, or which either won’t “go through” when emailed or take a longer-than-neccessary amount of time to go through. So here are some tips for sending photos via email, either to us for publication or to your friends and families.

The JPEG quality dialog in Adobe Photoshop. Other programs have similar interfaces for controlling the size of JPEG files.
The JPEG quality dialog in Adobe Photoshop. Other programs have similar interfaces for controlling the size of JPEG files.
  • The best file format for your emailed photos is JPEG. “JPEG” is an acronym for the Joint Photographic Experts Group which created the standard. This format is ideal because it is ubiquitous, meaning every computer in the world built in the last 20 years has a way to read it, and virtually all imaging software can utilize the JPEG. This format allows you to use compression to create computer files that are smaller without having to resize or resample your image. For example, you can take an image file from a 10 megapixel camera, leave the resolution at 10 megapixels, yet create a file for emailing that is just one megabyte or even less. It’s done when saving the file; in Adobe Photoshop, for example, when you use the File>Save as… dialog, the program will ask you to enter a quality value from 0 to 12, and will even tell you how big the resulting file will be. It’s perfectly safe and acceptable to create email image files at quality values of 3 or 4, since the original file will stay on your hard drive anyway. Values lower than that tend to produce excessive compression which results in what are called JPEG artifacts. (Side note: all the images you see in this blog, and most of the images you see on the internet, are JPEGs.)
  • That said, don’t resize your images. In particular, don’t use your camera’s “email” setting for images you intend to send, and don’t use your imaging software’s “email” setting. These settings were optimized to send tiny images, for internet speeds from 15 years ago, when dial-up was all anyone had. These images are much too small to be of any use in any publication.
  • One of the worst choices for emailing is the TIFF file, since it is typically the largest computer file that can represent your photo. For example, a TIFF from a 10 megapixel camera will be about 30 megabytes. Many email systems will reject a TIFF file, or any file, this large. TIFFs have many valid applications, and we use them all the time at the printing end of production, as the files we actually send be printed in our newspaper.

    Too much compression: this file was saved at JPEG quality 0, and exhibits ugly JPEG artifacts.
    Too much compression: this file was saved at JPEG quality 0, and exhibits ugly, sharpness-robbing JPEG artifacts. (Click on the image and then click again to see it bigger.)
  • Once in a while we get images emailed to us that have been converted to CMYK. Normally your camera makes images out of the three colors of it’s sensors, red, green and blue. This creates an RGB image file, and it contains all the color information recorded by your camera. Converting a file to CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) is the very last step you should do prior to printing a photo or page, since your CMYK profile is designed to discard all the colors that can’t be correctly produced with the inks available to your printer. The resulting file has less color information than the original photograph, but since it describes four colors (CMY and K) instead of three (RG and B), the file is actually 25% larger. Also, unless you know the color profile of the printer where you are emailing the photo, you have no way of creating a valid CMYK profile.
  • Some people combine multiple photos into a single package using .zip compression software, and while this does create an overall reduction in email file size, it’s possible that the email recipient might not be able to “unzip” your zip file. It’s better to send two, three, or four emails with just a few JPEGs in them than try to cram it all into a .zip file that might not work on the other end.
  • Often photos sent to us contain large empty areas that are going to be cropped out anyway. (It never ceases to amaze me how many expensive pixels are cropped out of photos every day, in another irony of the megapixel chase). It would probably help reduce your file size if you would crop out all that sky and all that grass from your softball regional championship group photo. Our readers already know what sky and grass look like.

    Too much sky and ground; a publication is going to crop it out when we use it, so why not crop it before you send it to make the file smaller?
    Too much sky and ground; a publication like ours is going to crop it out when we use it, so why not crop it before you send it to make the file smaller?
  • The worst thing of all you can do with your digital image files is to print them out and bring them in to our newspaper or magazine for us to scan to turn them into digital image files. I know that sounds ridiculous, but we see it every day. It’s a little like getting four quarters for a dollar so you can use your quarters to buy a dollar bill, except that with an image, you lose a bunch of quality when you scan a print.

This entry seems to cover the basics of what everyone who uses computers for imaging should know, yet many people still don’t. The bottom line is this: email un-resized, compressed, cropped RGB JPEG files.

Better crop: this is the only part of this image that contains any useful information for the viewer.
Better crop: this is the only part of this image that contains any useful information for the viewer.

Another Happy Accident

This is a lesson to myself about keeping my eyes and my mind open to ideas.

One night some years ago I was trying to make a black-and-whie print of a negative I had made years earlier than that, of our friend Deb Stinson. Those who have printed black-and-white know that despite a number of efforts to use technology to help, nothing worked for determining exposure better than making test prints. On that night, I was attempting to do so with this negative when, as is sometimes the case, the first attempt was seriously overexposed. As it developed in the tray of Dektol (the ubiquitous Kodak print developer), it started turning too fast, then rapidly became too dark.

Another one-of-a-kind image: the portrait of Deb Stinson developed in Dektol and darkroom trash.
Another one-of-a-kind image: the portrait of Deb Stinson developed in Dektol and darkroom trash.

Oops, I thought, and pulled it out of the soup right then without even turning on the lights, throwing it in the trash.

I went about my printing business, making a successful 8×10 of Deb. At some point in the sequence I looked into the trash can and saw the edge this print. Most of it was stuck emulsion-down to another sheet of 8×10, and had been in the trash for some time, being repeatedly exposed to room light, emulsion, and drying, sticky developer. I am unsure of the exact combination of light and soup and kitchen trash bags, but when I saw it, I turned off the lights, peeled it from its partner, washed it thoroughly, then fixed it. When I turned on the lights, the result was mesmerizingly bizarre, a peculiar combination of solarization and undeveloped blank areas.

There is no way I could have created this image on purpose using the equipment and techniques of the day, so I am very glad I let myself be open to this excellent, unconventional “found object” image.

Stained: Experiments of Our Youth

Everyone who wants to become a successful photographer will, at some point, break through the plateau of the learning curve and suddenly start to see more, shoot more, learn more, and experiment more. It’s a natural way that our brains help us accommodate the world around us, and an important way we keep from getting bored or stale with our crafts.

I made the original image that is the subject of this entry when I was in college, creating the dramatic lighting and grim expression in an effort to express my tortured artist teen angst, probably as a counterpoint to all the shallowness around me.

Stained: a darkroom experiment that can never be exactly reproduced.
Stained: a darkroom experiment that can never be exactly reproduced.

The image, I thought, was modestly successful. One night in the darkroom I was printing it. In those days, I often stayed up late to print, since it was the only time I could get the darkroom at the college to myself. I recall that after testing to get my exposure right, I exposed a sheet of 8×10 and slid it into the developer tray, but since I was tired due to the hour, I must have failed to completely immerse the paper in the developer. Upon treating it with fixer and turning the lights on, I discovered my mistake, the result of which was an undeveloped white streak on the corner of the paper that didn’t get immersed.

But then it dawned on me, like it must have dawned on many young, curious photographers in their darkrooms: I could use this to create something interesting. I thought about how to do this for a few minutes, then decided I would douse my fingers in developer, then allow the developer to drizzle from my fingers onto the exposed paper. I would watch as the image developed, then when I saw the effect I wanted, I would move the print to the fixer, where the parts of the print that didn’t get developed would stay white.

The image in the this entry is that effort.

I’m sure there are many ways to accomplish this in the digital age with software like Adobe Photoshop, but for me, in that era, there was a certain irreplaceable ambience of discovery that made this experiment a significant moment in my photographic life.

What Are You Really Photographing?

A group photo of some softball players.
A group photo of some softball players.

My job as a newspaper and magazine photographer is to record and express the lives and times of my community. When I am working in the field, I get a lot of requests, and one I get all the time is for group photos.

The group photo is, in some ways, the refuge of the uncreative and unimaginative, since it is, after all, the easiest photograph to make of an event. People are trained like sheep to lock their knees and grin like zombies, and they are trained like that from the time they can walk.

But what does the group photo really show? Simply, a group photo is a photograph of people posing for a photograph. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it is absolutely true. Group photos don’t convey to the viewer anything useful about the situation.

In the news business, we call the opposite of a group photo a “feature” photo, meaning an image that shows what is actually going on. Ideally, we photographers stay in the background and let the action of what’s going on happen without becoming a part of it. Sometimes we get noticed and become part of what’s going on, which does interfere with the candid nature of the event, but we are not invisible or camouflaged, so we are bound to get noticed. Worst of all, of course, is when the action of a spontaneous moment gets ground to a halt by a photographer who deliberately says to the subjects, “Look at the camera!” or “Smile for a picture.” Those pictures don’t give the viewer a picture of the moment.

Yet this phenomenon is worse than ever before, exacerbated by people with cameras (and by that I mean everyone) who are NOT people with talent or training in capturing the moment. If they don’t stop the moment for their own camera, they often insist on doing it on my behalf, at which point is an awkward moment when I really have no choice but to snap the lame, derivative, completely predicable and emotionless group photo.

In the photo at the top  left of this entry, we see a team that just won a trophy. District, regional, conference, whatever. It doesn’t matter, since the district championship group photo looks exactly the same as the national championship group photo. In the photo below, you can easily see that the same softball team has just won the game of their lives.

Moments earlier, those same softball players won a state championship game, as illustrated by this image.
Moments earlier, those same softball players won a state championship game, as illustrated by this image.

Don’t Fear the Reaper (or the Floppy)

3.5-inch floppy disks typically hold 1.44MB of data
3.5-inch floppy disks typically hold 1.44MB of data

At some point in my class, students ask me how I store my images. My answer is basically always the same: thoroughly. I explain to them that the world of data storage is, unlike film and photographic prints, always in motion. 20 years ago the storage medium for computers was floppy disks. Ten years ago it was Zip© disks. Five years ago it was a mix of  CDs, DVDs, and USB storage. Today, as always, we are faced with trying to sort out which of these media has a future, and which new media will be a smart choice for the future.

My own preference has been to back up my files, be they photo files or other document, on multiple media. Typically my data both at my newspaper and at home gets stored as follows:

  • Two copies on archival-quality CD-Rs (Compact Disk, Recordable), in a full-sized jewel case with the spine labeled so I can find it when stacked with other disks. At work, I burn one each month, and at home I burn when I get to the limit a CD will hold, about 700MB. One key reason I still prefer CDs for my archiving is that once it is created, a CD-R can’t be accidentally erased. I make two copies and store them in two different locations, usually one at home and one at my office.
  • When I get enough CDs to fill a DVD, usually about six, I burn that group onto a DVD. A single-layer DVD will hold about 4.7GB. I don’t believe DVDs are as reliable an archival media as CDs, since DVDs were never designed with the error correction levels of CDs. However, I find that DVDs are fairly reliable, and having all that data on a single disk means spending less time repopulating my hard drive with archived images after a crash.
  • And yes, it is probably inevitable that all hard drives crash, but I keep an “Archive” volume at work and at home, since a big hard drive will allow me to access thousands of image and video files whenever I need them. At work, my computer system bus allows me to have an archival hard drive internally, and at home I have a large external drive. If you think hard drives, even solid-state ones, are just as reliable as CDs, ask yourself this: when was the last time a power surge or lightning strike trashed all the data on a CD?
  • Since I have an Apple computer, I also use a native program called “Time Machine,” which automatically backs up literally everything I do on my Mac every hour. It, too, requires an external hard drive, but if you look, you will find that hard drives are very affordable.
  • I don’t really like the idea of archiving on USB keys (also known as thumb drives), CF cards, SD cards, etc., for two reasons: 1) They can be erased with ease, and 2) They are so small that they are easily lost, and can also easily fall into the hands of strangers.
  • The article I read that inspired this entry suggested that “cloud storage,” which involves uploading your files to a commercial storage site, is a possible answer, but I don’t like that idea except as a second-tier backup, for one reason: that company could go out of business.

If you have data on old media like floppy disks or Zip© disks, all is not lost. It’s already too late for older floppy disks like 5.25-inch and older. While it will soon be too late to migrate other media to modern storage, you still have a chance to preserve that data; now is the time. Get a Zip© drive and a floppy drive on eBay and do it.

Single-layer DVD-R disks hold about 4.7GB of data, or the equivalent of about 3300 3.5-inch floppies
Single-layer DVD-R disks hold about 4.7GB of data, or the equivalent of about 3300 3.5-inch floppies