Christmas is almost here, and that means photography. I recently grabbed some of my favorite lenses to help create these beautiful backgrounds. In some circles, these artifacts are called “bokeh balls,” after the largely misunderstood and over-emphasized feature of the out-of-focus portions of an image. You are welcome to download them and use them as you like.
These images were made with my Fuji X-T10 mirrorless camera and the Nikon 28mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/2.0, 85mm f/1.4, and the 200mm f/2.0.
Fellow journalist Ashlynd Huffman texted me recently asking how to create a silhouette. It occurred to me that it would be worth it to have my own tutorial about it.
Silhouettes are essentially lithographs, and are usually created with a bright background that is correctly exposed, with something underlit or unlit in the foreground that forms a shape without having much detail.
Most of my silhouettes are happy circumstances of natural light, but it doesn’t take a lot to construct one. Throw some light on a background, and leave your foreground figure in the shadows.
If you are shooting in manual exposure mode, move up and down the exposure scale until you get the background about right, and the foreground item, person, or figure, very dark or black.
If you are shooting in an automatic exposure mode like Program, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority, use exposure compensation aggressively to get the look you want. Green Box Mode usually won’t let you control your exposure.
If you are shooting film, bracket: shoot a series of frames at widely different exposure settings.
Silhouettes imply shape and anonymity.
Silhouettes should never take the place of strong narrative, but if used correctly, can contribute to a strong narrative.
I spent an evening this week with some friends old and new at a poetry/fiction reading event at a home here in Ada. Lit by Christmas lights, candles, and camp fires, it really was photography pushed to the edge of all the margins: ISO 6400, aperture f/1.4, shutter speeds down to 1/8th of a second.
I shot it with my Fuji mirrorless and the magnificent Pentax K-Mount 50mm f/1.4. The results are messy in a great way; the chaos and intimacy of the imagery mirrors the chaos and intimacy of the participants and their words.
In recent months, Mac has been curating film photography into her body of work as an aspiring photojournalist, and that has included disposable cameras, 35mm film cameras, medium format cameras, and even toy cameras. Photography with toy cameras is sometimes called lomography.
One thing I showed her while she was here at the office is some of the thousands of 4×5-inch black-and-white negatives we have in our files at The Ada News.
4×5 negatives are about 15 times larger than 35mm film frames, so they potentially contain a tremendous amount of detail. In fact, 4×5 negatives are large enough that they can be printed as contact prints, in which the film is laid directly on the printing paper and exposed to light, skipping the step of putting the film in an enlarger.
If 35mm film is common and medium format film is exotic, 4×5 film is the Wild West of photography.
I’ve never owned a 4×5 camera. I do have a photographer friend, Robert in Tulsa, who has a Burke and James 4×5 field camera. A field camera differs from a view camera in that it uses a viewfinder instead of a focusing hood or cloth. If you have ever seen the movie Flags of Our Fathers, the character of Joe Rosenthal uses a 4×5 field camera to photograph the raising of the second U.S. flag on Iwo Jima.
As Mac and I talked about film photography, she said she’d like to see what I could do with film, and I pointed out that in the very office in which she sat were literally hundreds of thousands of film frames I made during my career, from when I started at The Ada News in October 1988 until about the middle of 2005, when I had enough digital cameras to get the job done, and when the film scanner of 1998 vintage finally died.
I also told Mac that if she gets a chance to use a darkroom in her travels or education, I’d be glad to tag along and throw in my expertise. I’d also extend that invitation to anyone who wants to learn about how a darkroom works. It’s pretty amazing that I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but I can tell you exactly how to process a roll of film.
In my last post, I talked about buying a nice used mirrorless camera and some adaptors so I could experiment with older lenses. It got me thinking about some of the very first images, and very first experiments, I tried.
Ignorance is bliss, and some of my most successful early photographic experiments wouldn’t have happened if an expert had told me why they wouldn’t work. One, for example, is one I tried with a garage-sale Exa camera of 1962 vintage. I was drawn to it by it’s beautifully-made all-metal Exacta removable / interchangeable lens. It was the only lens I had for it, but it occured to me as I watched how the focus mechanism moved the lens farther from the film to focus closer that if I could move it ever farther from the film, I could focus even closer.
In the world of photographic equipment, this is done with a device called an extension tube, which mounts between the camera and the lens. I didn’t have one, and I was 15, so the only money I had was a few bucks from mowing a few lawns, and my allowance. So I decided to put the cardboard core from a used-up toilet paper roll between the camera and the lens. It worked!
Most lenses aren’t designed to focus close, and neither was the 1960s-era Exacta. The images I got have a dream-like softness about them, and are loaded with vignetting, which is darkening of the edges of the frame. The vignetting was so dominant that my mother called the images “vignettes.”
Experimenting with the creative aspects of photography goes so far beyond camera and lens reviews and specifications. Sometimes I can get better, more interesting, more compelling images with a broken camera, a toy camera, or an ancient camera.
The weather and the light has been beautiful the past few days, so I took another crack at the neighbor’s irises. The light on these flowers filters through some trees, so it flashes in and out with the wind and the movement of the sun. The wind also blows the flowers around, so the whole thing is an exercise in patience. Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro.
I also wanted to try to make pictures with a photographer friend of mine using a couple of ancient process camera lenses, but ended up making some fairly creative images of them instead of with them. Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro.
Come rain or come shine, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, quarantined or not, I walk our Irish Wolfhound Hawken and our Chihuahua Summer. Of course, in the current climate of pandemic crisis, walking our dogs in the pastures and the woods away from everyone else is one of the best things I can do. And of course, I always have a camera.
On my work laptop, I use recent images from my news, sports, and feature photos as my screen saver.
My Screen Needs to Be Saved?
For you 21st century people who have no idea what a screen saver is, basically it is part of the operating system of a desktop or a laptop computer that activates when the computer is unused, dimming the screen, showing the time and date, making patterns, or, in this case, showing me a slide show of all the photos in my screen saver folder.
The images scroll past, showing years of events I’ve covered, some of it grim, some of it boring, but most of it was absolutely rippingly fun to cover. I hope I never took those events for granted, and I hope we can return to them one day soon.
In the middle of this, it occurred to me that one of my very favorite things to cover , graduations, won’t be happening at all this spring because of the coronavirus crisis. Nor will proms, spring festivals, sports playoffs, water seminars, pancake frys, quilt shows, wagon rides, land run reenactments, groundbreakings, dedications, food festivals, car shows, arts festivals, parades. Life has ground to a halt.
Neither my wife nor I, nor anyone close to us, is sick, and I am grateful for that, for every day, for every breath.
I just posted a few images here, but there are literally thousands in my files that have stories to tell. I want to keep telling these stories.
By now we all know about the social upheaval connected to the current pandemic. As a photojournalist, I normally cover breaking news, feature news, and sports. Right now, if things were normal, I would probably be shooting two or three baseball games and two or three softball games on typical afternoons.
Oddly, there seems to be a lot less breaking news – fewer car crashes, fewer house fires, fewer stabbings, fewer shootings – than normal, possibly because people are in their homes watching television, or maybe because they have less access to alcohol and drugs.
Last night I worked outdoors, not at a sports event, but because the Ada City Council’s meeting room only holds 10 people with enough space to be safe, so we the public and press watched it on a closed-circuit television just outside. It was a nice night, and I was glad to be outdoors instead of trapped with potential carriers.
The nature of my work is different, too. For one thing, I use my iPhone more, since it is connected to the cloud. The images aren’t as demanding as usual – it doesn’t take much camera power to photograph an empty shelf at a supermarket or a “closed” sign on a restaurant’s dining room.
It’s true that I am really missing covering sports, but that is an indulgence. People are scared. People are sick. Sports can wait. I can wait.
When I was about 16 I saw this movie, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. Dunaway portrays Kathy, a photographer who gets tangled up in the intrigue. In her apartment, Redford, whose character is Joe Turner, looks at some of her images on the walls; deep, rich, low-light black-and-white images. He remarks that the photos aren’t really autumn, but they aren’t really winter. They are in between – November.
Kathy: Sometimes I take a picture that isn’t like me. But I took it so it is like me. It has to be. I put those pictures away.
Joe Turner: I’d like to see those pictures.
Kathy: We don’t know each other that well.
Joe Turner: Do you know anybody that well?
Kathy: I don’t think I want to know you very well.
This scene made a huge impression on the early years of my own photography.
It seems like an obvious truism that light and shadow are essential to every image, and that every scene looks a little different with variations in light. But compare the images in this entry with a couple of images in the previous entry, “Keep Your Eyes Open,” to see how profoundly this is true.
Sometimes very beautiful photographs happen unexpectedly before our eyes. Such a scene appeared before me last night as my wife Abby and I were watching television before my departure to photograph Friday night basketball.
I grabbed a camera, my very old Minolta DiMage 7i of 2002-vintage, that I felt might help express what I was seeing, a rather remarkable moment of purple, pink and orange sky and land just at sunset. I’ve been shooting sunsets with the Minolta since 2002, and despite its obsolescence, I still turn to it for something intangible I like about the images it makes.
The salient point of this post, though, is to remind everyone who wants to make better images to stop the car, mute the tv, put down the phone, and go make the picture.
So we have all been around the block about “bokeh.” It is firmly entrenched in the photographic lexicon, and recently, I have been seeing many posts and videos that cite, “incredible dreamy quality.”
Could it be that simple? Is the goal of some of our photography to evoke dreams? Is that what I was seeking when I bought an amazing, beautifully-made AF-D Nikkor 85mm f/1.4? I have been experimenting with this “quality” using this lens. I also attempted to bring that “quality” to some of my images on our anniversary vacation last October using my AF-S 50mm f/1.4.
I will have more thoughts on this. What would you like to know or add to the discussion?
For some time now, I’ve been intent on making a preliminary attempt at focus stacking. It’s not critical to my work, but I often think I should add as many tools as I can to my photographic toolbox. I’m already pretty good with High Dynamic Range (HDR), which is a form of exposure stacking, so focus stacking seemed like the next move.
Stacking is a way to blend more than one image. Focus stacking is blending several images, each of which is focused at a different point. The idea is to use sharp portions of each image to create a new image with more in focus. This can be useful for landscapes that have compositional elements at locations both very close to the camera, and very far from the camera, but it is an exceptional tool when it comes to macro photography of very, very small objects, in which focus ranges are so close that depth-of-field is razor thin.
The basic process is to import images of different focus areas into Photoshop, then tell Photoshop to blend them. You can put it into search engine to find a step-by-step, which is what I did. It wasn’t at all difficult.
For this attempt, I made one image for every rifle cartridge in the image, moving focus from one to the next.
This is my first try, and it’s incredibly rough. Obviously I need to read more about how to finesse this technique, and I need to practice. There are many more applications available in addition to Photoshop, but I have Photoshop as part of my Adobe Creative Suite, so it seemed like a good place to start.