A Vanishing Skill: Manually Focusing a Lens

A tiger swallowtail butterfly harvests nectar from blossoms on one of my cherry trees recently.
A tiger swallowtail butterfly harvests nectar from blossoms on one of my cherry trees recently.

I possess an increasingly rare skill: being able to focus a manual-focus lens.

In today’s autofocus-saturated world, this skill is particularly hard for younger photographers to appreciate. The truth is that for the first 20 years of my career, I neither had autofocus, nor did I need it. And to this day, I have several extraordinary manual focus lenses that I can manually focus swiftly and precisely. I bring them out once in a while to keep my game and my eye fresh.

I would urge anyone getting into digital SLR or mirrorless photography to learn to manually focus. There are times when you can’t convince a camera’s autofocus system to focus where you want, and there may be times when you use non-autofocus cameras. It’s a valuable skill.

Last summer I bought a Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera specifically to breathe new life into all manner of older manual-focus lenses, and that has been very rewarding.

I recently photographed some tiger swallowtail butterflies harvesting my cherry trees. The lens I had with me was my newest acquisition, the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 AIs Nikkor of early 1980s vintage. Manual-focus zoom lenses are harder to focus than prime (non-zoom) lenses, since they tend to have smaller maximum apertures (thus, less-bright appearance in the viewfinder), and the focus throw (the amount you need to turn the focus ring) tends to be longer to accommodate different zoom settings.

Honestly, the challenge of focusing like I did in 1988 adds a layer of stress to shooting, but it also feels like the task is awaking and retraining my old skill.

Finally, my young friend Mac borrowed my blooming cherry trees for a photo shoot recently, and she shot digital and film, the film camera being an Olympus of 1980s, pre-autofocus vintage. She expressed a definite liking for the old camera and the technique required to focus it.

Mac Crosby makes pictures in my orchard last week, moving freely from an autofocus digital camera to a manual focus film camera.
Mac Crosby makes pictures in my orchard last week, moving freely from an autofocus digital camera to a manual focus film camera.

Conflict: The Essence of Sports Photography

The Allen Lady Mustangs and the Stonewall Lady Longhorns tangle in a game last week in Stonewall. As you can see, the competition can get pretty physical.
The Allen Lady Mustangs and the Stonewall Lady Longhorns tangle in a game last week in Stonewall. As you can see, the competition can get pretty physical.

One of the core goals of sports photography is to capture the moment of conflict, which, by its very nature, is at the heart of athletic competition.

Presently, we are in the heart of the basketball season; finishing the regular season and moving into playoffs.

Capturing the moment of conflict can be elusive. Often inexperienced photographers will shoot dozens or hundreds of frames in a row trying to capture it, the so-called “spray and pray” method, but that usually results in a mess of inconsistent frames and an editing nightmare afterwards.

A better approach is to learn about the sport you are covering, and learn to anticipate when and where the action will happen. With basketball, there are a lot of places to be, but I have a lot of success watching players drive toward the basket, where the other team will try to stop them.

Games without conflict are boring. In this image, the Latta Lady Panthers and the Atoka Lady Wampus Cats tangle.
Games without conflict are boring. In this image, the Latta Lady Panthers and the Atoka Lady Wampus Cats tangle.

There are a lot of camera and lens options for photographing basketball, but in the last couple of years, I’ve been going to my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G. It’s not as versatile as a big zoom, but it’s lightweight, super sharp, and fast to focus. As I get older, the biggest selling point is its weight.

An unwritten rule in photojournalism for my entire career is that we like to have the ball in the photo somewhere. I’ve relaxed that rule somewhat in my photography, somewhat because we can use so many more photos in our newspaper than we could years ago.

I’m also all about faces and expressions, which tell the story better than anything.

Photographing sports is a lot of fun. It gets more fun when we start to get better results.

The Ada Cougars took on Durant recently. You can anticipate the moment of conflict in this image from the player’s body language and facial expressions.
The Ada Cougars took on Durant recently. You can anticipate the moment of conflict in this image from the player’s body language and facial expressions.

Cameras Outpacing Photographers

My friends in the sports community are always glad to see me, and this pose with the Ada Lady Cougars has become a tradition. In fact, this image was made by Ada Lady Cougars head basketball coach Christie Jennings.
My friends in the sports community are always glad to see me, and this pose with the Ada Lady Cougars has become a tradition. In fact, this image was made by Ada Lady Cougars head basketball coach Christie Jennings.

January 2021 has seen some extraordinary developments in camera technology, including the introduction of the 50 megapixel, 30-frames-per-second Sony A1, and the 102 megapixel medium format Fujifilm GFX100S.

It certainly represents interesting times in photography. Numbers like these are an answer where there wasn’t a question: photographers can rightly say they needed more pixels and higher frame rates 15 years ago, when the best cameras sported 8 to 10 megapixel sensors shooting at 5 frames per second. But today, we are adding layers and layers of overkill that most of us don’t really need.

Also of note is that if you started shooting with these hugely powerful cameras, almost immediately you would find that your computer speeds and storage space are presently inadequate. Be ready to buy a bigger, faster computer and tons of cloud storage. This is big data.

A mind-blowing comparison is that the first computer I used professionally at The Ada News would hold about eight images from one of these cameras. Eight.

A recent sales point for cameras like these is the rapidly-expanding video specifications. The most recent spec is “8K,” meaning each video frame is 8000 pixels wide. For me, especially when I see so many people consuming media on very small devices like smartphones, 8K is level after level of overkill. And I know I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: what almost all video needs more than anything else is a good script.

If someone handed one of these cameras, I would certainly give it a day in court, but I would not count on it to improve my photography, which, at this point, can only be improved by building its narrative, not by buying equipment.

All of this circles back neatly to one of the things I write on the board at the start of my Intro to Digital Photography class: “You can’t buy mastery. You have to earn it.”

Another fun tradition in recent years is posing with fellow photographer Courtney Morehead.
Another fun tradition in recent years is posing with fellow photographer Courtney Morehead.

Steal My Balls and Play with Them

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.

@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net

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.

How to Shoot a Silhouette

The annual Parade of Lights in 2014 was a perfect opportunity to create a silhouette.
The annual Parade of Lights in 2014 was a perfect opportunity to create a silhouette.
Ashlynd Huffman wields my 300mm f/2.8 lens at my office a couple of month ago.
Ashlynd Huffman wields my 300mm f/2.8 lens at my office a couple of month ago.

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.

A statue of the icon Southwestern flute player Kokopelli is show normally exposed.
A statue of the icon Southwestern flute player Kokopelli is show normally exposed.
Kokopelli is shown as a silhouette. The only thing I changed was exposure using the exposure compensation feature (the +/-). This image is four full exposure values (stops) darker.
Kokopelli is shown as a silhouette. The only thing I changed was exposure using the exposure compensation feature (the +/-). This image is four full exposure values (stops) darker.

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.

Coaches are silhouetted against a beautiful late-summer sky at a football game in Stratford, Oklahoma.
Coaches are silhouetted against a beautiful late-summer sky at a football game in Stratford, Oklahoma.

Photography in the Margins

A poet recites esoteric verse.
A poet recites esoteric verse.

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.

The evening was quiet and warm, so we mostly sat on the ground to listen.
The evening was quiet and warm, so we mostly sat on the ground to listen.
A friend listens to verse on this warm evening.
A friend listens to verse on this warm evening.
A single light catches the poet, and elements inside my 50mm f/1.4, to create a sense of the rhyme.
A single light catches the poet, and elements inside my 50mm f/1.4, to create a sense of the rhyme.
Mac recites verse, some of which she had never shared before. The light in the upper left corner is the moon.
Mac recites verse, some of which she had never shared before. The light in the upper left corner is the moon.
A camera and a cup of tea sit on a table.
A camera and a cup of tea sit on a table.
The evening began and ended with excellent conversation.
The evening began and ended with excellent conversation.
The fire in the front yard turns to coals as the evening ages.
The fire in the front yard turns to coals as the evening ages.

Large Format is the Wild West of Photography

My ambitious young photographer friend Mac Crosby came by the office earlier this week, at my invitation, so I could lend her a Minolta X-700 and a couple of lenses, as well as a couple of antique 620 cameras. Readers might recall that Mac wrote a neat piece about my wife Abby and me for class last March (link).

Photographer Mac Crosby looks at some of the thousands of 4x5 negatives on file at my newspaper.
Photographer Mac Crosby looks at some of the thousands of 4×5 negatives on file at my newspaper.

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.

I lent my friend and fellow photographer Mac Crosby this Minolta X-700, a 35mm film camera from the late 1980s. I hope she dazzles me with the results she gets with it.
I lent my friend and fellow photographer Mac Crosby this Minolta X-700, a 35mm film camera from the late 1980s. I hope she dazzles me with the results she gets with it.

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.

Three children use a water pump in this image made on 4x5 inch sheet film. The film is from an envelope marked, “Oakman Homecoming, Published Oct. 21, 1954, in weekly.” That means that the children in this image are in their 70s now.
Three children use a water pump in this image made on 4×5 inch sheet film. The film is from an envelope marked, “Oakman Homecoming, Published Oct. 21, 1954, in weekly.” That means that the children in this image are in their 70s now.

Experiments Keep Us Moving Forward

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.

I had a microscope as a kid, and spent a lot of time looking through it at everything from ants to onions. Photographing it with a homemade macro lens yielded very shallow depth of field.
I had a microscope as a kid, and spent a lot of time looking through it at everything from ants to onions. Photographing it with a homemade macro lens yielded very shallow depth of field.

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.

Using my fingertips to hold the lens on the camera with a piece of cardboard toilet paper core between them required some patience.
Using my fingertips to hold the lens on the camera with a piece of cardboard toilet paper core between them required some patience.

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!

This spring of wheat grass grew in the pasture behind our house in Lawton when I lived there in the 1970s.
This spring of wheat grass grew in the pasture behind our house in Lawton when I lived there in the 1970s.

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.

This tiny statue made of corn husks is a representation of my mother and her sister singing together, which was their favorite thing to do.
This tiny statue made of corn husks is a representation of my mother and her sister singing together, which was their favorite thing to do.

That Little Dance Called Creativity

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.

Irises only stay in bloom for a short time in April and early May, so, like my peach blossom six weeks earlier, I made sure to photograph these several times.
Irises only stay in bloom for a short time in April and early May, so, like my peach blossom six weeks earlier, I made sure to photograph these several times.
When irises finish blooming, this is the result.
When irises finish blooming, this is the result.
You can see the momentary splash of sunlight through the trees in this image.
You can see the momentary splash of sunlight through the trees in this image.
While I was photographing flowers, I came across these kid's bikes being taken back by the weeds.
While I was photographing flowers, I came across these kid’s bikes being taken back by the weeds.

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.

Using a tripod in a darkened room, I lighted this with an LED flashlight. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.
Using a tripod in a darkened room, I lighted this with an LED flashlight. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.
The LED flashlight I used to light this has a red setting, which I used in combination with the white LEDs for this image. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.
The LED flashlight I used to light this has a red setting, which I used in combination with the white LEDs for this image. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.
The third attempt at photographing this beautiful process lens, which is older than I am, was made with the LED flashlight again, with a different set of movements while the shutter was open. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.
The third attempt at photographing this beautiful process lens, which is older than I am, was made with the LED flashlight again, with a different set of movements while the shutter was open. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.

The Walk

A branch of immature cherry blossoms reaches for a cloudy sky yesterday. AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 at f/8.
A branch of immature cherry blossoms reaches for a cloudy sky yesterday. AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 at f/8.
Hawken Rifle Trail on the trail today. AF Nikkor 75-300mm f/4-5.6 at f/7.1.
Hawken Rifle Trail on the trail today. AF Nikkor 75-300mm f/4-5.6 at f/7.1.

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.

This tiny peach still has pedals on it from its blossom. AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 at f/8.
This tiny peach still has pedals on it from its blossom. AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 at f/8.

My Screen Saver Is Making Me Yearn

Rebecca Thrailkill, Jayden Janda, and Maria Ruiz-Blanco look at a finished butterfly craft during the Ada Art's Council's Cozy Up with the Arts Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 at Wintersmith Lodge.
Rebecca Thrailkill, Jayden Janda, and Maria Ruiz-Blanco look at a finished butterfly craft during the Ada Art’s Council’s Cozy Up with the Arts Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 at Wintersmith Lodge.

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.

Latta Homecoming King Rylan Schlup and Queen Cheyenne Adair share a laugh during their crowning at Latta School's 100th anniversary celebration Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 at Latta Panther Fieldhouse.
Latta Homecoming King Rylan Schlup and Queen Cheyenne Adair share a laugh during their crowning at Latta School’s 100th anniversary celebration Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 at Latta Panther Fieldhouse.

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.

Ada head basketball coach Christie Jennings and her team cheer as their Lady Cougars fight for a chance to stay alive in regional playoffs last month.
Ada head basketball coach Christie Jennings and her team cheer as their Lady Cougars fight for a chance to stay alive in regional playoffs last month.

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.

A fortunate combination of building layouts, graduation plans, and time of day result in my finding this spot for Ada High School graduations in the last few years. This is last year, 2019, and it was such a beautiful day, a day we won't get to share this year.
A fortunate combination of building layouts, graduation plans, and time of day result in my finding this spot for Ada High School graduations in the last few years. This is last year, 2019, and it was such a beautiful day, a day we won’t get to share this year.

Editing and Tweaking

In the process of adding my trip reports to a paper journal book, I asked Michael (link) to send me any images he had of me from a hiking trip he and I took in 2004, The Confluence (link). You can see his images from the trip on his web site (link). I felt sure he had a few images of me I hadn’t seen, and hoped that if he did, I could add them to the trip report.

Here are the images I added to the report.

Here I make some human shade to see the display on the back of my Minolta Dimage 7i.
Here I make some human shade to see the display on the back of my Minolta Dimage 7i.
Your host makes video of himself near the Delicate Arch Viewpoint.
Your host makes video of himself near the Delicate Arch Viewpoint.
Your host photographs The Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park, Utah. The next frame is the result...
Your host photographs The Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park, Utah. The next frame is the result…
The Fiery Furnace is a labyrinth of stone in Arches National Park, Utah.
The Fiery Furnace is a labyrinth of stone in Arches National Park, Utah.

Workflow Changes

In the fourth quarter of last year, my newspaper moved, and things have been weird ever since. This image shows the old newsroom now that the building has been listed for sale. I worked 31 years in that newsroom.
In the fourth quarter of last year, my newspaper moved, and things have been weird ever since. This image shows the old newsroom now that the building has been listed for sale. I worked 31 years in that newsroom.

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.

This was last night's city council meeting on closed circuit television.
This was last night’s city council meeting on closed circuit television.

Kathy’s Influence

A wooden cross marks a grave of some kind. I found this while walking Hawken, our Irish wolfhound, deep into the woods.
A wooden cross marks a grave of some kind. I found this while walking Hawken, our Irish wolfhound, deep into the woods.
The Fujica ST-605n was my first single lens reflex camera.
The Fujica ST-605n was my first single lens reflex camera.

Abby and I rewatched Three Days of the Condor recently, and enjoyed it immensely.

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.

Snow blows across U.S. 191 near Monticello, Utah.
Snow blows across U.S. 191 near Monticello, Utah.

Same Scene, Different Day

Abby's squirrel statue keeps watch keeps watch during a snowstorm this morning.
Abby’s squirrel statue keeps watch keeps watch during a snowstorm this morning.

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.

Fresh snow blankets furniture on our front porch this morning.
Fresh snow blankets furniture on our front porch this morning.