More from the Mamiya Sekor

The Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 sits in my dressing room today.
The Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 sits in my dressing room today.

Here are a few more images from the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 I recently bought on eBay for just a few dollars, shot on my Fujifilm X-T10 with an M42 screw-mount adaptor.

Hawken Rifle Trail, our Irish wolfhound, enjoys an evening walk.
Hawken Rifle Trail, our Irish wolfhound, enjoys an evening walk.
Marigold color is muted in hazy evening air.
Marigold color is muted in hazy evening air.
Flare creates a dream-like effect on this morning glory vine.
Flare creates a dream-like effect on this morning glory vine.
Wheat grass gently sways in the evening air.
Wheat grass gently sways in the evening air.

The Way They Made Them

Our Rose-of-Sharon bush in the back yard is always a good place to start taking pictures, like this one shot with the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 on my Fuji mirrorless.
Our Rose-of-Sharon bush in the back yard is always a good place to start taking pictures, like this one shot with the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 on my Fuji mirrorless.

Sometimes when we see an old tractor, a restored antique firearm, or even a beautiful old house, an aphorism that sometimes comes to mind is, “They don’t make them like they used to.”

Such a phrase came to my mind when I opened box from eBay recently to find the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 I ordered. As soon as I pulled it out of the bubble wrap, I was amazed by its smooth, slow, well-oiled focus mechanism, it’s heavy-checkered focus ring, and the fact that it didn’t make any sound when I shook it.

As soon as I pulled the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 out of the box from eBay, my wife commented, "It looks brand new." In a way, that's a little sad, because it means this lens was probably stored, not taking pictures, for most of its life.
As soon as I pulled the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 out of the box from eBay, my wife commented, “It looks brand new.” In a way, that’s a little sad, because it means this lens was probably stored, not taking pictures, for most of its life.

I bought this lens as part of an ongoing effort to open a new avenue of photographic creativity and mastery that started with the purchase of a Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera in July, for the expressed purpose of bringing old lenses back to life using various adaptors.

If you are trying to find a lens that that makes pictures with a retro look, this one does the trick. It’s just a teensy bit soft wide open, and has that slightly-ratty bokeh of a lens designed an built by humans, in this case in Japan.

The mechanics and optics in this lens are good, especially considering I paid so little for it.
The mechanics and optics in this lens are good, especially considering I paid so little for it.

Most of the lenses of this era were mechanically sturdy, heavy, all-metal tools that weren’t as good optically as today’s hardware, which, since the early 2000s, have been getting optically better but mechanically more and more plasticky. This helps hold down cost and weight.

We are, however, seeing a reverse in this trend in the latest lenses coming from Sigma, Sony, Nikon, and Fuji, who have discovered a new market for craftsmanship.

The Mamiya Sekor 200mm f/3.5 is an M42 screw-mount lens, and I use it with a cheap pass-through adaptor to mount it on my Fuji. Focus and exposure are entirely manual. Because the M42 mount isn’t very precise, when the Sekor is mounted, the focus scale and the aperture ring face down, and the aperture pin strikes a rim on the adaptor, locking it to the f/stop you pick before mounting it. This is fine with me, since I don’t use the focus scale much, and I got this lens intending to mostly shoot with it wide open, at f/3.5.

This frame is cropped to show about the maximum amount of sharpness I could coax out of this lens, with the help of our Chihuahua, Summer.
This frame is cropped to show about the maximum amount of sharpness I could coax out of this lens, with the help of our Chihuahua, Summer.

F/3.5 seemed to be a tipping point for lenses made in the 1970s, presumably due to manufacturing limits that resulted in diminishing results with larger apertures, as well as a photographic community that is far less obsessed with selective focus and bokeh as it is today.

Being able to focus a lens is a rarer commodity than it was 25 years ago, but it seems to be making a little bit of a comeback with the retro film scene. I look forward to grabbing this lens for all kinds of creative endeavors.

Testing a manual-focus lens on the neighbor's chickens seems like cheating: they are contrasty and spotted and interesting-looking, all of which makes focusing on them easy.
Testing a manual-focus lens on the neighbor’s chickens seems like cheating: they are contrasty and spotted and interesting-looking, all of which makes focusing on them easy.

 

Pinch, Poke and The Mighty Hound

The sun setting behind these Rose-of-Sharon flowers creates a beautiful pallet of haze and flare that helps express the light and the moment.
The sun setting behind these Rose-of-Sharon flowers creates a beautiful pallet of haze and flare that helps express the light and the moment.

I worked outside for a while after walking the dogs last night. We had a very wet spring and summer, so I had let some vines and trees in the back yard get thick and out of control.

Our mighty Irish wolfhound Hawken plopped down in the middle of the elm branches and vine clippings. He even tried to eat a Rose-of-Sharon branch. Wow, he is a gorgeous dog.
Our mighty Irish wolfhound Hawken plopped down in the middle of the elm branches and vine clippings. He even tried to eat a Rose-of-Sharon branch. Wow, he is a gorgeous dog.
The Fuji X-T10 is shown with the Pentax 50mm f/1.4.
The Fuji X-T10 is shown with the Pentax 50mm f/1.4.

Lately I’ve been very much enjoying my new/used Fuji X-T10 with an ancient and very well-used Pentax 50mm f/1.4 on it. This camera/lens combination creates a look that reminds me of older color slides made with older lenses.

After lopping branches and playing tug-of-war with some very beautiful but tenacious vines, the light started to mature, and, as I often do, I grabbed a camera.

I took a minute to walk over the the Nipps' house to photograph Mike's chickens.
I took a minute to walk over the the Nipps’ house to photograph Mike’s chickens.
These two big roosters took a keen interest in my presence.
These two big roosters took a keen interest in my presence.
The vines I trimmed had these tiny purple berries on them.
The vines I trimmed had these tiny purple berries on them.
The Pentax 50mm f/1.4 shot wide open gives me a very painterly look, which expresses the light and the mood of the evening well.
The Pentax 50mm f/1.4 shot wide open gives me a very painterly look, which expresses the light and the mood of the evening well.
This image shows what a bit of a jungle I have allowed to grow in the back yard.
This image shows what a bit of a jungle I have allowed to grow in the back yard.

A Fisheye Surprise

The Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 Fisheye Lens sits in my home studio recently.
The Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 Fisheye Lens sits in my home studio recently.

Two of the things I write on the dry erase board at the start of every Intro to Digital Photography class are…

  1. You can’t buy mastery. You have to earn it.
  2. What can you do to make your camera take better pictures? Wear it out.
The large front elements of the Altura 8mm fisheye and the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye are shown for comparison.
The large front elements of the Altura 8mm fisheye and the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye are shown for comparison.

I’ve got enough great cameras, lenses, lights, filters, computers and software to make images, both for myself and as a professional news photographer.

It might seem strange, then, that once in a while I buy photo gear out of curiosity. My most recent acquisition is the Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 Fisheye Lens. I had rock-bottom expectations since I never heard of Altura, and it didn’t cost much.

The The Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 fisheye lens and the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye sit in my home studio recently.
The The Altura Photo 8mm f/3.0 fisheye lens and the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye sit in my home studio recently.

The Altura was a big surprise.

This Altura 8mm fisheye sits on its lens cap with its hood removed.
This Altura 8mm fisheye sits on its lens cap with its hood removed.

Its build quality is unheard of in modern times. It is constructed of brass and steel. It is heavy. The focus throw is long, smooth and well-damped, reminiscent of lenses made in the 1960s rather than the 2020s. The glass is multi-coated. The aperture ring is smooth and has distinct clicks at whole aperture values.

One reason the Altura is probably so cheap is its totally manual configuration. It has no connection to the camera except being mounted on it. There are no electronics to tell the camera about aperture or focus settings, and there isn’t even an aperture linkage to hold the aperture open during focusing and composing; if you pick a small aperture, the image in the viewfinder is dark.

A good example of how wide a fisheye lens can be is this view of the inside of my Nissan Juke, which is a very small car.
A good example of how wide a fisheye lens can be is this view of the inside of my Nissan Juke, which is a very small car.

Interestingly, picking a large aperture doesn’t seem to be necessary. The lens is sharp at all of its apertures, and depth of field at 8mm is, by it very nature, very deep: everything in front of the lens is in focus.

The large front element of the Altura fisheye lens is quite striking, and could be easily damaged in everyday use. The lens is furnished with a large plastic lens cap.
The large front element of the Altura fisheye lens is quite striking, and could be easily damaged in everyday use. The lens is furnished with a large plastic lens cap.

And there’s a lot in front of this lens. I compared it directly to my 15-year-old Tokina fisheye, which sees 180º corner-to-corner, and found the Altura sees maybe 15º more than the Tokina using a camera with a 15mm x 24mm sensor. Additionally, if you remove the hood, the Altura projects a circular fisheye pattern on cameras with larger 24mm x 36mm sensors.

This is the 180º view of the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye.
This is the 180º view of the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye.
This is the 195º-ish view of the Altura 8mm fisheye.
This is the 195º-ish view of the Altura 8mm fisheye.

The challenge of using a specialized lens like this is putting it to real world use. In the past, my main use for fisheye lenses has been as extreme wide angle lenses, using Photoshop or Lightroom to “unbend” the circular look of the lens. It’s very effective, as you can see in the examples below…

This 2012 view of Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado near Page, Arizona, was made with my widest lens available, the Tokina 12-24mm. Compare it to the next image.
This 2012 view of Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado near Page, Arizona, was made with my widest lens available, the Tokina 12-24mm. Compare it to the next image.
Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado is shown in this April 2015 fisheye view, with the curved line straightened out using Adobe Photoshop.
Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado is shown in this April 2015 fisheye view, with the curved line straightened out using Adobe Photoshop.

I hope to throw this unusual lens into my daily news and sports coverage, and I hope it adds to my narrative in new and different ways.

Olympus Has Fallen

This is also my “Picture This” column for June 27, 2020

A thunderstorm looms over our Nissan Frontier at a turnout on Interstate 40 in New Mexico in 2016. I shot this with my Olympus FE-5020 because it was in my shirt pocket.
A thunderstorm looms over our Nissan Frontier at a turnout on Interstate 40 in New Mexico in 2016. I shot this with my Olympus FE-5020 because it was in my shirt pocket.

Nobody likes cameras better than I do. I like old ones and new ones. I like film cameras and digital cameras. I like cameras of all sorts and brand names.

I wanted a picture of myself in Zebra Slot Canyon at Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument in April 2015, so I handed my Olympus FE-5020 to a fellow hiker.
I wanted a picture of myself in Zebra Slot Canyon at Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument in April 2015, so I handed my Olympus FE-5020 to a fellow hiker.

So no one was sorrier than I was when I learned this week that Olympus is getting out of the camera business.

Olympus, a Japanese camera maker founded in 1939, made a huge name for themselves by making cameras that were very compact. For years, because of this, my wife Abby and I owned and used several Olympus point-and-shoot cameras, and made some great images with them.

Sadly, for the last three years Olympus hasn’t been able to make their camera division profitable. This is despite their impressive Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras and excellent Zuiko lenses. One Olympus camera I have coveted since the day it was introduced is the TG-Tracker, a super-compact point-of-view/action cam that was not only tiny, it was incredibly great-looking. I never needed one, but I recommended it to several people who hoped to buy an action cam.

Photographer Jim Beckel and I photographed a sunrise at Canyonland National Park, Utah, in the spring of 2013. This image was made with my tiny Olympus FE-5020.
Photographer Jim Beckel and I photographed a sunrise at Canyonland National Park, Utah, in the spring of 2013. This image was made with my tiny Olympus FE-5020.
I still have this point-and-shoot camera, the excellent Olympus FE-5020.
I still have this point-and-shoot camera, the excellent Olympus FE-5020.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to sell cameras in a camera-in-smartphone world. My wife and I are examples of why: our current smartphones rival the images we got from our Olympus point-and-shoot cameras from years ago, so we are seldom motivated to bring a point-and-shoot along.

The photography press says that Olympus is selling their camera division to Japan Industrial Partners, but time will tell if their firm will continue to make cameras, or simply liquidate all the assets. It may be true: Olympus has fallen.

Abby and I handed my Olympus FE-5020 to a fellow hiker to make this picture of us at Canyonlands National Park in October 2010.
Abby and I handed my Olympus FE-5020 to a fellow hiker to make this picture of us at Canyonlands National Park in October 2010.

Irises at f/2.0

Irises are my favorite flower. Our neighbors to the west have them in their yard, which were originally planted by Dorothy, my wife Abby’s first mother-in-law when she lived there.

The 85mm is my favorite lens. I made these images this evening.

This two-tone purple is one of my favorite irises. 85mm f/1.4 at f/2.0.
This two-tone purple is one of my favorite irises. 85mm f/1.4 at f/2.0.
This is another variety of two-tone purple iris, which was situated in more direct sun. 85mm f/1.4 at f/2.0.
This is another variety of two-tone purple iris, which was situated in more direct sun. 85mm f/1.4 at f/2.0.

The Yard Session

Years after the Nikon D100 digital camera has been retired from my workflow, it's easy to talk about its shortcomings. Despite those, the D100 actually was able to create beautiful images.
Years after the Nikon D100 digital camera has been retired from my workflow, it’s easy to talk about its shortcomings. Despite those, the D100 actually was able to create beautiful images.

My wife Abby and I have made many great photographs of each other over the years, both at our home in the bucolic splendor of Southern Oklahoma, and on our dozens of road trips over the years.

I bought the Nikon Coolpix 885 in the summer of 2002 as a small alternative to the Nikons I was using professionally at the time. By the time Abby and I had been dating a few months, she had made it her own.
I bought the Nikon Coolpix 885 in the summer of 2002 as a small alternative to the Nikons I was using professionally at the time. By the time Abby and I had been dating a few months, she had made it her own.

One session that stands out among them, and always makes me smile to view and remember, is “The Yard Session.” We shot these images on February 26, 2004 (thanks, EXIF data!) It was a warm late afternoon in our friend Michael‘s front yard in Norman, Oklahoma. The light was beautiful, and I’d asked Michael to photograph us with his Fujifilm Finepix S2 Pro. His images are great, but the ones that stand out and bring us the fondest reminiscences are the ones we made of each other.

Abby photographed me with our Nikon Coolpix 885, and I photographed her with my Nikon D100 with the manual-focus 85mm f/2.0 lens. Because the D100 lacked an aperture indexing ring, it couldn’t talk to manual-focus lenses, so exposure was based entirely using histogram on the monitor on the back of the camera.

Images like this happen organically, often without  planning or effort, and the result is a very natural, telling, intimate photography session.

Looking back on that moment more than 16 years ago, we were young and in love, engaged to be married, and so very happy. I hope these images show that.

In Praise of the “Kit Lens”

Years ago, a fellow professional photographer and I were editing some of our images from a hiking trip from which we had just returned. He looked at me like he wasn’t pleased, so I asked him why.

“Because these were made with a kits lens. They shouldn’t look this good,” he answered.

It’s a bit of professional snobbery to regard inexpensive photographic hardware as bad or undesirable. When we encounter each other, we look down our noses at equipment we perceive as “amateur” gear. That’s a mistake.

The ubiquitous, versatile, lightweight 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 "kits lens" sits on my camera.
The ubiquitous, versatile, lightweight 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 “kits lens” sits on my camera.

For my entire career, I’ve been cultivating a style that usually includes two cameras, one with a telephoto lens, and the other with a wide angle lens. It’s a great one-two punch that many in my profession utilize, one that allows us to be ready to shoot what we need to shoot just by grabbing the camera with the right lens on it for the image.

For years, that wide angle was the excellent 12-24mm f/4 Tokina, a solid performer, but also a bit on the heavy side. I also had an 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 Nikkor that wasn’t a great performer, but weighed less than the Tokina. When, over the past few months, that lens died, I grabbed amn 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Nikkor, the lightest of them all.

If you watch photographers everywhere, you’ll see that this lens or some very similar iteration is easily the most popular glass in the photographic world. Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Sony, and others all have a lens in this class, and for good reason: this lens is sharp, lightweight, affordable, versatile, and fun to use. It’s downsides: they tend to be a bit on the flimsy side, and they don’t have a very large maximum aperture.

This class of lenses earned the moniker “kits lens” because they are often sold as part of a kit from retailers ranging from B&H Photo/Video in New York City to the sales jungle Amazon. Retailers might bundle a digital single lens reflex or mirrorless camera with an 18-55mm, a flash, a tripod, a cleaning cloth, a polarizing filter, and more.

I use this lens as a standard wide angle, almost always at 18mm. At 18mm, it is a nice, sharp, fast-focusing f/3.5 wide angle lens. I could put it away, embarrassed that I wasn’t shooting with a “more professional” lens, but the truth is, if you know how to use a kit lens, you can make great images with it.

Another 85mm

The AF-D Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 is shown on my high-mileage Nikon D700. This package is a low-light dream.
The AF-D Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 is shown on my high-mileage Nikon D700. This package is a low-light dream.

I am a lens guy. I think photographic lenses are interesting and beautiful. They are one of my favorite things about photography.

The AF-D 85mm f/1.4 looks a little stubby and chubby without its steel, screw-in lens hood.
The AF-D 85mm f/1.4 looks a little stubby and chubby without its steel, screw-in lens hood.

Recently, a talented and respected Monterrey, California photographer friend of mine, Nic Coury, posted on social media that he switched to Nikon’s new mirrorless cameras and lenses and was selling an old favorite of his, the AF-D Nikkor 85mm f/1.4.

I love all the lenses in the photographic world, but if you pinned me down to name a favorite, it would be the 85mm, and I have always imagined what I could do with an 85mm f/1.4, so when Nic made me a very attractive offer, I couldn’t pass it up.

I certainly didn’t need another 85mm. In January 2016, I was able to add the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G to my bag. You can read more about it here and here and here (links.) And of course, I can get to 85mm with this zoom and that. Still, I always saw 85mm prime lenses as things of beauty that are capable of creating beautiful images, and there really is something magical about those huge apertures like f/1.4.

We buy large-maximum-aperture telephoto lenses to use them at those big apertures, as in this image of Hawken, our Irish Wolfhound, made a couple of nights ago, shot at f/1.4.
We buy large-maximum-aperture telephoto lenses to use them at those big apertures, as in this image of Hawken, our Irish Wolfhound, made a couple of nights ago, shot at f/1.4.
My 1990's-era AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D was never a great lens, partially because of the mediocre optics, and partially because of the cheap build quality.
My 1990’s-era AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D was never a great lens, partially because of the mediocre optics, and partially because of the cheap build quality.

Compared to the AF-S 85mm f/1.8G…

  • Despite the two lenses being nearly identical in size, the f/1.4 weighs 20 ounces, while the f/1.8 weighs just 12.4 ounces.
  • The D takes more effort to coax it into focusing. Once it’s there, it’s sharp, but as you can imagine, at f/1.4 or even at f/2, the subtle aberrations mix with the super-shallow depth of field to challenge sharpness.
  • Autofocus is slow, and it often requires another push of the shutter release or back button to “restart” the focus. I shot a little basketball action with it the day I got it, but the percentage of useable images was way down compared to my usual basketball lens, the AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8. AF-S really is the game changer it’s touted to be.
The AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 and the older AF-D Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 are nearly identical in size, and it's a great fit in my hands, but the f/1.4 is very noticeably heavier, undoubtedly because the f/1.8 uses a lot of plastic in its construction.
The AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 and the older AF-D Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 are nearly identical in size, and it’s a great fit in my hands, but the f/1.4 is very noticeably heavier, undoubtedly because the f/1.8 uses a lot of plastic in its construction.
A common aberration among large-aperture telephoto lenses - and the 85mm f/1.4 - is spherochromatism, which causes color fringing in out-of-focus areas.
A common aberration among large-aperture telephoto lenses – and the 85mm f/1.4 – is spherochromatism, which causes color fringing in out-of-focus areas.

Compared to the AF 85mm f/1.8D, a lens I bought in the 1990s and used until it died, and the 85mm f/2.0 that I sold years ago…

  • The f/1.4D is much better made and sturier in-hand than the plasticky f/1.8D, and much more a pleasure to use.
  • Aperture-for-aperture, the f/1.4 is always sharper. (This in in contradiction with Ken Rockwell’s assertion that the f/1.8 is sharper… my f/1.8D was never all that sharp.)
  • The manual-focus 85mm f/2.0 was a gem, both mechanically and optically, and one of the lenses I miss the most, but adding the autofocus f/1.4 makes up for it.
This gorgeous Christmas display was one of the first images I made with the 85mm f/1.4. Shot at f/1.4, depth-of-field is just a few millimeters, and the out-of-focus area is quite striking.
This gorgeous Christmas display was one of the first images I made with the 85mm f/1.4. Shot at f/1.4, depth-of-field is just a few millimeters, and the out-of-focus area is quite striking.
The photographer who sold me the AF 85mm f/1.4D, Nic Coury, and I had a good conversation about how glad he was that he was selling this lens to someone who was not going to store it and admire it, but who was going to use it.
The photographer who sold me the AF 85mm f/1.4D, Nic Coury, and I had a good conversation about how glad he was that he was selling this lens to someone who was not going to store it and admire it, but who was going to use it.

 

Sweet Little Lenses

I recently bought a couple of lenses for my iPhone’s Camera. Made by a company called Moment, these accessories attempt to improve on the quality of the tiny lenses and camera in smartphones. I thought I’d give them a try, and I was surprised at how good they are.

The 58mm and 18mm (equivalent) Moment lenses sit on the screen of my iPhone 7 Plus.
The 58mm and 18mm (equivalent) Moment lenses sit on the screen of my iPhone 7 Plus.

Each lens is about the size of a golf ball, and attaches to the phone via a shaped opening in the proprietary Moment case. They are heavier than they look like they’d be. They mount firmly, and stay attached through the shooting process.

Both lenses seem to be very well-made from steel and optical glass, and the lens surfaces seem to be multi-coated.

The phone with a Moment lens mounted is awkwardly unbalanced, but I was able to work around that.

This is the Moment 18mm on my iPhone 7. It's not well-balanced, but I got used to it.
This is the Moment 18mm on my iPhone 7. It’s not well-balanced, but I got used to it.

The real reason I love these new toys is image quality. The default lens on my smartphones isn’t very wide, and the wide angle Moment lens is supposed to be equivalent to an 18mm on 35mm photography. I love a good wide angle because it allows me to bring the viewer deeper into the scene, creating a sense of intimacy and expressing near-far relationships more effectively.

The only flaw with the 18mm is its tendency to exhibit flare and ghosting with the sun in the frame or near the edge of the frame. Some photographers find this intolerable, but so far, I’ve been able to use it as a narrative tool to illustrate  the brightness of a scene.

This image was made in October in Chimayo, New Mexico, and shows the way the 18mm Moment lens can flare (lower right) with the sun just outside the image area.
This image was made in October in Chimayo, New Mexico, and shows the way the 18mm Moment lens can flare (lower right) with the sun just outside the image area.

I haven’t played with the Moment 58mm (equivalent) as much, but I expect it will be a great tool in the toolbox as well.

When reading reviews before purchasing, I read about a small grey bag that came with the lenses, and thought to myself that I would probably not use them, or if I did, I would probably lose them, which I promptly did. Accessories like bags, pouches, lens caps, and cleaning clothes are distractions to my photography, and I never use them. They get in the way, and when I’m ready to shoot, I’m ready to shoot.

In conclusion, I’m having a great time with these small, well-made lenses, and recommend them to anyone wanting to up their phonetography game.

These two small lenses are surprisingly well-made, and fit firmly on the Moment case.
These two small lenses are surprisingly well-made, and fit firmly on the Moment case.

Always Be Ready to Make the Picture

The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a wide angle lens.
The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a wide angle lens.

Anticipating an early voter turnout Tuesday, I drove directly from our home in Byng to Konawa to cover the school bond issue election. It was just after seven in the morning, and the sun was still below the horizon. I immediately noticed that farm ponds had fog above them and anticipated that the Canadian River, which I would shortly cross, would as well.

I drove across the U.S. 377 bridge, parked in a safe spot, put on my highway safety vest, grabbed three cameras and walked to the center of the bridge over the river. For the record, I don’t recommend this, and I did it as a journalist. I know, I know — do as I say, not as I do, but drivers can get distracted in a moment, and it’s not always easy to see in early morning light.

The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 70mm lens.
The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 70mm lens.

Sunlight caught the rising fog exactly as I had anticipated, and the scene did not disappoint. I shot it with all three cameras — one with a 300mm lens, one with an 80-200mm lens,and one with a wide angle. All three scenes expressed something slightly different about the scene, and I was glad I lugged all the hardware with me.

How many times has someone come up to me with their phone in hand and started telling me, “I didn’t have my camera with me, but…” They then show me an image they made with their phone that tells only part of the story. Despite constantly improving technology in smartphones, they lack something. Maybe they lack the attitude of a camera.

The lesson is: Always have your camera with you. I know this is easy to say if you’re like me and have had cameras within arm’s reach since I was in high school, but it can really pay off.

The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 300mm lens.
The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 300mm lens.

Evening Walk

Photography for the sole purpose of expressive myself and the moment… all these images were made with my AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 at about f/2.2…

Flowers catch last light in the garden.
Flowers catch last light in the garden.
Hawken the mighty Irish Wolfhound keeps a watchful eye on me.
Hawken the mighty Irish Wolfhound keeps a watchful eye on me.
Morning glory vines cling to the fence in the front yard.
Morning glory vines cling to the fence in the front yard.
A morning glory vine curves away from the front fence.
A morning glory vine curves away from the front fence.
Poke berries dangle in the back yard.
Poke berries dangle in the back yard.
Vines on the back fence catch last light.
Vines on the back fence catch last light.

Are Macro Lenses Good Portrait Lenses?

Summer the Chihuahua naps on our couch recently. I made this image with a 100mm macro lens because it was in my hand, but in this situation, it made a pretty good portrait.
Summer the Chihuahua naps on our couch recently. I made this image with a 100mm macro lens because it was in my hand, but in this situation, it made a pretty good portrait.

I get asked this question a lot: can I use my macro lens for portraits? The answer, of course, is yes. It’s a mistake to pigeon-hole lenses, or to lean too heavily on the idea that one kind of photo can only be made by one kind of lens.

Tools in the tool box...
When I talk about portrait lenses, it’s important to note that great portraits are made with every focal length imaginable, from ultrawides to super-telephotos, and it’s critical to remember that every lens is another tool in the photographic tool box.
Abby smiles for me in brilliant early-autumn sunshine just ten days before we were married.
Abby smiles for me in brilliant early-autumn sunshine just ten days before we were married.

So what is the issue here? A “classic portrait” lens is generally one of a medium telephoto focal length… 75mm-ish to 180mm-ish, such that we can photograph people at comfortable distances and still fill the frame with their bodies and faces. These lenses are usually thought of as have large maximum apertures.

For this portrait of my wife Abby and me, I handed fellow photographer Robert my Nikon D700 with my 1990's-era 180mm f/2.8 lens on it. If you have the room to work, a longer portrait lens can be an excellent tool in the tool box.
For this portrait of my wife Abby and me, I handed fellow photographer Robert my Nikon D700 with my 1990’s-era 180mm f/2.8 lens on it. If you have the room to work, a longer portrait lens can be an excellent tool in the tool box.

Many portrait lenses have been venerated for decades as great for this… in 35mm film photography, for example, the 100mm-105mm focal length range was considered the “sweet spot.” I had three 105mm Nikkor lenses, two f/2.5s and an f/1.8. When digital came along and preserved the format size (a sensor size somewhere near the size of a 35mm film frame), those focal lengths translate well.

Okay, Richard. I have a 100mm macro lens. It’s in that focal length range. Is it a good portrait lens? There are a couple of factors that might impair a macro lens’ ability to make great portraits.

1. They are optimized to be their sharpest a very close focus settings. One consequence of this is “hunting,” in which autofocus moves forward and back trying to find the focus, and macro lenses have a huge range in which to hunt.

2. They often included less-than-idea “bokeh,” a term which describes the out of focus area of an image. For example, one of my favorite macro lenses, the AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, is amazingly sharp, but exhibits ratty, seven-sided bokeh. It is not a good portrait lens in most instances.

Macro lenses do macro best, as in this image made of a couple of my rings. Note the super-shallow depth of field. As I write this, I am also starting to write about focus stacking for macro images, so stay tuned.
Macro lenses do macro best, as in this image made of a couple of my rings. Note the super-shallow depth of field. As I write this, I am also starting to write about focus stacking for macro images, so stay tuned.

A zoom in this focal length range can have some of the same drawbacks: they are good at all focal lengths, but aren’t spectacular at any of them. Zoom are also heavy, and can attract a lot of attention and be a little intimidating. An exception to this might be the big f/2.8 zooms, which are very popular among portrait shooters, but also very expensive and very heavy.

My favorite portrait lens is my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G, which is sharp, lightweight, affordable, and exhibits beautiful, smooth bokeh. I can make backgrounds vanish into the ether by shooting with it at f/2.0 or so.

Before you get out the credit card and start buying lenses, consider also that any and every camera and lens can make great portraits in the right circumstances. If you have a macro lens, make some portraits with it. It might be the lens for you.

Telephoto lenses can work for portraits in some circumstance due to their ability to reach in and find an intimate moment or glance that gives the audience a piece of the visual puzzle.
Telephoto lenses can work for portraits in some circumstance due to their ability to reach in and find an intimate moment or glance that gives the audience a piece of the visual puzzle.

Taking Lenses to Their Limits: The 200mm f/2.0

Pecans cling to a branch on my only papershell pecan tree this week in an image made with a rare and beautiful lens, my Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 of 1985 vintage.
Pecans cling to a branch on my only papershell pecan tree this week in an image made with a rare and beautiful lens, my Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 of 1985 vintage.
The controls on the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 are big and easy to use. Focus is super-smooth, and the aperture is firm and easy to adjust.
The controls on the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 are big and easy to use. Focus is super-smooth, and the aperture is firm and easy to adjust.

My wife Abby and I live on a pretty little patch of green in southern Oklahoma. I garden, tend an orchard, and walk our dogs in this bucolic paradise. I have always enjoyed photographing this land, and when the light is right, it can yield some of the best fine art images in my portfolio.

Lately I’ve been grabbing lenses known for their dream-like imaging capabilities, lenses with large maximum apertures that can produce flattering “bokeh” in the out-of-focus areas of the image. Recently, those lenses have been the AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, and the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.

In the past few days I’ve made a point to lug around my rare and beautifully-made Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 of 1985 vintage.

An interesting phenomena for me is that I get this lens out with the intention of using it, then don’t really use it. The whole point of shooting with this behemoth is to use it at f/2.0, “wide open,” and at this setting it is quite unforgiving. If I miss the focus by a few millimeters, the image is unusable.

The Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 looks big and heavy, but in my hands it feels even heavier, thanks to dense optical glass, brass and steel construction, and the fact that the biggest parts are in the very front of the lens.
The Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 looks big and heavy, but in my hands it feels even heavier, thanks to dense optical glass, brass and steel construction, and the fact that the biggest parts are in the very front of the lens.
The front element of the 200mm f/2.0 is 100mm across, about four inches. In addition to being heavy, this much reflective surface is prone to flare and ghosting, so the lens has a large, built-in hood.
The front element of the 200mm f/2.0 is 100mm across, about four inches. In addition to being heavy, this much reflective surface is prone to flare and ghosting, so the lens has a large, built-in hood.

With a beautiful late-summer sun setting one day this week, I ran into the house after walking our Irish Wolfhound and watering the garden, and grabbed the 200mm, and ran back into the yard just in time to take advantage of the golden moment and this rare, special lens.

Sure enough, when I reviewed my images after dark, half of them were unusable due to subtle focus errors. The images that were in perfect focus were magnificent, subtly sharp in a dream-like way that made the light on the leaves absolutely sing.

An oddly enduring myth about this lens is that it has “good” or “beautiful” bokeh. This is the classic mistake of confusing selective focus with bokeh. This lens has over-the-top selective focus, since f/2.0 at this focal length can throw the background so far out of focus, but if you examine the bokeh, defined as the quality of the out-of-focus area, you can see that it’s ratty and cluttered.

This is an excellent example of the difference between selective focus and "bokeh." Selective focus with the 200mm f/2.0 is quite striking in the area to the right of the flower, while the "bokeh," the quality of the out-of-focus portion of the image, is visible in the leaves on the left.
This is an excellent example of the difference between selective focus and “bokeh.” Selective focus with the 200mm f/2.0 is quite striking in the area to the right of the flower, while the “bokeh,” the quality of the out-of-focus portion of the image, is visible in the leaves on the left.

If you are willing to redefine “bokeh” as simply being all the way out of focus, every lens has “great bokeh” if you just use empty blue sky as the background.

Note that the areas in this image behind the plane of focus are sparkly and edgy, not nearly as smooth as many of my lesser lenses provide. The confusion occurs when comparing selective focus.
Note that the areas in this image behind the plane of focus are sparkly and edgy, not nearly as smooth as many of my lesser lenses provide. The confusion occurs when comparing selective focus.

But the main reason I seldom use this magnificent lens is its weight, more than five pounds, all of it in the front. It is a bear to use handheld, and awkward to use on a monopod. It’s easy to say that I don’t like heavy lenses now that I’m older, but I’ve never loved lugging them around, and doing so creates a payoff of diminishing results: huge lenses are only marginally better than not-so-huge lenses.

Finally, no, I don’t ever want to sell it. It’s one of the best examples of cameras from years ago, when lenses were made to last a lifetime.

Despite its reputation as a "bokeh master" or "bokeh beast," the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 actually makes kind of ratty bokeh if you have much action in the out-of-focus areas of an image. This image was made at f/2.0.
Despite its reputation as a “bokeh master” or “bokeh beast,” the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 actually makes kind of ratty bokeh if you have much action in the out-of-focus areas of an image. This image was made at f/2.0.

The Sometime Lost Narrative of Large Apertures

This image of my reading glasses on the lid of one of our laptop computers takes my AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to it's limit: closest focus and largest aperture. Is this art, or a technology demonstrator?
This image of my reading glasses on the lid of one of our laptop computers takes my AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to it’s limit: closest focus and largest aperture. Is this art, or a technology demonstrator?

As much as photographers seem intent on relishing the power of large-maximum-aperture lenses and their selective focus, I was reminded over the last few days about the perils of overusing this feature, and that we need to keep in mind that it is a tool in the toolbox and not a goal unto itself.

I thought about this when the sun was streaming in through some windows as I got ready for work, and took the time to shoot a few frames. I decided to shoot “wide open,” at f/1.4, the largest maximum aperture of any lens I own, and a genuinely large aperture. Only a few specialized and expensive lenses have these impressively large maximum apertures. Legendary lenses like the Canon 85mm f/1.2, Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 (I had one in college) and 58mm  f/1.2 aspheric, the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0, and esoteric glass like the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95 are some examples.

So what draws us to these lenses? What can we construct with these tools? Without a doubt, the first answer is selective focus, often very dramatic selective focus. We can then combine that tool with one like, say, movement, and have our backgrounds just like we want them.

It's easy to take selective focus to it's limit, as I did in this 200mm f/2.0 image of some souvenirs, but what does it add to the narrative? In my opinion, all it says is, "I can shoot at large apertures."
It’s easy to take selective focus to it’s limit, as I did in this 200mm f/2.0 image of some souvenirs, but what does it add to the narrative? In my opinion, all it says is, “I can shoot at large apertures.”

The simplest background in all of photography is a neutral-grey roll of background paper about five feet behind the subject, evenly lit. It’s so simple and uninvolved that it’s barely ever a participant.  It works. It works to create a rigid, predicable image that has a useful but narrow set of applications.

The challenge arises, however, when we want to use backgrounds as an element in our images. Whether it be a field of wheat at sunset or the dazzling lights on the Las Vegas Strip at midnight, it becomes a contributor to our image. Will we use this as a compositional and narrative tool, or to show off our power to buy expensive lenses?

This is a beautiful image of mimosa blossoms in our back yard. The strong selective focus creates a narrative that says, "This natural beauty extends farther than our immediate view," and invites the viewer to look for more.
This is a beautiful image of mimosa blossoms in our back yard. The strong selective focus creates a narrative that says, “This natural beauty extends farther than our immediate view,” and invites the viewer to look for more.