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.
Photographer Kyle Phillips at one of our sister newspapers, The Norman Transcript, was out of action recently, so he offered to let me borrow their new Nikon D500 digital SLR since I was slated to shoot the college football Big 12 Championship game in Dallas on December 19, and I accepted.
The D500 is a professional-level 20-megapixel camera. It is a neat camera, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a news or sports photographer in a minute, but it’s not a game-changer.
The Nikon D500 is an incremental upgrade to the Nikon D300S, two of which I use every day. The main improvement the D500 makes is high ISO noise. Frame rate and pixel count are up, but not enough to really matter.
The ISO dial has traded places with the exposure mode dial, which I really don’t like, and not just because I’m used to buttons where they are. The mode dial belongs on the right next to the shutter and aperture dial and the shutter release. I kind of think Nikon engineers move stuff arbitrarily. Real photographers set their file type once, mostly on the day they get the camera, and leave it there forever. Only dilletants and dabblers change file types regularly, so as far as I’m concerned, this button could disappear into the menu.
I had to shoot JPEGs instead of RAW files, since my laptop at work has an older version of Adobe Lightroom that won’t read the newest RAW files. The D500 makes very decent JPEGs.
The D500 has a swinging/tilting rear display as well as 4K video capability, a feature that makes little difference to me, since I make short videos to go with news and sports, but would make a big difference to videographers.
The D500 is equipped with SnapBridge, but I tried several times and got the message, “Pairing unsuccessful. Make sure D500_XXX is turned on, in range, and is ready to pair.” That’s typical in a world of incompetent coding. My Fujifilm X-T10, a camera of the same era as the D500, did it without a hitch.
The D500 has two card slots, one for SD, and one for XQD, a high-speed replacement for CompactFlash cards, but I don’t have any of these cards and have never used them, and I find that the photography community regards this format as a dead end.
The D500 isn’t a particularly popular camera. I have only seen one other one, in the hands of Coalgate High School yearbook advisor Kathy Ingram.
I found that 10 frames per second and a nearly unlimited buffer resulted in shooting a lot more frames than I usually do, with little impact on the quality of my product. So many files of the same thing just tends to choke my workflow.
At the Big 12 Championship game, I brought my AF Nikkor 300mm f/2.8, betting on needing the f/2.8, but the lights were very bright and even. If I had to do it again, I might use my AF-S 300mm f/4, a much newer and somewhat sharper lens.
I pressed the D500 into service, and found that it does what a digital camera should: make photography easier by getting out of the way of the photographer. I was very glad to use it for a while, and really enjoyed it. Thanks again to Kyle for offering to let me use it. I know he will make many great images with it over the years.
Readers might recall that I recently bought a long-ago favorite lens, the Nikkor 85mm f/2.0, and that I mentioned that this lens has an undeserved reputation as not very sharp, especially when compared to the 85mm that preceded it, the 85mm f/1.8 of 1970s vintage.
I have made a point of shooting with this pearl of a lens, especially since this autumn has been among the most beautiful ever here in Oklahoma, and not only have I enjoyed the excellent build quality and handling characteristics, which come from an era of superb camera craftsmanship, I can say without reservation that this lens is as sharp as I could want, even at wide open at f/2.0.
If you get a chance to pick up this lens and are either a Nikon shooter, or have a Nikkor lens adaptor for a mirrorless camera, by all means get it. It is a pearl.
In my defense, this most recent purchase was delayed for months while I searched and searched for a bargain on eBay.
I know I already have a couple of 85mm lenses, and that I can make 85mm with several zoom lenses. This 85mm, the Nikkor 85mm AI-S f/2.0, is of 1980s vintage. I had one for years in the 1990s and 2000s, and never used it as much as I should have. I sold it during a period of purge when I went digital, and missed this lens more than any other of the bunch, including the 24mm f/2.0, the 35mm f/2.0, and the 105mm f/1.8. The 85mm kept calling me back.
Of note is that this lens, unlike my other 85mm lenses, has the vintage Nikkor seven-straight-bladed aperture, and should create beautiful 14-point sunstars.
This lens has what I think is an undeserved reputation as not very sharp, but today I was able to get very nice sharpness wide open at f/2.0, with just a tiny squinch of sharpening in Lightroom. And at f/2.0, it yields very nice wispy bokeh.
A hard cold front roared through Oklahoma last night, leaving today the kind of day that inspired me to write awkward poetry in my youth. It was grey all day, and it eventually lured me outside several times to walk the dogs and, of course, make pictures.
I grabbed my Fuji mirrorless and my $50 Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5. Unlike the cameras and lenses I use professionally, this combination is challenging: the camera is smaller, and the lens is manual focus, super slow to focus, focuses in the opposite direction of my Nikkors, and will only run at one aperture, in this case wide open at f/3.5.
After the session, I walked our Irish wolfhound Hawken again, and he found a discarded work glove in the pasture and made it his new toy. He loves this weather.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two of the things I write on the dry erase board at the start of every Intro to Digital Photography class are…
You can’t buy mastery. You have to earn it.
What can you do to make your camera take better pictures? Wear it out.
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 Altura was a big surprise.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am a lens guy. I think photographic lenses are interesting and beautiful. They are one of my favorite things about photography.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.