I Love a Parade!

It’s one of my worst kept secrets: I love a parade. It’s also no secret that my favorite parade of all time is the Pat Taylor Memorial Parade of Lights every December here in Ada.

The Parade of Lights has gotten easier to photograph as technology has improved, both in terms of cameras, and the lights on display.
The Parade of Lights has gotten easier to photograph as technology has improved, both in terms of cameras, and the lights on display.

My strategy for photographing nighttime parades is pretty straightforward: sky-high ISO settings and large aperture lenses. I usually use my 180mm f/2.8 and my 20mm f/2.8, both older designs, but very capable.

Digital imaging has made a difference, but incrementally. In the early 2000s, for example, my digital cameras were the Nikon D1H and the Kodak DCS720x, at the top of the low-light game in their day, but definitely left behind by one generation after another of better and better digital cameras.

In the film days, there was Kodak T-Max P3200, a high-ISO black-and-white film I used for sports. But a Christmas parade is often very colorful, and that left shooting films like Fujicolor 1600, which was okay.

This is a scan of one of my Parade of Lights images from 1995. Made with Kodak T-Max P3200 film, you can see it is pretty grainy. Still, I got an image, and sometimes that's what counts the most in photojournalism.
This is a scan of one of my Parade of Lights images from 1995. Made with Kodak T-Max P3200 film, you can see it is pretty grainy. Still, I got an image, and sometimes that’s what counts the most in photojournalism.

It is an understatement that I no longer have to rely on such limitations.

Additionally, the lights themselves have transitioned to Light Emitting Diodes, or LEDs, and are brighter and less yellow-red.

So, fast forward to this year’s Parade of Lights: I shot it all at ISO 12,800, knowing that I could fall back on photography’s newest secret weapon: Lightroom’s AI-based noise reduction feature.

I know it sounds like cheating, or even skirting the edge of ethics, because AI has the potential to damage photojournalistic credibility, but I am always up front about how I use it: never alter content.

Even with the stratospheric ISO and f/2.8 lenses, I was still down to 1/30th of a second shutter speeds sometimes, so I just had to accept that many of my images would be throw-aways.

So if you made it to the Parade this year, and I’m guessing from the hundreds and hundreds of people there that you did, you would have seen me prowling around, having the time of my life, making tons of pictures. I love a parade!

Kids wave at passing floats in this year's Parade of Lights.
Kids wave at passing floats in this year’s Parade of Lights.

Filters, Filters, Filters!

A photographer friend and I were talking recently about how and why we use filters on the lenses of our cameras. The discussion centered around clear “lens protector” filters, but in that same group of filters are “UV haze” filters, and “skylight” filters.

I am not a collector by nature, but photographic filters seem to find their way to me. Many of these filters came from camera bags that were given to me or sold in estate and garage sales in "grab bag" fashion.
I am not a collector by nature, but photographic filters seem to find their way to me. Many of these filters came from camera bags that were given to me or sold in estate and garage sales in “grab bag” fashion.

They all do essentially the same thing to your images: nothing. Many photographers use them to keep rain, smoke, dust, and their own clumsy finger off the front elements of their lenses.

In the film era, the thinking was that ultraviolet light in the atmosphere would be a problem because it would contaminate our images. The answer was the UV (ultra-violet) filter, sometimes with the word “haze” added because it would supposedly reduce the appearance of haze in the distance, since haze tends to be in the blue to ultra-violet portion of the spectrum. If you look closely, you will see this filter is very faintly yellow.

I have a few more than a few UV-haze and skylight filters in my collections. They seem to accumulate more than anything else.
I have a few more than a few UV-haze and skylight filters in my collections. They seem to accumulate more than anything else.

Likewise, a lot of film photographers, including me, used a “skylight” filter on their lenses, since magazines like Modern Photography and Popular Photography told us to. This filter appears very faintly pink if you look through it.

Those filters were intended for use primarily for color photography, but we almost always left them on our lenses when we shot in black-and-white. The exposure penalty is negligible, as is any noticeable tonal rendition.

Other filters for color film photography included color correction filters for use with daylight-balanced film in incandescent or fluorescent light, or to fine-tune color balance in a studio setting.

Here are three "graduated" filters, part of a kit that screws onto the front of a lens, letting you drop in filters like this, and rotate them to change where to effect is strongest.
Here are three “graduated” filters, part of a kit that screws onto the front of a lens, letting you drop in filters like this, and rotate them to change where to effect is strongest.

A popular filter paradigm in the late-1970s was the “graduated neutral density filter,” so named because they gradually got lighter or darker across the image area. You could get these filters in colors, too, so your image would be unchanged at the bottom of a frame, for example, and blue or brown or red toward the top of the frame. Watch the intro the the movie Top Gun, the jets on the carrier scenes, and you will see that they used exactly that to created those sunsetty-looking shots.

Here is the kind of effect you can expect to get if you use graduated filters.
Here is the kind of effect you can expect to get if you use graduated filters.

Like a lot of trends, this kind of filter system experienced a flash of popularity which waned quickly, but stuck around at a low level, and once in a while you can see these filters in use, especially with nature photographers.

Here is a spectrum of filters for black-and-white films. Filters like these have mostly been orphaned by software like Photoshop, and "film look" in-camera settings.
Here is a spectrum of filters for black-and-white films. Filters like these have mostly been orphaned by software like Photoshop, and “film look” in-camera settings.

My favorite kinds of photographic filters are for black-and-white photography, although I didn’t get to use them very often. Their impacts on images could be dramatic. Red and orange filters would block blues and greens, creating deep, dark skies and cutting haze, while yellow and green filters tended to help black-and-white films respond more realistically. Blue filters, thought seldom used, darkened red and yellow areas, and lightened blues.

I only made a handful of really successful black-and-white medium-format images in my day. This is probably my favorite. It depicts a clearing summer thunderstorm over the Pecos River in northern New Mexico. I shot it with my Fujifilm GW670 III using Kodak Verichrome Pan Film, with a deep orange filter on the lens. The filter helped create the deep skies and shadows.
I only made a handful of really successful black-and-white medium-format images in my day. This is probably my favorite. It depicts a clearing summer thunderstorm over the Pecos River in northern New Mexico. I shot it with my Fujifilm GW670 III using Kodak Verichrome Pan Film, with a deep orange filter on the lens. The filter helped create the deep skies and shadows.
This view from the top of the Capulin Volcano in northeastern New Mexico emphasizes the beauty of the high-desert sky. Made with my Fuji 6x7 loaded with Kodak Verichrome Pam Film, I filtered the lens with a deep orange filter.
This view from the top of the Capulin Volcano in northeastern New Mexico emphasizes the beauty of the high-desert sky. Made with my Fuji 6×7 loaded with Kodak Verichrome Pam Film, I filtered the lens with a deep orange filter.

Finally, there are polarizers, but I promise to cover those in another article.

The golden age of filters is gone, mostly because of editing software like Photoshop, which can accomplish most types of filtration effortlessly.

Easily the weirdest of the color-correction filters is the "FL-D," meant for use with daylight-balanced film in fluorescent lighting conditions. That in itself isn't weird. The weird part is that I see dozens of these in the hands of photographers who buy digital camera "kits", which usually include a cheap tripod, maybe some cleaning cloths, and, for some reason, this filter, which is completely useless and obsolete in the digital age.
Easily the weirdest of the color-correction filters is the “FL-D,” meant for use with daylight-balanced film in fluorescent lighting conditions. That in itself isn’t weird. The weird part is that I see dozens of these in the hands of photographers who buy digital camera “kits”, which usually include a cheap tripod, maybe some cleaning cloths, and, for some reason, this filter, which is completely useless and obsolete in the digital age.

A Shot in the Dark

A friend of mine asked me this week about how to shoot candlelight vigils. She’d been to one, and while she got some usable images, she was not able to catch any magic with her camera.

Vietnam veteran James Pippen salutes as he holds a candle during an Ada Indivisible candlelight vigil in 2017.
Vietnam veteran James Pippen salutes as he holds a candle during an Ada Indivisible candlelight vigil in 2017.

Photographing low light situations has always been a challenge, but it has gotten easier in the last few years as the highest ISO settings, which control how sensitive the imaging sensor is to light, have shot into the stratosphere. It is pretty common in 2023 to shoot at ISO 12,800 with surprisingly controllable noise.

Even so, photographers sometimes run into situations where we are right on the margins of imaging: kids around a Christmas tree, detectives with flashlights at crime scenes, Relay for Life lit by luminaria, bonfires, people at fireworks shows, and, of course, candlelight vigils.

Luminaries glow at Relay for Life 2014 at Ada High School Friday, May 30, 2014. For this image, I used a tripod, which allowed me to shoot with a smaller aperture while still collecting a nice balance of last evening light with candles inside luminaria.
Luminaries glow at Relay for Life 2014 at Ada High School Friday, May 30, 2014. For this image, I used a tripod, which allowed me to shoot with a smaller aperture while still collecting a nice balance of last evening light with candles inside luminaria.

I tend to lean on lenses with very large maximum apertures, like f/1.8 to f/1.4. The easiest way to get into lenses in this category is to look at 50mm lenses. They have been around for decades, are easy and cheap to make, are lightweight, and, most importantly, they let a lot of light into the camera.

I know a couple of very talented photographers who have even brighter (known in the biz as “faster”) lenses, like the 85mm f/1.2.

Nothing invites you to the low-light party like lenses with vary large maximum apertures. Here are two 50mm f/1.4 lenses. The 50mm class of lenses is a great place to start low light photography.
Nothing invites you to the low-light party like lenses with vary large maximum apertures. Here are two 50mm f/1.4 lenses. The 50mm class of lenses is a great place to start low light photography.

Note that not all 50mm lenses are sharp wide open. Most 50mms need to be stopped down just a squinch, maybe to f/2, but that still invites a lot of light into the camera.

Tripods are another factor, though I find they slow me down. You can park your camera on a tripod and shoot at medium ISO values and medium aperture. The only problem that presents is that if people move while the shutter is open, they can be blurred, but there are some instances in which that can actually help your image, if that’s the look you want.

A good practice session might involve going outside with a 50mm set to f/1.8 and shoot by porch light or streetlight light and experiment with how to finesse those situations. Don’t be afraid to push yourself and your camera outside your comfort zone. Failed experiments can teach us a lot.

Once in a while I'll reach into my bag of tricks and pull out my rare and slightly mysterious Nikkor 200mm f/2.0. It is a challenging lens to use, and is big and heavy. And while I expect to delete a bigger percentage of images made with this lens, it has some very real low-light potential.
Once in a while I’ll reach into my bag of tricks and pull out my rare and slightly mysterious Nikkor 200mm f/2.0. It is a challenging lens to use, and is big and heavy. And while I expect to delete a bigger percentage of images made with this lens, it has some very real low-light potential.

Another Walk in the Park

The sun peeks through grey clouds, with just a trace of color.
The sun peeks through grey clouds, with just a trace of color.

You can say many things about Ada, Oklahoma, but one thing everyone says about it is that Francis Wintersmith Park is a jewel, an asset many communities don’t have.

Last week I had the chance to poke around Wintersmith Park with my photographer friends Mackenzee and Robert (link). We had fun, and it was a sunny afternoon I felt was best expressed by shooting in monochrome.

Later in the week, photographer Dan Marsh visited, so we walked in the park again, this time in the evening as it matured into the blue hour. I shot the entire walk with my Nikon D3000 and it’s perfectly-matched AF-S 35mm f/1.8 Nikkor.

These numbers were carved in the back of a park bench behind WIntersmith Lodge.
These numbers were carved in the back of a park bench behind WIntersmith Lodge.
As the blue hour progresses, streetlight begins to shine more on the water of Wintersmith Creek.
As the blue hour progresses, streetlight begins to shine more on the water of Wintersmith Creek.
This view looks straight down at a rusty stand that had been cut off many years before and allowed to rust. I guess this was the mount for an outdoor charcoal grill.
This view looks straight down at a rusty stand that had been cut off many years before and allowed to rust. I guess this was the mount for an outdoor charcoal grill.
As on the walk earlier in the week, we found more locks on the fence above Wintersmith dam.
As on the walk earlier in the week, we found more locks on the fence above Wintersmith dam.
I went a little wild in this single-frame High Dynamic Range image of a tree I have tried to photograph mostly unsuccessfully for more than 30 years.
I went a little wild in this single-frame High Dynamic Range image of a tree I have tried to photograph mostly unsuccessfully for more than 30 years.
This water fountain near Firefly Cabin takes on blue light from the sky.
This water fountain near Firefly Cabin takes on blue light from the sky.

A Little More Light Can Make a Big Difference

Miss Oklahoma Kris Gonzalez was given a send-off recently for her travels to Las Vegas to participate in the Miss for America competition. Of note in this image is the flattering light in her eyes, made possible by an electronic flash bounced into a corner of the small room over my left shoulder.
Miss Oklahoma Kris Gonzalez was given a send-off recently for her travels to Las Vegas to participate in the Miss for America competition. Of note in this image is the flattering light in her eyes, made possible by an electronic flash bounced into a corner of the small room over my left shoulder.

The basketball season just ended in our community. It was a great one, though it was full of fits and starts because of the pandemic, and it kept me busy, and shooting really well.

All the sports action I shoot is made under existing light.

A modest electronic flash that have a rotating, pivoting head like this one can give you very nice control of light in many situations.
A modest electronic flash that have a rotating, pivoting head like this one can give you very nice control of light in many situations.

When sports scale back a bit, I have more time to concentrated on feature stories and photos, and I am almost always happier with my indoor feature photos if I include some flash.

I recently worked on two such features, one about Bladesmith Logan Morris, the other about Miss Oklahoma Kris Gonzalez. I photographed both of these people indoors under institutional fluorescent light, which is everywhere, from classrooms to businesses to warehouses. It is efficient in lighting these spaces, but can be somewhat unflattering to human faces.

To help with these images, I added some electronic flash. I almost always bounce the light from the flash into a wall, ceiling, or, if I am feeling particularly ambitious, a reflector. Bounce flash allows me to control the angle of the light striking the faces, as well as the color of the light.

Sometimes I add more electronic flash units to the lighting mix with a device called a slave unit, which is able to detect a flash and fire additional flash units simultaneously.

Also of note is the rise of ever-brighter, more efficient, more portable light emitting diodes (LEDs), that may soon replace electronic flash in many situations.

Finally, the Morris story is also one of contrasting worlds: a high schooler brings a knife to a small-town school and everyone is excited and proud of him.  But imagine a similar situation at a big-city high school. A knife? Instant lockdown, call SWAT, send texts and social media posts saying to “shelter in place.”

It’s nice to know that small-town sensibility about such matters remains with us.

Bladesmith Logan Morris, a Vanoss High School Senior, is shown Thursday, March 10, 2021 at the School. Note how the sheen of the blade is enhanced by the light, an electronic flash unit bounced into a white surface above me and to my left slightly.
Bladesmith Logan Morris, a Vanoss High School Senior, is shown Thursday, March 10, 2021 at the School. Note how the sheen of the blade is enhanced by the light, an electronic flash unit bounced into a white surface above me and to my left slightly.

Fooling Around with Christmas Lights

My wife Abby has been in the hospital for a couple of days. She’s getting better, and we hope she comes home tomorrow, but in the mean time, since I can’t visit her due to the pandemic, I have been fooling around with some Christmas Lights.

An old point-and-shoot camera sits on a tripod with Christmas lights in the background. 85mm Nikkor f/2.0 at f/2.0.
An old point-and-shoot camera sits on a tripod with Christmas lights in the background. 85mm Nikkor f/2.0 at f/2.0.
Model airplane with Christmas lights in the background and airliner-shaped "bokeh kit" on the front of the lens. 50mm f/1.4 Pentax at f/1.4.
Model airplane with Christmas lights in the background and airliner-shaped “bokeh kit” on the front of the lens. 50mm f/1.4 Pentax at f/1.4.

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.

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 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.

First Day of Spring 2020

It’s spring, and despite a rather dire situation in the world, nature on our small patch of Oklahoma is unstoppably beautiful. 85mm f/1.4 wide open.

A redbud branch curves toward afternoon sunlight.
A redbud branch curves toward afternoon sunlight.
Peach blossoms gently sway in a light breeze.
Peach blossoms gently sway in a light breeze.

Evening Walk

Photography for the sole purpose of expressing 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.

Lyme Gym Syndrome

This is an image from a recent basketball game "right out of the box," completely unedited. You can see a preponderance of yellows and greens in this image. In situations like this, there isn't really a correct in-camera white balance setting.
This is an image from a recent basketball game “right out of the box,” completely unedited. You can see a preponderance of yellows and greens in this image. In situations like this, there isn’t really a correct in-camera white balance setting.

Basketball season is in its peak, and my newspaper and I cover a lot of games. We have a great sports scene in our area, competitive and exciting.

I wondered as I was photographing one of those games last week, a tournament-heavy week with lots of games, how many photographers face the same thing I do all the time: overwhelming color casts in certain gyms.

Here is a screen shot of some of the tools I use to fix those hard-to-fix images.
Here is a screen shot of some of the tools I use to fix those hard-to-fix images.

In fact, there were at least six other photographers in last week’s mix:  Steve Sisney, Josh Clough, Jeannie Neal, Courtney Morehead, Glen Bryan, and Lonny Dorman. I am always glad to see them.

The lighting problem comes from a combination of lights that are designed to be efficient (instead of color-neutral), and floor and ceiling colors that create a sort of color feedback loop. For example, several of the gyms I photograph have yellow school colors, painted on courts that are finished in yellowing varnish, reflected by yellowing ceiling tiles.

These are nice places to work, and I love the opportunity to work at these schools, but the color balance in my photographs requires some very aggressive correction. How do I do this?

  • I always, always shoot raw files. We in the photographic community probably preach about this too much, but it really is a game-changer. Raw files contain thousands or even millions of times more color values than standard JPEG files.
  • I don’t bother adjusting white balance in-camera, because…
  • I will use Adobe Lightroom to fix the color, first with the eyedropper tool, which I click on a neutral spot; sometimes this is all the fix I need. It’s pretty dramatic, actually, sometimes accompanied by the word, “wow.”
  • I use additional color adjustments in Lightroom’s excellent Hue/Saturation/Luminance (HSL) dialog, which allows me to change not only the amount of the offending color, but also the brightness and the hue of it. I can use this to take a bright lime green basketball court and make it appear a very natural pale tan.
  • The most important aspect of this, of course, is to create normal-looking skin tones of the players and fans. This can sometimes requires some very aggressive application of color sliders in Lightroom or Photoshop.
  • As tempting as it is to use the pop-up flash instead of existing light at these venues, you will always be happier with existing light for sports.

I see other people’s image from some of these places, and they all exhibit a common thread: difficult color balance. Take it from me: raw files plus aggressive editing can fix these problems, and result in very satisfying images.

Here is the image as I submitted it for publication, cropped, filtered for noise, sharpened, and with the lime green and yellows dialed way down, resulting in better skin tones and an overall better image.
Here is the image as I submitted it for publication, cropped, filtered for noise, sharpened, and with the lime green and yellows dialed way down, resulting in better skin tones and an overall better image.

Striking Photos of Lightning

Lightning peels across the sky north of our home in Byng, Oklahoma last night, in this image made with my 20mm f/2.8 lens showing our front yard.
Lightning peels across the sky north of our home in Byng, Oklahoma last night, in this image made with my 20mm f/2.8 lens showing our front yard.

Two rounds of thunderstorms rolled through our home in Byng, Oklahoma last night. The first one skirted us to the north, so from our point of view, we had an excellent view of the right flank of the storm. It was the first time in the last couple of years that all the factors came together for me to make good lightning photos: little or no rain at my site, a very electrically-active thunderstorm, a lack of obscuring rain on my side of the storm, and no danger of being struck by lightning.

[stextbox id=”alert” caption=”It Does Happen”]Years ago I was standing in my garage trying to photograph lightning when a bolt hit a tree across the pasture. Not only was it insanely loud and bright, a feeder of it made it to the garage. I was leaning on the metal door track at the time, and electricity passed through it into my right arm. I was lucky I wasn’t injured or even killed.[/stextbox]

So, if we see a thunderstorm like this and want to photograph it, what do we need, and how do we do it? We need…

  • A camera with manual controls of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus
  • A sturdy tripod or other way to hold the camera rock-steady
  • A lens that will fill the frame with what we want to shoot (I know that’s vague, but stay with me.)
  • The patience of Job
This was one of the images I made from there back deck before the storm moved behind the house and I relocated to the front. At the bottom of the frame is a short green line, which I saw moving slowly at the time, and which I have to conclude is someone's drone. (Click to see it larger.)
This was one of the images I made from there back deck before the storm moved behind the house and I relocated to the front. At the bottom of the frame is a short green line, which I saw moving slowly at the time, and which I have to conclude is someone’s drone. (Click to see it larger.)

Last night my wife and I saw and heard an approaching thunderstorm. At first I went out onto the back deck, but only made a few frames there and decided the storm, moving from my left to right looking north, was about to be hidden by the house, so I relocated to the front deck.

Using my Nikon D700, a 36x24mm sensor DLSR, I started with my 20mm, a very wide angle lens. Mounted on a tripod, I set the ISO at 400, my aperture at f/8, and my shutter speed at 20 seconds. My 20mm has a hard stop at infinity, which is where I set focus. (Don’t try to use autofocus – it will never bite on anything in the dark.)

At that point, the patience plays a big role. Unlike fireworks, traffic, or Christmas parades (all of which are photographing lights) thunderstorms are irregular and unpredictable, so by the time you get set up, it could be too late, or the timing could be just right. Last night was such a “just right” night.

Also worth noting are the clouds in this image, particularly in the upper left corner, which appear to repeat. This is caused by swiftly-moving clouds that are invisible to the camera until they are illuminated by repeated lightning strikes.
Also worth noting are the clouds in this image, particularly in the upper left corner, which appear to repeat. This is caused by swiftly-moving clouds that are invisible to the camera until they are illuminated by repeated lightning strikes.

Within five minutes I felt the storm had moved away from me sufficiently to warrant switching to a 50mm lens, and I felt I wanted a slightly darker product than I was seeing on the monitor, so I changed to f/11 at 30 seconds. The 50mm filled the frame with the densest part of the lightning, and I felt several images looked good.

At 30 seconds, this image is an aggregation of a number of lightning strikes. Made with my 50mm, the view angle was about right for this storm, and I was very pleased with this image.
At 30 seconds, this image is an aggregation of a number of lightning strikes. Made with my 50mm, the view angle was about right for this storm, and I was very pleased with this image.

A Light Serving of Light

I recently added the excellent AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G to my bag.
I recently added the excellent AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G to my bag.

With the recent addition of the handsome AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to my bag, I noted that this new lens features an aperture with nine rounded blades, unlike its predecessor, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, which has seven straight aperture blades. The reason this matters to me is that I like to use sunstars in some of my imagery to create the impression of brightness in light sources.

To test the sunstar capabilities of the new 50mm, I grabbed some Christmas lights from the rafters in the garage. With my camera on a tripod so everything would be the same except the lens, I shot some test images, all at f/16 at about 1 second, and made a direct comparison between the new f/1.4 and the older f/1.8.

Readers might recall the formula for sunstars: even-numbered aperture blades make sunstars points of that number, while odd-numbered aperture blades make sunstar points equal to twice the number of aperture blades…

This was shot with my older 50mm f/1.8, which has seven straight aperture blades, and as expected produces crisp 14-point sunstars.
This was shot with my older 50mm f/1.8, which has seven straight aperture blades, and as expected produces crisp 14-point sunstars.
Compare this to the previous image. This was made with the 50mm f/1.4, which has nine rounded aperture blades. I admit to being a little surprised at how well it rendered these 18-point sunstars.
Compare this to the previous image. This was made with the 50mm f/1.4, which has nine rounded aperture blades. I admit to being a little surprised at how well it rendered these 18-point sunstars.

I was quite pleased with the result. In recent years, rounded aperture blades have become increasingly common in an effort to give lenses the ability to create more pleasing out-of-focus areas, but this often sacrifices the crisp sunstar effect I love. But I found that while the effect using the 50mm f/1.4 wasn’t quite as dazzling as it was with the f/1.8, it still expressed the feeling of brightness.

This is a fun little trick that can add another layer of interest to certain kinds of photos: adding a shape to the front of your lens to shape the out-of-focus areas. I used aluminum foil because it was handy, but construction paper or opaque plastic works well too.
This is a fun little trick that can add another layer of interest to certain kinds of photos: adding a shape to the front of your lens to shape the out-of-focus areas. I used aluminum foil because it was handy, but construction paper or opaque plastic works well too.

While I had everything set up for sunstars, I thought I would experiment with a funny little do-it-yourself trick that can sometimes be useful: shaping your out-of-focus areas. It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to screw up. In its simplest iteration, you cut a small shape into an opaque object and fit it to the front of your lens.

I used aluminum foil for my experiment, but it made the bokeh a bit too edgy. There are kits available, but part of the fun for me is doing it with household items. This was shot at the largest aperture setting available, in this case f/1.8…

As you can see, this is a pretty simple trick with some eye-catching potential, particularly for very-romanticized portraiture like engagements or babies.
As you can see, this is a pretty simple trick with some eye-catching potential, particularly for very-romanticized portraiture like engagements or babies.

How to Rock the Sunset

I made this super-telephoto sunset image a couple of years ago on the north side of Ada, Oklahoma. One reason it works so well is that I hurriedly (because the sun sets faster than you think) found a compositional element - the tree - to anchor the image. Without it, it's just a mug shot of the sun.
I made this super-telephoto sunset image a couple of years ago on the north side of Ada, Oklahoma. One reason it works so well is that I hurriedly (because the sun sets faster than you think) found a compositional element – the tree – to anchor the image. Without it, it’s just a mug shot of the sun.
In my corner of the world, southeast Oklahoma, the sky can do magic, like this after-sunset image that resembles musical notes.
In my corner of the world, southeast Oklahoma, the sky can do magic, like this after-sunset image that resembles musical notes.

Those who follow me on social media might recall that my current batch of students were disappointed that it rained during last week’s class, forcing us inside.

Tonight’s forecast is more likely to produce a sunset opportunity.

In addition to the sun and sky, objects around us take on very different, and often beautiful, appearances at sunset, like the windows of this bus in Latta, Oklahoma.
In addition to the sun and sky, objects around us take on very different, and often beautiful, appearances at sunset, like the windows of this bus in Latta, Oklahoma.
Sunset is lovely time to photograph people too. In addition to highlighting their hair and creating depth around the shoulders and head, "edge light" as it is sometimes called also means the face is illuminated by the open sky, and is softer. Also, the subject, in this case my wife Abby, doesn't have to squint into bright daylight.
Sunset is lovely time to photograph people too. In addition to highlighting their hair and creating depth around the shoulders and head, “edge light” as it is sometimes called also means the face is illuminated by the open sky, and is softer. Also, the subject, in this case my wife Abby, doesn’t have to squint into bright daylight.

All photographers with any experience know that a good sunset can be difficult to pin down, and it’s always a smarter move to be ready to shoot sunrises and sunsets when they come to you, not when you come to them.

Readers also know that I like to use the sun itself as a compositional element, often trying to emphasize its brightness by choosing a lens that makes good “sunstars” at small apertures.

Judicious use of exposure compensation can make a huge difference, since your camera doesn’t know if you are going for shadow detail or highlight detail, and will often split the difference. Don’t be afraid to crank in +3 or -4 or any other value to tell the camera what you want. I’ve seen too many disappointing sunset attempts by photographers with disappointed faces asking me, “What did I do wrong?”

There is a lot to be said for sticking around after the sun dips below the horizon as well. The so-called “blue hour” can sometimes offer amazing color values as the sun’s light strikes clouds high in the atmosphere.

Sunsets aren't always about color. The light as dusk approaches can take many forms, as in this low-angle shot of wheat grass in our pasture. This scene looked nothing like this just an hour earlier.
Sunsets aren’t always about color. The light as dusk approaches can take many forms, as in this low-angle shot of wheat grass in our pasture. This scene looked nothing like this just an hour earlier.
Springtime in America's midsection can produce some absolutely amazing visuals, like this developing thunderstorm near our home in Byng, Oklahoma.
Springtime in America’s midsection can produce some absolutely amazing visuals, like this developing thunderstorm near our home in Byng, Oklahoma.
Although temping to shoot sunsets with a wide angle lens to see a sunset from one edge of the horizon to the other, sometimes sunsets can be about subtle, fleeting moments of light, like the last rays of the sun glimmering through our walnut tree.
Although temping to shoot sunsets with a wide angle lens to see a sunset from one edge of the horizon to the other, sometimes sunsets can be about subtle, fleeting moments of light, like the last rays of the sun glimmering through our walnut tree.
My photography students and I made this image a few years ago. Using an element as a shape for silhouette can completely change the look of an image.
My photography students and I made this image a few years ago. Using an element as a shape for silhouette can completely change the look of an image.
A branch of a tree combines with subtle after-dusk clouds to make an elegant, evocative image.
A branch of a tree combines with subtle after-dusk clouds to make an elegant, evocative image.

The light changes quickly at sunrise and sunset, so we need to be ready to change quickly as well.

As with any photograph endeavor, the best results are achieved through a willingness to explore and experiment, and the realization that not every evening will deliver magic, but with persistence, we can eventually capture  magic and share it with our audience.

If you can be near a body of water or other reflective surface at sunset, you can throw that into the mix. This image, made at our home in Byng, Oklahoma, was made about 20 minutes after sunset.
If you can be near a body of water or other reflective surface at sunset, you can throw that into the mix. This image, made at our home in Byng, Oklahoma, was made about 20 minutes after sunset.