The “Undisputed King” of the Wide Angle

The biggest event I photographed in my months in Illinois in 1988 was a visit from Vice President George H. Bush. It was then I heard him utter his famous line, "No new taxes," which turned out to be a lie.
The biggest event I photographed in my months in Illinois in 1988 was a visit from Vice President George H. Bush. It was then I heard him utter his famous line, “No new taxes,” which turned out to be a lie.

When I was 25 I worked for a short time at a newspaper in Ottawa, Illinois called The Daily Times. It has since merged with a neighboring newspaper and become simply The Times. In my short time there, I shot well, in part because I was partnered with another young photographer named Harold Krewer.

Harold was friendlier than I was in those days, and more outgoing. In years since then, however, particularly after getting married, I am about as outgoing and friendly as anyone I know.

Harold and I loved to shoot news and sports. To add spice to our daily routine of grip-and-grins and rubber chicken luncheons, Harold and I would challenge each other to, for lack of a better term, shoot-outs. We would set out in opposite directions and meet back at the office in an hour with what each of us hoped would be the better image. We both shot well when we did this, and it kept us sharp.

One thing that became more and more apparent as this activity went on was that while I probably had an edge with telephoto lenses, particularly my 180mm, Harold established himself as “the undisputed king of the wide angle.” I can’t recall with total certainty, but I think his go-to lens was the Nikkor 24mm f/2.8, a staple in many photojournalists bags of the era. He made that lens sing. The angles and compositions he got with it were aesthetically and geometrically amazing.

I photographed these two girls at a street festival in Streator, Illinois, in 1988 with one of my favorite lenses of the era, the Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 ED. In recent years I have replaced that lens with the excellent AF-Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 ED.
I photographed these two girls at a street festival in Streator, Illinois, in 1988 with one of my favorite lenses of the era, the Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 ED. In recent years I have replaced that lens with the excellent AF-Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 ED.

Like all photojournalists, I use wide angle lenses all the time. My bread-and-butter lens on the job in the last few years has been the excellent Tokina 12-24mm f/4, which is a lens designed for 15x24mm image sensors, so its analog in the film era would be roughly 18-36mm. I’m good with it. I am not, however, the wide angle artist that Harold was.

I talked to Harold on the phone recently. He left journalism some years ago to pursue a career in his first real love, railroads. It was good to talk to him, and particularly neat that he remembered, word for word, the phrase, “undisputed king of the wide angle.”

This is my Tokina AT-X Pro 12-24mm f/4 DX lens, my standard wide angle. Note that the lens hood has a black band around it, which is a piece of bike tire inner tube. It helps hold the hood together because two weeks ago a football player knocked it out of my hand onto the ground. The hood, which is plastic, cracked, but the lens was undamaged.
This is my Tokina AT-X Pro 12-24mm f/4 DX lens, my standard wide angle. Note that the lens hood has a black band around it, which is a piece of bike tire inner tube. It helps hold the hood together because two weeks ago a football player knocked it out of my hand onto the ground. The hood, which is plastic, cracked, but the lens was undamaged.

The New Normal

This is Nikon's 35mm f/1.8 lens mounted on one of my D80s. As you can see, it is compact, and I can attest that it is also very lightweight.
This is Nikon’s 35mm f/1.8 lens mounted on one of my D80s. As you can see, it is compact, and I can attest that it is also very lightweight.

During the heyday of 35mm photographic film, single lens reflex (SLR) camera bodies were very often sold with a “normal” lens on them, a 50mm. There were several reasons for this; the 50mm was small enough that it fit into most photographer’s hands easily, it was cheap to manufacture, it was lightweight, it usually sported a fast (meaning large) maximum aperture, and, most significantly, its angle of view on a 35mm film SLR approximated the perspective of human vision. When you looked though a 50mm lens mounted on a camera, you saw a bright, clear image that was akin to what your eye saw.

Abby made this wedding portrait in evening light. As you can see, even with the tree-filtered sun in the image, there is little flare or ghosting, and the image is perfectly sharp.
Abby made this wedding portrait in evening light. As you can see, even with the tree-filtered sun in the image, there is little flare or ghosting, and the image is perfectly sharp.

Enter the digital SLR camera. Unlike the ubiquitous 35mm film camera, digital cameras continue to be sold with several sizes of sensors, and as a result, the 50mm is a normal lens on some cameras, but a short telephoto on others. On some early digitals like the Kodak DCS315, a 50mm lens gave the field of view of a 130mm on a film camera. Most of the digital SLRs in the field today have sensors of the so-called APS-C size, which is about 24mm x 15mm, or approximately 1.5 times smaller than a 35mm film frame. As a result, the 50mm gives a field of view equivalent to about what a 75mm lens gave on a film SLR.

That left the photographic world with a gap. What was the new normal lens? As it turned out, advances in computer aided manufacturing allowed lens makers to build small, cheap zoom lenses to sell with their new digital SLRs. These became known as “kit lenses,” since they were sold with a DSLR as a kit. These zooms, typically 18-55mm focal length, filled in for the normal lens on the APS-C sized sensor, which, if you do the math, is about 33mm.

Shallow depth of field can isolate a subject very effectively, like with this pair of reading glasses in our living room.
Shallow depth of field can isolate a subject very effectively, like with this pair of reading glasses in our living room.

What is decidedly lacking in the kit zoom is a large maximum aperture. Why does this matter? Large maximum apertures give a nice, bright viewfinder images, allow us to shoot in low-light situations, and can give us shallow depth of field to isolate our subjects. To this end, last year before Abby’s family reunion, I bought her an AF-Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX, since I knew there would be many low-light situations coming up for which her superzoom would be too dark. It turns out that this is one of Nikon’s gems, and everything we shoot with it is solid gold. Abby misses the ability to zoom, but at a wedding we worked Saturday night, she did a great job of “zooming with her feet,” and she made many great images with the 35mm f/1.8.

As I started to pen this piece, I prowled around the house and the pasture for a few minutes to come up with a few new examples, and once again had no difficulty at all making some rather nice images. The examples I shot today were made at f/2 or f/2.8, since that is exactly the point of having such a lens.

Finally, the price is right. I think we paid $199. I highly recommend it.

I found this board with rusted screws in it down by one of the barns where Dorothy recently had a garage sale. This image is sharp, with that nice large-aperture selective-focus effect not possible with smaller-aperture zooms.
I found this board with rusted screws in it down by one of the barns where Dorothy recently had a garage sale. This image is sharp, with that nice large-aperture selective-focus effect not possible with smaller-aperture zooms.

Little Skills

In the darkroom era you could purchase dodging kits made of wire and precut cardboard shapes, but I made my own by epoxying a quarter to the end of a piece of wire coat hanger, and a dime to the other end. A facsimile of the dodging tool is still available today in programs like Adobe Photoshop.
In the darkroom era you could purchase dodging kits made of wire and precut cardboard shapes, but I made my own by epoxying a quarter to the end of a piece of wire coat hanger, and a dime to the other end. A facsimile of the dodging tool is still available today in programs like Adobe Photoshop.

When I was first coming up through the ranks of photographers in the early 1980s, the technology of imaging was quite different than it is today. For example, the dominant professional camera of the time was the Nikon F3, a machine that was very much like a photographic sports car. I didn’t have an F3 in the 1980s, largely because it was out of my price range, particularly in college. (Eventually I got a used one in 1998.) But I did watch a lot of professional photographers use them. Since I was a student at Oklahoma University during the 1985 football season, during which OU won a national championship, I saw photographers from from The Dallas Morning News, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, and even Sports Illustrated, and watched with awe and fascination as they handled cameras like the F3.

Digging through Dorothy Milligan's house the other day (in advance of having a big garage sale for her), I found this roll of Kodak T-Max 400 film I hand loaded for her about 15 years ago for her to use to illustrate her "Byng News" column. That was long before I became her de facto son-in-law.
Digging through Dorothy Milligan’s house the other day (in advance of having a big garage sale for her), I found this roll of Kodak T-Max 400 film I hand loaded for her about 15 years ago for her to use to illustrate her “Byng News” column. That was long before I became her de facto son-in-law.

As I grew into a career as a professional photographer, I honed all kinds of little skills, such as being able to…

  • Load a roll of film into my camera in about eight seconds.
  • Load a camera in the dark.
  • Load a camera in the rain and keep the rain out of the camera’s interior.
  • Guess exposure to within about one f-stop.
  • Shoot while walking backwards.
  • Load film onto a stainless steel reel.
  • Process a roll of black-and-white film in just ten minutes.
  • “Push process” ordinary Kodak Tri-X film to stratospheric ISO values.
  • Dodge and burn my prints, and print quickly.
  • Hand roll 36-exposure film cassettes in about ten seconds.
  • And the big one: manually focus.

Okay, in today’s autofocus-saturated world, the last skill is particularly hard for younger photographers to appreciate. The truth is that for the first 20 years of my career, I neither had autofocus, nor did I need it. And to this day, I have a couple of extraordinary manual focus lenses (a 400mm f/3.5, and a 200mm f/2.0) that I can manually focus swiftly and precisely. Realistically, I could never afford to replace them with modern autofocus versions (about $8000 and $5000 respectively), nor would I really have any need to replace them. But I have them, and bring them out once in a while to keep my game and my eye fresh.

Many of my little skills became obsolete in the digital era, but some translated well. This evolutionary process has been a happy journey of learning for me, and I am excited to see what’s next.

Yes, walking backwards while shooting is an acquired skill. It takes more common sense than hand/eye coordination, in the form of actually looking behind you once in a while. (Photo by Robert Stinson)
Yes, walking backwards while shooting is an acquired skill. It takes more common sense than hand/eye coordination, in the form of actually looking behind you once in a while. (Photo by Robert Stinson)

Tech Pan and the Great Grainlessness Quest

Long before the digital revolution, my friends and I struggled to find the ideal way to express our photographic vision using film. Film was a fickle mistress at best, since it took a fair amount of finesse plus a huge amount of memorization to utilize film.

A lot of photographers in the film era settled on a favorite film. My grandfather used nothing but Kodachrome. Another friend of mine used nothing but Fujichrome Velvia.

This was the first frame I ever shot using Technical Pan Film, of water running in a stainless steel film developing tank. It was a dazzlingly sharp and grainless shot that was completely uninteresting.
This was the first frame I ever shot using Technical Pan Film, of water running in a stainless steel film developing tank. It was a dazzlingly sharp and grainless shot that was completely uninteresting.

I, on the other hand, was very much into black-and-white. When the mood strikes, I still gravitate toward the simplicity and elegance of a grayscale image. To that end, I worked with a lot of different black-and-white films over the years. I tried AgfaPan APX100, Ilford’s 400 and 1600 films, and even the occasional NeoPan 400.

In the end, I kept coming back to Kodak films. I never loved the tone I got from Pan-X or Plus-X, preferring the tonal range of the ever-forgiving Tri-X, a 400-speed film, but at the cost of a fair amount of grain. For a while I was souping my Tri-X in Microdol-X, a supposed fine grain developer. In terms of tonal quality and utter forgiveness of exposure errors, I loved Kodak’s Verichrome Pan Film, which was only available in 120 size.

It was with all these variables in mind that my photographer friends and I were pretty excited when, in the early 1980s, Kodak introduced Kodak Technical Pan Film. Developed as a lithographic film (meaning that it was not a continuous-tone film, but pure blacks and white only) for industrial uses, Kodak introduced with the film it’s own developer, Technidol, a compensating developer that allowed the film to be used for full-tone imaging. When processed in Technidol, Tech Pan was rated at about ISO 25, but promised to have the grain and resolution of large format image, like a 4×5-inch view camera makes, from a 35mm camera.

We eagerly loaded up and … uh, what now? The immediate problem was that anything in our regular photographic pantheon we wanted to shoot required 400 speed or higher film. To use Tech Pan, we had to make up stuff to shoot. That, of course, resulted in super-sharp, super-fine-grained images of our desk lamps. Then we discovered just how difficult it was to print this film, which was manufactured on a super-thin Estar-AH plastic base, which showed absolutely every speck of dust no matter how clean we kept our darkrooms.

In the end, I wasn’t really able to integrate Tech Pan into my work flow. In total, I doubt I shot more than ten rolls of it. Once in a while we found a legitimate use for it, but by then the film and/or the developer had expired, and had to replaced before we could shoot. I have maybe five memorable images made with Technical Pan Film.

This is one of the very few legitimately interesting images I made on Technical Pan Film, in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma in about 1984.
This is one of the very few legitimately interesting images I made on Technical Pan Film, in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma in about 1984.

Just What We Needed: Another Wheel

In the 1990s, Kodak decided, as they had many times before, to create a new film format, one that would “revolutionize” photography for the common man. This new format, like disc film, 35mm half-frame and 126 before it, would do away with the annoyances of 35mm film and make loading a camera easy and foolproof. It was called the “Advanced Photos System” and the only thing it revolutionized was the way big companies thought they could bully their customers into buying something they neither needed nor wanted.

My grandfather's Kodak Bantam camera; throughout his life, this was the only camera he owned, and with it he made literally thousands of beautiful photographs.
My grandfather’s Kodak Bantam camera; throughout his life, this was the only camera he owned, and with it he made literally thousands of beautiful photographs.

Essentially, they were reinventing the wheel. Again. All we ever really needed from a wheel was that it was round.

Now the photographic industry is re-reinventing the wheel. The newest iteration of this reinvention in digital photography is called “mirrorless,” and it is supposed to be a fusion of small point-and-shoot cameras with the advantage of interchangable lenses like digital SLRs. It isn’t what we need, and in many cases, it isn’t what we want.

I can tell you that what I am witnessing in the field adjudicates my opinion on this matter: more and more people are using their mobile devices instead of separate cameras to gather photographs of their lives. The future of cameras for people who aren’t photographers isn’t in yet another format or yet another design, but in something that is convienient for them. Image quality for the common man takes a back seat, and not just a back seat but a seat at the back of the bus. People show me photos all the time of their kids or friends or even of news events with the admonition, “I know the quality isn’t very good, but…” They just don’t care. They care about their kids and their own lives and their memories, which are all easiest to record with, very simply, whatever is most convenient. The sidelines of games on high school senior night are crowded with parents, and easily 80% of them are holding up their smart phones to make pictures or video. Even if the average Joe has a digital SLR and a digital point-and-shoot and a new mirrorless digital, he doesn’t want to lug all that stuff around. (I also know this because all of the digital SLRs my students bring to class are in pristine condition.) He just wants to pull his smart phone out of his pocket and shoot. Then he just wants to pull it out later at work and show all his friends what he shot on his phone, or push a button the instant he shoots it to upload it to Twitter or Facebook. Those 2×3-inch photos on his phone are what he wants.

It must be infuriating and annoying to the average person now, in 2011, to be told yet again that his camera isn’t good enough, and that some engineer in Japan has come up with something better for 700 of their hard-earned dollars. Add to that the fact that the language of the advertising is increasingly ingenuine. We’ve come to expect that from ads for perfume and sports drinks. But in the past, camera makers more or less stuck with, “Our camera is better.” But now we have ads that practically tell us we will become sexually aroused if we buy their equipment. Here are a few examples of the paradigm:

  • “Experience It” ~theme for Nikon 1 system
  • On a photo forum, a reader writes, “Thanks for the suggestion to look into the mirrorless cameras. I am attracted to them.”
  • “Nikon 1 J1 for the freedom to capture, communicate and connect to life. Your zest for life is fueled by a desire to communicate all that you experience. Share the very incredible world that is yours with Nikon 1.” ~on the Nikon 1 page.
  • The Pentax Q promises, “a sensor that carves out an entirely new camera category.” (I am not sure about the name “Q”. Is it aimed at the Star Trek market, or the LGBT scene?)
  • “A whole new image.” ~Sony NEX mirroless page. (The page also says these new cameras feature a “huge” new sensor, which is about 13x9mm. Remind me to mail a dictionary to Sony.)

I suppose you could argue that more choices in the photography world give us more chances to make an informed decision. The only smart informed decision is to shoot with what you have. The only people who need more or better cameras are those who shoot literally thousands of images a week. Everyone else has, quite honestly, enough cameras, because, quite honestly, they aren’t photographers. Thus this is a mandate to you to get that 2005 digital camera out of its dusty bag and go take some pictures, and leave the engine of commerce to the MBAs.

Beautiful images like this 1949 picture of my aunt and mother aren't made by Samsung or Nikon or Sony, but by people with hearts and spirits.
Beautiful images like this 1949 picture of my aunt and mother aren’t made by Samsung or Nikon or Sony, but by people with hearts and spirits.

Update: The Barber Peak Experiment

I am reenergizing this after a dormancy period. Please consider participating. I had a lot of fun with these two new images…

Magnetic Field of Dreams
Magnetic Field of Dreams
Another Five Billion Years or So
Another Five Billion Years or So
This is the original image, scanned from a 35mm negative. Click it, then click it again to download the full-sized version so you can edit it.
This is the original image, scanned from a 35mm negative. Click it, then click it again to download the full-sized version so you can edit it.

It stared in 2000, on a trip called The Shooting Spree. Coming south out of Farmington, New Mexico, just after sunset, I saw the moon rising to my left. As I moved along, I saw a handsome peak ahead, Barber Peak, and stopped to photograph the moon rising behind it. At the time, I was mostly shooting black-and-white film, and didn’t have all that much experience with shooting the night sky in the desert. I made three exposures at about f/8, of 30 seconds, one minute, and 90 seconds. With the ISO 32 film I was using, all three frames ended up too thin (that’s filmspeak for underexposed or underdeveloped), and the best of them, made at 90 seconds, doesn’t print or scan very well.

I still thought it was a seminal moment, and, after some ponderance, decided to play around with it in Photoshop, and share it with a few friends and see what they could make of it. I got some interesting results.

My readers are welcome to download the full-size version by clicking on the thumbnail at left, then clicking that image to get to the full-sized file, then saving it to your hard drive. When you are done editing it, email the result to me  at groups@richardbarron.net and I will post it here.

Here are the results of the first round of efforts, including a couple of my own, which were quite amusing. They might give you some ideas about what you’d like to do with this image…

Sunmoon Synchronicity
Sunmoon Synchronicity
Six Prints None the Richer
Six Prints None the Richer
Image by Brenda Wheelock
Image by Brenda Wheelock
Image by Michael D. Zeiler
Image by Michael D. Zeiler
Image by R. E. Stinson
Image by R. E. Stinson

An Ode to Film

In 1998, the company bought me a film scanner, and the computer to go with it. Within a few weeks of tweaking and adjusting, I was scanning everything. That left two 500-sheet boxes of Kodak Ektamatic SC black-and-white, single-weight paper sitting on the shelves in my office. For a while I kept them, just in case I needed them, but by the following summer, I realized I would never use them, and decided to conjure some kind of fine art project I could shoot and print on this abandoned black-and-white paper. Since I have always been drawn to the high desert, I decided to go on a driving tour of New Mexico. That tour, in July of 1999, yielded less than I had hoped, since I am, by profession, a news and sports shooter, with little experience at the time shooting fine art in the desert. I might have made 15 passable images, but it served to inspire me to return and shoot black-and-white again in September 2000. My film was usually Panatomic-X for 35mm, and Verichrome Pan Film for medium format. Occasionally I would play around with Technical Pan Film or High Speed Infrared, or even more rarely, Ilford and Agfa films.

I have boxes and boxes of black-and-white prints spanning a couple of decades. When I get them out, I am reminded of the pleasure black-and-white shooting provided me, and of how much my photography owes this heritage.

Approaching thunderstorm, Puyé Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico, July 1999
Approaching thunderstorm, Puyé Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico, July 1999