Weather comes in fits and starts in Oklahoma. Sometimes we face drought. Other times, crippling heat. Winter can bring hot, dry wildfire conditions, or it can crush us with single-digit cold.
This spring, Oklahoma was among the states in the south that experienced particularly severe weather, including a tornado that did serious damage to a town where I once lived and worked, Shawnee.
With the sky turbulent and active, it was inviting me to try to photograph it. Lightning was particularly prevalent on April 19 and May 11. On both occasions, I decided to make numerous frames of the sky, and blend them together from Adobe Photoshop layers. This idea was extra-appealing since my work laptop computer was recently upgraded, and included the continuously-updated version of all of Adobe’s editing products.
As I approach the age of 60 years, I am starting to thing about what might become of my work when I am gone.
Now, before you label me as one of those “back in my day” guys, you should know that I remain healthy and happy at my job as a news and sports photographer and staff writer.
But I thought about this extra hard recently because of two occurrences. 1. My young journalist friend Ashlynd visited my office recently, and we talked about the boxes and boxes and boxes of photographic negatives stored under the countertops here. 2. A fellow photographer came to visit recently with the goal of finding some photographic negatives from an event he photographed many years ago, and as a result, he brought down a big plastic tub full of three-ring binders full of negatives.
Neither my work nor his should be relegated to storage. In many cases, my shots were published once in the daily, then packed up neatly in Kodak boxes. That seemed like a sensible plan in the early years of my career. A few of these boxes stored over the period of a few months seemed entirely manageable. But as the years and decades rolled by, those boxes added up.
I certainly set aside many of my best negatives for contest and display, but the bulk of my work, thousands and thousands of images, sit in the dark.
I also think of the millions of images made by news photographers and reporters that might now be in the possession of newspaper/media companies long after their photographers aged out and retired or went to another paper. What plans to these understaffed media companies have for all those images?
I know it’s a lot to ponder, and I don’t know if I have a good answer. Would a historical society be interested in my negatives? Would a college library? The National Archives?
Or am I off base about this? Are the images we made and shared once in the daily newspaper or magazine simply a part of the process of living and being journalists? Have we done enough by witnessing life’s events and sharing them in print?
If you have ideas about the best way to preserve our legacies, I would love to hear them.
Wednesday, April 19, 2023 began as most Oklahoma spring days do, with a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms, and a marginal risk of severe thunderstorms.
As it happened, fellow photographer Robert Stinson was visiting from Tulsa to do some photographic negatives scanning and archiving. We took a dinner break, and when we stepped out of the restaurant we discovered that the evening sky was maturing into something photographable, so we sprang into action.
Our first stop was the Ada Regional Airport, so we could use the Beechcraft Bonanza on display at the entrance as a compositional element, and it worked out pretty well.
As we drove the rest of the way into Byng, we started to see lightning coming from the clouds some distance to the north. We wanted to photograph it, but the evening sky wasn’t really dark yet, so I walked my wolfhound, then thought about where I’d like to be to photograph lightning.
I put my dog in the back yard, then went inside to grab a hefty tripod and my Nikon D700 with one of my favorite lenses, the AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 on it. I set it up facing true north, but as you know, thunderstorms move, and this one was moving northeast.
If you’ve ever photographed lightning, you know how fickle it can be. By the time you get set up to shoot it, the last bolt could have faded, and you end up with images of dark blue sky.
Another factor is being sure you are safe. In Oklahoma, thunderstorms can get severe pretty quickly, and lightning itself is very dangerous.
Wednesday night’s storm, however, was an entire county to the north, and as I was photographing it, unknown to Robert and me, it was spawning a destructive tornado in Shawnee, about 50 miles away.
I turned my camera more to the northeast, as that seemed to be where the lightning was moving. I started making images with 10-second exposures at ISO 400 with an aperture of about f/8.
There were quite a few strikes, but since they were far away, they were small in the frame, so I started thinking about loading all the frames into Photoshop and blending them, which I have only done a few times.
Robert left to go back to Tulsa, so I loaded my images, more than 200 for the entire evening, into Adobe Bridge, where I selected only images that had visible lightning in them, 21 total, and opened them using Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers. I then selected all the layers in the layers pallet, and selected the blending mode “Lighten.”
Wham. It was that easy. I admit to being surprised by the result. I’ll definitely use this technique again.
Photography, like many complex hobbies, can involve a great deal of head-scratching, second-guessing, and wishful thinking. So many photographers and those who would like to be photographers rest their hobby on, “If only I had (this lens or that camera)…”
And sure, if I won the lottery… hm. You know what? Before I buy any more cameras, I think I’d buy an airplane.
But that’ll be the day, right? In the mean time, I am, and have been throughout my career, someone who puts hardware into my workflow to see how it will perform. Sure, anyone can shoot pictures of cats and brick walls, but those kinds of images will never tell you what you need to know.
With all that in mind, I got a grab-bag of photo gear before Christmas from an estate sale, and before long, I put all that hardware into action, including the Sigma 400mm f/5.6.
This lens was one of a group of lenses that were made by some third party, then labeled with brand names like Sigma, Tokina, Tamron, Pentax, and so on.
It was obvious from the day I took home those bags of camera gear that no one had made pictures with any of it for years, so it was exciting to use it.
The Sigma, however, comes from an era of sketchy quality control at the company, so I didn’t have particularly high expectations. I put it on my Nikon D3 and took it to tennis earlier this week, and I was able to surprise myself with the result.
The trick with a lot of lenses is that they are often not at all sharp at their largest apertures, and knowing that, I shot with the Sigma set at f/8, one full stop smaller than the maximum aperture of f/5.6, and sure enough, there was a sweet spot. Shooting at f/8, which in any situation is a small aperture, means either amping my ISO to about 1600, or putting up with slower shutter speeds. Even “stopped down,” though, this 400mm wasn’t as sharp as it’s 30-year-younger brethren.
So on sunny days when I want some reach and to carry a lighter piece of kit, look for me with this interesting legacy lens.
As a photographer, I am friends with a lot of photographers, and we as a group tend to regard cameras and lenses as more than just tools of the trade, but as prizes and even works of art.
It goes without saying that this hobby can get pretty expensive pretty fast.
It also hopefully goes without saying that cameras that aren’t being used are a bit of a tragedy. It would be analogous to paint brushes that aren’t use to paint or kitchen utensils that are never used for cooking.
I thought of this the last few days for two reasons. First, I was in Oklahoma City to cover basketball playoffs, and that put me just a few minutes away from Bedford Camera. Second, I read an article this week about a couple who discovered over 2000 cameras and lenses in an abandoned storage locker.
And no, I am not making it my goal to collect 2000 cameras.
One of my very realistic goals, however, is to have the right cameras and lenses in my bag when I need them, and that goal includes the ideas that I need to be able to make good pictures, decent video, accurate notes, and, of growing importance, I need to be able to do all this in a way that keeps me mobile and healthy.
Thus, as I was looking at some of the gear under the glass displays at Bedford Camera this week, one camera caught my eye, the Nikon D5500. This camera is at the top of the “advanced amateur” game, so it’s not really aimed at professional photographers like me, but it is small and very, very lightweight, and, thanks to a sag in the digital camera market and the huge upsurge in mirrorless camera sales, surprisingly inexpensive.
Hopefully this camera will fill a niche for me for all those times you see me prowl around for hours at a time at events like Cruisin’ Main, AdaFest, the Stratford Peach Festival, and more, for which camera performance isn’t as critical as when I am shooting sports, and where lighter, smaller gear means fewer hotpacks and Tylenol at the end of the day for me.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope to take this small wonder to its limits, and see how it can help me make better pictures for you.
A friend in town messaged me recently asking if I would be at all interested in an old movie camera. My response was, as you might expect, heck yes. I never turn down a camera of any kind.
She dropped it by our newspaper office this week. I showed it to a coworker who immediately asked, “is that a video camera?”
In a way, yes, it is a video camera, or what would have been the equivalent of a video camera in 1940.
The camera is the Bell and Howell Filmo Autoload motion picture camera, and this little camera was full of surprises.
Firstly, it is a 16mm camera. Almost all the film cameras used by hobbyists throughout the 20th century were 8mm cameras. 16mm tended to be much more expensive, somewhat higher in image quality, and were mostly used by news camera people for theatrical newsreels and, in the second half of the century, television camera operators.
Secondly, it is surprisingly heavy. Despite being the size of a clutch purse, it weighs nearly as much as a modern laptop computer. I’m not sure who in the hobby would lug around such an instrument, but I guess its weight is a reminder of how well-built stuff was when they still made it out of brass and steel.
Thirdly, it used a 16mm film cassette. I’ve literally never even seen such a product, and even if I had one, I’d likely never find a place to have such film processed. I guess I could sent it off in one of those “memory boxes” I see on social media once in a while. You know the ones – pack up all of your film, prints, video cassettes, audio cassettes, and a myriad of other analog media – and have it transferred to digital in one form or another. But they don’t say they will process motion picture film, just that they will transfer it to digital.
As I prowled around the internet looking for information about this camera, I found a video that told me in the happiest, phonisest voice, that it was, “a magic picture that moves and talks that now comes to your screen at your command.”
So I’ll have fun playing with this beautifully-made relic. I might even use it as a prop in a photo session!
Periodically, you hear me, or any of an additional million photographers and photo instructors, say that your next lens should probably a 50mm. Why? Whether you are shooting larger sensor cameras like 24x36mm, or smaller sensors like the APS-C or Micro 4/3, the 50mm lens does some amazing things few other lenses can. Why?
50mm is about two inches, so lenses around this focal length are, in human terms and scales of economy, easy and cheap to build, and as a result…
There are millions and millions of them in the world, mostly very affordable or even in your possession already, since this lens was sold with most cameras during the end of the film era, from the 1960s to the early 2000s.
Many 50mm lenses feature a large maximum aperture compared to kits lenses of today. Even the least expensive of them typically open up to f/1.8, and some older ones are f/1.4. Both are very large when compared to 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lenses.
That large aperture translates into easier focusing, better low-light performance, and, the biggest one, shallow depth of field.
Because of it’s human-scale build-ability, the 50mm class of lenses also tends to be a satisfyingly sharp lens. But I recently bought a lens in this class, a 58mm, at an estate sale that I found a bit disappointing: the MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4.
Why? The reason we like these lenses is their ability to shoot at that large aperture. f/1.4 is an almost magical aperture setting for a lot of photography. It can render backgrounds as satisfying washes of color and light, it makes for a good working distance for pictures of people, and some of these lenses create an almost dream-like quality to an image by introducing unique flare, ghosting, or other aberrations that add an almost antique quality to our images.
This 58mm fell short in early efforts to use it.
The big disappointment for this lens is the bokeh. For those who don’t understand this subtle concept (about 90% of all photographers, a topic for another day), bokeh is a word used to describe the quality of the out-of-focus areas of an image. As you can see, bokeh for this lens is cluttered, linear and distracting, or, as I like to say, ratty.
So while I won’t throw this lens in the trash, it’s disappointing performance combines with a slow, heavy, inconvenient build, rendering it a place on display on a shelf, not in my camera bag.
Lately we in the photography community have seen an uptick in articles in the photography press about AI – artificial intelligence – and the idea that it endangers the authenticity of photography.
When talking to some of my favorite photographers, I heard, not at all surprisingly, that we believe our own work isn’t immediately or directly threatened by this trend.
One question that comes to my mind early in these conversations is, “Why would you want to create artificial images?” The answer is discouragingly obvious: money. Nobody hires coders and puts them in front of sophisticated computers out of the goodness or their hearts, or even really out of curiosity. They just want to make money.
Photographers have to make a living too, of course.
One of my photographer friends in Tulsa has been trending toward the use of film and very old cameras as a way of reinforcing the idea that his work is authentic.
Another photographer, a friend here in town, was just recently pondering her point of view, and was asking herself some very relevant, very insightful questions, such as, “Do these photos really show who my client is, or just who I think she is?”
It’s a fine line, and one that many photographers can lose sight of as they try more and more to show off their skills, and try less and less to give the client, or in my case the public, what they need and have paid for.
Finally, of course, are the bigger-picture issues (pun intended) – is fake photography taking the place of and destroying real, authentic photography, photojournalism, and even the truth? Fake news, fake images, fake societies – what can we do to remain authentic?
My photographer friend Robert was in town this weekend, and we did the photographer thing, including a photo shoot Robert did for some of his fellow church friends.
Robert and I share a slightly out-of-balance love for lenses. Lenses are beautiful and interesting. Lenses tease our imaginations. We desire lenses, all lenses, even lenses we don’t really think we will use.
Add this to the fact that I currently have a photography student who has designs on owning the entire line of current Fujifilm lenses, and the fact that Robert brought essentially all of his lenses when he visited, and that today I received a delivery of a very cool lens I bought on eBay, and the result is a kind of lens mania.
The lens I bought is one of the oldest Fujifilm lenses, an 18mm f/2.0. I was interested in it for several reasons: it is very small and lightweight, it wasn’t very expensive, it’s a nice wide angle without being ultrawide, and, lastly, because I was very inspired by the work my young friend Mackenzee has been doing with her Fuji X100V, which is equipped with a 23mm f/2.0 lens.
I’ve only had this 18mm for a couple of hours, but it’s appears to be the lens I expected it to be. On my Fuji X-T10, it makes a very small package that is as light as it is inconspicuous. Focus is quick but a bit chattery, and the few frames I put through it look great.
At least one internet review of this lens says it is only for the Fuji X-Pro1 and X-E1, but that is not the case. It appears to work fine on my X-T10.
I expect I’ll make it part of my travel kit, not my news kit, since I tend to be pretty rough when shooting news. But watch this space for many more efforts to come with this combination!
As anyone and everyone knows, most pictures viewed by human beings every day are viewed on screens of one kind or another. Important exceptions are, of course, my own newspaper, which is always better viewed in print, and many more visually-oriented publications.
It’s fun to share images on social media or, preferably, here on my own website, but without a doubt, when I have an image that I really love, a nice big print of it can really bring it to life.
For a long time, I had a very nice large-format printer, and printed quite a few images, but it died a couple of years ago, so I switched to ordering prints online, which, though they lack to immediacy and quality-control of in-house printing, are actually very good, and, when you consider the cost of inkjet ink, quite a lot cheaper.
Recently, my printer of choice for paper prints, and items like calendars and books, has been shutterfly.com.
While looking over prints to hang on my walls at home, I remembered a product that was all the rage when it came out in the early 1980s: Kodak Elite Fine-Art Paper. It was a wonderful product, and delivered on its promise of super-rich tonal qualities on an extra-luxurious fiber-based paper. But like all great things from Kodak, it is just a memory, and, at least on the web, not a well-preserved memory. My photographer friends in college tried it, but it was so expensive that we could only buy a few sheets at a time. As far as I know, I don’t have any images in my collection made with this product.
If you have an image or three that you really love, consider having it printed really big, frame it, and display it in your home or workplace. Or if you are not a photographer, consider purchasing art from a local vendor at something like an arts festival, gathering place, or even on the street, then display it. I promise it will mean so much more than something you flashed past on your phone.
“For you life is a long trip Terrifying and wonderful Birds sing to you at night The rain and the sun The changing seasons are true friends Solitude is a hard won ally Faithful and patient…” ~Henry Rollins
This week our patch of the world is looking especially green and healthy. In it, I walk my dogs, trim branches, mow, and, if there is time and the light looks inviting, grab a camera.
One of my favorite focal lengths is 85mm. In fact, not counting zoom lenses that pass through the 85mm focal length, I own three 85mm lenses. The one I grabbed for this walk in the pasture was the 85mm f/2.0 Nikkor of 1980’s vintage, a wonderful lens with virtually no vices. It’s sharp, bright, light, and is so well made that just holding it in my hands reminds me why I love cameras and lenses.
Last week I found a largish water snake in the back yard. To me, snakes are beautiful and very helpful in keeping nature in balance, and the only time I ever destroy a snake is if I think it is venomous or threatening my neighbor’s chickens.
At the end of the evening, I came across a large tarantula. Despite a lizard-brain, visceral fear of spiders, I know these, like snakes, are part of a healthy ecosystem, so I shooed him out of the yard into the pasture.
One of the biggest reasons my generation of photographers started with Nikon was their absolutely fantastic lenses. They were well-built, solid, heavy, and made incredible images.
To stay competitive starting in the late 1990s, however, Nikon had to take some serious shortcuts, one of which was the extensive use of plastic in the bodies of many of their lenses.
The AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6G is one such lens. I originally bought this lens for my wife as part of a “kit,” married to a Nikon D70S and an 18-70mm lens. For years, she shot with these lenses at family reunions or on road trips. Eventually, we replaced her two-lens kit with a single lens, a Tamron 18-250mm, which, while not all that great optically, greatly simplified the logistics of her photography: every lens she needed was at her fingertips with a simple turn of a zoom ring.
I spotted the modest 70-300mm sadly gathering dust on a shelf recently, and put it into my workflow, only to be instantly reminded of its shortcomings.
So why is the 70-300mm, and other lenses like it, weaker than other lenses in this same category? It is missing a single item: extra-low dispersion glass. Nikon calls this “ED” glass, and even though my other 70-300mm had just one small ED glass element, it makes a noticeable difference.
ED glass fixes one of the most vexing problems with telephoto lenses: secondary chromatic aberrations, which are green and magenta color fringes on some edges of some images.
One thing this lens has going for it is it’s weight: it is so light on the camera that you might think it’s not even there.
Despite its flaws, I’m not going to get rid of this lens. If you know what to do, you can make pretty decent images with it. 1. Don’t shoot it at 300mm. Optical quality starts to deteriorate at about 200mm, and 300mm is a wreck. 2. Always stop it down a little. “Stopping down” means using a lens with the aperture set smaller than wide open. Most lenses are sharper stopped down a little, but it makes a big difference with this class of lenses. 3. Be patient with autofocus. Lenses with smallish maximum apertures tend to cause autofocus to hunt and wander, looking for right right spot to be in focus.
If you have a lens like this, shoot with it and decide if it is doing the job for you, or if you should think about replacing it with something larger, heavier and more expensive, but much more capable.