Carrying a Big Stick

My well-used 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S Nikkor
My well-used 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S Nikkor

Like most professionals who shoot news and sports for a living, I have, and shoot, a big f/2.8 lens in my bag. The Zoom Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S is the bread and butter for most of the occasions when I am faced with low light and the need for faster shutter speeds. It is everything you would expect for its $1600 price tag: sharp at all apertures, fast to focus, and ruggedly built. The only significant disadvantage, other than the big hit to the check book, is that it is big and heavy. I’m not talking about big like a “big” 50mm f/1.4, but big. With the petal-style hood, it’s more than a foot in length, and bigger around than a soup can. The book says it weighs 1200g, which is 1.2 kg, or about 2.7 pounds. I try to grab this behemoth only when it is really necessary, but the images I get from it on a daily basis are nothing short of amazing, so it’s hard to put down.

Ultimately, all the factors that work against this gem are outdone by its amazing performance. On the margins of light, it seems that f/2.8 has established itself as the critical f-stop. Since the purchase of mine in 2001 by my newspaper, this big news lens has gone through a couple of additional iterations, and the current version, the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II is fetching nearly $2500. It’s worth every penny, if you have that many pennies.

When Photographers Congregate

I have been hanging out with photographers since high school, and it proves, if nothing else, that there is some validity to the axiom, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Like cops who hang out with cops, or college professors who hang out with college professors, I have always sought the company of other photographers. It hasn’t always been easy; I am the only actual news photographer in my community. But some of my best friends like Michael, and my lovely wife, are photographers.

At Eisenhower High School I was cloistered with several photographers in a narrow room at the end of the building. That darkroom had a concrete sink, the likes of which I haven’t seen since. Chip, Kevin, Gary and I crowded in there and talked about the magic of photography, which, except for one day-long failed experiment, was black-and-white. There were few things that fascinated me as a teenager as much as the ambiance of discovery as my 8×10 glossy developed before my eyes under the ubiquitous Kodak OC-amber safelight.

In college there were more people with cameras. That’s where I met Scott and Robert, the Mormons from Tulsa, and Bill the physicist, who would buy me a pizza just for the chance to talk cameras. David the AP photographer got me some stringer jobs, and from there I went to my first newspaper, the Shawnee News-Star. I worked the night shift, and Ed worked days. He had been shooting pictures for a living since returning from Vietnam, and is still there to this day. I worked with a big jolly guy named Harold for a while before I came to Ada, where I have been for nearly 21 years.

Photographer and friend Wil C. Fry photographs my goats, spring 2009.
Photographer and friend Wil C. Fry photographs my goats, spring 2009.

I still find photographers who will hang out with me. Jim, Paul, Steve, Doug, and Ann, the gang at the Daily Oklahoman, are always a welcome sight on the sidelines. I run into Kelly from the Tulsa paper sometimes, too. And I always made time to find Steve from the Ardmoreite on the opposite sideline during the traditional Ada-Ardmore football rivalry in August.

Lately I have been running into Wil C. Fry more and more. Until recently he’s been the sports editor and photographer for the nearby Seminole newspaper for seven or eight years, and though he claims to be very shy, I always made it a point to strike up conversation with him when we were both covering the same games. When Abby and I learned that he and his charming wife Marline were moving away this summer, we made a point to invite them to dinner, and they came to our home in Byng last night. Since we are all photographers to some degree, there was, of course, photography. Among other things, Wil and I made the circuit around our country patch at last light to photograph the wildflowers, the barns, the rusty gates, whatever we could find. He really seemed to like the images he was getting.

I feel that same way when my students and I got into the field to make pictures, like it is summoning some distant and constant memory of being with photographers and making pictures. I don’t know; maybe race car drivers talk about octane and steering ratios when they get together. I can tell you that when photographers get together, it’s an opportunity to get out of our little vacuum and see what others like us are doing. It’s a little Socratic, I guess; we walk the plaza discussing our philosophies. It is an exchange of creative energy in which I am always glad to participate.

Sharpness: Value, Perception and Reality

Frequently in the field or the classroom I am asked how I get my images so sharp. Often the question takes a more vague form, like, “how do you get your images so crisp?” or, “Why are my pictures so fuzzy?”

In the biz, the opposites are sharp and soft. In the world of the internet, sharpness is often regarded as the gold standard on which images are judged, and this can often lead people astray when making pictures. I feel that the reason for this is that raw sharpness is sometimes difficult to achieve on a technical level, and reaching a skill level at which one is making sharp images represents a “graduation” of sorts. Regrettably, many potential photographers stop at that point on the learning curve, and remain satisfied to post their photos of their cat’s whiskers or a blue jay’s plumage, proving that they are “good” photographers.

So much time is wasted doing this. And as new and supposedly better digital cameras come to the market, much money is wasted as well. Being able to make sharp images should be regarded as a tool in the box of picture taking, not a goal or destination. History and photography are burdened with sharp photographs that do little to inspire the human condition.

Once you learn to make sharp photos, you can forget it. So much more lies in front of your camera.

Sharp images, like this one of wildflowers, impersonate the idea of seeing things clearly with the human eye, but the art of photography is capable of rendering perception in so many different ways.
Sharp images, like this one of wildflowers, impersonate the idea of seeing things clearly with the human eye, but the art of photography is capable of rendering perception in so many different ways.

Etiquette for Photographers

I was recently exposed to a photographer of a different ilk: essentially a bully, this guy used a referees whistle to control crowds, pushed and shoved his way around, and, when told he was out of line, resorted to ridiculous lies and profanity. He was a very unprofessional photographer.

Your host with his cameras at White Sands National Monument, summer 1999
Your host with his cameras at White Sands National Monument, summer 1999

The etiquette of photography is, like all social etiquette, a dynamic set of behavioral expectations based on The Golden Rule. I say that it is dynamic because the situations involved are so varied. On the sidelines at a professional football game there is an expectation of competitiveness; at a funeral there is an expectation of reverence; at a crime scene there is an expectation of preservation of evidence; and so on. Above all these expectations is an expectation of respect, and I have always made an effort to show respect in all my photographic journeys, be they at a junior high football game, a home destroyed by fire, or the fragile majesty of the desert.

Many photographers have huge egos, and as a result they adopt arrogant postures in their behaviors. Ultimately, of course, this kind of behavior damages their reputations, and the reputations of those they represent. In your travels to make pictures, don’t forget that you represent a community of artists. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The Greens of Summer

My grandmother, Lydia Batten, in about 1943, photographed with the tiny Kodak Bantam camera
My grandmother, Lydia Batten, in about 1943, photographed with the tiny Kodak Bantam camera

Robert Stinson called me yesterday to mourn the demise of Kodachrome, the once-popular color slide film that was originally introduced in 1935. Kodak is discontinuing the film after 74 years because of dwindling sales in the digital age, and because there is only one lab remaining in the world that is able to process this unique film, the only film that is developed using the complicated 17-stage K-14 separation process. My own experience with Kodachrome is somewhat limited, but my grandfather, Richard Batten, shot thousands of Kodachrome slides in his lifetime, most of which are in my possession, and are in excellent condition. He used a tiny Kodak Bantam 828 camera. He is, apparently, the one from whom I inherited my photographic skills.

Kodak’s 828 film was unique. It used the yellow paper backing common to medium format, but measured 35mm wide like the much more popular 135-size film. The actual frame is slightly larger in both directions than a standard 35mm frame. Also like medium format, you didn’t rewind the film when you were done; you loaded it on the left to start, shot, then took it out on the right when you were finished, leaving the spool on the left, which you moved to the right side to act as the new take-up spool. It worked fine unless you lost the spool.

My grandfather must have been a very patient man to make so many excellent photographs with such a tedious and taxing tool. Of course, even today, patience is often what separates mediocre photographers from great ones, regardless of their cameras.

The manual focus, manual exposure Kodak Bantam 828 camera.
The manual focus, manual exposure Kodak Bantam 828 camera.

Big Isn’t Necessarily Better

For years the mainstream of digital photographers clamored for a “full-frame” sensor. The smaller 15mm x 24mm sensors in digital SLRs since 1999 were too small, they claimed. When were we going to see a “real” sensor? Eventually the camera industry responded, and by 2007, both Canon and Nikon had cameras that sported 36mm x 24mm sensors. The reason this sensor size was regarded as “real” is that before digital, this was the size of the frame in 35mm film photography. This is also why, in my opinion, it is specious to regard this size as the gold standard of photography.

35mm photography represents an arbitrary compromise from the outset: it was originally intended to take advantage of left over 35mm motion picture film, in a way that let snapshot photographers use small, inconspicuous cameras that were easy to understand. 35mm was not, by its design, meant to be a bellwether of quality. It was intended to be convenient.

Mimosa blossom made with a humble six megapixel imaging sensor. This image looks great enlarged to 13x19 inches.
Mimosa blossom made with a humble six megapixel imaging sensor. This image looks great enlarged to 13x19 inches.

Photographers who claim to “need” the so-called full-frame sensors are missing the bigger picture: it’s a compromise. If they really want top quality, they should pine for some of the larger-format digital systems offered by companies like Phase One and Hasselblad, and quit trying to make digital photography like in the “old days” of film. If, on the other hand, they desire the convenience and affordability of smaller formats, the so-called “DX”-sized sensors, also known as APS-C, or even the new 4/3 sensors, make perfect sense.

In the end, it is ironic that lots of photographers will pay a huge premium for a lame compromise.

A Wide Angle for the Rest of Us

Nikon and Canon make fantastic ultra-wide lenses for their APS-sized sensors sensors, and while I would not hesitate to recommend them, I would say that Nikon and Canon are so proud of them that only larger-than-individual entities like newspapers and photo studios can actually reasonably afford them. For the rest of us I offer this: the Tokina AT-X 124 PRO DX II.

AT-X PRO SD 12-24mm F4 ED (IF)
AT-X PRO SD 12-24mm F4 ED (IF)

I have used this well-built, optically excellent lens for my fine art/hiking work since the summer of 2005, and when it came time to replace my old 14mm at my newspaper, I had them buy me the same lens for day-to-day work.

At about half the cost of the mainstream equivalents, it is, in my opinion, just as sharp in all the situations that matter, and is built very nicely. After all, I use mine at work every day, and so far, no glitches. I highly recommend this somewhat hidden pearl.

Pearls Before Swine

In the by-gone days of film, it was widely and truly held that once you had a couple of reliable camera bodies and a flash, it was time to sink money into lenses, which we in the biz simply call “glass.” The reason was that aside from nice features and correct exposure, camera bodies didn’t actually contribute anything to image quality. No matter what camera you used, it was basically a light-tight box that held the film in the right place for you. The film, the lens, and most importantly the light, did the rest.

When digital came along, the waters got a lot muddier. For a long time, it was critical to buy expensive (sometimes absurdly expensive) cameras to get the best image quality. Thankfully those days are waning, and surprisingly good digital image quality can be in the hands of consumers where it once only graced the bags of top shooters.

This inversion in the cost structure of digital photography has an ironic consequence: extremely sophisticated, high-quality digital sensors behind extremely cheap lenses. In order to keep down initial purchase price, affordable digital cameras are usually offered for sale with a “kit” lens. While these lenses are cheap, lightweight, and versatile, they are most certainly the weak link in today’s photography. An eight or ten or twelve megapixel sensor combined with a modern image rendering system far outstrips the ability of the tiny, plasticky 18-55mm-class of lenses. I see this in my classes: cameras capable of amazing images burdened with lenses capable of ruining those images.

It’s not that these kit lenses are crap all the time. In bright sun or in unchallenging lighting scenarios, they do just fine. But most of the photographs made in the world are under less that perfect circumstances, and it’s there that cheap lenses disappoint. There are better lenses, but at a cost that might seem extravagant to amateur photographers. Nikon’s big AF-S zooms with ED glass elements, Canon’s L-Series lenses, and so on, are capable of holding up under the stress of extreme lighting compromises. Frequently the best photos in the world are made under such circumstances, and cheaper lenses just aren’t going to cut it.

Do yourself a favor. Consider giving your sensor the image it deserves, and buy a top-quality lens.

The amazing Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF. This lens is so rare that mine is the only one I have ever actually seen. Unlike the so-called "kit" lenses, this behemoth is super-sharp wide-open, and that's f/2.0, which lets in a lot of light when you need it. I seldom shoot it at any other aperture
The amazing Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF; this lens is so rare that mine is the only one I have ever actually seen. Unlike the so-called “kit” lenses, this behemoth is super-sharp wide-open, and that’s f/2.0, which lets in a lot of light when you need it. I seldom shoot it at any other aperture

A Photo that Shall Live in Infamy

I have shot a lot of hard-hitting photos in my career, spanning personal tragedy, death, natural disasters, the human drama of athletic competition, and much more. I have been threatened, called names, yelled at, almost assaulted, run over by athletes on the field, hit by baseballs, etc. Once I even covered my own car crash.

Flattened Armadillo, Oklahoma State Highway 19, c. 1991
Flattened Armadillo, Oklahoma State Highway 19, c. 1991

With all the images over the years, you would imagine that images at scenes that showed life and property being lost would garner the most wrath from a sensitive public. But no. The most offensive image I ever published, at least based on the incredibly hostile reaction of our readers, was this 1991 image of an armadillo that had been squished by traffic, then painted over by the highway department while striping the centerline on state highway 19 west of Ada. One caller to my home phone, who courageously withheld his identity, said I was, “a sick son of a b!tch.”

The Zone

A friend commented recently that one of my photos really impressed her. The photo, a black-and-white shot of a mission graveyard south of Farmington, New Mexico, was made one morning in 2003 as David Martin and I were ending an excellent desert hiking trip, Desert Cold. One reason it’s possible to make photos like this is that when I travel, those who are with me and I have an agreement that we are in “The Zone.” The rules of The Zone are simple: anytime anyone wants to stop and make a picture, we stop and make a picture, no questions asked.

I know that many of you share the experience of going on family vacations. When I was 11, we drove to California, and along the way we stopped at White Sands National Monument. I don’t know if you have been there, but I have been four times now, and not only is it a very interesting photographic subject, it’s a playground wonderland of gypsum sand and sunshine. When we were there in 1974, we stopped about a third of the way along the Dunes Drive where the sand dunes start to get interesting, got out and posed for a picture, then got back in the car and drove the rest of the Dunes Drive, past the giant, pure, glistening mountains of perfect white sand. We couldn’t get out and play on them because we had to be somewhere – Yuma or something – by a certain time.

When, as an adult, I began to travel the American west, I decided that I wouldn’t be like that; anything we wanted to stop and see or photograph would be on the list. Thus, “The Zone.”

Made with my Minolta DiMage 7i in black-and-white mode on a cold November morning, this image of a southwestern mission graveyard in northwest New Mexico was made possible by “The Zone.”
Made with my Minolta DiMage 7i in black-and-white mode on a cold November morning, this image of a southwestern mission graveyard in northwest New Mexico was made possible by “The Zone.”

Why Your Web Site (or Photoblog) is Unviewable

Here are some things you can do to discourage me from visiting your web site.

  • Intro page that says “click here to enter my site.” Let’s assume I went to your web site to enter it in the first place. Thanks for wasting my time.
  • Flash player intro that takes more than a second or two to load. I could take the chance that this thing won’t take nine minutes to load, or I could close it right now.
  • Mysterious images to click on with no words. I am never in the mood to guess about what I am clicking, even if you think it makes you seem deep or dark.
  • Music that automatically plays without my requesting it. I’m either enjoying my own music, or have a legitimate reason for having it turned off, like conversation. If you have music on your web site, it’s as if you think we all need to hear music that you like. Window closed, bookmarked not.
  • Sparkletags, ads that claim I’ve won something, animations that invite me to shoot something and win, or animated slide shows of your terrible photos. Do I really want to spend 90 seconds watching all this crap load? The internet is big enough without you gobbling up my broadband with your terrible taste.
  • Any page that resizes my windows or changes any of my settings. People, please. This is my computer.

    Sunrise, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, 2004
    Sunrise, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, 2004
  • Text that is a color or style that conflicts with the background. Usually this is bright red text against a royal blue background, but also includes repeating photos in the background. Trust me when I say that you have nothing worth saying that requires me to squint or get a headache.
  • Your terrible blogging. What you are really asking your readers to do is something you would not: read about the banal minutia of other people’s lives. If you want readers, your blog must be entertaining.

I’m not saying that all websites are train wrecks, but come on, you know who you are. Maybe it’s time to remove that dancing icon you found on AOL in 1997, and move on. Maybe it’s time to rethink the blaze green headlines and blaze orange text. Maybe we don’t want to hear “Rock You Like a Hurricane” as often as you do. Think about it.

The Stare

I was cruising though some links on a friend’s blog this morning and came across one family blog after another that featured photos of their children. The photos weren’t very good, in part because of a common element: the Stare. The Stare is ubiquitous and pervasive in amateur photography, and ultimately ruins what might be otherwise excellent pictures. I’m talking about the act of stopping whatever neat thing is going on and ordering the subjects to stare at the camera and grin. The result isn’t a picture of a moment in time, but a picture of people posing for a picture.

Abby has a cordial chat with Buxton the Goat, 2004
Abby has a cordial chat with Buxton the Goat, 2004
The reason for this is that when you ask the subjects to stare at the camera, you are no longer observing a moment, but are part of it, and often you have taken over the moment all together. And the biggest reason people do this all the time isn’t that they aren’t very good at photographing candid moments (though that is usually true), but because that’s how they were trained since infancy to behave when a camera is near. In fact, if a parent sees me trying to photograph their child for my newspaper, they will often, without even asking me, stop whatever is going on, and tell their kid to “smile for the camera.” Usually this means that the moment itself is over, and I usually just thank them and go shoot someone else.
Being locked into this paradigm is one of the key reasons there is so much bad photography in the world. My own family is comfortable enough in front of the camera, and skilled enough behind it, to allow us to escape the vice of posing.
This isn’t a skill you can develop quickly; often you will feel the urge to pose people out of fear that you’ll otherwise miss the entire photo opportunity. But as you work harder to find more and more genuinely candid moments, you will realize that you are losing interest in the Stare.