Sunday, July 29, 2012

Zoom Ring Rotation

As you may have guessed, I purchase, and use, many non-Nikon lenses. You might think otherwise if you knew that I purchased my 18-200 Nikkor only after having a less than satisfactory experience with a non Nikkor lens with the same focal length range. For -whatever reason, the non-OEM version didn't cut it. Since I consider myself a photographer and not simply a Nikon aficionado, I tend to buy lenses that will solve problems, or give my images with a look that I can't achieve any other way. Some non-Nikon lenses that I've come to love include the Tokina zoom fisheye (left), and a Sigma 150-500 VR zoom (right). And let's be practical. One can't spend huge sums of money on lenses that are not used frequently enough to justify the cost.

Now historically one might shy away from third-party lenses unless they were designed to function in a manner identical to those from the original equipment manufacturer. Those important features included:

Filter Size: Manufacturers tended to stay with standardized filter sizes. Pentax chose 49mm. Nikon chose 52mm. This was important because black and white photographers often carried several colored filters to alter the appearance of their images. Red filters was chosen to darken skies but would also affect facial coloration. Yellow filters darkened skies less dramatically without altering complexions. Orange filters were available as a compromise. Green filters improved foliage in landscapes. Add to these three basic filters a polarizer and a soft focus filter or two, and you could have a sizable amount of money tied up in colored glass disks. Today, software can approximate the effects of colored filters, so photographers are no longer carrying stacks of filters. And if I remember correctly, filters were much more expensive in relative dollars in those days.

Focus Ring Rotation: This could be really important to speed shooters. Probably nothing worse than trying to focus on an inbound subject and having the background snap into sharp focus. Autofocusing lenses pretty much make this a moot point.

Aperture Ring Rotation: Back in the days when we matched meter needles in our viewfinders, this was important. But when stop down metering was replaced by open aperture metering, third party manufacturers were forced to adopt a compatible aperture coupling scheme or their lenses would not function properly.

Zoom Ring Rotation: This is the last issue, and the one that still has relevance in the digital world. When lenses changed from "trombone zoom" (focal length changed with a fore-aft sliding movement) to zoom rings (focal length changed by twisting a ring) this became an issue. Since focus ring and aperture ring rotation was no longer an issue, shooters could now keep their eyes glued to their eyepieces and get all the information they needed from within the viewfinder.

Nikon Lenses: When viewed from above, nearly all Nikon lenses have zoom rings have the shortest focal length on the right and the longest on the left.* This also appears to be the case with Tokina and Tamron lenses. Current production Sigma lenses appear to rotate in the opposite direction, although there are examples from these three manufacturers where these rules don't apply. While I can't make a broad statment that is 100% accurate, I suggest that before buying any lens from any manufacturer, check to see the direction of the zoom ring.

Fortunately, all my working lenses are Nikon oriented, except for the big Sigma, which comes out occasionally to make a special shot. And yes, the oposing zoom rotation does trip me up from time to time. So for the most part, this lens and I just try to get along.

*There is some notable execeptions such as the early, non VR releases of the 24-120mm zoom lens, and some older zooms that pre-date the digital age. The 28-200mm Nikkor also has the reversed zoom ring.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Living La Vida Loca

With all due respect to Ricky Martin, I am living La Vida Loca. I’m just not living his.

I once summarized my career aspirations in a single phrase: “Education is my wife, but Photography is my mistress”. When I was growing up, my heroes weren’t the sports stars of the day. I would have given anything to have been a great photographer like W. Eugene Smith (left) or Larry Burrows (right), a Life Magazine photographer featured in a film on photojournalists. I remember the intense interest he took in a young boy who lost the use of his legs from the explosion of a hidden land mine. He was sent to America to recover, and was now returning home to a Vietnamese village ill-equipped to accommodate his crutches and wheelchair. His struggles, his frustration, and his eventual resignation to his shattered life brought into focus the depth of the tragedy in Southeast Asia. Burrows, along with several other journalists, would die in a helicopter crash in Laos in 1971.

Passage. I am nearing a point in my life when I’ll be free to “run off with my mistress”, better known as retirement. And quite by accident, I got a head start in renewing my love of photography. This is my second year as a photographer for the San Mateo Daily Journal, a relationship that started when I was asked to send the paper a photograph of students involved in a letter writing campaign in 2010. After I sent the image, I was contacted by Susan Cohn, one of the Journal’s editors, and asked if I would consider taking photos, pro bono, for the paper. Over a quick cup of coffee, I showed some street photos from San Francisco’s Carnaval, and soon afterward I was given an assignment to photograph some opera fans during a Wagner Costume Contest. The submitted shots never ran, in part because I could not establish a San Mateo connection.

Let’s address the pro bono issue.  My agreement with the paper gave me the freedom to choose only the assignments of interest to me. In exchange, I would receive access to press previews of major museum exhibits and special events in the Journal’s service area. I have had three opportunities to photograph President Obama during visits in the bay area. And while my college photography classes gave me the knowledge, my time in the field is giving me experience. I look upon this as an extended internship. Sure, there’s no “spot news” photography, but frankly that’s of little interest to me anyway. In the end, I've will have amassed a body of work I could not have obtained any other way.

My first published photo was from a charity bike ride called Bike 4 Breath in Foster City. The photo was little different from the customary “picket fence” photo of bikers lined up beneath an event banner. It showed two competitors in the act of pinning race numbers on one another. In also Incorporated an on-camera flash to provide some specular highlights and a bit of visual "snap". It was a candid photo, in that neither person appears aware of the camera’s presence. Yet all of the visual elements point to a bike race, and judging from their smiles, a fun one. The image has stood the test of time, as it can still be seen hanging on the paper’s Facebook Wall.

Subsequent assignments included San Mateo’s Oban Festival (above) and a charity garden tour (below).

After a while, it became apparent that I enjoyed making editorial photographs of people. The variety is certainly there, as is the challenge of trying to transform mundane activities into something visually interesting. Finding, or making, an interesting lighting environment adds to the excitement. Working on location gives a photographer a chance to test his or her knowledge of lighting, exposure, and composition.  Editorial photography also allows me some latitude in how I work with the subject, since my job is to illustrate a concept, not necessarily a spontaneous moment in time. And finally, the subject is not the client. If I make a photograph that my editor likes it, the job is done, in spite of what the subject may think.

Get Real. So again, I ask my mistress “Is there a living to be made in photography?” For editorial photographers like myself, the answer may well be “no”, since the career’s demise is linked to the general decline in the print media. At my paper, most of the photographs are taken by the writers themselves, who now get their interviews and their images at the same time. Simply stated, a good writer with a digital camera is more valuable than a good photographer with a pencil, technology having made acceptable photos much easier to create.

Collaborations. There will be times when a story becomes a collaborative effort between the writer and the photographer. I had a chance to work with Bill Silverfarb, a staff writer at the Journal, providing images for a story on the Peninsula Roller Girls, a confederation of roller derby teams competing on flat track rinks. He had requested five photos with particular attention to two specific competitors who he interviewed at great length. Here are the three chosen photos, arranged as they were in the June 17 issue.

Page Space. The passing of Life Magazine brought an end to the photo-news magazine as we knew it. Without any hard evidence, I estimate that the ratio of image area to print area ran about 50/50. The National Geographic, probably the last of its kind, has a similar ratio. But newspapers as a whole probably average a 20/80 picture/print ratio when it comes to the paper overall. In Bill’s article, the image to text ratio is slightly less than 50/50, an encouraging amount of image space. And while I know that one can’t extrapolate the data from a single article to the entire paper’s real estate, it does show that images are important enough to be included, so long as they come at an acceptable price.

I like to think that these photographs (printed front page, above the crease) added some visual appeal to the day's issue. And yes, there is a place for photographs that add depth and interest to the articles. But pay a premium for them? I have my doubts. But so long as I can afford this indulgence of personal resource, it will be a great ride. Truly, La Vida Loca.

I leave you with the photo I wished the paper had chosen.

Photo References
W. Eugene Smith:
Larry Burrows:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Some Rules To Shoot By

The back story to this photo is unremarkable, but the result gave me something to think about.

A local fitness center was sponsoring a 4-hour basketball "camp" featuring three members of the world famous Harlem Globetrotters. Needless to say it was wall-to-wall kids in the indoor basketball court. I had allocated myself only one hour to make an image, and as (bad) luck would have it, the session started 20 minutes late. I didn't have a particularly goal in mind. but thought the shot should include a globe trotter and a CK (cute kid) or two. I had taken dozens of shots of kids dribbling and doing passing drills under the watchful eyes of the Globetrotters. But photographing a six-foot plus adult along with a seven year old child was a bit of a challenge, and the tight schedule didn't allow for many compact, well-composed, Kodak moments.

One thing I did notice were the skylights that allowed light to spill onto the court in specific locations. As luck would have it, young A. J., holding a basketball, was lining up, getting ready to take a shot while standing in the "sweet spot". I grabbed the shot, hoping for the best. I didn't realize the ball had "Harlem Globetrotter" written on the side until after I got back to my office.

It turns out that Julio Lara, a staff writer for the Journal, noticed me shooting. He was working on a story, and had interviewed A.J.'s mother in great detail. He asked if he could run one of my shots with his story on summertime sports camps, so I sent him this one, along with some others. The staff and he must have like it, as it ran across 3 columns on a 4 column spread. In other words, it ran huge.

In retrospect, I was very lucky to have been given a shot as nice as this one, joined to an article that provided the necessary context. Just then I realized that there are several axioms we should embrace, along with some others that could benefit from some "airing out". So here's to A.J.'s shot, and others like it, and the mantras we should chant to encourage a few more just like it coming our way. 

Axiom #1: Every photograph is a gift. Sometimes you get exactly what you want, sometimes not. Just smile, say "Thank You", and move on.
As a photographer, there are times when  you can do no wrong. Other times, you can do no right. Most of the time, we're somewhere in the middle. Whenever you work with real people, you are at risk of having something go wrong. The grandmother who looks away at the last moment, the lovely foreground with the incongruous background, the list goes on and on. Photography is like golf. You play the shots were they land.

Axiom #2: You must give before you can receive.
When working the "social desk" you are bound to run into the same publicists over and over again. These are the people who can make sure that your needs are taken care of, that you have a seat near the front, or make sure that all of your questions are answered. When times get tough, nothing beats the cell phone number of somebody who has the authority and the ability to help you on location. To this end, I enter their cell phone numbers to my contact list, and greet them by name should they call me. And when the event is over, I'll make my images available for their use. This may sound like blasphemy to some, since I'm giving something away that might have monetary value. But for me, the good will is far more important the any money I might receive for a copy of a print. And in a day when Facebook has replaced the scrapbook, most people only want a JPEG for their "walls". Incidentally, I am identified as the photographer in all released images.

Axiom #3: Mistakes will help you grow only if you address them.
Okay, okay. There are some mistakes I keep making over and over again. So many things I forget to tell my subjects. Don't make a fist. Don't spread your fingers. Don't point your hands directly at me. All people with glasses should move to the same side. If you're wearing glasses turn your head slightly. Use your commander as a fill light. Choose an aperture that keeps everyone in sharp focus. Use your loupe to check your final image before you let your subjects go. The embarrassment of a re-shoot the same day is not as bad as the humiliation of asking for it a week later.

That's a pretty long list. But you should have seen it last year. At least I'm making some progress. You should too.

Axiom #4: Scoff not the other person's camera. It may contain the photographs you should have taken.
I don't remember the exact wording, but this catches the essence of the truism. This came from Simon Nathan, a photographer and feature writer for Popular Photography. His column, "Simon Sez", spoke directly to the experiences of a working field photographer, one who relied heavily on 35mm cameras and available light. His earliest writing extolled the virtues of the Nikon S2, a rangefinder camera that was a cross between the German Contax and the Leica. He, along with David Douglas Duncan, did much to popularize Japanese cameras among working photojournalists.

Axiom #5: A good picture today is better than a great picture tomorrow.
This advice came from Bambi Cantrell, via Neil van Niekerk's column. She, along with other photographers like Bill Stockwell, Rocky Gunn and Monte Zucker, helped re-defined how weddings were photographed, and as a group promoted the "wedding story" as a new photographic genre.

There will always be "woulda, coulda, shoulda" moments. But the shot that you've stored on your card is something you can bank on. This doesn't mean that you can't attempt to clean up subsequent shots. Just don't bet on being able to improve a shot on a second take. Sometimes, it gets worse.

I'll add more axioms in time. But if you remember to chant these axioms while you're meditating, your images will be better for the effort.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Me And My D70

Introduced in 2004, the Nikon D70 became the pivotal camera of the time because it both broke the $1000.00 price point and bested the similarly priced Canon Digital Rebel introduced the previous year. The 6 mega pixel sensor was pretty much the edge of Nikon's envelope until the D2X nearly doubled the mega pixel count to 12.8. In my opinion it is the digital counterpart of the venerable 35mm Pentax K1000, an inexpensive first camera for thousands of photographers. If you're curious about what state of the art was in 2004, check this original review.
The D70 was discontinued when it was replaced by the D80 in late 2006. D70 bodies show up on eBay and in camera stores that sell used equipment. Before purchasing any D70 or D70s, be sure that the serial number starts with the number "3", the number block reputedly reserved for camera imported by Nikon USA. This may come in handy if you every need servicing or decide to have repairs done. This is especially important when purchasing a D70 (but not the D70s) due to some quality control issues in early production cameras. Click here for a service bulletin that describes the problem. Click here for some comments on the malady nicknamed the Blinking Green Light of Death (BGLOD). I have several D70 bodies and have experienced this failure in one of my cameras. And it was repaired for free. You may get lucky, too. Addendum: There is also a firmware update for the D70 that will improve the camera's performance. Click here for more information.
In spite of its seemingly unimpressive specifications, I use my D70s frequently, and often on outdoor assignments for the paper when the camera's unique qualifications trump its weaknesses. “Outdoors” is the operative word here, because the relatively high level of ambient (sun) light minimizes some of the camera's shortcomings.
  • The camera’s focusing system is nearly 10 years old, and not as sensitive or responsive as the focusing engines found in newer cameras. However, open shade provides more than enough light for the D70 to assure usable response times.
  • The relatively higher ambient light levels allow for lower ISO settings. With the ISO set to 200, noise is at an absolute minimum.
  • High ambient light levels allow the photographer to select lens apertures on the small side of F 5.6. In bright sunlight, the Sunny 16 rule suggests that a photographer with an ISO setting of 200 and an aperture of 5.6 would set the shutter speed at an action-stopping 1/1600 of a second. Under the same conditions, setting the shutter speed to 1/200 allows for a corresponding aperture of f 16.
Field Carry: When I use a D70 (or D70s), I normally carry it with the following accessories:
  • Wide Angle Lens: This was almost always a Tokina 12-24 f4, a relatively slow but sharp lens. Lately I’ve been carrying a Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5. The latter is definitely a outdoor lens, as its wide-open performance is fair at best. Stopped down, it picks up considerably.
  • Normal Lens: I normally carry the Nikon 18-70mm f3.5-4.5G, the standard kit lens for the D70. The lens is a satisfactory performer.
  • Long Lens: My hands-down favorite is the Nikon VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G.
  • Speed Light: One Nikon SB-800 is carried in a side-care pouch on the camera bag. I also carry flash cables and filters, should they be needed.
  • Miscellany: 2 spare batteries, 2 spare 4 gig CF cards, a small multi-tool, a notebook, and some pens.
This kit, carried in a Tamrac messenger bag, weighs only 10 pounds. If I am on assignment, I normally add a second body, allowing me to have instant access to two different lenses, and a backup if something goes awry.

July 4, 2012: I was sent to bring back a "Fourth of July" image from the Redwood City parade. Using my long lens, I made a very simple photo of a "senior" fire engine in the parade. Simple shot, made from from some distance away. Slam dunk easy.

This following shot shows the greatest single advantage of the D70 body: The high flash synchronization speeds. The native speed is 1/500 of a second, a full stop faster than the native sync speed of any current Nikon DSLR. (For the moment, let's not discuss Nikon's High Speed Synchronization). I did not submit this shot for publication, but it was one of the photos taken during the assignment.

This was pretty much a straight shot. Shoe mounted SB-800 is hot-shoe mounted and set to iTTL metering and an exposure compensation of plus 2/3 stop. The D70 exposure settings were 1/500 second at f 16 with an ISO setting of 400 and a Cloudy preset white balance. In some ways the shot is counter-intuitive, since the highlights, fortified by the speed light, could be over exposed, and the shadows slightly under. It works here because the slight underexposure of the highlights would receive a lighting "boost" from the flash fill. Using a wide angle lens allowed me to get close enough to the subjects for the flash to provide enough power to properly illuminate the scene.

Direct sunlight exposures will always present exposure challenges. In spite of the fact that the shadows are nearly as bright as the highlights, the image is, in my opinion, "properly exposed" because there are no hot spots and there is plenty of detail in all of the important shadow areas. The most important quality is that the imaged doesn't look overly "lit". This image would reproduce well.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"When You're A Hammer...

...Everything looks like a nail." This bit of wisdom came from none other than David "The Strobist" Hobby, probably the most followed blogger in the solar system when it comes to learning about the "proper" application of speed lights. He has two new instruction DVD sets, "Lighting In Layers", and the "Flash Bus Tour", which was co-presented by Joe McNally, a rock star of a photographer. Nikon users will love the Flash Bus set, simply because it's fun to watch McNally work, on the fly, using iTTL automated flash. Enough groveling.

The real significance of Hobby's quote is this: Just because you have it, it doesn't mean you have to use it. To put it more specifically, just because there's a speed light in your bag, it doesn't mean you have to use it every time you make a photo. Granted, I usually carry 3 whenever I'm in the field, but for many people this is overkill. Come to think of it, there are photographers that consider a single speed light excessive. But it you were to look at my posts, you'll conclude I'm a "flash fetishist". So before you too go down the road to ruin, stop and think about why you're using flash in the first place.

I am photographing a Luncheon for HIP Housing, and the keynote speaker was singer, actor, and social activist Harry Belafonte. Because I was on a tight schedule, I checked with the event planner and found that I could photograph Belafonte during the "meet and greet"/book signing from 11:00 to 12:00 noon, and during his scheduled speech from 12:30 to 1:00 pm. Since I had to leave at 12:45 to meet a 1:00 appointment, I would have only 15 minutes of "lens time" while he spoke.

First, I did some shots during the book signing, and for the most part, got some pretty ordinary "smile for the camera" shots. I did submit one to the editor, since people generally like to have their photos in the newspaper, especially when their standing next to a celebrity. Bounce flash, nothing fancy.

The photo pretty much follows all of the basic rules of composition.  However, it lacks sparkle. With everybody looking at the book, you really can see anyone's eyes. And how could you tell if it was actually Harry Belafonte? Well, at least I had a shot.

I then moved into the dining room, and while the guest were eating, I walked around the room, looking for a vantage point. I found a spot where I could photograph from a low position and not interfere with anybody's view of the speakers. I decided to return to the back wall and determine whether I would use flash while I shot. When the first speaker took the stage, I turned on the flash and made a shot.

Yikes! This was horrible! What had gone wrong? The white balance was set to the Flash preset, but the color was a strange blend, halfway between incandescent and flash. At that point I realized that the ambient light was of an intensity nearly equal to the light from my bounced flash. Since I was already set to 1/200 at 3.5, ISO 1600, I couldn't reduce the effect of the ambient that much, since my top flash shutter speed was 1/250, only a 1/3 stop decrease. So I decided to turn off the flash, set the white balance to the Incandescent preset, and try again.

Much better! It was now that I noticed that four high-wattage spotlights were cross-lighting the podium, giving more than enough light to properly expose the subject. When Belafonte stepped to the podium, I walked forward to my shooting position and began making photographs.

I preferred this shot but the editor selected the one at the top, perhaps because of the more expressive hands. Interestingly enough, the paper ran both shots, and the pair in their side-by-side positions, spanned four full column widths.

Note to myself: Don't become a slave to any given technique. Not everything is a nail, you know.