What is the best lens for scenic photography?    

With all its colours fall is creeping into onto the hills in my part of British Columbia photographers are grabbing their cameras, tripods and jackets to wander out to record the beauty.

This past week a young couple visiting my Kamloops shop asked my opinion of the best lens to take along on their next excursion to photograph BC’s inspiring landscapes.

That’s a good question, especially from those new to photography that are spending hard earned money on pricy modern lenses. Personally, I like versatility and convenience, and there are a lot of great zoom lenses available for someone that doesn’t want to carry a heavy bag.

I might suggest lenses like 16-85mm, 24-70mm, or even 18-200mm. Gosh, there are so many lightweight and easy to carry choices. However, instead of recommending a particular lens for scenic photography, I’d rather think about perspective.

My decision after stepping out of the car to photograph some grand vista would be whether I wanted a wide angel or a telephoto. A wide-angle lens has a curved front surface allowing for a wider view. A telephoto has a flatter front surface and a narrower view.

For example, using a 18mm focal length lens when photographing along a fence will make the first post big and the succeeding posts smaller and smaller. Whereas, a 200mm focal length will give a tightly compressed view, and distances between the fencepost in the foreground and those further back won’t seem as distant as with the wider lens.

In a more practical example, when one is photographing a boat on the lake shore with mountains in the background a long focal length like the 200mm will be compress everything in the final image with no subject gaining significance over another. Yet, an18mm lens will make the boat large, and mountains in the background small and distant. Both may be good photographs of that scene, just different interpretations.

The most appropriate lens depends on the perspective and how the photographer wants to interpret the final image, and because the focal length adjusts the visual relationships of the objects within the picture, one must think about the image front to back and how much of the scenic is important as a wide, or a narrow final image.

It comes down to the personal vision of the photographer and what he or she wants to say about the landscape. Famous photographer, Ansel Adams said, “problem solve for the final photograph”.

Like Adams, photographers should be thinking about how the final photograph will be used and how to accomplish that.

If one thinks of a photograph as a series of problems to be solved there will be a smooth transition from initial idea to final print. For example one could begin by thinking about the subject and its environment. What is the background and how will that affect the subject? What is in the foreground that will interfere with that subject?

I don’t believe that there is one lens that can be termed a “scenic or landscape” lens. Any lens might be used as long as it meets the photographer’s vision. That might be to include a wide vista with a wide-angle lens, or on the other hand, a tighter cropped image created with a telephoto lens might be visually more powerful. The choice of lens for scenics comes down to what the photographer wants the viewer to feel and see.

 

 

 

 

I like Black and White Photographs   

 

I have always been drawn to Black and white photography.

At one time I even believed that B&W was the only medium serious photographers worked in. To me a black and white photograph has a mood and conveys a tactile quality. That’s why many of my personal image files get converted to B&W.

During film’s reign photographers had to decide whether to use black and white film, colour film or slide film. Most of us carried at least two camera bodies, but today the decision to make a black and white image is best left to post production; there is no need for that second camera. Post-production is the intricate combination of computer programs, printers and papers that now rivals the quality of chemical-based, traditional black and white photography.

Traditional black and white depended first on the brand and type of film, for example, Kodak Tri-X, or Ilford Delta 400, etc., then the camera’s initial exposure, how the film was developed (what chemicals were to be used), and finally the choice of paper for final printmaking.

The digital sensor has more latitude than film and getting a usable exposure is very easy. If one over-exposes it usually isn’t a problem. An poor exposure with digital does equal a loss in image information, but much of the time its still a usable photograph.

With film we used to hear “shoot for the shadows”. With digital all that has changed, and of course we can check our exposures using the histogram.

Most digital cameras have a black and white mode available in the menu, but I don’t recommend using that, it does nothing more than create identical red, green, and blue channels in the final picture file. Just de-saturating a colour data file in-camera will give a monochrome image, but it doesn’t include control of the different tonal values that make up a true to reality black and white image.

When I first started making black and white pictures years ago with Photoshop I used a B&W conversion process that used the channel mixer. To do that I first opened the image, then I went to the menu and selected adjustments, then in the drop down list I selected Channel Mixer. I checked the monochrome box at bottom left; I changed the red channel to 60%, changed the green channel to 40%, ignored the blue channel, and changed the constant to +4. Finally I clicked ok and I had a black and white image.

Those days are long gone with modern programs like ON1 and Luminar with their many pre-set Black and White offerings. Making a good B&W is as easy as choosing the tonal value that one prefers. And, of course, there are many more, just do a search.

A black and white photograph depends on its ability to communicate, as it doesn’t attract with eye-catching colours for its’ visual presentation. Those B&W images that stand out combine attention to lighting, composition and perspective.

Black and white photography is far from being left behind in the past, and in my opinion, with the current processing software, updates in high quality printers, and the latest in printing papers, black and white image-making will continue to be an option for serious photographers.

 

 

 

Memories of past photography adventures.   

 

We all experience instant memories when we hear some song. That’s what happened when I heard a 1970’s song by the Bee Gees as I drove to town this week.

In July 1978 my friend Alan Atterton and I traveled (with me constantly playing a Bee Gees cassette on the 4 track player) to a place in Wyoming’s Teton Mountain range called the T Cross Ranch.

There was a photography class put on by the University of the Wilderness’ instructor, photographer, and writer, Boyd Norton.

Atterton had found Norton’s book “Wilderness Photography”. We poured over that book with its instructions, and ideas about photographing the great out-of-doors.

I don’t recall how we found out about the class, but I was so determined to attend that I sold my jaunty VW bug to pay for it. The cash not only paid my tuition and expenses to Wyoming, it also helped pay for an airline ticket so my girl friend (later my wife) could fly to Salt Lake City, Utah to meet there and then spend time photographing Arches National Monument, Zion Park and the Grand Canyon.

The T Cross Ranch was just outside of Dubois, Wyoming, and our class was comprised of photographers from Germany, New York, Florida, Idaho, Colorado, Tennessee, and two of us from Kamloops.

Getting together with other photographers, in my opinion, not only creates excitement, but also is the best thing one can do to become a better photographer.

We hiked and wandered, photographed everything in front of our lenses, and had lectures in a large wonderful 100-year-old antique-filled log house.

Our instructor wanted to provide instant feedback for the participants and had come across a state of the art three-chemical-process for developing slide film.

The first morning I noticed him reading the instructions and without thinking I volunteered, becoming the official class technician and while my classmates were sitting around the fire talking about the day’s events, I was in an abandoned walk-in cold room removing film from cassettes, rolling them into large processing tanks, then developing and hanging the rolls for overnight drying.

We were excited that we could have our images for critique so quickly. I thought that film technology had finally become the best it could be.

I preferred using a huge Mamiya RB67 at that time. The RB used 120mm medium format film and the negatives were 2¼x2¾ inches.

One morning we trucked up to a mountain plateau and Norton said, “There is a lightning storm to the west and we’ll see antelope coming this way to stay out of the storm. Find yourself a good position for some great shots.” I waited behind an old salt lick as several antelope came bounding our way.

The lens on the Mamiya RB67 racked back and forth on a rail instead of turning like modern lenses. I tried to keep the antelopes in focus as they ran toward us, but to my dismay I couldn’t. I didn’t get a shot!

I returned home and within weeks I sold it and purchased a compact little medium format Hasselblad that I used, until, coincidentally, I attended another wilderness class in the late 1990s, that time in Washington State, and was introduced to digital.

Shortly after that I bought my first DSLR. Both instances were because of the influence of other photographers. Technology changes constantly for those of us dedicated to this medium and holding on to out-dated equipment stops growth.

Reminiscing about that trip has reminded me was how important it is to interact with other photographers and participate in workshops, classes, and photo tours.

 

 

 

 

An outdoor studio for photography     

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of weeks ago Jo stopped by to tell me she and 8 friends wanted to do a “Disney Princess” shoot. She came up with that creative idea and posted a call for women that wanted to do modern interpretations of those cartoon characters from the Disney movies.

Her question to me was, “can I do this out-of-doors and still create flattering studio kind of light portraits?”

Absolutely! was my reply. Sure one could go through the expense and trouble of renting a studio, but it’s pretty easy to duplicate the indoor studio type lighting out-of-doors.

Gosh, the movie people have been doing it for years. I jumped at the chance to show Jo how easily it is.

We hadn’t had rain for almost a month so I decided to create an outdoor studio in the meadow on the south side of my home. The “princesses” would be showing up just after noon so I chose a location to set up the backdrop that had shade from several tall fir trees. I also planned to put up a canvas gazebo with a table for the makeup artist to work.

“The best laid plans”.

Actually, those aren’t the words I used as I looked out my bedroom window at the rain the morning of the event. The local weather reporter had suggested there might be some spotty rain in our area, but the pounding deluge outside my window wasn’t what I expected.

However, because of the possibility of rain Jo and I had set up one of my backdrops under my canvas carport the night before.

I got a “good morning I’ll be right over” text from Jo as I sloshed out to set up the lights under the carport. The rain was a hindrance that dampened the yard (and I am sure the spirits of the soon to be princesses) but “Light is Light” and all I had to do was balance my off camera lighting.

The larger backdrop we had set up was for blocking the wind, rain and what limited daylight there was. We then erected a black paper background and I used two lights mounted on stands with umbrellas to model our subjects.

I am sure there are those that would have just upped their camera’s ISO and hoped for the best on that dismal flat day. But I like the modeling, depth and control over a subject’s features a flash adds. Heck, we might as well have been in a dimly lighted room. The ambient light was that good for adding flash.

When Jo’s subjects arrived they turned my house into a makeup and change room. There were costumes and clothing everywhere. I just stayed out of everyone’s way and concerned myself with the outdoor studio except for an occasional quick trip to my kitchen for another coffee.

The rain lightened a bit, but never really stopped all that much. Nevertheless, those excited Princesses were all about creating a modern day reality or personal version of the Disney character they were supposed to be. There was a lot of laughter and running back and forth along the bushy wet path from the carport to the house.

American photographer and author of the Strobist.com blog, David Hobby said,  “…You hear a photographer say, “I’m a strictly available light photographer, I’m a purist.”

He continues to say, ” What I hear is, I’m scared of using light so I’m going to do this instead. Well, for me lighting was a way to start to create interesting pictures in a way that I could do it.”

I will add that I have, personally, always felt that photography is a series of problems to be solved, and rain or shine it’s really the goal of flattering portraiture.

I think that many people viewing the pictures Jo took outside on that rainy day will, unless told, think that the portraits were made inside a well-equipped indoor studio. I guess it doesn’t really matter where they posted for their Disney Princess portraits, only that they are good.

In all the commotion I forgot to begin the day with the words of legendary 1920s filmmaker, D.W. Griffith as Jo pointed her camera on that rainy day, “Lights camera action”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A performance of the Photographic idea 

 

Ansel Adams, in the Forward to his popular selling 1950’s book “The Print” wrote,

“Photography, in the final analysis, can be reduced to a few simple principles. But, unlike most arts, it seems complex at the initial approach. The seeming complexity can never be resolved unless a fundamental understanding of both technique and application is sought and exercised from the start. Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art. Therefore emphasis on technique is justified only so far as it will simplify and clarify the statement of the photographer’s concept.”

I have flipped through “The Print” many times since I got into photography. I think that it was almost required reading for photographers at one time. Especially those of us dedicated to hours of time in dimly lit rooms, peering at paper prints as they slowly materialized in smelly, (and somewhat toxic) liquid-filled trays.

“The Print” by Adams is from a period when photography was about striving for the perfect negative and a quality final print (image). Concepts that are all but forgotten in this age of hi-tech computerized image making.

We don’t worry about a perfect negative any more, because even if the image file produced in-camera isn’t perfect RAW files are easily colour balanced, cropped, and sharpened. Contrast can be decreased or increased and the final picture doesn’t show any sign of resizing or noise reduction. And in my opinion, sadly, the trend for many photographers has become to not make prints at all.

I believe Adams’ forward in “The Print” is as worthwhile now as it was in 1950.

Even with the changes of how an image is managed and finally used (whether print or electronic) the thought process and technique should be important. Adams wrote about the technique of taking the picture, the method used to develop the negative, and then finally the printing procedure.

He might as well have been talking about transferring image data from a camera to computer, optimizing the RAW files in post-production, and outputting to a personal printer for the final print.

I thought about that as he continues, “We may draw an analogy with music: The composer entertains a musical idea. He sets it down in conventional musical notation. When he performs it, he may, although respecting the score, inject personal expressive interpretations on the basic patterns of the notes.”

“So it is in expressive photography: The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera. Exposure and development of the negative (RAW image file) (my remarks in parentheses) follow technical patterns selected to achieve the qualities desired in the final print, and the print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.” I have always liked that final sentence of his “…the print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.”

Those words always remind me, as Adams put it that, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas.”

Modern photographers appear to be obsessing with each new offering manufacturers place on the table, and the obsession with technology may often seem to be what photography is really about. Although I will admit that it is fun, I think photographers need to remember that, “The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera.”

That seemingly out-dated book is still on my bookshelf, and I regularly flip through its pages.

After all the prattle about what the newest camera, or lens, or computer program is capable of, I like to be brought back to what, in the end, photography is about for me personally.

Looking for an eagle to photograph, but I guess any bird will do.   

 

Last week a Canon 300mm lens was brought into my shop by an owner had decided to downsize her equipment. By “downsize” I mean that she was changing from her big DSLR to a much smaller and lighter mirrorless camera.

I thought I’d entice buyers by showing photographs of birds using that neat telephoto lens with a 1.4 Canon telextender that I also had to sell.

Everyone likes eagles, and I had noticed a few clinging to trees along the river on my drive home. I was sure a couple shots of eagles in the dismal valley smoke would be proof as to the quality of that 300mm.

I don’t have a Canon DSLR so I called my friend Jo McAvany and suggested that I’d drive along the river as she looked for eagles. I could pull over for her to use the 300mm and the 1.4 telex on he cropped frame DSLR. That meant she could shoot from the open window with what would effectively be around a 550mm lens.

Jo showed up at my house around 9AM as I was having my morning coffee. (Jo is one of those strange people that don’t eat breakfast or drink coffee…Ya, I know)

Anyway, as we were going to my car, Jo called to me to wait. I could see her sneaking slowly through my bushy garden.

She had spotted five or six grouse sitting on her truck. They must have been drawn to the warm metal on the cool morning. I heard her say, “I wish I had my wide angle so I could get them all in”.

The first shot of the day was not an exotic eagle, but I think that a couple grouse standing on the top of he truck’s cab is pretty darned good.

Talking and laughing about the silly grouse, we drove along the winding country road that leads down to the river from my home. I slowed down when I saw a hawk taking off from a fence post beside an open field.

That hawk is always hanging around there. It must watch for mice feeding where the cows dig up the pasture. I have never been able to get a shot of it, but I slowed and Jo got out to photograph it landing on a treetop across the field.

No eagles yet.

We drove down into the gloomy smoke settled motionless in the river valley and then as slowly along the highway as the big transport trucks speeding along would let us.

One eagle. Yep, we only saw one blasted eagle on a distant tree. I pulled over onto a train crossing and ignored the “No Trespassing” sign to get close enough for Jo to get a shot. Just as she got out to position herself the big bird took off, I yelled, “shoot” and she did. One out of the three was perfect! I think that’s a good ratio. We left and continued down the highway with out seeing another eagle.

Disappointed, we turned to take the back road to my place hoping to see a few ducks at the pond I had tried unsuccessfully all spring to get photos of geese at.

The reeds along the edge blocked most of the shots. But Jo was determined, and ran across the road to photograph ten or so ducks resting on a log. By the time she got a shot there were only three left.

Well no eagles, and no more birds waiting to be photographed. We did stop for a photograph of a deer. Big deal, there are hundreds of those.

We got back to my house and as I brewed myself another cup of coffee, my never-say-die friend went out to take pictures of my chickens. Chickens.

We didn’t prove that lenses’ quality with pictures of eagles. Well one. Nevertheless, Jo got some neat bird photographs, and we had fun.

Making up a reason, like testing a lens, is a pretty good excuse to get out with your camera if you actually need one. However, I think what it is really about is being enthusiastic about photography and, of course, stimulated and excited by just about anything one points their camera at.

Photography on a smoky day      

Another summer is about half over and as usual, or what we here in the interior of British Columbia have come to regard as usual and normal, the sky and air is filled with an orange-grey choking smoke. It seems this year, to make life just a bit more uncomfortable, the days and most of the nights are also reaching record high temperatures.

Its cooler inside, I have fans blowing on every level and corner of my home. But as comfortable as that is I got to wondering what I could do with my camera to capture the feeling I had when walking down the street to pick up Monday’s mail.

I decided to drive cross the river and take the dusty road that runs along the riverbank from the Pritchard Bridge to Kamloops.

Making a proper exposure in the flat light was easy. I just selected my camera’s Aperture Priority mode, a handhold able shutterspeed of 1/250th, and an aperture small enough to give me a good depth of field.

I quickly noticed that, like the fog, the moving smoke isn’t the best subject to focus on if one wants a sharp image. I always selected something in the scene that was stable, like a tree, sign post or hay bale.

The heavy smoke filled sky never did allow the day to brighten up, and other than close objects most of the landscape was shrouded in an eerie slightly translucence with visibility probably a bit less than a mile.

I liked photographing the almost orange glow and the disappearing hills. Nearby features popped out with colour, while those in the distance lost detail and colour as they were swallowed up in the smoky gloom.

I am not one to join those stouthearted photographers standing behind the firefighters camera in hand capturing the terror and beauty of the advancing wildfire flames. I figure there are enough of those that are doing a great job.

What intrigue me is the fading light and the thickening smoke that changes the colourful landscape I am so accustomed to a monotone world of disappearing features.

I suppose one could hold up in some air-conditioned fortress and complain about what a person that camera into my shop today described as an “overwhelming campfire smell”. But for me, as I did this week and plan on again in a day or two, getting out in the changing landscape and take more pictures is interesting and stimulating.

I don’t for a moment loose the thought that there are thousands of men and women from all over the world fighting the multitude of dangerous fires here in BC. I also count myself fortunate that the fires are not yet threatening my home.

Nevertheless, the thick smoke is an opportunity to photograph in a different kind of light that I might as well take advantage of.