Doing it for money

When I graduated from college, I was equipped for two professions. I could be an electrical engineer; I had a BSEE to testify to my training, and summer and part-time jobs gave me a limited amount of experience. I could have been a photographer; I had no formal training, but eight years of working on school newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks had given me a useful set of skills. In my mind, the decision was so easy that it wasn’t really a decision. I became an engineer. Was it money that swayed me? Not at all; this was in 1964, in the days when it was rare for engineers to enjoy big paydays.

Let me back up a minute. I love to read (I loved it a lot more before I took the Evelyn Wood course in the early 70s, but that’s another story). I’ve always enjoyed reading. But sometime in high school, I developed an aversion to reading things that were assigned to me. For the final exam of my English course my sophomore year of high school we were going to have some questions on Bleak House. I had no problem with Dickens, but I couldn’t (or didn’t) force myself to read it, and paid for it with a lousy grade for the course. However, in the six or eight weeks before the final, I read all four of Thomas Wolfe’s long novels, just because I felt like it (Actually, I read Look Homeward, Angel, and could think about little else until I’d read the whole series).

The same kind of thing is true in some other areas of my life, and photography is one. I’ve made pictures for money many times, mostly in my youth when I needed the cash. It was hardly ever any fun (One exception stands out for me; in my senior year at Stanford, a very attractive woman asked me to do a set of photos of her that she could give to family and friends on the occasion of her graduation. She told me that she liked my work, trusted me, and that I could make any kind of pictures that I wanted, as long as she kept her clothes on.) Whenever I picked up a camera to put food on the table or money in the bank it became no fun, or at least less fun.

I’m not sure why. Part of it was not having a free rein in the kind of work I did. But that’s not the whole thing; I hardly ever had a problem doing an assignment for a school newspaper editor, and most of my work for the Stanford Chaparral was standard commercial photography.

However, when it came to circuit design, the situation was reversed. Doing a design for myself seemed meaningless in comparison to doing a design to solve an important commercial or scientific problem. Also, I loved having the resources available to support my efforts. When I worked for my first company, doing research on speech and hearing. I didn’t have to build what I designed; I had techs to do that. That was great, since I liked the designing and testing, but not the construction, and, to be truthful, I was pretty bad at the building part. If I designed more stuff, the company was happy to hire more techs. Later, when I started managing as well as designing, I loved the way that it enabled me to take on bigger, more difficult, and more significant tasks.

Then there’s risk. At the level that I’ve seen the world, a photographer working for money has to be risk-averse. You need to always come up with the shot. No excuses. If the shot turns out not to be all if could have been, tough. You’re probably the only one involved that realizes that. I understand that in the rock-star stratocumulus things may be different, but I have no personal knowledge of that world, only one in which there was more emphasis on not screwing up than on fantastic results. That’s not the tradeoff calculus that appeals to me.

In much of the design work that I did, you were encouraged to take risks. If something didn’t work right – and there were prototypes and early tests to try to find out how well things worked — you’d pick yourself up and design a fix. If something was falling-off-a-log easy, your competition could do it that way, and probably wouldn’t stop there. If something had never been done before, why not do it? I admit to some sleepless nights, and I’m glad I don’t live like that anymore, but the challenge was intoxicating and addictive.

Since my retirement from the tech world, I’ve been working as an artist. One part of that is getting the work out in the world. How does someone who can’t stand being paid for something handle that? Give the work away? That’s OK, but I want some indication that the work means something to people. So, if you want one of my pictures, make out a check to the Center for Photographic Art or some other charity of my choosing. Somehow that feels different.

 

Thoughts on long-lens photography

Before electronic first-curtain shutter (EFCS), long-lens (which I’ll define as 300mm and over on a full-frame 35mm camera) photography was usually about wildlife and sports. For those activities ultimate sharpness wasn’t the prime concern. Those who attempted SLR landscape photos were usually frustrated by camera motion, even with the mirror locked up. With mirrorless cameras without EFCS, problems came in two flavors. Those that allowed live view to be turned off, like the Leica M240, suffered the same kind of camera vibration as those who used SLRs with the mirror up. The mirrorless cameras that didn’t allow live view to be turned off, like the Sony alpha 7R (a7R), had the considerable additional vibration of winding the shutter just before it was fired.

What to do?

You could use medium format cameras with leaf-shutter lenses, but there weren’t many of those over 450mm. I did make a successful series of images using film, a Hasselblad 501CM, and the 500mm f/8 Zeiss Tele-Apotessar CF, but only one. I also did architectural work with a 4×5 film camera and a convertible Nikon lens set to 450mm, but that’s only about 150mm in 35mm terms.

You could try to tame focal plane shutter motion with heavier and heavier tripods, weights, and sandbags. That helped, but the setup usually got to be less than portable before the image was crystal clear.

You could use nosebleed shutter speeds. However, not all landscape photography is done when the sun is high. In fact, you could argue that that’s one of the worst times for landscape photography.

Then along came electronic first-curtain shutter (EFCS). When you use it, the mechanical first curtain is open when the exposure begins, and the exposure is ended by the mechanical second curtain. It doesn’t eliminate all shutter vibration, since, for, say, the 1/320 to 1/125 second at the end of the exposure the camera is disturbed by the acceleration of the second curtain (the second curtain deceleration doesn’t matter, since the shutter is closed by then). However, it eliminates the bulk of the vibration; I’d guess 95% of it at most shutter speeds.

There are other things that can cause camera motion. Wind is the usual culprit. You want to be upwind of your camera when the shutter goes off, but that won’t fix things entirely. In urban environments — and some wild ones — ground motion shakes the camera.

There are other things that can cause blur. Atmospheric disturbances deviled me during some of my lens testing in the last few posts.

But EFCS is a game-changer. You can get sharp results that were just not obtainable before. My first experience with it was on the Sony alpha 7 (a7), and later the alpha 7 mark II (a7II). Those were 24 mega-pixel cameras. Then the Nikon 36MP D810 came out, with one of the big changes from the D800/D800E being the addition of EFCS. I’ve been using it with telephoto lenses recently.

Here are a few things that I’ve discovered.

You have to use live view for accurate focusing. Autofocus just won’t cut it at the sharpest apertures of the two lenses that I’ve been using on the D810, the 400/2.8 and the 200-400/4.

The Nikon AF-S 200-400 mm 1:4G isn’t quite parfocal.  It’s close. Probably close enough for other than landscape application. If you focus at one focal length and zoom in or out the little green dot will stay lit, but he image won’t be critically sharp at f/5.6 and f/8.

Vibration Reduction (VR, in Nikonese) really helps focusing. Without VR, when you magnify live view to the max at long focal lengths and put your hand on the focusing ring to tweak the focus, the image jiggles so much that it’s hard to be accurate. Turning on VR helps immensely.

You need to turn off VR before you make the exposure. You don’t need to do test shots to prove this to yourself. With VR on, set live view to maximum magnification, focus, and take your hand off the camera. You’ll see the image moving.

You can’t turn VR on and off when the camera is rotated counterclockwise into portrait orientation. This may not be true for all lenses, but for the ones I’ve got. When you mount the lens using the rotating collar and rotate the camera counterclockwise into portrait orientation, the VR switch is now down, and you can’t reach it because of the mounting foot. The solution is to rotate the camera clockwise so the switch is up, but that seems weird to me, and makes releasing the shutter awkward.

A 3 second shutter delay is just about perfect with a 400. You can prove this to yourself by setting live view to maximum magnification, taking your hand off the camera, counting “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi” and watch the image settle down. With a longer lens than 400mm, it might not be enough, and that would be too bad, because that’s the longest shutter delay offered on the D810.

 The optical viewfinder is mostly superfluous. For this kind of photography, I almost never use it.

EFCS in the real world with the Nikon 200-400 f/4 on the D810

Yesterday I posted a set of pictures with the Nikon AF-S 200-400 mm 1:4G lens on the Nikon D810. The images were intended to get an handle on center and corner sharpness of that lens with a distant subject at various f-stops. I made the images for yesterday’s post at ISO 640, about a stop short of ETTR, to keep the shutter speed up. Of course, I used EFCS, to keep vibration down. I used a RRS heavy-duty carbon fiber tripod and an Arca Swiss D4 geared head. The tripods rubber feet  — no spikes here — rested on concrete pavers installed over a concrete slab.

When I made the series that I posted yesterday, I also made a series at ISO 64 one stop down from ETTR, which gave me slower shutter speeds. Previous testing had indicated that, with the Nikon AF-S 400mm f/2.8 lens on the D810, that EFCS didn’t help much at shutter speeds faster than 1/125 second, but that it helped a lot at slower shutter speeds.

Does that same situation obtain in the real world with the 200-400?

Let’s take a look.

The scene, with the lens set to 200mm:

 

_8105881

 

The center, at ISO 640, f/5.6 at 1/400, magnified to 200%:

_8105887-3

The same part of the image ISO 64, f/5.6 at 1/30

_8105882

Not much difference at all. EFCS is doing its job.

Let’s try stopping the lens down one stop.

The center, at ISO 640, f/8 at 1/200, magnified to 200%:

_8105888-3

And at ISO 64, f/8 at 1/15, magnified to 200%:

_8105883

Still hanging in there.

Now, with the lens set to 400 mm:

_8105910

The center, at ISO 640, f/5.6 at 1/500, magnified to 200%:

f/5.6 1/500

f/5.6 1/500

And at ISO 64, which brings the shutter speed down to 1/50:

f/5.6 1/50

f/5.6 1/50

Looking good. Now let’s stop down a stop:

f/8 1/250

f/8 1/250

f/8 1/25

f/8 1/25

Maybe not quite as good at 1/50.

How about f/11?

 

f/11 1/125

f/11 1/125

f/11 1/13

f/11 1/13

This is flat amazing! F/11 isn’t such a sharp aperture, but the EFCS is keeping the slow exposure degradation to almost everything the lens can deliver.

 

 

Testing the Nikon 200-400mm f/4

I’m trying to find a zoom lens that works well for distant landscapes, sometime stitched, sometimes not. My initial experiments with the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-400 mm 1:4G were unsuccessful. However, after testing the known sharp Nikon AF-S 400mm f/2.8 under similar conditions and finding blur traceable to thermal atmospheric turbulence, I was ready to go back and try the zoom again under conditions that provided better seeing.

First, I tested the center sharpness of the zoom indoors with flash illumination:

200-400MTF50

The absolute numbers aren’t very good, but they are only slightly worse than I got when I tested the 400/2.8 with the same target and distance. The problem is that I can’t back up far enough to get the target distance to 50 or 100 focal lengths with this long a lens, and thus the target sharpness — or lack of same — starts to influence the results.

At least I know the two best f-stops for center sharpness. I went outside  this morning when it was calm and set up on this hillside about half a mile away:

_8105893

In the center at 400mm,  f/5.6 at 200%:

f/5.6

f/5.6

And at f/8:

f/8

f/8

That’s pretty close to pixel-level sharpness. Is f/5.6 a little better? Maybe.

In the lower left corner:

 

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

f/5.6 is a pretty soft, but f/8 is acceptable, considering that this is a zoom lens. . What about f/11? We’ll lose a bit in the center, but it might be worth it for the sides.

f/11

f/11

Helps a bit.  What’s it look like in the center?

f/11

f/11

Not bad. I can use either f-stop.

At 300mm in the center:

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

That looks fine. How about the corner?

 

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

Both of those look OK, with f/8 being a little better.

How about f/11?

f/11

f/11

f/11

f/11

I dunno. I think I’ll stick with f/8 at 200mm or so.

At 200mm in the center:

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

f/11

f/11

f/5.6 is the sharpest. F/8 is almost there. F/11 shows a little softness but is quite acceptable to me.

In the upper right corner:

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

f/11

f/11

F/5.6 and F/8 are pretty darned goo. F/11 is softer.

It looks like I’ve found an acceptable zoom for my landscapes. You won’t confuse the image quality with the Leica 280mm f/4 Apo-Telyt-R, but it’s pretty darned good considering it’s a zoom.

EFCS without atmospheric effects

Yesterday, I did some testing of the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens on the Nikon D810 with and without EFCS, and didn’t see much difference.

I went back and looked at the MTF testing I did with the D810 and the 400/2.8, and there wasn’t much difference at shutter speed faster than 1/125 second.

So I set up on my distant subject in the early morning, before the fog had burned off and the wind started to blow, and made a series of exposures at various shutter speeds of 1/125 and faster.

Here’s the scene, with still a touch of fog in the air:

_8105703

Here’s a look at 200% at the central tree, f/8 at 1/125:

EFCS on

EFCS on

EFCS off

EFCS off

We are now getting close to pixel level sharpness with EFCS on. It’s not bad at all with EFCS off, either.

I set up on a somewhat nearer subject, a bit over half a mile away:

_8105794

The crops, f/11 at 1/60:

EFCS on

EFCS on

EFCS off

EFCS off

EFCS helps.

I’ve never used a really long lens at distances like this, and I’m surprised how much the atmospheric conditions have to do with sharpness.

EFCS and atmospheric effects

I’ve been making images like this lately:

[Group 1]-_DSC3473__DSC3493-20 images_0000-Edit

This is a 20-image stitch made with a Sony a7II and a Leica 280mm f/4 Apo-Telyt-R.

I decided that I wanted to try a zoom lens, so that, when I’m not stitching, I could frame by zooming. Many people say you should “zoom with your feet” but that’s problematical when your subject is several miles away.

I have a Nikon 200-400mm f/4 zoom. I thought I’d give it a try. But first I wanted to do some tests to see if the lens was up to the task. I’d used it before with success, but never in situations like this kind of landscape, where sharpness is important.

I put the lens on a Nikon D810, the combination on a sturdy tripod with a Arca Swiss D4 head (the more I use geared heads, the less patient I am with ball heads), zoomed it out to 400mm, and aimed it at this scene:

_8105640

As I focused using live view, I noticed that there was a fair amount of image motion due to thermal effects in the several miles of atmosphere between me and the trees on the ridgeline. It was midday, which is a bad time for thermal agitation of the air.  I made an aperture series with EFCS on, and one with it off.

I noticed that there wasn’t much difference between the two series. Here’s f/8 at 1/125 with EFCS on blown up to 200%:

_8105625-2

And f/8 at 1/100 with EFCS off:

_8105630-2

Is the lens that bad, or is the air that bad?

The next day, in the mid afternoon, I put a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 AF-S (non-VR) lens on the camera, and aimed it across the valley:

_8105680

I did another set of aperture series with and without EFCS. Here they are:

 

f/2.8, 1/1600, EFCS on

f/2.8, 1/1600, EFCS on

f/2.8, 1/1600, EFCS off

f/2.8, 1/1600, EFCS off

Pretty darned blurry, and not a lot to choose between the two images. Either the lens isn’t that sharp wide open — not its reputation — or I wasn’t able to focus accurately. I will say that focusing was very difficult due to the combination of atmosperic thermal effects and vibration. I’ve recently begun turning on image stabilization on long lenses to focus, even when the lenses are on tripods. I find my accuracy is greatly improved. Most of the time I remember to turn stabilization off before I take the shot.

 

f/4, 1/800, EFCS on

f/4, 1/800, EFCS on

f/4, 1/800, EFCS off

f/4, 1/800, EFCS off

Still not much difference.

f/5.6, 1/400, EFCS on

f/5.6, 1/400, EFCS on

f/5.6, 1/400, EFCS off

f/5.6, 1/400, EFCS off

Now the EFCS image is noticeably sharper, but the difference is not dramatic.

f/8, 1/200, EFCS on

f/8, 1/200, EFCS on

f/8, 1/200, EFCS off

f/8, 1/200, EFCS off

Now there’s quite a difference. The lens is getting sharper, and the EFCS can make a difference.

f/11, 1/100, EFCS on

f/11, 1/100, EFCS on

f/11, 1/100, EFCS off

f/11, 1/100, EFCS off

Now the EFCS image isn’t looking any better, and it might even be worse. What’s happening here? I think that, as the shutter speed goes down, the atmospheric turbulence has a greater effect, rendering the image formed by the lens so blurry that any sharpness improvement that EFCS brings is not visible.

I’m going to have to try some shots in still morning air and see what the effects are. And the zoom sharpness? I still don’t know, because the zoom shots I was looking at where the lens is its sharpest were at a shutter speed of around 1/100, where the motion of a few miles of air just kills the clarity.

A book report: LensWork publishing services

This is post eleven in a series about my experiences in publishing a book. The series starts here.

I got an interesting email yesterday from LensWork, pointing me at this website:

Here are the details.

Isn’t that a coincidence! Just at the time when I start working on publishing a book, LensWork gets into that business, and using the very same printer that I was planning on using. Their rates are very attractive: $31K for 1000 96-page 9.5×12 inch full-color hardbound books, including design, scanning (if necessary), CMYK conversion (I’d never let anyone else do that, knowing what I know now), press checks, proofs — the whole ball of wax. They’re even using the same paper I was planning on using.

The differences, besides price:

  • A smaller, book. I was planning on 10.5×13.5, but I’m having second thoughts about going that big anyway.
  • 20 micron stochastic screen rather than 10,
  • Possible the cover thickness and cloth selection.
  • No varnish.
  • No French-fold dust cover.
  • No slip case.
  • No portfolio insert.
  • No fly sheet. At least it’s not mentioned.
  • Probably not as great a design. I think LensWork is very well designed, but Jerry Takigawa is in another league.

I’ll call them up and talk to them, if for nothing more than due diligence, but I’m currently thinking that I’ll stick with Jerry for my first — and possibly only — book. His designs are something special, and there’s also that thing about dancing with the one that brought you.

Flash photography’s pariah status

You talk to many who consider themselves serious photographers – not the commercial ones – and bring up flash photography. The noses turn up. Distain drips from their responses. Using flash is something one might do in private for utilitarian purposes, but it’s not a way to make important photographs. This attitude has percolated from the film era down to the present digital one, actually hardening somewhat in spite of – or maybe because of — the remarkable changes in technology that have made flash photography easier, cheaper, and more popular.

Where does it come from? I’m not really sure. I remember in the 50s and 60s a certain whiff of aloofness coming from those who proclaimed, “I’m an available light photographer.” Was it a reaction against people whose chosen photographic tools were view cameras? Maybe. Was it because it was difficult to use available light, given the camera and material of the day? Could be. Was it pride in being on the leading edge of photography, doing things previously impossible? Possibly.

Those are the things that come to mind, and maybe I’ve missed important ones. The interesting thing to me is that none of them apply any more, and still flash photography gets no respect, and probably gets even less respect.

What might be the reasons today? Almost all low-end cameras, even cellphone cameras, come with some kind of flash, and the default settings use too much of it; so many ugly flash images give flash a bad name. It takes a fair amount of planning, experience, and knowledge to use flash adeptly; many people are unaware of the amount of craft that goes into a good flash picture, and they don’t appreciate flash photographers’ skills. Flash photography often involves schlepping and setting up light stands, flash heads, light modifiers and the like, and sometimes requires assistants. Photographers without the dedication, time, and energy to deal with all that respond with sour grapes. Flash photography is associated with advertising and commerce, and that gives it a taint.

There may be more, but those are the reasons that come to mind.

Clearly there are times when flash photography isn’t appropriate or produces inferior images to working with the light that’s already there. You couldn’t (afford to) light most landscapes with flash if you wanted to. Flash is distracting to the participants at sports events, and to everyone at many performances. But I think it’s a mistake to ignore the times when flash can be the best way to get the shot you’re after.

A few weeks ago, someone on a photographic forum posted the opinion that, in a situation where the available light wasn’t strong, it was a mistake to introduce artificial light. In response I posted this image of a violist made with available light at a rehearsal:

_2X21820

And this one of the same artist made sixty feet away from the first with three strobes and two diffusers:

_2X24272-Edit

The original poster claimed that what I had posted was irrelevant because ordinary photographers didn’t have the equipment or skill to do what I had done. The sad thing is, I think he’s right about the average photographer’s level of skill with flash. In spite of a wide variety of fairly inexpensive smart strobes and light modifiers available just a mouse-click away, and real pro-level equipment from Paul Buff and others available at a fraction of the inflation-adjusted cost of the gear of thirty years ago, flash photography remains unpopular outside the commercial world.

I think it’s a pity. My opinion is that not only does well–done flash produce the best and most controllable results in many situations, learning how to master do-it-yourself lighting gives you skills that make you a better photographer even if all that lighting gear stays in its bag.

For those of you who’d like to get a feel for what’s involved in flash photography or in modifying available light to make your pictures better, I suggest you navigate on over to YouTube and search for Dean Collins, or go here: http://www.deancollins.com/

Dean was a Southern California commercial photographer who published a series of videotapes that I pored over in the early 1990s when I was teaching myself studio photography. They’re a great place to start.

Synching up

Back in the late 1980s my wife asked me what all those noises that came from a modem at the beginning of an on-line session were. I told her that the modem on her desk was negotiating with the modem at the other end to find out what each was capable of, so that they could communicate for the rest of the session with the most advanced protocol that they shared in common.

She said, “That’s what you do when you first meet someone at a party, isn’t it?”

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I had to admit that she was right.

It doesn’t work so well on the Internet.

Modeling camera motion

I’m going to take a little break from the ongoing monolog about book publishing. I’ve got a lot of work to do deciding which images need intervention in remapping to the GRACoL gamut, and performing that remapping, and describing what I’m doing would not generalize to other people’s book projects, so I won’t be posting the gory details.

In this post, I’d like to hark back to the simulations that I did of camera motions, and try to glean from slanted edge testing of handheld cameras whether I’m on the right track.

The shots in this post were made with an a7II with in-body image stabilization (IBIS) off, so we’re looking at user induced camera motion, not a combination of that and the camera’s attempts to correct it.

At 1/30 second, here’s an Imatest analysis of a capture where there wasn’t much camera motion perpendicular to the slanted edge:

Z30-3_YAL5_01_cpp

Concentrate on the top graph, the one labeled Edge profile. That’s what the program thinks a slice through the image perpendicular to the edge would look like. There’s a little bit of ringing in the dark part of the transition, and a fair amount of ringing in the light part. That’s a result of Lightroom’s demosaicing and deconvolution software.

Now let’s look at a capture where there was more camera motion:

Z30-2_YL8_01_cpp

The transition signified by the edge profile takes a lot longer in this capture, and the MTF50 number is therefore much worse. I think we can glean some information about camera motion in the direction normal to the slanted edge by looking at the shape of the Edge profile curve. We can’t derive any information about what happened when within the 1/30 second exposure, but I think we can see a few things.

The first thing that I notice about the Edge profile curve directly  above is that it indicates mostly motion in one direction at a constant rate, since the slope of the line is nearly linear. The second thing it indicates is that the rate changed a bit twice during the exposure; that’s what caused the two kinks in the curve.

Here’s a 1/30 second exposure for which the camera motion appears to be constant. There are a fir number of these.

Z30-5_YL2_01_cpp

And here are two with pronounced changes in motion rate:

Z30-11_YR3_01_cpp

Z30-20_YR8_01_cpp

When we move up to 1/60 second we more images like this, with very little motion:

Z60-1_YAL1_01_cpp

And when we see motion, it’s almost always at a constant rate:

Z60-9_YAL5_01_cpp

At 1/125, a sharp picture looks like this:

Z125-6_YA2_01_cpp

And a relatively blurry one looks like this:

Z125-12_YR8_01_cpp

Now the slope is so steep that it’s hard to say anything about the details of the camera motion.

It is reasonable, given the inertial of a camera and lens, that camera motions should become closer to constant and in one direction as shutter speeds get faster. The above testing hints at verifying that, but there’s no smoking gun here.

 

 

Photography meets digital computer technology. Photography wins — most of the time.

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