Over the Thanksgiving weekend, as usual, I played family photographer. While I’m aware that this is not art-making, I take it seriously, and do the best I can to produce 50 or 60 pleasing, emotionally-involving images, which I post on a private website a few days after the holiday. Since the stakes are low, I am free to indulge my photographic whims, and, as long-time readers of this blog know, one of the things that I do to make things more interesting for myself and to force myself to be more creative is to create a situation where I am limited in some way.
Last weekend, the self-imposed limitation was trifold. I used one camera, the D4. That’s my go-to camera, and the most versatile photographic instrument that I own, so that wasn’t much of a boundary. I used one lens, a 58mm. That stricture bound more tightly, since the “normal” focal lengths are not my favorite ones – I tend to like 18 to 28mm on the wide side, and 85 to 200mm on the long side. The last restriction was to use one aperture: f/1.4. I tend to stay away from apertures where the lens can’t deliver its best performance, and f/1.4 is, for almost all lenses, such an opening: it’s usually soft, especially in the corners, and suffers from light falloff towards the edges.
Nevertheless, I stuck to my plan, made several thousand exposures, learned a lot, and even come up with some good images. I was able to make well-exposed images even outdoors, thanks to the D4’s 1/8000 second top shutter speed.
What did I learn?
- At ISO 1600 and f/1.4, with a boost in post, I can make images in light so dim I have trouble seeing. In such dim light, manual focus is impossible unless you use live view. Autofocus works fairly well, but is nowhere near as accurate as it is in brighter light. You have to make a lot of exposures and hope for the best.
- There’s not much depth of field. In head-and-shoulders image, you can have the iris in critical focus, or the eyelashes, but not both. With a waist-up shot, unless the subject is looking squarely at you, you can’t have both eyes in focus. You definitely can’t get the eyes and the nose in focus simultaneously. You have to make a lot of exposures and hope for the best.
- When the depth of field is paper-thin, even with the D4’s great AF, because the size of the focusing areas is so large, you can’t tell when you’re framing the shot exactly what it’s going to focus on. The iris/eyelash confusion is a great example. The camera tends to pick the eyelash, but not all the time. You have to make a lot of exposures and hope for the best.
- The bokeh of the Nikon 58/1.4 is beautiful. You get a lot of it wide open. I found myself using large amounts of out-of-focus areas as negative space. Great fun!
- Wide-aperture moderate-distance outdoor images look strange, lovely, and ethereal. We’re not used to seeing them, and at a glance it’s not obvious why they look the way they do.
- Light falloff towards the deges and corners wasn’t a problem at all. In fact, with this lens, it usually wasn’t apparent; it just created a slightly brighter center that tends to pull the eye in pleasingly.
- Likewise, softness in the periphery of the image was hardly ever a problem. That part of the image is hardly ever in focus anyway.
- When making candids of people in motion, you really need autofocus, and even it’s not a panacea. You have to make a lot of exposures and hope for the best.
There’s a pattern here, isn’t there?