Monday, November 15, 2021

Give Zooms a Chance

I recently wrote about my fondness for the 35mm focal length and preference for prime (non-zooming) lenses.  It was that post plus the release of two new, compact, f2.8 zoom lenses that has caused me to reconsider using them again.

There are several reasons to prefer fixed lenses. For starters they are generally sharper, faster (let more light in), and smaller than their zooming counterparts.  The biggest reason, however, is actually their limitation.  By not being able to change focal lengths with the twist of the wrist it forces you to look at things in ways you might otherwise have never considered.  I've frequently discovered compositions by simply panning around and looking through the viewfinder or at the screen (or ground glass in my view camera days). If you want to bring something closer you either have to physically move closer or take the time to change lenses.  After enough practice it's also easy to visualize how a certain scene is going to look with a given lens.  However, I typically try to avoid that unless I'm in a hurry as I can usually discover something better than I initially imagined.

I've found that when using a zoom lens many beginners, myself included, tend to remain stationary and simply zoom in to fill the frame with whatever they perceive as their subject.  That is a sure recipe for boring pictures.  Exploring through a camera with a fixed lens reveals relationships between the initially recognized subject and it's surroundings which can themselves become the real subject of the photograph.  These relationships combined with, and sometimes created by, a certain type of light are the key elements from which my best images are derived.  And of course it's always the right light to photograph something.

So after all this, why go another round with zoom lenses?  The obvious reason is having multiple focal lengths available without carrying more or changing lenses.  Swapping lenses is a bit of a pain in good weather and during bad weather I generally won't even bother.  The biggest obstacle, lack of creativity inducing constraints, I believe I'll manage simply through experience.  I have been approaching photography with a zoom as though I were still using primes.  I imagine what lens would be best for a given scene and zoom to that focal length before I look through the viewfinder and then proceed as usual.  If it's not working and I need to "try a different lens," only then do I change the zoom position.

This also allows the added bonus of using the zoom in a more traditional way when I'm stuck in a certain spot and unable to move around.  I've also found that when I've exhausted my traditional approach I have the option of exploring through the camera with the added dimension of  zooming in and out both on and around the subject.

I've only just begun this process so I imagine there's more to discover and I'm looking forward to using these zoom lenses on a day to day basis.  Of course there's no replacing my 35mm 1.4 when shallow depth of field or shooting in low light is required and the tiny size of my 2.8 primes makes them indispensable when traveling as light as possible... but I anticipate using them much less now.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Creating Calm

When I'm doing my best work it typically begins with being calm and quiet enough to allow my surroundings to speak and then responding in an intuitive way. Though not my only recipe for good photographs it certainly produces the highest percentage of keepers. It can also be an exercise in restraint and good practice for dealing with other challenges.  

Exposing the above image was a perfect example. Immediately after arriving in this tranquil autumn setting the construction crew widening the nearby road showed up. While their arrival didn't affect the scene visually the mood definitely changed and I struggled to compose a picture.

In moments like this I find it helpful to focus on my routine and not the freshly broken calm, so I looked to simple advice I've heard countless times over my 23 years of photography. "If you're having trouble composing; get higher, get lower, move closer, move farther away, or change lenses." I only had a 35mm lens with me and the tiny peninsula I was on restricted my ability to move around. An exposure from full height didn't feel right so I lowered the camera to a couple of feet off the ground and found a composition that worked.

The scene required a one second exposure at f11 which wasn't long enough to blur the occasional ripple disturbing the otherwise still waters of the lake. I prefer not to fool around with filters in extremely humid and misty conditions as keeping them from fogging can be quite difficult thus ND filters were not a good solution. A bit more patience was in order as I waited and tried to time my delayed shutter release plus the one second exposure in between the randomly occurring surface disruptions.  I feel remaining calm and sticking with it payed off in the end as the resulting picture embodies the serenity I experienced when I first arrived.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

A Most Comfortable Field of View

For a number of years I had settled into a routine with my large and medium format equipment.  One wide angle lens, one normal lens, and one or two longer lenses.  All of fixed focal lengths as I've never gotten on with zoom lenses despite their obvious appeal and several attempts.  After transitioning to an all digital workflow in 2016 I assumed I would simply duplicate those lens choices and be on my way.

I'm not sure if it was the aspect ratio change from 4x5 to the longer 3x2 or simply a change of taste after nearly 20 years of photography but I was never quite happy with those lenses after the switch.  In "full frame" speak, which is what I use, a normal lens has a 50mm focal length or a 47 degree angle of view (on the diagonal).  My wide angle has a 24mm focal length or an 84 degree angle of view. And of course the longer focal length lenses have a much narrower angle of view which makes distant objects appear closer and the scene look more compressed.

I came to realize that there's quite a large gap between my 50mm and 24mm lenses. So I picked up an old Minolta 35mm lens which seemed to fit nicely in between them and my photography has not been the same since.  Suddenly the 50mm felt like a long lens and the 24mm looked rather wide.  I still use them both but that 35mm focal length felt just right to me.  Maybe not exactly what my eyes see but how they see.

My best description of the 35mm focal length with its 63 degree angle of view would be this: a telephoto wide angle. An oxymoron for sure yet precisely how it feels.  From longer distances it allows me to capture what appears to be a wide field of view without much distortion.  From middle distances the 35mm lets me pick out the most important details of a scene while still feeling natural.  And up close I'm able to include a bit of context while highlighting a specific subject.  A long wide angle or a wide long lens... Either way I approach it the lens simply provides a most comfortable field of view and lets me focus on visual relationships and light in a decidedly natural way.

I still have and use my other focal lengths but the 35mm is responsible for at least fifty percent of my keepers now.  And when I go out with only one camera and one lens, it's almost always one of my 35s.  That's right, I love it so much I have two; a small f2.8 pancake model, and a much larger f1.4 version for low light and shallow depth of field situations.  Part of me wishes I had found this goldilocks perspective earlier in my photography but finding it now has been quite exciting and reinvigorated my work in a way. So, I'll just be grateful for discovering it when I did.  Of course 35mm is one of the most popular lenses around so maybe "discovering" isn't quite accurate, but again, that's how it feels.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Knowing vs Understanding Choices

I have been working in darkrooms for almost 16 years and with a new found passion and motivation for over 9 years. During that time I have been influenced by many photographers, painters, musicians, writers... all sorts of people. I have gone through periods of emulating the printing style (and negative processing) of various photographers while trying to develop my own way of seeing. This, more than anything else I'd venture, has helped me learn the craft of photography (and the fact that I will never stop learning...)

For some time now I have observed and admired artists who work one "piece" at a time. That is to say that they come to each image, book, song, or painting anew. Yet in my own work I tend to worry about keeping things in line, wanting prints to match in color, texture and tone... considering my years spent experimenting with different styles it is probably needless to say that my body of work is NOT consistent in color, texture or tone.

So, while I've known that my photography does not need to be consistent in such ways and admired those who make individual works... it has still troubled me. Until recently. I'm in the midst of organizing and cataloging my negatives and prints and in so doing have been taking a trip backwards in time. And only through this process have I begun to understand that each new photograph presents its own unique set of challenges. And in order to solve those challenges we are faced with choices. It is what we choose that not only makes our work our own, but also, what makes each piece stand on its own. Limiting my choices for the sake of consistency will only serve to limit the scope and, ultimately, the evolution of my photography.

As I continue to sort through my archives and make decisions about what prints are acceptable and what prints are not, I now base those decisions solely on the merits of the photographs themselves. One at a time.

I also understand that this is personal and that there are those who impose limitations on themselves for artistic purposes. And that only through working within, and often times against, those constraints are they able to thrive.

But for me, there are more than enough limitations built into the process itself to struggle against.  This realization has been a long time coming and it is incredibly freeing.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Skunk Run Falls #1

I exposed this negative at about 7:30am July 4th, 2012. After hiking up the creek bed I came to this falls which is not listed on the map. I first found it on Flickr while researching some new to me areas of McConnells Mill. The water, which has been low this year, was up after a thunderstorm the night before. The weather was sunny and foggy at the same time but the dappled light had not yet made it into the ravine, which is probably 75 feet deep at this point in the run. The light was low but fairly even, I had to hold my breath under the dark cloth in order to keep the ground glass and my loupe from fogging.

I used a Toyo 45AII, Nikkor 90mm SW f4.5 and TMY2 (Tmax 400) rated at ISO 250. I metered the white water at the base of the falls, the water in the pool, the wet rock faces without flow at the bottom right and left of the falls and several of the black areas with my Pentax 1 degree spot meter to come up with my exposure. Indicated exposure was 8 seconds at f22, I added two seconds of reciprocity compensation per a list made by Lee Lumpkin  (which he compiled from Howard Bond's data). I suppose 2 seconds is negligible in this situation but I always error on the side of more exposure and thought an extra couple of seconds might help lengthen the white stripes in the wading pool a bit. I exposed two sheets of film as is my usual practice.

I have been experimenting with developing my 4x5 film in home made BTZS style tubes but instead of rolling them in water I use them upright as one would a 120 or 35mm stainless tank. I agitate for the first minute and then at the top of each minute thereafter. Agitation is by inversion. The tubes, when screwed together, hold double the amount of solution required to cover the film so each inversion causes all of the developer to leave the film and be replaced in a new position. Thus far development has been completely even, including the edges of the film.

I developed the first sheet for 15 minutes at 1:100. The shadows and midtones looked good but the white water was a little hotter than I wanted. For my second sheet I decided to increase the dilution to 1:140 to help tame the highlights and extend the development time 2 minutes to help keep the shadows up where I wanted them (all was done at 70degrees F). This negative looked great, the shadows had the same density as the first but the highlights had come down a nice amount. It was this second negative that I printed.

The print was made via contact on AGFA MCC 111 fiber paper using Ilford filters (grades 4, 5 and 1) over my old Nikkor diffusion enlarger with a 100mm lens projecting the light circle which just covers my 9x11 contact printing frame. I developed the print in PF 130 at 1:1 for two minutes. The print was then selenium toned with KRST at 1:100 for 2 minutes, this seemed to give the blacks just a bit more density.  My printing notes should be fairly clear to those familiar with MultiGrade printing techniques.  The F number refers to the aperture used and the G number to the filter grade.