From Far and Wide (or Close) – Wide-Angle Lenses

A picture is worth a thousand words, but those words matter; in reality as photographers we’re story tellers or at least aspiring ones.  Every photo taken with any given lens tells a story, is it any different with a super/ultra wide? Perhaps the choice of lens adds some common elements found in literature, such as atmosphere, tone, pathetic fallacy, mood, movement, action and suspense.

So which lenses are capable of telling the best stories, the meaningful ones, the detailed ones?  Ask most landscape photographers and they will most likely tell you there “aint’ no better lens for story telling than the wide angle“. 

Although considered to be members of the wide-angle family the 35mm and 28mm, in landscape photography the best stories are often told with the ultra-wide-angle lenses like the 14mm to 24mm range and occasionally fish-eye lenses. One of my favourite ultra-wide lenses is the Nikon 14mm to 24mm zoom lens.

So, why use these ultra-wide lenses; there are several reasons for this. The primary benefit for these lenses is their large angle of view, 84° for a 24mm and 115° for a 14mm lens and more importantly the substantial depth of field. A typical 28mm lens stopped down to f/22 the maximum depth of field in that scene is 3 feet to infinity.  That’s a huge area of total area of sharpness.  Now, compare that to a 20mm lens at the same f-stop (f/22) the depth of field increases to 18 inches to infinity.

What does that extra 18 inches get you with an ultra-wide? Well, it gives you a foot-and-a-half of usable sharp foreground.  Most good quality wide-angle lenses more than any other type of lens are capable of capturing some very up close and personal perspectives on photographic moments.


Despite these really great qualities, in my experience ultra-wide-angle lenses continue to bear various stigmas from a lot of amateur photographers. I suspect the stigma is possibly due to the fact they might believe that it’s more challenging to create good compositions with them. I often hear complaints such as, “it makes everything so small and seem so far away and there’s just too much distraction in the frame”.  In my opinion this perception may also compounded that a lot of new and amateur photographers are taught or believe that they need to “fill their frames” and as a result tend to gravitate to longer focal length lenses.


For me on the other hand, these are precisely why they are my go-to lenses for the majority of my landscape photography.  The scope of subject matter that an ultra-wide is able to include in the frame provides so much to manipulate, emphasize and utilize in compositions. I think one of the best ways to find success in composing is to understand and pay attention to your point of view, and of course what’s going on inside your viewfinder.

Ultra-wide lenses amplify the sense of distance from fore to backgrounds and creates an illusion of depth and perspective; using them successfully you can an use foreground components as a “hook” to instantly grab the viewers attention. The most admired landscape photographs include viewpoints with foreground interest such as, stones at the edge of a lake or stream, colourful wildflowers in bloom at the base of a mountain-scape.  Creating compositions with effective foreground interest make for images that evoke powerful emotional responses as they can awaken the sense of smell, touch and sometimes taste that allows the viewer to immerse themselves emotionally into the scene.


To explore utilization of these elements in your compositions don’t be afraid to get low and change your perspective; the process is simpler than you think just ask yourself how does the scene look from the viewpoint of grapes on the vine, a grasshopper perched on a blade of grass.  What does the world look like through the eyes of a small child, a cat or dog, and a field mouse, get low and evoke some emotion every time.

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1st In a series – Learning How Your Camera Sees

This is the first post of a series of photography techniques that I am writing in hope that it will be of some value to photographers at any level to consider.  There are a lot of resources that you’ll find on cameras from every era known to mankind, however in my experience there isn’t much on documenting a photographic journey.  I hope to focus on the journey of what I like to call learning to see photographically.

I think that this is a journey that one takes as they learn about creative aspects in photography.  I believe that photography especially film photography, is a balance between Art and Science. Capturing a memorable, artistic, and pleasing photograph requires tangible components that are measurable like exposure, lighting, film and chemical selection and, equipment mixed with those that are less measurable; they are a healthy dose emotion from one’s heart and soul translated into execution into your camera.  At the end of the day to me photographs require emotion, execution and storytelling – this is what sets a photograph apart from a snapshot.

So where did this come from, why would my opinion be the right way?   Let me start by saying I am basing this series only on my personal experience and training which you can read on my about me page on my website.  But I say with the utmost emphasis this is not the right way it is my way, it is what has and works for me, I sincerely hope that some of it works for you too.  Of course, constructive comments are always welcome.

I plan on writing about these topics and of course more as I progress through the series

  • Photographic Vision
  • Elements of Design
  • Composition
  • Learning to See and Assess the Quality of Light
  • Challenging yourself

Let’s get started…

Photographic Vision:

We all see the same thing…. Well, maybe, maybe not, consider two photographers standing next two each other in front of a scene do you think it’s possible for them to take an identical photograph? The answer is simply no it’s impossible aside from the laws of physics and the space time continuum, there is the human factor. 

  • I am everything that has happened to me, all that I’ve seen, experienced and most importantly what I have not see up until this point I am the sum of these things. Who I am in this moment makes me see differently than someone who has walked their own path to here.
  • As a photographer I may see a certain aspect of the scene
  • I may predict how that scene will evolve and I may want to show you that moment
  • I may want to show you the moment before the moment happens
    • Imagine shooting a wedding ceremony and the couple kissing for the first time as a married couple, what is the height of emotion the kiss or the moment just before the kiss happens?
  • I may want to include a wider view of the scene to tell a story of what led up to it
  • I may want to focus on a particular component of the scene because I believe it’s most impactful

The conceptual basis in this theory is that, in most photographs there are photos within photos.

How do we see versus how the camera does; the human eyes sees pretty much the same way a 50mm lens does on a 135 (35mm) format camera and its equivalent focal length for other formats. This is commonly referred to as the normal lens, and of course focal lengths shorter that 50mm are called wide angle and longer called telephoto.

If you share the notion with me that photography is about creating vision not just capturing one, this is why photography is art in my opinion, here’s an exercise that I hope will illustrate this for you.

  1. Pick your favourite lens if it as zoom, make sure you leave it on the same focal length during this exercise.
  2. Choose a subject, an inanimate one works best, if you’re shooting a person they will need to stay in place a hold their pose as best as possible.
  3. From whatever the distance needed place your subject in the centre of the frame so it falls right in the middle; make sure there’s room all around your subject.
  4. While looking through the viewfinder make your first capture.
  5. Now walk toward your subject a few paces, keep them in focus and make your second capture
  6. Repeat this until your lens can no longer focus on your subject.
  7. Without changing your lens’ focal length if you’re using a zoom walk back to your starting point.
  8. Now repeat, except shoot from your your knees, then do it on your belly.
  9. Rinse and repeat with every lens in your collection!

So what…

A few things will become quite obvious as a result, the composition of the first image captured will include not only your subject but a bunch of other stuff that in might distract from your subject. The images you captured on your knees might feel more intimate, especially a portrait of a small child or a person who uses a wheelchair.  Perhaps you captured a much more dramatic sunset or waterfall with depth and perspective that separates a snapshot from a photograph. While on your belly you captured a really cool composition of a surrounding park or architecture through the legs of your subject.  And the most valuable result of this you learned how your camera sees.

I hope you find this exercise helpful and welcome any comments and questions you might have.

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A Journey Back to my Roots – Why I Shoot Film

I’m often asked is film better than digital, I often read about the animosity between some from either community, and it puzzles me… well frankly it annoys me to a level I’d rather not discuss.

Let’s get something straight here, they are both photography, photography is what I like to call a perfect marriage of art and science.  At the end of the day regardless of the medium you choose to use to make an image it’s still photography.

Film is an evolution of a process of combing organic and inorganic matter to create a product that can be utilized by any human being to create an image.  Digital photography is the exact same thing less the organic matter; both approaches will get you a beautiful image provided you have the talent and ability to make a worthy photograph

As a fairly active member of the photography community and an avid film shooter, in fact it’s my preference over digital, I naturally tend to promote film photography as often as I can I post a lot of articles on the subject, I’m an educator of photography and in particular film photography and what I see as its benefits.

Without fail, I’ll get comments to the effect of digital is the future and it’s so much better than film or vice-versa. I always try to let these comments and discussions/arguments roll off my back, however they seem to keep on coming.  So, with that in mind I figured I’d address them, and I also thought it would be a great way to explain why I’ve taken a sabbatical from professional photography.

Let’s start with a broad assumption the mediums have more in common than most are willing to admit.

 So Why and Why Not?

When I’m in the street with a film camera and someone notices or I’m teaching a photography class and I tell students I love film, usually the first thing people want to know is, “why?” Isn’t digital is so much more convenient than film, can you even get film, where do you get it developed, you’re scanning a lot of it isn’t that digital?

Well, because I like it.

I fell in love with photography so many years ago, 1982 in fact because it was fun, and I was fascinated with the remarkable technology and engineering that went into my first camera a Zenit-E, yes, I said remarkable engineering that went into my Zenit-E. Since then, I spent many years walking around with a 35mm SLR and joyfully pointed my lens at something, pressed the button, and usually in 24-48 hours and sometimes 1 hour it was like Christmas morning as I opened my envelope of 24, or 36 photos.  Sadly, being around around 12 years old most of the shots were pure nonsense, but occasionally a well composed and exposed image would emerge. It was that sense of anticipation that was a big part of what drew me to photography, a few years later in high school I took a photography course and had my first darkroom experience and got to see images I shot appear on paper today it’s the biggest part of the draw for me today.

Today, when pull my negatives from the tank and see lovely images and then scan them and seeing the images appear on the screen, brings me back to the days of picking up and opening those envelopes from the lab.

When I’m working on a professional shoot, I tend to always do it with a digital camera, instantaneously the images are right there in front of me, it’s super convenient but the “magic” of anticipation is gone. To be completely transparent, when I’m working professionally, I’m not there to feel “magic.” I’m there to do a job and do it well and do it efficiently, and this is where digital is the most effective for me.

Film really isn’t the best tool for the job and that situation, but if I’m shooting for myself, why do it with something that I am passionate about and find fun?

The process of shooting film, and developing and scanning it myself makes me feel great and that’s the best part, no question.

Recent History

Since the dawn of digital sensors photographers have been swapping their old systems for new ultrahigh ISO, insane frame rates, impeccable and lighting fast autofocus all on digital platforms.  Time will tell whether or not they were they right in doing so – but does it really matter?  I don’t think so.  Is there really a battle of film vs digital photography being waged? Perhaps, a more suitable question would be, why are you shooting digital rather than film and vice-versa.

In the last 5-10 years, film photography has been making a significant comeback; more and more people are acquiring and digging out their old vintage film cameras and using them rather prolifically in a world of 1’s and 0’s.

So below I’m going to make an attempt to compare some of the key aspects of both mediums.

Resolution

One of the biggest questions that pops up in this argument is the comparison of resolution I’m often asked; how does film compare to a digital sensor? Digital sensors measure their resolution in the number of pixels they can jam on a sensor, there are no pixels on film; film doesn’t use pixels, so we need to use what we call ‘angular resolution’.

“Angular resolution or spatial resolution describes the ability of any image-forming device such as an optical or radio telescope, a microscope, a camera, or an eye, to distinguish small details of an object, thereby making it a major determinant of image resolution. In physics and geosciences, the term spatial resolution refers to the precision of a measurement with respect to space.”

Digital sensors all come in various size resolutions, and the same goes for different film types, film resolution ranges between 4 and 16 million pixels.

For example:

Kodachrome 64 film has an effective comparison of around 10 megapixels and most entry level DSLR’s these days have a resolution of 24.2 MP in this case film doesn’t quite cut it.

Medium format however, includes sizes like 6cm x 4.5 cm, 6cm x 6cm and 6cm x 7cm and, large format 4″ x 5″ (10.16 cm x 12.7 cm) and 8”x”10 (20.32 cm x 25.2 cm) which yield a much larger resolution.

Medium format has the capacity to produce a whopping 400 Megapixels; ironically, digital cameras limits this.  When scanned “digital negatives” falls somewhere between 50 and 80 Megapixels and Large format reaches 200 Megapixels.

Yes, aunt Karen’s 35mm film SLR will not outperform modern digital camera resolution, however, a medium or large format will leave them in their digital dust!

Digital Grain (or Noise) vs. Film Grain

Unwanted textures in your images are referred to as grain if you’re shooting film and noise on your digital file. In film, this is the result of the silver halide crystals not receiving enough light. Conversely, digital, the noise is a result of visual distortion and it is also cause by the electronic sensor trying to deal with a lack of light and is born from the inability of the sensor electrical interference. Of course, increasing ISO, or using a high-speed film makes your images more susceptible to noise and grain.

Dynamic Range or Well Forgiveness…

Historically, film has a high level of dynamic range and as a result has always been the choice over digital. However, in the past 2-3 years some very high-end sensors, powerful file processing software and components keep the dynamic range and contrast ratio higher in digital systems.  Film had a good run with dynamic range, but digital cameras can easily match it these days.

Film Speed

Film is available at speeds between 1 and 3200 ISO, yet you can find 6400. You can also push the film, by underexposing it and over developing it, this is called pushing. Pushing film increases the contrast. Professional digital cameras, such as the Nikon D5, can produce images with an ISO of 3.2 Million.  Digital cameras have the greatest advantage in this scenario as you can readily change ISO back and forth as you see fit.

Convenience

Think about your workflow. If you use a digital system, it is very fast, convenient and efficient to capture a scene, edit and share on social media.

The same workflow with film could be 30 mins to several hours for capturing, three days for processing, 30 mins for scanning and another 30 mins for editing. Even without any glitches it could take over three days to complete a film based professional workflow.

Pros and Cons

Film

Digital

 
  • Lower initial cost
  • Negatives last an infinite amount of time
  • Most do not require batteries
  • More forgiving of minor focusing issues
  • Tougher cameras for bumps and scrapes
  • Need filters for some lighting situations
  • Tend to be heavier cameras
  • Film takes up physical space
  • Cost of film
  • Takes longer to see captures
  • Lab or home processing
  • Many do not have light meters
  • Slow or no autofocus
 
  • People tend to ‘pray and spray’
  • Point and shoot resolutions produce large prints
  • Lighter than film cameras
  • Memory cards don’t require much physical space
  •  Memory cards store hundreds of images
  • Can edit images immediately in camera
  • Many offer built-in filters
  • Digital storage can be lost easily
  • Focusing in low light conditions can be difficult
  • Can malfunction in extreme situations

My Final Thoughts…

Film was once the pinnacle of modern photography, let’s face it, without film there would be no digital photography. In many ways, digital photography has surpassed film photography. This is in terms of resolution, cost and convenience. Despite this, film photography still holds on to a huge following, and a huge resurgence into film is alive and kicking today. Although several new films have been launched in the last 2 years, the problem with film photography is that many film manufacturers have discontinued more films than have been launched.

Compared to the mid-1990’s only a small portion of original film emulsions remain available and these are becoming more and more expensive each year. Fujifilm eliminate their film faster and faster.

Saying that, there are still start-ups and boutique companies, such as Lomography, Polaroid, Silberra, Ferrania, and others that produce film regularly.

We have the best of both worlds right now and we should be readily using both Analogue and Digital systems.  When I feel the need for speed or when I am working for clients and need a faster turnaround, I will take advantage of a digital system. When I can take my time and enjoy the experience of photography film is the magic that helps me appreciate every moment.

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Image Critique and Approach – What’s Important to You?

I often wonder how and why people judge photography, what constitutes a “good” photo versus a “bad” photo?  What gives anyone or me the right to express his or her opinion on anyone’s photography?

I think this can be attributed to a couple of things, one Photography is a visual art form both in the way it’s created, and the way it’s appreciated.  By its very nature it is something we do for others to look at and by default that means it will leave an impression on its viewers. Two, most people want to know what others think of their efforts.  This feedback is vital to grow as an artist and become better photographers.

So what is constructive criticism, or at least was is most beneficial to developing the art of photography?  When I was instructing Wedding Photography at Sheridan College, I was asked to critique and grade students work, this was not an easy task, as several things need to be considered; the experience of the photographer, equipment being used, stylistic influences, ability to execute the assignment, and technical photographic execution.

Most feedback is valuable, however, which is the most important?  I’ve given this matter a lot of thought over the years and I’d like to share with you some background on how I approach taking a photograph, it’s my hope that this will give you a better idea on what kind of feedback is important to help you become the photographer you want to be, and what is well not so important. Essentially, I hope I help you understand the difference between what skills can only be developed, and others can be learned.

Lets reflect on a few things first…

Why did you press the button?

Photographers have the ability to freeze time, preserve emotion and bring those who are far away or well not with us any more back at least in spirit.  I believe that is true because emotion is captured in photography and emotion, brings on other emotions.  I believe that regardless of your subject the opportunity exists for all photographers to preserve that emotion in their images and that is really what in my humble opinion that is our job as photographers

What emotion did you see or anticipate as you made the decision to release the shutter? How did you feel as the scene developed before you, what quality of light were you waiting so long for; how did you feel at that moment?

More importantly how do you want your audience to feel when you show that masterful shot, that crafted image?

If we’re honest with ourselves as photographers this is the feedback we typically fear the most.  Because these are the skills we cannot learn, we can only develop this skill and some of us are more gifted at it than others.

Now the technical stuff is important but I think it’s less important than the emotional components and anyone can learn exposure, appropriate DOF, and shutter speed etc.   A perfect execution of an emotionless subject matter is simply forgettable – It’s emotion that makes images powerful – period.

So what’s the compelling message, simply the next time you have the honour of offering a critique an image tell the artist how it made you feel.  Only the photographer will know how close they came to evoking the feelings from the viewer and that is ultimately the most valuable critique you could offer.  It teaches the photographer how to see, how to develop not learn the art of seeing.

Before I conclude a few words of advice, focus yourself before you focus the camera; I grew up shooting film and when film was the medium there was a sense of scarcity when shooting, each release of the shutter cost about $.50 cents; in the digital world of abundance today it costs nothing to press the button.  I suggest changing your photographic paradigm from abundance to sufficiency.  Sufficiency not an amount it’s an experience, a context you the photographer working as an artist generates, a declaration, knowing that there is enough, and we have done enough.

I hope this brings a new perspective on your approach whether you agree or not  I hope it helps… now get out there and start seeing first.

Cheers,

James

 

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This page is dedicated to photographers of all skill levels. I will post links to other really cool photographers I know as well as recommended vendors as well as blog posts written mainly for photographers. The resources will be geared toward film and analog mostly but a lot of the content will apply to digital photographers as well.

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