What I Got The X100s For

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Would one of my other cameras have provided adequate depth of field to keep both pets in focus? Probably not in this light. Besides, it would not have been hanging around my neck when I walked by the stair landing. The lightweight X100s was at the ready.

With all due respect to Chase Jarvis, we’re all sick of hearing that “the best camera is the one you have with you.” It’s just so irritatingly true. For those of us with too many cameras and too little vision, it’s nice to have rules about which camera to have with us at any given time.

I got the Fujifilm X100s last October to be my “carry everywhere” camera. Nevertheless, every time I’m about to leave the house, I agonize over which camera(s) and lens(es) to bring. Often, when I’m going to be out and about for non-photographic purposes, I remind myself, “This is what you got the Fuji for.” I then also remind myself to not end sentences with prepositions, since that is something up with which I cannot put.

Yesterday we visited a couple of wineries (and Ostrich Land!) in the Santa Ynez Valley. I was not going out to make photographs; I was going out to enjoy time with friends. This is what I got the Fuji for.

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Would a longer lens have been nice while visiting this miniature horse ranch? Sure, but the X100s challenged me to frame my images differently. Wish I’d gotten lower. Oh well.

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Preparing to feed the ostriches. Snapshots of friends are absolutely why I got the Fuji.

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I struggle with the X100s focus system for any sort of moving subject, but at f/5.6 in bright light, it is very forgiving.

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The X100s also provides better acuity and dynamic range than we have any right to expect.

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As I said, I haven’t figured out how to use the X100s for action, but sometimes I get lucky. Which is fine while snapshooting. If I was traveling to the Santa Ynez Valley to photograph Ostriches, I would bring the big bag o’ Nikons. And a couple of flashes. And maybe some light stands and umbrellas.

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I am occasionally reminded that the X100s is capable of far more than I usually get out of it. When I do my part, the camera delivers excellent images.

The lightweight X100s allows me to maneuver it into unusual positions.

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My dinner wine, reflected in the table, along with a very photogenic sky. I would have felt very self-conscious trying to shoot something like this with my Nikon D610 – at least until my third glass of wine. But I use the X100s in silent mode, so when I raise the camera and snap the frame, I’m done before anyone notices.

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The Song My Photos Were Waiting For

On my 56th birthday last April, I went to see Aimee Mann perform with poet Billy Collins. On that same day, I received her new album with Ted Leo, performing as The Both. It included the song, “Hummingbird.” Like Nessun Dorma, this is a song that just gets me, so I decided to use some of my wildlife photos to make a slideshow with the song.

And this is where being a lazy, disorganized, impatient photographer kinda bites me in the butt, because I couldn’t find a lot of my best wildlife pictures, distributed as they are among several computers, many hard drives, and many, many, optical discs. Oh well, the song is beautiful and some of these images are pretty good too.

Works for me. I would say that “One of these days I need to get organized,” but it’s not going to happen. So it goes.

Oh, and I don’t really have the right to use the song, but maybe if you buy The Both, and everything else Aimee Mann and Ted Leo have created, they’ll give me a pass. Thanks.

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I Did It Better Last Time, By Not Being A Photographer

I ignored good advice from others, and from myself. I know dang well that I shoot better when I carry less gear on vacation.

To be fair, though, this vacation was to offer a rare opportunity (for me) to visit a Great Blue Heron rookery in a stand of old-growth pines. How could I NOT bring the D610, 70-200 f/2.8, and 1.7x teleconverter?

As it turned out, the day of our visit to Cathedral Pines was murky (rainy/humid/grey), the herons were very far away, and when they were visible at all, they were only visible behind masses of tree limbs.

As close as I got to a heron photo at the rookery. That said, the experience itself was magnificent.

As close as I got to a heron photo at the rookery. That said, the experience itself was magnificent.

A nest, about 80 feet in the air...

A nest, about 80 feet above me…

Other than the long zoom and teleconverter, I brought a 24mm f/2.8, and did much of my shooting with that.

Brad and Alicia; the real reason we were in Wisconsin.

Brad and Alicia; the real reason we were in Wisconsin.

Now I have to admit that if I were traveling by myself, I would have spent many long hours at the rookery, getting eaten by mosquitos, until I got some dramatic images of adult Herons and/or chicks. But this was a vacation, not an assignment, and I wasn’t by myself. I was with three other people getting eaten by mosquitos. Not the right time to be saying, “just 1,000 more frames, and then we can get lunch…”

We had a wonderful time with our friends, and I got a couple of photos while out and about.

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A cabin in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, built in 1828.

A cabin in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, built in 1828.

And then, on our last night, the best photographic opportunity of all: Brad and Alicia needed a headshot of their daughter Hope. I’ve rarely used the new D610 with the 70-200 sans teleconverter, and I like the results very much.

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So, the moral of the story is that I talk to myself but I don’t listen. I should vacation with the camera I bought for vacationing: the FujiFilm X100s, and plan photo trips as solitary photo trips. Seems like the best way to enjoy each type of trip.  That said:

...we were with people we love, having a great time, and it wasn't about photography.

…we were with people we love, having a great time, and it wasn’t about photography.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Nature Photography, Professional vs. Amateur, Travel and Vacation

Even a Bad Day at Bolsa Chica is Okay

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”  That pretty much sums up my most recent and very disappointing trip to Bolsa Chica, but you know, I still had fun. I wanted pictures of terns hitting the water. I didn’t get any.

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First Orbis Experiment

The Orbis ring light adapter swallows an SB800 flash and spits out soft, even light.

The Orbis ring light adapter swallows an SB800 flash and spits out soft, even light. Your lens goes in the bagel breach (New York equivalent of a doughnut hole), so the light is on-axis and comes from all around.

Okay, experiment is a generous word for what I did, because “experiment” connotes careful documentation of processes, whereas I just tried some different things and then couldn’t tell which was which by the time I got the images onto a computer.

But it still worked out pretty dang well.

I’d read about the Orbis ring light device before, over at Strobist, so when one became available at a significant discount, I snapped it up.

I tried it on a couple of hasty macro shots, and marveled at its potential.

The ringlight will become very useful for macro photography if I ever calm down and use a freakin' tripod.

The ringlight will become very useful for macro photography if I ever calm down and use a freakin’ tripod.

But I like to photograph people (which is ironic, considering how effectively I avoid contact with other people), so I asked author Jennifer Brown to help me test three basic uses of the Orbis: 1) as fill light in a multi-light setup, 2) as key light on lens, and 3) as “soft box” off lens. First, let’s look at my extravagant studio space:

Fancy schmancy. That's a Photek Softlighter II at left, powered by a Nikon SB600. Standard black muslin backdrop, the Orbis unit on the table, and barely visible at right, an SB600 fitted with a blue filter and a grid.

Fancy schmancy. That’s a Photek Softlighter II at left, powered by a Nikon SB600. Standard black muslin backdrop, the Orbis unit on the table, and barely visible at right, an SB600 fitted with a blue filter and a grid. Gaffer’s tape, like wine, holds everything together.

You cannot see the gel behind the grid, but this is the SB600 I used as an accent light on the background. Aimed at the background, it produces the blue light behind Jennifer in the final images below.

You cannot see the gel behind the grid, but this is the SB600 I used as an accent light. Aimed at the background, it produces the blue light behind Jennifer in the final images below.

Here is a shot with the Orbis as fill, and I believe I should have turned it down, because it either overwhelms or blends with the Softlighter II at camera left. I like the catchlights, and I see great potential for this device as on-axis fill in a multi-flash scenario. Also, I dig the accent light.

Here is a multi-flash shot with the Orbis as fill, but I should have turned its power down, because it either overwhelms or blends with the Softlighter II at camera left. I like the catchlights, and I see great potential for this device as on-axis fill in a multi-flash scenario. Also, I dig the accent light. But I wanted to test my ability to create short-lighting using the Orbis as fill, and failed to do so here. As the old saying goes, we never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over…

Here we have only the Orbis (wrapped around the lens) and the accent light. This image is very encouraging, because it looks like I can use the ring flash for quick, softly lit head shots.

Here we have only the Orbis (wrapped around the lens) and the accent light. This image is very encouraging, because it looks like I can use the ring flash alone for quick, softly lit head shots.

Now this is interesting. In a feat that pushed my lack of manual dexterity to its limit, I held the flash/Orbis above and to the left of the camera. Using the rear focus button on a D610 while holding the camera in portrait orientation with one hand was truly an expensive accident waiting to happen, but we got a couple of shots before I was shaking too much to continue. Note that the Orbis has become an off-axis soft box, producing shadows that add depth to the image. Very encouraging, but I've got to work on my upper body strength (or break down and start using a tripod).

Now this is interesting. In a feat that pushed my lack of manual dexterity to its limit, I held the flash/Orbis above and to the left of the camera. Using the rear focus button on a D610 while holding the camera in portrait orientation with one hand was truly an expensive accident waiting to happen, but we got a couple of shots before I was shaking too much to continue. Note that the Orbis has become an off-axis soft box, producing semi-soft shadows that add depth to the image. Very encouraging, but I’ve got to work on my upper body strength (or break down and start using a tripod).

Jennifer and I conducted this test in about fifteen minutes so I could get a basic understanding of the Orbis unit, and I’m very excited about incorporating this into my work. Most of all, I’m eager to get the unit out on location where I’ll have to adapt to light I cannot control.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Lighting, Portraiture

Great Gear, Bad Decisions

Matrix metering really doesn't know what to do in a situation like this. It's up to us to manage exposure.

Matrix metering really doesn’t know what to do in a situation like this. It’s up to us to manage exposure, but we need the right tools to do so.

It’s confession time. After the frustrations of the December dance concert, I traded in one of my D7000 bodies for a D610, believing a full-frame camera would finally deliver the high ISO performance needed for dance.

Like many of my recent purchase decisions, this one turned out to be the right horse in the wrong race. The D610 is a marvelous camera that improves many of my images, but it does not solve my dance performance problems. Continue reading

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Filed under Camera Gear, Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Low Light, Post Processing

Raising My Standards Means Actually Applying What I Know

My favorite image - of 2,700!

My favorite image – of 2,700!

So here’s the thing: As much as I enjoy being a lazy, disorganized, impatient photographer, I may have to compromise my principles to make uncompromising photographs. That is to say, I may have to become less lazy, more organized, and patient. Maybe. When I started reviewing thousands of images to build a portfolio, I realized that most of my work does not live up to the criteria I would use to judge another’s photos. I must demand excellence from myself in composition, lighting, and moment.  And under these standards, two out of three AIN’T GOOD. Instead of building a portfolio, I built a much bigger reject bin.

And this is great news, because now editing is EASY! If an image doesn’t meet all three criteria, out it goes, and I don’t spend hours in post trying to make bad pictures look good. This does not apply to event documentation, where I sometimes have to share mediocre pictures that are good records. But otherwise, it’s hammer time, and that means that forty-plus years in, I need to get a little more serious about learning photography.

And I have a lot of lessons from this weekend, when I shot 2,700 frames at a dance concert. In future posts, I’m going to write about my travails related to dynamic range, pixel density, focus performance, and a host of gear-related challenges and solutions, but today I want to talk about the simplest way to improve our photos – simple but not always easy. And you’ve heard it a thousand times before: Get closer.

Here is one of my favorite dance images, which I made at a Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) rehearsal in 2010:

What makes this image different from most of my dance images? Actually, it's not "what," it's "where."

What makes this image different from most of my dance images? Actually, it’s not “what,” it’s “where.”

And here is a “good enough” document from this weekend that doesn’t meet my criteria as a photograph:

My old nemesis, compression.

My old nemesis: Compression.

Long focal lengths and distance to subject produce a compression effect. A 200mm lens, used from the very back of the theater, compresses foreground and background, making the image look less three-dimensional.  That can be a great effect for a lot of subjects, but with multiple dancers on stage, I’d prefer a sense of depth. For the SBCC image, where you can clearly feel the distance between the dancers, I was seated in the front row – at stage level – using a 17-55 f/2.8 lens. Note that we’re not talking about depth of field here, because the dancers in the background appear pretty sharp, but you still get a sense of depth.

There is no question in my mind that I make better dance photos when I am closer to the stage, but it simply isn’t possible most of the time, since audiences don’t like someone standing in front of them, clicking incessently. Knowing this, I look for opportunities like the image at the top of this post, where compression does not appear to distort the image, but probably helps it.

Next time, I’ll explore how I somehow managed to increase both my keeper rate and my frustration during this weekend’s dance concerts. It was all worth it.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Composition, Dance and Theater, Lighting, Professional vs. Amateur