Archive for April, 2008

Film is Hard

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

Flowers in the Dirt

I was tempted to call this post, “I hate film,” but that’s not true. I don’t hate film. It’s just that so far, for me, film has proven very hard to love. There are a lot of little reasons — like the insane (compared to digital) price per frame in terms of film and processing, or the fact that you can’t take hundreds of shots on a single roll (well, unless you use that NASA back). But the two big reasons are:

I suck at math and chemistry,

I suck at math and chemistry. Seriously. There’s a reason why I’ve always specialized in the humanities. There’s also a reason I don’t bake that much. And it’s not that I’m incapable of doing math, and it’s not that I’m incapable of understanding chemistry (well, maybe…); it’s that when I move my brain into number-space, it stumbles. This isn’t so much a problem when I’m shooting film, so much as it is when I try to do darkroom printing. I feel like the moment I step up to the enlarger, I undergo an instantaneous lobotomy. Sort of like location-based Flowers for Alergnon. I step away for a minute, and suddenly I’m back at full capacity, just in time to want to slap myself for the stupid thing I did. Then I step back to the enlarger to try again, and here comes the stupid once more…

The pace of feedback

The other reason why digital photography works so well for me, and why I have so much trouble getting comfortable with film, is that the pace of feedback is radically different. With digital — even when working with my old non-metering lenses — I can always see what I’ve done, and make changes accordingly. Sometimes those changes are very sophisticated, and I have no problem with that — so long as I can see what’s happening. I glance at the LCD, and I can usually tell instantly what I need to do.

The Odds are Good but the Goods are Odd

With film (excluding Polaroid, RIP), there’s no playback of images, no option to check the histogram in a pinch. The closest you get is in the darkroom, where you can see the results and make changes, but it’s still on a very frustrating timescale — several minutes between exposure and image review, meaning that a few small changes to an image can easily eat up an hour. This is not only inconvenient, but it makes it very hard for me to bring my intuition into play.

Changes are also non-reversible. There’s no undo button; you can repeat a process as often as you can afford, but you can’t toggle back and forth to see the image with and without an edit, or manipulate a slider back and forth to get just the right degree of change.

The analogy to baking is good here, too. I’m not a bad cook, at least with some kinds of food. My spinach is the stuff of legends, but with the spinach, I can brood over it, taste it, constantly re-balance the seasoning. I don’t have to wait for it to come out of the oven before I can taste it and make adjustments.

God, I would be a horrible baker.

Hopefully, practice will eventually make perfect, or at least passable. I do have some film images that I like, although, lamentably, these are usually images that require extensive dodging and burning to print well, and I am, as yet, quite clumsy when it comes to that.

It’s easier to scan the images and tweak them in Capture NX, and I do that, too. The two images in this post are examples. But even in digital, garbage in tends to be more or less garbage out, and it may be a while before I can consistently put anything other than garbage into the process.

This is pretty frustrating for me — if you know me, you know that I’m used to being good at the things I care about — but that’s probably a good sign in itself. It’s been a while since I had a challenge that wasn’t related to staying sane or staying alive. I’m probably (hopefully) at a point where I can step a notch or two up the hierarchy of needs. : )

180mm f/2.8 Nikkor-P v. 55-200VR

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

180mm f/2.8 P

The 55-200VR was one of the first lenses I bought, aside from the kit lens that came with my camera. It’s a very, very common second lens for Nikon DSLR buyers — reasonably priced, universally respected by reviewers, and an obvious compliment to the 18-55 kit lens. For D40 users, it’s part of the trifecta of first lenses — 18-55, 55-200VR, and 50mm f/1.8 AF-D.

I was madly in love with my 55-200 for a while. Understandable, because it covers some of my favorite focal lengths. When I’m looking for photographic subjects, the things that catch my eye are usually details occupying a fairly small part of my field of view. So, when I first got the 55-200, there was a long honeymoon period during which it never left my camera.

But I quickly came to discover that the lens had some serious limitations. The most glaring is in an application which, to be fair, was a bit of a stretch for this lens — birds. The 55-200VR isn’t fast enough or long enough to be really useful for birding work, and it really wasn’t reasonable of me to expect it to do so. Nonetheless, this was a frustration, and the slow speed of the 55-200 was often an impediment when shooting other, less mobile objects as well.

This is why I first got interested in manual focus lenses — first a 135mm f2.8 Q, then the same lens with a 2x teleconverter, than a 300mm f/4.5, became my go-to lenses for street photography and for birding. I’m very fond of both those lenses, but it always seemed like 135mm wasn’t quite enough reach, and (except for birds) 300mm was almost always too much.

One stays, one goes

Then I got a 180mm f/2.8 P — not the legendary ED AIS version of this lens, or the equally awesome current-gen AF version; this is the old non-multicoated, no-ED version. So, it’s relatively humble. It cost me less than $80, and it makes me really wish I had just skipped the 55-200 “stage” of my photographic development. : )

I love the speed of the 180, I love the way it feels in the hand (just enough heft for stability without heaviness), and I love its buttery-smooth focus ring dampening. I particularly love the control that focus ring gives me; when paired with many, many hours of practice, it gives me a far superior solution for tracking motion. (Superior to the D40’s AF system, anyway. If I could afford a D300 or D3, that would be a different story.)

I always assumed that the lens was limited by its age. It doesn’t have modern coatings, let alone ED glass. It’s old, it’s been used pretty thoroughly, and it lacks amenities like autofocus and VR. So I initially assumed that I was working with a lens that was probably optically inferior to my 55-200VR — I figured I was using it only for its faster aperture and better handling, not for its image quality.

Buzz, buzz

But I started thinking about it more and more after reading some discussions of the 55-200 and of VR in general, and after hearing a professional photographer of many decades waxing eloquent about his 18-55 and 55-200 lenses. I decided maybe I ought to see what I was and was not giving up with the 180 — so I did some totally unscientific comparisons.

I discussed my findings in the D40/x/D60 group on flickr. I’ve also got the most recent round of test shots in a set here.

I was surprised at how well the 180mm lens fared. Or, conversely, at how poorely the 55-200VR did.

  • The 55-200 is surprisingly soft at the long end, although it’s nearly as sharp as the 180 when shooting at f/5.6 at the same focal length.
  • The VR isn’t useless, but the level of compensation it provides is just enough to make up for the intrinsically less stable nature of the light-weight plastic lens.
  • That lightness also makes the 55-200 far more sensitive to vibration and/or mirror slap, even when shooting on a tripod.
  • The one area where the 55-200 really demonstrates a superiority is in contrast at smaller apertures (i.e., f/8 or f/11 or so).
The Somnambulist

Since in the case of either of these lenses, I’m mostly doing hand-held available-light shooting, the net zero benefit of VR and the need to stop down to see a real performance benefit make the 55-200 a bit frustrating for me. Of course, a more pro-quality lens with second-gen VR would probably have no problem outperforming my humble 180 (although maybe not its ED cousins), but those lenses are likely to cost ten times as much — if not more still.

All this means that the 180mm f/2.8 is a much, much better choice for someone in my situation — looking for a somewhat long lens suitable for handheld, available-light shooting, and willing to manually focus and work without metering. And one of the nice things about doing focus and exposure manually is that I can improve my performance with practice and thoughtfulness. When I rely on my lenses and camera for that, I need to pay money when I need to improve performance.

The 180 is particularly appealing in the digital context, because so it’s so easy to deal with color and contrast in post-processing. The 55-200 might actually be more useful for film shooting — because color and contrast control in analog printing is a whole lot more trouble than color and contrast control in Capture NX. Which is ironic, since it’s a DX lens.

I’m seriously considering selling the 55-200 — I hold back because I may at some point want a cheap portrait lens in conjunction with TTL flash — not totally likely, given my feelings about portraits, flash, slow lenses, but I’d kick myself if I sold today the piece of equipment I wind up really needing tomorrow… : )

Up From the Shadows

Thursday, April 24th, 2008


Taking good pictures of birds is not easy. Taking pictures of birds at moments when they transition between stillness and motion is particularly hard, because of the need to capture motion, compose by anticipation, and keep the eyes in the depth of field. All of these problems are amplified when you’re photographing a highly contrasty animal like a Snowy Egret, and they’re amplified again when the scene includes both bright highlights and deep shadows.

This isn’t a reason not try, of course; on the contrary, this is exactly why these shots are so fun to attempt, even if they seldom turn out well. This is one of my best to date. I spent about half an hour watching him fly back and forth between two sides of the channel — presumably on the assumption that the fish are always tastier on the opposite bank. I observed his body language, his flight paths, and the tricky illumination. I also took many, many completely unusable shots before I got this one.

It’s Time For…

Monday, April 21st, 2008

You should get a pair of these every time you buy a fedora.


Nope, not Jewish. Although it’s the most popular guess in recent years. (Much as Eskimo was the most popular guess when I was a kid.)

Black Phoebe with Black Phoeblets

Saturday, April 19th, 2008


There’s a pair of Black Phoebes camped out above one of our windows at work. Surprisingly, the shade beneath the overhang is quite intense, even on days when a few feet away, the sun is baking the lawn. This is probably a situation that calls for flash or a reflector, but I suspect that might seriously piss off the occupants of the office. : )


So, I cranked up my tripod to bring the camera up near the height of the next, set the slowest shutter speeds I could that would still capture motion, and triggered the shutter by remote.

These are pretty much my first usable shots of nesting birds and chicks. I’m pretty pleased, although I’ll probably take a few more cracks at it if I can before the little guys take off.

Ginger Cardamom Cookies

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Ginger Cardamom Cookies w/Long Exposures

I’m still living in denial about the utility of flash. This doesn’t trouble me often, because when I’m out and about, I don’t usually mind shooting at f/1.4 and cranking the ISO if I have to. But some things just don’t look good that way, and food is (usually) one of them.

Ginger Cardamom Cookies w/Long Exposures

I face other barriers when trying to photograph food, one of the most prominent being that, while I can sometimes cook delicious food, I have never been able to cook food that is at all photogenic or even amenable to food styling. This issue is easily circumvented, however, by using someone else’s food, which is what I did here, with these cookies, which were both delicious and attractive.

Unfortunately, the kitchen they were baked in was small and dim. The only light available was what slipped in through the window past a lot of tree branches — and, even less useful, a bare incandescent bulb that I know by experience to be very hard to white balance after the fact, even shooting RAW and with a reference point.

Fortunately, while I still labor under the burden of my anti-Strobe prejudices, I finally got over my anti-Tripod ones, and so I was simply able to kill the incandescent, bust out my Manfrotto 055XPROB with its horizontally postionable center column, and slap my 55mm f/3.5 Micro on there for a few ten-second exposures.

It took me a while to get usable perspectives. In order to get all the cookie I needed without getting a bunch of unpleasant visual clutter, I set up almost directly over the cookies. I had to make sure that neither the camera nor the tripod was between the cookies and the dim window light — the difference between illumination and shadow was insignificant to the eye, but (when I accidentally blocked what light there was) very significant to the sensor after tens seconds. : )

Photography Podcasts I listen to

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Imported from my personal blog:

History of Photography
Camera Position
The Candid Frame
The Radiant Vista Daily Critique
Light Diary
Martin Bailey
Focus Ring
Inside Digital Photo
The Digital Story

Update, February ‘08:


Podcasts I used to listen to, but have sort of dropped out of

Digital Photography Show
Tips from the Top Floor

Podcasts I don’t listen to, but am aware of

Light Source

Cliff Swallows!

Monday, April 14th, 2008

Cliff Swallows

Score. This is a new species for my list of birds observed at Lake Merritt Channel. This is excellent news for me as a novice birder because, as any birder can tell you, the fun part is checking things off a list. I mean, experiencing nature is great, and becoming a keener observer of color and motion is cool, too, but the sexy part of birding, the secret thrill of it, is absolutely about creating and maintaining a well-organized, comprehensive list. Sort of like XML, only with sunburn and binoculars.

Of course, as I said, I’m a novice birder, so perfectly common species (like this one) are still a matter of novelty to me. Some day, when I’m a jaded and dissolute bird connoisseur, I’m sure I’ll look back on the eager completism of my youth and chuckle knowingly as I sip my absinthe. Meanwhile, though, it’s still exciting.

Cliff Swallows

This was one of those days when the gods of photography decide to tap me on the shoulder in the morning and suggest that I take my 300mm lens along with me. It’s heavy, and bulky, and I don’t always carry it — and often when I do carry it, it just takes up space and wears out my back. But every now and again I have a little intuition that I need to pack the big guns, and usually when I have that feeling I get rewarded with…something. A sight I would not otherwise have been able to see.

These Cliff Swallows (aren’t you impressed that I’ve gotten this far without making any double entendres?) certainly qualify. There’s a strange quality to their motion, both in the air, and, especially, on the ground. Alien, insectoid. They don’t fold their wings when they land; instead, the stretch them out and upright and move them continuously back and forth. This gives them the aspect, somewhat, of gigantic, misshapen butterflies. This impression breaks down as soon as they burst into the air, because they cease moving like butterflies, and instead begin moving like wasps or flies. They do not flock; they swarm.

Very, very strange, and a little unnerving.

The Kaiser appears to have some avian squatters

Incidentally, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen these guys before, on the wing, and just been unable to identify them. They’re fast like the dickens, and they don’t usually feed on the banks of the channel like this — at least, I don’t think they do it that often. But I believe I’ve seen their nests before, too, on the side of the Kaiser Center (see at right, a shot from last June) — not sure, because nests are not something I’m all that familiar with, yet, but it seems to be their MO.