A Very Subjective Review of the Helios 58mm 44m

_DSF7163.jpgA new lens is a pretty rare thing around here. I’ve been using three prime lenses from the 90s for my entire photography career, a 24mm 2.8, a 50mm 1.4, and an 85mm 1.4. They’re all beautiful, small, lightweight lenses which perhaps aren’t as quick as some of the newer offerings, but they’re solid as rocks and they behave exactly as I’ve come to expect them to, which is invaluable during run and gun moments like weddings and events. And so when one night I finally bought a little vintage Russian lens which had been sitting in my wishlist for a couple of years, I wondered if I wouldn’t be struck with pretty immediate buyer’s remorse: It was a slow, unwieldy manual focus lens, its 58mm focal length almost identical to a lens I already owned, it was difficult to see how this weird little lens could fit into my existing workflows, which were built so tightly around the three lenses I had been using since University.

I compounded my worries by making a common but tragic mistake, I put my new lens on my camera and went around the house. I took a photo of a doorknob, and then I took the same photo with my 50mm lens. I couldn’t tell much difference. Buyer’s remorse began to sink its claws. I left the lens unused for a week, until during a location shoot for the lovely band Hart, I decided to shove the lens in my bag. I threw the lens on my camera without much thought, and snapped a few frames.

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Oh, Okay!

This, I could work with. I used the Helios a few more times throughout the shoot, it’s new to me to use a lens which announces its character so readily. It became quite quickly apparent that I couldn’t use this lens for large groups, or for anything involving movement. But I loved being surprised by this lens. Not only that, but as I am becoming increasingly interested in imagery for imagery’s sake. And the dreamy, nostalgic images which come out of this lens are just what I’ve been looking for.

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I had another shoot coming up with Clare, and toyed with the idea of using the Helios almost exclusively. Clare was keen, and so we traipsed through the city and I changed lenses from the Helios maybe twice. I still found the lens wildly unpredictable: The lens flares were contained and beautiful sometimes, and at others they took over the entire image. I was continually surprised by how sharp this little lens was, and how beautifully it renders contrast.

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This lens certainly won’t make it along to every shoot. It’s quirky, unpredictable, and quite slow. But progressively, and especially during my portrait sessions, these aren’t bad qualities at all. I’ve never been a gear nut, and if anything try to keep my photography kit as modest as possible, but here I am finding myself quite excited by a new toy.

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How I shoot New Music

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The local music label Tone List recently put out their first zine, and I am very privileged to have my photographs feature prominently throughout. Seeing four years of my photography in the zine made me stop and think about the music I have photographed over this period and this in turn got me thinking about the strategies I use when shooting music: Strategies which I take for granted at the time, but which have emerged over gig after gig of experimentation, mistakes and failures, triumphs, and happy accidents. This is no definitive list, nor am I a definitive photographer in this field, but these are the concepts I have stumbled into when trying to photographically interpret the multifarious, wildly experimental, and sometimes quite daunting genres which make up New Music.

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Dan O’Connor at the Tone List Launch, Bar 459

 

So what is New Music?

For the purpose of this post, I’m using New Music to refer to the gigs of Noise Music, Improvised Music, Experimental Music, Contemporary Classical and so many others which make up a fairly robust scene in Perth. Tone List is an excellent place to go to for some local and curated New Music, and some of my personal (international) favourites in the canon include Erik Griswold, Will Guthrie and Richard Dawson.

Interestingly, I’ve been told it’s only in Perth that New Music is used as a catch-all for all of these genres. Tone List themselves call their work exploratory music, which works perfectly for that they do.

Onto the concepts I employ when shooting New Music:

People & Place

There is a monthly gig at the Perth Artifactory called Noizemaschin. It’s about as close as Perth’s New Music scene gets to an open mic, and as such it’s become a bit of a stomping ground for students and for more established musicians to experiment with new ideas and content. The vibe is informal and the light during these sets is more or less nonexistent. And now, in every shoot there are a number of photographs I just have to take: I will get a shot of the bride’s dress in full no matter how logistically or inspirationally difficult. And in music these shots are general, sharp, frozen motion shots of the band performing from each side of the stage. Once these shots are out of the way, I get to have a bit of fun. I look for movement, for how the musicians move and act, I take cues from the music itself. In all live music my biggest priorities are form and light: When there is very little light I look for the little lights on the band’s equipment, for the glow from a laptop or for ways to silhouette the musicians against the background.

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SexySexyManJoyPeoplePower at Noizemaschin, Perth Artifactory

 

The venue is a great place to start when planning the tone of a shoot. Any experienced musician is going to know the venues in their area, and patrons are generally going to know what to expect at each of their favourite venues. In Perth, The Bird, Mojos, and  459 Bar are generally well regarded indie bars, which host big nights with a lot of different acts to crowds of both loyal patrons and enthusiastic punters: The entry fees are low and shows have an informal diamond in the rough type feel. University auditoriums, the State Theatre and PSAS have a more deliberate, concentrated energy. The ways I convey these feels photographically are in my use of light, composition and editing.

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Akousmatikoi, Western Australian Museum

 

Light

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Christian Meaas-Svendsen at Audible Edge #1, Babushka

Most venues will light the musicians, and this can be a blessing and a curse. Auditoriums are usually lit with overhead halogens which are even, flattering bliss. Dive bars and live music venues are a mixed bag, ranging from thoughtful, well designed light at some of the bigger live venues, to a single, usually red, often incredibly bright light at the bulk of the smaller venues. When I arrive at a venue, the first decision I make is if I will be lighting the musicians myself, or relying on the venue’s lighting. When lighting myself, I place a flash behind and to one side of the musicians, to accentuate form and provide some highlight. It works wonderfully against busy backgrounds and adds production value, but it can be distracting to the musicians and patrons. When I’m not using my own lighting, I pay attention to angle, to colour and to how the light spreads (or doesn’t) across the stage.

 

Dealing with the single, intense, red light.

The single red light used to make my heart sink. I’d sheepishly tell the band that their options tonight were red, or black and white. More often than not I’d just offer a reshoot at a different venue, and I’d remember which venues used the SRL, and refuse to book shoots at them. Over time I’ve developed a few strategies for the SRL: Digital cameras tend to hold details in the shadows much better than in the highlights, so I spot meter and underexpose by a stop or two. I ignore the discouragingly dark images on my camera’s LCD, and when editing I bring the light back up, desaturate by up to 50%, and colour balance out the bulk of the red. This approach also works wonderfully for other coloured lights.

Composition

My compositions are informed by light but they also differ greatly depending on the setting and the tone of the band. I use three lenses, a 24mm, 50mm and an 85mm. These are notably wide lenses, especially for live music, and they force me to move around and get in amongst the music. I usually get each available angle with each lens, and with each shot I think about whether I am composing for isolation or for context.

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Question Time at Outlines 5, Satchmo Cafe

 

When I compose for isolation, I try to create a graphic and striking image with a focus of the musician and their instrument. Whilst these compositions often make use of a large portion of negative space, they don’t have to. The primary defining elements of isolated compositions is that I use of lines and triangles from instruments, microphone stands, other musicians and the background, to frame the interaction of a single musician and their instrument.

When I compose for context, I still compose for a striking image, but documentation takes priority. I make small sacrifices in lighting and cohesion in order to capture all of the musicians in together or to capture all of the musicians within the location.

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Feakes-Myburgh-O’Connor-Reid at Incidental #1, 178 William St

 

Editing

Because musicians are generally creative people, I tend to be given more leeway for bold editing in music than in any other type of shoot. I’m always very keen to take advantage of this, because I love editing. The personal distinction that I make, is that I edit to make my good images great, not to make my average images good. One of the best ways I’ve found to keep this mindset is to think about the finalised image whilst shooting. Sometimes this is as simple as shooting multiple images to stitch into a panorama or framing distracting elements in the frame in a way which will make them easy to clone out. Other times I’m looking for dramatic bits of lighting with the knowledge that I will be able to adjust to make it even more striking, or I try to balances two levels of illumination at the absolute edges of my camera’s dynamic range, knowing I will be able to bring them in to a cohesive whole whilst editing.

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Christian Windfeld at Audible Edge #3, Callaway Auditorium

 

Abstraction

Because New Music is inherently a little abstract, I try to convey similar ideas in my photography. Amongst the techniques I use to add abstraction are finding frames, dragging the shutter, freelensing and throwing objects in front of the lens.

Frames can be as simple as microphones and instruments. Walls and cables work a treat. Frames can take up both negative or positive space, and as I progressively try to keep my compositions to standard aspect ratios (2:3 or Square, sometimes 16:9) frames are a great way to make use of space within the composition.

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Steve Paraskos at Successor States, PS Art Space

 

takes awareness of the musician’s movements, but rewards you with a shot which is abstracted and yet provides it’s own context. If this were one of my usual articles I would go on about how blurred motion works because it takes a natural effect of the human eye to it’s extreme. There are two ways forms of abstraction when dragging the shutter: That which comes from movement within the frame, and that which comes from movement of the camera. I try to stick to one or the other, which gives just enough context to tie the image together.

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Jameson Feakes at the Tone List Launch, Bar 459

 

I don’t carry objects in my bag as some photographers do, but there’s no shortage of things to throw in front of the lens, and in bars my favourite common item to use is a beer glass. It’s important to get the focus before adding the glass, and to keep aware of how light (especially if using an on-camera master) might reflect inside the glass. Sometimes these work out and create happy accidents, sometimes not so much. The easy thing about throwing objects in front of the lens is that you can get a good impression of how things will turn out through the viewfinder. Some photographers compose and then find and fill negative space with a foreground element, but when I work I usually find it easier to start composing once the element is present, which allows me to work the composition around the new element, rather than simply filling space.

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A.R. Jones at the Tone List Launch, Bar 459

 

Impression

At the very end of this article, there’s something I can’t really teach or try to write rules about, but once you’ve considered the people, the place, your editing and your camera, all you’re left with are your own instincts as a photographer. Sometimes these come easy: A sparse and dark song will come on, and you’ll be able to frame the musician in the corner of the frame, against a sea of black. Sometimes the musician will the venue organisers to have only one blue light for their performance, and you’ll just have to make the most of that. I think when I photograph New Music I try to remember that not only is very creative music being made in front of me, but I’m being invited to create alongside. I think it would be a shame to ignore these two things, and so they are base assumptions around which I structure all new music photoshoots.

The Beverley Workshop Companion

This is a post designed for those who attended my workshop Eyes, Cameras, Concepts at Beverley Station Arts last week, but it’s in no way limited to those people. This is a brief recap over some of the things I spoke about in the workshop. It’s also a pretty good starting point for anyone new to this blog, as it will cover most of the concepts which will be assumed knowledge in all other posts.

To kick things off I spoke about stops, exposure the mechanics of aperture, shutter and ISO, and about what a camera does, which can be aptly summed up in one sentence:

A Camera records light in extreme detail, over a set period of time.

More specifically, a standard digital camera sensor records the amount of light which hits each pixel over the period of exposure in a degree between 0 and 255, each for red, green and blue, over two thousand times down, and three thousand times across. So the metric through which we can measure how much light enters a sensor is called ‘Stops’. An increase of one stop is a doubling of the amount of light which enters the sensor, and a decrease of one stop is a halving. It’s based on these that we were able to explore how many stops the world would be brighter or darker, if we had more or less suns.

The Exposure Triangle

How much light is let into your camera is controlled by three variables: Aperture, Shutter and ISO. To recap on how these work, I did promise some of you the video of my 17 year old, scruffy haired self explaining them:

Here are the slides I used when introducing Shutter, Aperture and ISO

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Lenses

A lot of people starting out with photography zoom in and out to change the framing of their image, or simply to increase their reach. This is valid, but disregards the significant aspect changing focal lengths has on your image. This is generally known as compression, and it goes something like this:

As you increase the distance between your camera and your subject, the relative distance between that subject and it’s background decreases. 

This is why, in terms of compression, zooming in and cropping achieve the same thing. This is also why selfies are so difficult: When you have such a short distance between the camera and your forehead, the relative distance between your forehead and ears becomes dramatically longer. I have two diagrams and two examples to show this, and I’d encourage looking at both until they start to make sense.

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Part II

I’ve started with the details from part one because they were probably the hardest to memorise. But I still insist that as photographers, our understanding of cameras should always be secondary to our understanding of images. In regards to this particular workshop we looked at how the camera is really a very poor substitute for the eye, and so the best practice is in viewing your camera sensor, not as a means to recreate what your eye sees, but as an end in itself.

How To Become a Better Photographer

Once you go on from here and perhaps explore the rest of the blog, you’ll find it’s dense and nerdy, and not always strictly about imagery. Where I do draw the line is talking about lenses. There are so, so many blogs about which lenses you should buy and why, and I try to take great strides to avoid this in my blog. Cameras and lenses are means to an end and the best they can hope for is to make our strive for great images more convenient.

When you start out taking photos, your understanding of cameras and lenses, and what there is to buy, usually progresses alongside your progression as a photographer. You find out about fast lenses around the same time as you come to understand aperture. As you come to understand ISO you begin to want a camera which can be pushed further in this regard. But this way of thinking will trap you eventually, and there comes a point where every photographer has to accept that it is no longer their camera which is making their images look good.

Simple Tips

-The primary concern for all photographers should be putting something interesting in front of your camera.

-When you break down the scene in front of you in terms of light (where is the light coming from? Are there any spots of hard light or shadow? How intense is the light?) You can get a pretty good idea of what your camera will see.

-Move. Tied to the habit of zooming instead of moving, is staying in one spot and waiting for things to happen around you. One of the most important things you can be doing as a photographer is moving, moving yourself in relation to the subject, the subject in relation to the background, subject in relation to light, light in relation to subject and background.

Further Reading

If you’re just starting out, Digital Photography School is a seemingly endless resource with a lot of good beginner information.

The blog I used to refer to constantly has now changed considerably in style, but the Photojojo blog is still full of fun and quirky ideas for cool photographs, with a good dose of incidental photographic knowledge on the way.

David Hobby’s Lighting 101 is essential reading as soon as your photography progresses into artificial lighting.

Stanford’s CS 178 photography course is essentially the backbone of this blog.

Finally, look at photographers on flickr, 500px, and wherever you can find people. Admire their photographs, reverse engineer them, and when you’re feeling up to it, talk to them.

Standard Lenses 3/3: 35mm

If you’ve been following up till now, you’ve heard me say that 46mm is the closest focal length to the approximate angle of view of the human eye. But when we hold an image from such a lens in front of us, it does not obscure our vision completely. To make things even more complex, the focal length of the human eye is not 46mm but 17mm. When using a 50mm lens to recreate the eye’s angle of view, we’re actually ignoring a few other aspects of human vision, each of which are present in the 35mm focal length.

These other aspects of vision, which include peripheral vision, mild curvilinear distortion, and the phenomenon through which we perceive vision. I’ll break these down one by one at the end of the article, but for now I’ll just focus in on how they come together to make the 35mm focal length important.

_DSC7990Context

When we perceive a scene we don’t stare straight at it. Rather, our eyes dart about around what we think might be important, and quickly we create the context of the scene. When a detail is of particular interest, consciously or subconsciously we lean in to better perceive it, but when we do this, our eyes don’t completely let go of the context we’ve built up._DSF3249

35mm is favoured by so many photojournalists and wedding photographers, who aim  to tell stories. In no small part because 35mm lenses don’t isolate the way 50mm lenses do but rather they include a little bit of the context. The 35mm lens works beautifully as a detail lens and as a wider context lens for these reasons: It looks, but it doesn’t stop looking around. This way of singling out details organically without losing context makes compositions more demanding than 50mm compositions, since (as a generalisation) more elements will have to be considered within the composition. But at their best these compositions are organic and intriguing._DSF3248

A Walkabout Lens

There are two 35mm lenses I regularly use. The first is Liz’s DX 35mm 1.8. It’s a beautiful lens with a lot of character from the intense vignetting when used on my full frame d700. The other is a 35mm equivalent (Physically a 23mm) welded to my Fuji X100s. And if I’d had to weld any one lens to my Fuji, I would have agreed with Fuji and gone with a 35mm too.

The Fuji gets a lot of use during weddings and my personal work. It’s an inconspicuous camera which lets you weave into a crowd more easily, but regardless of camera, the general sentiment for using a 35mm involves getting into the thick of it. Which has lent a lot of street photographers to enjoy the 35mm focal length. On my Fuji, a longer lens would become require too much back-tracking, and a wider lens would start to lose the isolation._DSF4756

I know the Leica Q has a 28mm lens welded on, and there are some absolutely gorgeous photos coming out of it. Partly because I think the majority of people willing to drop six grand on a fixed lens camera are the sort of people who know what they’re doing. The Q also has ‘Auto Crop’ modes to imitate 35mm and 50mm lenses. When you’re dropping this much on a Leica, these are the options you get. For the rest of us, if it’s just one lens, I think 35mm is perfect. Which brings me to..

Cropping

I crop religiously. I consider hearing someone praise another photographer’s eye by saying that he’d ‘never need to crop’ as the most detrimental advice of my photographic career, and it took me the likes of Jeff Newsom saying otherwise to convince me that cropping is not a cop out. We’re photographers, not camera operators, if we create a good image, it doesn’t matter that we’ve done to make it. Good images can be judged only on their good-ness.

Back to the topic at hand: I crop a lot, but with a 35mm, I crop so much that I rarely leave a full frame in tact. There are a number of reasons I do this: Because the way I like to treat horizons leaves a lot of headroom. Because, for whatever reason, 2:3 always feels a little too wide or too thin. Perhaps because I’m actually more comfortable with a slightly longer lens. Or perhaps because I’m just a better judge of compositions when editing than when shooting.

Those things I was writing about earlier.

I did mention that I’d be breaking down curvilinear perspective, peripheral vision, and the way the mind registers images. I detailed the mind under the context header, but regarding the other two:

Peripheral Vision

The eye is not optically complex or powerful. It’s actually outclassed by most plastic lenses and phones. The reason the eye gets away with this is by only using the outside edges of your vision to perceive changes and a general understanding based on context. Whilst the 50mm lens covers the bulk of the optically superior sweet spot in our vision, a wider focal length such as in a 35mm can be more ‘natural’ in regards to how it includes these wider, peripheral edges.

Curvilinear Perspective

The eye is spherical by nature, and this lends to a certain bulging in the centre. This same phenomenon is more prominent in wider lenses and is generally considered a flaw in lens engineering. Most 35mm lenses have a gentle curvilinear distortion which feels natural and mimics the eyes. (It is actually less distorted in most 35mm lenses than in the eye, but since we cannot perceive the eyes image as a whole, it sort of breaks even)

Part One: Standard Lenses

Part Two: The Nifty Fifty

 

 

Standard Lenses 2/3: Nifty Fifty

50mm is the generally accepted standard lens made famous by Cartier-Bresson and a litany of photojournalists. Before zoom technology progressed to the point that a fairly reliable kit zoom could be included, a 50mm is generally what would come with most consumer SLR cameras. 50mm is optically simpler than 35mm and closer to the viewing angle of the human eye. And we’re to believe that it’s easier to build a 50mm because of the comparative optical simplicity and the fact that manufacturers have built so many in the past. However as the technology progresses and as the field of photography progresses with it, it’s becoming debatable whether 50mm is the true standard because it’s the quintessential ‘normal’ lens, or simply because so many photographers learned on a 50mm, that we assume it’s standard. It’s in a bit of a chicken and egg situation. It’s a relief really that it’s a fantastic focal length. (As a minor aside, I’m not sure if I’m I picked the lenses I own because I love the focal lengths or I love the focal lengths because I picked the lenses)

When a lot of online resources talk about 50mm lenses, they’re talking about it in terms of your first prime lens. In this instance, however, we’re talking about it in comparison to other standard lenses, namely the 35mm. And compared to a 35mm, a 50 isn’t quite as fast, cheap or sharp as it is compared to a kit zoom or other primes at more extreme focal lengths.

What my 50mm is, is my most reliable lens. It’s a touch sharper than the 35 (equivalent) glued to my x100s and has considerably deeper focus than my 85 1.4. I always start with my 50mm and change lenses from there, because 50mm is kind of in a class of it’s own in terms of viewing angle. Sometimes I use it as a very wide telephoto, sometimes as a very long wide-angle. But really a 50mm is in a class of it’s own, not too wide and not too long that everything just fits. 

Isolation

I think one of the strong points of the 50mm focal length is the way it can be used to isolate single elements without throwing the background out of context entirely.

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This is great when you’re just starting out and a lot of your compositions are going to be concerned with figure and later figure against background. The gentle compression and shallow depth of field in 50mm lenses are gentler than wider lenses, which can lose the subject against a complex and potentially busy background. Conversely, the extra compression from longer lenses can cause the subject to bleed into the background without sufficient attention to composition and lighting. 50mm is the sweet spot where your subject pops out from the background both from a comparatively high compression, but also from a comparatively wide angle of view.

Using a comparatively longer 85mm lens, the subject is lost in the background without sufficient attention to lighting.

As a very wide telephoto

One of the reasons I reach for a longer lens is because I want to create an etherial, larger-than-life feeling to the context. And compression and the relative shallow depth of field from a long lens works very well in doing so. Another is to single out the subject against their background, essentially reducing the context of the scene. These effects, albeit subtler, are still present in 50mm lenses. You have to pay attention to your subject and background, and sometimes find ways to emphasise distance, but the beauty of a 50mm is that you’re given much more space with which to do so. Sometimes telephoto lenses are limiting simply because they clash with the physical landscape of your shooting- you may be in a relatively tight room, or you may not be able get the right angle from further back. In these cases the 50mm steps in beautifully.

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_DSC9556-EditOne day my solution is going to be to stop taking photos in swamps, until then the 50mm will continue to serve me quite well.

As a very long Wide-Angle

Conversely, the 50mm makes a great context lens. Sometimes a wide angle will give you too much context, or the viewing angle will send the background too far away from the subject. In this case, again a 50mm provides a perfect balance between too long and too wide. The 50mm is solidified as a wonderful environmental lens because whilst it can work in tight spaces, it gets you just far enough from your subject as to not be imposing on new clients who may not yet be completely used to the camera’s presence.

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Another reason I love the 50mm as an icebreaker lens is because it holds up brilliantly for walking shots. Close enough to keep focus easy, but not so wide that the subjects end up kicking the lens.

Expansions

It’s worth noting that if you’re willing to spend some time in photoshop you can make one lens even more versatile. Conceptual Fine artist’s like this blog’s long time photographic crush, Sarah Ann Loreth, and David Talley used only 50mm lenses for much of their early work. Using photoshop and multiple exposures to expand the edges of their frame. Interesting aspects of this is that the compression and depth of field from the 50mm are preserved in a wider perspective. Photography can work because of the way it heightens perceptions which are familiar to us. This is a way you can heighten perceptions in regard to photography itself, and to really interesting results.

Crop Sensors

_DSC0309On a crop sensor camera a 50mm will have a relative viewing angle and compression to that of a 75mm. This is still a really beautiful focal length and one I spent a lot of time in personally. It’s a little saddening actually that there are no 75mm prime lenses in the Nikon lineup. One of the reasons I now tell people to start with a 35mm on a crop sensor, is that 75 really isn’t a normal lens. It’s a tele. And there’s nothing wrong with telephotos, but looking back at my compositions when using it, I was more than a little coddled by a focal length which makes it pretty easy to cut anything extraneous out of your composition. I think this resulted in a few simpler compositions where I could have taken the time to really consider the figure in their space.

Part One: Standard Lenses
Part Three: 35mm

Standard Lenses 1/3

In two weeks I’ll be presenting a workshop at Beverley Station Arts as part of an artist’s residency, and pieces of that workshop should start to appear once I’m back. The workshop is part technical, part conceptual, very similar to an extended and more generalised article from here. I think it’ll be a great introduction to some, and a great demystifier and challenge for others, and I can’t wait to see how it goes. My only grievance is that, try as I might, I just couldn’t make room in the workshop to talk about Standard Lenses. And so I’m going to go off on a bit of a spiel about them here.

Coming up to Standard

If you’ve just started taking photography seriously, lenses are probably a little baffling. You’re probably just trying to kick the habit of zooming rather than moving in relation to the subject, perhaps even buying a prime to kick that precise habit. But familiarising yourself with the compression and angle of different focal lengths gets quite confusing. The good news is that there’s one lens you’re already going to be very familiar with: Your eye. A normal lens is going to be as close to regular vision as you can get. This will be helpful not only in giving you a frame of reference. But once you have the one focal length down, it can work as an anchor from which to work out others.

Your first picks are usually going to be either a 50mm or a 35mm. Both are sharp, versatile and available in large apertures. Each of these focal lengths closely resemble the relative compression and angle of human sight. But perhaps the most decisive factor for many, is that they’re almost too cheap not to have in your kit. High quality wide and telephoto lenses can easily creep well above a thousand dollars, but most camera manufacturers have a 50mm available around $100, and a 35mm not too far off that.

What is normal?

There’s a fair bit of debate as to what a normal lens is or should be. And more often a normal lens is defined by what it isn’t: Neither wide-angle nor telephoto. And so the crux between these specialised focal lengths is lenses which aren’t wider than our eyes nor longer. If it were so easily, this would be the 17mm focal length of the human eye. However not only is the base of the eye concave rather than flat like a sensor— but the very process of sight seamlessly blends images from both eyes. As such a ‘Normal’ angle of view has come to be defined as the lens through which an image held in front of a scene, is the same in terms of angle and perspective, as the scene viewed itself. What this gets us is around 43mm, which is coincidentally (Or more likely through some phenomenon of optics not yet within my understanding) the diagonal length of a full frame sensor. Now if you’re shooting with anything other than a Pentax, the closest you’re getting to that length is either 35mm or 50mm.

To complicate things a little further, if you’re looking to buy your first prime, you’re probably using a crop sensor camera. Through which a 35mm will be just slightly over 50mm, and a 50mm will have an equivalent view of 75mm in full frame terms. When I had my first crop sensor camera I used a 50mm and it definitely worked for me. My next lens was a 24mm which made a 35mm equivalent, and between the two lenses I had a close approximation to the very popular 35mm, 85mm combination. Which I use to this day at weddings.

When I recommend a first prime now, I usually advise a 35mm. 75mm isn’t quite 85, but a 35mm on a crop sensor is almost exactly 50mm. Liz, my assistant for weddings, uses the Nikon 35mm 1.8 DX, and I sometimes steal her lens to use on my full-frame camera as a specialty lens. My point here being that, no matter what you buy, it will last until your next camera purchase and longer.

Part Two: The Nifty Fifty
Part Three: 35mm

I Take Photos With Ugly Histograms and Don’t Get Snobby About Shooting Modes (And That’s Okay).

This post is mostly just an opinion piece (Read: ramble), as to break from my usual, rather clinical entries. I’m going to talk about histograms and about shooting modes as I use them, and I’m going to presuppose knowledge about Histograms and The Exposure Triangle,

I recently purchased an X100S as a second body for my wedding work. And while that’s another post entirely, I was interested that the new camera had an option to place a live histogram in the corner of the optical viewfinder. At first the idea seemed quite exciting, but after a week, and just before shooting the wedding for which I bought the camera, I turned the histogram off. Why? I think there’s a few reasons why. The first being that I was finding myself distracted by it. My D700 doesn’t have a histograms in the viewfinder but it does have a handy little exposure compensation meter at the bottom. In Manual modes this dial shows me what the camera is metering against 18% grey. In Priority modes it lets me dial in exposure compensation without leaving the viewfinder. Exposure compensation is just the amount of stops (or half or third stops) either side of 18% that I want the camera to over or under expose by.

By now you probably know that 18% grey across the board isn’t always, or even often, the way a photo should be exposed, with this in mind, here are almost all of the ways you can expose a photograph.

  1. Use an incident light meter or grey card.
  2. Just know.
  3. Vibe the highlights and shadows in your scene and compensate exposure accordingly.
  4. Use Zebra (or exposure peaking) to get as bright as you can be without overexposing, for a well balanced, left leaning exposure.
  5. Take a photo and look at the histogram to see if it’s well balanced.
  6. Look at the LCD and change accordingly (Sometimes called Chimping)

I’ve ranked these methods from most to least sensible, but will freely admit that I have used each of them at different times. Several can even be used in combination. But the majority of the time I find myself using method #3.

Method #3 benefits greatly from getting to know your camera, because every camera’s light meter behaves slightly differently. Essentially, a white wall, when your camera tries to balance it (always to 18% grey) the white wall will appear grey in a “Correct Exposure”. Likewise with a black wall. Knowing that your camera will do this lets you work out when to over and under expose to compensate for these conditions. Why I think I like this method shooting is because, with practise, it gets you looking at where light is and how intense it is. It takes some trial and error, but I think for training your eye it’s an excellent method.

But Anyway, Onto Shooting Modes.

A short disclaimer, I’ll be talking about shooting modes specifically in regards to how I use them. These are definitely not hard and fast rules for all types of photography, but simply guidelines for what I find works for me.

Aperture Priority _DSC5662

My cameras live on aperture priority. Using the exposure compensation method outlined earlier, I can quickly bounce a stop or so either end of 18% grey in order to get a solid overall exposure, and can adapt quickly to changing lighting conditions. I use natural light often and shift frequently between using the sun as a backlight, direct key, and shooting in open shade, and this mode keeps up with me. On my D700 I set the ISO, which I can work out based on the lighting conditions and my camera’s metering. I do this to keep on Native ISO’s. On my X100s, which I use mostly one-handed, I use auto ISO, The principle is the same with auto ISO, I set a threshold for the lowest allowable shutter speed, and the camera bumps up to the lowest ISO necessary to maintain that shutter speed.

Manual Mode_DSC2354

In manual mode the same exposure compensation bars show where your settings are in regards to 18% grey.

Some photographers say that they only ever expose manually, then use the reflected meter to zero out their exposure, this may be more consistent in steady and unchanging lighting conditions, but is essentially using the same technology employed in automatic modes without the convenience and speed of your camera doing the (identical) maths for you.

There are two instances for which I expose manually. The first is when using flash. One very simple way I use flash is to set my flash to a constant power appropriate for the lighting conditions, say quarter power, my shutter at 1/125th and my aperture at f/4. From here it’s easy to separate the light from the flash from the ambient light by controlling the ambient light with the shutter. If I need the ambient to be one stop darker I bring the shutter to 1/250th. If I need the flash one stop darker, I bring the aperture to f/2.8 and compensate ambient by bringing the shutter to 1/60th. And so forth.

The second instance where I use Manual exposure is for expansions. My expansions are usually not the first frames I shoot, nor are they ever particularly rushed, so my current (Somewhat clunky) method for expansions is to find a frame I’ve previously shot of the subject, and dial its exposure settings into manual. From there I can shoot as many frames as I need without worrying about the camera changing the exposure to try and compensate for a changing frame.

P(rofessional) Mode

Program Shift is essentially Auto, but if you don’t like the settings it throws up, you can turn a dial and get a different combination. I can only imagine in certain run and gun situations this sort of speed is necessary, but for my own shooting I can’t conceive a situation where I won’t have time to at least dial in an aperture. A pretentious part of me delighted upon finding out that my (at the time) new DSLR didn’t have any ‘sport’ or other such fancy automatic modes getting in the way, but for all of my purposes, Program is just another mode to scroll past between Aperture and Manual.

Shutter Priority

Shutter priority, once again, likely has a lot of great uses outside of my photography. I occasionally drag the shutter, but when I do it’s often with a little trial and error over a few attempts, so I expose manually (I know this is hypocritical in light of what I’ve said about manual exposure).

Ugly Histograms

Why I’ve said all of this thus far is, I hope to show how light isn’t ever ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather whatever is appropriate for your photograph. Sooner or later you’ll find yourself using an in frame window as a key light and you’re going to overexpose two stops and still come up too dark. It’s in situations like this where zebra, light meters, even even Chimping comes in helpful. And it’s these very situations where the histogram goes a little haywire, clumping up way into the far right into the clipping range. It’ll appear overexposed because, well, it is. But that’s not a bad thing. Histograms can be a useful way to gage where your shadows and highlights are, but more often than not, my favourite photos have very ugly histograms. Here’s a few examples.

_DSC2808 _DSC8716

L_003861I’ll admit that all of these examples are working with extreme lighting conditions. But I like working in extreme lighting conditions. Of all forms of art, photography has probably been more radically democratised by digital technology than any other. So I think I enjoy working in circumstances which perhaps aren’t quite so readily quantifiable.

I guess after all this what I’m trying to say is that we, as photographers, probably get caught up pretty often with the inorganic details. I for one have spent way too much of my time perusing sites where the subject is a focus chart next to a bowl of fruit, and forget that it’s not about the camera or lens but rather what I put in front of it. If this article makes that shift just a little easier for someone, I think that’s worth something.

I’d better talk about metering modes while I’m here.

I’ve mentioned 18% grey a lot in this post, and I won’t go into too much detail when others have done it much better than I could. But I can’t really talk about reflective metering without giving a little bit of detail as to how that works. In short, when your camera’s exposure compensation is zeroed out, it tries to balance the scene to exactly 18% grey, which is 50% reflectivity. The two tools we have to control metering are the exposure compensation as mentioned earlier, and the area which is metered. There are three main metering modes which dictate the area used:

Matrix Metering: Modern cameras use a form of metering where the scene is divided into zones and each of these zones are evened out, and then the camera attempts to even out each of the zones as a whole in the final exposure.

Spot Metering: Unlike in Matrix Metering, Spot Metering averages only a very small zone around the focus point.

Centre Weighted Metering: Popular in many manual film cameras, but trumped in most cases by Spot and Matrix Metering, Centre Weighted metering averages out the entire scene, but adds extra weighting to the focus point. Essentially mid-point between each of the other modes.

So that’s it from me. This one ended up being a bit of a mouthful, but I hope it was helpful. If you’d like me to expand upon anything I mentioned here, just let me know.