Archive for November 2014

Single-image Sunday: Evening Light   4 comments

Evening comes on early these November days, so if I get the urge to shoot at sunset I’m usually rushing out, not leaving enough time.  That was the case the other day.  Since I was running late and thought I’d probably not shoot anything until the sun had dipped below the horizon, I automatically thought, ‘where’s the nearest water?’  When the light gets low just after sunset, light is beautiful but foregrounds can get very dark.  Water, or some other reflective surface like snow, is often the best bet.

The Cimarron River was nearby so I drove fast in that direction.  I parked near the bridge and scrambled down to the water.  In my hurry I strode confidently right up to the water’s edge, without checking the footing.  My front foot hit firm mud that was as slick as ice, and I did a split, with my front leg shin-deep in the river.  Even when I was a young guy, splits weren’t really part of my repertoire.  Now, they’re darn awkward!

I was muddy and one foot was already soaked.  So I just took off both shoes and, after checking the depth, waded out into the river.  I stuck the tripod legs into the mud of the river bottom and got this shot.  The light had a beautiful purplish hue to it.  Have a great week everyone!

The sun has just set along the Cimarron River, OK

The sun has just set along the Cimarron River, OK

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Ouachitas & Ozarks, Part I   12 comments

Instead of Friday Foto Talk this week, I’m pausing to do something I haven’t done in quite some time.  If you haven’t been reading this blog for long, you probably think I only do posts on photography.  But my real love is exploring and learning about new places.  In particular I love the land and how people have been relating to it and to each other over the ages.  I tend to go for off-beat places lying “in-between” the well known destinations.

I don’t totally ignore the more touristy places.  After all, nearly all of them used to be charming little spots, and that charm often lies just beneath the surface.  But I don’t take trips without making time for detours.  As an example, this blog actually started out when I did a 4-month trip to Africa.  If you have time, you might check out some of the posts from that journey.

Arriving at night, I camped on top of this ridge and woke to a chilly but beautiful autumn morning in the Oachita Mountains of Arkansas

AN IMPROMPTU TRIP

This post is about a place I wouldn’t have thought of visiting if not for the fact I was working nearby and had some time off to explore.  The southern U.S. is a culturally distinct area of the country.  It’s the most conservative part of the U.S., and religious fundamentalism has a home there.  But the region is also renowned for its polite respect and hospitality.

A liberal may not agree with much of what the people believe here, but they also might be treated much better than in friendlier ideological confines like California or Massachusetts.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, that culture has been diluted by the ongoing homogenization of the world.  In that respect it’s no different than many other places.

Interesting purple berries, western Oachitas.

INTRODUCTION

The Oachitas and Ozarks of Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma and southern Missouri are an interesting area of low mountains and forests, small towns and farms.  Outstanding quartz crystals are found among pine forest in the Oachitas.  In the Ozarks streams flow from numerous caves.  Between the Appalachians and Rocky Mountains, this is some of the only high country you’ll find in the U.S.

The word Oachita (pronounced wosh-i-TAW) comes from the Choctaw tribe’s word for the region.  It means place of large buffaloes.  Sadly, bison no longer roam free here.  The word Ozarks is derived from the French term aux arcs, referring to either the top bend of the Arkansas River or to the large number of natural bridges and arches in the area.

A good time to visit the Oachitas and Ozarks is in autumn, when the leaves of the oak and hickory turn golden and red.  That happens in mid-October through early November most years.  There is probably a little more fall color going on in the Ozarks than in the pine-rich Oachitas.  Summers are hot and humid, but there are plenty of lakes to cool off in.  Winters are fairly mild but cold, snowy periods are not uncommon.  Early to mid-October is a perfect time to visit.  Springtime (March to April) is also great.

 

A farm in the fog, Ozarks, Arkansas.

OACHITAS GEOLOGY

I always start with this when talking about a place.  Blame it on the fact that I did it for nearly 20 years.  Or maybe I read a lot of James Michener when I was young.  The Oachita Mountains are the remnants of a once-mighty mountain range.  We can’t be sure exactly how high they were, but think of the modern Rocky Mountains of Colorado and you have the idea.

The reason these mountains are so mellow (some would even call them hills) is the combined effects of water, gravity and time.  By the way, I don’t call them hills because I know about their long, grand reign.  You wouldn’t call an old man who had seen and done great things a boy, now would you?

Like many (but not all) mountain chains, the Oachitas formed from the collision of two tectonic plates.  About 300 million years ago, well before any dinosaur walked the earth, the South American continent, coming from the south, collided with North America.  An ocean was destroyed in the process.  Much later it was resurrected as the modern Atlantic, with the Gulf of Mexico butting up against the southern U.S.

The Oachita “orogeny” (mountain building event) created what is called a fold-thrust belt.  Folds in layers of sedimentary rock are just like when you push a rug against a wall.  Thrust faults are like pushing one rug over top another.  Yep, tectonics is like your living room!  The Alps are the classic example of a fold-thrust belt mountain range.  But they are much younger than the Oachitas and Appalachians.  The latter are characterized by long ridges separated by broad valleys.  The ridges stand up because erosion has cut into the folds and exposed harder rocks like sandstone.

Diagram of a fold and thrust mountain belt.

These folded mountains in the northern Rockies of Canada may be what the Ouachitas once looked like.  This is not my shot but I’ve been told it’s probably an old Geological Survey of Canada image (which makes sense).

The sandstone, shale and limestone that make up the Oachitas were formed many millions of years before they were crunched by the Oachita Orogeny.  The area was covered by thousands of feet of seawater, and the nearby coast was flat and quiet, much like the modern-day east coast of South America.  Sediments were deposited in the quiet waters of a Paleozoic sea, precursor to the modern Atlantic.  As that ocean was destroyed in the collision, the seafloor rocks and sediments were caught in a giant vise.  They buckled under the stress of collision, eventually rising to form a fold-thrust mountain belt.  Because the pressure was directed north-south, the mountains run east-west.  They’re the only mountains in America that run in this direction.

The southern Appalachian Mountains, as seen from space, are shown curving toward the east-west orientation of the Oachitas to the west. Click to go to the source site for this image.

The southern Appalachian Mountains, as seen from space, are shown curving toward the east-west orientation of the Oachitas to the west. Click to go to the source site for this image.

On a curved surface like that of our planet, mountains don’t run in straight lines forever.  The Oachitas are part of a very, very long arc of ancient mountains, extending thousands of miles from Maine to Texas.  The Appalachians, which are themselves quite long, extend to the west.  They are interrupted by the Mississippi embayment, but pick up in central Arkansas as the Oachitas.  Even further to the west, the range is submerged beneath younger rocks, popping up as the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma and the Marathon Mountains of west Texas.

The Oachitas are known for their beautiful quartz crystals and also for novaculite.  Novaculite is a very fine grained, hard flinty rock that resembles flint or chert.  It’s easily knapped or flaked, and as such made this area a magnet for newly arrived humans some 12,000 years ago.  These hunter-gatherers were looking for good raw material from which to make spear-points.

As a bonus, the Oachitas also provided deer, bison and other animals to hunt with those spear points.  Both the crystalline and the micro-crystalline quartz (novaculite is micro-crystalline) were created when fluids from deeper in the crust rose and filled the pervasive fractures formed during mountain building.

Novaculite from the Oachita Mtns., Arkansas

Novaculite from the Oachita Mtns., Arkansas

OZARKS GEOLOGY

The Ozarks lie north of the Oachitas.  In ancient times (and I do mean ancient), the North American continent was smaller, with a coastline to the north of the Ozarks.

**Sorry, I just have to go on a tangent:  Although there have been a few periods in Earth’s history when all the continents joined together into super-continents, most of the time it’s been like today, continents separated by oceans.  But in the distant past continents were smaller and oceans bigger.  It’s one reason we have so much darn limestone around (that rock forms in shallow seas).  Pangea, which you may have heard of, was the last of the super-continents, and it came together after the Oachitas formed.  In fact, the tectonic collision that led to the rise of the Appalachian-Oachita mountains was a big event leading to the coming together of Pangea.

We’ll have another super-continent again sometime in the future, but the bigger picture is this: continents started out quite small and have grown steadily larger over billions of years.  This means big things for carbon, the basis of life and (combined with oxygen) the ultimate controller of climate.  It means more carbon will be soaked up by weathering and stored away in limestone and other rocks.  Of course this has always happened and we’ve done just fine.  Carbon has been dragged with it’s enclosing rocks down into the mantle by subduction, and then recycled back into the atmosphere in volcanic eruptions.  It’s what has kept earth from freezing over.

But with bigger continents comes more weathering.  With relatively shorter coastline and less ocean comes fewer volcanoes.  The net effect will probably mean less efficient long-term carbon cycling, and declining ability for the planet to resist ice ages.  It will mean less carbon for life and less carbon dioxide for the greenhouse effect.  This trend won’t become noticeable for quite some time.  But after the current episode of global warming plays itself out, we will return to a long-term cooling and drying trend, one that has been in place for about 30 million years.  We probably won’t freeze over, because the sun has been gradually getting hotter ever since the solar system’s formation.

While this trend will have big effects on climate, evolution tends to triumph over those kinds of changes.  But having less carbon around has crucial implications for life.  We’re living, most probably, in the latter stages of life’s heyday.  Though life began some 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, it only really got going about a half billion years ago.  It saw its peak sometime between 150 and 35 million years ago, and has been slowly declining ever since.

You may have heard that the sun will expand in about 5 billion years, destroying the earth and us in the process.  That will happen.  But unfortunately, all complex life (including us if we don’t evolve into a space-faring and/or partly synthetic species) will likely have disappeared long before that.  In fact, we might have only about a billion more years of habitability here.  Tiny one-celled organisms may be the only thing to witness the expansion of the sun to its red giant stage.  Nothing lasts forever, and that goes for both good times and bad.  I think there’s a lesson to be learned here.  Enjoy life!  And guard the precious ability of our Earth to shelter it.

I’ve gone over on length with this one, so I’ll leave it there and continue next time with more on the Ozarks, plus some interesting cultural history.  I’ll have tips for travel and photography in this interesting area as well.  Have a great weekend!

Instead of a sunset, here’s one captured at night along the Buffalo River, AR.  The full moonlight was filtered by heavy fog, creating a mood that was a little spooky.

Friday Foto Talk: Post-Processing, Part I   5 comments

The Grand Tetons appear  smaller than they really are in this wide view.  Often very wide-angle shots call for minimal processing.

The Grand Tetons appear smaller than they really are in this wide view. Often very wide-angle shots call for minimal processing.

Last Friday wrapped up the short series of posts on learning photography.  But I thought I’d follow up this week with one more thing you need to think about: post-processing.  This post will cover general considerations and decisions you’ll need to make.  Next time I’ll go into specific software choices.

When I first bought a digital camera, I was under the naive impression that the photos coming out of the camera were what they were.  I knew you could do fancy things with Photoshop, things like putting several pictures together to make a scene that looked like it belonged on a cover from a Yes album (a 70s era prog. rock band for all you millenials!).  Or even merging my face onto Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body (I never did that!).  But since I knew I didn’t want to get into any of that, I just didn’t see the need to buy software.

Although I was blissfully ignorant of the real situation, I was partly right.  I was shooting in Jpeg.  And when you shoot in Jpeg the camera edits pictures before it displays them on the LCD screen.  You can load those Jpegs into your computer and do a lot of extra editing of course.  But the whole idea of shooting in Jpeg is so that you can do a basic edit “in-camera” and get the pictures out without extra work.  Now we have things like Instagram, which does (often dramatic) extra work on pictures before they are shared on the internet.  And all of this without you spending any extra time.

Like the image above, this one from the Texas Panhandle is processed to maximize the details in the scene.  Above it's in the trees while here it's in the layered clouds.

Like the image above, this one from the Texas Panhandle is processed to maximize the details in the scene. Above it’s in the trees while here it’s in the layered clouds.

Through this entire series I’ve assumed you all are on the road toward excellence in photography, and that you want to optimize your time and money on that journey.  The bad news is that in order to fully control what your pictures look like you’ll need to learn to edit them using one or several computer programs.  And this takes even more time and money.  You can limit the damage for the latter by buying your software while taking a formal photography class (say, at a community college).  Student discounts on the most popular software by Adobe and others are very significant, often well over 50% off!  The time you spend learning is directly related to how quickly you pick up computer software.  My experience included a good amount of frustration, and I consider myself rather an ordinary image-editor.  You may have more success.  But however it turns out, if you embark on learning how to use photo software you will eventually become proficient.  So never mind the misplaced images and other screw-ups, the plateaus in learning.  Stick with it!

Fairly soft black and white processing is best for this simple image of fog and trees on the Sandy River delta in Oregon.

Fairly soft black and white processing is best for this simple image of fog and trees on the Sandy River delta in Oregon.

All I wanted to do with this flower shot from a recent trip to Grand Teton National Park was to highlight the blue.

All I wanted to do with this flower shot from a recent trip to Grand Teton National Park was to highlight the blue.

THE ILLUSION OF THE UNTOUCHED IMAGE

One more thing before I continue with recommendations.  You’ll occasionally see folks posting pictures on the web with a caption that seems to brag “straight out of camera”, or words to that effect.  I’m not sure why people do this.  Are they saying their photos are inherently so good that they don’t need any further enhancement on the computer?  Or are they building in an excuse for unedited images because they don’t think they measure up to their usual high standards?  Or are they just feeling guilty about being too lazy to edit?

Whatever it is, they are using flawed logic.  Digital photography is similar to film in a very fundamental way.  Just as with film, in order for a digital photo to be finished it has to be developed, or edited.  Whether you shoot in RAW or Jpeg, the picture that appears on your LCD has been edited on a computer – the computer inside your camera.  Often the editing is quite minimal, but depending on how advanced your camera is you can (automatically) do quite significant things to an image simply by adjusting camera settings.

I can understand if somebody wants to share a picture but they don’t have the time or inclination to edit it.  Just don’t pretend the image hasn’t been “sullied” by computer-based editing, and is thus somehow more pure than an edited shot.  In the film days I didn’t like to look at negatives; I wanted to see the finished product.  It’s the same with digital.  The image starts as a digital file – ones and zeroes – and then gets rendered by a computer (in camera or out) into an image we can all understand and appreciate.

Two wildlife shots are pretty rare for me in one post.  This is one of my favorite little animals in the world, the American pika.

Two wildlife shots in one post are pretty rare for me. This is one of my favorite little animals in the world, the American pika.

On a trip to Grand Tetons this past September I followed a creek up into the forest from where it entered a lake, and finally found this little waterfall.

On a trip to Grand Tetons this past September I followed a creek up into the forest from where it entered a lake, and finally found this little waterfall.

YOUR EDITING DECISION

The issue isn’t whether you want your images to look “photoshopped” or real.  The computer only makes images look unreal or unnatural if you tell it to.  No, the real issue is this:  do you want to invest the time and effort to learn software and take full control of the editing process?  Or would you rather just use the camera to edit your photos automatically?  Do you like the idea of an intermediate option, making quick choices using Instagram?  One final option is to hire one of the many outlets that’ll edit your photos for you?

I’m not here to convince you one way or the other.  It’s your time, your pictures.  And your choice on this doesn’t mark you as either serious or casual, pro or amateur.  Believe it or not, pros shoot Jpeg, using in-camera processing.  They’re sports photographers who need to get their photos of the game out to online outlets while the game goes on and they’re still shooting.  I made the choice to learn some software and do my own editing.  But I sometimes question that decision.  Sitting at the computer is not my favorite thing to do by a long shot!

What I’m saying is to think of using a computer to edit a digital image file just as you would using chemicals to transform a film negative into a beautiful color photograph.  How much you do to the file is up to you.  You can keep it as close as memory allows to the way the scene was as you squeezed the shutter button.  Or you can take off on a flight of fancy.  Or something in between.  Your approach will, of course, help to define your style.  But however you swing it, computer-based editing is an inseparable part of the image-making process.

The sun sets early these November days.  Good night!

The sun sets early these November days. Good night!

Friday Foto Talk: Learning Photography, Part IV   10 comments

An old fence-line tops a ridge and Colorado's San Juan Mountains show off their autumn colors.

An old fence-line tops a ridge and Colorado’s San Juan Mountains show off their autumn colors.

This is the final installment in this short series on learning photography.  Check out the first three posts on this topic for tips on how to make the most of your time and money when you set out to get serious about making images.  Enjoy some images from my most recent two trips.

WHAT LENSES TO GET: QUALITY

Quality is number one in the lens arena.  When I bought my first serious DSLR (a Canon 5D Mark II), I made the mistake of buying a Sigma 24-70 mm. lens with it.  I never was happy with that lens, and ended up returning it for a Canon.  Of course you can’t do that in most places, but I had bought it in Singapore.  The guys in the shop were very surprised to see me return almost a year later.  I had told them where I was from so they didn’t expect to ever see me again.  But I like Singapore. It’s a fine place to break a long flight to somewhere like India or Nepal, a convenient jumping off point for Borneo, Indonesia & PNG, and the atmosphere (and food!) on the street is great.

After some spirited negotiation, I traded the Sigma in for a Canon and from that point on stuck with quality, mostly Canon L lenses. There are important exceptions to the L rule regarding Canon.  Not really knowing Nikon I can’t say for sure, but I expect it applies as well.  There are a few non-L Canon lenses that match the image quality of L lenses.  One example is the EF-S 17-55 mm., an excellent lens made specifically for crop-frame cameras.  Another is the 100 mm. macro (the older, non-L macro).  Conversely, there are a few Canon L lenses that have somewhat lower image quality (though all L lenses have high build quality).

Fog and a full moon combine to create a unique atmosphere in which to shoot along the Buffalo River, Arkansas.

Fog and a full moon combine to create a unique atmosphere in which to shoot along the Buffalo River, Arkansas.

With Nikon there isn’t such a clear way to tell which lens has better build/image quality like with the red ring of Canon L lenses.  But Nikon lenses with gold rings and “ED” in their names generally represent higher quality.  Bottom line is you need to evaluate lenses on a case by case basis. Even some 3rd party lenses are worth considering.  Though I can’t vouch for any Sigma or Tamron lens, I do know they carry good models.

I can personally vouch for Tokina’s wide-angle zoom, the 16-28 mm. f/2.8, and pretty much anything made by Zeiss is quality both in build and clarity (and will put a dent in your wallet!).  Note that Zeiss has traditionally made only fixed (non-zoom) lenses with manual-focus only.  However, they’ve been departing from that practice lately, building zooms for Sony.  They may be about to do the same for Canon and Nikon.

Note that I haven’t mentioned any kit lenses. That’s because I think you should try to eschew kit lenses, even starting out.  If one comes with your camera and you’re sure you can make a little money by selling it, by all means get it and sell it off.  Or use it until you can afford to upgrade.  Once again there are exceptions.  The Canon 24-105 mm. f/4L is sold as a kit lens with their 5D cameras, and though some will argue, this is a very good lens.

Heading up for a fall hike in the mountains, San Juan Mtns., Colorado

Heading up for a fall hike in the mountains: San Juan Mtns., Colorado

WHAT LENSES TO GET: FOCAL LENGTH

When starting out you should probably just go for the “wedding setup”.  If you’re like me you loathe the idea of shooting a wedding (or even attending one, hehe!).  But that doesn’t mean you won’t do very well in a wide variety of situations with the lenses that most wedding shooters go with.  That is, a mid-range zoom in the neighborhood of 24-70 mm. focal length plus a 70-200 mm. zoom. This focal length (24-200 mm.) is mandatory for you to cover. You don’t necessarily need to cover every millimeter of it of course; for example, if you plan on going with fixed-focal length lenses.  But try to cover most of it.  Slightly less important (unless you’re into landscapes, where it’s a necessity) is a wider-angle zoom in the range starting at 14-16 mm. on the wide end and going up to 24-40 mm. on the long end.

Okay, that’s two to three lenses, depending on money & whether you will be doing a lot of landscapes.  I would, early on, add a fast 50 mm.lens, fast meaning one with a wide maximum aperture (f/1.8 or so).  This will allow you to shoot in low-light without spending a ton of money (50s are cheap).  If you are indeed going to be shooting indoors with plenty of portraits (such as weddings – ugh!), you’ll need to get faster, more expensive lenses.  In a zoom, this normally means a maximum aperture of f/2.8.  If you’ll be doing a lot of landscape or general photography, lenses with maximum aperture of f/4 are just fine.  I wouldn’t go slower that that except for lenses longer than 300 mm.  And I wouldn’t go with lenses that have a variable maximum aperture.  Again, this leaves out most kit lenses, most of which have variable maximum apertures.

Prairie dog town, Oklahoma

Prairie dog town, Oklahoma

MACRO OR NOT?

Unless you’re very sure you want to get deeply into macro photography straight off, I would wait to get a macro lens. Sure, you can skip the 70-200 mm. f/4 lens and get a 100 mm. f/2.8 macro instead.  This would give you a good portrait lens and of course allow macro.  But you’re giving up the flexibility of a 70-200, particularly in the landscape arena.  Instead of going macro right away, you can instead buy a Canon 500D close-up lens.  It screws on like a filter to any lens (doesn’t need to be Canon), yielding high-quality close-up images.  It works very well with a 70-200 mm. zoom lens, and goes for about $150.

ACCESSORIES

This is where many companies have sprung up trying to cash in on the photography craze.  Resist the urge to go crazy on extras.  You will need the following: tripod, tripod head, mounting plates, backpack or other camera bag, a filter or three, camera protection and cleaning stuff.  For the latter, get a couple very good cleaning cloths, maybe a lens pen, plus swabs and solution for the sensor.  You would think all lens cloths are the same, but they aren’t.  I really love my “Tiger” cloth, a large orange cleaning cloth made by an outfit called Kinetronics.

I like this type of rail fence, not just for its looks but because it is so easy to climb!

TRIPOD

While you don’t need to buy the best there is, you do need to go with quality here.  I would strongly consider a carbon fiber model if money allows, but a regular  aluminum tripod, though heavier, will do the job as well.  Manfrotto is one of several companies with well-built medium-priced tripods that come in both aluminum and carbon-fiber versions.  Just don’t go too cheap ($150 or under).  You can easily buy several tripods, not being happy with any of them, and end up going with a good one costing at least $200. The reason for this is the aggravation that results from using a tripod that is made cheap or is too lightweight.  Better to just pony up in the beginning.  Used is always an option with tripods of course, but make sure it’s only a year or two old.

That’s just the tripod legs.  You still need to get a head, and it may be best to buy your tripod and head separately.  You can either go with a pan- or ball-head. A ball-head will enable you to quickly pick any angle and lock it down. A pan-head is better for video and for panning. Unless you already know which you prefer, I’d get a ballhead.  Again, spend a little more and get a good one; at least $200 should do it.  One with an Arca-Swiss type of clamp is best, for its ease of use. It clamps onto a plate that you mount on the bottom of your camera (or lens when using telephotos).

Get a plate made specifically for your camera and match it well to the clamp on the ball-head. The same brand for both head and plate is good but not strictly necessary.  Check when you get it that the fit is perfect; if it’s not send it back and get a plate that matches.  You can’t afford to fool around with this, since all your expensive gear could go crashing if it’s not mounted very securely to your tripod.  By the way, I use an L plate, which wraps around one side of the camera, allowing it to be mounted vertically on the tripod head.  Though more expensive than a regular plate, it is much more stable and offers protection too.

A burnished looking landscape in central Oklahoma.

A burnished landscape in central Oklahoma.

BAGS

For some reason this is the hardest thing to resist going crazy on.  I’m not generally a gear-head, but I really love camera backpacks.  If I didn’t exert serious willpower I’d own a dozen.  Unless you see yourself doing only street photography (for which many prefer shoulder bags), or something like sports (where backpacks are clunky), I would just go for a comfortable camera backpack.  Backpacks aren’t just for hikers; they allow a lot of gear to be carried in the most efficient way possible.  We’re getting into the topic of travel here, so I’ll save the discussion of backpacks and luggage for another post.

If you want to go with an optional second bag, I’d get a smaller one for those times you want to carry only your camera and a lens (or two). You could get a smallish shoulder bag, or one of the Lowepro Toploaders, which have shoulder slings but can also be attached to an optional chest sling (I use this for XC skiing).  You can get a lens case that attaches optionally to the Toploader.  Then you have camera, two lenses plus accessories in an easily-carried, protected bag.

One more fall colors shot from my trip to SW Colorado in October.

FILTERS & OTHER STUFF

In the film days filters were a big deal.  Not so much anymore, since software can simulate most of what filters used to do.  One thing software doesn’t really simulate is polarization.  So I think a circular polarizer is necessary, especially if you’re into landscapes.  You can get just one that is the size of the largest lens you’ll use it on, then get step-down rings that allow it to fit smaller lenses.  I have two for convenience.  Neutral density filters are good to have if you’re into landscapes, and they come in handy in other situations too.  I’ve already posted on these in detail.

Should you get UV filters for each of your lenses?  It depends.  They don’t really do anything except help protect your lens.  But get just one scratch on a lens and you’ll wish you had bought one.  Despite what some say, they are more sure protection than a hood (which you should also use).  The main knock on them is they put another layer of glass between you and the image, potentially impacting quality.  So if you’re going with them you need high-quality UV filters (B&W brand or better).  If you’re pretty careful with equipment, I’d probably skip them.  But if you’re like me, rough on your equipment, they may be worthwhile.

Morning light hits rose hip leaves.

There is one more thing you should definitely get when you buy a camera, and that’s protection.  First off, get something to protect your LCD display(s).  Unlike lenses, these will scratch if you look at them.  The best option in my opinion are the thin, rigid stick-on covers.  Not the flexible stick-on film you buy in packages of 20.  I’m talking about the rigid ones you buy just one of, made by GGS & others.  They’re thin & inconspicuous and yet very durable.  Some even come in a package of two, one for your main rear LCD & one for the small LCD on top of many DSLRs.  Put them on as soon as you get the camera out of its box.  Also consider a rain-cover if you’ll be shooting somewhere with a wet climate.  Even if it’s just a shower-cap &/or thick terry towel (which is what I use), always have it in your camera bag.

Do you need a flash?  Some cameras have built-in flash, but these rarely produce good results.  In my opinion you should learn to shoot in natural light first, then later on, if desired, you can learn about using off-camera flash and other artificial lighting.  If you plan, right off the bat, to shoot indoors a lot, you might want to get a good off-camera flash plus accessories to get the most out of it.  I’d stick with the same brand as your camera, but you don’t necessarily need the top of the line model.  For instance, I have the Canon 430 EX II ($250) plus a synch cord (to fire the flash from above or to the side of the camera).  I also have a hand-held diffuser and reflector.  I don’t use this stuff much, but it’s all I need for fill light plus the occasional indoor portrait.

Well that just about does it.  Thanks for sticking with this lengthy post!  I hope it helped in your quest to get the right gear (but no more), and to lessen some of the sticker shock that comes with getting serious about photography.  Have a fun weekend!

Yesterday evening I was wandering around at sunset when I saw this barn sitting quietly in the day’s last light.

Friday Foto Talk: Learning Photography, Part III   6 comments

A muddy Canadian River at sunrise, Oklahoma.

A muddy Canadian River at sunrise, Oklahoma.

I’m late posting this Friday Foto Talk, shame on me!  My excuse is that I was in the woods for the last few days, away from internet and cell service.  This is the 3rd in a 4-part series on learning photography.  Not what to learn but how to go about it.  This short series has mostly been aimed at those who have just recently begun to get serious about photography.  But everyone will get something out of it.  I believe every photographer, no matter how experienced, is a learning photographer.  So be sure and check out the first two parts if this is your first visit.

My blog has deliberately steered clear of gear talk.  I’ve talked about how best to use various kinds of lenses and filters to create various looks, but I’ve deliberately avoided brand names.  I don’t believe brand has anything to do with the images you create.  As mentioned in Part I, the goal is to buy just enough but not too much gear when you’re just starting on the road to serious image-making.  Later on, if money permits, you can add on to your kit.  You’ll know much better what will genuinely enhance your photography.

Foggy forest early one recent morning in the Ozarks of Arkansas.

Foggy forest early one recent morning in the Ozarks of Arkansas.

IS BRAND IMPORTANT?

Though brand doesn’t matter to the ultimate quality of your images, you’ll nonetheless need to decide what you’re going with at the beginning.  Can you change your mind later and switch?  Sure, it’s easy enough to sell a camera and lenses.  (They go together: each brand of camera fits only lenses made for that brand, or 3rd party lenses with mounts specific to the brand.)  Of course, if you change your mind you’ll lose some money buying new and then selling later.  But more important than that, you’ll need to learn a whole different menu system.  You don’t need to add to what you have to learn, so I recommend keeping things simple.  Pick one brand and stick with that choice until you are a competent photographer (about two years).

It’s a fact that Canon and Nikon remain dominant.  Sure, Sony has established itself, even among pros.  Also, the new mirrorless compact format has made Panasonic a big player.  But the big two are what most professionals continue to use.  And they’ll be easier to sell if it comes to that.  If you have plenty of dough, consider one of the luxury brands (Hasselblad or Leica).  But remember, you’re just learning.  Though image quality is what you’re going for from day one, there’s no need to go crazy just to produce your first 10,000 (worst) images.

A ranch nestles beneath Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

FORMAT

If you are just now getting serious, if you are going to be jumping up from a point and shoot or your phone, you have a couple important decisions to make.  First is format.  You have the option to start out with the compact mirrorless format.  You could also learn on a film system, like medium or large-format.  I think the mirrorless format is a good option for beginners, but I’ll save that whole discussion of mirroless vs. DSLR for another post.  Film has that cachet, but in the learning stage I’d go digital.  Film is not dead (yet), but your learning curve will be significantly shorter with digital. The rest of this post assumes you are going with a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) system.

CAMERA

I would seriously consider limiting your choice to Canon, Nikon or possibly Sony (again assuming you’re not splurging on a luxury brand).  The best plan is to rent each for a weekend and see which you like using better.  Canon and Nikon both keep their value somewhat better than Sony, a big factor later when you want to sell something.  All three have a fairly intuitive user interface.  All three are fairly reliable, but with any of them, you can wind up with a lemon.  If you’re starting out with a used camera, your decision may hinge simply on what you can get a good deal on.  Your decision will also depend on what lens lineup you like best, which brings me to…

BRAND & LENSES

I recommend renting before you buy here too.  Perhaps the best option if you decide on Sony is to buy high-quality lenses made by a 3rd party which come with Sony mounts. Zeiss glass is very well regarded, but pretty spendy unless you buy used.  If you decide on Canon or Nikon, you have a large lineup of lenses to choose from, lenses made by the same folks who make the camera.  Expect these lenses to work a little better with your camera, in general, than those made by 3rd parties.  When I say “work better” I’m not talking image quality. I’m speaking of electronics (quicker & more accurate autofocus, for e.g.).  Sony has been relying on 3rd party lenses, but that includes a recent commitment by Zeiss to make zoom lenses for them.  So Sony’s lens gap may be a thing of the past in the near future.

Beautiful Colorado blue spruce, San Juan Mtns., Colo.

Beautiful Colorado blue spruce, San Juan Mtns., Colo.

I honestly can’t recommend one brand’s lenses over the other.  It is, however, widely believed that Canon does big telephoto lenses better than Nikon, and that Nikon does very wide-angle zooms better.  In the middle of the range (~24-200 mm. focal length), the two are for all intents and purposes not distinguishable.  Since this is where the lion’s share of our photos are taken, it really is a tossup between Canon and Nikon.  Of course if you plan on getting into sport or serious wildlife photography, you may choose Canon because of its (slightly) better long glass.  If you’re a landscape shooter, Nikon might be the one simply because you can get their excellent 14-24 mm. wide angle lens.

Though I’m primarily a landscape person, I don’t mind shooting Canon for the following reason: There are several good alternatives to the Nikon 14-24 mm. out there, made by third parties.  And Canon itself makes two or three fixed focal length wide-angle lenses that produce the same quality as the Nikon wide-angle zoom.  With landscape photography, the speed of autofocus and other electronic considerations are not as important in the wide-angle as the telephoto realms.  You can even get a 3rd party manual-focus wide-angle lens (like a Zeiss) and be perfectly happy doing landscapes.  Try manual- or slow auto-focus with wildlife or sport and you’re done for.  So if you plan on shooting both landscape and wildlife, for example, Canon may hold a slight edge.

Now that I’ve succeeded in contradicting myself and, despite my claims to the contrary, recommended a brand (ahem), we can move on to what’s really important to a just-learning photographer.  That is, what do I need to buy?  Not what brand, what gear.

Amazing lichen, Oachita National Forest, Arkansas

Amazing lichen, Oachita National Forest, Arkansas

USED OR NEW?

If money is not a serious concern, buy new across the board.  If money concerns you to some degree, buy a new camera but look in the used market for lenses.  As long as you check out the merchandise before you buy, lenses are pretty easy to buy used.  Cameras can be a little more iffy.  I’m not saying quality used cameras can’t be had.  I’m just pointing out how hard it is to decide that based on a quick examination in some Starbucks somewhere.  If money is a big concern, start off with used equipment, including camera and accessories.

The reason money may be more of a concern than what you expect is that the most important factor in image quality is the glass (lenses) not the camera.  Lenses are where most of your investment should be, and good glass is not cheap.  You can argue that average lenses are fine to start out, but consider just one of several reasons for buying good glass to start out.  When you’re trying to produce nice sharp images, it can be hard to distinguish softness related to lens quality from softness that stems from your own mistakes.

There is one more piece of gear where you need to start out with high quality.  Can you guess?  The camera perhaps?  No, not in my opinion at least.  You can get a good basic camera that is in the middle of the range and be fine.   No, it’s the tripod and tripod head (more on that later).  So to sum up, get a good basic DSLR to start, don’t skimp on the tripod, and buy lenses that you’ll be happy to keep using well after you’ve become good and have upgraded your camera.

Texas longhorn cattle roam the grasslands in Wichita Mtns., National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.

CROP-FRAME OR FULL-FRAME?

If I was writing this a couple years ago I might recommend serious consideration to a a crop-frame camera, at least to start with.  That’s because they tended to be less expensive than full frames, while still delivering great usability and quality.  That advice is less true now that less expensive full frames (like the excellent Canon 6D) are on the market. It’s also less true because lenses continue to be designed and built primarily for full-frame cameras.  Don’t misunderstand me.  Most lenses can be used with either format.  But since everything is at a longer effective focal length on a crop-frame, lenses at the wider end of the spectrum need to be built specifically for crop-frames; they won’t work on a full-frame.

So where does that leave us?  I would make your decision based on what kind of photography you plan on doing most.  If you really want to get into wildlife or sports, I’d go for a crop-frame; it will give you extra reach in terms of focal length.  If you’ll be doing mostly landscapes, get a full-frame.  If you’re going for portraiture, it’s a toss-up.  But I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and recommend a full-frame camera if you’re not sure or you wish to explore a variety of photography.  Your second camera could always be a crop-frame if you find yourself getting more and more into wildlife or sports.

That’s enough for now.  I’ll continue with the all-important subject of what sorts of lenses to buy next time.  Have a great weekend!

Sunset over the prairie.

Wordless Wednesday: The Ozarks   13 comments

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Single-image Sunday: Annoyed   6 comments

Bet ya think I’m going to talk about being annoyed.  No, even when I am annoyed I’ll try never to subject anyone else to my reasons for being so.  They only make sense at the time anyway.  No, this image is all about this buffalo (otherwise known as a bison) being annoyed with me.  If you’re familiar with American bison, you know they once roamed over most of the central parts of North America.  And that now they’re confined mostly to a few national parks, Yellowstone chief among them.

So you may think this shot is from Yellowstone, or possibly nearby Grand Teton National Park.  You may even know about the buffalo herd at Wind Cave, South Dakota, and think he lives there.

None of the above!  The truth is that I got a surprise when I visited the southern part of Oklahoma recently.  I had seen on the map that there was a wildlife refuge called Wichita Mountains NWR.  I also saw on the web that there were a small number of buffalo there.  Since it was a quick trip, I didn’t expect to see many buffalo, let alone get close enough for a good shot.

Towards dusk I happened to glance off into the trees while driving by and saw this youngish bull.  I stopped and walked around behind him.  Approaching slowly and watchfully, I kept some small trees between he and I.

Annoyed: check out his underside.

Annoyed: check out his underside.

I’ve learned to be cautious around buffalo, but how cautious often depends.  At times you can walk right up to them, drawing no more than a casual glance.  I don’t set out wanting to get too close of course.  But on several occasions while hiking in Yellowstone, I’ve rounded a corner and been confronted with one of the massive beasts lounging in the grass beside the trail.  If it is not autumn, this is not usually a panic situation.

I got close enough to this one to get his attention.  He immediately let me know that I had gotten close enough, thank you.  He turned and took a couple steps in my direction, fixing me with a glare.  If that wasn’t enough, he began to urinate.  That was my clue to back away.  There is a rule of thumb with any large (or even not so large) male animal.  Almost anytime you see them urinating, you can be sure it’s to send a definite signal: stay back!

There are other fairly obvious signals that buffalo give you.  One is when they arch their tail up in the air.  I’ve seen bulls do that during mating season, just before charging another bull.  Another clue is when they throw their huge furry heads about.  If you come upon a buffalo with an arched tail, who’s throwing his head around and urinating at the same time, you should definitely not approach any closer.  And strongly consider retreating.

Many tourists have been injured, some even killed, by bison.  At Yellowstone especially, people often approach too closely in an attempt to get a good picture.  They ignore the obvious warning signals that the bison (I think kindly) is giving them.  When questioned by rangers, some of these people don’t realize that they are wild animals.  And they seem to believe they are slow and ponderous.

True, buffalo go about most of their lives in slow-motion.  But that’s deceiving.  I’ve seen them run very fast and jump 6-foot high fences.  That’s 1500 pounds launching itself over a high fence!  When they want to be, buffalo can be very athletic and very cantankerous – a potentially deadly combination.  It’s amazing to me that more people aren’t rammed and gored, given how many apparently unobservant tourists visit Yellowstone.

So if you plan to visit one of the parks with buffalo, remember the signals, especially if it’s the fall mating season.  Stay safe, and have a great week!

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