One of the most fun things about owning a DSLR, of course, is that there are so many lenses available. In fact, photographers (pros and amateurs) probably spend more time fantasizing about owning newer and better lenses than actually using them. It's easy to become addicted to the visual possibilities of owning a lot of lenses. I've owned a lot of lenses over the years, but I have sold a few lately on Ebay, so don't have as many as I usually have. One of the reasons is that I want to upgrade several of my older lenses to image-stabilized lenses and I wanted to sell my non-IS lenses while there was still a market for them.
No matter which lenses come and go though, there are a few that just become my favorite go-to lenses and currently (and for the past few years) one of those has been my Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR Nikkor Zoom Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras. For around $500 it's one of the best lenses I've ever used. Yes, it's a bit slow in terms of maximum aperture, but compared to the $2,000 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor (which, admittedly, was a sharper lens and had a constant maximum aperture but you're talking a lens that costs two grand!) that I used to carry everywhere, it's much lighter (I can carry it in my photo vest pocket easily) and it's perfect for using in nightclubs and theaters when I'm shooting concerts. I sometimes sneak it into theaters in the inside pocket of my denim jacket.
There is just something about that focal-length range that attracts my eye--I love that it allows me to fill the frame with relatively distant subjects (like the animal trainer working with a beluga whale shown here and shot at the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut--one of my favorite photos, by the way) and that it focuses very quickly. For a lot of the subjects that I shoot (lots of travel and wildlife), it's tough to get as close as I'd like, but I just can't afford to buy a 400mm or 600mm lens. When I use the 70-300mm on my Nikon D90 body, it becomes a 105-450mm lens! That is a whopping amount of lens for that price. If you add a 1.4x tele converter (Kenko makes an affordable converter that fits it) Kenko 1.4X PRO 300 Teleconverter DGX Nikon AF Digital SLRs it has a max focal length of 630mm (but you lose a stop of speed). Just be sure that any converter that you buy fits the specific model of lens.
I shot this photo of the Blue Angels at an air show in Rhode Island using the 70-300mm and I could never have done it with my 80-20mm because it simply weighed too much to hold over my head for an hour or more.
This past Sunday it went down to -25F in several parts of Connecticut and those temps are no joke—not only can they cause your camera to give up the ghost—they can put your life at risk. But you can only shoot so many photos of the big blizzard from your living room window, eventually you have to open the door and venture forth. Cold can wear on your batteries and your camera and it can be downright dangerous—verydangerous and I know about that firsthand. There’s no need to risk life and lens, however, and there are lots of clever ways to keep both you and your equipment warm. Here are my top 10 ways to stay warm and keep your camera operating when you’re out there shooting in this winter’s extremely cold weather. Please forward this posting to any friends in cold areas--and you have my permission to print it and hand it out. This has been the worst winter I can remember for years and I don't think there is enough being said about staying safe. Most of what's here is for your camera--but there are tips for keeping you (and a few stray cats) alive, too.
1. Stop using the LCD. Reviewing and composing on the LCD just eats up battery power, so try to use the peephole viewfinder (if you have one) and limit your use of the LCD to briefly reviewing important shots and occasionally checking the histogram. And don't idly zoom the lens in and out on a zoom camera--zooming uses up a lot of battery power.
2. Check your battery levels before you leave home. Heading into the field with a half-charged battery is kind of self defeating.
3. If you’ll be using lots of fill-flash, bring an accessory unit. They typically run on AA batteries and Lithiums last much longer in cold weather. Also, you can stash the flash in an inside pocket and keep the batteries and the flash warmer.
4. Shut the camera off! If you’re not using it, shut if off and put the battery in your pocket.
5. Lithium Batteries: Speaking of batteries, the consensus among both makers and users is that non-rechargeable Lithium batteries handle cold best. Energizer claims theirs last up to 8x longer, have a 15-year storage life and operate down to -40F (and up to +140F). If it’s colder than -40 (or hotter than 140F) where you are, don’t go out. Energizer Ultimate Lithium Batteries, AA, 4-Count
6. Limit your video shooting. Again, continuous video recording drains batteries very fast, so unless it’s important, wait for a warmer day.
7. Wear a wool scarf. A wool scarf will not only keep your neck warm, but if you wrap it around your face, it will prevent another winter annoyance: condensation on cold viewfinder peepholes or LCD screens. The scarf constrains your hot air (so to speak). Mom told you you’d need this—and she was right! Check out www.llbean.com (like you needed an excuse).
8. Tell people where you’re going and when you’ll be back--and keep your cell phone charged. Seems like silly and obvious advice, I know, but in the past several weeks in Connecticut there have been several reports of people being found dead—frozen to death—within sight of their homes. Tragic. In Connecticut--not Alaska or North Dakota. Frozen to death. Years ago I got stranded on a sandbar (the tide came in behind me and I was too busy shooting the sunset to notice) and I nearly didn’t make it back to shore. I’ll tell you that story in one of my next postings. It was even scarier than it sounds. And it wasn't the first time I got stranded in winter in a bad situation--both times it was entirely my fault. If you go out to your car at night to get something, bring your house key. If the door locks behind you and you have forgotten the key, you're in deep trouble. You might have five minutes or less to save your own life. Ever try to wake a neighbor at 1 a.m on a cold January night? Carry your cell phone in your yard and driveway--always. (I fell one night taking the garbage out and had I been hurt, that might have been the last night I took garbage out.) If you live in a remote rural area, consider buying a satellite GPS unit--I'll blog about one of those tomorrow. Not cheap, but $500 might save your life and they go well beyond cell range. DeLorme Earthmate PN-60W Portable GPS Navigator with SPOT Satellite Communicator
9. Carry hand warmers. Those little chemical hand warmers you see at the check-out register really do work! Says my friend Alaskan photographer Ron Niebrugge: “I keep an extra battery in my pocket with a warmer and then rotate as needed. " And for extreme cold he suggests securing one to the base of your camera with a rubber band. Buy extras and give them to the guy that delivers your paper or leave some in your mailbox for the mailperson. Mail them to your kids or grandchildren at college. Hand them out to homeless people (don't just think about doing that, do it--God will reward you). On bitterly cold nights, put a few under a towel for the stray cat that lives in your garage or barn. Hand warmers are cheap--buy a case or two--they have a very long shelf life. HeatMax Hot Hands 2 Handwarmer (40 pairs)
10. Bring a thermos of coffee of tea. There’s nothing like a creature comfort when you’re out photographing winter creatures—or just shooting the sunset. Many years ago my parents bought me a couple of beautiful stainless steel thermos bottles at Christmas and they still look brand new. I have one tall one for tea and a wide-mouth one for soup. Thermos Nissan 34-Ounce Stainless-Steel Bottle with Folding Handle
OK, two people clicked the thingy under yesterday's posting that says they wanted to see "more" of summer-themed photos. It doesn't get any more summery than volleyball on the beach. Can't you just smell the French Fries cooking at the snack bar? Hear the gulls? Smell the low tide? Wait, I'm torturing myself. It's 16-degrees out right now. The birds have stopped going to the feeders, now they just tap on the window and ask if they can come inside. The cats assure me that that will be fine.
It's supposed to be -10F in parts of Connecticut today. That's nearly a 90-degree difference from the summer day that I shot this photo in Rhinebeck, New York. Enough already--bring out the groundhog and let's end this thing!
I don't know if I've mentioned it on here much or not, but for the past six months or so I've been writing a monthly column called "Traveling Photographer" for Popular Photography magazine. My most recent column (the December issue--January was bumped for space reasons) was on photographing wildlife from wildlife drives at national wildlife refuges. I love finding new wildlife drives (there are about a half dozen listed at the end of the article) because you have the convenience of being able to drive deep into a wildlife preserve and you get to use your car as a blind. Also, some of the preserves that I visit (like the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville, Florida, where I shot this great egret) can be kind of dangerous for casual walking--we've seen lots of alligators, Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, wild (feral) hogs and bobcat there--not to mention mosquitoes the size of small aircraft.
By the way, if you are interested in photographing birds or wildlife, I can suggest some great books and sites--so if anyone asks, I'll do a future posting on that. In the meantime, probably the best bird photographer alive (possibly the best ever) is Artie Morris and his Birds as Art site is worth exploring (you'll be there for hours). Artie's The Art of Bird Photography II is a CD version of his classic book ($40) and it's astounding--literally hundreds (come to think of it, there may be thousands) of his photos that will simply blow your mind. I got it from Lynne for Christmas one year and every time I look at it I just want to run away and become a full time wildlife photographer. His photographs are incredible and he teaches more on that disc than you can possibly imagine--he shares everything and holds nothing back, the mark of a great teacher.
Teaser: Coming up in the March issue of Pop I have a column on cave photography--so get your headlamps and caving gear ready.
One of the technical features that I like most about digital cameras is the ability they give you to match the sensor's color response to the color of the existing light using the white balance control. In the old (i.e. film) days, if you wanted to match a film to the light source you either had to choose a film that was balanced for that type of lighting (daylight film for daylight, tungsten film for tungsten, etc.) or use filters to "correct" the film for the existing light. With digital cameras, of course, you just open up a menu and tell it what the predominant light source is and shoot--and you can even fine-tune the response via a color-picker/color-temperature chart on with most DSLR cameras.
But you don't always have to choose the correct white balance. In fact, sometimes you get a more pleasing or more creative photo if you intentionally use the wrong white balance. If you use the tungsten setting in a daylight scene (as I did for the shot above), for example, you end up with a photo this unnaturally blue. Why? Because in order to balance the sensor's response to tungsten light, which is naturally very red because it has a warmer color temperature than, say, daylight, it adds additional blue to the scene. But if you use that extra blue in daylight scenes, you end up with photos that have a very cool twilight appearance. That is exactly what I did to get the shot of the Christmas tree on my front lawn. I did shoot the photo at twilight and there is some artificial lighting (LED) but the predominant light is just daylight. I exaggerated its blue color by choosing a tungsten white balance--which, in effect, put a blue filter over the image.
You can do the opposite, too (and I often do). If you are shooting on a very cloudy day where the daylight has a lot of blue in it, you can use a "cloudy day" white balance setting to add warmth to a scene--that's what that setting is for. But you can also use the cloudy day setting (again, it's designed to add warmth) on a bright sunny day and that in turn will add extra warmth to portraits, landscapes, etc. In fact, I almost always use the cloudy-day setting--it is almost my default white balance setting for outdoor scenes because I like them warm.
Of course, the simplest way to tweak the white balance in all of your shots is to shoot in RAW and then adjust the white balance after the fact. The Adobe RAW converter, for example, has a white balance slider that essentially lets you make your white balance choices after the shot was made.
Alaska is probably at the top of most photographers' list of fantasy places to shoot. And why not? In a state that is defined by its mountains, glaciers, wildlife and frontier wilderness--what's not to like? Knowing where to start planning a trip with all of those possibilities is the only real problem. One photographer that probably knows the great places as well as anyone alive is Alaskan-native Ron Niebrugge. Ron grew up in Alaska and today is one of its best-known and most prolific photographers and I had a chance to profile him for the current edition (print and online) of Outdoor Photographer magazine. And in the article, called Insider's Passage, Ron talks about some of his favorite scenic and wild locales and actually draws out a two-week driving loop that includes them all.
You can read the entire article online or just go buy the February issue and do your daydreaming and trip planning in front of the fire (oh, wait, I guess you can do that with a laptop, too!). Ron's work is wonderful and if the article makes you want to see more, check out his Wild Nature Images website. But don't blame me if looking at his photos gets you so excited about visiting Alaska that you lose sleep for a few nights. Of course, he does give photo tours and teaches workshops in Alaska and in the Southwest (in winter), so there's that to consider, too! (Photo copyright Ron Niebrugge)
Because photography usually (not always) requires a camera to produce pictures, it has become a very technological pursuit. Let's face it, even a $100 digital camera is a cornucopia of miniature electronic miracles--so it's hard not to think of taking pictures in a very high-tech light. But taking pictures should also be fun and sometimes you need to remember that your camera is, in many ways, just another toy used for having fun. And if it's a toy, then it's also meant for playing.
There are lots of ways to play with a camera. For one, you could set your shutter speed to a ridiculously-slow shutter speed and take intentionally blurry photos--streaks of light from holiday displays, kids running, or even the path of stars through the nighttime sky (but use a tripod for that one). Or you can put a piece of colored plastic--not an expensive filter, but a piece of colored Mylar or a sheet of plastic food wrap--in front of your lens. What happens? What happens if you spin around during a long exposure? Kids are usually much better at this kind of thing than adults because they haven't learned that you're not "supposed" to do a lot of these things.
Last night I was sitting at my desk, bored, and I noticed that a chambered nautilus I keep around as a prop and a plastic plate I was eating from had a similar spiral pattern. I had my Nikon D90 next to me (I almost always have a camera within arm's reach) and I happened to have my Lensbaby out--a fun lens-substitute that is designed for letting you play with things like soft focus and focus-shifting. So, rather than haul out a tripod and put on a "good" lens, I just started playing with the Lensbaby and the shell/plate idea. I was only using a gooseneck desk lamp for light and the shutter speed (in manual mode) was around 1/4 second. The Lensbaby has to be used in manual, so you kind of have to try one exposure and then check the LCD to see how close you are--then adjust it until you get something you like. I shot the photo above in RAW (I shoot everything in RAW) and played a little with exposure and color balance in editing. The quickie self-portrait below, also taken with a Lensbaby (five minutes after the nautilus shot) is completely uncorrected--it is exactly as it came out of the camera. Trust me, if I had been doing this seriously, I would have corrected my blood-shot eye!
Both of these photos are horrid technically, but they were fun to take and I was surprised by both results. And in the end, getting surprised is sometimes a lot more fun than knowing precisely how your images will come out.
Take time to play with your camera--often it will take you to places you could never have imagined while you were trying to get everything to be as perfect as your camera would like to make it.