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A Humorous Look at “Gear”

Gadget.  Gizmo.  Apparatus.  Utensil.  Call them what you want.  But as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination and affinity for these things.  I often refer to myself as a “gadget-guy.”  I especially appreciate quality craftsmanship.  A really fine and well-built gadget, will always trump a poorly designed and manufactured cheap one.  As a young person, my dad and my grandpa both exposed me to tools, guns, fishing gear and such.  And they always appreciated the quality items.  One of my favorite things to do was to dis-assemble things, like old alarm clocks, electric razors, etc., that were “throwaways” (funny though, that I never could seem to put them back together again 🙂  ).

There is nothing like the melodious sound of a Nikon F1 shutter tripping or the tactile feel of a well-made lens ring clicking through the stops

Today I am still attracted to quality tools, guns, watches, and bicycles to name a few — anything that has gearing or complex mechanisms.  And yes, of course that includes photographic gear.  There is nothing like the melodious sound of a Nikon F1 shutter tripping or the tactile feel of a well-made lens ring clicking through the stops.

Knowing my propensity, a friend shared a pretty darn funny website post yesterday: https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2012/03/hammerforum-com/A funny read, this post illustrates how we get so far “in the weeds” sometimes that things like perspective, common sense and civility are completely lost.

And, it must be “gear” week, because Darwin Wiggett posted this pretty funny image on Facebook this morning: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10210575707122990&set=a.1188155978151.2027621.1055866333&type=3&theater

Readers here know that I am a self-avowed “gearhead.”  Does that make me a better photographer?  In and of itself; no.  But there is little doubt that some gear makes the task easier, and in the digital age, some also produces measurably higher quality results.  Does that mean “better” photography.  Well.  I guess that depends on what “better” means.

So, no, my gear is not better than your gear and I really have no interest in comparing the size of our respective … er ….lenses.  🙂 .  Instead, lets all just take the gear we have out and make some pictures.

Are Photographers Superstitious?

Silly question. Photographers are (generally speaking) people. Some people are superstitious. Therefore some photographers are superstitious (I did reasonably well in my Logic class I college 🙂 ). A recent conversation with a friend about an equipment-change and how we view and use our equipment generated the idea for this blog post.

I have spent a lot of bandwidth here discussing (perhaps rationalizing) my decision to change my camera lineup from DSLR to mirrorless (perhaps that’s because I cannot think of anything else to write about 🙂 ). I am ultimately happy with my move, though, as I have said here on numerous occasions – I strongly caution others – I think my circumstances and reasons were unique to me – and for most “already” owners, I would recommend you very seriously consider staying where you are; for the time being, anyway. If you are a brand new user, that’s another thing entirely (of course, it is mainly a function of what you will use the gear for, but then, I might consider mirrorless and never even go for the DSLR line).

There has been enough “hemming and hawing” and “buts” in my reviews and writing about the Sony mirrorless system to make a reader wonder if I really am happy with the decision. In the 35 plus years I have been shooting, I have yet to find the camera – or system – that is even close to my perfect fit. I have certainly owned some cameras that I loved and occasionally think nostalgically and fondly of. But none has completely fulfilled my “checklist” of what I want on a camera. They are tools. And as such, they are tools designed for the masses. Back in “the day” when home personal computing first exploded on the scene, Gateway computers had a system where you could “custom design” your computer and order it from them.  I used to wonder what it might be like to purchase a camera body that way? The economic reality is that when you are trying to market a camera to tens of thousands of purchasers, you cannot just “call Andy” and ask him what he ideally wants in a camera.

With that perspective, I am satisfied with my current “gear.”  So here is the connection to the title. I progressed from the original “enthusiast” Nikon D100 DSLR with a 6mp APS size sensor, all the way to their “best” (at the time) enthusiast DSLR body; the “so-called” “full frame” D800 with a 36mp sensor (ironically – manufactured by Sony). From there, I moved (after dipping my toe in the water with the APS Sony mirrorless body and lenses) to what I believed was Sony’s “best” full frame, complete with its 36mp sensor (again, ironically – manufactured by the same Sony – presumably the same sensor) The a7R. But for a number of reasons, I could never get mentally comfortable with it).

I could never get mentally comfortable with it

I am a sometime golfer and a fan. I do a fair amount of reading about sports in general, and particularly about golf. The U.S. alone has near 300 million people (now in fairness, a very small part of the worldwide population actually play golf, but even county those who do, it is a huge number). Golf is a worldwide thing now, with the PGA tour (largely an American phenomenon) but with golfers from all over the world trying to make the tour. There are 100 members who have “made” it in any given year. Having played the game for many years, trust me, these 100 men are some extremely talented individuals.

And they are generally superstitious. There are a lot of stories (many of them humorous) about golfers’ superstition (one of my favorites involves a pro who fired his caddy for “talking to his ball” while it was in flight during a tournament). Lots of silly things: Carrying a particular ball-marker, or coin; wearing a particular color; etc. And this is not a golfers only thing. Athletes as a group will often have routines that they never vary from what they eat, to which sock they put on first. Superstition? Maybe.

But there is also a part of the phenomenon that actually makes sense. And to an extent, it is probably true in some way for all of us, with everything we do. Why acknowledge this “superstitious” behavior—especially when the endeavor is perhaps primarily scientific, mechanical, or skill-based? Because it makes us comfortable. And when we are comfortable, it frees us to exercise our skills automatically and the “creative” things we do, without our minds being cluttered. When we are comfortable, we trust our equipment, our routine and our skills, and don’t consciously worry or consciously think about gear and mechanical stuff, while working behind the lens.

It makes us comfortable

Michigan is in the no-man’s land between the “Midwest” and the “Northeast,” and it is an irony that I tend to acquire new gear about this time of the year – which also tends to be the worst time of the year to photograph. As I write this, it is grey and wet. So it happens that I acquire gear and do not get an immediate opportunity to test it.  It was a long time from the time I received my a7R until I had a chance to go out and work with it. And during that period of time I also acquired the Sony 70-200 f4 zoom, which was also a new and untested item. During the time before I shot it, it came to light that because of some mechanical issues, the a7R (only – and not the a7 or the later to come, a7S) might have some vibration issues that cause unacceptable softness in images with long lenses and slower shutter speeds. There was a proposed, but admittedly “Rube-Goldberg” “fix” for this problem – a counterweight that you screwed into the camera’s tripod socket (presumably, you used the longer lens’s own lens mount). I built one. It weighs a ton (one of the reasons for the switch to mirrorless was to shed weight). And, the 36mp sensor demands the very best of your glass, and shooting skills – or it highlights the lack of either or both. And finally, I was struggling with a AF issue when using the wireless remote (you can turn off AF at the on-camera release button and use back button focus only, ala the Nikon setup. But it does not appear to work with the wireless remote – still working on that one).

Too many variables

So, here I was, trying to evaluate the a7R when shooting with a lens I wasn’t sure about with a contraption (when I remembered to attach it). Just too many variables. And, while I did not ever come to a final conclusion, I did note that for whatever reason, I was vaguely dissatisfied with image results. Superstition? Maybe. Probably. I know there are a7R owner/users out there making wonderful images with it.  But I just could not personally get comfortable with it.

I recently was able to make a trade: My “mint” a7R for a similar “mint” a7. The economics are that I probably made a costly move, buying the a7R in the first place, as it cost more than the a7. But from a superstition point of view, I am much more comfortable with the a7. And being comfortable, means being free to work with the tool the way it was intended and to apply my skills and approach to photography without the clutter of “wondering” whether I have the right tool in my hands.

Just don’t talk to my ball

There are things I do with my gear, my technique and approach to photography, and in my post-processing that others may or may not do. They are things that I have become comfortable with and do as second-nature. I believe they help me (though there is certainly an argument for another time and another blog that some of them equally – hinder me) in my quest to make satisfying imagery. Call me silly. Call me superstitious. Just don’t talk to my ball! 🙂

A Comparison; DSLR / Mirrorless

What can I say? I am in a “gear” mode these days. I know this isn’t the first time someone has compared the two.  But mine might be more like a rambling muse 🙂  (again, you might want to look at my page describing my gear reviews to see how I come at this. I leave the heavy lifting to the pros).

I have had some “back and forth” discussion with several of my friends over the past few weeks, about my switch from Nikon DSLR to Sony MIL gear (Sony also “plays” in the DSLR world, but in my view, doesn’t offer any reason for a “seasoned” non-Sony DSLR user/owner to consider a change from their current gear).

The seed was planted that maybe we could achieve “pro” results in a small, light package

The “world-changing” event came through Sony’s mirrorless interchangeable lens system (MILS) bodies. They were not the first to the table. Olympus has made a pretty big splash with its 4/3 system; well-made stuff and great glass. Nikon has its own proprietary size sensor MIL system (which has always left me scratching my head). Fuji has a nice system (using an APS sized sensor) and is probably the closest “apples/apples” competitor to the Sony System (Leica offers an APS sized MILS system, also, but its — well — Leica). My draw to Sony’s system was probably logical enough. Sony manufactured (perhaps still does) the sensors Nikon used in its DSLR lineup. Sony also offered the ability (primarily through 3rd-party adapters) to use my Nikkor lenses on the body (albeit as MF only lenses); and as I “grew” into the system, the availability of glass manufactured either directly by Zeiss Optical, or in a partnership between Sony and Zeiss, which created “Zeiss-quality” glass and more importantly look and feel (there is no doubt some debate about whether the partnered lenses — which are built by Sony — are as good as the pure Zeiss.  I owned and used both on my NEX-6 and I couldn’t see a difference).

2012.  Sony’s early offerings were their “NEX” line of cameras, using APS – size sensors (Sony has discontinued the name “NEX” in favor of what they deem their more consistent “Alpha” naming scheme.  The newest available iterations are basically the same body style, with some “improvements” – more later). Ironically, the Sony NEX-6 which I first acquired in 2012 (and still own and use regularly) had the same Sony-manufactured APS-size sensor as the very good Nikon D7000 DSLR I owned at the time as a backup.  I traded it and for a time, I carried the NEX-6 as an all purpose travel and walk-around camera and backup to my Nikon DSLR system. I kept the Nikon D800 and glass for my “more serious” shooting.

I fell in love with the Sony-Zeiss 24mm 1.8’s buttery bokeh

As I began to experiment with some of the fixed focal length glass offerings for the NEX, I fell in love with the Sony-Zeiss f1.8 24mm lens and its buttery bokeh.  The seed was planted that maybe one could achieve “pro” results in a small, light package like this (it is a thought almost “retro” to the old rangefinder cameras used by some pretty amazing pro photographers years ago).

2013. Along came the a7 “full frame” series. The a7 sports a 24mp 24 x 36 “full frame” sensor, and the a7R, features the same 36mp 24 x 36 “full frame” sensor (including the lack of AA filter) that resided in the top-of-the-world, Nikon D800e! All in a small (it turns out, “smallish”) mirrorless body which was reputed to be pro-like in build quality. How could we resist?

It Begs a number of Questions

And it begs the question.  It actually begs several of them. Some of them have been asked and answered. How many megapixels do we need? I have come to the conclusion that 36 is overkill for most of us. Do we need “full frame?” In my view, that may be the real question. And, the burning question: can we have a full frame, DSLR-equivalent shooting experience in a smaller, more portable (and possibly less expensive) package? Lets try to answer a couple of them — Not necessarily in the order asked.

1.  Can Mirrorless Full Frame Compete with DSLR Full Frame?

Lets start with the big one. Following the lead of a couple of my friends, I did some “quick and dirty” comparative research. This is not scientific. I used B&H pricing and the specifications published on their catalog site. I rounded. But I don’t think the rounding error will be significant enough to skew the result. I will use my “default” “kit” (as the Europeans like to call it). I carried (for the most part) a Nikon D800 body with a 24-70 f2.8 and a 70-200 f2.8, and a large enough tripod and head to support that gear. The camera and lenses will cost you $7,600. An equivalent A7r, 24-70 and 70-200 setup will cost you $6,800. That $700 would buy a pretty nice tripod, or another piece of glass.

It’s not apples/apples

However, its not apples/apples here. First, the “equivalent” lenses are maximum f4, against the f2.8 apertures of the pro DSLR lenses. Is the added bokeh worth $350 a lens? Maybe. It’s pretty important.  I have to say that I was “wowed” by the difference between f2.8 and f1.8 when I first shot the NEX lenses.  Also, I have compared the two 70-200 copies. They are not “equivalent.” The Nikkor IQ is palpably better, in my view in that lens. With the 24-70 (Zeiss quality glass), the two are virtually indistinguishable (again, not a pixel peeping, scientific comparison – just my “feel”), but the Nikkor can produce slightly nicer bokeh in many cases, with its maximum f2.8 aperture.

And there is a non-lens comparison issue that for some is huge (for me, not so much). According to Nikon, its digital camera engines produce a true 14 bit “lossless” raw file. The Sony cameras do not! The raw file from the Sony “engine” is apparently partially processed – presumably to save some size? It can, in some cases, produce artifacts which Nikon and Canon’s raw files are said not to have. At least at the pixel peeping level, for the serious bits and bytes squashers out there, this just might be a deal breaker. Seems like it is easily enough addressed by Sony, if they choose to (and in my view, they should).

There is a perhaps, more apt comparison. The newer Nikon D610 sports the same “full frame” 24 x 36 24mp sensor as the Sony a7. Trade out the D800 for the D610 and your total cost goes to $5,000 for the Nikon rig. Trade out the a7 for the a7r and your total Sony cost is $3900. Is the $1,100 difference worth it? Is it really $1,100 (what if you “live” with the 24mp D610 and the Nikkor glass and now have a less expensive setup than the “best” Sony?). Some of this goes back to my first question above. Do you need 36mp? I think that for the vast majority of us, the answer is no.

The Nikon rig weighs a total of about 7.5 lbs. The Sony rig: about 3 3/4 lbs

Here’s where it gets interesting. My “premiere” Nikon rig weighs a total of about 7.5 lbs. The Sony rig: about 3 3/4 lbs. And that does not take into consideration that you can probably go with a smaller, lighter tripod with the smaller, lighter gear. And there is also a difference in overall size. The body is smaller and the lens barrels shorter and slightly smaller in diameter. As I write this, the a7 and 24-700 sit next to me on the desk and I am struck by how similar in size it is to the old, familiar Nikkormat camera with a 50mm lens attached that I shot for many years.

So, does size really matter? I think the answer is no different than it has always been, when the issue has been about gear: It really depends on your intended use, and your travel parameters. I have noted on other blog posts that the Sony setup I use is very suitable for general purpose use; as I use it. Travel, stills, landscape and the like all lend themselves to this rig. For wildlife, sports, etc., I do not think it is there. If I were going to do bird or wildlife shooting, or sports shooting, I would probably lean in the direction of the D610 (or better) setup above. I do think that except for very exacting specification shooting, 24mp is more than adequate and for reasons I will discuss below, probably preferable to the 36mp sensors. But if you shoot like I do, and size and weight are a real factor, then less than 1/2 the weight, and noticeably smaller in size to make it very attractive.

2.  How many Megapixels Do You Need?

As the digital revolution has now passed us by, so, too probably have “Megapixel Wars.” My first DSLR (the D100) was a mere 6mp.  Yet, I have 24 x 36 prints that are pretty impressive, from shots taken with that “dinosaur.”  But as with all “bigger is better” kind of things, there comes a logical point of no return. I think the digicam industry has taken us there, and we are coming back to the field.

Before we can really address the “right” number of megapixels, I think we need to put “size” into perspective. Megapixels is just a number. In an oversimplified way, it is just a measure of the number of photosites on a given camera sensor. If I put 36 megapixels on a 24 x 36 chip, I am going to get a far different result than if I put 24 on there. In the latter case, if 36 sites fit on it, I will either have significant gaps with the 24 example, or I will have to make the 24mp photosites bigger themselves, to fit the space. Of course, it is the latter that is the case, and in terms of every measure except perhaps detail, these bigger photosites are actually going to yield a more pleasing result. This is because of physics and electronics way above my pay grade. But for these reasons, under most circumstances, I believe the 24mp will yield cleaner, more noise free results. The advantage: better low light imagery, and probably just overall cleaner images.

I think 36 megapixels is overkill

Even more important for general use; this will be a more “forgiving” sensor. Because the 36mp chip in the D800 and a7R is capable of resolving significant detail over “smaller” sensors, it will also show more of your “warts.” If your glass is not very high quality, the result is likely to be “highlighted” weaknesses of the glass. If your shooting technique is lazy or poor, your weaknesses will show up in a magnified way. In that sense, the 36mp sensor is really best suited for a painstaking professional with high quality lenses, painstaking and expert technique (read: locked down on a steady tripod, remote release, good technique and mechanics to avoid movement and vibration, etc.). For general purpose, it will probably not enhance – and could very well hinder – your photographic results.

And, of course, the files are huge. That means slower post-processing and more computer power and storage memory needed. So what would be the advantage? Will you be making gigantic prints which require minute detail? Will you be making significant crops out of the images? Do you demand the absolute very best that can be had (and that is, of course, a subjective judgment at best)? Otherwise, I think the 36mp model is overkill. Given that the a7R has some noted issues, if you do not already have one and insist on the 36mp model, I would wait a few months and see if Sony fixes the problems in its a7RII release.

For all of the same reasons, If you think you “need” full frame, I think most current Nikon users who are invested in decent or good glass could be really happy with the Nikon D610 and using the fabulous Nikkor glass?  Not sure if Canon has a like camera – but if they don’t, they will – seems to be a continuation of the “tastes great/less filling” argument between the “white hats” and the “black hats,” year in, year out.

“Full Frame” is a “fiction”

3.  Do You Really Need Full Frame?

What is “full frame,” anyway? It is a fiction. The “Full Frame” misnomer was created by DSLR users.  Long ago the SLR industry established a standard size of film for SLR cameras that had a diagonal dimension of 35mm (hence the 35mm SLR). But there have always been other formats, from sheet film in the back of a full view camera, to so-called “Medium Format,” (which had a couple different film rectangle sizes). All were rectangular (but lenses are round, leading comedian Stephen Wright, I believe, to wonder aloud why if lenses are round, why are photos rectangular? 🙂 ). But the lens size and length was generally designed as a function of the size of that rectangle of film.

In the early 2000’s, the manufacture of electronic sensors for cameras was a much more costly and limited process than it is today. In order to make a sensor that would perform in an SLR-like body using the lenses then available, the technology/cost matrix meant that an affordable DSLR would have the APS sized sensor (closer to the size of a standard U.S. postage stamp than to 35mm). This phenomena immediately created some issues with lens lineups. Because of the so-called “crop-factor,” the angle of view of lenses was decreased by about 1/2 (generally, multiply the 35mm-equivalent by 1.5). It varied slightly from camera to camera. But it immediately created a perceived issue for long time 35mm film shooters.  They began to wish for and even demand a sensor that was the 35mm rectangle their lenses were originally designed for, and began to refer to such a sensor as “full frame.” Eventually these sensors (probably already in the planning stages) were introduced and are generally referred to as “full frame.”  But try to convince a larger format camera user that 35mm is “full.” 🙂

At the same time, camera makers (and third party lens makers) began to manufacture lenses to the APS specification and in a sense, the “distinction” has become academic. It is no more “full frame” than any other sensor-size/lens combination which is properly designed for one another.  For those reasons, I am not sure the “full frame” reference is really a significant factor in one’s choice of camera.  More importantly, larger sensors might yield higher image quality.  That goes back to the discussion above about the “correct” number of megapixels.  See, I can use circular reasoning with the best of them.  🙂

When Nikon announced the enthusiast level “full frame” DSLR, the D700, I purchased one. By then, I had been used 2 iterations of the APS sensor (D100, D200) and had acquired some APS-designed Nikkor lenses. With the change “back” I had to completely re-think this lineup. I was never one who “yearned” for “full frame.” For the above reason, I never thought of it as a particular advantage or disadvantage. In fact, one advantage is that it is cheaper and easier to design smaller lenses for these smaller sensors. This is particularly notable in the mirrorless arena.  Of course, another advantage is that they will be smaller and lighter.

Sensor size is probably one area where “bigger is better,” at least in terms of quality. Bigger physical sensor size means relatively bigger photosites and as noted above, better, cleaner images (especially at the edges of light). That drove my move to the D700 100%. I wanted the best IQ I could “buy.” That motivated me to go to and stay with the Sony a7 also. On paper, I should achieve top-notch IQ with the “full frame” 24mp sensor.

Sensor Sizes Compared

Sensor Sizes Compared

But I have to question my own thinking here. Do I really need it? At least one of my “pro” friends tells me that if you want to sell traditional stock (read, Getty Images), you probably do. It is a matter of the minimum file sizes they will accept. I would bet 99.9% of the readers here are not full time professional photographers and do not plan to try to make (even part of) a living from stock sales. So again, do we need it? What are you using your images for? Again, the 99% majority are posting them on Facebook, or their own blogs and websites. Some are making books and cards and calendars and just snapshots for memories. Not many are making large (24 x 36 or larger) art-quality prints. and even then, the need for 36mp is probably limited.  I have a 24 x 36 art-quality print framed, matted and hanging in my office behind my desk that looks pretty darn good (if I do say so, myself) :-). It was taken, traveling in Venice, Italy, with the APS sensor, 16mp Sony NEX-6. When I travel, I always have to decide whether I am going to carry anything more than the NEX, a very small travel tripod, and an array of very small lenses to use with it, or the “bigger” outfit (for me, that is the 3 3/4 lb. Sony a7 setup these days). So, when size and weight become a serious consideration, so should these diminuitive APS mirrorless offerings.

The current version of the NEX-6 is the Sony a6000. It is intriguing: New “engine;” Improved a7 menu system (the NEX menu structure was mind-boggling – the a7 is somewhat better); 24 megapixel APS sensor (question about whether the same “spacing” issue of the photosites applies here? The photosites have to be smaller than those on the prior 16mp NEX6. A matter of tradeoff); Faster, better AF. Brighter viewfinder. If I were not invested already, this would probably be my entry-level purchase and just might suffice to be the only one. At only $450 a copy, you could buy 2 a6000 bodies for less than the price of one a7/a7II. You could carry them with different lenses attached. There is no 70-200 lens for this sensor/mount combination, but the 70-200 f4 mounts, and works well with it. There is a Sony-Zeiss rough equivalent 24-70 (the 16-70 f4). It has IS. The cost for this 2-lens combo and the a6000 would be $3,850. The weight would be under 3 1/2 lbs. (and 2 lbs. of it would be the 70-200!).

When size and weight become a serious consideration, so should these diminuitive cameras

I will watch with interest what competitors, Nikon, Canon, and Fuji do this year. I think Olympus is pretty much married to their 4/3 system and I think the smallish sensor size is just too much of a compromise. Nikon’s mirrorless array has been a non-starter for me, primarily because of their insistence on their own, proprietary sensor size/lens design. I don’t get it, Nikon. You already have APS sensors that are tried and true, and lenses designed for them. Sony has proven you can put them in a small package. Marketing, Nikon? I have no idea where Canon is in this – or why.

The next time I post here, Christmas, 2014, as well as some other holidays will have passed us by (not meaning to be insensitive or display my ignorance – but having been raised in the Christian tradition, all I know is Christmas) :-).  I want to say Merry Christmas to all my friends and readers out there and for lack of a better term, the “PC” “Happy Holidays” to all who may celebrate other holidays this time of year!

Fall Foliage Photography “Checklist”

Grand View Farm, Stowe, Vermont
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

I did a Fall Foliage shooting checklist in September 2009 and that blog is worth revisiting. With Fall coming on quickly it is timely to think about what you might “carry” into the field as you shoot foliage this Fall. As I did in 2009, I want to make the point that being properly equipped for a successful and enjoyable outing means more than just a checklist of your photography gear. It also means consideration of essential items for comfort, convenience (and perhaps even survival).

I have been guilty of carrying a narrow notion of pre-conceived images into the field

Mental Preparation

But perhaps most importantly, it also means consideration of what you “carry” in your head. What mental preparation have you made for your outing? Are you prepared to see? I have often been guilty of carrying a narrow notion of pre-conceived images into the field. In 2010, after some conversation with a couple professional photographers and some serious thought about what I wanted to “bring home,” I believe I had one of my most successful outings, with some unique approaches to images that had already been shot, as well as some completely new images.

One thing about that outing surprised me. Mental preparation takes work just as the other preparation does. It is important to know your equipment, your theories, and your craft. Indeed, the best pros will tell you they know them so well, they never consciously think about it. It is internalized in their shooting and they are free to be creative. But the creativity (for many of us, at least) take work. It takes proverbially “thinking outside the box.” My friend and ultra-talented pro, Ray Laskowitz, has suggested a very useful approach to shooting.  Ask, “what is it like to be . . . . . . ?” If you were shooting travel photography, what would it be like to be the tourist, the local citizen, the captain of the boat, the fisherman, the shopkeeper, or the shopper? From a nature perspective, what would it look like from the point of view of the bird, or beetle; or, from the point of view of the hiker, hunter, or biker?

Focus on the elements that make a great image rather than the subject matter

I also found that when I started to focus on the elements that nature brings to us that make a great image, rather than the subject matter, things opened up differently to me. In that outing I concentrated on light, atmospherics, and form. Sure, when I go to a place I haven’t been before, I want to photograph those iconic scenes. I did it then, and I’ll do it in the future. But doing it with an eye toward these elements is bound to yield more pleasing and possibly unique results. Of course, it helps when Mother Nature cooperates, and she did, providing fog, mist, and cloud formations for much of the early part of the week.

In one of my earliest blogs, I talked about the intimate perspective. There is much to be gained by getting a different perspective, up closer or down lower. I know from experience, that it’s tough to pull off the “Grand Landscape” successfully. More often than not, I am underwhelmed and even disappointed with my result. It’s much easier to take a small slice of a visually interesting part of that grand landscape and work with it. This is particularly the case when the atmospheric conditions do not create the drama necessary to make the landscape image unique and interesting. Plain, cobalt blue skies and dull grey skies actually have a lot in common; they are both kind of plain, and therefore often boring. Clouds and color, in the right combination, provide drama and interest. If they don’t, consider a different perspective, either getting much closer to the image (or a part of it), or trying to find a way to have the light strike it in a more dramatic way, while excluding the sky.

The reason, in my view, that the “classic” barn scene in Stowe, Vermont “works” is because all the elements came together; a picturesque subject in the red barn, the perspective created by the road going into the center of the image, punctuated with the repeating utility poles, the magnificent mountain backdrop in fall foliage splendor, but most importantly, the cloud formations adding color and interest to the blue sky.

Clouds and color, in the right combination, provide drama and interest

Cool early morning temperatures following a heavy rainfall created magical atmospheric conditions for this image
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

Likewise, the “atmospherics” for the Burton Road Farm shot came together perfectly. The clear, very cold morning, followed a weekend with 5 inches of rain in Vermont. Everything was saturated and the very cold temperatures created wonderful fog and cloud banks which created the layering effect seen in the sky. Without the cloud bank, I would probably not have included much of the sky in this image at all.

Lower Pleasant Valley Road, Cambridge, VT
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

For the Barn on Pleasant Valley Road, the sky was mostly gray, but that small break of blue letting the sun through created just the drama I was looking for (sometimes you get lucky, but there is an old saying about “being there”).  The late afternoon lighting on the mountainside was nice. I got in as close as I could to the barn while still having some of the lighted mountainside showing. In all of these images, the subject was—of course—the barn. But my point is I used the compositional and natural elements around each subject to make it interesting.

Poplars in Fall Foliage; Santa Fe National Forest, NM
Copyright 2008 Andy Richards

The image made in the Santa Fe National Forest of the Western Fall Foliage in New Mexico was challenged by a mostly gray sky and a mix of sun; what I refer to as a “bright overcast.”  The light falling on the foliage was nice, but the sky, blah. So I composed without the sky, trying to emphasis the golden yellow and oranges of the Western foliage.

Essential Gear Update

I cannot really add much to the gear list on the 2009 Blog. There is one important item I can add to that list, though. If you are going to be anywhere in the woods or wilderness where there is even a chance of an encounter with a bear, do yourself a favor and get yourself some bear spray. After my trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, I am convinced of the utility of that move. As we sat in a restaurant on the last day of that trip, I struck up a conversation with a “local” who told me stories of his two bear encounters. One, a lone grizzly, he was able to avoid without confrontation. But it was a nervous experience and he did have his spray with him and ready for use. The second was with a Black Bear. We have Black Bear in Michigan (indeed they have become more prevalent in recent years). In this case, a mother who thought he was a threat to her cubs, charged him. He used the bear spray and it worked.

I would also recommend, to go along with the map(s) of the area, that you carry a good old fashioned compass (when the gps batteries run out, it might just be a lifesaver), and be familiar with how to use it.

Photographic Gear Update

Again, this list hasn’t changed much. In addition to your camera, I re-emphasize a tripod, polarizer (especially useful for foliage) and cable release. I have recently added to my own gear, a backup camera and a backup tripod.

I will be out of the so-called “blogosphere” the next couple weekends, shooting in Michigan’s UP.  I’ll try to follow some of my own advice here.  I hope you have great success this year in your Fall Foliage outing(s), whenever and wherever you go!  See you soon, and thanks for reading!

“In the Bag” (getting ready For Spring)

American Redbud

s temperatures warm, trees begin to bud, and birds return, I start to think again about serious photography. Mostly, Winter is cold, dark and not very inviting, and so I do not find myself out in the field as much following the Fall color season until Spring arrives. Some, like my friend, Kent, thrive on winter and all it has to offer. Me – not so much. I am posting this under the category of “Tutorial.” While not truly a tutorial, it is “gear” related, and it may help some others think about an important part of the process of preparing for a successful outing. The approach of Spring seems a good time to do it.

Part of my process in early Spring is re-inventorying my gear, organizing and packing the vest and bag that I keep in my car with me most of the time. I continue to re-think “Whats In My Bag” when it comes to my photographic needs. More recently I have adopted a “less is more” approach.

More recently I have adopted a “less is more” approach.

The “Bag”

One of the frequent areas of discussion about “gear” is how to carry it. Today, the backpack style photo bag seems to continue to dominate as the most popular. And the offerings continue to get better and better. I am one of a minority that still prefers to shoot from a vest. It isn’t a question of fashion or making a statement. It is purely a matter of preference. I like the fact that the weight of the gear I carry is distributed and I like the ability to be able to dig into the pockets without removing the vest and finding a spot to put it down. When I am in the field (against the advice of some pretty knowledgeable folks), I carry the camera on the tripod and the vest. I may use cargo pocketed shorts or pants for additional extras. I don’t carry a large, long lens and that would likely dictate a change in my approach. But currently, if I cannot carry it in the vest, I have come to the conclusion that I probably don’t need it in the field, anyway.

Part of the decision about how to carry your equipment has to be generated by what you are doing, and part by your shooting style. If you are going to travel by air or other form of public transportation, your choice of gear may be very different than if you are driving to your destination with your own vehicle. When I have my own car, I actually have a messenger style bag that can go on the floor on the back seat or the trunk of the car. That bag holds all my other gear, extras, tools, books, and things that I don’t carry in the field, but might use or need on an outing. It basically functions as portable storage.

Photographic “Gear”

We like to refer to bodies, lenses, and gadgets related to cameras as “gear.” 95% of my shooting now is done with the Nikon 28-300VR lens and my Nikon D700 DSLR body. I carry an inexpensive 17-35 for those infrequent occasions in which I need something wider, and a Nikkor 60mm “micro” lens for the ocassional “closeup” shot. I would love to carry the “pro” copies of Nikon’s lenses, but the budget just isn’t there—and the “pro” lenses are all larger and heavier—still a tradeoff for quality, but the gap is narrowing.

My only filters are, circular polarizers, and 2 and 4 stop Cokin style ND filters. I am not one of those who advocates the skylight or UV filter on the lens for “protection.” As a serious hobbyist with a limited budget, I cannot imagine not babying my equipment. I don’t understand paying that kind of money and not caring for them. By the same token, we are all human and accidents clearly happen. So I have all my significant equipment (body, lenses, tripod and speedlight) insured for replacement cost.

It makes little sense to me to pay extra dollars for the lens and then put a cheaper piece of glass in front of it.

From a technical standpoint, it also makes little sense to me to pay extra dollars for the brand name lens and then put a cheaper piece of glass in front of it. So my approach to filters is to use them as a tool—as needed. If I am near the ocean, for example, I want some spray and sand protection. But most often, I use the polarizer to enhance the quality of light rays entering the lens. Sometimes its also just too bright to obtain a slow shutter speed or wide open aperture I am trying to accomplish. That is when I use the ND filters. With digital post processing, I view the utility of the graduated ND filters now as marginal. I much prefer the control I can get by taking and blending multiple exposures.

Over the Winter I collected and traded some “idle” gear and upgraded. For example, I had not upgraded my speedlight to one of the newest “Nikon Creative” flash system lights. Back in the days of film, Nikon was noted for its very good “TTL” flash system which measured light from the film surface during the exposure. Digital presented a new series of challenges and it seems that it took them a couple iterations to get it “right.” I “upgraded” to the first digital “I-TTL” unit and just recently traded it for the SB600.  This has been replaced by the SB700 which has more capabilities but is also more expensive.  The SB600 can be found used on sites like KEH for about $100 less). I am not a huge flash user and its one of Nikon’s smaller and more “modest” units. The point is, have a dedicated flash unit for those times when you need flash. To me the Nikon SC-17 cord to get the flash off-camera is an absolutely essential element (my research indicates that this cord has been discontinued, but it is another item you should be able to find used on KEH or even eBay). I also have an inexpensive foldup, Velcro attached softbox. Don’t forget extra memory, and batteries for all peripherals.

A cord to get the flash off-camera is absolutely essential

Buy, Carry and Use a Tripod

A tripod, cable release, bubble level and small dedicated speedlight tops out my camera gear. All fits in the vest along with other important items. A tripod is an absolutely essential piece of photographic gear. There is no question that much of the time, your photography should be from a tripod and most of the time a tripod will make your photographs better. Clearly there are exceptions, and yes, the photograph taken without a tripod is still better than the one not taken at all. And be careful that doesn’t just become and excuse not to use the tripod. The Tripod will add at least two positive elements to your photography. First, it acts as a rigid support for your camera. Camera shake has the potential ruin an otherwise good photograph by rendering it unsharp. And that lack of critical sharpness may not show up until you want to use the image, for example, as a large print. Because this support is so important, you should not skimp and purchase a cheap tripod. The second thing it will do is a result of using it that may not be readily apparent. A tripod will slow you down. Most of the time, that is not a bad thing. It will also make you think more carefully about placement, composition, etc. That is a good thing.

I consider the L-bracket an essential, not a luxury.

I also consider two other support gear items “essential.” I use an “L-bracket” and since I started, have no clue why I didn’t get one sooner (I have been using it for a number of years now). An expensive item for what it is, but I consider it an essential, not a luxury.   The two places where you can find these are Kirk and Really Right Stuff.  Both are high quality and their pricing is not for the faint of heart.  I also use one of the inexpensive bubble levels which mount on the camera hotshoe. I have been surprised how unreliable my own eyes are when it comes to level horizons.

Finally, it doesn’t make sense to me to go out and spend thousands of dollars on camera, lens and tripod and then activate the shutter release manually. That is akin to handholding braced on a solid object. Good if it’s the best you can do – but counterproductive to the whole idea of the tripod. The human body is a constantly moving thing. It just isn’t possible to eliminate shake with “hands on.” While many tout the use of the camera self-timer, there are just too many times that doesn’t make sense. If you are photographing something in which timing is critical the self-timer is going to be frustrating, if not essentially useless. There are a number of remote alternatives, depending on the body. I have a cable release that was under $50 that works just fine on my Nikon cameras (I also have the dedicated Nikon MC-30, which is $100, but is better). Recently, I bought a wireless remote that was marketed under the Vivitar name, on Amazon. It works great and even allows you to put yourself in the image!

Using your hand to activate the shutter on a tripod mounted camera is akin to handholding braced on a solid object. Good if it’s the best you can do – but counterproductive to the whole idea of a tripod.

Non Gear Essentials

I keep some other essential non-photographic gear in the vest, too. I carry a poncho and a rain hood for my camera/lens combo. For cooler days, I have hunter’s fingerless gloves. Finally, I bought one of those LED hiker’s headlamps, which can be invaluable for nighttime shooting. Insect repellant is also a good idea (cigars work too :-)). I always have a couple kitchen size and full size garbage bags in the bag. They make good makeshift ponchos, camera rain covers and ground cloths.


While not in-the-bag items, footwear can be an important item to consider. If, like me, you shoot in wet areas, you need to think about waterproof footwear. I also like to stand in the water in and around streams, ponds and lakeshores. Rubber boots in the car trunk can be a great aid for this. I spent a rainy morning during my October 2010 trip to Vermont standing in the middle of the Mad River, shooting. For Christmas, I got a pair of hip-high wading boots which will be in the car trunk all during the season. Raingear, hats, and warm weather items are also important considerations.

In my (vest) Bag:

  • Nikon D700 DSLR
  • Nikon 18-300 f3.5-5.6VR AF
  • Nikon 60mm “Micro” f2.8 AF
  • Tokina 17-35 f3.5-5.6AF
  • Nikon SB600 speedlight with Nikon SC-17 cord
  • Circular Polarizer Filters for all lenses
  • Square ND filters (2 and 4 stop)
  • Induro Carbon Fiber Tripod with HD ballhead and Arca Swiss style QR
  • Kirk “L” Bracket
  • Cable Release and bubble level
  • Extra Film (just kidding!) 🙂
Split Rock Reflection

My Eddie Bauer Headlamp made it possible to read my cameras controls on this night