Aspiration

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Here’s the final picture I’ll be sharing from my time with the Sigma 40mm f/1.4 ART lens, and I chose this one for a reason. It might sound corny, but I don’t think I could have gotten this particular shot with any other lens. But first, a bit of background: this was taken at the Big XII Equestrian Championship held at OSU back in late March, and even though OSU ultimately lost (but not by much!) we were glad we could go out and support the riders who had worked so hard to get there.

After one of the events one of the riders, who was a student in my wife’s class, brought her horse up for our boys to see up close. Normally I’d have my Fuji X100F for times like this but since I was evaluating the Sigma lens I brought that with me instead and even though I wasn’t exactly used to its sheer size and heft, I got some shots such as this one that I really like. What I find most compelling about this image is the way the horse is tack-sharp, especially its eye, but everything in the foreground and background is blurry to some extent. As the viewer your eye is immediately drawn to the horse but then you start to notice other elements like the man’s plaid shirt, the younger child in a blue coat, and context clues such as the overhead lights and the fact that my wife is wearing a hat. It all comes together to paint a richer picture of the entire scene than if it were just the horse by itself, and when you add in the fact that my oldest son is reaching out to touch the horse it’s kind of the cherry on top.

So why couldn’t I get this shot with any other lens? The options I had at my disposal were:

  • Fuji X100F (23mm f/2.0 lens, 35mm equivalent on full-frame)
  • 35mm f/1.8
  • 50mm f/1.8

I’m not counting my 85 or 70-200 because I wouldn’t even think to bring them to a situation like this; they’re just not practical. And with each of those lenses I wouldn’t have been able to get the shot framed quite like this while also getting the foreground out of focus. The background, sure. But not the foreground. The closest might have been my 35mm lens but even at f/1.8 the man’s shirt (which I really like, by the way. The plaid pattern is just buttery smooth when blurred out) would have been too much in focus. If I used my 50mm I would have had to stand farther back to get a similar composition and then, as you might have guessed, the foreground wouldn’t be as blurry. Something about the 40mm focal length just worked ideally to capture this image, and even though I don’t plan on ever purchasing that lens (At $1300 it’s just too expensive) it sure does give photographers some interesting creative freedom.


Exoskeleton

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Here’s a scene I have viewed many times, and often stopped to photograph, but was never quite able to get it to look how I wanted. This metal sculpture is on the first floor of one of the Engineering buildings on the OSU campus and every time I walk past it (which is maybe once or twice a semester) I think about how this, and other similar objects nearby, would be interesting photo subjects. But no matter what I’ve tried, I just haven’t really been able to capture what I think might be a compelling image. There’s always some kind of compromise or constraint I can’t overcome, and I’m left with kind of a shell of an image that doesn’t really do justice to the subject.

On my most recent stroll down this hallway I realized I finally had something that would help: the Sigma 40mm f/1.4 ART lens. (And yes, I realize that after a few weeks of posts about this lens I probably sound like some kind of corporate shill, but that’s not it at all. Sigma let me borrow the lens, but that’s it. I haven’t gotten a dime from them and I doubt I ever will. I just really enjoyed using the lens.) The 40mm focal length let me stand far enough back to get this entire sculpture in the frame, and shooting at f/1.4 meant I could get a smooth, pleasing background blur while keeping my subject in sharp focus.

I’ve tried similar pictures with both my 35mm and 50mm lenses and it just hasn’t quite worked. Either the framing wasn’t right or the background wasn’t blurred or the picture just wan’t quite sharp enough. But that 40mm Sigma lens worked wonders in this situation. I held my D70 down on the floor, flipped out the rear screen, and used Live View to compose the shot while zooming in to check focus. It was a fun shot to get and maybe the next time I’m in that same hallway I’ll try other pictures anyway, even though I don’t have that lens anymore. Maybe there’s shots I just haven’t considered yet. Hmm.

Morning Glory

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I’ve posted a few sunrise and sunset photos over the years here on Weekly Fifty, but nothing quite like this one. And, true to form, it was a photo I almost didn’t take because I didn’t think it would be worth my time. Either that or I figured the results just wouldn’t be very good. Another in my series of images taken with the Sigma 40mm f/1.4, I shot this just outside my building on the way to work (about ten minutes later than I shot last week’s photo of the pond) and as I rode my bike past this tree I literally had to stop, think about the scene for a second, and then go back for the shot. I’m so glad I did.

Once again I shot this picture wide open at f/1.4 just to see what this lens could do, and once again I was not disappointed. It was pretty neat to shoot a scene like this wide open and get such good results, which is a testament not only to the lens but to the flexibility of shooting in RAW. See for yourself, with the original unedited image below.

When I got this into Lightroom I thought I wouldn’t have much to use because it was just so underexposed, but the more I worked with it the more I was surprised at the exposure latitude and dynamic range that I had to work with. After significantly raising the shadows, tweaking the highlights, and doing some simple color corrections like white balance I ended up with a photo that I really like. Regardless of the lens used to shoot this, it’s just a picture I enjoy and am glad I was able to capture. And once again, as I’ve said before, it was a good reminder of why it’s important to stop, turn around, and go back to get that photo.

Fog on the Pond

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On one hand there isn’t a whole lot interesting about this photo: it’s an urban pond with some trees. And this particular pond is only a few blocks from my house, which means I end up biking past it almost every morning on my way to work. What is a little different about this is the fog that’s hovering just over the left side of the pond, which isn’t something that happens all too often, and I wish I could have been here about 15 minutes prior when there was (I’m guessing) a much more pronounced cloud of mist. I’m happy with what I got though, and I’m going to keep my eyes open for future photo opportunities at this pond as well.

What is a bit different here is the exposure settings and the results I was able to get. Believe it or not, I actually shot this at f/1.4 on the Sigma 40mm f/1.4 ART lens. Normally I’d never shoot a picture like this at maximum aperture because the tree branches would be a blurry mess due to an overall loss of sharpness, but this lens is amazing even when using it wide open. If you click over to the high-resolution version on Flickr you’ll see that every little branch and twig is tack-sharp, which I didn’t expect at all when I took this photo. Mostly I was just experimenting for kicks and giggles, and I really was caught off guard when I saw the results in Lightroom.

Even though the sun isn’t up yet, and the light was super dim, I was able to shoot at 1/250 second and ISO 100 thanks to the f/1.4 aperture on this lens. I think that was one of my favorite parts about the lens for a couple of weeks–the freedom I had to use it at basically any aperture and know I wasn’t going to have to compromise in terms of image quality. I don’t plan on spending that much on a single prime lens any time soon, but it was neat to see performance like that firsthand :)

Opening Soon

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Just a bit about this picture behind-the-scenes before I get too deep into the weeds here. When I shot this I was evaluating a lens for Sigma corporation, specifically their 40mm f/1.4 ART lens that they sent me to test out for a few weeks. I’ve only used third-party lenses a handful of times over the years and always preferred first-party versions, but this thing was a whole other beast entirely. It was awesome, and I was super excited to get to review it. I only wish they had let me keep it!

As part of testing this lens I went around shooting a ton of pictures, several of which you’ll see here over the next few weeks. It was fun seeing the world around me in a bit of a different light, having never shot with an f/1.4 lens and certainly not one of this caliber before. Case in point: this magnolia flower, similar to others I’ve shot before, but on a whole other level optically speaking. The 40mm focal length of that Sigma lens meant that I could capture a wide field of view (not true wide-angle, but wider than a 50mm lens) and get a lot of context to the shot, while the f/1.4 aperture meant that I could all but eliminate the background entirely. Normally to get this much background blur I’d need to get closer, which would mean a narrower field of view and a different image altogether.

You can read my actual review of the lens over at DPS and I don’t want to waste your time just gushing over it here on Weekly Fifty, but I did enjoy shooting with it and seeing what it was like to capture the world at f/1.4 :)

Inversion

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Nearly six years ago I took a picture similar to this in Willard Hall on the OSU campus, and in the time since then I haven’t really thought much about that original image. But when I found myself in a similar situation, that of being alone on an errand and in one of the stairwells at Willard Hall while toting a camera, a few months back I decided to stop for a minute and see if it would be worth re-taking the same type of picture. And you know what? I’m glad I did.

When I shot the original I had my Nikon D200 and 50mm lens, which not only meant that the field of view was extremely limited compared to my Fuji X100F (which I used to shoot the picture above for this week) but I couldn’t even see what I was shooting. The D200 doesn’t even have Live View which meant I had to basically compose the original shot with guesswork while holding the camera out with my arm. It was a little weird.

When I was back in Willard with my X100F I took a different approach, and it’s interesting to compare the results. First, I was at the bottom of the stairwell instead of the top. Second, I literally laid down on the floor flat on my back. (I shot it over Spring Break when there was almost no one in the building. Because I imagine the scene would have looked a little strange.) Third, I had the benefit of being able to properly compose the shot by actually looking through the viewfinder! I also was a little more knowledgeable about exposure settings, specifically the aperture I was using, which meant I was able to control depth of field much better.

I don’t think the final image is edited at all, save for maybe just a bit of cropping (I honestly don’t remember) but I think my favorite part is the diagonal shadow at the top going across the right side of the rectangle. The ceiling, to be specific. I like the monochromatic nature of the image, the play of light and shadow, and the way that diagonal juts across the open space to create something a bit more interesting to look at. I don’t imagine I’ll take another picture like this anytime soon, but it was a fun little photographic opportunity and one that made me really glad I was looking at the world around me with an eye for photography :)

Tempest

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This photo came about after a few days of my wife and I doing somewhat of a science experiment with our kids involving the classic tornado-in-a-bottle project. We spent an hour or so on a Tuesday afternoon, thanks to a city-wide weather-related school closure, putting a few of these together to bet with somewhat mixed results: the mini-tornados functioned normally but the containers were a bit leaky. The next day we revised our design, primarily using hot glue as an adhesive between the bottles, and things were significantly improved such that we couldn’t detect any leaks at all despite some significant usage by the kids including dropping one of the contraptions onto the kitchen floor. It was a fun way to spend a couple of hours, and the kids really seemed to enjoy creating whirling vortexes in these bottles for a lot longer than I thought they would.

Later that evening as the sun was going down but before the kids went to bed I had the idea of using one of the bottle experiments as a photo subject, but I didn’t really know what to do or how to photograph it. I got out my D750 and 85mm lens, mostly because it was convenient and readily available and I needed a bit more reach than my 50mm but wanted to avoid she sheer heft of the 70-200mm. I put the camera on a tripod and aimed it at the kitchen table with the bottle in the middle, just like you see here:

This is literally the same scene that I photographed, except with the lights turned on and the purple water already drained into the lower bottle.

The trick here was lighting. I didn’t really know what to do to properly light the scene, so I started with a 2500 lumen LED shop light sitting on a chair and pointed up at the bottle from behind. I also didn’t really know what exposure settings to use except that I wanted a slightly long shutter and a low ISO, in order to get some motion trails and a nice clean shot. As such I used manual mode, ISO 100, F/2.8, with a 1/60 second shutter speed. The results were…not good.

I played around with the light a little more though, firmly thinking that a big strong backlight would give me the look I was going for, while also stopping down my aperture to f/4 to get a wider depth of field. I did this because it was tricky to get the bottle to sit on the exact same spot on the table every time I turned it over, and I needed a bit of wiggle room in case I didn’t get the placement just right. Things improved, but not very much.

At this point I was really wondering what I was doing wrong, and then I realized that my light was simply too bright. I switched out the shop light for a flashlight with an angled head, set that on the chair, lowered my shutter speed to 1/10, and got the picture you see at the top of this post. After that I kept on trying new settings like smaller apertures and longer shutter speeds just for the fun of it, and while some of those photos turned out OK nothing was really any better than the image I chose for this week’s featured photo. It was a fun experiment to try though, and gave me some interesting ideas to try for future pictures too.

Little One

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This photo was a good example of how a lot of the images I’ve taken and posted here on Weekly Fifty have helped me learn practical skills as a photographer that ended up directly impacting the occasional work I do for clients. I don’t have a macro lens, and I don’t exactly plan on getting one any time soon, but every now and then a situation arises in which I need to take close-up shots of something. Usually nature, but sometimes small objects and, occasionally, something like the image above where you can see a little baby clasping a parent’s fingers.

When a friend of ours asked if I would take some photos of their two-week-old son I was glad to oblige, and I felt a lot more prepared for this one than I have for similar sessions in the past. I went with my D750 and 50mm lens, foregoing my 85 because I just like the look of that particular focal length when working with infants, and also because I wanted something a lot more light, nimble, and let’s face it, practical than my 70-200 f/2.8. (I mean seriously, who shoots an infant session with that lens? Some people, I suppose, but not me!) I also brought my Fuji X100F just in case, but I ended up not needing it at all as the Nifty Fifty did everything I needed.

After several shots of the baby all snuggled in a big fluffy blanket from lots of different angles, I wanted to switch things up a bit so I reached for my set of close-up filters to get some more intimate photos of his eyes, fingers, and other features. Thanks to all the trial-and-error with those filters over the years here on Weekly Fifty I already had a pretty good idea of the exposure settings I would need to get the shots I was aiming for:

  • F/5.6 to get a reasonably wide depth of field and to allow for a little wiggle room when focusing.
  • 1/90 second to get a sharp, wobble-free image
  • Auto ISO with max value of 6400 because the D750 is so good at high ISO values it’s not even funny. Even modern image sensors have a tough time beating the rock-solid sensor in the D750.

I was really happy with the results I got, and the parents were too. A true macro lens would have definitely helped in this situation but these opportunities present themselves so rarely that I’m fine with just sticking with the close-up filters. For now, anyway :)

Almost There

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If you’ve been following along the last few weeks you’ve seen that the recent set of pictures has had a distinctively midwestern theme, with images of windmills and trucks and cotton and other items indicative of the Great Plains. This picture is a departure, or rather, a return to the more normal types of photos I enjoy taking. It’s a simple scene and, like a lot of my Weekly Fifty photos, entirely unplanned with what I hope are some interesting results.

On a Friday evening earlier this year my brother and his girlfriend were down for a visit, and we spent a while playing the board game Ticket to Ride with our kids. It’s kind of like a super duper basic version of Settlers of Catan in that you have to connect various regions on a map with roads or, in this case, train routes. We didn’t quite finish the game since the kids had to go to bed, but we left it out for the next morning which seemed like a good compromise for everyone. After waking up and making my way to the kitchen the next day I thought that the colors of the trains, lit by the glow of the early morning sun, would make for an interesting photo but instead of reaching for my Fuji I went for the classic Nikon + 50mm. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…something about that lens is just kind of magical. It’s not what I prefer for general-purpose everyday shots, but it’s amazing when you want to get a little artistic and creative.

So I set the camera on the table, dialed in an aperture of f/2.8 (I knew f/1.8 would be waaaaaay too big and leave almost nothing in focus) focused using Live View, and took a shot. Sure enough, even at f/2.8 the depth of field was too shallow so I closed it down to f/4 and left the ISO at 100, which meant I needed a super long shutter speed of 1.5 seconds. No matter, though. Just set the self-timer, press the shutter, take your hands off, and you’re good to go. (Sorry for my use of the second-person pronoun. Sometimes it just works better.) My oldest son, who was awake and watching me take this picture, was eager to get going with breakfast so I quickly put the camera away and set about taking care of some of the usual morning routine activities, but it was nice to get a shot of this almost-completed train route before everyone else woke up and the moment faded away.

Truck For Sale

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I’m really not sure what to make of this image, to be perfectly frank. I was, once again, driving south on Highway 77 (side note: this is the last in a series of photos that I took while on a drive to Nebraska and back earlier this year) when I went right past this truck sitting by the side of the road with a For Sale sign hanging from its rear-view mirror. Something about the scene just caught my attention and I decided to stop for a picture, though I couldn’t quite explain why. Maybe it was the well-worn nature of the vehicle, a truck that had worked hard and served its owner well but was ready to move on to another stage of its life. Maybe it was the way the metal structure behind it rose like a stairway into the sky. Maybe it was the brown, earthy tones of the ground that seemed to match the well-used nature of the truck. Whatever the reason, I decided to stop and get a picture because…well, why not :)

Composing this picture was a little tricky because I really wanted to shoot the truck low to the ground and from this specific angle, which meant I was kind of stuck with whatever background elements were in the frame. I couldn’t move anything but myself, though I could (and did) change focal lengths on my 70-200mm lens which sort of helped, I guess. I ended up shooting this at 98mm with an aperture of f/2.8 to get a little bit of blur in the background but I wasn’t, and still am not, quite happy with the placement of the truck relative to the structure. I wish I could have separated the two a little more, but if I moved to the left then the truck ceased to be at this particular angle and that was a sacrifice I wasn’t really willing to make. I also wish the green street signs and yellow arrow (which you can only barely see anyway, since it’s obscured by another sign) weren’t in the picture but…well, what can you do.

Pictures like this might evoke some particular sentiments about the midwest, and while some of them might be true the irony is that things really aren’t like this around here. Sure we have our share of plains and cornfields and old trucks and whatnot, but a few months from now this composition will look entirely different. You would see a scene full of life, vibrant and colorful, with a blue sky stretching to the endless horizon. Sure there are signs of the past if you look for them, like an old truck or a rusty three-story pole barn, but just underfoot you’ll find plenty that points to an exciting future too.