The Classic 50mm.

The 50mm prime lens (meaning a fixed focal length of 50mm rather than a zoom) has been an unparalleled photographic work horse since the invention of 35mm film. It's often referred to as a normal or standard lens and it used to be the regular kit lens included with most camera bodies. A 50mm offers a happy medium between wide-angle and telephoto and, usually, a fast aperture (typically 1.8 or 1.4) that gives you the option to shoot in low light or isolate the subject with a sliver of sharp focus. It's simplicity encourages good technique, it's price is approachable ($100 to $500 depending on features and brand), and its versatility makes it potentially the only lens you'll ever need.

Now, before I get too high and mighty about this let me say that I am terrible at taking my own advice. This post is supposed to be about simplifying, about using your equipment to its fullest rather than buying something else. It's about truly mastering the basics rather than just upgrading your gear. I, on the other hand, have often done the opposite.

Over the past decade, I've bought and sold more photographic equipment than most small camera shops. At one point I even sold one 50mm lens and then promptly bought a different one. Out of desperation and nagging insecurity, I have several times attempted to buy my way out of photographic slumps and creative dead ends. It almost never works. I tend to travel with more camera equipment than clothing. I have been known to take multiple cameras for a "relaxing" afternoon at the beach. The back seat of my car is like a drifting dune of photo equipment, ebbing and flowing from driver to passenger side and back again. This is partly because I'm an idiot, but also because I fear that with out lots of fancy equipment on hand at all times I will miss a great photo. This is almost never the case. When I look back through my archive, I find that most of my favorite images were taken with minimal (and often cheap) equipment at times and in places where a huge camera case would have only held me back.

That in mind, here is my resolution: I'm going back to shooting with a 50mm...most of the time. Now, I have to hedge my bet a little because I know I will have clients and shoots for whom the 50mm just won't be quite enough. I'm not going all Kung Fu Master and leaving my worldly possessions behind to simply walk the earth. But I am going to try to get back to basics as much as I can. And shooting with a simpler rig is a great way to do that.

I find that bare bones equipment forces you to be more intentional about composition. It forces you to zoom with your feet rather than your fingertips, to look carefully, to think about angles, and to pay attention. PAY ATTENTION. It creates challenges that you have to think through rather than skirt around. In short, it makes you work a little harder, but it makes you better. And it rewards you with images that you wouldn't get any other way.

 So here's to the classic 50mm, long may it reign.


Gone to the Races.

The first real car I ever drove was a race car. I was ten or eleven and my cousin Jason was racing dirt track stock cars at the time. His car was pretty much exactly like the one in the last photo in this post. What possessed a man who spent all his free time working on his car to then allow that car to be driven by a ten year old, I will never know. But he boosted me in through the window, clipped me into the five point harness and crouched on the passenger side holding onto the roll cage while I drove for the first time. It was incredible. I'm not what you would call a stock car fan, but from that day on there has always been a little soft spot in my heart for dirt track racing. It's not like the big NASCAR events. It's all little teams of two or three guys working in garages and little shops and backyards, building a car on nickels and dimes, and giving it hell every Saturday night because its fun. And you can tell they're loving it.

Jason stopped racing a long time ago and I hadn't been to a track since he hung up his driving gloves, but yesterday I had a free night and Sarah was out of town, so I grabbed a camera and went to ABC Raceway in Ashland. If you've never been before, let me say that short track dirt racing is a quintessentially American past time: It's loud. It's dirty. And it's not quite like anything else I've ever seen. Like any new sporting experience, the key to really enjoying it is to pick someone to cheer for. I was rooting for the guys from Lakeshore Sales and Service since they replaced the brakes in my truck last week. Whoever you cheer for, win or lose, the fun is in the drama.

Since this kind of racing is so classic, I decided to shoot it in black and white with a heavy film grain to give it a more timeless look. These shots could be from any one of a thousand tracks on any summer Saturday night in the last 50 years. That effect, which roughly approximates a classic black and white film called Tri-X, also helps to cover the need for high ISO and cancels out the weird color combinations that come from a mix of halogen, tungsten, and sodium vapor stadium lighting. It's a very different feel than the rich colors and smooth gradients I usually try to get. It's not the right look for everything, but for this, I think it's perfect.


Kraut, Curtido, & Kim-Chi. (& Pesto...& a couple other things.)

Over the past couple weeks, I've been working on some new photography for Spirit Creek Farm in Cornucopia, Wisconsin. If you're not familiar with their products, Spirit Creek specializes in lacto-fermented foods (read this if you're not sure what lacto-fermented means). They're also making really delicious garlic scape pesto now, too. Great stuff. I've been a huge fan of their curtido for a while and, beyond being a brat-grilling must at our house, their kraut was also a Good Food Award winner in 2011 and 2012. That's no small achievement.

I love food photography like this. Partly I think, because I love prepping and plating the food for the shoot (real chef's are probably cringing at what I've done with these, but I'm still proud of them). There's a little part of me that thinks I should have been a chef. Maybe in my next life.

Airplane? Yes, please. And some aerial photo tips.

Yesterday afternoon, local pilot Bob Breunig took Julie Buckles and I up over Chequamegon Bay to get some photos of the sediment cloud coming from Fish Creek in the wake of last week's epic storms. The photos are going to be used to promote restoration projects along the Fish Creek basin to prevent future erosion of this kind. Great cause, and I always love getting up in a plane. Thanks for a great flight, Bob.

Several times in the last few years people have come to me out of the blue (pun not originally intended, but now I sort of like it) and asked if I want to shoot photos of something from an airplane. Does a platypus lay eggs? And just in case you don't know the answer to that question, it's "Hells Yeah!" I wish I could say that these aerial shoots are carefully planned, that I make them happen by working through my extensive network of contacts to arrange an airplane and pilot and all that, but that would be...well, pretty much flat out lying. To be honest, these chances just keep sort of falling in my lap. I love my job.

That said, I've had enough random cracks at it to figure out a few things that I do every time that seem to be good advice for airborne imagery. So here we go, the Hired Lens Photography Guide to Not Royally Failing at Aerial Photography:

1.) Ask if you can take the door off. Crazy, right? But some small planes and helicopters that don't have pressurized cabins can fly without a door on the side where you intend to be shooting. Nothing messes with a photo like shooting through a dirty, hazy or glared window. Best solution get the window out of the way. Obviously, this isn't possible on all planes and not all pilots want to do it. There are still some tricks to shooting through glass that can make for a better photo (yesterday, I was shooting through a window and you can see some reflections from the glass, but I was able to minimize them and get them into areas of the photo that don't matter, watch for a blog about how to do this in the next week or so). If you can take the door off, be prepared for the fact that this will make take-off and landing a little scarier as you watch the run way whizzing past next to you. Also be aware that communication in the air will be much harder due to the noise, even with the airplane headsets on. It's not a bad idea to come up with a few basic hand signals to alert the pilot when you want them to turn, when you want to make another pass over something, and when you're done shooting.

2.) Ask if the windows are polarized. Normally, I use a polarizing filter just about any time I'm shooting outside. But if the plane has polarized windows (which some do), and the answer to the above question is no, you'll have to take your filter off. Two polarized surfaces in combination create a trippy mess of colored lines and waves to rival any Pink Floyd laser-light show. Unless your project is a visual ode to Timothy Leary you're going to want to remove the polarizer.

3.) Pack an obscene amount of film. And by film, I mean memory cards. And by pack, I mean make sure that when you take your seat in the plane you can easily switch them without digging through a bag that will be strapped in a seat just out of arms reach behind you. Particularly in helicopters and especially when the door is off/open, everything in the aircraft needs to be secured to keep it from exiting through afore mentioned open door or bashing around in the cabin. This means that if you fill a card and your extras are out of reach, you're done shooting (insert sad trombone sound here). A card case in a shirt pocket is a good way to avoid this problem. I use one made by Pelican, the eyelet on top makes it pretty easy to teather to some other part of yourself to prevent unintentional ejection and its big enough to not be fumbly.

4.) Use a wide lens. Tips four and five sort of go hand in hand. The real key here is to limit the impact of camera vibration as much as possible. The longer the lens, the more even minute camera shake will appear in the images. A wide lens will be able to create sharper images even while moving fast and shaking quite a bit which small planes do.

5.) Choose what seems like a ridiculously high shutter speed, then go two stops faster. Besides focal length the other major factor for reducing the evidence of motion in the camera is shutter speed. Choose a shutter speed that should freeze the motion your experiencing and then over shoot it by a couple stops just to be safe. It's a real shame to get back on the ground and find out that your images were almost sharp. Almost...

6.) Eat lunch after the flight. A few years ago, I got to the airport and the first thing the pilot asked me was "how strong of a stomach do you think you have?" Great question. I've flown a lot and done a lot of stupid things on my own that have given me a pretty iron clad stomach, but I have to admit that on one particularly rough flight in Northern Minnesota I came way closer to booting in my camera bag than I ever expected. The flight patterns that make great aerial images easier are not always conventional and looking through the viewfinder the whole time doesn't help. If you do have a weak stomach consider one of two options: stay out of aerial photography all together or plan ahead. Pretty much any pilot would greatly prefer that you pull a plastic bag from your pocket instead of redecorating their instrument cluster.

And there you have it. Now get out there and try not to hurt anyone.

The Original Hipstamatic. (aka a camera).

Was that photo taken with an iPhone and the hipstamatic app, you ask? Oh, no. That's a real photo taken with a real F#$%^ camera, my friends. Remember those: little black boxey deal, you put a roll of this plasticy stuff in the back and then used them to make photographs. Anyone? No? Hmmm. Okay, to be fair I didn't shoot these with film, but I did use an old camera. I fanoogled a way to shoot through the old body and lens (complete with 60 years of true grit) using my current digital SLR. Pretty sweet. This particular one is a Kodak Dualflex II circa 1949. It's amazing the things you can find in your parents basement. Watch for some new stuff from this little guy ( I think I'm going to name him Marvin) in the next couple weeks. I've got big plans.