Thursday, January 23, 2014

Fast Prime Lenses - You Need One!

At least one, if not a couple.  Really.  While the zoom and super-zoom lenses may garner the lion's share of attention these days, a fixed focal length fast prime lens of f2.8 or larger can do absolutely wonderful things!  You zoom with your feet, obviously, but the low-light capability and paper-thin depth of field give you an extra advantage composing those awesome shots we all want.

AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8 fast prime lens on Nikon D300 DSLR.
Note the big window into the camera by way of that lens.  An aperture of f1.8 lets in a LOT of light, and that's what makes this special.  The large aperture, when run wide open, narrows the depth of field to something that's exceptionally shallow, allowing you the photographer to blur out everything but the subject of interest you intend to keep in focus.  Note the mold cavities compared to the book they're sitting on here:

Razor-sharp where you want it to be, soft where you don't.
The out-of-focus areas, called bokeh, have a soft, creamy composition without distracting edges.  Fast prime lenses are good for this, and as such are often called into use as dedicated portrait lenses.  You can selectively dial in or dial out the depth of field by varying the aperture of these lenses, to any degree you see fit.  Here's a view from inside my local camera shop as I tested out a 50mm f1.8 fast prime before buying it somewhere else.  (I might discuss that character flaw of mine later, we'll see...)

Focused at the computer monitors. 
Some shots lend themselves to a shallow depth of field.  That's always going to be a judgement call, based on what you're trying to convey for a theme in the finished product.  Experiment with that in mind, and don't be afraid to stop the lens down a bit for a few frames, then compare which of the images you like better.  Note how shallow the depth of field is in this one, but it seems to work ok:

Just the hammer and breechblock.
What's also not obvious about the above photo of the Sharps 1874 rifle is that the image was taken in fairly low light.  Fast prime lenses as shot wide open funnel a lot of light to the camera's sensor, and can make a big difference when there isn't a lot of available light illuminating your subject to begin with.  You can certainly enable the camera's flash, or bump up the ISO to get that proper exposure, but they'll change the dynamic of the image in different ways themselves.  A fast prime will give you the creative latitude to capture those images when you'd otherwise thought it was a lost cause. Case in point - this photo of a cluttered nightstand was taken with just the night light.

Low light, no problem.
 Since we're talking about fast prime lenses and portrait photography, a good use of said lenses is for capturing outdoor scenery.  Again, you have to be selective when it comes to your aperture settings, because that shallow depth of field can either make or break the composition.  Sunsets can be especially nice, playing the colors off the contrasts.  Here's a bitterly cold Wisconsin sunset, viewed from my front yard. I think it was -5 degrees ambient - a good test of the unheated camera's shutter!

It would have to warm up to snow!
As I alluded to earlier, a paper-thin depth of field can sometimes wreck a composition.  Likewise, optimal sharpness of images isn't always found at the widest aperture of a given lens.  You'll read many lens reviews out there that say a given lens is sharp wide open, but even better when closed down a stop or two.  I suppose it has to do with the intricacies of designing and manufacturing quality optics, but I've seen some flaws in imagery that did indeed improve when I went from f1.8 to say, f2.8 or smaller.  This bowl of my famous Chinese Stir-Fried Green Beans wasn't so great when captured wide open.  Stopped down a smidgen, and it's downright yummy!

Of course, I'm a Nikon kind of guy, but the other camera folks are also well-served by a nice assortment of fast prime lenses.  Prices of said lenses can range from dirt-cheap to ohmygawd, depending on focal length, autofocus, brand, and maximum aperture.  The AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8 used in this blog essay?  It retails for $130.00 new at my local camera shop.  While I spend a goodly amount of time and money there, I found the same lens at Goodwill for less than $50.00.  That's my character flaw, and you'll see it's also a recurring theme when it comes to my camera optics.  ;-)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

It hit 40 degrees outside today!

This would normally make me happy, a brief taste of spring in the middle of winter.

But not today.  We had a ton of freezing rain two days ago, leaving a 1/4" to 3/8" sheet of pure ice on my driveway, walkway to the house, sidewalks out front, and the street.  I wasted 40 pounds of rock salt making my sloped driveway barely navigable to foot traffic, let alone our vehicles.  The sidewalk was a lost cause.  Taking the dogs out for their periodic walk was an exercise in sliding.  Even the dogs knew what was going on, and walked in the snow alongside the sidewalk.  I was just waiting to fall down on my busted shoulder again...

So the temperature spikes to 40 degrees F, but only for about 6 hours today.  The melting commenced, which made me happy.  And then it stopped as darkness fell, with those rushing meltwaters freezing solid again tonight, particularly on the sidewalks and the front walkway of the house.  Great.  It was basically a solar Zamboni, polishing the ice and making it even more perfect and glass-like in composition, while washing away any of the salt and brine I had already put down.

Screw this.  We're supposed to get a couple inches of snow by morning.  I'll go into town and get two more 40lb bags of salt tomorrow, and see if I can keep from getting sued by pedestrians falling down on my sidewalks.  In the meantime, I'm diluting my aspirin heavily tonight.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

New Year's resolutions - such fleeting things!

I am loathe to even make them, but this year I resolve to make them more of a to-do list, instead.

Some are especially nagging, and need my attention sooner rather than later.  I fried the motherboard on my water-cooled 8 core Xeon IBM workstation during the heat of summer.  That left me doing everything on a dual-core Dell Inspiron laptop.  Luckily, the new $290.00 motherboard has arrived, and I've got the old one out.  Order of business #1!
Thankfully, no Lucas electrics inside.

During the long winters up here, projects left unfinished have a real chance of being completed.  Actually listing them out might give me a better success rate for getting them done this year.  Sometimes I do finish them - note the repurposed milk can. 
We have lots of these big metal things in Wisconsin!
The winery has about 60 gallons to be bottled from the 2013 season.  Then the season begins anew, right around Dandelion Wine time.  So I need to make the pilgramage to my source for about 300 bottles, and get everything cleaned, sanitized, and ready to go.  Strawberry season follows right behind Dandelion, so timing is everything.  I've been told by fans that I need to at least double my production, so that's another thing for The List of 2014.
More wine!

The reloading bench sat idle after the move to our new house out here in the countryside.  I remedied that with a batch of .30-06 for my nephew and his "new" M1903 Springfield.  The Dillon 550 is now set up for 7.62x39,  so some of my neglected friends will see range time this spring.  

Am I the only one who reloads 7.62x39?
Likewise, with the dislocation and fracture of my left shoulder a short time ago, I'm plodding along through physical therapy with every intention of regaining 100% function - another thing for The List. I sat down with an old friend the other day, because rehab isn't all about pulleys and rubber straps.  My fretwork seems rusty but mostly intact, so that's a good sign. My range of motion seems good, with little pain.  Woo-hoo!
Paul Bigsby - of Crocker Motorcycle fame, too...
For the calm days of spring and summer, I fully intend to get more stick and rudder time.  My small fleet sits dejected, waiting to be challenged by the resident starlings outside again.  I've got a surprise for those damned birds this year, with 12" rotors!
Part of the 65th Rotary Air Wing
This is but a fraction of the items that are going on The List of 2014.  Maybe if I don't call them "resolutions", they'll become reality!