A Walk Through Aviation History

In celebration of Veteran’s Day this year, I went to Virginia Beach to visit the Military Aviation Museum. It is one of the largest private collections of military aircraft on the east coast, and reminds me of places like the Shuttleworth Collection, which I loved to visit while I was in the UK.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the museum put on a special ceremony, and then displayed a number of aircraft from that era.

I really enjoy black and white images of aircraft, and particularly like the challenge of shooting them on the ground in a way that captures their spirit for flight. So with each of these photographs, I tried to use the surrounding hangers and structures to remind you how much these machines love to fly.

If you want to learn more about the Military Aviation Museum, you can visit their website.

All photographs taken with the Nikon Z7 and Zeiss Milvus lenses.

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Pumpkin Spiced Fall

After getting the new Nikon Z7, I was excited to experience fall colors in Virginia. This area has a lot of diversity to the landscapes, and I wanted to put the camera through its paces while exploring some of Virginia’s best offerings.

In total, I drove several hundred miles to each end of the state - from Southwest Virginia and the New River Valley, to the coastline of Virginia Beach - to capture these fall photographs. I promise they are also scratch and sniff… should smell like pumpkin spice!

We’re now entering the long winter months, where the photography can be a little more challenging, but there’s another Scenic Traverse Photography adventure on the horizon. Stay tuned for more great explorations soon.

Which is your favorite?

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10 Books Every Photographer Should Read

Grab a cup of coffee, put on your slippers, and curl up in your favorite arm chair with one of these texts and learn something new about the art of photography! I have a rather large and ecclectic collection of photography texts, and this list represents my 10 favorites - texts I would recommend to anyone wanting to improve their photography.

What have I missed on the list? Leave me a comment and let me know what you'd add!

  1. "The Camera" & "The Negative" & "The Print" - Ansel Adams
    The author needs no introduction, and this is really three texts in one, but they are the definitive texts for all technical things film photography. So you're a digital photographer? Read anyway. Seriously, these books are #1.0, 1.1 and 1.2 on my list for a reason. The fundamentals of photography are the same no matter the medium, and I promise you'll learn something. Plus, its awesome seeing how Ansel thought about his work.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  2. "Black and White Photography Workshop" - John Blakemore
    This is without question one of the best all-in-one books on using the Zone System to create incredible black and white film images. Like with the texts from Ansel Adams, this is a great material for any digital photographer who wants to build their foundational knowledge.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  3. "Vivian Maier: Street Photographer" - John Maloof
    Vivian Maier was a nanny in the mid-1900s who travelled around Europe and the United States taking photographs with her Rolleiflex 120mm film camera. She was a very private woman and never shared her work - it was only discovered and she became famous after her death. There is a documentary (currently on Netflix) about her story, but the book is fantastic as a resource to study the work of another photographer. What I find so inspiring about Vivian is that she took photographs for personal joy and satisfaction - not to share them. That's opposite of most of us (myself included) who have blogs, Facebook, etc where we share our images. There is something particularly special about her work because of the private nature of her images.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  4. "From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black and White Conversion Technique Known to Man" - Vincent Versace
    Vincent is a Nikon Ambassador, and an exceptional black and white digital photography artist. His text differs from the above black and white books in that he spends more time on the details of the digital workflow, and how to create masterpieces in the digital era. A must-own for any black and white photographer. Seriously.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  5. “Chasing Light: An Exploration of the American Landscape” - Frank Lee Ruggles

    Frank is a friend of mine. He was my first mentor in photography and sold me some of my very first lenses (I’m embarrassed to say it was a Tokina). Needless to say, after years of studying his work, I have found him to be one of my greatest inspirations. This isn’t a how-to book, it’s a fine art photography book, and it will inspire you. A good photographer is always looking at the work of others — I have spent hours reverse engineering Frank’s images and learning from them, and suggest this book to any landscape photographer. Plus, Frank’s an all-around awesome guy, so it’s no wonder this book is so high on my list of must-reads!

    Buy on Amazon.com

  6. "Eyes Wide Open - 100 Years of Leica Photography"
    Some of the best books for photography aren't instructional - they are collections of work from which I can draw new inspiration or ideas. I love to deconstruct other photographer's images, and this book is full of inspiration. And if you ever need a paperweight or door stop, it'll cover those bases too!

    Buy on Amazon.com

  7. "Captured: Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer" - Moose Peterson
    So you have an interest in wildlife photography? Moose wrote the definitive guide on all things wildlife and bird photography - its a fun read complete with great images and some amusing stories of his time spent shooting in the field.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  8. "Surreal Photography: Creating the Impossible" - Daniela Bowker
    This is a fun and entertaining text - a great way to see how some photographers express creativity by creating surrealist images. While I rarely (if ever) will use the techniques taught in this book, it's another great resource to draw new inspiration and pull new techniques from. Certainly one of the more bizarre and fun books on my shelf.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  9. "Black and White Magazine" - Subscription
    I am not a fan of most photography magazines - they push you to buy crap and gadgets you don't need. And just like the exercise magazines that routinely re-run the same articles with the "best weight loss tips," most photography magazines don't offer new content, or content that will make you a better artist. Black and White is the exception. There is a great showcase of various artists (real artists) and inspiring pieces. I would recommend the paper subscription over e-version - the printed quality is exceptionally good.

    Subscribe Online

  10. “Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash” - Joe McNally

    This addition to my list might surprise you, considering how little I use flash in my photography. I only ever use a flash for macro images, so it should speak volumes that I recommend a book about something I don’t use. Why? Because photography is all about light, and Joe McNally is arguably the master of light. The things he can do with a flash boggle the mind, and I think it’s important to study light as a photographer. So might as well learn from the master. Besides, my flash is the sun, and if you can control a AA-battery powered flash, you’re that much closer to making the sun work for you,


    Buy on Amazon.com

The Fantasy of Flight

There are many things I miss about living in the United Kingdom; high on that list would be the access to historical aircraft to photograph. Europe is flush with World War I and World War II aircraft that were impractical to be returned to the United States after the war. One of the best collections of these machines is the Shuttleworth Collection, north of London.

I was having a nostalgic moment recently looking back through some images I took at Shuttleworth, and found these prints that I hadn’t shared before. Enjoy!

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Mountain Ridge Sunset

I'll admit that my luck with spectacular sunsets seems to have run dry after my memorable sunset at Horseshoe Bend in December 2016. I have gone out in search of more sunsets than I care to remember since that incredible day, but nothing has come close to the wondrous pink and orange sky I saw that night.

A few weeks ago, we went to West Virginia, and again I searched for a sunset, though I didn't expect to rival the Horseshoe Bend experience. I have just been in such a long sunset drought that I was willing to take nearly anything! We hiked out to a rocky cliff that overlooks the mountain ridge and setup for the (hopeful) show. 

The sunset that night didn't come close to threatening the supremacy of Horseshoe Bend, but it had a characteristic that I found I loved. Instead of vibrant and exhilarating colors, this sunset was a soft glow that created a warm blue light throughout the mountain ridge. It was inviting...the sort of sunset that I could imagine watching from a rocking chair on the front porch of a country home. Looking out over this West Virginia landscape, I found myself humming the lyrics to the famous song "take me home, country roads, to the place, I call home....West Virginia."

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(Not) a Beautiful Photograph...

Look carefully at this photograph, because it is not beautiful.

I know of only two places in the United States where you can find rocks that are that brilliantly orange surrounded by pools of baby blue, turquoise, and teal water. One of them is Havasu Falls, which is part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon. The other is Douglas Falls outside the small town of Thomas, West Virginia. 

The vivid orange rocks and rainbow colored waters entice a swim.

Surely a landscape this beautiful carries some sort of mythical healing powers. Certainly this has to be one of the most tranquil places east of the Mississippi River?

There are few places on earth where these sorts of colors are "natural" -- I used a polarizing filter, some neutral density filters, and my Nikon D850 to capture the turquoise water and orange rocks.

Certainly not.

Douglas falls is beautiful, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Unlike Havasu Falls, where the beauty is natural, the beauty of Douglas Falls is not... the brilliant colors and tranquil scene are the result of pollution from coal mining. 

In the late 1890s, Thomas, West Virginia was home to the Davis Coal & Coke Company. In those days, there were over 500 beehive coke ovens burning in the town, which was setup entirely to support the mining operations. By the turn of the 20th century, the coal mines in the surrounding area produced over 4,000 tons of coal daily. The explosion of mining in Thomas was short-lived; by the outbreak of the first World War, advancements in refining methods meant that coke production in the beehive ovens had ceased, and by the 1950s, underground mining in the area ceased all together. The population of Thomas diminished, and the city today is a shell of it's former mining glory. 

Douglas Falls, as seen from the side. The rocks radiated a yellowish-orange that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Old beehive coke ovens line the roadway leading to Douglas Falls. At one time, there were over 500 of these ovens polluting the surrounding habitats.

Old beehive coke ovens line the roadway leading to Douglas Falls. At one time, there were over 500 of these ovens polluting the surrounding habitats.

In just a few decades, the landscape was permanently altered. The harsh acid from the coke ovens has turned the rocks orange. A hundred years after much of the mining ceased, the waters of the river are still plagued by harsh acid. In the 1990s, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection established a reclamation effort to clean up exposed mining waste. The project created new drainage systems, restored destroyed wetlands, reseeded grasses, and re-countoured the hillsides around the river.  They hope this project will eventually return this habitat to it's natural state... but nearly thirty years after the cleanup project, the acids continue to wreck havoc on the landscape. 

The contrast of the brilliant orange with the turquoise blue and green waters was a spectacular sight to behold...for all the wrong reasons.

Some ferns grow out of the ground around the falls, where acids from the coal mining that occurred nearly a century ago has stained these rocks. Acids continue to leech into the landscape, despite a cleanup project in the 1990s.

As much as I love photographing beautiful scenes like this one, I would much prefer to photograph a landscape for it's natural beauty. While I love these photographs, there will always be a cringe associated with seeing them because I know their beauty came at a great cost.

Cherry Blossoms in DC

I have lived in the Washington, DC area for nearly ten years, yet I had never gone out to photograph the annual Cherry Blossom bloom. The crowds intimidated me, and I don't like getting the same photograph as everyone else...

But I also knew it'd be criminal to live in the district this long and not photograph the blossoms! So I woke early this weekend and headed out in hopes of getting an image that was a little different.

My original goal was to get a nice sunrise, but heavy clouds dashed that hope immediately. Instead, I walked the perimeter of the tidal basin around the Jefferson Memorial in quest of some blossoms that would offer an interesting frame for the monument. Away from the crowds, I finally found this cluster of blossoms that framed the monument nicely.

To put my own unique spin on this quintessential DC image, I cropped the photograph to an extreme dimension. This allows the blossoms to dominate the frame and tell the story of this annual bloom.

If the weather cooperates, I'll hope to go out for one more stab at a good sunrise before the flowers drop....cross your fingers for some nice weather.

Washington's Moonrise

Sometimes it all comes together. Today was one of those days.

I had planned a very different photoshoot. But when side effects from the recent Nor'easter hampered my plans, I scrapped them. As luck would have it, tonight was a perfectly clear night, the moon was at 90%, and it was going to rise at 9pm over the National Mall in Washington, DC.

So I bundled up and headed out with the Nikon D850 in tow. Using my favorite app for photo planning - the Photographers Ephemeris - I planned my image of the Washington Monument to line up with the moon as it would ascend.

Some Photoshop magic was required to make this photograph. The moon's full size means it's extremely bright -- too bright. To make both the monument and moon visible, I captured them in separate exposures and combined them into the final product seen here.

Sometimes it all comes together.

Moonrise over the Washington Monument, March 2018

Moonrise over the Washington Monument, March 2018

Black & White Flower Silhouettes

Macro flower photography is one of my favorite disciplines to practice during the winter; cold temperatures, dreary weather, and naked trees make the landscapes less palatable for my normal ventures. With macro photography, I can often work indoors and with bright and vibrant flowers that make the frigid days feel a little brighter.

Longwood Gardens is one of the best places on the East Coast for enjoying flowers and plants, and their annual orchid festival is probably my favorite event of the year. It has been several years since I spent a day focused solely on macro flower photography, so I was excited to spend some time there recently.

Using my Nikon D850, a 200mm macro lens, external flash and diffuser, I created the following images. I purposefully used the flash to remove the background because I knew the final image would be printed in black and white. I wanted the prints to be borderline harsh, with strong contrast; I thought there would be some romance to having delicate and soft flowers reproduced with such strong effect.

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Exploring NYC, Part 3: Faces of the City

Over the last few years, I have taken an interest in a form of photography dubbed "street photography." Unlike other photographic disciplines with obvious sounding names (wedding photography / newborn photography), the name "street" does not convey a clear meaning of the art form.

Waiting for an opponent. Two people playing chess outside a park in Manhattan island. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Waiting for an opponent. Two people playing chess outside a park in Manhattan island. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Catching a ride. A young girl rides on her father's shoulders over the crowds of tourists visiting Rockefeller Center during the holidays.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Catching a ride. A young girl rides on her father's shoulders over the crowds of tourists visiting Rockefeller Center during the holidays.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography might be more aptly dubbed "genuine photography" - the goal is to capture everyday scenes and interactions in a new and fresh way to highlight the beauty in our routine life.  When I am shooting the streets, I am looking for genuine interactions; faces, reactions, expressions, moods, and emotions that are genuine and not prompted by the presence of a camera.

Think about it.... when someone holds up a camera to your face, the first natural reaction is to smile and say cheese. But does that smile truly express your emotions and feelings in that moment? Unlikely.

I spy.  A woman looks out from her window on the busy New York streets below. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

I spy.  A woman looks out from her window on the busy New York streets below. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Selfie.  A woman dressed up in her finest fashion prepares her selfie in Times Square.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Selfie.  A woman dressed up in her finest fashion prepares her selfie in Times Square.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Crowd Control.  A NYPD officer directs traffic and keeps the crowds safe as thousands of holiday revelers descend on New York's most popular attractions. Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Crowd Control.  A NYPD officer directs traffic and keeps the crowds safe as thousands of holiday revelers descend on New York's most popular attractions. Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

As a street photographer, I want to capture the subject's emotions and state of being without having the camera enter the equation and effect the expression. In order to do that, I often need to be stealthy and discrete.

A large camera is off-putting. People don't want a stranger shoving a camera in their face. Which is why I use a Leica rangefinder (specifically, the M10) for my street shooting. The small and discrete nature of this camera lets me attract less attention, thereby increasing the odds of going unnoticed by my subject.

Coffee Jolt.  A kid carries two cups of coffee while walking with his parents around the 9/11 memorial.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Coffee Jolt.  A kid carries two cups of coffee while walking with his parents around the 9/11 memorial.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Eye.  A passenger looks out of the window on an express train to Wall Street.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Eye.  A passenger looks out of the window on an express train to Wall Street.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Philosophically, I want every picture I take to be a flattering one. I try to avoid any photograph that could embarrass or humiliate my subject. For instance, I don't photograph the homeless or disabled persons, with few exceptions. 

Ideally, when I am taking street photographs, I am invisible. The person never knows that I took their photograph, or if they do, they are not embarrassed. If someone sees me taking their photograph, I will smile and wave, showing that I'm not a threat. Sometimes I'll tell someone they were beautiful and interesting to me. Surprisingly, most people respond very well to this, and I have never had anyone get mad because I took their photograph.

BFFs.  Two women pose for a photograph in Times Square. I "plucked them out of a crowd" by using a longer focal length and narrow depth of field, thereby blurring the people around them and focusing the attention of the photograph solely on their faces.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

BFFs.  Two women pose for a photograph in Times Square. I "plucked them out of a crowd" by using a longer focal length and narrow depth of field, thereby blurring the people around them and focusing the attention of the photograph solely on their faces.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Stroll.  A man walks in front of the United Nations building. The harsh light and strong shadow became the sparkle that drew me to make this image.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stroll.  A man walks in front of the United Nations building. The harsh light and strong shadow became the sparkle that drew me to make this image.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

As a photographer, I find street photography offers a unique challenge over some of the other photographic disciplines. When I am making landscape images, I often plan the photo, sometimes to a scientific extreme. But as a street shooter, I take whatever I get and roll with the punches.

If it is sunny outside, I have to work with that. If it's raining, I work with that. 

The impromptu and impulsive nature of this type of shooting means I often "follow my nose" - if the light looks particularly good one direction, I'll walk that way. I walked 14 miles in New York one day without having any real plan - I just wandered Manhattan looking for things that caught my eye.

I remain hyper aware of the location of the sun and will switch to another side of the street if the shadows and light is better there. My head is on a swivel, constantly looking for that sparkle.

Street Blown.  A woman's hair blows around in the wind caused by cars rushing past on the street nearby.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Street Blown.  A woman's hair blows around in the wind caused by cars rushing past on the street nearby.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A cyclist waits for the crosswalk sign to turn in his favor.  I was drawn to the fact that his face was covered, so the only place from where I could draw expression was his eyes, and he rewarded me with a very expressive moment.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A cyclist waits for the crosswalk sign to turn in his favor.  I was drawn to the fact that his face was covered, so the only place from where I could draw expression was his eyes, and he rewarded me with a very expressive moment.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

"Sparkle" - that is what I am looking for as I walk. Sparkle is the photograph. Sparkle is the emotion, the color, the contrast, the shadow, the expression...the thing that pushes me to take the photograph. 

As a street photographer, I am instinctive. When I see sparkle, I shoot. If I wait too long and think about it, I have lost that moment of sparkle. 

When someone looks at one of my images and comments "I never would have seen that" or "how did you catch that," I know they see the sparkle. They are looking at the print and see the sparkle that pushed me to create the image in the first place.

Lost.  This is one of the very rare exceptions I have ever made to my rule about not photographing the homeless. This particular gentleman had positioned himself in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic to divert around him and creating a bit of a traffic jam. I wanted to capture the reaction from other people to having to divert around him and the story of what his day must feel like as thousands of people pass him by.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Lost.  This is one of the very rare exceptions I have ever made to my rule about not photographing the homeless. This particular gentleman had positioned himself in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic to divert around him and creating a bit of a traffic jam. I wanted to capture the reaction from other people to having to divert around him and the story of what his day must feel like as thousands of people pass him by.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Smile.  A man smiles as he reads something on his cell phone while riding the subway in New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Smile.  A man smiles as he reads something on his cell phone while riding the subway in New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography can also be about story telling. Not every image has a story, but sometimes the story is the sparkle. For instance, take this pro-Tibet rally I saw in New York. Thousands of people were marching across Manhattan to the site of the Chinese Consulate peacefully carrying signs and flags supporting Tibet. 

At one point, their march passes in front of the McDonald's restaurant near Times Square. I immediately saw a story, and began photographing that story.

I was moved at the juxtaposition of American consumerism and the protected right of speech. Here are some people peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to free speech in front of one of America's biggest corporations. To me, this captures the essence of what makes America an incredible country -- there are so many places in the world where this scene would not be allowed, and the combination of the two created an emotional sparkle.

Pro-Tibet rally participants march in front of one of America's icons of global consumerism.... McDonalds.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Pro-Tibet rally participants march in front of one of America's icons of global consumerism.... McDonalds.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The pro-Tibet rally walked through Times Square demanding peace.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The pro-Tibet rally walked through Times Square demanding peace.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stage. Rally goers assembled for a speech near the Chinese consulate.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stage. Rally goers assembled for a speech near the Chinese consulate.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography often involves people, but there are some images I'll photograph without humans that still tell a human story. Usually, I try to convey human interaction with the environment in the non-people prints. These images may be more abstract and invoke the idea of people without clearly showing any in the scene. Sometimes they capture an irony or something so familiar that we stop noticing its existence. 

A Dinosaur.  A bank of pay phones that see very little use in Grand Central Terminal.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

A Dinosaur.  A bank of pay phones that see very little use in Grand Central Terminal.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Ready and Waiting.  A FDNY truck sits at the ready to respond to any incidents around the city.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Ready and Waiting.  A FDNY truck sits at the ready to respond to any incidents around the city.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The Commute.  I purposefully blurred this image by jerking the camera in a violent pan as the taxi approached. The goal was to create a shot that captured the blur of commuting and traffic in a city as busy as New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Commute.  I purposefully blurred this image by jerking the camera in a violent pan as the taxi approached. The goal was to create a shot that captured the blur of commuting and traffic in a city as busy as New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Message.  A simple chair might not have had the sparkle to catch my eye, but this chair, with the "No Crying Allowed" message caught my eye.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Message.  A simple chair might not have had the sparkle to catch my eye, but this chair, with the "No Crying Allowed" message caught my eye.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

In some ways, everything I just described about street photography makes it sound like there is a good amount of "pray and spray"- but the art is anything other than. Pray and spray is a phrase used to describe what happens when I photographer just holds down the shutter and aims the camera recklessly in the hope of capturing a good shot.

Look carefully at my photographs and you'll see that isn't possible. Scroll down and look at the three images below (then come back).

Notice anything in them? Only the subject is in focus. Everything else has a smooth soft blur. That blur, which is referred to as bokeh (a Japanese word), is where the art comes into play. As a photographer, I drew your eyes to the subject- to a pre-determined spot - by precisely choosing what area of the print will be in focus. Don't believe me? Scroll down and look again.

Steps of Time.  Two friends take pictures on the staircase in Times Square. I loved the attire and face of the individual holding the cell phone, so focused the attention of the viewer that direction by having the rest of the image slightly out of focus.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Steps of Time.  Two friends take pictures on the staircase in Times Square. I loved the attire and face of the individual holding the cell phone, so focused the attention of the viewer that direction by having the rest of the image slightly out of focus.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Sharing a Snack.  A mom and son enjoy a Sunday morning snack at an indoor food hall in New York. The scene is very busy with elements that could distract from the story of the shared meal, but selective focus and bokeh help me isolate them and tell the story the way I want.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Sharing a Snack.  A mom and son enjoy a Sunday morning snack at an indoor food hall in New York. The scene is very busy with elements that could distract from the story of the shared meal, but selective focus and bokeh help me isolate them and tell the story the way I want.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The View.  A boy is carried on his dad's shoulders to see the holiday tree in Rockefeller Center.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The View.  A boy is carried on his dad's shoulders to see the holiday tree in Rockefeller Center.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Each of those photographs has a super thin area of the image in focus. Now consider that the camera I use is a manual focus system - there is nothing automated or automagic about it. If I do a poor job of quickly focusing the lens, then my photograph is missed. I usually get one chance - a split second - to turn the focus ring on my Leica lenses to capture that sparkle.

I won't lie - it's hard. I miss more than I catch. But the more I go out and shoot, the better I get. I have a lot of close misses - photographs I'd love another chance to take. But that's not how this works. 

In some ways, the thrill of getting it right is my drug.

I'm addicted to the elation that comes from seeing a perfectly focused shot with the story I wanted captured. That feeling drives me back to the streets, looking for my next fix.

Stormtrooper's Have to Eat.  This man was dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, but had stopped at a deli to get a snack.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Stormtrooper's Have to Eat.  This man was dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, but had stopped at a deli to get a snack.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A police officer waits patiently for the light to chance before she begins directing more traffic over the intersection. The harsh light and strong shadows gave this scene the sparkle I was looking for.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A police officer waits patiently for the light to chance before she begins directing more traffic over the intersection. The harsh light and strong shadows gave this scene the sparkle I was looking for.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Getting Sharp: The Importance of Calibration

You have spent hundreds (thousands) of dollars on camera gear, but are you really getting the best image possible with that lens and camera combination? Do you read reviews about sharp lenses, only to find your photographs never look as impressive as the ones you see online? If you have never calibrated your lenses, then there is a good chance that you are loosing the opportunity to get sharp images.

For instance, see the following photo of a bee pollinating this flower (click to enlarge):

A bee on a flower in an indoor garden in Pennsylvania. Shot with a Nikon D850 + Nikon 200mm f/4 micro lens that was calibrated with the camera.

What is Calibration? Do I Need to Calibrate?

If you have a dSLR camera with autofocus lenses, then you need to calibrate. It does not matter if your camera is only a day old - calibration is not a factor of camera age. Very simply, because your camera and lenses were not manufactured together, there is a slight error that almost certainly exists as the camera and lens communicate in the autofocus mechanism. This error varies lens-to-lens, but exists in virtually every single lens.

The result is that the camera and lens think they have achieved focus, but the resulting images will be out of focus when you look at it later. This is a byproduct of how light is bent around the mirror and prism in the dSLR body, with a different piece of light routed to a focusing element.

Unfortunately, this error probably exists in every lens you own.... even if you have one lens that is perfect, another could be off by a huge factor. So you need to calibrate each lens with each camera individually.

Examples of Calibrated vs Non-calibrated Lens

To help illustrate this, lets look at two photographs I took in a nearby forest. These aren't the best photographs ever in terms of composition, but they do a fine job illustrating the importance of calibration. These photos were taken with the Nikon D850 and Sigma 85mm f/1.4 art lens. The Sigma 85mm lens is considered the sharpest lens ever tested by DxO Labs, so the photos taken with it should blow my mind, right?

The following images shot at f/1.4 with the focus on the scar on the tree bark:

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Notice a difference between the image on the left vs right? The one on the left hardly seems sharp.... especially since it supposedly came from the sharpest lens ever tested?! I took several shots and can confirm they all looked like this - clearly out of focus on the area where I was aiming.

Now let's look at the rightimage, with the lens calibration programed into the camera. For this particular lens, the calibration factor was +20. The result here is clearly better. The bark is nice and sharp, with lots of detail. This looks more like the performance from the sharpest lens ever tested....

Here is one more view, side by side, of the two images cropped in on the focus area.

The non-calibrated image

The non-calibrated image

With lens calibration activated

With lens calibration activated

Bottom line: As you can see from the above images, calibration has a huge impact on the sharpness of your photos. And if you are shelling out the big bucks for camera and lenses, then you should be prepared to spend another $100(ish) to calibrate them.

Lens Align & Focus Tune

The Lens Align target. It is best arranged with a neutral background. I used a cheap $8 tripod to hold the Lens Align.

Without question, the top product on the market for calibrating your own lenses is the Lens Align Focus Calibration System and Focus Tune Software. Designed by Michael Tapes, it's easiest and recommended to buy both products together as you will get the best results by using both.

Lens Align

The Lens Align Focus Calibration System is a set of precision manufactured targets that you use to measure optimal sharpness and identify front/back focus alignment issues. The target includes a vertical front panel of calibration targets and a horizontal "ruler" with geometric designs that the Focus Tune software can read. While it's possible to buy and use the Lens Align without Focus Tune, it really doesn't make much sense.

Focus Tune

The Focus Tune software accompanies the Lens Align, and you really can't use the software without the target. The software will help evaluate the sharpness of each image and will measure the front/back focus, helping you identify the best focus adjustment for the lens.

Basic Calibration How-To

For starters, you need to have the Lens Align target, a good tripod for your camera, a cheap tripod for your Lens Align target, and - ideally - the Focus Tune software. You also need to make sure your camera will permit lens calibration / lens alignment adjustments. 

A comprehensive set of instructions is found in this YouTube video - the below directions are designed to give a basic overview of using the system.

The Focus Tune software with all of the images imported and the neon green target set.

  1. Setup your camera, lens to be adjusted, and Lens Align. Use a tripod for the camera and Lens Align. A cheap tripod works best for the target, while you need a sturdy tripod for the camera.

  2. Align the camera and target according to the specifications of the lens (see instructions).

  3. Set the camera to JPEG fine, low ISO (400 or below), and the maximum aperture of the lens (f/1.4, f/2,8, etc)

  4. Shoot a series of five images at the following focus tune adjustments: -20, -15, -10, -5, 0, 5, 10, 15, 20. Defocus the lens between each shot so that the camera has to refocus.

  5. Use Focus Tune to find the cluster of images that is sharpest, then shoot another set of images to refine the setting. For instance, if the sharpest images appeared around 10-15, shoot another series of fives images at adjustment value 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.

  6. Use Focus Tune to find the sharpest images and identify the value for that particular lens.

  7. Although the camera should remember each setting for the lens in the internal memory, it's a good idea to write them down

  8. Rinse and repeat with each lens!

Sounds easy enough - and it really is! Taking 30 minutes to watch the video instructions will equip you with all the details for the process, but it is really straight forward. Once I knew what I was doing, it took no more than 20 minutes per lens to complete.

But what about zoom lenses? Personally, I calibrated a zoom lens at the focal lengths that will get the most use. For instance, I calibrated my 24-70mm lens at 50mm. A quick test showed that the setting identified for 50mm was also good for other focal lengths. Likewise, if you are using a teleconverter, you should calibrate the lens with and without the teleconverter as you may get different values for each. 

Refining Focus with Focus Tune

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

The Focus Tune software really is pretty incredible, and a good buy for anyone calibrating their lenses. In a matter of a few clicks, the software will read each image, evaluate it for sharpness and front/back focus, then will generate a chart and table with focus values. The ideal is to get focus values close to 0. Negative numbers denote front focus, while positive numbers are back focus. 

Looking at the graph on the right, we can see that I had the Nikon D850 setup with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens. The clusters I imaged were all front focused, and badly so (as you noticed from the earlier tree bark photos). 

Only the last cluster of images (shot with a focus adjustment of +20 in camera), were remotely close to in focus. 

It takes a little trial and error with testing different values, but Focus Tune does a great job of helping you jump directly to the best results so that you can find the optimum value for each lens. 

Don't be intimidated if you aren't a math major - Michael Tapes makes some great how-to videos to orient you to the whole process.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Finalizing the Calibration

Once you have completed the whole process, you will have values ranging between -20 and +20 that represent the lens calibration that needs to be dialed into your particular camera. I would also recommend writing these values down, because they could drift over time, and it is good to know where you started.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

For reference, these are the values that each of my lenses needed. What you'll see is that every lens required some adjustment - which is why calibration is so important.

  • Nikon 14-24mm: +1

  • Nikon 24-70mm: +14

  • Nikon 70-200mm: +12

  • Nikon 70-200mm w/1.4 Tele: +8

  • Nikon 300mm: +6

  • Nikon 300mm w/1.4 Tele: +6

  • Sigma 85mm Art: +20

In closing, I hope this blog has helped you understand what lens calibration is, why it is so important, and provided a brief introduction into the process. 

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

At the Corner of Color and History

With a weekend of beautiful weather, fall color, and a new Nikon D850, I set out to capture some of the wonderful sights in the area. One of my favorite go-to's for a great shot is Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. This small city, which is also part of the National Park System, sits at the intersection of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Harper's Ferry is incredibly picturesque, but my favorite spot is on top of the Maryland Heights overlook. It has been several years since I've hiked the 2.5 mile trail to the overlook of the town, so we set out with the dog for a hike and a view.

The trail to the overlook has the following profile: uphill, followed by extreme uphill, then a stretch of straight uphill with a tease as though it will go back downhill before going uphill..... In other words, by the time I reached the top, I was more focused on my jello legs than I was on the photography.

Thankfully the view brought me back to the task at hand quickly, and I took the following images before the knee-breaking downhill journey. 

This was also my first serious outing with the new Nikon D850, and a chance for me to see how it held up in real-world landscape shooting. So far so good! There are certainly some notable differences between the D850 and Leica SL, but I'm leaning to embrace my new camera.

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A New Chapter: The Nikon D850

Those of you who follow me on Instagram (@ScenicTraversePhoto), might have noticed a day ago when I posted a picture of the Nikon D850 box....

After a visit to the Photo Plus Expo in New York on Thursday, I decided it was time to make the switch back to Nikon. I have loved the Leica experience, and I'll still use Leica's for street photography, but my needs as a landscape photographer will be better met by this new system.

In the coming week I'll share some updates to detail the decision, but for now, I'm excited to take the camera out shooting! Given the super high resolution of the D850, I have also invested in a lens calibration system so I can get the maximum detail out of the sensor, and I'll also share some updates about the calibration process. Stay tuned for new and exciting things!

Leica SL: The Mystery of the Lost Lenses?

When the Leica SL hit the market in October 2015, it caused a whirlwind of excitement. Here was the mirrorless full frame camera system that professional photographers had long awaited. I visited the Leica Store in Mayfair (London) and played with the demo unit. I was instantly hooked and placed my name on a wait list. On that day, I broke from years of Nikon shooting and transitioned to Leica, believing it was the future.

Today, nearly two years to the day since the SL was released, I am not so sure. While I've had a remarkable experience shooting the Leica SL, there is one major area where the SL lags behind the competition, and where my patience has nearly run dry....lenses.

At launch, Leica only had one lens for the SL system - the 24-90mm lens - and promised two additional lenses would follow shortly (a 50mm prime and 90-280mm telephoto). To offset this lack of lenses, Leica also touted how the SL was versatile in it's ability to use lenses from Leica's other lines - including the M and S lenses - when paired with an adaptor. Leica seemed to realize that no one was going to buy a camera system with only one lens option and was trying very hard to cater to photographers by offering cross-system compatibility. While that's all fine and good, using other lenses comes with some disadvantages - most notably the lack of weather sealing and auto focus. For a landscape photographer that is regularly shooting in poor weather, this was a point of concern, although I have used the adaptability in my SL setup.

A year after launch, Leica had come through on the promised lens releases and all was well in SL-land. Three SL system lenses were available, and they had more on the way. 2017 promised to bring the release of four additional system lenses, including a 35mm, 75mm, and 90mm prime lens, along with the 16-35mm wide angle that landscape photographers lusted to own (hint hint.... that'd be me).

Leica SL System Lens Roadmap, as of September 2016

Leica SL System Lens Roadmap, as of September 2016

Quietly, something happened. Lenses stopped showing up. According to the roadmap above, by October 2017, we should have at least two more lenses available, with two more coming any day now. Instead, Leica silently pushed off the release date of these lenses. Now only one lens, the 75mm f/2 ASPH, is slated to arrive in 2017 (maybe? still no word on it), with the other three lenses listed as "coming soon" or "spring 2018."

Could Leica really go a full calendar year without releasing any new lenses for the SL? (The 50mm was released in December 2016, so we won't have to wait long to find out!)

Would anyone really think that's a sign of a healthy camera system?

The rational side of me argues that Leica is trying really hard to produce quality lenses for the SL system, which is why they have been slower in the release schedule. They want only the best lenses on the market, and are busy perfecting them..... right?

Then I open my inbox this morning and see this:

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Seriously? Instead of announcing or releasing lenses for the SL system, it seems the engineers in the glass department of Leica have been on a craze to re-release old 1930s lenses. This is a slap in the face to all of the people who invested in the SL system early. Leica has prioritized these money-grab lenses - collectors pieces for people who will never shoot the lens - over lenses for people who actually want to make photographs.

Fuming over the announcement of a 1930's lens re-release, I decided to stage an armchair war and look up other manufacturers and their lens release schedule for new systems. I compared four other systems - the Fuji GFX 50s, Hasselblad X1D, Sony Alpha A7r, and Pentax 645z. 

What I quickly found is that Leica is behind the curve. The Hasselblad X1D, which is a natural competitor to the SL, only has 4 lenses currently on the market, but it also has been available for 440 days, compared to 750 days for the SL.

Shockingly, Fuji has rocked the market by having six lenses available for it's new medium format system less than a year after launch! Here's a table showing my results:

A comparison of camera systems by release date and current lens availability. In every metric, the SL system is behind the competition. It's worth noting that Sony already had some lenses on the market when they released the Alpha A7r, but they have continued to release new lenses on a somewhat routine schedule. 

A comparison of camera systems by release date and current lens availability. In every metric, the SL system is behind the competition. It's worth noting that Sony already had some lenses on the market when they released the Alpha A7r, but they have continued to release new lenses on a somewhat routine schedule. 

Lack of lenses isn't the only problem facing the SL community - price, speed, and size are also major factors. The SL lenses are massive, and while they may deliver great performance, in an era where competitors are releasing significantly smaller lenses, it's hard to get excited to haul around big glass. The lack of motivation to drag a heavy lens also stems from the fact that these lenses are surprisingly slow; both the 24-90mm and 90-280mm lenses have variable apertures ranging from f/2.8-f/4. Coming from a company that has released f/0.95 lenses, I would expect to see these big heavy (and expensive) lenses maintain at least an aperture of f/2.8 through the zoom range. Finally, we have the price. These lenses are eye-watering expensive, even by Leica standards. 

In an effort to keep the SL relevant in the mind of prospective buyers, Leica recently slashed the price of the camera system. In my mind, this was a sign of bad things....companies only slash prices of a camera when it is doing poorly in sales or about to be replaced. There are no rumors of a "SL2" system hitting the market anytime soon, which suggests to me that current sales are poor, particularly compared to the M10 release. With the new price adjustments, the SL sells for $500 less than the old Leica M240 ($5,995 vs $6,595). In what economic universe does a camera made in 2013 sell for $500 more than a camera made in 2015 with more features? 

I will pause here to say I am not Leica bashing--- I LOVE my M240 and the Leica M system. I just think Leica has stumbled with the release of the SL system, and barring a dramatic turn-around, I would not be surprised if Leica refocused back to the systems that have been very successful. 

Leica does not release sales figures to the public, so we're left to speculate. Price slashes.... delayed lens releases.... a clear focus on producing collectors pieces and historical re-releases.... behind-the-market performance in delivering new options. Are these signs of a healthy system?

Why would anyone buy an SL now? What consumer is looking at the limited options for organic system lenses and is excited by the offerings? And with competitors offering systems with more lenses, more capabilities, and better specs at a lower price, Leica risks loosing adopters of the SL system to newer cameras. 

Personally, I believe the slow release of lenses may be the doom of this system. For the price of joining the Leica SL club, one could easily invest in a 50 megapixel medium format camera (Hasselblad X1D). I have been insanely frustrated by the slow release schedule of the SL lenses - so much so that, combined with recent issues with my gear - I'm considering jumping ship and heading for pastures that have proven to be a bit more reliable in past years. 

What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Or is the Leica SL still a worthy buy?