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Old Friends, New Perspectives (or: From Exoskeletons to ExoLenses)

Over the past weekend, I had a long catching-up phone conversation with my friend of several decades, former assistant, and great photographer Jock Pottle, who now lives in North Carolina. A few years ago, I wrote in this space about Jock and his Digging Man series of illustrations…

Jock Pottle: Free Me

I still think the conception and execution of Digging Man are truly unique and the finished works are absolutely phenomenal. I also wish I had a connection to the art director of The New Yorker because that is one publication (among many) where the fit would be perfect. Hope you visit his site and agree.

Anyway, after our phone chat, Jock emailed this photo. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how it was done, although that may just speak to my lack of imagination at the time. Can you figure it out? (If you prefer to believe it’s simply one of the great photobombs of all time, I won’t try to stop you.)

Jock Pottle: grasshopper

On to another matter… Earlier this year, during our annual trip to the NAB show in Las Vegas, I spent time at the Zeiss optics booth. As always, their lenses for virtually every format in motion picture, television, and still photography continue to be at the pinnacle of optical design and manufacture (just look at this “sliced Zeiss” they had on display). Over the past 50 years, I’ve used Zeiss lenses on almost every camera I’ve owned and many of those I still work with.

But here’s the reason for this bit of unrestrained fan mail: I discovered that Zeiss has designed a series of three accessory lenses for the iPhone. Not one of those cheap 3-in-1 clip-on lens sets you’re probably aware of; think of these as prime optics (they certainly don’t come cheap.) The brand name on the lenses is Exo and you’d do well to check them out at exolens.com. I carry the iPhone 7, and the inherent macro capabilities of the phone’s camera are really impressive. However, mounting the Exo Macro-Zoom lens (with its integral diffuser) takes iPhone macro shooting to a whole new level.

There is a range of options for mounting the lenses to iPhone models going back a few generations. I use the case with a threaded screw mount into which each of these lenses mounts. The wide-angle and portrait (2x) lenses are just as impressive… here are some before-and-after demos of each:

This is as good a time as any to invoke the old adage that any professional photographer has used to answer a question asked hundreds of times — “What’s the best camera?”

And the answer, true now as it has always been — “the one you have with you.” And since I always have my iPhone at hand, it’s what I rely on every single day.

Eclipse 2017: Let’s Be Careful Out There

Unless you’ve spent the few weeks hiding under your desk for some reason or another, you’re aware of the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States today. Whether or not you’ve traveled to a region that will experience totality, it’s critically important that you take appropriate precautions while enjoying the view.

While astronomy buffs will likely already be aware, some photographers may not realize just how powerful the sun’s rays can be. Watch as the staff of Every Photo Store tests a vintage Canon Rebel XT’s sensor with a six second exposure. Obviously, this is far too long for a solar photograph, but is a reasonable amount of time to expect an average person to stare at the sun during an eclipse. (Trigger warnings: camera abuse, dubstep.)

Lesson learned: do the research in order to find an appropriate filter for the lens you plan to use. And never look through the optical viewfinder!

More importantly, you need to protect your two most precious sensors – the ones inside your skull. Former NASA/JPL employee Rod Ryle lost significant sight in one eye as a result of ignoring safety warnings as a child:

I viewed partial solar eclipses with faulty equipment as a child, and lost nearly half my vision in one eye. Trust me, it’s not worth it. And the worst part? There are no pain receptors in your eyes, so you won’t know you are damaging them until a few days later when it’s too late.

So how do you tell whether your filter or eclipse glasses are reliable? First of all, if they’re scratched, creased, or damaged in any other way, throw them out. Then, check the American Astronomical Society’s list of reputable vendors. Their web server is under extreme strain today, but Google’s cache comes to the rescue. Sadly, thousands of subpar products have made their way to market in the past weeks from unscrupulous vendors, and a great many people across the country are now at risk of permanent eye damage. If your filter isn’t on the list, please… view the eclipse through a pinhole projector instead – a method that’s been in use for thousands of years, and a simple, cheap way to observe the sun safely.

A Minor Rant on Camera Straps

The weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal is always full of great articles in the Off Duty and Review sections, but a recent small feature on camera straps got me really riled up.

Last week I offered to photograph an extended family visiting one of the beaches on Martha’s Vineyard. When I was handed their Canon EOS 5D, my willingness to take what became a very nice photo was accompanied by my insistence that they replace the strap as soon as possible. (“It came with the camera,” is—invariably—the response I receive for my earnest pleas.)

I’ve noted before the unfortunate (and dangerous) practice of wearing a ‘steal me’ advertisement around your neck, where the strap included with your camera lets the whole world know exactly which high-dollar camera you’re carrying. All manufacturers seem to be guilty of this; from their perspective, it’s simply Branding 101. For the customer, though, it begs an extra measure of vigilance while out and about.

WSJ camera strap feature So back to the WSJ: the photo shows a roundup of so-called “dapper” straps—none of which looks particularly comfortable—priced from 29 to 140 dollars. You’d be far better off with a strap from OP/TECH, superbly designed and made in the USA. I have found their Envy Strap to be perfect for both my mirrorless Fuji X-series bodies and my full-frame Nikon SLRs with long lenses. And the price can’t be beat: under 20 dollars. They’re comfortable, reliable, and they don’t attract the wrong kind of attention.

OP/TECH camera strap on Fuji X-E2

Raj, our technology director and blog contributor in his own right, goes one further and uses our microGAFFER tape to obscure the logos on his Fuji X-E2. Not only does it make the camera look more generic to thieves (perhaps even a touch dilapidated); since it leaves no residue, there’s no need to worry about ruining the camera’s finish when time comes to peel and resell.

Raj's Fuji with microGAFFER

Back in the days when I carried as many as three cameras around my neck and two more on my shoulders (zoom lenses didn’t exist), the strap of choice was known as the “Schwalberg Strap”, likely purchased from Marty Forscher’s Professional Camera Repair in New York. Now, it’s two cameras at most, with zoom lenses that can cover just about any optical range.

The bottom line is to spend your money on the things that really help you make better images, rather than just looking the part. More about that shortly, when I address the remarkable supplemental iPhone optics from ExoLens, which feature Zeiss glass.

Allen shooting Nikon tele lens

Joshua Paul – Capturing the Soul of F1 Racing

Anyone who knows me will confirm I’ve always had a fondness for cars. Given the slightest prompting, I’ll wax poetic about the bygone era when I lived in New York City and parked my Alfa Romeo on the street overnight (with the top down!!) And whenever the opportunity presents itself, I make it a point to go out and appreciate the fine details of classic cars – most of them also of a bygone era.

So I’m delighted to discover and share with you the work of Joshua Paul, who’s recently received attention across the blogosphere for his images which seem to have emerged from [all together, now!] a bygone era. Josh could be considered the driving force behind Lollipop GP, a photography magazine dedicated to the thrill of Formula 1. Have a look at Josh’s Instagram feed, and I’m sure you’ll agree he succeeds at finding the essence of the sport. There’s nothing better, short of actually being there to experience the roar, the heat, the smell, and the dazzle with your own senses.

Part of Josh’s style is his use of a classic camera, the Graflex 4×5 – a chimney-style SLR now over 100 years old. Based on the quality of his other images, it’s clearly a stylistic choice, not a gimmick. I was instantly reminded of one of my longest-known friends, David Burnett, who, if you haven’t seen previous mentions on this blog, you may recognize as “that one guy who used a Speed Graphic to cover the Olympics… and the Vietnam war… and presidential campaigns since JFK’s… and coups d’etat, famines, revolutions, and the various other things you come across during a 50-year career“. David happily makes use of modern equipment – he regularly carried two Canon 5D bodies, in that camera’s heyday, and has made striking images on everything from a Mamiya to a Holga. But he found his muse in the Pacemaker Speed Graphic 4×5, which he often mated to the 1943 Kodak Aero-Ektar, a 178mm f/2.5 lens originally used on World War 2 spy planes.

Now, to be clear – I’m sure that every other photographer in the images above worked very hard to get where they are and to come away from the gig with great images. The days are long, the bags are heavy (especially with those 400mm lenses), and the business side is more competitive than ever. And let’s not even get into how miserable it is to fly, these days…

Nevertheless, in the age of 20 fps motor drives and multi-lens cellphones, there’s just something wonderful about watching Josh and David use their imaginations to push their ancient technologies of choice in new directions. As Ansel Adams famously said, “the single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”

As I write this, issue #4 of Lollipop should be shipping soon; issue #3 still shows limited quantities available and can be ordered on Lollipop-GP.com. Coming in at 228 pages, it looks absolutely beautiful – not just in terms of images, but also graphic design. As for David, two of his books are currently available on Amazon: one, a chronicle of Bob Marley and the other reggae icons he encountered on tour in the late 70s, and the other documenting the fall of the Shah of Iran, the rise of the Ayatollah, and the ensuing hostage crisis.

Lordy… What a Light!

Thanks to James Comey for legitimizing my use of ‘Lordy,’ but a product I’ve been using recently has been just astonishing in what it can do in a package so small it belongs in every shooter’s gear bag.

Aladdin Eye-Light BiIt’s called the Aladdin Eye-Lite Bi. Distributed in the U.S. by Zylight, it’s a bicolor LED light that fits in your hand and is rated to run continuously for two hours (or far longer, if you don’t mind plugging in via micro USB). Color temperature is adjustable from 2900–6400K; a second dial controls dimming from 5–100%. Unlike many of the cheap “me too” LEDs we’ve complained about over the years, the Eye-Lite Bi’s color rendering is excellent – 95 CRI/TLCI.

Its 3.5” x 1.5”aluminum housing is sturdy and weighs a mere 2 ounces. The micro USB port is along the top side, and the ¼-20 tripod thread along the bottom can certainly come in handy when shoe-mounting to your camera or a mini tripod. There’s even a small loop built into one corner, about zip-tie size, if that’s how you like to keep things organized. It’s not cheap—it’ll run you about $160 at your local camera store—but it is worth it! (If you can get by on a non-bicolor version, you may still be able to find Aladdin’s previous models for a few bucks less; I first saw them at NAB a few years ago, and was impressed, but I feel that the bicolor version is a truly outstanding product.)

Aladdin Eye-Lite used as fill light

For its size, it puts out a lot of light, and you can easily tape any diffusion or color gels over the LED array. It is a terrific tool for close-up work, and I can see wide use in forensics. Anyone shooting with a macro lens, whether nature close-ups, food, jewelry, or scientific imaging, will see its usefulness. When you have a light source this small (and therefore this maneuverable), adjustments are incredibly easy.

I used it recently while photographing a necklace made by Martha’s Vineyard artist Kate Taylor. The materials are wampum, sea glass, and gold beads. While the image with no supplemental lighting is fine (if a bit flat), adding the Eye-Lite made a real difference in depth and dimensionality.

Product shot - before and after

As many of you know, I’m always looking for new products that extend our creativity, and this is one of several that I’ll be writing about in the next few weeks.