Posted by: kerryl29 | October 24, 2022

Gear (and Technique) Follows Intent

Let’s do something we seldom do on this blog:  talk about gear.  Well, sort of talk about gear.  And let’s do something else we do here rather sparingly:  talk about technique. Well, sort of talk about technique.

First, a seemingly irrelevant exposition of my current camera/lens situation:

Half Dome at Sunset from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California

Earlier this year I completed my transition from the Nikon F-mount system to the Nikon Z-mount.  This process began roughly 18 months ago when I first acquired a Z7ii camera body with a 24-70/4 “kit” lens.  (I put the word kit in quotation marks because the 24-70/4 lens—part of Nikon’s premium Z-mount lens line designated as “S” (for “Signature)—is surely one of the best performing kit lenses ever designed, produced and sold, for any camera system.)  At the time the Z7ii/24-70 purchase was made, I also added the 14-30/4 to cover ultrawide focal lengths and very shortly thereafter I added another Z7ii body.  (For more information as to why I have two identical camera bodies, go here.)  Along with the Nikon FTZ adapter (purchased at a steep discount at the time of the original Z7ii acquisition), which allows relatively seamless performance for most modern F lenses mounted on Z cameras I was, at least temporarily, set.  One camera body had the 24-70 lens attached, and when the 14-30 was needed (for focal lengths shorter than 24 mm), it would be swapped onto this body.  The other camera had the FTZ adapter mounted and the 80-400 mm F-mount lens from my old system attached.  This left a small gap between 70 mm and 80 mm—only rarely an issue.  But it also left me with the 80-400 lens as my telephoto option.  For the record, I have owned two 80-400 mm F-mount lenses over the period of more than 15 years and I have never been entirely happy with either of these rather expensive optics, mainly because I never considered either of them sharp enough.  (The second, more recent model, is better than the first, but only by degree.)

Mt. Burgess from Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Additionally, I continued to use, on occasion, two other F-mount lenses with the adapter:  Nikon’s now ancient 200/4 mm macro lens and a Sigma 24-35/2.  I use the 24-35 sparingly, but it was a terrific asset when photographing the aurora borealis in Alaska last year.  The macro lens is a favorite of mine, but because of its design, it cannot autofocus with Z cameras.  The only reason this matters to me (I rarely use AF for single shots with a macro lens) is that it makes it impossible to use the Z’s automatic focus stacking feature with this lens.  I remain hopeful that someone—Nikon or a third party—will produce a reliable adapter that will allow these old-style F lenses to autofocus with the Z system, but I’m not holding my breath.  (Nikon has released an excellent “mid-range” macro lens (105 mm/f2.8) for the Z-system, but I’m not sure I do enough macro photography to justify purchasing it and I do much prefer the longer working distance of the 200 mm model, so I currently have no plans to buy the Z-mount macro lens.)

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

Nikon has had a lens road map for the Z system, which they’ve modified from time to time, since the Z lineup was first announced back in the late summer of 2018.  The two lenses on that list that I always hoped to purchase were the 24-120/4 and the 100-400/4-5.6.  I once had a 24-120 lens for the F-mount and absolutely loved the versatility of the focal range (but was not very happy with the optical performance of the lens).  I waited for reviews of this new lens, and for the 100-400.  As more and more lenses—particularly S-designation lenses—were released for the Z-mount, and it became clear that there wasn’t a dud in the bunch, I became increasingly confident that these two lenses would measure up to my standards.  As a result, I pre-ordered both of them within a few days of their simultaneous announcement in October, 2021, though I hedged my bets by making sure that I could cancel those orders if I didn’t like what I was hearing as reviews trickled in.  (I knew that it would be months after the pre-order was placed before I could expect delivery of these new lenses.)  As I hoped and expected, the reviews I read were glowing.  Days before the end of the year I received the 100-400 and, reviews notwithstanding, I ran my own set of side-by-side optical tests of the 100-400 and the 80-400.  The former blew the latter away, as I anticipated, allowing me to retire the 80-400 from my kit for good as well as banish the adapter to usage with only the macro and 24-35 mm lenses, both of which are specialty case performers for me.

Swallowtail and Azaleas, Kings Mountain State Park, South Carolina

I didn’t receive the 24-120 until mid-May, almost eight months after the pre-order was placed, by which time I knew I wanted it and didn’t give it a true field workout until the recently completed trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin (to be chronicled at some point down the road), during which it performed brilliantly.  So my current working kit now consists of two cameras and three lenses:  14-30/4, 24-120/4 and 100-400/4-5.6.  There are now no focal length gaps between 14 and 400 mm and with some focal length overlap, there’s less need than ever to swap out lenses or rigs.  For the first time since I began shooting with a digital camera (more than 19 years ago) I’m completely happy with my landscape lens set. 

[Waves tiny flag.]

Sunrise, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

So that’s the gear talk.  I’m sure that everyone (?) reading this is happy that I’m happy.  But why am I, someone routinely on the record as stating that (in my opinion) gear is overrated, going on and on in this post about gear? 

Answer:  To further illustrate and emphasize that point, and to adapt that very assertion to the area of technique.

Monument Rocks Black & White, Logan County, Kansas

A discussion I had with my friend and photo buddy Ellen Kinsel made me think about this.  (Thanks to Ellen for helping to inspire this post.)   We recently spent a week, give or take a day, in northern Minnesota, photographing along the North Shore of Lake Superior and in the aftermath of the trip, we’ve exchanged a few images.  This led to a brief discussion about approaching some of the scenes we encountered on the trip and, inevitably, about gear and techniques used in some of those instances.  During that dialogue, I mentioned that whatever techniques I may use in a given instance are based on what I intend to do when rendering a scene. 

Upper Falls Black & White, Letchworth State Park, New York

Whatever I’m doing—whether it’s related to specific in-field techniques (e.g. focus stacking, high dynamic range capture, etc.), or what lens I choose to use, or where I choose to position the camera, and so on—it’s all a matter of my intention to present the scene in a particular way for some explicit set of reasons.  The gear and technique(s) I use follow my intent.  Gear and technique are tools–means to an intended end.  They are not, in my view, ends in and of themselves.  I don’t bracket focus and/or exposure for the sake of it.  I don’t use a given lens just because I have it in my backpack.  It’s all about achieving the means to express a given vision.  Just as a painter might choose a specific type style of brush and/or employ a particular painting technique to achieve his/her vision, I choose a specific focal length (lens), employ specific camera settings (the exposure triad), select a specific camera position (e.g. close to ground level, etc.) and use a particular method of capture (e.g. focus stacking) for a direct, intended purpose.  The gear (and technique) are the tangible means to a desired aesthetic, a decided intangible end.  And it’s all very intentional.

Bluebells Intimate, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

All of that may seem extremely obvious.  (At first blush, it certainly does to me.)  But apparently, for many people, it isn’t.  Let’s face it, there are photographic techniques and styles that become quasi-fads.  Remember when everyone and his brother was capturing star trails?  Remember when light painting was all the rage?  Remember when every other photographer was using blur techniques by pointing his/her camera out the window of a moving vehicle or playing around with vertical camera movement or zooming during a long exposure (frequently of a grove of trees)?  If it’s sounds as though I’m being dismissive of any or all of these things, that’s not my intent at all.  It’s simply to point out that there’s a kind of copycat tendency with something (anything?) that’s a bit…unconventional and new.  (This can apply to digital techniques just as consequentially as with in-field actions.  Remember when you couldn’t turn around without tripping over someone who was implementing the Orton effect?)

White Trillium, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

What seems to happen with many of these things is that a huge number of people play around with some new technique (or unusual piece of equipment) in a chunk after it bursts on the scene and then, almost inevitably, it—whatever it is—ceases to be new.  After a bit of time, it’s no longer so interesting and you see evidence of it less and less as time goes by.  As a consequence, the faddish nature of the technique fades away.  But the technique itself doesn’t disappear completely.  People do, after all, still capture star trails, and they do still create blurs, and they do still use things like focus stacking, and so on.  And, hopefully, the residual use of these no-longer-new approaches overwhelmingly becomes the province of people who are using it to accomplish something intentional. 

China Creek at Sunset, China Creek Beach, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing around, in a sort of carefree manner, with something new.  It can be a lot of fun and it can also lead to a creative aesthetic as employers of these new things start to realize new possibilities.  But eventually, the excitement that comes with the veneer of newness dissipates and technique becomes little more than a tool…and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

Pinkham Notch Color, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

When the ability to (relatively easily) stitch digital panoramas became a reality a couple of decades ago, I kind of went bananas with them.  I was creating panos here, there and everywhere.  But over time, the “wow, I can do that” aspect of the concept wore off and I produced fewer and fewer panos.  These days, I still create panoramas (sometimes stitched, sometimes single frame crops), but it’s solely a function of when I see a scene that I think really lends itself to a panoramic rendering.

Lost Lake Slough Reflections, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

The same thing can, and often does, happen with gear.  I know people who have picked up a fisheye lens and, for a few days or weeks, all they do is photograph with the fisheye.  Everything looks different in the viewfinder when a fisheye lens is mounted on the camera.  But gradually, the newness factor recedes and, the vast majority of the time, the fisheye fades into niche use.  For a lot of people, it ends up gathering dust In the closet.

Lily Pads Black & White, Mabel Lake, Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, Wisconsin

I don’t own a fisheye lens, but I can remember a similar (if more muted) tendency when I first procured an ultrawide angle lens.  It got some pretty heavy use for a while, but after a bit of time, that eased dramatically.  Now, when I pull out the ultrawide, it’s to achieve a specific effect when facing a scene.

Technique is following creative intent.   And gear use is following creative intent.  And ultimately, that’s how I think it should be.

Golden Light, Twelvemile Beach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
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