Twice the Fun for a Fraction of the Cost?

While this sounds like some horrific infomercial, it’s not. At least, I don’t think it is. What it is, is me being very excited about receiving a relatively cheap piece of equipment. What was it? Simply, a Kenko 2x teleconverter. I know, KENKO?! Yeah, just because my 420-800 Kenko lens sometimes behaved as though it was made from auto glass, you’d think I wouldn’t give Kenko another shot. Well, quite simply, the price was right, and I hadn’t read any disparaging reviews of it, as opposed to the Bower teleconverter and a couple of others that don’t need to be mentioned. For $69, I did what would generally cost a LOT more. Let me explain.

I just sent my friend a link to the new Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 lens. It’s amazing. My friend described it as looking a lot like a LAW rocket launcher. It does. It’s also, for being at it’s largest focal length and aperture, a 500mm f/2.8 lens, $25000. That’s a lot of money. Now, it DOES come with, basically, a 2x Teleconverter, which they refer to as — and this is funny — a 1000mm f/5.6 accessory lens. In other words, a 2x teleconverter. What this means is that you’ll be cranking in 1000mm at f/5.6 with whatever your crop factor is, in my case 1.5x, bringing the total effective focal length and aperture to 1500mm f/5.6 … that’s insane. It’s also, still, $25,000…

With this in mind, I give you what I did with my rig. Recently, I mentioned having sunk the $900 into the Tamron 200-500mm f/5.0-6.3 lens. It’s a beast of a lens. It really is. I recommend it, highly. My only caveat with it, so far, is figure out how to focus manually, quickly, because I’ve noticed that when there’s a lot going on, or it’s just not in the mood, it won’t autofocus worth a darn. That’s OK, for me, I’m used to that, and it DOES autofocus 80% of the time, for me, and that’s better than not. ANYWAY, it gives me, with crop factor, at the longest focal length, 750mm f/6.3. That’s slick. Add to that the 2x Teleconverter and you’ve now got — in theory — 1500mm f/11. For a total expenditure of $1,000, I’ve ended up with sometime slightly 3 stops slower than something that costs $24000 more.

That brings up the next thought on the Kenko teleconverter. It states in its “literature” that it reduces your exposure two full stops. OK, no problem. I’ve already accepted this and moved on. That said, I get out to Eastwood Metropark’s Hydrobowl, yesterday, as light is waning and there are a multitude of gulls — both Ring- billed and Herring — and a veritable bucketload of Goldeneye out in the middle of the lake. It’s about 100 yards to the center of the lake, so I though, OK, this will be a good test. I also worried about the exposure, so I compensated 2 stops for exposure. Wow. It was completely blown out. Interesting. So, I changed to -1.0. Still blown out. Well, that’s taken me from f/11 to f/8… I adjusted to -0.3…same result. So, FINE, I say, and remove all compensation and take it at its f/6.3 word. Beautiful, if not a little OVERexposed. This flew in the face of logic, documentation AND common knowledge. I don’t know why this is, I just know that I was shooting at 500mm f/6.3, according to the EXIF data, and it looked pretty darned good. 

With all of this in mind, it’s necessary to comment that at 500x2mm, things are a bit soft.  You WILL need to sharpen your photos, even if you’re a staunch purist and believe that tack-sharp in the viewfinder is all you need.  Trust me…you’ll still need to do a little sharpening love on the photos.  Case in point was last night’s half-moon.  I decided to see what the camera could do in the waning light  with a fairly bumpy looking moon.  It handled it well.  I was impressed.  At iso400, I was still looking at 1/100th and slower at 1500mm f/6.3. 

The bottom line is this — even at f/11, saving $24000 is worth it.  Heck, if I slap the 2x Teleconverter on my 70-300mm f/3.5-5.6, it ends up at 900mm (300mm  x 2x x 1.5x) with, even at its worst, an aperture of f/8 or so.  Since I picked that lens up on eBay for $30, I would say that’s worth a few stops, don’t you?  At any rate, the moral of this story is that even with the drive, at least in the sports and wildlife arenas, to get the biggest fastest lens you possibly can, there are some low cost (relatively speaking) alternatives that give you, depending on the situation, very comparable results for thousands of dollars less than that 400mm f/4 lens you’ve been drooling over.  Then again, I’m not saying it’s BETTER than the low aperture/high-speed super-teles, I’m simply saying if you’re not ready to sell the new Grand Caravan to get a lens, there are some alternatives to get you close while you save up for something … better.


Photoblog 2/9/2008 – Inspiration and/or Desperation

“Last night I wanted some inspiration, but I didn’t have any dreams…”  – Prince, “3 Chains of Gold”

Quite the contrary, I’ve had some doozies of dreams, recently, but none of them have translated to anything remotely similar to a good photograph.  In fact, most of them have just caused a slight curiosity, mostly confusion, a few grumbles, and a return to sleep.  So, I’ve been in a self-imposed rut, recently, and I wanted to get out.  What kind of self-imposed rut?  The most dangerous kind — self-doubt.

Self-doubt is the submarine that lurks beneath the surface just off the shores of any person in a creative field — or any field, for that matter — but I’m talking about creative outlets, here, so that’s our point of discussion.  I did myself both a world of good and a great disservice by going online and looking at other amateur’s photographs.  Specifically, I looked at the nature/bird photographs.  They were beautiful and inspiring — I wanted to get out and photograph birds, right then. That’s when the self-doubt started creeping in.  I look at these pictures of perfect birds in perfect focus with perfect light and I start to get discouraged.  I start to wonder what I’m doing wrong.  I start to feel uninspired because, really, if this is my competition, what’s the point, right?  I suppose, if you’re a quitter.  I’m not a quitter.

It does make one stop and think, though.  It makes you think about your equipment — is my glass good enough, my sensor big enough (6.1MP doesn’t seem so high-resolution, anymore) — and your location — Ohio is so damned boring in the winter, no light, etc.  Reassessment is good.  Overthinking is bad.  There are times when it’s just a matter of getting out there and doing it and seeing what you get.   For me, my biggest challenge seems to be focal planes.  With the new lens, the Tamron 200-500 f/5.0-6.3, I find that I have more out of focus pictures than not at the extreme focal length, which, I suppose, is to be expected.  They’re not hideously out of focus; it’s usually a matter of the branch about 2 inches in front of the raptor’s head is sharp as a tack, but head of the raptor…not so much.  So, it’s just repetition and practice to get that sweet spot where you can see in your viewfinder that perfect balance of bird and feather and have it translate to a clear, sharp, perfect picture.  What about that PERFECT picture that’s either out of focus or so soft-focus that it might as well be out of focus??  In my experience, it’s “too bad, so sad,” or “better luck, next time.”  There’s also, “get it right the first time.”  That’s where the practice comes in.

What does this have to do with either inspiration or desperation?  Everything.  When you have confidence, it’s all inspiration.  When you’re confidence has taken a hit, you tend more towards desperation.  What’s the difference?  Inspiration is when you go out in the field and you look around and everything is beautiful, perfect and new — you can just look around and see hundreds of perfect pictures but, more importantly, the two or three perfect PHOTOGRAPHS that you didn’t see the last time you were in the same spot.  Desperation is when you have gone to this same spot and you’re looking around, trying to find that new angle, that new interpretation, and you’re trying to FORCE creativity.  Ask thousands of corporate managers out there — forcing creativity is a lot like strapping a Spider monkey to a skateboard and expecting Tony Hawk. 

I went to Buck Creek State Park (by way of downtown Columbus and beyond…from Dayton…a little frustrating in and of itself…) full of desperation.  I’ve photographed at BCSP MANY times, somewhere in the low 30s, I think, and seem to have gotten into a predictable pattern: walk the beach, hope for a close Ring-billed, Franklin’s (rare) or Bonaparte’s Gull, Sandpiper or two and some smattering of either Meadow- or Horned Larks interspersed with Sparrows of various types and maybe a warbler or 2.  The last time I had gone out, it was 15 degrees with a wind coming off the lake that, by my guesstimates, was close to 30mph.  It was brutal, and not conducing to  creativity, really, other than how quickly I could back to the car.  That said, today was going to be different.  I knew it — it HAD to be.  I was going in with the mindset that I was GOING TO BE CREATIVE, DARN IT!  Yeah, right.  As soon as I stepped out of the car, the Ring-billed Gull started teasing me, flying within mere yards.  I hadn’t gotten any of my gear out, but that changed quickly, and I was able to snap off a photograph of the gull almost directly overhead (against the bland, irritating Ohio grey that is the winter sky).  I made a quick check to the LCD and saw that it looked really good — sharp, good composition and, despite the nastiness of the boring grey sky, good color.  Maybe, today would be different.

My intentions of being “inspired” and taking specific photographs that I had already composed in my mind disappeared completely as I looked over to my left and there, in the tree, not 100 yards away was what turned out to be a juvenile Red-Shouldered Hawk.  That made the inspiration melt away to “let’s find out who’s the better tracker, here…”  By the way, if you’re going to play this game with a raptor, get a big lens, some camouflage (which I don’t have), and hope for good ground cover.  This time was already different — I STARTED inside the 100-yard threshold.  In crept a different type of inspiration.

Instead of filling my head with questions like, “will this be the perfect shot?” or “will this shot be comparable to those I’ve seen on the net?” or “will this win any prizes or sell any prints?,” my head started filling with a single thought, “Red-Shouldered — 100 yards and closing, 500mm and f/6.3; slow and low — get a good angle.”  This  turned into an almost-mantra, with “slow and low, get a good angle” being the focal point in my mind.  I FELT inspired.  I felt that rush.  I felt alive.  I also felt connected.  This bird, just a bird, had brought out what had been missing about 20 minutes ago as I was grumbling in the car about the sunlight retreating behind the clouds.  There’s your inspiration — when you’re out doing what you love, in a situation that’s the same as it was 2 weeks ago, with new vision, new energy, new intensity. 

I rattled off 30 shots in 5 different locations, following this raptor from stump, to ditch (meal, that I missed because I was coming over the hill right as he made the kill and there was no angle for the shot through the 5′ grasses), to tree, to tree and, finally, to tree where she finally ditched me.  Of those, I have 4 that I’m happy  with and 2, so far, that other people might get to see.  That was a lot of gas, time and energy for one shot, right?  Yeah, it was, EXCEPT, it’s that one shot that matters, isn’t it?  It’s that one shot that reminds you why you do it and reminds you that you’re skilled, technically competent and, above all, a good, if not great, photographer.  Remember, your happiness comes first.  When you’re happy, confident and inspired, the rest will fall into place.  Case in point?  As I was walking away from the Harrier as she finally eluded me, I took some of the sharpest photos I have of a handful of American Tree Sparrows.  It just fell into place.  

Touching the Soul

When there’s a group dynamic involved, it’s hard to judge character, because everyone’s behavior is “modified” to adjust to the group. That said, there’s also an interesting group dynamic when tragedy strikes. Groups tend to close ranks, become closer with one another. It’s sad when that has to happen, though. What the heck am I rambling on about? Well, let me tell you.

This past Tuesday, as our class worked diligently in the darkroom, some nefarious character lifted 2 cameras, a purse or two and a cell phone. Initially, there’s that shock and disbelief. Then there’s anger. Then, I completely shut down within myself. I haven’t known the victims for very long, but I knew that a) they couldn’t afford this setback, b) they definitely didn’t deserve this emotional stress in addition that which is college, anyway and c) for at least one, photography is a career choice. I think that’s what kills me. It’s this kind of bullshit setback that, if the situation’s right (or wrong, depending how you look at it), can KILL that dream. I think that’s what hit me like a kick to the gut.

This resonated with me for a couple of reasons. The first is obvious. Photography is my choice of vocations. I know what goes into it. I know that there’s almost nothing that feels worse than having your gear stolen. I’ve been there. I had a Minolta Maxxum3, a 28-70mm and 70-300mm lens stolen…roughly $600 in equipment, $850 if you include the point-n-shoot digital… More importantly to me, though, was that I had 4 exposed and 2 unexposed film thingos waiting for love. There was also a fairly new point-n-shoot Sony Cybershot in there what would have been nice to have back, but, it didn’t matter to me NEARLY as much as my film. You can’t replace what’s on the film. The other thing was, I was in a financially salient moment in our life where I was able to do something about it. If your gear is lifted and you’re a college student who just chunked down for tuition, books and all the other expenses, that’s a HUGE setback. That’s what hurt me the most, and I can only imagine the feeling of the students involved. Having had my wallet stolen, I sympathized deeply with that poor dear, too. That a big ol’ pain in the ass. It’s not that I have more sympathy for one than the other, but I do. Does that make sense?

Thankfully, I was in a position to do something about it, this time. I had a couple of camera bodies — one that even had lenses — that I could donate to the cause. They weren’t the best. The Yashica FR has no light meter, the lenses are odd — the 50mm is blown wide to f/1.9 and the 135mm is a little smudgy from being Connor’s prime of choice when he was shooting film. Not coincidentally, Connor had chosen to buy, with his own money, a Nikon D40, so he was, at this point, digital. After explaining what had happened at school, I asked him if he would be willing to let one of the girls have his old camera, which was my old camera, which was someone else’s old camera. He said absolutely. So, I took them into class, and it was exceptionally easy to part with the camera for this cause. NOW, I’m not saying this ’cause I want pats on the back or karma or kudos or whatever might be construed from this. I really just want it paid forward. Yeah, it’s corny — but a) it’s a good movie and b) it’s a good philosophy. I want this girl, when she’s in a position to upgrade her equipment and get something a little more professional, to be able to pass the camera on to another student, or anyone else in need. That’s what this is about — helping someone who was in a position to have a major setback avoid that, and be able to continue down the path they’ve chosen.

Sitting and contemplating WHY it impacted me in such a way got me thinking a lot about what my motivations are, not only in returning to school but in everything I’m doing. I then started thinking about others’ motivations. I finally came to the conclusion that if it’s possible to keep one photographer in the game, this equipment-centric, expensive game, then I have to do that. I have to help someone move past a setback and be able to continue down the path that may provide the world with another Ansel Adams, or, in this case, maybe Anne Leibowitz. What one person can contribute to this world is such an unknown, you have to give it a chance to expose itself, so to speak. You have to.

Review: Tamron SP 200-500mm f/5.0-6.3 AF di LD IF Lens (more than just a lot of letters…)

So, I walked in and plunked down the money for this lens, a UV filter and a faster CF card. It was slightly painful, but I got over it very quickly. First, let’s talk turkey. I got this for nature photography and intimidating neighbors. Well, mostly nature photography. So, I wanted to get out right away and play with my new, expensive, heavy, toy. It was overcast. Not slightly overcast where at ISO200, you can still meter in at 1/125 or better at f/6.3. No, this was 1/20 at f/6.3 … No rain, just dark and dreary. Did I let that stop me? NO! Should I have? Probably. It was also 35 with 25 mile-per-hour winds off the lakes I visited. Brr.

So, I attach everything that needs to be attached to the lens, which took all of a minute. It was very intuitive. I like that. I also list the “effects/attachment” ring that allows you to attach filters such as polarizers, which require you turn them to be effective, and still use the hood. VERY cool. Now, it was time to mount this beast to the Nikon D70. It snapped on with a satisfying “click” and while it felt a little loose, initially, it was fine for the duration of the afternoon. The next task was attaching it to the tripod, which was easy as panna cotta (as these things go, it’s easier than both pie and cake, so…), and then I set out to see what I could do with this thing.

I went out to the beach at Ceasar Creek Reservoir. It was very cold and there were 10 birds, total. A crow, a Canada Goose and 8 skittish Ring-billed Gulls. Whee. That didn’t stop me from trying, though. To my chagrin, the wind was blowing pretty steadily and stiff, to boot, and the large lens on the tripod acted much like a very heavy sail. My main complain with the lens at the point was it was pretty heavy. Then again, my tripod isn’t light, so the two together…I’ll start lifting again, this spring, and that should help… The main challenge, here, was that I was in as bright “sun” as the day had given me at I was still metering at 1/30 f/5.6 @ ISO200. I thought I’d give it a whirl, since it was on a tripod. Birds move too quickly. However, the AF did a great job of focusing on the birds (or so I thought – more on that in a bit). It was quick and only did any “searching” when I went from extremes – light background to dark background or trying to pick something up 20 feet away instead of 50 yards. I stayed for close to half an hour, despite not having much feeling left in my hands. I rattled off close to 100 shots, including pictures of the gulls, a bizarre Canada Goose, a flock of Starlings and an American Crow who was remarkably still for me, despite having been almost blown out of the tree by wind gusts a couple of times. After the crow left, I felt compelled to leave, as well.

My next stop was Spring Valley Nature Preserve. I stopped at a little pull off about 200 yards before you get to the blind, which is about 1/2 mile out from the lake-front parking area. This is where *all* the action was. For a quick birding report, I spotted around 15 Northern Cardinals, 20 or so American Goldfinches, MAYBE 2 Pine Siskins, a slew (20+) of American Tree Sparrows and a Downy Woodpecker. Of all these, I shot, handheld, at ISO 200, 500mm, f/6.3 and managed between 1/60 and 1/80. There was very little searching, but on looking at the pictures when I got home, the focal plane is exceedingly shallow and the difference between the bird being in focus and the blade of grass 2 inches in front of the bird being in focus…I couldn’t tell you — because that cropped up a lot. If it weren’t for the lack of sun, I would have tried stopping down to make it so that I could have BOTH the bird and grass in focus, but didn’t have time to get the tripod out — these birds are skittish!! After 5 minutes, they had all disappeared back into the brush, deep enough that *I* couldn’t see them, let alone the lens try to pick them out from within the brambles. I handled moving birds pretty well. Handheld, it was lighter than on the tripod, for sure, and I didn’t really feel any fatigue in my arm when I was done, there. I continued on to SPNV, proper, but seeing no activity on the lake nor hearing any in the trees, I left, heading to a different section of Ceasar Creek.

At the Observation Tower, I got to shoot some plant life, rather than birds, since the birds were nowhere to be seen. I take that back — I saw 1 Field Sparrow. At any rate, with the high winds, I didn’t stick around very long and I had to pick and choose what I shot. The lens did a VERY good job of keying in on what I wanted and was quick about it. It shot a number of photos and left. That concluded my cold, grey, sunless outing.

My overall impressions of this lens are as follows: It’s heavy, but not unwieldy. I have used heavier, though not attached to my heavy tripod. While it’s a formidable combination, it’s not completely unwieldy and shouldn’t deter anyone who can lift and carry bags of sugar around. Don’t let the weight scare you away from this lens. You’re not going to find a quality 500mm lens that weighs less — the 500mm f/8 mirror lenses don’t count. I love the range. The 200mm was gorgeous, snappy and at f/5.0, bright. The 400mm setting was fast, sharp as a tack and advancing to f/6.0, bright as well. At 500mm, the f/6.3 didn’t seem to detract from the overall brightness and while here is where I ran into focus troubles, it was still fast and did little searching. I didn’t notice any chromatic aberration, to speak of, but there wasn’t a lot of sun and/or weird reflections to test it against. Usually any fringing I get is shooting birds in the canopy against the sun…that obviously didn’t happen, here, and will have to be tested, this morning, probably.

I said I’d talk about my problems with the focus. Well, they’re pretty simple. I’m not used to this lens, at all, and spent a lot of shots focusing just in front of or just behind the subject in question, which left me with questionable results. This is merely something I’m going to have to get used to and thank my luck stars (or financial stars) that I was shooting digital on this outing — out of 197 photographs, 2 were “useable” in my opinion. Not really good odds, but that should improve once I figure out how to do everything I want to do…and be left-handed at the same time. Dear Nikon — I’ll offer all my services as, well, whatever you need, to help you design a LEFTY model of these cameras so I don’t have to criss-cross arms to focus comfortably AND release the shutter. That said, it’s an exceptionally easy lens to use and the tripod mount is very solid — heck, everything about this lens is solid. It feels like a quality lens and, from what I’ve seen so far, it is a quality lens.

I met my friend at the cemetery so I could hammer out some depth of field pairing for my homework. I took the digital along with the lens, just because. I wish I had taken it out with me while I was shooting with the film camera, as the Red-tailed Hawk was exceedingly accommodating — almost as if he knew the longest lens between us was a 300mm. That said, with the bright sunshine, it was impossible not to take it out for at least SOME shots, and it performed amazingly. Even at ISO1600 (remember kids, check your ISO settings before every shoot, especially after letting your 9-year-old play with it for a few shots…), the shots were crisp, clean — negligible noise — and, as I mentioned earlier, the AF was snappy and there was almost NO searching in the “good light” situation. Of course, you want to secure yourself some dirty looks, take this lens, with hood attached, to a cemetery…I don’t know why people get so uptight about this, especially at a cemetery where the Wright Brothers, Paul Dunbar, Irma Bombeck and a few other notables are buried…the only people we encountered in the cemetery proper were taking pictures…they just looked intimidated by the lens. THAT’s the response you want, and, unless the person you run into is carrying a 400mm f/2.8 or larger, is what you’ll get. As a side bonus, besides being a rock solid lens that performs very well for nature/birding, if you’re walking the sidelines at the local game, you will be able to hang with the “big time” photographers. Heck, you’d be able to hang with them even at a semi- or even pro game. Granted, it’s not going to overshadow the monster teles, but at the 500mm f/6.3, you’re only a stop and a half off from the $6K lenses and you walked away, even with the UV filter, for under $1,000. For another $200, you can get a 1.4x teleconverter and, even with the f-stop loss, you’re still looking at 625mm (before DSLR crop factor) at f/8. Considering the Nikon 600mm f/4 AF lens will set you back close to $9,000, not a bad tradeoff. The bottom line is, if you’re on a budget, which most of us are, and/or don’t want the massive lenses for whatever reason, this is probably the lens I would pick, 9 times out of 10. The other time, I’m not sure why I wouldn’t pick this…I think I was just being contrary.

I know — the important question: would I recommend this lens to my best friend, who would come after me with a large flail if I steered him wrong? Absolutely, I would.

Tech info:
Focal range: 200mm-500mm
F-stop Range: f/5.0 – f/32
Filter size: 86mm
Weight: 43.6oz (1237g or 2 lbs. 11.6oz)
Minimum focus distance: 2.5m or 98.4″ or 8′ 2.4″
Warranty: 6-year Factory warranty
Retail: $879.00 — until 3/31/2008, there is a $30 factory rebate on this lens
UV Filter cost: $80

The Next Step

The past four days have been spent trying to remember how to be a student.  Remember the quote, “In the beginner’s mind, the possibilities are many; in the master’s, they are few.”  Well, yeah, there’s been a lot of that.  I’ve been trying to forget what I know about photography, specifically, to learn those aspects that I may have glossed over because I didn’t think they were either fun or would help me in the situation I was entering.  That’s the problem, I believe, with self-teaching.  The major importance of my journey through the photography certificate program at Sinclair Community College is to force me outside of my comfort zone, outside the normal confines of my photography.  If I’m to grow, I need to be forced to be more creative in ways that are…well, more creative.  Don’t tell me that doesn’t make sense…it makes sense to me.

I’m looking forward to the next few assignments — we’ve got a photogram assignment, a depth of field study and a creative motion study.  Those are the three that are outlined on our class site, and so those are the ones I’m preparing for, mentally.  I’m thinking of hammering out a couple rolls of film — one for each, of course.  I will probably not get to do both, today, but that’s for another reason altogether.

I’m moving on up.  Not to a deluxe apartment in the sky, but I will be setting aside the light-challenged Kenko 420-800mm lens.  I know — it’s been good to me, even with sub-standard glass and apertures bordering on psychotically small (f/8-f/32…) for wildlife photography.  It’s captured a lot of beauty in its time.  It even secured the photo that has sold the most (even though it’s more than just a touch noisy (comes through as grain, thankfully) and, more importantly to my eyes, soft-focus (and that’s being kind)), Stealing a Kiss.     It’s time for the Kenko to bow out, gracefully, to be used by my sons, probably, for their learning to use super-telephoto lenses.  Why am I setting aside the Kenko, since I don’t have anything with a range beyond 300mm?  That’s going to change.  In about 2 and a half hours, actually. 

I’m driving to Click! camera out in Miamisburg, and I am going to purchase the lens that I “test drove,” yesterday.  Actually, I tried 2 lenses, the Nikon 70-300 VR and the Tamron 200-500 di lens.  The safe choice would be the Nikon lens because, well, it’s a Nikon, it’s a good range, and it’s got vibration reduction.  I was duly impressed with the lens as I took a few test shots in the store, hand-held, at 1/15 and it was, almost, sharp as a tack.  It showed a little motion blur, but not a lot, and, for being hand-held, like I said at the speed (1/15, f/5.6 @ ISO100), it did remarkably well.  Then, I picked up the big one.  Now, it’s not as “friggin’ awesome” as the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 that I looked at a couple of days before, nor is it the best, aperture-wise, for the focal lengths.  However, for the price and what it allowed me to do (I took a picture of the steering wheel of my car in the parking lot from the back of the store — roughly 100 yards — and it was bright and sharp… 500mm, 1/50th @ f/6.3, ISO200…), it left me with no question in my mind.  The fact that it came in below MSRP and only about $150 more than the VR lens made it, to me, the bird photographer, a no-brainer.  Did I mention that auto focus was REALLY fast, quiet, and did almost NO searching even when taking it from extremes within the store.  It DID do some searching when I was trying to convince it to focus on the steering when, through not only a rain-covered windshield but the store-front glass doors.  I think I can accept that.   Add to that, the tripod collar, filter effect mounting control system, and the fact that it’s quality glass, it’s the way I’m going.  I just wish Mother Nature would stop tossing these hideously overcast days our way.  Then again, not starting off with an f/8 handicap will probably make things a little easier to tolerate.

Back to class…I like it, a lot.  It’s kind of odd to try NOT to “know everything” because I most assuredly do NOT.  The return to film is odd.  We went to Fairborn Camera, because they will have just about everything I need for the class, and I wanted a Nikon film body so I could, potentially, use my lenses with whatever film camera I ended up with.  I got a great deal, I think, on an N8008S with the Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 lens, a manual AND one of those third-party “how to use your camera” books.  Not bad for $229 or so, considering the camera looks like it was used by either a student who was REALLY careful, or someone who wanted it for family functions and trotted it out for Christmas, once day a year, every year before settling on a Coolpix 5700 or something…it has NO blemishes anywhere and it seems to be in superlative working order.  The lens is snappy and clean and I’m looking forward to learning how to push it further than I know how, now.  Then again, the pushing is most likely not going to be technical; there’s a lot of aesthetic learning I’m going to be doing. 

I just noticed that I’m yammering.  Can you tell I’m excited?  Can you tell that the decision to return to photography has revitalized me?  Can you tell that doing something you love makes all the difference?  I love cooking, creating, programming — I really do.  I love playing guitar and recording my music.  I do, really.  I have also come to the determination that there are always going to be people more skilled at programming, or talented at cheffing, or skilled at the guitar, not to mention photography.  The defining moment of realization I came to realize, though, was that while there are people better than me at these things, there’s one thing that can’t be compared and that’s the love of the craft of photography. 

I love programming to a degree, and that mainly revolves around the money — it’s much better than the food service industry or,  really, any other industry I would consider, now.  So, if I’m in it for the money, how long before my mind, or, more importantly, my heart, wanders?  I love being a chefling.  I love preparing food in creative ways to blow people away.  I love it.  However, in my current job, that has been removed as an option…the love has dwindled a little.  That said, I still love cooking for my family and, perhaps, my friends, but it’s more personal and I love the freedom…once that’s removed, my love fades a little.  I love my guitar.  I’ve been playing for 21 years (holy HELL, how is that possible?!) and have improved over time.  I’m not to the point, however, where I feel comfortable playing in front of other people or even having other people listen to and critique my music.  I’m just not confident in it and I don’t believe I’m good enough at it.  

That’s where the photography comes in.  I’m good enough, apparently, that people want to, and do, purchase my photographs.  I love that — confidence feels GOOD.  However, nothing, to me, feels as good as getting out into the world, into a forest, to a beach, and capturing the beauty that nature places before us.  I can come home with 5 Phil-certified Excellent shots out of 150 and still feel completely jazzed and refreshed.  It’s because I LOVE photography and I LOVE nature.  Two things that I can’t get anywhere else.  IF I could program computers on a beach watching the seagulls (maybe just Gulls, since the closest SEA is the Atlantic…900 miles away, as the Fish Crow flies), Mergansers, Ducks and Loons, then I might consider programming again.  If I could cook for people out in the middle of a nature preserve, THEN it might resonate as much as photography does.   I used to talk about the “cook’s high” that I learned to love after handling 48 covers in a solid 45-minute stretch.  I used to think that was the best feeling there was.  Then, I stalked Northern Harriers with my son, Connor, out in 32-degree weather in dying light and watched them, learned the patterns and, eventually, photographed them.  It was AMAZING to me.  Connor was a little salty about being frozen to the bone, but, to me, that was a secondary annoyance relative to the rush of capturing these surprisingly skittish raptors on, well, the memory card.

Anyway, I need to go to the bank, then Click!, then Sinclair, then somewhere else — wherever life takes me.  Actually, I may just go someplace after Click! and before Sinclair…maybe Buck Creek or Ceasar Creek Reservoir…or maybe…yeah…

Travels to the Edge

A new day is dawning. I’m borrowing the title for this particular missive from the PBS show of the same name that features one of the most important photographers alive, Art Wolfe. I’m borrowing the title for two reasons. The first, I love the show, I love the photographer, and I have aspirations to be able to have as much impact with my photography as he does. Second, I’m embarking on a new journey, this morning, that will be, for me, a travel to the edge, as it were: returning to school.

What do I mean by Art Wolfe being one of the most important photographers alive, today? Well, if you know his photographs — which you probably do, even if you didn’t know that Art was the man behind the lens — then you know they’re amazing photographs. What you might not know how much of his photography involves traveling and educating people about what he’s photographing, what’s important about the environment he’s showcasing and what we need to do to protect it. He’s GreenPeace with a lens instead of little floaty boats parked in front of oil tankers. He’s Clean Water Action without the canvassing. He’s nature’s best advocate and he needs more exposure…so to speak. Sorry, that was an unintentional pun, but the point remains: not only are his photographs fantastic, unique and just damned awesome, but his message is conveyed loud and clear through these images — this is a beautiful world that needs to be protected. So, that said, check your local listings and explore “Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe,” visit his web site (, and — most importantly — do your part to preserve this world. How you choose to do this is up to you. Me? I’m going to follow in the footsteps on the masters before me and take breathtaking photographs that will say, “this is what we have. don’t let it disappear.”

So, now, my travel to the edge begins today, this morning, in an hour and a half. I’ll be setting foot into my Business Law class — my first classroom in 12 1/2 years. It wouldn’t be a “travel to the edge” if I knew what I was getting into or had any clue how my brain was going to react to having to LEARN, again, so…this should be interesting. Equally interesting is the shedding of the Culinary Arts degree program. I know, I know…but I had to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. I still love cooking, creating, “cheffing.” I do. I have just found that I love photography more. So, I’m entering into the certificate program at Sinclair Community College for Photography and will, at the same time, work on either an associates in Business or work with whatever their Entrepreneurship program entails. Either way, this is going to be a business, and I’m going to learn how to run it, effectively. Pictures that make an impact can’t do so unless people other than me, and my family, see them. So, business + photography = Phil’s new groove. Let’s see what happens!

Life Like Stew

Life Like Stew. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? I mean, what part of life isn’t like a boiled, season, pot of water? OK — I know that more than a few of you are lost. That’s OK. I’m tired and punchy, excited and only partially caffeinated. I would say it’s a long story of amazingly deep philosophy. Nope. If you’re familiar with the Dragonlance series of books (I stopped reading after the original 3 trilogies, so that’s the extent of my knowledge, there…), then you know gully dwarves. If you know gully dwarves, then you know the single- (and fairly empty-) minded philosophy is, “Life like stew.” Without going too deeply into this mindset, I will simply state that 2008 is going to be a better year because of this philosophy. Why? Take a seat and I’ll try to explain. Actually, you probably don’t need to take a seat; this won’t take long.

“Life like stew” translates, roughly, to “live simply.” That’s what’s going to have to happen this year for me to be happy. Does this mean shedding all my technological trappings? No. Does this mean removing the clutter from my (and my family’s) life? Yeppers. This isn’t really a New Years’ Resolution, per se, but more of a promise to myself that I won’t allow those things from the past I don’t “need” to threaten my pursuit of making me, and my family, happy, wealthy-ish and wise-er. The first step in this process is to eliminate superfluous nonsense from my (our) life. From there, achieving well thought out plans will be much easier — clutter creates chaos. Chaos breeds clutter. See the cycle? Sometimes it’s hard to see the chaos from the clutter, and vice versa…


I owe Quentin, Ken and Drew a quarter, each. I used a “forbidden word.” We discussed this work about 12 years ago and decided that one could not re-imagine something. Once you something is imagined, that’s it, you’re simply re-designing or modifying it, thereafter. At any rate, I’m reimagining myself for 2008. Well, not for a time period, specifically, but rather it coincides with enough of a life-changing event that it’s as good a time as any for me to figure out what I want to do when I grow up and to — and this important — do it.

It seems that I have embraced my first true love. No, not a high school sweetheart. No, not something I “loved” when I was 8. No, this is something that is a constant call, irrespective of what I’m doing. This is something that lives in my heart, and isn’t what I am doing, currently, full time. That will change. I have thought long and hard about what it is that makes me happy. I know, being happy and being wealthy don’t always go together, and I doubt that will change. I don’t see myself making money hand over fist at what I *want* to do, but I do see myself not being as crabby, not being grumpy about the “politics of work” or irritated that I don’t see myself advancing in the job where I am spending life.

I am an artist. I am a photographer. I am a cook. I am a programmer. To quote a movie or 6, “There can be only one.” Fine. I am a photographer. That’s what it’s going to be. I’m not giving up on my other two loves, but I’m not focusing on them, exclusively, for income, either. I am a photographer. What this means is I am going to have to get better equipment, dedicate myself to a schedule of shooting as well as the business side of the art, achieve discipline I’ve not had with regards to my art and, finally, come up with a business plan and not only stick to it, but make it succeed. Am I nervous about foregoing “guaranteed” income for something that could be considered a little less than scant? I mean, there is a reason there is the phrase “starving artists,” you know. Yeah, I’m nervous. I also know that there are people out there who are, already, interested in my art. It’s now much more of an exposure game, so to speak. I need to put forth the money and effort to get the portfolios created and in the hands of those who want to see them. It’s about getting my pictures out to every outlet I can to start making a name for myself. That said, I need to know what name that is going to be.

Personally, I love nature photography more than anything else. I don’t hate photographing people, but I don’t really like it, either. Most of that is because I’m not comfortable with it, don’t feel I have the proper lighting equipment, etc. — whichever excuse you see fit to attach. So, I must “grow” my art. A little water, some Miracle Gro, and, more importantly, some learnin’. My initial attempts at going back to school were all aborted because of timing and/or monetary issues. Since that’s not going to be the case, now, there are no excuses. I will be registering January 2nd in Sinclair’s Photography certificate program and will be “unlearning” bad habits and learning to be more comfortable with those aspects that vex me. Of course, this also means I might have to dig up some old film cameras that haven’t seen much action, recently…

Don’t think this means you’re not going to be seeing new recipes from Chef Phil. Don’t think I’m not going to continue writing code for my various side projects. However, don’t expect that they’re going to be getting a lot of time from me until this Philip M Ware Photography gets established. So, now, I have to finish cataloging the bird photographs I do have, getting them into an organized site and getting it exposed. I need to update my site. I need to commit. That’s the hardest part, isn’t it? Well, not this time. (I hope.)