Lenses: The Long and Short of it

Gary Hart Photography: Howling Dog at Sunset, Bandon Beach, Oregon

Howling Dog at Sunset, Bandon Beach, Oregon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/50 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

I hope everyone is doing well. I’ve been sequestered at home since returning from Anchorage two weeks ago (visiting my daughter, a trip that seemed okay when I left, but really stressed me when it came time to fly home). Social distancing, shelter in place, quarantine, or whatever you want to call it, we’re all coming to terms with our new reality in different ways. With my wife stuck in Southern California and no kids at home to entertain or educate, I’ve been left to my own devices as I try to fill my days productively: processing images, learning new skills, cleaning up my website and social media pages, and rescheduling workshops. I hope you’re staying safe and happy.


My previous blog post detailed my current equipment lineup and got thinking about me lens choices, specifically about how much I use each lens. Much as a golfers try to identify the ideal club for the unique location and lie of their ball, photographers have to identify the lens that creates the shot they’re going for. Every scene has many variables requiring a seemingly endless number of decisions, from the exposure settings that manage the scene’s motion, depth, and light, to the focus point, to framing.

Prime lenses are undeniably sharper and more compact than zooms, but sharpness gap has narrowed so much in the best lenses that, for me at least, the convenience of being able to refine my framing in my viewfinder justifies whatever small (and often imperceptible) quality they sacrifice. (But zoom versus prime is a personal choice, and a debate I refuse to have with anyone.)

Framing is the most obvious reason to select one lens over another, but it’s certainly not the only reason. As a general rule, the more I want to emphasize my foreground, the wider I’ll go, sometimes filling my frame with a nearby subject and significantly shrinking the background. Telephoto lenses are great for isolation shots that highlight a single aspect of the distant landscape, and also to compress the apparent distance between near and far subjects.

The lens choices we make say a lot about our vision in the field—what we see and how we chose to express it. So, to get a better idea of my own lens choices and maybe identify potential creativity-limiting biases, I created a 2019 lens-use report in Lightroom. Here’s a screenshot for that report detailing the number of frames I shot with each lens in my bag in 2019:

2019 lens use breakdown

And here’s the breakdown:

  • —  (3 images): This is (was) my 24mm f/1.4 Rokinon (its name is unlisted here because this lens doesn’t communicate any information to the Sony bodies) that used to be my dedicated night lens—until I sold it after getting the…
  • Sigma 20mm f/1.4 (10 images): I bought this lens about a month before Sony announced their 24mm f/1.4 GM lens (I hope this will silence the people who assume my Sony Artisan status provides inside knowledge, and who think I’m holding out when I say I don’t know of any new Sony equipment on the horizon). This is a very good lens, but it’s also massive. I bought it to become my dedicated night lens, a status it held for about a month—until it was replaced by my 24mm Sony f/1.4 (more below). I only used the Sigma once, side-by-side with the new 24mm Sony, and decided the Sony was slightly (but noticeably) sharper (and much, much smaller and lighter).
  • Sony FE 12-24mm (388 images): Not a high volume lens, but the 12-24 has become essential because it allows me to do things I once believed to be impossible (see my previous blog post). Even though I like to have a polarizer on all of my lenses, I don’t mind too much that this lens doesn’t take filters, because it’s so wide that I’d get differential polarization (which I hate) in the sky anyway.
  • Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM (1609 images): Since part of this lens’s focal range is covered by the 12-24, and the rest is covered by my 24-105, you could argue that it’s redundant. But this may just be the sharpest non-prime lens I own, (unlike the 12-24) it takes filters, and f/2.8, while not as fast as I’d like for night photography, is in fact fast enough. And sometimes when I’m photographing the Milky Way, I want more sky than my 24mm f/1.4 lens gives me—this is especially true in New Zealand, where the Milky Way is higher in the sky than it is in North America. Plus, as a general rule, the extreme ends of a lens’s focal range are not usually its best, so when find myself shooting the 12-24 or 24-105 at or near 24mm, (and I’m not being lazy) I’ll switch to the 16-35. One other reason I love this lens is that it delivers the sweetest sunstar of all my lenses.
  • Sony 24-105mm f/4 G (3322 images): My most heavily used lens and it’s not even close. I actually took more pictures with this lens than I did with all my other lenses combined. These numbers are skewed slightly by the fact that this is my primary lightning lens, because in an active electrical storm my Lightning Trigger might fire hundreds of times with only a handful of visible strikes (it rarely misses the visible strikes, but also catches many strikes that I or my camera didn’t see). But even accounting for that, my 24-105 is the volume winner by such a wide margin for the simple reason that it has a broad focal range that covers both the moderate wide and telephoto zones. It’s also really sharp, and relatively compact. That said, seeing these numbers makes my think maybe I’ve gotten a little lazy and should think more about the possibilities with the other lenses in my bag.
  • Sony 24mm f1.4 GM (208 images): My latest dedicated night lens, I haven’t a single picture with this lens when the sun was out. Super sharp, and so compact I don’t even know I’m carrying it (it actually squeezes into the front pocket of my Levis. I just got the 20mm f/1.8 G lens, which is even smaller, but haven’t used it—I’ll probably use both at night (only) rather than try to decide between the two.
  • Sony 70-200mm f/4 G (83 images): I love this lens, but it has been replaced by the 100-400 and I rarely carry it anymore. To save weight in my camera bag, I did take the 70-200 to New Zealand last June instead of the 100-400, and really appreciated having a lighter bag (especially since NZ is very tight on carry-on weight).
  • Sony 90mm f/2.8 G (6 images): Wow, only 6 images with this crazy sharp lens. Part of that low number is because I only carry this lens when macro is my primary objective, and part of it is because I’ve really gotten into using my extreme telephotos with extension tubes for my close-focus work. But maybe I need to dust this lens off and use it more in 2020.
  • Sony 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 GM (603 images, including teleconverter): The majority of my 100-400 images are of the moon, but I use it for other stuff too. In spring and fall I add extension tubes and do creative selective focus, and sometimes it’s fun to just put it up to my eye and slowly pan a landscape to identify subjects to isolate. Adding the Sony 2X teleconverter is like putting this lens on steroids, essentially doubling all the things I like about it. The teleconverter costs two stops, but I see no appreciable degradation of image quality—it’s definitely the sharpest telephoto/teleconverter pair I’ve ever used.
  • Sony 200-600 f/5.6-6.3 G (114 images, including teleconverter): Since lens is pretty new, so far I’ve only used it for the moon. But wow, if you want to make your moon big, try this lens with the 2X teleconverter and APS-C (1.5) crop. I’m looking forward to trying it for the selective focus work I use the 100-400 for.

About this image

The sea stacks at Bandon Beach on the Oregon Coast make a great starting point for an image, but because there’s so much else going on here, I try to avoid making the sea stacks my ultimate goal. Since the scene at Bandon varies quite a bit with the tide and sky, when I photograph here I like to wander at the water line and identify features that I can assemble into a composition: sea stacks, reflections, surf, sun, and (fingers crossed) clouds.

The reflections following waves receding on the very gently sloping beach are better at Bandon than most beaches because the water doesn’t recede as quickly, and there’s more surface area for them to form. The best reflections happen when there are clouds and or color in the sky, so I like to arrive early enough to pick my composition, then wait for the magic.

On this April evening I found a little creek, fed by runoff from recent rain, leading right into Howling Dog (often misidentified as Wizard’s Hat, which is a short distance south). The sun was behind the clouds as I worked on my composition, but the clouds were moving so fast, I knew the sun would appear soon. But I’d found my shot early enough that when the clouds parted, I was ready. A film of thin clouds subdued the sun’s brightness, making exposure easier. All I had to do was wait for a wave to wash up and recede, then click.


A Collection of Images, from Long to Short

Select an image for a closer look, exposure info, and a slide show

 

Hunkered Down

Gary Hart Photography: Sand Like Glass, Bandon Beach Sunset, Oregon

Sand Like Glass, Bandon Beach Sunset, Oregon
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 GM
1/30 second
F/18
ISO 100

So how has your world been upended by the coronavirus? Fortunate for me, mine so far has been firmly pegged on the inconvenience side of the coronavirus inconvenience-tragedy continuum. I’ve had to reschedule a couple of workshops, answer lots of concerned e-mails, and abandon some firmly established routines, but (as far as I know) no one in my circle has even gotten sick. So you won’t hear me complaining.

One thing this shelter-in-place time has provided is the opportunity to mine my image folders for forgotten gems that my (formerly) busy schedule never allowed me to process. And you know what? It’s actually kind of fun. I have some shoots that I’ve mentally bookmarked as “sure things,” but the coolest thing is that I’m finding stuff I’d completely forgotten about. I started with this image from January 2019 at Bandon Beach (for no other reason than it was in the oldest folder on the hard drive that happened to be in closest reach), and it turns out this is the first image I’ve processed from this scouting trip Don Smith and I took fourteen months ago—one of the shoots I’d completely forgotten.

In addition to going through old images, and to prevent myself from going completely stir crazy, I plan to take this opportunity to spend more quality time with my camera. One of the nice things about landscape photography is that it can be both a group or a solitary endeavor, and both are pretty great The group aspect I’ve covered pretty thoroughly with my workshops, but the solitary part has suffered in recent years. Spring is one of the best times to photograph the foothills near my Sacramento home, and with everyone’s travel so restricted, I plan to take full advantage of the reduced crowds during what’s normally one of Yosemite’s busiest seasons.

I also think I’ll try to do some of that education and skill refreshing that I always say I need to get to, but never do. And who knows—maybe I’ll even find more time for my blog….

About this image 

Don and I were in Bandon scouting locations for our shared Oregon Coast photo workshops that were scheduled to kick off a couple of months later. We’d been to Bandon a number of times before, so the goal this evening wasn’t so much to identify photo spots as it was to become more familiar with the light, tide, and surf here.

I started this evening way up at the north end of the beach and slowly made my way south. The tide was out, exposing lots of sand and rocks that had been submerged on previous visits, and the thing that most drew my eye was the reflections on the sand left by receding waves. In most places the reflections faded as the water percolated downward into the sand, but in the spots where extra water was funneled by rocks embedded in the beach, deeper indentations created pools. At first I was just content to look and mentally compose, but when the sun approached the horizon I got my camera out and went to work. I started with a few sunstars as the sun dropped into the clouds, but the best stuff didn’t come until after the sun disappeared.

I don’t have any specific memories of composing this shot, but I can tell by looking at it that my mindset was to pair the foreground rocks and reflection with the background sea stacks. To emphasize the rocks and reflection, I went wide and got very close, allowing them to nearly fill my frame. Then I waited for a wave to flood the scene, and recede to reveal a reflection.

Hang in there everybody (and wash your hands!).

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Life’s a Beach

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Reckless at Bandon

 

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Reflection, Bandon Beach, Oregon

Sunset Reflection, Bandon Beach, Oregon
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
.8 seconds
F/18
ISO 50

January

In January Don Smith and I flew to Oregon to get eyes on the damage caused by the Eagle Creek fire in advance of our (now just completed) annual Columbia River Gorge photo workshops. Not knowing what we’d find there, we allowed lots of time to scout new locations to replace the ones we lost. Fortunately the fire damage, while tragic and extensive, was limited to a very small part of our workshop area and we were easily able to find suitable substitutes for the two waterfalls we lost.

With a few extra days on our hands, Don and I beelined to the Oregon Coast to see for ourselves what we’d been seeing in beautiful images for years. And in the back of both of our minds was the opportunity to check out the area’s potential for a photo workshop. The scenery didn’t disappoint, and workshop plans began to take shape.

After a great, albeit wet (waves to my waist), sunset shoot at Cannon Beach, we headed down the coast the following morning, photographing in a light, intermittent rain along the way. As the day progressed, so did the rain. By the time we made it to Face Rock Beach, an hour or so before sunset, visibility was just a couple hundred yards in sideways rain. Rain and wind is not usually enough to deter us (wind is worse), but everyone we ran into in Bandon urged us to head inland before the incoming storm hit, or risk being stuck there. Not knowing the area and with a flight to catch the next day, we heeded the advice and evacuated to Eugene without a single Bandon image. But by then we had a workshop framework in mind and knew that we’d be back to Bandon for multiple scouting trips.

April

We returned to the Oregon Coast a few weeks ago, about a week before this year’s Columbia River Gorge workshops. In addition to general feet-on-the ground quality time on and near the coast, we were especially anxious for a second shot at the spectacular sea stacks of Bandon. This time we took a couple of days to make the trip from Cannon Beach to Bandon, encountering occasional rain that diffused the light and made for wonderful photography along the way. (It’s easy to see why the Oregon Coast is so lush.) But pulling into Bandon, the sideways rain was (still?) falling—does the sun ever shine here?

Despite the conditions, Don and I were so determined to photograph Bandon that nothing short of a tsunami would have kept us off the beach. Donning our rain gear, we trekked out to a strip of sand separating the violent surf from the rocky cliffs and set up, thankful for low tide. The rain and wind made photography difficult, but it gave me time to familiarize myself with this spectacular beach. At one point it started hailing, but brightness near the western horizon gave me hope that conditions would improve before the sun set. The rain stopped about 30 minutes before sunset. Benefiting from my newly gained insights, I was prepared to take full advantage of the remaining light and went right to work.

The photography was spectacular, but I hadn’t fully accounted for ramifications of the incoming tide—shots that had looked so promising earlier were now a bit more dicey. I found that I could make tenuous positions work most of the time, but every dozen or so waves included at least one that sent me scurrying for higher ground. So far none had made it all the way up to the cliffs, but as a native Californian, I’ve been around the beach enough to know that you should always anticipate a wave that’s at least twice the size of the biggest wave you’ve seen so far. So while I knew even the biggest waves to that point would have at worst soaked me, I knew the potential existed for a life-threatening “sneaker” wave.

Photographing Cannon Beach in January, I’d been quickly soaked to my ankles by an unexpected wave, and figured what the heck and just stayed out until the surf regularly washed up to my waist. But the surf there was more gentle, and behind me was gently sloping sand—and I only felt cold there, never in danger. But pinned by cliffs at Bandon, prudent decision making would have driven me to more open sand with an easy exit to high ground. But that’s not where the pictures were. So I continued photographing with a wary eye on the surf.

It soon became clear that the frequency of my wave dodging was increasing with time. At one point I left my tripod and camera to rescue my camera bag, once believed to be safely stashed atop a rock. I return to find my tripod on its side and my camera face down in the sand. There was no water damage, and the landing was soft enough to avoid impact damage, but a veneer of sand rendered it unusable until I could clean it off.

With my 16-35 and a renewed vow to be more careful, I went back to work. Every two or three waves forced me to race to higher ground (I’d ruined a pair of shoes at Cannon Beach in January, and didn’t want to double my loss with their replacements), but as the sky started to color, I soon realized that these big waves also left a reflective sheen in their wake. I captured this image just as the sunset color peaked. Just a few minutes later the advancing ocean took over the beach and drove Don and me to higher ground.

Brand New Oregon Coast Photo Workshop

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A Coastal Gallery

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It’s in the bag(s)

Gary Hart Photography: Sunstar, Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon

Sunstar, Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/25 second
F/16
ISO 100

Gary Hart Photography: Surf's Up, Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon

Surf’s Up, Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/4 second
F/16
ISO 100

I just returned from a trip to Oregon with Don Smith. The prime purpose of our trip was to check out the fire damage in the Columbia River Gorge in advance of our annual spring workshop there. Because the damage in the areas where we take our groups wasn’t as severe as we’d feared, we didn’t need to spend a lot of time scouting alternate locations, leaving us with some extra time on our hands. And what do photographers do when they have extra time? That’s right—they take pictures.

In our case, we drove down the Oregon Coast as far as Bandon. Though Bandon was a complete washout photographically—wind, rain, minimal visibility, and an incoming storm that chased us inland on our final night—we saw enough of the coast that we decided to add a workshop there. (More on that later.) The photographic highlight of the coast trip was Cannon Beach, where we found the conditions much more favorable for photography.

If it looks like I got wet capturing these images, it’s because I did. Really, really wet. I started just trying to keep the water out of my shoes; by the time I finished, the surf was coming up to my waist and it no longer mattered because I knew I wasn’t going to get any wetter (as long as I stayed upright).

I did this entire shoot with a body and two lenses I didn’t have a year ago, which make me realize how new gear I added in 2017. Since I get asked so frequently about my gear, it occurs to me that I should just add my inventory to a blog post. So here goes…

What’s in my bag

I photograph nothing but landscapes, but the content of my bag varies with the location, whether I’m driving or flying, the amount of hiking/scrambling the trip will entail, and my overall objective for the shoot (conventional landscape, moon, stars, lightning, macro, or whatever). I have a core set of equipment that’s always with me, and an assortment of specialty gear that I add or subtract as the situation dictates.

Core gear (almost) always with me

  • Body: Sony a7R Mark III with Really Right Stuff L-Plate
  • Body: Sony a7R Mark II with Really Right Stuff L-Plate
  • Lens: Sony 12-24 f/4 G
  • Lens: Sony/Zeiss 16-35 GM f/2.8 + Breakthrough neutral polarizer
  • Lens: Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f/4 + Breakthrough neutral polarizer
  • Lens (coming soon): Sony 24-105 f/4 (will likely replace the 24-70 for most uses)
  • Lens: Sony 100-400 GM + Breakthrough neutral polarizer
  • Teleconverter: Sony 1.4x
  • Teleconverter: Sony 2x
  • Sony RM-VPR1 remote release
  • Tripod: Really Right Stuff TVC-24L with Really Right Stuff BH-40
  • Tripod: Really Right Stuff TQC-14 with BH-30 (I always carry one tripod, but rarely both)
  • Black Diamond headlamp
  • Giotto Rocket blower
  • Filter bag: MindShift Gear Filter Hive—attaches to my tripod (but I wish it opened on the other side) and carries…
    • Breakthrough 3-stop hard graduated neutral density filter
    • Breakthrough 5-stop ND
    • 1 Sony NP-FZ100 battery (a7RIII)
    • 2 Sony NP-FW50 batteries (a7RII)

My Sony mirrorless system is the lightest, most compact core gear I’ve ever carried. The a7RIII is my primary body. A always carry a backup body; that used to be the a6300, but I like the a7rII so much that I couldn’t part with it when I got the a7RIII. But I do like having a backup body with a crop sensor, so the a6300 is rarely far away. It’s very compact, and I’m so happy with the image quality that I don’t hesitate to use it as my primary body when I want the extra reach its 1.5-crop sensor provides.

As a 100 percent landscape shooter (nothing that moves), I’m always on a tripod. That means f/4 glass is usually all I need, and Sony’s f/4 glass provides a great combination of compactness and image quality. In a moment of weakness I replaced my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4 with the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM and like it so much that I can’t go back. It’s quite compact for an f/2.8 lens, and fast enough for most of my night photography. And the sharpness is off the charts.

My primary tripod/ball-head choice is the RRS TVC-24L and BH-40 for its combination sturdiness and height in a relatively light configuration. When weight is a concern, such as when I’ll be flying or plan some serious hiking, I opt for the RRS TQC-14 with the BH-30. While not quite as tall as I’d like, this combo is much lighter and plenty sturdy enough for all my body/lens combinations.

Specialty gear (with me as needs dictate)

  • Body: Sony a7S Mark II with Really Right Stuff L-Plate
  • Body: Sony a6300 with Really Right Stuff L-Plate
  • Lens: Rokinon 24mm f/1.4
  • Lens: Sony 90mm Macro
  • Lens: Sony 70-200 f/4
  • Extension tube set: Kenko 10mm and 16mm
  • Lightning sensor: Stepping Stone Lightning Trigger LT-IV

My specialty gear comes with me when I have a specific objective outside the typical landscape scenes I encounter (and that are well handled by my core gear). Whether I’ve planned a moon rising above Half Dome, the Milky Way above the bristlecone pines, lightning on the rim of Grand Canyon, or wildflower or fall color creative selective focus, I have the body, lens, and accessory combination to handle it.

To capture a huge moon in my moon rise/set shoots, I use the 100-400 with the 1.4x or 2x teleconverter. Even with a teleconverter, this combination is sharper than any long lens I’ve ever used. Adding it to my a6300 gives me 1200mm full-frame-equivalent.

For my creative selective focus photography, I add extension tubes to this my telephoto lenses or Sony 90mm macro. Though extension tubes cut light, I don’t hesitate pushing the ISO of any of my Sony bodies as far as I need to.

Night photography is another personal joy. While the a7RIII gives me all the high ISO performance I need for most of my night photography, the a7SII’s ability to virtually see in the dark is ideal for the darkest nights photographing the Milky Way. Paired with the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens, this combination finds usable detail in impossible darkness. Equally important, using focus peaking with the a7SII/Rokinon combination, I can focus effortlessly on the stars, in seconds.

As a long-time daylight lightning shooter, both on my own and leading photo workshops, I have accumulated many years of lightning photography trial and error (not necessarily in that order) experience. More than enough experience, in fact, to know that shutter lag is death to lightning photography. Though I was fully committed to Sony before I had a chance to try it for lightning, I was thrilled to discover that the electronic front curtain shutter on Sony mirrorless bodies has the fastest (best) shutter lag of any camera available. Any of my Sony bodies paired with the Stepping Stone Lightning Trigger (the only lightning sensor I trust) provide the best chance for lightning success.

Camera backpacks

  • F-Stop Gear Tilopa
  • F-Stop Gear Guru

I like the F-Stop bags because they’re the perfect combination of roomy comfortable (for long hikes), and durable, yet compact enough for an airline overhead bin. In the field, I can fit virtually all of my core and most of my specialty gear in my Tilopa, plus a down jacket, gloves, and hat. When I fly, my tripod goes in my suitcase, but the rest of my camera gear never leaves me because I can fit a fully packed Tilopa into any overhead bin I’ve ever encountered (including the puddle-jumpers). When I want to travel light (my Grand Canyon raft trip, for example), I opt for the Guru, which handles all of my core gear and some of my specialty gear.

Since I always want my bodies and lenses with me (not in my checked luggage), sometimes I fly with the Tilopa stuffed with gear and the empty Guru packed in my large suitcase; at my destination I load the Guru with whatever gear I need for the next shoot. And if limited overhead space ever forces me to check my bag at the gate (which has never happened, fingers crossed), I can remove the bag’s ICU (Internal Camera Unit) and store it at my feet, leaving the mostly empty bag for the flight attendants to store.

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Surf’s Up

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

 

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