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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Its a Lens, Baby!

A newspaper stand near Grand Central Station, New York. Nikon D700, Lens Baby Edge 80 Optic
I have always loved the art of manipulating and deliberately employing depth of field. In my photography I find that I have two working modes in that regard - either lots of it, or almost none at all. You will rarely find me working with an aperture of f8 or 5.6, unless I am in the studio, or I have reason to ensure sharpness through layers of people in a group - that kind of thing. Because I shoot people mostly, I find myself more often than not in the wider aperture arena.

So, as you can imagine, the new LensBaby Edge 80 is a fascinating new way for me to further explore the possibilities with depth of field. Now, I can not only minimise or maximise it....I can bend it and warp it as I see fit. Oh yeah. I am going to love that. Hey, I already do!

Walking the streets of New York in May gave me an opportunity to try out the Lens Baby without worrying too much about the consequences of making a mistake. While I love street shooting and don't want to make mistakes, no one was paying for the images and Glynn and I were walking the lengths and breadths of New York for the fun of photography, nothing else. We walked about 100 blocks that day in search of images for ourselves. Sore legs? Check. Great photographs? Well, we thought so. Either way, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to try out the new LensBaby Edge 80 that had made its way into my LowePro Pro Roller.

9th Street Billy. Nikon D700 and LensBaby Edge 80

We met many wonderful people that day as we interacted with them and photographed them. Street shooting is about being candid, or being completely and confidently interactive. So, in that endeavour we encountered buskers, waiters, film makers and  conspiracy theorists. Yes, New York has its share of interesting characters. Among these is 9th Street Billy, who engaged us in conversations about life, art, music and....well, a myriad of other things. While he spoke I clicked away, bending and shaping the LensBaby Edge 80 as best I could while he moved through his life lessons. Working with the LensBaby is never easy, although Glynn and I discovered that it works more easily with a 35mm sensor than a crop sensor camera. (Note that I refuse to use the term "full frame' with regard to my D700's sensor. All cameras are essentially 'full frame'.) There is less room for error with cameras that have a larger sensor and if there is one thing about the LensBaby Edge 80, it can be a sensitive little beastie. This is especially the case when you open it right up. With its 2.8 aperture wide open you need only move a millimetre and your sharpness is off, especially at closer proximities. For this reason, I have experimented using f4 and even 5.6 for portraits, which is a strange thing for me to do. Whatever you do, make sure you know how to use it well before you commit to paid work with it. You may find yourself dismayed at first, but as with all things, practice makes perfect.

Times Square, New York. Nikon D700
with the LensBaby Edge 80
The other thing to remember is that the natural rules of depth of field also apply, so the further you are from your subjects the less likely you are to have them out of focus. I found portraits difficult, but street scenes easier, simply due to the distance involved. Anything I captured at a distance was pretty sharp, but those close, tight portraits were more difficult. The 80mm focal length can work well with both portraits and larger expanses within the frame. At close range, though, you need to take your time. No matter what you are shooting, before you leave the scene or change composition, ensure that the sharp bits in your pictures are actually sharp!

In the 15 or so years I have run workshops, photo tours and seminars, I have always endeavoured to teach methods and techniques of in-camera capture that highlight the subject. Essentially, successful photography is about this very pursuit, not leaving the viewer to question the reason or intent of the image. These techniques have naturally included tight composition, using depth of field, lens perspective, metering techniques and prioritising light over location. Now, with the LensBaby Edge 80, I have found another means  of highlighting the subject that I am looking very much forward to exploring and employing - Light Bending. I have much to learn about the LensBaby Edge 80 Optic, but its something I am really looking forward to doing. In fact, I would love to shoot an entire wedding with the thing, but would never do so on a commissioned wedding of my own. I would be too afraid of losing those essential images to my inexperience with this beautiful new toy. I would also imagine that any bride or groom in their right mind would find two or three hundred 'lightbent' images of their wedding a little tiresome, perhaps a tad overdone. A dozen would be more than enough. Darnitall.

So...if you have a place for a third wheel at a wedding you're shooting soon....can I come along and experiment with the LensBaby? Hmmmm?

The busy streets of New York have their tenants. Nikon D700, jpeg in monochrome setting, LensBaby Edge 80

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The Life, Times and Images of photographer, Shelton Muller

Images on this blog are copyright Shelton Muller