Ode to Toys

I'm just back from leading a photo trip on the Oregon coast for American Photo as part of their Mentor Series program. As is usual on a workshop like this, I took along a few of my favorite accessories, which I often call toys, to add some variety.

There are a lot of different ways to get the creative juices flowing when you’re out looking for pictures. I always start with my eyes on “wide view,” scoping out the area around me for a nice overall, or wide shot. If I can’t find anything interesting that way, I start looking closer. That means I’m looking for whatever catches my eye, from a spot of light or color to a pattern. If I’m lucky, that will lead me to something worth photographing.

But there are times where nothing seems to be working, and that’s when I go to the toys. A little while back I bought a used Nikon D70 and had it converted to infrared by the good folks at Life Pixel. In this process they remove the low-pass filter over the sensor, which among other things blocks infrared light. Then they add a filter to make the sensor even more sensitive to infrared. The result is a camera that shoots only infrared, but lets you do that without using filters or long exposures. The day before the trek started my good friend Josh Weisberg from Miscrosoft joined me for a trip to Mt. St. Helens and we had a blast shooting our cameras (he also has a camera converted to IR) around that mountain.

Another of my favorite toys is a Lens Baby from Sam Pardue’s company. I’ve been a big fan of these since getting my first one back in 2005, and have recently upgraded to the latest model, called the Composer. If you’re not familiar with Lens Baby, it’s an accessory lens that lets you set a focus point in one area of an image and have the rest go softly out of focus. It’s a nice effect. After lunch in the town of Cannon Beach the first day of the trek, a few of us were wandering the area when we found a few lilies growing next to a brillint blue building. We shot that scene a few different ways, but one of my favorites was with the Lens Baby.

With the introduction of Nikon’s FX chip cameras I’ve been exploring some lenses I hadn’t used since my film days of the 1990s. Using the DX cameras of the last seven years I’ve grown fond of the 10.5mm DX fisheye. It’s a fast lens (f/2.8) and in addition to being a full-frame fisheye, when paired with Nikon’s Capture NX 2 software you can also convert it to a corrected (takes away the circular look) 130-degree view. This feature makes it a fast, super-wide dual-purpose lens in a very small, compact package. With the FX cameras, though, I needed the 16mm f/2.8 fisheye to do the same thing, and so I added one of those to my kit. It was the perfect lens to use in the Point Meares lighthouse.

Finally, I’ve got an old Nikkor 55mm 2.8 macro lens that I’ll carry with me if I’ve got an extra pocket. It’s pre-AF and manual exposure, so I have to change the camera’s exposure mode to manual and figure out exposure using highlight and histogram. But it’s compact and very sharp, plus pretty fast. It didn’t come out of the bag until the last day, when one of the people I was walking a trail with spotted a snail.

I love shooting pictures, and the “toys” I’ve collected over the years make it even more fun. The only downside is that as with any good thing, you can go too far. That’s why I don’t always take them with me, and when I do, I may only carry them one day of a trip. After all, there are only so many infrared, Lens Baby or fisheye shots people are willing to look at. But for a nice change of pace, and a new way of being creative, they’re hard to beat.

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