By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS is, quite simply, to stop working against yourself. The single most frustrating thing about reviewing images that didn’t quite work is that you can so clearly identify when you, yourself, were the main obstacle to getting what you wanted. A misguided vision, an incomplete idea, the wrong technical method, or simply inflexibility or ignorance can cost you the shot, and it’s always, always horribly plain that it was you, not the light or the camera or anything external, that stamped “fail” all over certain photos.
I really had a clear, if painful, demonstration of this phenomenon last week, during a birding trip to Flagstaff, Arizona. Summers in “Flag” may bring unpredictable and sudden rainstorms and flash floods, but offer the consolation prize of one of the most amazing color explosions in the west, in its annual blankets of smaller sunflowers. Even when every bird in creation decides to sleep in late or simply play it coy, there are those sunflowers, filling every field, pasture, roadside ditch and creekbed. They are an insanely joyous gift, and it’s not so much a question of whether you’ll shoot them…it’s how well.
Perk’s Law: Don’t use a “superzoom” bridge camera for your serious landscape work.
The image you see here is a classic example of the right intention meeting the wrong gear. The bridge camera I use to attain insane zoom access to tiny tweeters is also one of the worst lenses for landscapes of faraway scenes. The more you crank up the magnification on a superzoom, the lousier the quality becomes, as their sensors, made tiny to accommodate the space-sucking bulk of a lens that goes from 24 to 2000mm, lose a ton of light, illumination that they try to compensate for by jacking up ISO. The lenses are great in their midrange, in broad daylight, but they reek in shade and, as you can see here, are mushy when it comes to textures and finer details of faraway scenes.
The aggravating thing is that I had a regular wide-angle prime (so, no zoom capability) that is sharper than an executioner’s blade sitting in my car, not 300 yards from this field of flowers. This was somehow too “inconvenient” for me, however, and so I allowed myself to imagine that, as the adverts claim, my superzoom “could do it all”. But what did I need a zoom for in this case, anyway? Consider: I was unrestricted in my access to the area, and could easily have walked to the composition I needed, which, if I had gone out with only the wide-angle prime, I would have had no choice but to do anyway.
So, let’s call a spade a spade: I zoomed because I could, because it was handy. The quality on the wider lens, which can close down to f/16 (the superzoom tops out at only f/8, because, well, starving for light, etc.) would have rendered the flowers sharp to the horizon instead of the melted crayon look delivered by the bridge camera. As for a tighter composition, I could have achieved that later with some intelligent cropping, cutting from an inherently larger, more detailed and sharper image file. The ultimate take-home is that I knew better than to send a boy lens to do a man len’s job, and my bad choice cost me a picture.
Biting-yourself-in-the-butt dept: I’m a huge advocate of taking along as small a haul of kit as possible, always searching for ways to do more with fewer lenses, cameras and gizmos. I’m a big believer in finding a camera that will deliver 90% of what you want 90% of the time, and in leaving all the other gear back in the hotel room. But when convenience actually means a bad return on your vision for an image, you’re not shrewd or concise. You’re just lazy.