How I Spent My Weekend

Back in mid-september, me and a friend (and fellow photographer) had lunch together. During this lunch we lamented the fact that as a photographer, there’s just not a whole lot of good photos of yourself. We jokingly concluded that the best way to achieve this would be to gather a bunch of photographers in one site and simply shoot each other. Lightbulbs were lit above our heads, aha-moments were had and when we introduced the idea to a third photographer-friend the metaphorical wheels were set in motion.

Long story short, ten people gathered in a countryside-house about an hour or so outside Stockholm to have fun with photography. We brought everything we could carry and fit into the cars. Everything from large-format cameras to digital stuff, flashes and whatever we figured we might need.

A lot of fun was had. Below are a sampling of photos I took.

Fisheye or No fisheye?

Five years ago when I got back into photography and started being serious about it, I loved wide-angle lenses. I didn’t have a lot of money, but a superwide lens was on my wishlist. Back then I wasn’t quite as experienced and mature, and I’ve noticed how my compositions have grown and become better, as well as finding my own style.

Wide-angle lenses are a tricky breed and most photographers don’t understand how to (in my opinion) use them properly. Nothing applies to wide-angle lenses like that old Robert Capa quote.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

As my style developed (hurr durr, photography joke) I became less and less interested in superwide-angles. Since I became more and more interested in portraits and people, I became more interested in longer lenses.

But a while ago I bought a Samyang 12mm/f2.8 fisheye, and I think it’s absolutely hilarious. First, it’s so wonderfully wacky and secondly, it’s a pretty damn good lens overall. I’ve often said that it’s impossible to take a boring photo with this lens. Bad photo? Hell yeah. Boring? Nope, that can’t be done. With a crazy fisheye like this, everything is hilarious and interesting, even if the photo is crap.

To me, this is a fun, creative toy. It’s mostly useless for “serious” photography, but it’s a lot of fun shooting with it. Since the distortion is so crazy, you can abuse it to take bizarre portraits of your friends, as demonstrated below with the help of an old friend.

In the photo to the left, taken at closest focusing distance for this lens which is a little more than 20cm, his face is almost pressed against the camera. It is really shoved into his face, you can’t be shy with one of these lenses. The one on the right is a little more sane, but his face was maybe 30 cm from the lens.

If you treat a fisheye right, you can use it for a variety of less laughter-inducing purposes. Landscape photography is one, if you make sure the horizon is fairly vertical and don’t have a bunch of trees at the outer edges, no one will know you used a fisheye.

Another possible use is for interior photography. This is not optimal though, you need to perspective-correct the photos afterwards so the rooms don’t have that hobbit-y look. This unfortunately throws away a lot of the photo – but in a pinch it might do the trick.

Below are the same photos with the same editing. The difference between them is the one on the left has been perspective-corrected in Lightroom. Note how it cuts off the door on the right, as well as making the perspective so much more long. The hallway seems to be several miles long, but in reality I shot it about two meters from where my dad is sitting in his chair, chuckling.

To me, there’s no mystery why some photographers and filmmakers love extreme wide-angle lenses. It makes everything seem distorted and surreal, even when you use a rectilinear lens and not a fisheye.

Should you get a fisheye? If you like that wild, distorted look then hell yeah. Samyang makes a variety of fisheyes for all kinds of mounts and formats. The 12mm/f2.8 that I bought is excellent and blasts even Nikons own fisheye out of the water.

Review: Nikon Nikkor AF 35-70/f2.8

When I got my Nikon a few years ago, I bought it body-only. This was because I already had a decent midrange-zoom that would work with it. The lens is a bit of an heirloom, it used to belong to my father. He gave it to me (connected to his old Nikon F4, which he used a lot) and I figured it would be a good first-lens.

This is a late-1980s lens. As with most of Nikons autofocus-lenses from that era, this requires you to have a body with integrated focus-motor. Also, as with the 70-210, this is a push-pull contraption. I don’t mind it, and this lens is quite small anyways so it doesn’t grow too much.

Optically it’s excellent. This is a f2.8 and it was _the_ pro-midrange-zoom that Nikon made in the late 80s and it shows when you use it. Almost no vignetting, very little distortion and wildly sharp at any aperture. The 35-70 range is a little weird, but I rarely feel the need for anything wider than 35mm.

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It’s solidly built and will take a beating. I’m unsure of eventual weathersealing, but I know this one has seen a lot of action. I’ve literally taken almost 11.000 shots with it, and it was probably used for equal or more of that in my dads care. Mine has a few minor nicks and dents, but it’s still in great shape for a lens that’s over 25 years old and still gets used regularly.

UPDATE: While visually this lens is very similar to the 70-210 I also reviewed, this is way, way more tough. I just want to emphasize that. The 70-210 is decently built for a consumer lens from the late 1980s, but the 35-70/2.8 is a pro-lens and built to a much higher standard.

This lens also has a nice little trick where you can push down a little knob and enter into a kind of macro-mode. It only works in the 35mm-setting and also disables autofocus, but it’s surprisingly handy when you need to get a little closer to something.

Provided you can find one, expect to pay a little more than regular for it. This is a fairly coveted lens and I’ve seen prices for used specimens in good shape go all the way up to US$300-400. I didn’t pay anything for mine since it was a gift.

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Review: Helios 81N 50mm/f2

Here’s another great lens you should check out if you’re a Nikon-shooter. Everyone should have a fast 50 in their arsenal and this is a minor favorite of mine.

There are a lot of good reasons to get this. First is that it is quite small. It’s not pancake-small but it does not weigh anything really and barely juts out past the flash horn on my camera. Secondly is that it’s well-built. Third, it’s a lot of fun to shoot with. Fourth is that it costs very little.

The story behind the Helios 81N (or 81H when using the cyrillic alphabet) is that it’s a soviet/russian copy of an old Zeiss optical formula, slapped onto a unlicensed copy of the Nikon F-mount.

Now, there are a few caveats with this lens. No showstoppers, but things to know about. Since this is an unlicensed copy of the F-mount, it isn’t 100% accurate. At least mine isn’t. There are various versions of this lens but my version isn’t completely compatible. It wiggles a little when mounted. I mean, we’re talking fractions of a millimeter but enough to notice when it’s mounted. Also the aperture ring doesn’t quite line up with the cameras aperture-feeler. This is a bigger concern, since if you’re frivolous might damage the feeler. This is why I’ve modified mine with a bit of duct-tape so it lines up properly. A dab of thick glue would also do the trick, but for the time being I prefer something removable.

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Apart from that, this works great with any Nikon. This was the kit-lens included with some Soviet/Russian camera whose name escapes me, but it had an unlicensed Nikon-bayonet. Note: this is the ONLY Helios-branded lens (at least that I know of) that has this feature. Every other Helios either is M42-screw or some other bayonet. It’s just the 81 that is Nikon.

Why should you get this lens then? Because it has some very interesting optical properties. These optics are a bit of an acquired taste though, so it has to be something that attracts you. The Helios-81 produces wonderfully smeared bokeh, and when provoked in the right manner also swirls it similar to most other russian lenses. Stop it down a bit and it’s also very sharp, but this is one of those lenses you want to shoot wide open, Lomo-style.

Here’s a photo I took with it. It gives very contrasty pictures, and the smeary bokeh adds a painting-like quality to the textures.

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I like this lens a lot. Unlike the other Helios I’ve reviewed (and hated) this one is a keeper. It’s very cheap to get, I bought mine for about 30 US bucks. Look around ebay, they’re everywhere.

Review: Nikon Nikkor AI-S 105mm/f2.5

I’m coming at these reviews from a budget-minded (a.k.a. bang-for-the-buck) angle since it’s how I’ve approached my hobby for the last few years. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is something that afflicts any photographer, but when doing it as a hobby and not being able to pour giant amounts of cash into it requires you to weigh your options.

Portraits is a special interest of mine and for that you need a good portrait-lens. A lot of people think a 50/1.8 is a good portrait lens since it has a nice big aperture that can blur the background. While I think a Nifty Fifty has a place in any photographers arsenal, I don’t feel it’s the best lens for portraits. Especially not for shoulder-and-up type portraits. You’ll have to almost literally shove the camera in the subjects face. Add to this that the 50 doesn’t have the right kind of compression for such a shot.

My favorite focal length for people is around the 105mm mark. Nikon made (and continues to make) loads of excellent lenses in that range. If you’re on a budget, picking up a used 105mm/f2.5 lens is recommended.

This is my own manual-focus 105mm lens. It has wildly sharp optics at any aperture, the focal length is perfect for photographing people, and as with all of Nikons lenses from their manual-focus era it was built to last with lots of metal and a sublime feel when focusing. Mine is from the early 1980’s and apart from some cosmetic scratches it’s like new. It also has a neat lens-hood built right in, that can be extended or hidden depending on your own whim.

The downside with getting an old lens like this is the manual-focus. There are several ways around it with a modern camera (using live-view or focus confirmation) but it will take some getting used to. I feel however that it’s nice and slows down the creative process, giving you time to think things through.

I’ve used mine mostly for portraits but it’s a champ at everything where you’d want a short, wickedly sharp prime-tele. There’s also a f1.8 version around, but it costs a buttload more and is way bigger and heavier, as well as much more rare and sought-after. The f2.5-version is everywhere and you can find it for about a hundred bucks or cheaper.

Remember though, this lens is completely manual and depending on your camera-body will present some interesting challenges not only with the manual focus but also the metering and EXIF-branding. No show-stoppers but worth keeping in mind.

I shot thousands of photos with mine and it was only recently replaced by a modern 105mm/f2.8 Micro-Nikkor VR.

There, now go get one. Right now. Off your ass and go!

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Review: Nikon Nikkor AF 70-210mm/f4-5.6

I’m no Ken Rockwell and I have no desire to go into the insane amounts of mundane details as he does (nor sound like a self-important, pompus tool, as he often does) but I thought I’d give it a go at reviewing some gear. Provided you go into photography with enthusiasm, you’ll discover that it is a fairly expensive hobby and some budget-minded tips are always appreciated. I’m not made of money myself and have had to weigh my investments.

This is a short review of my Nikon “Nikkor” 70-210mm telezoom. These can be had fairly cheap and provide very good value for money. I bought mine a few years back used for about US$120. Mine is in excellent condition and even still has some kind of inspection sticker as can be seen in the photos.

Every photographer needs a telezoom of some variety. If you’re a Nikon-shooter with limited budget, this lens is a sound investment. It’s decently built, being from an era where Nikon still wished to produce good-quality consumer equipment for a decent price.

Optically it’s good but not perfect. I’ve shot thousands of photos with mine and provided you know the limits of it, it can produce very good results. As with most telezooms it has the worst quality at the edges of the specs – i.e. it’s a bit fuzzier at 70 and 210 mm than it is around the middle at 105-134mm. Stop it down and it gets sharper. It doesn’t vignette a whole lot and has an acceptable amount of chromatic aberration that is easily removed in whatever postprocessing software you use. The good news is that distortion is very low, regardless of settings. I have never noticed any significant distortion, at least in my specimen. Keep in mind though that this is a f4-5.6 which means it’s not super-usable in dark environments or to get that insanely shallow depth of field.

This lens works great on any fullframe or crop-sensor Nikon. The only real caveat is that it’s the old-fashioned screwdrive autofocus which requires a body with motordrive. The cheap-to-midrange consumer bodies do not provide that and as such you’ll be stuck with manual focus. Also, the autofocus is a bit slow and quite noisy.

This is a push-pull contraption. It does grow a bit when you zoom but for a telezoom this is a small lens. There is a lens-hood but I’ve never bothered with it. I’ve never had problems with haze, ghosting or anything like that so a lens-hood seems redundant in my opinion.

If you can find one in decent shape for a reasonable price, I’d recommend getting it. I no longer use mine but that’s only because it’s been replaced by a more professional 70-200/2.8 from Tamron.

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Stockholm Pride Parade 2016

I love the Pride Parade in Stockholm. I’ve tried to shoot it every time the last few years. Last year I was too exhausted to do it, but this year I was full of energy and equipped with loads of new gear. I was ready to go to war, metaphorically.

Shooting the parade is very similar to being a war-photographer. At least I imagine it to be. The chaos is deafening and it’s incredibly difficult to keep up with the mayhem. The major difference is that the Pride Parade celebrates diversity and love, rather than creating death and terror as a war would do.

This is a small display of the results. It was a lot of fun, and I’m pleased with how it all turned out. The parade is a fun, exhuberant, lively and chaotic display of diversity and it’s wonderful!

(If you’re the subject of any of these photos and wish to receive a higher-resolution version for personal use, let me know!)

Again with the kit-zooms

I whined a long time ago about how pretentious and untalented photographers enjoy bashing the so-called kit-zooms. If you read that opinionated (and excellent!) piece of writing you’ll learn that I feel the kit-zoom to be an underappreciated workhorse, provided you accept what it is: a beginners lens.

I took this photo a day or so ago. It’s shot with the bog-standard kit-zoom (18-55mm/f3.5-5.6 with no VR or anything fancy) my father got along his Nikon D40x back in 2008-or-whenever. I simply mounted it on my D600 and used my know-how. It’s not even cropped or shot in DX-mode.

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Image on the left is straight out of the camera (converted from RAW) and on the right, with some minor adjustment of levels, lens profile. Very minor stuff.

I think it’s pretty good, for some random shot. Colors are good, bokeh is not awful and the image is crisp and sharp. This was shot at 55mm, wide open at f5.6. Since I shot it at 1/200th of a second my D600 upped the ISO to 720. Still perfectly usable in any scenario.

My opinion is still firm. Kit-zooms are not useless garbage. They are great learning tools for beginner photographers and can produce excellent results far beyond their build-quality and pricing.

Tanks a lot!

Sorry, couldn’t keep myself from punning in the title of this post.

I recently bought a new lens and the best way to try it out is to shoot something. In my case, I shot tanks. There’s a museum in Strängnäs called Arsenalen (“The Arsenal”) which is the swedish museum for armored vehicles past and present. It’s one of the largest collections of armor in europe, displaying armored vehicles used in the swedish army as well as others. If you have the opportunity you should really check it out. It doesn’t really matter if you’re into armored vehicles or not – this museum is cool. I cannot stress it enough, go there! It has tanks, vehicles, loads of history both about armored and warfare in general, as well as a very interesting exhibition of tin soldiers.

During the summers they have a few days they refer to as “vehicles in motion” and during these days you can ride an APC or a “funtrak” (essentially a small toy tank you can drive) as well as enjoy some demonstrations where the volunteers drive around and display various armor as well as common tactics in armored warfare. Saturday was one of those days and I took a drive there and enjoyed it immensely. It’s a very special experience standing next to a 50 ton Centurion when it roars past, the massive V12 blowing plumes of smoke, ground trembling from the rumble.

Here’s a gallery in no special order.

This tank below is a little special. As in, it’s quite little. It’s actually an R/C scale model, built to 1/15 scale. I always enjoy people who find some odd hobby and go completely all-in with it.

I asked the owner about it and he told me it weighs about 170kg. It’s completely electric but has a smoke-system which simulates exhaust surprisingly well, as well as being fitted with a soundsystem which adds the diesel-noise. This too worked impressively. The detailing on the tank is massively intricate, with shovels, helmets and everything built to scale. It’s a replica of an actual german Tiger from WW2 and the owner said he built his R/C model as close as possible, with photos of the real thing as a reference.

Not only does it drive around, it has a fully motorized turret and cannon. The cannon is fully functional and fires small rounds which are loaded into a magazine in the turret. Even the ball-machinegun has LEDs which light up and simulate gunfire!

Nothing short of amazing.

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As a car nut, I also enjoy that Arsenalen has a gorgeously restored Ford Model T in their display. It’s actually a running example and is registered for traffic in sweden (as the license plate shows) but has been in mothballs for a few years now.

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Last but not least, this uparmored Humvee was parked in the museum. As is obvious, this is also a running car (as evidenced by the mud on it) and is currently owned by the museum. It saw action in Afghanistan in 2010. I can’t quite remember how it ended up in swedish ownership though, but it’s a nice ride. Very manly.

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