Thursday, April 03, 2014

New Thoughts About Photography

I figured out today why all my pictures are so lousy.  I have been going on the theory that the object of photography is to get everything in focus.  It isn't. The object of photography is to get everything out of focus except the subject.

I have read about depth-of-field and assumed it was a study in getting as much as possible into the field. For single subjects one wants shallow depth of field not deep, so that everything behind the subject, and even things in front of it, are blurry.

Which explains why there is such a fetish about fast lenses with wide apertures. For otherwise identical lenses, the faster one might sell for four, eight, or ten times as much as the slower one. A Nikon 70-300mm f/2.8 VR (vibration reduction) lens sells for $2160. A Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens sells for $465, both from B&H of New York.

I had been told, and believed, that the purpose of fast lenses was to enable one to shoot in dimmer light. It isn't.  At least not primarily. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field.  With a wide aperture lens, one opens to full aperture, focuses on the conductor, and voila!  Michael Tilson Thomas with his hair flying and each hair in focus and a bunch of soft focus or blurry musicians barely noticed behind him. With a slower lens one does the same thing and gets a whole bunch of people on a stage, one of whom might be Thomas.

Notice that the picture above is of Michael Tilson Thomas. Had it been taken with a slower, smaller aperture lense, the depth of field would have been greater and the guy behind Thomas would have been in focus too. Which would have made it a picture of both of them which was not what one wanted.

The problem here is that I am not about to spend two grand for a lens. Indeed, I am not crazy about spending four hundred odd dollars for one either.

Fortunately, depth of field shrinks with lens length. Wide angle lenses have deep fields. A longer, i.e. narrower field of view lens, also has a shallower depth of field at the same aperture. A 500mm lens has a much shallower depth of field at f/8 than a 35mm lens has at f/8. 

The problem is that telephoto lenses are prohibitively expensive. A Nikon 500mm f/4 lens costs a quick $8000.  It is 16 inches long and weighs over 8 pounds, not fun to hang from a strap around one's neck. The solution is thorough shopping. One can occasionally find an old Nikon 500mm f/8 reflex lens, which is not a lens at all but a parabolic mirror disguised as one. It is 7 inches long, fairly light, and can be had for about $200 if one can find one.

One should note that f/4 is not twice as fast as f/8 but four time as fast.  And by 'fast' we mean amount of exposure time to get the same exposure.  With a long lens this is a big deal because the longer a lens is and the narrower of an angle it sees, the more the jiggle of one's hands blurs the image.  Which is crucial if one is shooting hand-held.  But shooting handheld with that long a lens is folly.  One mounts the camera and lens on a tripod which holds it perfectly steady absent high winds or earthquakes.  So the four-fold difference in speed matters far less.

The great increase in "film" speed from ISO 400 in the old days to fancy modern cameras that shoot at ISO 25,600, or 640 times as fast, is more than 18 stops.  That diminishes the need for the lens to be so fast as to dim light.  There are still cavils about electronic "noise" at such high ISO's.  Since noise can now be fixed in software, the objections are now themselves just noise.

Which means that the remaining advantage of a fast lens is that it has a shallower depth of field.  Which as I realized today is all about picking out one's subject, not about shooting a black cat in a coal chute at midnight, as the saying is.

The best-known reviewer of lenses is a guy named Ken Rockwell and he dumped on the Nikon 500mm f/8 Reflex lens - because a) it is too light which makes the camera back-heavy, and b) because if there are bright things in the background blur, they will appear as blurry circles which is distracting.  Poor baby!  How could such terrible things happen to him?

Rockwell, being a well-known reviewer, gets his lenses free from the distributors. So the $7800 difference in price matters not at all to him. He does note in passing the same thing I found, that the mirror lens, because the light does not pass through any glass, is sharp and free of distortion.

Why I Love and Respect the New Yorker



[I do not know how to get these two pretentious meatballs on the same 
line because I know bubkes about editing HTML.  Any help?]

I have just now read Hendrik Hertzberg's Comment in the November 29 "New Yorker", titled "Puppetry".

Hertzberg's screed is an attack on Glenn Beck for trashing liberal billionaire and full-time enemy of Israel,  George Soros.  That Beck is a buffoon does not make Soros not a villain.  Nor does it make Hertzberg not Beck's mirror image.

I found it interesting that Hertzberg suggests that George Soros is NOT an enemy of Israel.  And calls Glenn Beck's implication that he is, "lies told by innuendo".  Which curiously is precisely what Hertzberg himself did in implying the reverse.

For this we have not Hertzberg's or Beck's groundless assertions, but Soros's own admission in action.  Soros was recently revealed to be the main funder of J Street, an organization which claims to be friendly to Israel but opposes it in everything and sides with the Arabs in every case.

Soros and J Street's founder both concealed and both explicitly lied in public about J Street being primarily funded by Soros.  The reason for the lying was that both recognized that if Soros were seen as behind J Street, that J Street's pretense of friendliness toward Israel would be seen as laughable by anyone familiar with Soros.

The depth of Soros's animosity can be seen in how easily his reputation could be diffused by a gift of a few million dollars, a pittance to a billionaire, to an Israeli university or hospital or orphanage.  But he can't do it for the same reasons the King of Saudi Arabia can't -- because he really and truly hates Israel including its universities, hospitals, and orphanages.

Which Hertzberg knows full well.  Which makes him, like Beck, a liar by innuendo.

It is a curious feature of mirrors that they reverse left and right. Which is why, when Henrik Hertzberg looks in the mirror, he sees Glenn Beck.

The Wild Swan Chase

Summer 2009

My friend Larry called me from Butte. Time to get to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge by the end of September, early October for the migration of the trumpeter swans. Thousands of them, the largest and heaviest of flying birds, would pour into the NWR and out, on their way to southern feeding grounds.

He was having new windows installed and would meet me there in a few days. Since I was already in eastern Oregon loosely on my way to Butte to see him anyway, I went there. The first town in Montana is MonIda, a semi-ghost town. I was going to make mock of its name but upon recalling our Mexicali and Calexico, thought better of it.

The trip from MonIda and the interstate to the wildlife refuge was 31 miles up a bad dirt road. The suspension on the bus is unaccountably rigid so I drove between 12 and 18 miles an hour the whole way to avoid shaking it and myself apart.

Along the way I was several times favored with sights of small herds of pronghorns, formerly known as pronghorn antelopes. Some astute morphologist determined that they are not taxonomically antelopes. So calling them pronghorn rather than pronghorn antelope has become a point of pride among the sort of people who insist on 'bison' rather than 'buffalo' (me) and 'city' rather than 'Frisco' (you). They are lovely animals with high contrast brown and white patterns on their bodies.

Upon arrival there of what was left of me in what was left of the bus, the NWR headquarters were closed because it was Sunday. I repaired to an otherwise empty campground among groves of stunningly golden aspen by the shore of Upper Red Rock Lake.

The next morning I set out on a constitutional to walk the four miles back to the ranger station.  I saw the swans, only two.  They were clearly guarding something on the far side of their pond, surely their nest.

The American West is still the place to be.

Gunfire in the Kingdom

It occurred to me recently how convoluted our relationship with Saudi Arabia is.

The fighting in Libya has stopped the flow of Libyan sweet light crude to European refineries. Which could have caused shortages and a price spike (Which implies a certainty of brevity. If the fighting continues it might become a price hike.) This is even though Libya produces only 2% of the world's oil.

The Saudi government announced that it would increase production to compensate for the loss of Libyan production. Which made the world's stock markets calm and ended the several days of market sell-off caused by the fighting in Libya.

Given that Saudi Arabia is thus in effect the guarantor of the stability of the world's oil supply, it is a friend and supporter of by far the world's biggest oil importer, the United States. Our economy depends on them. Those old enough to remember the oil embargo of 1974 (Brought on by Arab fury with Israel for having treacherously survived their surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War by fighting back and winning.) understand the potential disruption of our economy of an embargo that could not be called off if their regime were overthrown or crippled by prolonged civil war.

"Disruption" in this context means losing our jobs, our businesses going under, and the price of gasoline tripling.

In this context it is well worth noting that today police fired over the heads of demonstrators in the city of Khatif in the oil-producing Shi'ite majority east of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the staunchest of Sunni regimes yet the eastern provinces, those on the Persian Gulf, the ones with the oil, are Shi'ite. The relationship between Sunni and Shi'ite in Saudi Arabia is no worse than that between whites and blacks in Mississippi in 1951. Everybody is polite but...

And now Saudi Shi'ites have heard of freedom riders in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya. The Soviet Union was rumored to have instructed the American Communist Party to put its few pitiful resources toward helping the Civil Rights movement embarrass the United States in the 1950's and 1960's. So too, it is rumored that Iran, a major Shi'ite power directly across the Gulf from the Saudi oil lands, and a perennial rival and enemy of Saudi Arabia, may have a hand in agitating protests against the Saudi regime.

In both cases there is no proof. But in both cases, one would be astonished if it hadn't happened.

In return for protecting our economy, and with it our hegemony, the United States protects Saudi Arabia from its neighbors. The first Gulf War was at least as much about protecting Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein's Iraq as it was to recover Kuwait from them. Our navy patrols the Persian Gulf, our carrier groups control the Indian Ocean beyond the Gulf. Which is to say our helicopters and troops stand ready to destroy any Iranian attempt to invade Saudi Arabia.

If you think that is a fantasy scenario, imagine if the American protectorate did not exist. Saddam Hussein would not have stopped with Kuwait. His armies would have marched all-but-unopposed to the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf. Now that Saddam has died cursing, "spies, traitors, and the Persians", those very Persians would be only too glad to do exactly the same thing today.

Were they able to do that, Mahmud Ahmadinejad would control just over half of the world's oil supply.

That is why we maintain such a large navy when no other country has a comparable one. It isn't there to fight other navies as in World War 2 and the Cold War. It is there to control coastlines.

So the United States and Saudi Arabia are cooperative allies. They are guarantors of our economy. We are guarantors of their security.


There are Muslims throughout the world, most of them poor and living in poor countries. And in every country poor people are hard-pressed to educate their children. Everyone wants their children to be able to read, do arithmetic, post on Facebook. Much of the Muslims in the world cannot afford to provide even that much schooling to their children.

But the Saudi kingdom can. And does. All over the world are Muslim sectarian schools called 'madrassas'.