Book Review: Photography as Meditation

Photography, Review

IMG_0412Many years ago, I attended a three-day meditation retreat at a Zen center in the mountains near where I live. I took only two books with me—a blank notebook to journal in and John Daido Loori’s The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life. That was a decade ago and I have been looking for as good a book relating photography and meditation ever since. I have finally found it.

There are hundreds of photography books out there on nearly every aspect that can be imagined; yet it is refreshing to still find new thoughts and approaches. Torsten Andreas Hoffmann’s Photography as Meditation offers both a brief introduction to the practice of meditation and Zen thought and how it can relate to one’s photographic approach. It even references Loori’s The Zen of Creativity a few times for good measure.

Why should one be interested in merging meditation and photography? Hoffmann addressed this early on: “If you want to find your own form of expression through photography, it is very important to see through stereotypes and free yourself from them.” This is where Zen comes in: “An important aspect of Zen is the process of learning to free yourself from automatic thought patterns and cliché notions.”

After a few chapters on the basics of meditation and its ties with Zen, Hoffmann moves into how meditation practice and Zen thinking can be used as part of one’s approach to photography. Rather than doing this abstractly, Hoffmann offers many suggestions and provides his own photos as examples of what he is discussing.FullSizeRender

For instance, he uses street photography as one pairing of meditation and photography, noting that: “More than any other form of photography, street photography demands absolute presence of mind. Zen and street photography have much in common: they both require extreme mindfulness and impartiality.” Think Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moments and how they require street photographers to quickly interpret complex situations as they occur.

Prior to this, he discusses an interesting photo series he had once done, which he called “Janus Views.” For this series, he took the photo he intended and then turned around and took a photo of what was directly opposite what he had just photographed. How is this related to meditation and Zen thinking? Later in the book he reveals the origin of this series: “At the seashore in Barcelona, I asked myself why people oriented their chairs toward the sea and not in the opposite direction. The idea seemed so absurd to me that I imagined photographIMG_0414ing the opposite perspective of a beautiful seascape and presenting it to the observer.” Zen inspires curiosity, even when seemingly absurd.

Even if you’re not into the meditation and Zen aspects of this book, the many photos included are sure to inspire. I find Hoffmann’s black & white work most inspiring, which is no surprise as he is also the author of The Art of Black and White Photography, available from the same publisher. Not just a source of inspiration, most of the included photos offer notes regarding the thought process that went into them or how they are related to the topic at hand.

Hoffmann ends his book with a selection of ten color photos, illustrating that one way to connect meditation and photography is to create images that have a meditative quality. He notes that he often meditates with his eyes open overlooking an expansive landscape and that he allows his gaze to wander in the distance, blurring the landscape before him. “After two years of a regular meditative practice as this place, I wondered if I could reproduce these visual impressions of unfocused patches of color with the medium of photography.” Meditation leads to photography trying to capture a sense of meditation.

IMG_0411Of course, the wonderful thing about the plethora of photography advice one comes across in print and online is that it can be ignored. Ultimately you need to follow the path that works for you and not be distracted by everyone yelling at you to follow them. The joy, for me, of Hoffmann’s book is that it doesn’t focus on equipment or software, but simply the art of photographing and how a meditation practice can bring even more to it.

Photography as Meditation: Tap Into the Source of Your Creativity (https://www.rockynook.com/shop/photography/photography-as-meditation/)
Torsten Andreas Hoffmann, Rocky Nook, 2014

My Impressions: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens

Photography, Review

Let me start by saying my relationship with Sigma goes back a ways. My last film camera was a Sigma, the SA-7, which did an incredible job of handling light and shadow black & white work (what I was mostly into at the time). Years later when I’d switched to digital and was looking for a wide-angle lens to accompany my travels, I opted for the Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM lens. This has become my primary lens when traveling and I love the results I get from it. Recently I added another Sigma lens to my travel bag: their 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC MACRO OS HSM for when I need some zoom.

So, when I heard about Sigma’s series of art lenses a while back, I was interested. While their 50mm has received rave reviews, I decided to give the 35mm a try as I already have a 50mm lens that I am quite satisfied with. I also wanted a little shorter focal length for some of the shots I had in mind for this test drive. As I’ve done in the past, I rented the lens for the weekend through BorrowLenses.com.

The first thing one notices with this lens is the weight. This is a serious piece of glass. It’s just on the verge of being too heavy for my Nikon Df, though well balanced on my Nikon D600. To get the most of a full frame sensor, one needs good glass, so the weight was expected (and their 50mm art lens is even heavier).

I started out testing this lens’ f/1.4 abilities with a few shots around the house. With such a narrow depth of field, it’s easy to loose precise focus while also dealing with the weight, so either be incredibly still when using this lens wide open or mount your camera on a tripod. My test here, though, was less about precise focus and more about bokeh. Simply put, this lens generates incredibly creamy and soft bokeh at f/1.4. It can also focus within 12″ of its subject, so one can get close with minimal distortion.

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Next, I thought I’d try it out in the real world, so I took it with me to the Gatos SoCal Summer 2015 Rockabilly Car Show, held in Upland, CA. Here I also kept the depth of field shallow (between f/1.4 and f/2.8). I also used a polarizer as it was a very sunny day. This did cause some vignetting, but that is to be expected when adding a polarizer to a wide-angle lens. I tried to create a variety of shots with the lens, though still took some tighter shots taking advantage of the lens’ f/1.4 abilities.

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The next day I headed out to downtown Redlands, near where I live. I headed out about an hour before sunset as summer here is brutally hot and the light would not be as harsh. Here I was less worried about shallow depth of field and wanted to focus instead on the 35mm focal length. With a few exceptions, f-stops ranged between 5 and 9 and the ISO varied between 400 and 800.

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For my last testing of this lens, I attempted a few still life images. For this set, I again focused on shallow depth of field and only used natural light. As you can see, the shallow depth of field remains creamy and soft and, after three days with the lens, I am getting better at balancing it. I attempted some variations on a theme on some of the setups, with a few different focal points.

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Others have noted auto focus issues with this lens, but I did not encounter any issues during this three-day test. I found the lens to be fast, sharp and very enjoyable to use. Considering Nikon’s own 35mm f/1.4G at $1800 is twice the price of this lens, one might even consider it a steal given its capabilities.

My Impressions: Nikon 105mm f/2.8G Lens

Photography, Review

I’ve been working to improve my portrait photography lately. While I have a range of focal lengths with the lenses I currently own, none have a large enough aperture to create the blurred backgrounds (bokeh) I’d like to see in some of my portraits. So this got me looking into prime lenses.

When it comes to prime lens portrait photography, I have noticed two approaches: Some photographers seem to prefer one focal length and reposition themselves to include more or less of their model in a shot, while others prefer to always be the same distance from their model and change lenses depending upon how much of the model they want to capture. I’m more of the single lens school myself, so I chose to focus on what those photographers had to say.

Suzie (Nikon Df, F/2.8, 1/1600, ISO 100)

Model: Suzie Borders (Nikon Df, f/2.8, 1/1600, ISO 100)

After some research, it seemed to me that somewhere between 85mm and 135mm would be a good length for portraits. Having determined this, I then started looking at portraits I admire and seeing what lenses those photographers used. When I noticed that one of my favorite portrait photographers, Ann Nevreva (http://500px.com/annnevreva), uses the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G lens to capture the sort of portraits I am after, I decided to give this lens a try by renting it for the weekend through BorrowLenses.com.

Let me cut to the chase and simply say that this is an incredible lens. At f/2.8, it creates wonderful bokeh and, being a prime lens, it is sharp and quick to focus. It’s a bit heavy being a professional grade lens, but nothing that one can’t get accustomed to with some practice. It’s also a macro lens (though Nikon for some reason calls it a micro lens) with a minimum focal distance of only 12 inches (30 cm), giving you two lenses in one. Of course, it’s also the price of two lenses (around $900 new).

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Macro (Nikon Df, f/3.2, 1/320, ISO 400)

Portrait and macro photography aside, this lens can be used as a “regular” lens as well. All of the photos in this post were taken using this lens and I have tried to include a variety to show what this lens is capable of. Do you have to have this lens to recreate these? Of course not. Many of these shots could also be accomplished using an inexpensive (but just as fast and sharp) 50mm prime lens, but I for one like the distance I stand from a model for a head and shoulders shot when using this lens. I also don’t need to worry about the distortion sometimes caused when moving in too close with a 50mm lens.

Abandoned (Nikon Df, f/5.6, 1/4000, ISO 400)

Abandoned (Nikon Df, f/5.6, 1/4000, ISO 400)

One thing I have learned while looking for a portrait lens is that one’s approach to portrait photography is personal. While I love this lens for head and shoulders shots, I do find myself having to step back a little too much if I want a whole body shot, making me wonder if maybe an 85mm f/1.8 wouldn’t be more versatile. Guess I’ll have to rent another lens and schedule another shoot.

UPDATE: A few months after writing this, I ended up purchasing this lens used from BorrowLenses.com during a sale. While I find myself doing more and more model work with my 50mm f/1.8 lens, I still use this lens for portrait work. I have yet to really delve into its macro abilities but hope to some day.

My Impressions: Nikon Df Camera

Photography, Review

I rented the Nikon Df this past weekend from BorrowLenses.com as its cost prohibits me from buying it as a second camera, yet I still find myself drawn to it and thought I’d give it a try to see if I even like it. Unfortunately, I like it.

Nikon Df and Nikon D600

Nikon Df and Nikon D600

The Df seems to be geared toward photographers such as myself, who began with manual film cameras but have converted to digital (Df, in fact, stands for digital fusion). Hearing that the Df is a camera that makes you slow down is not a bad thing in our minds, nor is the lack of an Auto setting or built in flash. This is a camera for photographers who like to take control over all of their camera’s settings and enjoy the act of photographing.

Before the Df, the D600 was the smallest full frame camera that Nikon made. I own the D600 and can say that while the Df is slightly smaller, the D600 is slightly lighter. Due to its smaller size, I couldn’t imagine using the Df with large lenses, at least not for handheld operations. That said, I could see myself primarily using the Df for either street or portrait photography, where I wouldn’t be using a large lens anyway.

Nikon Df from Above

Nikon Df from Above

The joy for me of the Df is the dials. I like being able to see my camera’s settings by just looking down and I especially love the exposure compensation dial—much easier to operate than my D600, which requires two hands (and remembering to reset it after its use). The dials are where the slowing down comes in, though I don’t feel they are much slower to operate than looking through the viewfinder of my D600 and turning dials till I get the combination I want.

Compared to my D600, which has 24MP, the Df only has 16MP, but it also has the same sensor found in Nikon’s flagship professional D4 camera. Besides, I would also argue that 16MP is better than 24MP. Why? You really only need a large megapixel count if you’re going to produce large prints (say the size of movie posters) or you find yourself needing to crop without losing detail. I have been able to produce up to 24”x36” prints in the past from 16MP files without issue, and find with the little extra time spent using the Df, I really have no need to crop. Also, the 16MP files are considerably smaller than the 24MP files, taking up less storage space and processing quicker. In this instance, less is indeed more.

As mentioned before, the major limiting factor of the Df is cost. Without a lens, this camera is around $2800 new and for that price range one could afford a Nikon D800. Of course, with the D800 comes added weight and size. The major selling points of the Df are its retro looks and features (it even has a depth of field preview button and cable release attachment). If you understand what I just wrote, then you’ll probably also find yourself lusting after this camera.

UPDATE: About a month after this writing, I gave into temptation and purchased a Df of my own. I simply adore this camera and it has become my main studio camera. In fact, the D600 has been mostly relegated to a backup to the Df.