Photography Tools - Mark Venner Photography

The reason these tools are so important is this is how the photographer controls what light actually hits the sensor / film, and what that sensor / film does with the light as it is transformed from an analog photon to a digital byte. This list of tools hasn’t changed too much over time:

-- Camera
-- Lenses
-- Filters
-- Tripod
-- Shutter Release
-- Other sensors

What has changed is what each one is, and what they are capable of. So let me explain what my photography tools are, and what capabilities I draw from each one. My goal is simply to illuminate a bit of my process; not to postulate about what kit is better than the other. Please don’t be turned off by my mention of brands and models when talking about the gear that I carry. I for one could care less what gear a photographer carries, and don’t for one second think that my opinion should or could sway someone to go a certain route when thinking about purchases this gear over that. I only bring up brands and names to give an accurate frame of reference when talking through the gear I utilize, while at the same time recognizing certain limits and advantages that these choices have precipitated. Knowing the gear also helps to inform the observation of the photographic results. It is for these reasons that I bring up brands and models that will likely be outdated by the time anyone actually reads this. Please, make your own informed judgements about gear based on your own experience and knowledge; don’t take my word for any of it.

The Camera

I utilize Nikon DSLR cameras. To be specific a Nikon D810 and Nikon D7000 (the later not so much anymore, but still have it around). I have nothing against Canon DSLR cameras, and in fact if I had an infinite pile of money I would love to have a set of cameras and lenses from both of these major brands so that I could better compare and contrast them and utilize the exact best one depending on the light and subject matter of each circumstance. For that matter I would also love to have a set of Sony A7 mirrorless equipment as I have seen that technology used to great effect as well. But cameras, and life, being expensive, I utilize Nikon DSLR cameras and have come to enjoy them very much.

Additionally, it is almost with regret that I don’t utilize an analog film 4x5 (or larger) format camera instead of the Nikon DSLR set of equipment. The fact is that I was born in the digital age and raised with the understanding that digital was superior technology, so that is what I started using first when I began taking photography more seriously. Now I realize that this was a bit naive, and I would not postulate such a stance at this point in time; that digital is superior to analog film. What I would say is that they are very different tools that both attempt to help the photographer accomplish the same goal; capture light on piece of film / sensor and store it in a way that allows the photographer to make an aesthetically pleasing photograph from the content.

I still hold the fanciful thought that a functioning 4x5 analog film camera system will show up on my doorstep one day with enough film to last for a couple of years. But alas, until that day comes I will not be able to “earn my analog stripes” and utilize this type of system.

The same could be echoed for a digital medium or large format camera. If a 4x5 equivalent digital camera (or larger once those become available) were to show up on my doorstep I would certainly be overjoyed. But the fact remains that digital camera’s with larger sensors than a 35mm equivalent will cost a photographer 30K USD at a minimum and go up from there; and that is just for the camera body. I think it’s safe to say that while the D810 may be 1/10th the cost of a larger format digital camera, it delivers much more than 1/10th the performance; and some may say it comes close to matching performance of larger format cameras on many levels. I don’t feel qualified enough to have an opinion on that comparison as I have not had the fortune to utilize one of these high dollar cameras. But again, if one showed up on my doorstep I would be happy to run them through their paces.

Alright, finally on to my camera. In my mind, the D810 is an amazing piece of technology. This is not a review of the camera, if you would like that there are plenty of sites on The Google that can provide opinionated and factual details on the D810’s performance. What I do want to spend some time on is in camera processing. I think this is an area of digital photography that is consistently overlooked. The D810 (and many other DSLR’s for that matter) has the ability to process, in this context that means edit and adjust, the original RAW data file while it is still on the camera; but this processing is controlled by the photographer and not automatically applied by the camera itself.

This brings up a point that I think is often missed about digital image processing. Most people utilize the term “Photoshop” as a synonym for digital processing, and usually with a negative connotation that means the image was edited too heavily. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, “Did you Photoshop that image?”; where the word Photoshop is used as a verb. The reality is each JPEG image that is taken with a consumer grade digital camera, and particularly smartphone cameras, is processed by onboard algorithms and editing programs. This is not meant as a negative comment, but merely an observation of fact that most people overlook.

The truth is most photographers likely edit RAW digital images drastically less than onboard processing software and firmware do in an automated manner on a smartphone and other pocket-sized point and shoot digital cameras. The difference is the processing in a smartphone / point and shoot camera is transparent to the user because it is automatically applied utilizing algorithms the brain of the camera chooses vice the brain of the photographer. These onboard processing algorithms and programs are very powerful and allow wonderful photos to be taken through lenses that capture a fraction of the light a full sized professional grade DSLR lens could; but they also take control and creativity out of the hand of the photographer. While it may not be advisable to predict the future, particularly when it comes to the world of technology, I will put my head on the chopping block and say that this onboard processing technology is what will change the most in digital photography in the coming 5-10 years; particularly in consumer grade digital cameras. This is where there seems to be the most room for technological innovation as one is not confined by the optics of light rays, but rather to the power of the onboard processing and the creativity of the programer.

So back to the D810 and why I have chosen to utilize that as my camera of choice. First, I wanted to use digital as it is this is technology that I am most comfortable with. Second, I wanted to be able to produce the highest quality images possible. After a lot of research it became evident that this camera would fit both of those requirements and do so quite nicely; all without completely breaking the bank.

The Lenses

While there are many factors when it comes to lens choice; for me sharpness is the overriding concern when choosing a lens. In this sense there can be no compromise when it comes to a lens. But this standard also comes with a cost, and here that comes in the form of a high price tag. In an effort to attain the sharpest lenses possible I chose the following set of lenses as the core of my kit:

-- AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED

-- AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED

-- AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

-- AF-S Teleconverter TC-20E III

I will write a bit on each with a strong effort to not to “review” any of the equipment. I will say one thing along these lines; these lenses have all worked very well for me and I would recommend them to anyone that asked.

The 14-24mm lens is really fun as the field of view is amazing. While it does have some distortion around the corners (most notably due to the physics of light), that is completely manageable in a couple of ways. First, it can be corrected in post if desired. But secondly, the distortion can also create very aesthetically please lines if used correctly and I find myself rarely wanting to correct this effect in post. The only thing that is kind of a bummer with this lens is the bulbous element on the end. While I really like the way it looks, it does make using filters very difficult. I currently am not setup to use filters on this lense, but instead have to rely on post processing to apply filters that would replicate the type of physical filters I can utilize on my other lenses. As I have ended other sections, I would love to be able to use filters on this lens but purchasing a set of quality filters would set one back a reasonable sum of money. But, if a set of extra large filters ended up on my doorstep I would be more than happy to make room for them in my pack.

The 24-70mm lens is the lens that I find on my camera most of the time. It is a good lens and does what one would expect from a high quality mid range lens; it doesn’t distort, it is sharp, and it is very likeable yet not exciting.

The 70-200mm lens is heavy. While a great lens all around, did I mention it is heavy? I know I’ll get no sympathy from those that have a 600mm prime, but I still think it’s a heavy lens (that I still choose to carry). What I like the best is the front element on the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm is actually the same size to screw in filters and holders are interchangeable. A nice bonus. Nothing negative to say about this big guy. While I don’t find myself taking it out of the bag too often, when I do I’m surely glad I have the reach.

The TC-20E III teleconverter does just what it advertises. It magnifies compatible lenses by 2x, and does so very well. No complaints for this piece of kit, and it sure was a very cost effective (and light) way to add a 400mm lens to the bag.

Along the way I did purchase / borrow a couple of other lenses. Without going into specifics, lets just say they were not the top-of-the-line, brand name lenses. While I don’t want to say anything bad about them, and some other photographers may have had great experiences with the same lenses, let’s just say there is a reason I don’t feel the need to carry other lenses around in my pack and have chosen to go with these. One thing that I have learned, and sometimes the hard way, is that a good lens is worth the money. I had always heard, “Invest in glass”. While at first I listened, I didn’t take the advice completely to heart; I should have. If you are serious about your craft, you will eventually find yourself purchasing the best lenses no matter the camera you have. The only variable is how many other (inferior and less expensive) lenses will you have sitting at home when you go out on a photography excursion.

The Filters

Yes, there are times when one would want to alter the light prior to it entering the lens. I find that I primarily use two types of filters to great effect: Graduated Neutral Density (GND) and Polarizing filters.

The GND filters I use the most are 1 and 2 stop soft and hard filters. If you have never seen one before, they are rectangular pieces of glass that are darkened on one half and clear on the other (check out the links below if you are interested). This serves to darken the desired half (or portion) of the image by the prescribed amount, in this case from 1-3 stops (as you can combine the use of the 1 and 2 stop filters).

Here is a list of the ones that I carry:

-- Singh-Ray, 1 & 2 Stop GND, Neutral Density, Hard Edge

-- Singh-Ray, 1 & 2 Stop GND, Neutral Density, Soft Edge

-- Singh-Ray, 1 & 2 Stop Reverse Neutral Density

-- Vari-ND, Variable Neutral Density Filter

-- LB ColorCombo Polarizer / Color Intensifier

All in all I really like the filters. I find some of my best photos tend to be taken with these filters in front of my lens. I also tend to think that this does add a bit of analog, and thought / deliberation, to the modern digital photography process, which I really enjoy and appreciate. While one can do a lot in post processing, I don’t think digital post processing has come close to replacing the use of filters (at least not at this point in time).

Slowing of the shutter is one aspect that can be really valuable at different times of the day and with different moving subject matter for one. Also, colors just seem to come out better and more natural when a filter is used vs excessive alteration in post. Finally there seems to be a certain type of authenticity that is created when physical filters are used. Maybe in time this too will become old fashioned, outdated, and replaced by superior digital editing technology; but I have yet to see results that prove this to be the case. And even then, is that what one would want?

One may ask, why Singh-Ray? No, it is not because I get paid by them. Although, it would have been nice not to have to pay full price for the filters; that was not the case either. It is simply that I didn’t want to repeat the same mistake that I had made in other areas of photography. That is, I didn’t want to spend a little up front on inferior kit only to find myself frustrated and going with the top of the line equipment later on. That is not to denigrate other brands and filters, as I do not have any first hand experience with them. It is just to say that so far I have no complaints with this choice.

The Tripod

I supposed in this area too it is all about the criteria one uses to judge by in order to come up with the correct solution. If cost is the determining factor, then my tripod is not the winner. But on the other hand if the criteria for a tripod is something lightweight that is sturdy, packs up small, is quick to setup and easy to adjust then I would say the Gitzo Traveller II works pretty darn well. It is carbon fiber and weighs in at 1kg. In fact I think the Accra Swiss ball-head that I use on top is heavier than the tripod itself.

All of that being said there have been a couple of times I wasn’t able to shoot due to high wind. One memorable time was at Observation Point in Zion National Park. There was just no way to hold steady as winds were blowing like crazy. Perhaps if I had a heavy duty 20lb tripod I could have held steady, but I could have also not been able to make the trek up the 2000+ ft mountain side either. Thus one can see why someone like me would choose the lighter, more compact, option that works in 99% of the situations I can dream up.

Shutter Release

While this may seem like a detail to many that is not worth mentioning, to me it is a very critical piece of my pack that I am sure not to leave behind and always like to have a backup one around. I carry both a wired (primary) and wireless (backup) shutter release. At first I was all about the wireless, but for me it wasn’t consistent enough. Perhaps this was user error, but I just couldn’t get the camera to fire every time I pressed the shutter release; and this became quite annoying. Thus I have gone back to the good old reliable wired shutter release (with the option to lock the shutter in bulb mode). I can’t remember the last studio quality photo I took without a shutter release. If you are having issues with sharpness and have checked all the other boxes (lenses, focus, camera sensor, DoF, etc.), then make sure you are using a shutter release in MUP mode. This is a critical detail.

Other Sensors

I have a lightening / motion sensor that works with my D7000, but sadly can’t find a connector to allow me to use it with the D810. This being the case I haven’t taken many photos with it recently. When I did it was fun, but it is not as easy as one would think. At first I thought, “Oh, that lightning photo must have been easy to take b/c that photographer had a lightning sensor.” But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact it can be even more frustrating because expectations are that much higher. That and there is so much static discharge during most lightning storms that the sensor will sometimes go crazy even when there is no lightning to be seen by the naked eye; and this isn’t even to mention the fact that one can’t predict with any sort of accuracy where the next bolt will strike. All that being said, I will someday get the perfect lightning shot. But I’m not sure it will be accomplished with a sensor. It could just as easily be accomplished via a longer exposure and fortuitous happenstance.

Final Word on Kit

The one thing that is surely true is that gear will constantly change over time, and this is particularly true of any gear that contains silicon chips and processors. The one thing is not likely to change in our lifetime, or that of our children for that matter, is the physical properties of light and the optics required to bring that light in to focus on a particular plane. This is the main reason that I have a great regard for sharp lenses of all type and will try and never shy away from shelling out what is required to ensure those that I carry are top notch.