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Welcome! I don't know about you guys, but I plan on having a good time. It's a lot of work putting together each episode, but photography has been in my life — work and play — since I was a strapping sapling simpleton. And that's saying something (especially if you try to say it through thrice).

Connect or comment, please. Each episode will have a conversation, and I'll be glad to strike one up with you, too!

- Mark

Dec 23, 2017

You can't make these things up! The most recent episode before this one was number 13, and this episode, which is now the most recent one, is number 14! What a spectacular tribute to the power of arithmetic.

What have goblins got to do with it?

In this spectacular episode (conflating the wonder of math with the quality of the experience) we look back at the true beginning of everyday photography. George Eastman and company (the company being Kodak) launched the Brownie camera in 1900 and over the next 66 years kept launching Brownies into the world, on average about one new model every eight months. (Fun Fact: Apple has averaged about that same pace with its iPhones.) Brownie cameras brought ease of use to the user and spectacular income to Kodak.

Beau Brownie by fdecomite

This is not the first Brownie model, but one from a few decades into the brand's run. I like it for its Art Deco graphic treatment by the industrial design firm Walter Dorwin Teague. The large lens is for image capture, the two small lenses gather the view for their respective viewfinders, one on top, one on the side (which will be on the top when you turn the camera sideways for a wide composition, rather than the normally tall composition). The photo is from Wikipedia, supplied by photographer fdecomite.

Rack 'em…

Speaking of synonyms for spectacular, the Sunwayfoto MFR-150S focusing rail is a dilly of a device. If you're photographing up close and numismatic, philatelic, phaleristic, brac-a-bric, TripTik, or any such objet miniature, precise focusing is de rigueur. Non? Such endeavors, then, benefit from a way to move your camera in tiny, well, increments is the wrong word because it implies steps, but to move your camera very small distances, precisely and if need be, incrementally. This focusing rail does that.

Attach the rail to a tripod head using one of the standard 1/4"-20 threaded holes on the bottom side of the rail, or clamp it in an Arca-Swiss-standard clamp, secure your camera to the movable carrier on the rail — for that you must have an Arca-Swiss-style plate on your camera — and a twist of the handle, at either end, will transport said camera fore or aft, smoothly and precisely.

It's a handy device and I say more about it in the episode. Here are some pics and links.

MFR-150S 3/4

The knob protruding from the near end, and the crank sticking out from the back, do the same thing — turn the lead screw that runs the length of the structure and, thus, move the carriage holding the camera.

MFR-150S bottom

The bottom view clearly shows the layout of the components, including the two 1/4"-20 tapped holes, for mounting to a tripod head that provides that, plus the two safety stops in opposing corners. The small knob poking up at the top locks the carriage wherever along the rail it is.

MFR-150S side

This side view of the MFR-150S has mounted to it a well-used Nikon D800 with Nikon micro lens and Sigma teleconverter for 2:1 magnification, benefitted muchly by the use of the focusing rail. On the right end of the rail the crank with offset arm shows why you need clearance to turn that crank — the left-end knob does not need such clearance. In this view, too, you can see the small index pin protruding from the bottom of the carriage to mark its journey against the numeric markings.

HK 5¢

As promised in the audio, here is a very close-up photo of a five-cent piece from Hong Kong.

Despite the extremely short distance from the nearest surfaces of the coin, the letters and other raised details, to the flat surface of the coin surrounding those details, two separate photos were required to keep all in focus, each photo focused at one of those distances. The two photos were easily captured using the macro focusing rail, which precisely managed the distance from the camera to the coin. Once brought into the computer they were merged using a technique called focus stacking, which I will detail in, um, well, I will detail right after you finish reading this text and jump over the links where you can learn more and/or order this very useful, well made, tool.




Sunwayfoto Australia

stack 'em

Incredigraphically (a new word courtesy of…me) those close-focused images face a challenge beyond getting the subject in focus. When the distance from lens to subject is small, the depth of focus is small. Potentially hugely small. The Honk Kong nickel (?) above is the product of two separate images. One image had the text in focus, the other had the rough surface in focus. The software detects (hopefully) which areas of each image are in focus, then seamlessly (hopefully) combines the two images into one, including only the in-focus areas from each. Those "hopefullys" are included because sometimes, for reasons I don't comprehend (because I'm not really sure what voodoo magic the apps do), the combined image will be imperfect, with some in-focus areas not represented or, more commonly, soft halos around some elements. Cactus needles are particularly prone to the latter.

Two images, though, is a relative walk in the park. This good ol' fashion American penny, below, because I photographed it from an angle, rather than head-on, required 19 separate images, each showing a sliver of the coin focused. Below the finished image is slice number nine in that series — you can see how little of the coin is captured in focus even with a fairly small aperture, f/22.

US penny

Above, a finished composition comprised of 19 separate photos of the penny, each focused at a different distance sufficient to capture all of the coin in focus, from near to far. Below, one photo from the series. I see history in the finished image which, to me, made it worth the effort.

US Penny slice 9

The change in focus for the individual images can be accomplished by turning the focus ring on the lens between exposures, or by moving the camera nearer or farther between exposures. Use whichever method suits the subject, the setting, your equipment, and your experience. For the penny, I turned the focus ring.

How might you choose between cranking the rail or turning the ring? The macro focusing rail gives great control over small distances, so super close-ups really benefit from the accuracy and ease-of-use of a focusing rail. For a larger subject, such as this fence post, physically driving the camera can capture the range of focus for the subject (to the limit of the rail's length, of course), but since the composition changes as you move the camera, you can wind up with kinda screwy out-of-focus areas, or even thwart the focus stacking software's ability to create a proper, single image.

fence comparo whole

Three renditions of a fence post. On the left, a single exposure with a very small aperture (f/36) captures the entirety of the post and wire in focus, but it also renders the background distractingly, nearly, in focus. Our eye is drawn from the post to the shrubs and the trees and the branches sneaking in on the right then back to the post and the shrubs and on and on. Not a pleasant journey. The middle image is the result of nine exposures, each taken with the focus ring turned to put some elements of the fence post and wire in focus, but leaving the background out of focus, then the exposures were combined in the computer. On the right, the camera was moved forward between each of its nine exposures to, again, capture all portions of the post and wire in focus, then the images were combined in the computer. Note, however, that the post appears much larger in the composition. That's fine if you want it, and comes from the camera ending its journey six inches closer to the post in its last-of-nine exposure, compared to its first. If your composition demands the post be smaller, visually, frame your composition with the camera closest to the subject and move it back on the rail, farther from the subject, for each subsequent exposure.

A further note, though, about the rail-focused version: notice how the shrubby/sandy background has gained some swirlies. As the camera moved along the rail, the relative position and size of the background elements shifted and the software had to figure out what to do with them. The common result is this — zoomies or swirlies. You don't see the effect in the sky or the green trees, but where the objects are closer and more detailed, oopsies. You can see the effect more clearly below, in an enlarged comparo of that area, below.

fence comparo detail

So much to learn, and so much to gain, by stacking images. Key to the technique, no matter the approach, is keeping the camera steady, shot to shot. The software (links below) has the best chance of pulling a gem from your pile o' focusings if the only thing changing is the focus. Listen for more info, and leave comments or questions below.


Zerene Stacker

Forward, into the past!*

Regents' Professor Mark Klett of Arizona State University has been chasing history and following his own path for four decades, and his skill and acclaim have grown accordingly in that time. We sat down in his studio to touch on, assuredly, only portions of his life, and he held forth in detail on some of the major projects he launched or was part of.

Rephotography? Done. Time? Discussed. Arizona history? Decidedly. World War II history? Ditto. Professor Klett's history? Dipped into. Other retorts beginning with d? Dunno.

Klett in studio

Mark Klett in his studio, the walls adorned with photos of saguaros (a project he is working on) and ceremonial sticks (an ongoing tradition).

You can learn more about Klett and see some of his work, plus the many books he has authored or contributed to, at his web site, You can also find his books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through other retailers.

* Bonus points if you can identify the reference I make here.

The great unknown

Alvin Langdon Coburn was recognized as a master of photography as an art form by some of its earliest practitioners. He burst onto the scene in the same year as did the Brownie camera, flourished and worked with the greats of the era — Steichen and Stieglitz among them — rose to the heights of the profession then threw it all away, destroying most of his negatives, in the summer of 1930. He had turned to spiritual matters, including freemasonry and the occult, and lived until 1966, passing away at home in his adopted Wales.

I quote him first with, "Why should not the camera artist break away from the worn out conventions... and claim the freedom of expression which any art must have to be alive," which, to me, suggests that all cards are on the table when it comes to creating art with the tools of photography. But that broad sense of freedom was not his intent. "I wish to state emphatically that I do not believe in any sort of handwork or manipulation on a photographic negative or print." I don't ascribe this to conflict in his approach, but merely a strict approach to seeing and recording the world in his quest for art.

His star burned bright but was not snuffed out so much as he chose to take it in a different direction. Ironically, in the summer he destroyed his life's work he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.


Self-portrait, Alvin Langdon Coburn, age 23.

Rodin Spiderwebs

On the left, sculptor Auguste Rodin, 1908. (I see here what could be the influence of Julia Margaret Cameron's approach to portraiture. Check out Episode 12 for her quotes and images.) On the right, his composition "Spiderwebs," also from 1908. Photos by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Stupendous, or at least stupefying

Episode 14 has creaked to a halt and no single word can describe what must be your sense of relief. Much was covered, discovered, or perhaps covered over. But no matter what you think or thought, we can all agree that we can finally get on with the rest of our lives. And thank you for spending some of your life with me!

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