My Favorite Lens

In general, we photographers love our equipment, Especially our lenses. It is not uncommon to have a favorite one. You can always get a discussion/fight started among photographers when you talk about lenses. I would like to discuss what has become my favorite lens.


The lens is a critically important piece of equipment to photographers. Sensors are improving dramatically and lenses have to improve with them to achieve all the sharpness and resolution the sensor can capture.

Modern lenses constantly improve in resolution. Look at DxO image tests of current best lenses vs. the best from 20 years ago. Our lenses now enable us to capture more information and be able to produce wall-size prints that are extremely sharp.

The lens determines the point of view that is captured in our frame. It establishes the field of view, the width of the scene we are capturing. Some of us naturally have a telephoto view. Others have a wide angle view. This refers to the lens choice we tend to select to frame our subjects. This is just personal preference. The lens is a tool to help express our esthetic.

Many photographers feel they need a whole bag full of lenses of various focal lengths from extreme wide angle to super telephoto, with macro lenses and tilt/shiftes thrown in. Because, you never know what you might find. 🙂 Personally I have simplified my life a lot over time. I generally only carry a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm in my kit. But that is just me and where I am at right now.

So what we want is a lens or lenses that allow us to capture all the information we want (resolution, sharpness, dynamic range) in the field of view we want. A big ask, but doable.

Digital workflow

Most of us are in the digital world now. The digital workflow is quite different from the analog workflow.

What we call the analog workflow – the film days- involved developers and enlargers and prints and lots of chemicals and time. Personally, these are days I don’t miss. I am a big fan of the power and freedom and flexibility we have now.

There is a corresponding workflow for digital processing, though. It includes loading images on our computer, viewing them, culling or grading them, processing selects with our software of choice, etc. Each of theses steps is time consuming. Especially since we tend to shoot so many more frames now that they “don’t cost anything”. And each step requires software and considerable training.

The result, though, is that we spend a lot of time in front of our computer now. We probably spend more time in the digital workflow than we did in the analog workflow.

My favorite lens

What does this have to do with a discussion of my favorite lens? Well, in a sense the “lens” I use the most and that has the most impact on my work is my computer monitor.

This is where I view all my images. Zoomed in to 100% I look at individual pixels. Here is where I crop and color correct and adjust tones and contrast and saturation. This is where I view and edit the image when I convert it to black & white. When I create new images by compositing others together, that is done entirely though the monitor “lens”.

Yes, all of the things I just said are actually done through specialized software. In my case it is primarily Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. But metaphorically and to me, the monitor is the lens into the process.

Now days the monitor is where we view everything we do. Regardless of what the original image looked like, what I see in the monitor at the end of the edits is what counts. The result could be a complete re-imagining of the starting image.

The new primary lens

I spend more time in front of my monitor than I do outside shooting. More and more it is coming to dominate my workflow. If I lost or broke a lens, that would be terrible, but I could continue doing my art with other lenses with only minor re-adjustments to my vision. I had this experience recently. My 24-70 lens dropped and shattered the polarizer filter. I was up in the mountains and I did not have a filter wrench with me to get the jammed filter off, so I had to switch to using an alternate lens. A little frustrating, but not a big deal.

But if my computer died, although I could continue shooting, I could not view or process a single image until I fixed it. Eventually things would back up to a critical point and I would have to get the computer back. I also couldn’t select images for galleries or process images for printing. Dead in the water.

So in a sense, the focal point of the digital workflow is the monitor. That is the new lens I use to view and do most of my work. The monitor is the lens for the increasingly important part of the digital workflow.

The future

In the future will this trend increase or will we return to simpler times? What do you think?

My money would be on the increase of digital processing. We will trend more toward an attitude that the camera and lenses are used to gather raw material, but pictures are actually made in the computer, looking through the monitor. Increasingly, the final image may look less and less like the original capture. Better processing software opens up new possibilities. And viewers are more willing to accept that photography should create something more than a true representation of reality.

So the next time you are lusting for a wonderful new lens, it might be better to upgrade your monitor instead.

Out There

Ice and reflections on a cold winter day

My previous article discussed being an explorer based on curiosity. I absolutely, intensely believe that. But I don’t want to leave the impression that most of the exploration can be done in books and videos and trips to museums and even on the computer. For what I do, I have to be out there. Out there in the outdoors. Thinking about images is great, but you haven’t created art until you actually make an image.

Exploration can happen anywhere

Exploration is partly a mental activity. Feeding your mind with new ideas and new images causes growth, new connections. This is a vital activity for artists – and for everyone if you care about growing. There is a limit to it, though.

Creativity is a balance between thinking and doing. Thinking allows us to consider new possibilities and imagine what we would do. Actually getting out shooting lets us test the ideas, see unexpected things, apply the ideas and discover new ones.

The craft of making something balances and perfects the ideas of what we might do. It is a feedback loop. They reinforce each other. Thinking new ideas helps us see more possibilities when we are out shooting. Capturing images helps refine what works and doesn’t. Then when we see what works we discover new possibilities to try another time. Putting theory to practice is necessary to perfect both.

I shoot outdoor images

At some point we have to stop just thinking about what we want to do and actually go do it. Get off the couch and out the door.

Occasionally I set aside time to travel someplace specifically to shoot pictures. That is a joy. But i don’t get to do it as much as I would like. Some reasons are:

  1. It is expensive
  2. I have to be at my studio to process images and take care of all the things that need to be done.
  3. New places are enjoyable but I’m a visitor there. I feel the need to find fresh images where I live.

So I force myself to get out frequently and explore in my own backyard, so to speak. I consider it great discipline to find new, interesting images in familiar areas. And I do find many that I consider good.

I will confess that I am naturally something of a couch potato. Getting out in all kinds of weather is a significant act of will. Especially when you consider that where I live the temperatures can range from -10F to 110F. It can be easy to convince myself that is is just not fun. But it is a habit I force myself to do. When I am home, then 4 to 5 days a week I go our walking with my camera.

Yesterday, for instance, it was 2F and snowing and we had about 4 inches of fresh snow on the ground. I walked over 4 miles. I’m not bragging. Probably many of you do much more. My point is that it is a conscious decision that I will go out with my camera and explore every chance I get. I am somewhat amazed at what I find.

When I am looking at an image I like, I always remember what the conditions were when I shot it, but that is not a factor in my evaluation of the worth of the image itself. The image must stand on its own. But I sometimes find the best pictures in the worst weather.

Practice makes perfect

Exploration is largely a mental activity. Feed your mind. Take in new ideas and possibilities all the time and assimilate the learnings into your vision. But you have to do it, too. Make images. Express the creative ideas you formed. Realize the idea in a finished product for your viewers. It can be hard.

In his e-book “10 Tips for Aspiring Photographers”, William Patino said

One thing that I feel greatly helped my learning was the amount of time I was willing to invest in being outdoors, playing with my camera and observing light and the land.

Invest the time. Be out looking and feeling. Getting good at anything takes time. Practice. Play.

I find that creative ideas tend to be rather vague. They tend to come as an idea of something that would be interesting. But actually making it happen can sometimes be difficult. It may require planning or more research or travel or, typically, many attempts to capture the idea in a real image.

When I was working on my Speeding Trains project I threw away hundreds of attempts before I learned how to capture the impression of motion and speed and power and presence that I envisioned. Even after I sort of figured it out, my “hit rate” was probably about 1 in 10. Practice makes perfect. Or at least better. 🙂

Believe you are very lucky

Being an artist is hard work. If anyone tells you different, they haven’t tried it. You have to create a huge body of work and continually refresh it. You have to deal with rejection. Gatekeepers are everywhere proclaiming themselves to be the arbiter of taste and style and you are not fit to be allowed in to their select club. You will want to give up. As an artist you have to believe in yourself and your work. Regardless of what others say or do. Push on.

It seems a contradiction, but on the other hand, many people admire and look up to you. They dream of being able to step out of their drab world and create. To have the freedom to make art and tell the world they don’t care if no one else likes it, because it pleases them. We seem an independent rebel, living the creative artistic life. They are right.

In a private correspondence my friend Les Picker said:

It’s like a colleague of mine once said: There is no such thing as a bad day for a nature photographer. We’re out there. We’re walking the path. How fortunate we are!

So when it’s 0F and I am feeling frostbite or it’s 100F and I’m about to pass out from heat exhaustion, I remind myself that I am out creating and following my vision. How can this be bad?

My vision leads me to shoot outdoors. So this is where I have to go. I can’t cherry pick and just say “Oh, today is not totally perfect , so I will just stay in”. That would never get anything done. Get out in it. Get dirty or wet or hot. Look past the conditions and discover what is there to see.

Being an artist is about seeing. I have to be out in the place I plan to shoot before I can see. I want to make art, not just think about art.

Your mileage may vary

It sounds like I am saying that you have to shoot landscape scenes to be an artist. Not at all. I think the principles apply to anything you do. If you do portraits, do them, a lot. Don’t just think about doing them. If your thing is commercial or food or street photography or abstract still life studio shots, it doesn’t matter. Do it. Practice. Get in the reps.

My thing involves outdoor photography. I have to kick myself out the door to shoot. If you do your work in the studio then make yourself get up and go do the work there.

You’re not an artist unless you are creating art.

Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.

Andy Warhol

The image this week

I mentioned suffering in the cold. That is the time of year I’m in as I write this. What would be worth going out in that kind of weather? Well, things like this. I love patterns and reflections in ice. It is a very interesting subject to me. This kind of shot makes me forget the discomfort and think of the beauty in unlikely places. I hope you get out and find things like this, too.

It’s Just Data

Smoky Ouray sunset, looking up the box canyon

Digital images are just data, pixels, digital values. Yes, but… That’s like saying paintings are just pigment smeared on canvas. It can become something more.

It’s data

Every digital image is data. I won’t go into film. It is the same but different. But a piece of exposed film is just data, too.

What comes off my sensor is a rectangular array of pixel values, red, green, and blue tuples. Tuple is just a mathematical term for a small set of numbers you keep together and in order. In this case (red value, green value, blue value). This is just numbers. Data.

When this data is brought into my computer it is still data. The manipulations I do on it in Lightroom and/or Photoshop are mathematical operations. Things computers are good at dealing with. An image may be gigabytes in size, but it is still nothing more than data.

Data just is. It doesn’t mean anything.

Interpreted by our minds

When the data is displayed on screen, I can view it and interpret it as something. This is the key. It means nothing until a human interprets it.

A particular set of contrasting tones and colors in a region looks like a tree to me. Even if the computer uses an AI classifier to identify it as a tree, that is just a meaningless label to it. The computer does not know what a tree is. An image of a tree cannot invoke memory or symbolism or meaning in the computer. It can in our minds.

So the data we see on screen, that is just variations of intensity and color, becomes meaningful to us because we are human. The data itself does not encode hope or despair or memories or associations or pain or beauty. That is what we make of the data.

The pen

There is an old expression that says “the pen is mightier than the sword.” This is true, but unpack it a little. A literal pen (do you remember what those are?) is not stronger or more forceful that a literal sword. The expression is metaphorical. The force of words conveyed to people’s minds can do more than the threats of swords can.

This is the case with images. The data making up the image means little. What we interpret from the data when we view it is everything.

I do not get political in this blog, but from a sociological interest, the protests going on in China (as I write this) are fascinating. Censorship is so strict that the symbol of the protests is a blank piece of paper, representing that they can’t say anything. From an engineering point of view, the amount of “data” in a blank sheet of paper is zero. It is the meaning ascribed to it that makes it powerful. An empty of paper can say volumes.

What elevates some?

Back on track, how is it that some data creates a far different effect than others? It’s much more than just the data. For example, here are 2 histograms. This is important data about the color information and distribution of pixels in each image.

Mona Lisa histogram Random flower image histogram

Their shapes are not that different. The one on the left has more warm dark tones and is darker overall. The one on the right has a lot of bright reds. Both have a red spike at the high end. But these are just 2 sets of data.

Would it make a difference if I told you the left histogram is the Mona Lisa and the right one is a random flower image from my reject bin?

So we cannot take an engineering view of the data to infer the value or user reaction. Our human perception makes all the difference.

More than data

The famous photographer Edward Weston once said: “This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” It is a little bit of a stretch, but I don’t think it breaks badly to say when we press the shutter, we collect data, but it is more than data.

We could look at the data as an engineer and analyze histograms, tonal distributions, edges, area balances, and 100 other parameters. I know. I have. But my conclusion is that matters little. It gives us ways to describe the superficial data, but it says almost nothing about what the image means to us as humans.

So what?

I think we always have to ask “so what?” when we learn something new. Let me share 2 takeaways I get from this.

The first is that the data doesn’t care. I spent years trying to optimize the perfect histogram, ensuring total, crisp sharpness, capturing and preserving perfect color balance. At this point in my journey I will say that none of that really matters. All that matters is the effect I bring to myself and my viewers. Is it pleasing? Does it make us think? Is there a larger idea behind the surface scene?

The second takeaway is even harder for me to really grasp. It is just data, and the numbers don’t really matter. This means that what the original scene looked like (the captured data) should have little bearing on what we do with it. Process the data as much as necessary to create a great image. I need to stop being limited in my thinking by the reality I started with.

If it was an average, sunny scene but I feel it should be dark and moody, fine. If it was a colorful scene but I feel it should be presented in black & white, fine. Crop it. Add texture. The original data should not limit our artistic interpretation. This is one reason I often find it valuable to let images “age” a bit before I process them. I loose much of the association to the real scene and can take a more artistic view of the result I want.

Today’s image

I love this image and this place (Ouray Colorado). The sunset was almost blown out from a haze of wildfire smoke. Contrast was challenging. But I had to get something. It was too beautiful to stand idly by.

Besides B&W conversion and cropping it, the pixels have been bent quite a bit. The image is a couple of years old. I find that every time I go back to it I push it a little more to the extreme. Each time I do, it becomes a little more what I remember of the event. The less I remember the actual original scene, the more I feel free to make it match what I felt.

Time Builds Perspective

Water flow, mountain ranges, abstract oil painting?

I find that a distance of time often builds a healthy perspective on my images. Sometimes, when the images are “fresh”, the experience of the capture clouds my judgment. Letting them age can build a clearer judgment of them. They can take on a new life.

Let go

I have written that we need to fall in love with our images and capture the emotions we were feeling at the time. That is true, but the experience of the moment is not sufficient to make it worthwhile. I could point to many images in my catalog that bring back great memories. Ones where I felt alive and on fire when I took them.

They will always be meaningful to me, but that does not make them great images. I have to learn to let go of my emotional attachment to them and look at them with detachment. That is the only way to begin to see if they could bring satisfaction to other people.

Be analytical

I have said that we need to balance our emotional side with our analytical side. This is one of those times. Looking at one of my images may bring back a flood of joy or suffering or pain or other feelings. But I must coldly and analytically figure out if I have brought any of that to my viewers.

Just because it was significant to me does not mean it should be to you. This may be the last picture I took of my father before he died, but that doesn’t make it meaningful to you unless it brings out something significant about the human condition.

I may have a group of shots I took in 2 feet of snow in white-out conditions where hardly anyone was dumb enough to be out. The images may be beautiful to me and bring back the experience as a pleasant memory, but what can they convey to you?

If I can’t bridge from personally important to an exciting image from your perspective, it is only a selfie.


One way to be able to see this is to use time as a distance mechanism. I have found myself instinctively doing this a lot, but it was interesting to see it discussed by Alister Benn, CaptureLandscape’s 2020 Photographer of the Year:

When I turned professional, I suddenly found the time between shooting in the field and getting around to processing was extending from a matter of hours, to months, or even years. I have thousands of images I have never looked at since importing them (apart from rating and deleting any obvious weak ones.)

Alister Benn – Luminosity & Contrast

He goes on to describe how this separation helped him by allowing him to view images more objectively. They are distanced from their original meaning. How he perceives and reacts to the image right now is all that matters. Sometimes he looks through old images and “discovers” ones he was cool to at the time that he can now develop into a great image. Seen on its own without the baggage of the emotions of the shoot, it means something new. Distance builds perspective.

See them for what they are

Alister asks how, then, does he decide what images to work on? “Simply, I work the ones that speak to me.” Sitting in front of the computer days, or even months after the shoot, they look different. They have different meaning. A meaning may arise independent of the original context.

He is in a different place – literally and figuratively. He has different feelings and emotions. The images are perceived different. Some become more important. Presumably some become less important. But he is processing them from the point of view of where his head is at the time.

At the time

Interestingly, this means that there could be a kind of ebb and flow to our perceptions. At any given time our feelings will be different. We may be happy, sad, melancholy, reflective, hopeful. How we feel at the time determines how we perceive our images and how we process them.

In a recent article, I suggested an exercise to discover our natural themes: pick your “best” 100 images from your portfolio. Brainstorm descriptive terms. Group those into categories and name them. I also gave the opinion that this was not deterministic, because repeating the exercise at another time could be a little different, because you would pick different images as your “best”.

I think I was discovering the idea that even our portfolio is not a fixed set. There is not necessarily 20 or 50 or 100 images that is fixed in time that represent me. The members can change, not only as we do new work, but as we change our perspective. Time brings new points of view. Distancing our self from the emotions of when we captured the image changes how we view it. We are always growing and learning.

It’s actually exciting for me to look back through old images in my catalog. The excitement is when I have one jump out at me and I look at the way I processed it and say “what were you thinking?” Then I re-process it from a different point of view and create a new, different image.


The image here is an example of this idea. Every time I come back to it, I see something different. Sometimes I love it, sometimes not as much. It is in or out of my portfolio on any given day. The longer I live with it, the more I like it. I am tending to see more layers and ideas swirling through it. Right now I would say it is a definite “in”. It speaks to me.

Themes Keep Emerging

Blowing snow in the Colorado mountains

Quite a while back I talked some about themes in our work. I mentioned that one theme I come back to is wabi-sabi. As I reflect on my work I find that there are common themes that keep emerging.

What is a theme?

In the previous article I gave the simple dictionary definition of a theme as “a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation”. This is right, but inadequate. I have come to believe that for artists, themes are ingrained and consistent.

That is, unless we are doing commercial work for clients, themes represent what we are drawn to. The things that have meaning or symbolism to us. They probably don’t mean anything in themselves, but they disclose something about us. What we see and the way we think.

So perhaps, for a fine artist, themes are the ideas that tweak our passion, that spark our creativity. It is important to keep in mind that the theme does not have to be deeply meaningful. It just grabs us for some reason.


I am at a stage where I think more and more about projects. These self-assigned projects help focus me and exercise my creativity. Without them I tend to run wild and shoot everything in sight. That is OK, but a project helps me get deepen into an idea.

I have a list of project idea I think I would like to do. Sometimes, though, when I try to start one, it turns out to be Meh… It is difficult to really get into it with any enthusiasm. I have come to recognize that this is a symptom of the project not aligning with any of the themes that channel my interest. I usually abandon these, unless there is a compelling reason to push on through it. There seldom is.

On the other hand, when a project aligns with my innate theme interests I can really get into it. It is energizing and exciting rather than being dreary work.

Look inward

So I have learned to look inward more to keep projects aligned with my natural themes. This can be hard for some of us cold, analytical types. After all, it is easier to talk about composition or exposure than it is about feelings. But as I have said before, art is primarily about feelings. I have to get in touch with my feelings??! Well, maybe not in that sense. But I have to become a lot more sensitized to them.

The unique nature of photography is that it is a subtractive art. The world is swirling all around us in unbelievable detail and complexity. When we lift a camera we engage in a process of reducing, filtering, limiting what we show to make a pleasing and coherent image. This takes discipline and a good sense of what we find important in the frame at the time.

Self discovery

This self-discovery process sounds hard for some of us, especially guys. But maybe not. Our own work can often tell us, if we listen.

If you have a body of work (a fairly large collection of images you think are good) you probably have the data you need already – your own images. As an exercise in self discovery, pick out around 100 of your best images. The ones that you feel you are most proud of and that represent the work you are doing now. If I were doing it right now, I would use Lightroom to go through my catalog of top picks and pull 100 of them into a collection to examine.

As painful and time consuming as that is, that is the easy part. Now it is time to think and reflect. Study this set of images. Write down the themes that come to mind as you look over the collection. Just do a free association, stream of consciousness at first. Write these theme ideas on sticky notes and lay them out on a table or a white board or your monitor or wherever is convenient. Look for groupings of related ideas. Put them together. Come up with a term to represent each grouping.

Hopefully you now have no more than 3-6 theme ideas. Go back to your image collection and try grouping them according to these ideas. Don’t worry if it is not perfect. A single image may overlap more than one idea. But it is a test to see if you believe the groupings you came up with.

Now you have a clearer map of the big ideas you are drawn to. This is enlightenment.

Rocket Science?

No, this is not rocket science. It is not really science at all, in the sense of being objective and repeatable. If you repeat the experiment you would probably select a different set of images, because they seemed meaningful to you at the time. You would probably label them differently and come up with different themes. Same but different. That is, there should be a lot of overlap, because themes are much more broad than a particular subject.

Does this make it invalid? No. The process gives you insight about yourself and your interests. It is turning your sights inward and trying to understand more about yourself. The fact that you get different results proves you are a complex and varied individual. That’s good. Be proud of your complexity.

What am I drawn to?

I mentioned wabi-sabi as one of my themes. Some others are time travel, weathered, force of nature, and black & white. I haven’t figured out if black & white is a theme or just an attribute of a lot of the art I like to do. Still working on it.

The image with this article I just shot yesterday (as I write this). This is in the force of nature theme. We just had our first good snow here in Colorado and I couldn’t resist getting up in the mountains to see it. This is not cloud or fog or smoke. It’s blowing snow. It’s not snowing. As a matter of fact the sky is a boring bright blue.

When we get sandwiched between a high pressure system to the west and a low pressure system to the east, we can get violent winds across the mountains as the pressure tries to equalize. When I shot this, it was about 18 F with about 40-50 MPH gusts. Very cold! But I hardly noticed. I love scenes like this showing the power and majesty and force of nature! I was in the zone. I didn’t even remember to put my gloves on, and I hardly noticed.

Connect with your heart

So I find that scenes that excite me when I am shooting them are usually in one of my themes. If I am not excited, I’m probably trying to shoot something that doesn’t inherently draw me to it. By understanding my preferred themes I can more easily decide what to shoot and what to avoid.

Someone once said “if it doesn’t excite you, why should it excite your viewers?” This is generally true. Have you ever made a technically perfect image of a beautiful scene and then later thrown it away? I have. Lots.

Art is about showing other people what we felt; what we were excited about. If we’re not in love with an image why should we ever show it to someone else?