Stars in Her Eyes

Taken with the 24mm f/1.4.

From Cai and Johnny’s wedding. I’m still getting files out to clients for the holidays, but I think I’ll hold off on full wedding blogs until I get back from Italy in the New Year. I also have a review of the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 ready to go for ’11!

Double Rainbow, all the way

Double Rainbow, all the way

Wendy and I were in Boca Raton for a wedding, and, given how freezing it is in NYC these days, we wanted to take as much advantage of it as possible. So we went for a long, long walk along the beach, watching the sandpipers run along the waves, making up stories about the owners of the other footprints in the sand. It had been raining all morning, but that didn’t stop us. As we finally reached the point where we realized how far we’d walked, and that we’d have to walk all the way back, it started to rain a bit more, even though the sun was out.

“Look!” Wendy said. A rainbow seemingly began to grow out of the ocean. “I’ve never seen one right on the horizon before!” (We are not oceanfaring people).

It grew fast enough that you could follow its progress with your eye, first one band, and then a second. while behind us was a fantastic sunset.

You’d better believe we started shouting “What does this MEAN?”

And that’s why you always bring your camera with you. Regular ol’ panorama, 13 frames with the Nikon 35mm f/1.4.

Diandra and Erick at Hudson Terrace

Sometimes you know that a wedding is going to be amazing but then it exceeds your expectations anyway. I’d talked with Erick extensively, going over all the details, but that can’t describe the obvious love he and Diandra have for each other, or even the fantastic style, beginning the day at the luxurious New York Palace Hotel (where Vera Wang herself peeked in on our shoot) with a ceremony and reception at the swanky Hudson Terrace, highlighting a gorgeous sunset along the river.

It got at the heart of what weddings should be — all about connections between loved ones, the way we all help each other make our lives richer and fuller, with a very wild celebration thrown on top.

Maureen and Jon at Giando on the Water

I’ve known Maureen from way back in the wild days of Internet, when I maintained a Fordham University message board, so I had been looking forward to her wedding from the moment she got engaged. And she didn’t disappoint one bit, from getting ready at the swanky Hotel Giraffe (though there are sadly no real giraffes there), to a ceremony at the gorgeous St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church, and starting the reception at Giando on the Water just in time for a great sunset over Manhattan.

The wedding featured a gaggle of rambunctious kids who Maureen and Jon kept entertained through the night, and friends and family who made sure the reception, and the photobooth, were hopping.

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Review: Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro

Specs and purchasing info.

662722.jpgYou know that Zeiss is serious about lenses when they retain the German spelling of “Macro.” And pixel-peeping, lens-lusting photographers are very serious about this lens, telling tales of its optical prowess almost mythological in scope. So while I waited (not so) patiently for my Nikon 35mm f/1.4 (which I will have in my hands in about an hour), I decided it was time to run this bad boy through its paces, with the help of Adorama Rental.

There are two major factors that keep the Zeiss 100mm from being more popular. First, it’s expensive, more than $1800 (although with Nikon lenses skyrocketing in price due to the Yen, that seems a lot more reasonable than it used to.) Second, it’s manual-focus only, thanks in part to some patent issues regarding AF mechanisms. Now, I recommend shooting manual focus almost all the time you do macro anyway, so for close-up work that’s irrelevant. But with the fast aperture and sparkling clarity, this also makes a heck of a portrait lens, and how you feel about that will definitely depend on how much you like focusing manually. Even though I’m a relative whippersnapper, I’ve done a lot of manual focus work. My first camera was my Dad’s Minolta SRT-101b, manual everything, and I’ve done enough work managing to focus the paper-thin DoF of the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 and 58mm f/1.2 that anything else seems easy. But even I think to myself, “I paid $5,200 for a camera with a top of the line focusing array. I’d sure like to use it.”

The good news is that the newer model does communicate electronically with the camera, so lower-end cameras can get exposure readings with it and you can control the aperture through the camera controls instead of that smooth-as-silk aperture ring.

Your mileage may vary.

A quick note on my lens reviews. I realize that the best thing to do when reviewing a lens is to take a bunch of unprocessed photos of brick walls. And the last thing you should do is do a lot of hard-to-reproduce, crazy things with it like panoramas and freelensing. But I am not a reviewer first, I am a photographer. So I will note anything I’ve done to the images and try to provide a good cross-sample. All of these images are at f/2 unless otherwise noted.

For instance, this is a twenty-five-image Brenizer method panorama. It has a MUCH wider FoV than a 100mm normally would, but you can still see the amazingly creamy bokeh of this lens:

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But here’s a normal, single-shot photo. f/2, ISO 6400 1/100th:

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Now let’s get down to it.

Build quality:

You get a lot for your money here — everything says that this lens is well put-together. All of the exterior, including the hood, is metal. The hood is reversible for packing, which is good, but the lens is impossible to focus when the hood is reversed, which is not so good, given that the lens is manual-focus. The focusing ring is butter smooth, and since they don’t have to worry about autofocus speed, the lens has a nice long focusing throw which makes it easier to be accurate. The aperture ring is also incredibly smooth — it’s actually a real pleasure to use in a way that I don’t normally talk about aperture rings.

Macro performance:

The only downside here is that without an extension ring, the lens is only 1:2, half the macro power of competitors like the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR. But their design choices, which makes the lens extend a great deal at close-focus, also means that there is very little “focus breathing” (when the focal length of a lens appears to lessen as you zoom in), so it’s still fairly powerful, as you can see from its clear read of a ring’s inscription here:

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Now, most of the time in macro photography, the trick is how to get your depth-of-field as WIDE as possible, so the fast f/2 aperture isn’t really a help. But it does make for some really interesting impressionistic effects:

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And it also gives an otherworldly feel to detail photos that aren’t quite at macro level:

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Overall optics:

This is the Mary Poppins lens, perfect in every way. At medium apertures it is simply ludicrous, clearly outresolving my 12 megapixel D3s sensor at every edge of the frame. You can see a full-res JPEG at f/11 here for pixel peeping. (It’s not very exciting, one part of a panorama, but it sure is sharp).

Wide-open, it’s STILL insanely sharp, especially in the center. There’s a reason this lens is so well-regarded. It will draw every bit of detail out of your photos.

But nothing is perfect.

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Now this is a true stress test, with blown out background against thin black lines, and this sort of blooming is more about the relationship between the sensor and the lens than just the lens itself, but still, that green isn’t meant to be there. But I can’t think of a fast lens that wouldn’t have some difficulty with that part of this shot.

But now let’s get a little crazy. You see, in my testing, I found that this was also a GREAT lens for freelensing — shooting with the lens slightly unmounted for varying focal planes. You have to manual focus these anyway, and this lens was made to be a pleasure to do so. I recommend taking the hood off before trying for less vignetting.

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or like so:

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If you have a bit of money and love manual-focus Zeiss lenses, then this is one of the prime ones to get. But that’s a pretty small sample set. For the rest of us, I would perhaps recommend this most to people with high-resolution cameras like the D3X* who want to get every last one of their many, many pixels nice and sharp, particularly for studio work at smaller apertures where the depth-of-field would make manual-focus fairly painless. For most of us, though, the competing Nikon and Canon lenses may lose a stop, but they are also optically amazing and have autofocus and vibration reduction. If Zeiss ever does manage to bring AF into this segment, these lenses will see a huge surge, but for now it is a niche product that is a pleasure to use. Give it a rent at Adorama!

*(PS, if you’ve been planning on buying a D3X, doing it through that link will buy my mother a really nice Christmas present, Mr. Moneybags.)

Lauren and John: Battery Gardens wedding

I’ve already waxed nostalgic over the amazing sunset that graced Lauren and John’s wedding, but I haven’t yet said how fantastic the day itself was. The day was lively throughout, with streamers and bubbles marking their exit from a ceremony across the street at The Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to the march to Battery Gardens to a dance floor that just kept getting wilder and more hilarious.

After John’s best man pulled out a series of enlargements he’d made of pictures from John’s youth, they quickly became impromptu masks for the rest of the party. Even by closing time there was no sign of the energy slowing down, and I didn’t want it to. Congratulations, Lauren and John!

Ting and Weiji: New York Botanical Gardens Wedding

I’ve put in my time at the Ivy Leagues, so when I say a couple is frighteningly educated I mean it. I think Ting and Weiji have 57 degrees between them, at rough count. Their wedding at the New York Botanical Gardens was perfectly tailored to their personality and the sunny, warm daytime feeling. Instead of a simple DJ or band, there were dance lessons in Argentinian tango, a cross-table trivia game, and board games aplenty. I can safely say these are the best Jenga photos of my career.

At every stage their wedding was helped along by friends, from the dance instructors to the musicians and officiant, showing the connections they’ve formed together in their travels and considerable charity work, giving the day a blessedly stress-free, low-key feeling. Congratulations!

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The New PocketWizard Frontier

A little news for the photographers among you: I was recently honored to be a beta tester for the new Nikon-compatible line of PocketWizards. As someone who loves to use off-camera flash, but also loves high-speed-sync (Nikon calls this Auto FP), I was really excited.

While it was fun having secret special status, I’m even happier to say that the latest beta period didn’t last long. The engineers were happy with latest developments, and they’re shipping out now, primarily to Europe. I haven’t tested the latest iteration yet, but I should get a chance soon.

Leila and Sam: New Leaf Cafe Wedding

Leila and Sam’s wedding at the New Leaf Cafe in Fort Tryon Park was marked by incredible taste, simple but elegant, and a welcoming, low-key attitude that permeated the entire day. I don’t usually go nuts over details, as the true beating heart of weddings for me are people and the way they connect to each other, but her individualized centerpieces went straight into my “take note for future wedding” brain compartment.

It was a gorgeous day, with twilight coming in over the Hudson river. One thing I love about word-of-mouth referrals is seeing some of the same crazy, awesome guests from previous weddings, and there were hams aplenty in the crowd.

Fantastic day.

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Photos that Matter

Something that deeply informs the way I shoot weddings is to always think about the kinds of photos that really matter to me. I know what kinds of photos I love to take as a photographer, and what sorts of photos I like to look at when the frames are filled with strangers, but it can be a very different thing when it’s me in the photo, or my friends and family. When I’m shooting the sorts of photos I like to look at as a photographer, I’m trying to be clever, to see angles other people might not see, to do things that I and other people haven’t done a thousand times before. But as a normal person with my own feelings and connections and history, the photos I hold most dear, the ones that I would cry and scream over if I ever lost, aren’t very tricky at all. And I know I’m not alone, since I’ve asked this of many other photographers — exactly the sorts of people who would be into deeply artistic shots — and I hear the same thing.

My Aunt Lita took one of my favorite photos of the past couple years as my mother surprised me with birthday cake after Thanksgiving dinner:

Not the most flattering angle of me, and I was unshaven, full of turkey, etc., and of course taken with a point-and-shoot. But I love everything about it, because of how real the moment was to me. I didn’t even know the photo was being taken, or care. My family is very musical, while I am sort of a Bizarro anti-musician who destroys every note I come near. But they love me, so when my cousin and uncle started banging out the last few songs of the Beatles “Abbey Road” on the piano, no one ran off screaming as I joined in. It was fantastic. I don’t get to see my family very much because I live away and work such grueling and strange hours, and here was a moment of intense connection and joy. And then, right after the last bars of “Hery Majesty,” my cousin Jay seamlessly transitioned into Happy Birthday.

And I started singing it. For my uncle Jim, whose birthday was later that week. Quite honestly, I’ve been so busy that I kept forgetting that my birthday was coming up. But when my mother brought out German chocolate cake (my late father’s favorite and thus, of course, my favorite too), I realized that it was all planned for me. And I was overwhelmed. And FLASH went the camera.

Thank you Mom, and my family. And thank you, Aunt Lita, for being there, for the memory, and for another reminder why I do what I do.

Quick Review: Lumiquest Softbox LTP

As a wedding photographer and photojournalist based in Manhattan, I have specific, and sometimes esoteric needs. So it’s not often that I see a product from a manufacturer that makes me wonder if they were living inside my head, catering to my secret desires. The last time I remember that shock was 2007, when Nikon released the D3 — going for speed and low noise at High ISO in their first full-frame camera instead of a billion megapixels.

Well, this time the welcome shock comes from Lumiquest and their new speedlight-mountable softbox, the Softbox LTP.

I love off-camera light, and I want to be as versatile with it as possible. But as a photojournalist, and specifically one who works with just the tools he can carry, I travel as light as I can. And so I loved the previous model, the Lumiquest Softbox III. It gave me some versatility in light-shaping, and a nice soft light when I was working close, such as this picture, when it was right outside the frame.

(This shot looks crazy-Photoshopped, but it’s not. The skies were insane that day, and the light from the Softbox III was always slightly pinkish. Combine that with Irish ruddiness on a cold day, and you get room for a hue shift into geen.)

It’s a great tool, and I’ve worked mine literally to death, but I always wanted it to be a bit bigger so I could have more working distance from my subjects and still get soft light — but of course, if it’s too big it’s not truly portable anymore.

And this is the genius part — Lumiquest said, “Hey, you know what photographers carry around a lot? 15-inch laptops. And even if they don’t, every large camera bag or even normal shoulder bag is sized to hold 15-inch laptops. So let’s make a softbox the exact size of a 15-inch laptop.

Genius. If you use any bag that fits that size, the new LTP will give you 40 percent more area over the Softbox III without sacrificing a bit of portability.

Here it is in action, lighting yours truly, with a wider crop so you can see it work.

Here it is with kind of a funky headshot. (For these I used velcro to affix it to a video light, the Litepanel MicroPro)

Now in my professional work with these kinds of lights I will often use multi-frame composites to get interesting lighting options out of small lights. The LTP is perfect for these. Especially when shooting people, the rectangular shape of it makes it effectively even larger, since you generally want to light a vertical area. So here is a panel of my assistant lighting a bride:

and here is the finished shot

And one last composite: Here I used the softbox and gel to put a soft, warm light on the couple, and then took it off for cold, hard light on the steps:

As you can tell, I’ve fallen in love with it already. But it gets better. It’s not just bigger than the older model — it feels significantly sturdier, with extra velcro options to keep it from sagging despite its greater weight.

This is definitely a tool for off-camera light, not something to put on your camera-mounted flash and blast forward, but I’ve never been a fan of that anyway. If you feel any of the same tingle of shock that I did, I highly recommend picking one up — after all, it’s only 1 percent the cost of my last shock, the D3.