What’s in the bag? Edition 1

What’s in the bag?

As I get ready for my 4th and my wife’s 3rd return trip to beautiful Big Bend National Park, I am of course planning on what camera gear I will be traveling with.  Each piece of equipment has it’s purpose and thought went behind the selection of every piece.  As if selecting specialized tools for a specialized purpose, this trip will require (at least in my mind…that’s all that matters, right?) different tools.  Each trip brings about it’s own unique requirements and the high desert and mountain terrain of the upper Chihuahuan Desert presents it’s own unique set of requirements.  As you may be aware, I don’t just shoot digital or film, but both (for a variety of reasons I won’t discuss here).  So on to my selection and my methodology of madness in this selection.

Digital selection:  This is simple, my canon 5dmkii (my primary digital body).  This will be used for critical work, primarily sunrise and sunset when I have a specific purpose in mind.  I imagine it will be used lightly.  As a side thought, it will also be used for shooting HD video to document my trip.  Lens selection for this setup includes a 17-40L, 24-105L, 70-200/2.8L and two primes consisting of the lowly 50/1.8 and the pancake 40/2.8 stm (a very fine lens I will have to blog about later).  That’s it.  A quite capable setup that could be used on it’s own the entire trip.

Film selection:  I am bringing 3 camera bodies, each with a purpose. First up is the canon 7ne.  This will be used as a backup for the 5dmkii (they both are EOS mount cameras) and I can share lenses between the two.  I will also be shooting color with this setup, probably some Fuji Velvia (color slide film) as I am quite confident in the metering of modern canon’s and will need this confidence in shooting such a film with such limited dynamic range.

Next up is the Minolta xg-1.  Now this may seem an odd selection.  The xg-1 was a cheap, low end bodied compared to other Minolta bodies of the vintage.  I have other Minolta backs and a far more capable srt102.  Here is my reasoning though.  We will be going into Mexico one day and I do not want to take a high end body.  Secondly, this body is light and for 2 of our long day hikes planned, I want to keep weight to a minimum.  I learned long ago carrying a full dslr setup for 10+ mile day hikes is not worth it.  I end up not using the camera and wishing I left it back in the car.  I also don’t like digital during harsh daylight hours.  Add to this Minolta lenses are superb.  Coming along for the ride is the 50/1.7 rokkor x, 35/2.8 rokkor, 28/2.8 celtic (the 28 and 50 are my hiking setup) and the vivitar 135/2.5 (a fine portrait/telephoto lens).  I will be shooting color film primarily with this setup.

Included is a 1952 Leica IIIf with the Leica 50/2 summitar, canon 28/3.5 (w/ external viewfinder) and the canon serenar 50/1.8 (backup for the summitar).  This setup is mighty compact and will probably go most places with me (short hikes, etc) and will be my black and white setup.  These old leica and canon lenses draw particularly well with traditional B&W film.  On harsh/bright days, I may use this for color as these lenses are light in the contrast department and give color a pastel look, cutting the contrasty (is that even a word?) harshness out of midday sun.

For film, I am bringing color and B&W.  Why even bring film in the first place?  Well, I will share.  Daytime photography is not optimum.  The first and last hours of the day are ideal for best light.  However, I am on vacation and while I will be shooting in the magic light, most of my time will be with my wife exploring the park.  I find digital camera’s to wash out colors, block shadows and blow out highlights in harsh light leading to blah photos and way too much time in front of the screen trying to salvage something.  Color negative film shines in this department.  Easy peasy to shoot.  Meter for the shadows and don’t worry about the highlights and the natural shoulder of color negs will tame those bright areas.  If any highlights blow, it will be graceful.  And color will be rich and vibrant (especially with ektar).  Color film choice is kodak ektar.  This iso 100 daylight film works wonderfully for landscapes.  Rich, vibrant colors, extremely detailed and extremely fine grained.  Requires almost no post work (just develop and scan).  I have an extra roll of portra 160 and a roll of Fuji xtra400 (if I need the speed and as backup).  I also will be shooting two rolls of Fuji velvia100.  This will be my first foray into slide film as all I buy and shoot are negs but these were a gift and what better way than to try it out with some desert drama.

Black and white film will be a mixture of Kodak TMAX100 (for supreme detail and tonal range) and Ilford delta400 (when I need more speed).  An odd roll of Kodak Tri X will also be included.  Why?  Because it is Tri X.  If you look to the left of the screen, that desert scape was shot on Tri X last year.  Anymore questions?  I thought not.

Also included are an array of filters and filter systems for both color, B&W and a polarizer for the digital setup.  Of course a tripod will be brought, my bogen manfrotto with ball head. I may add an Olympus XA to the list because, well, it is tiny and I love it.  The perfect travel companion and could be a backup to a backup.  Oh, and the Nikon L35AF that lives in my glove box.  That is it,…I think.  I will be sure to update this blog when I get back with images from this excursion.


Summer is long gone

Summer is long gone as fall is well under way. Next summer feels like a distant dream with winter on the horizon. Early evenings are still warm but will a cool chill just barely in the background, waiting to spring us full force into the dreary season. With the changing of seasons, I like to reflect upon the previous and nothing quite fits summer better than sunflowers. So this short post is just to show off some various sunflower images to remind of us of what was and will be again. The images are a mixture of both film and digital and from a local sunflower field and the one that was in my backyard. Enjoy one last vestige of summer!












Remembering our Fallen Heroes – July 16th

July 16th started out just like any other day for me. It was a normal work day on a hot and muggy July day. I left for my lunch break to run some errands around Chattanooga and was listening to the news. There were reports of a shooting but no specific details. Unfortunately, gang shootings are all to common in Chattanooga and I didn’t think much of it other than the typical disdain for a senseless killing. Then another reports of another shooting, possibly the same shooter. I got back from lunch and saw our Psychiatrist walking to his car in the parking lot leaving work and I said “You be careful Dr. ______, there are a bunch of crazies out there shooting up the place.” I had no idea the reality of the situation. I found out in a training a bit later the reality of what had happened, that a lone gunman had shot and killed our servicemen attacking a recruiting center and a base. We all paused for a moment to collect our thoughts. The rest of the day was a whirlwind.

A week later I had just arrived home from work and through the power of social media, saw that in my hometown of Manchester, there was a makeshift town vigil assembling at an overpass awaiting one of the fallen being returned for the eventual burial the next day. I was unsure where exactly this was and if it had already happened but I decided to go investigate. I grabbed my Olympus OM10 which was loaded with a roll of Ilford HP5+ hoping I might get some documentary style photos. What I got was much more.

As I arrived, I noticed our town’s Fire Department there the fire truck’s ladder raised with a flag hanging at the interstate overpass. The EMS was there with their lights as well as the police representing. Maybe a 100 or so citizens gathered along the sidewalk of the overpass waving flags awaiting the motorcade to pass through. I began to become very emotional and was brought to tears, pulling my sunglasses down over my eyes to cover my emotions in public. A very patriotic feeling I have not felt since that fateful day of 9/11/2001 came over me as well as a subsequent feeling of a community and nation united. Very much the polar opposite of what our propagandist media and government would have us believe. I was here to honor this serviceman and to be a part of something bigger, this great country. As I took it all in, many of the big rigs passing underneath on the interstate would blow their horns in salute. I wondered if the one’s driving were veterans. A few cars did as well.

Reports were coming in via Facebook and text messages from the folk around stating what mile markers the motorcade was at. The anticipation heightened and then, in a short moment, the motorcade came and passed. We had done our duty. We had honored our fallen heroes in the only way we could, by showing our appreciation through action. I feel it is my duty to share a few images of what this appreciation meant to the citizens and what it means to me. It is a moment I will not forget, neither that July 16th or this day.






and the motorcade driving by in the distance
flag 6

The lens as a tool

The lens as a tool in photography is like the type of brush used in painting. Different lenses “draw” differently or render the image in a different manner than other lenses. Neither choice is better. Rather, a specific tool (lens) provides a specific result. Once fully understanding the traits and characteristics of your tools, you can create a desired effect.

I will elaborate briefly with some follow up examples. As the Day Lilies were blooming around the house, I wanted some close portraits of the blooms with the background rendered blurred to isolate the subject. Now one can approach this in several manners. One can use a very “fast” lens and/or a lens with a longer focal length. Generally the combination of both is desirable for best effects. Generally. Other times a macro lens or lens with extension tubes can be used for a closer approach which may be advantageous for a subject as small as flower’s bloom. However, there are always trade offs. Using a longer focal length compresses the image. This leaves a flat, two dimensional feel. I wanted the blooms to express the depth, the contours, the robustness if you will of the bloom. A shorter focal length lens then is called for. However, I wanted an almost ethereal feel with just a very fine/small depth of field with just a portion of the petal in focus to create a dreamy image. This would require a lens that focuses closely, has a short focal length, is a very fast lens and sharp wide open. A tall order in deed. I chose a lens from 1971. I chose to shoot on film (negative/c-41 film). I chose the “chrome nosed” canon fd 35mm f2 lens. Not the “new” version but the concave front element first version with a slightly yellowed element from the radioactive Thorium in the lens. I will create a later in depth blog post about this special lens. I knew this lens would give me what I needed. It creates a very “3-d” image, sharp, with creamy bokeh and focuses very close. And, it is fast with an f/2 aperture wide open. It performed as expected. Here are three examples:

lily 1

lily 2

lily 3

Film used was some cheap Fuji consumer 200 iso film on a canon AE-1 developed at home in my sink and scanned on a Kodak Pakon f135+ with minor adjustments in lightroom 5. If you have any questions about this lens, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Is film still relevant?

Is film still relevant? This is a very real question that will get different answers from different folks. I will let you judge at the end of the post. I get asked by the non-photography types if film can still be bought when they see I am still shooting film (or, where can you get it?). The advanced enthusiast with GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) will poo poo anything but the latest and greatest flavor of the month. It is all about megapixels, dynamic range and fluff. Many working professionals will give varying answer. There is no doubt with regards to detail alone, medium format (though this is changing) and large format film still reigns supreme however for most commercial practical purposes, things have shifted towards digital. So, for the sake of this discussion, lets hamstring this and leave the discussion to 35mm film. Already I hear folks clamoring that this is ridiculous, that their Nikon d800 has 36mp and the new Canon 5ds(r) has 50+million pixels. This discussion is not discussing resolution per se. Others tout dynamic range (usually those that don’t know about toe and shoulder with negative film) of digital. But here, we are going to look at the big picture (pun intended). No pixel peeping here. I am talking about aesthetics. So to answer my question: Yes! Of course film is still relevant. Examples to follow.

Over the 4th of July holiday, my little sister, niece and nephew flew in from California for our family reunion. She contacted me earlier about doing a portrait session with her youngest, my nephew of 1 years old and some of my niece and them two together. I intended to shoot mostly digital and only shot a quick 24exp roll of Fuji superia xtra400 as an afterthought. Shots turned out fine both digital and film. A few days later though, I decided to visit after work and brought my Olympus OM10 with zuiko 50/1.8 loaded with Kodak Portra 400. A minimalist setup for sure as I was there not to shoot photos but to visit. However, some opportunities presented itself while we were on the porch so I fired off a few shots.

Now this is where it gets interesting. You see, it was late afternoon with a strong side light coming into the porch which was covered. A huge shift from dark shade on the porch to bright, harsh light outside. A nightmare for digital without major post work and/or a flash (in a working mode, I will always have appropriate lighting with me). No fears. I opened up an extra 2 stops and metered on the subjects. The results were perfect. You see, film has a characteristic that digital does not. It has a toe and shoulder. The highlights roll off and make blowing them out almost impossible in normal situations. When they do, it is graceful, the opposite of digital. With shooting my Canon 5dmkii, I am always shooting with the thought of preserving the highlights. With film, I shoot to preserve the shadows (for negative/c-41) but even then, the latitude is so great, there really is no concern. You see, Portra 400 which is part of (now defunct) Kodak’s new emulsions, can be shot at iso 50, 100, 200, 400, 800 and even 1600 without hardly any noticeable differences (some). No pushing or pulling necessary. Wow! Those of you familiar with film no many shoot iso 400 film at 200 or 100 anways because of the latitude and ability to retain shadow detail. A big benefit of film. But lets move past all this. Here are 3 examples of casually shooting on the porch with a disastrous lighting scheme. You be the judge.

Becky and Rae


Renick 2

Just so you know my workflow, these were developed by hand (mine) in the kitchen sink with a unicolor c-41 kit and scanned at home on a Kodak Pakon f135 Plus scanner. Almost nothing was done in Lightroom 5 but a little sharpening and slight highlight recovery (really wasn’t needed). Basically straight scans.

You be the judge. Is film still relevant? I think on my next paid portrait shoot, I am leaving the 5dmkii in the bag and shooting nothing but portra in my Canon elan 7ne.

Don’t hesitate to visit my outdated website at JPBuffington.org

Kodak VR35 k12 35mm

I was excited about this thrift store find.  A like new Kodak VR35 k12 35mm point and shoot still in it’s original box.  All for the low price of $2.99.  This price tag was next to the original price tag of $149.97 from KMart.  Some research shows this camera originally retailed for $200.  The Chicago Tribune noted in 1986 that this was Kodak’s grand return to the 35mm format after a 17 year absence.  I was hopeful on my ride home that this neat little camera with a seemingly fast 35/2.8 lens would prove a rightful place among my Nikon L35AF, Olympus mju and mjuII.  The bonus is that this camera looked cool.  All I needed was a roll of film and a battery.  First I noticed that it took a proprietary battery (no doubt long out of manufacture) however a 9 volt would work as well.  Put in a fresh roll of Kodak ultramax 400 and a new 9 volt battery and I was ready.

Let me just say, this camera is utterly craptastic!  I mean it is so crappy that it is fantastical that Kodak chose this piece of excrement as it’s heralded return to 35mm camera format.  First I notice that it is on the chunky side.  I mean chunky.  Like bigger than my Nikon fg-20 with 50/1.8 attached.  I am not opposed to a well built camera being on the large size however this hunk of plastic is just that, a hunk of cheap plastic.  It reeks of it.  The shutter button feels cheap, focus never locks on the first attempt and there are no manual overrides of any sort.  No backlight compensation button, no manual shutoff for the flash, nothing.  Forget shooting into the sun.  Forget choosing not to use the flash.  This camera just does one thing and that it does poorly.

I would love to share some images from the roll of film I shot.  I was hoping the lens would be the one saving grace.  Alas this was not to be.  The film would not rewind even though the rewind motor spins and spins and spins.  I opened the back thinking surely it had rewound after several minutes.  Opened it up and there was all the exposed film, no ruined by light. In fact, it is still in there 2 weeks later (today).  This led me to use it as my first film review due to being completely amazed at how crappy this camera is.  I have a bunch of old point and shoots from the 80’s and 90’s, some better than others but none as utterly disappointing as this one.  What I want to know is, how much did Kodak pay the writer for the Chicago Tribune in 1986 to write such a B.S. article praising this camera?  Many, many, many better options in the cluttered field of auto focus point in shoots in 1986.  The field of fast, fixed lens P&S’s yielded many superb performers.  This was not one of them. The Kodak VR35 k12 35mm is (my) winner of the worst camera I have ever used awarding it a place at the top with distinction as my first film camera review.

kodak vr35

kodak vr35

UPDATE: I was wrong, it does have two features to change things up. A self timer and a fill flash button. Still a useless piece of cheap plastic.

Walls of Jericho

The Walls of Jericho is an interesting geological place straddling the Alabama-Tennessee border nestled among the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau. It has been called the Grand Canyon of the east but it reminds me more of the slot canyons of the American west but instead of sandstone walls, the walls are slick limestone. Instead of the gorgeous reds, the rocks are a pasty white stained by water and speckled with moss and lichen. It is a brutal day hike to get here and a place I have attempted to photograph numerous times. It is a finicky place to shoot. Fall is hit or miss (usually miss) with water flow, summer is too brutally hot with early spring being ideal due to the wildflowers dotting the landscape and the water flowing. However, afternoon is out of the picture due to day hikers interrupting your composition. It is 3.5 miles and 1000′ down to get there leaving a 3.5 mile, 1000′ climb out. Not to mention the last half mile is pretty treacherous hiking. I decided to awake early and attempt to get there before the sun was high. I wanted to avoid the day hikers. I wasn’t too worried about sunrise due to the high cliff walls blocking the early sun until mid morning. This proved to be fruitful. An ultrawide is a must and the thoughts of the new canon 11-24 being an ideal lens for this place. Alas, my 17-40L would have to do.  In addition, i shot some Kodak TMAX100 on an old canon eos rebel body with a canon 50/1.8 lens.   I was happy with the images captured and believe I finally was able to successfully capture this place after 9 years of trying and 11 years of hiking to this place.  Hope you enjoy a few of these images.

Walls of Jericho-waterfall into cave

Walls of Jericho-view out of the cave

Walls of Jericho-view up

Walls of Jericho-B&W film of waterfall

Walls of Jericho-Clark Cemetary B&W

Walls of Jericho-B&W tombstone at Clark Cemetery

Walls of Jericho-Clark Cemetery color


The Best Camera…

…is the one you have with you.  And no, I don’t mean your cell phone camera.  Megapixels be damned, that itty bitty, teeny tiny sensor behind that little piece of plastic just doesn’t cut the mustard.  Those ill fated apps to make your images interesting by turning your image into something from a light leaking camera with expired film, well, I can just do the real thing with one of my old light leaking cameras from 40 years ago and some expired film out of the drawer.  Now to move on.

The best (real) camera is the one you have with you.  Now I don’t care if you shoot digital, film or both (I shoot both), but I make it a point to keep one handy.  Practically speaking, it does no good to keep a big DSLR with me at all times.  Too bulky.  Not going to leave one in my car either, too expensive.  That is why I troll the flea markets, thrift stores and goodwill stores for old film cameras.  For example, in my glove box sits a Nikon L35AF.  Back in 1983, this was THE camera to have as a (semi) compact, auto-focus point and shoot.  It came with a real lens, a nice 35mm f2.8 aperture sonnar designed lens.  It is reasonably fast, very sharp and takes filters (what compact P&S in the last 30 years has done that?).  It has a nice, big and bright view finder, takes 35mm film (full frame goodness for you folks brought up in the digital relm) and runs on AA batteries that can be found ANYWHERE (no chargers needed here).  Plus, it cost less than 5 dollars at the thrift store.  Who cares if it gets stolen?  Hence why it lives in my glove box.  So to illustrate my point of the best camera is the one with you, I will relate the story of a recent roll of film.

So, I just happened at some point to toss a roll of consumer Fuji 200 speed film into this camera, placed it in my glove box and do what I do, forget about it until it is needed.  So one day I am driving home from work and at 75mph crossing Nickajack Lake, I notice the sun parting through the clouds illuminating the lake in a most beautiful manner.  Quickly I reached in my glove box, grabbed the L35AF, flipped the on switch and pointed it out my window as I fly across the bridge.  This is what I captured:


Sometime this winter, my wife and I decided to go for a hike at the local state park.  As we go there, I grabbed this camera out of my glove box for the “just in case” I ran into something interesting.  Well, that is what happened.  Towards the end of the hike, I looked over my left shoulder and noticed something somewhat unnatural related to the landscape and went to investigate.   This is what I saw:


fisherman and rocks on log

Last month I was driving home from work when, after talking with my father whom was out of town, asked me to check on his house (it is on the mountain) due to the recent ice storm.  While there I drove out to the bluff quickly as I knew the light was fading.  I captured this:

Warren's Point

None of these images would have normally been captured.  I had not planned these images.  I just happened upon them and happened to have a easy to use, simple to operate, quick to grab camera with me in my car.  Often, I have 2 or 3 in my car but I always have at least one camera with me.  If I am going somewhere where lugging a camera around my shoulder/neck is not convenient or appropriate, I will grab my Olympus stylus epic or Olympus XA and stick it in my pocket.  Better to have something than nothing and both of these cameras are super compact and sport a great 35/2.8 lens.  Both Olympus cameras are getting a little pricey but the stylus epic can still be found for under $5 at Goodwill all the time (millions were made and sold).

Point being, if you are passionate about capturing moments, be prepared or those moments will come and go, fading into memory to be gone forever.

How about some B&W? digital interpretations at Big Bend National Park

Sooooo, I believe I am finally through processing the images from this winter’s trip to Big Bend National Park.  I know, I know; one is never really through, but I am at a stopping point.  I am also finding some of my favorite work I captured digitally, I prefer presented in a traditional monochrome format.  Somehow, the desert atmosphere feels more authentic (to me) in B&W.  BBNP will be the theme for the next post or two as well, followed up to this with color work.  I hope you enjoy these and feel free to comment (they are welcome).
desert hills

all things will stick you in the desert

morning light awash in dog canyon

dog canyon

into the Chisos


Chisos range

Mariscal Mine

We spent a week out in Texas at the beginning of this month and made a return trip to Big Bend National Park. The park is so vast that there is little hope for us to view it all and we are planning to return again next year for our 3rd trip (my 4th). This year, we decided to attempt the River Road, a dirt road only suitable for high ground clearance vehicles.  This is a 56 mile road that will take all day to travel (7+ hours).  We came across an old abandoned mercury mine in the far reaches of the park. It is accessible but in a remote location of Big Bend. The park itself is very remote so needless to say, we were a long way from civilization.

I was shooting a lot of film, B&W and color and was striving for a certain look. I wanted an authentic portrayal of this mine and film was my obvious choice.  Vintage and grainy for the B&W and color using a 65+ year old lens on a 45 year old Leica  to portray the feeling of time gone by. The isolation, the remoteness of the area led me to choose Tri X as opposed to TMax100 for B&W. TriX is an old emulsion giving that “classic” black and white look. Color was Kodak Ektar, my go to film for daylight landscapes. Though usually a contrasty and punchy film, on the ancient serenar 50/1.8, I knew colors would come out with a pastel look with low contrast giving the appropriate vintage look.

The mine is Mariscal Mine which was abandoned in 1942. From 1901-1942 it produced approx. 25% of all the mercury in this country. Amazing considering in the early years the ore was packed out by mule around 60+ miles to the nearest town of Terlingua on a rutted out dirt road. The workers were all from Mexico (the Rio Grande is a short, couple miles away) and all suffered severe health problems as a result of the mining. Apparently the brick still contain quicksilver and there was a warning to not touch the bricks. Mine shafts were still visible, dotted through the hills but thankfully secured by steel grates.

The feeling of isolation in BBNP is intoxicating. To be out all day and not see another person, to look out over the vast desert and mountains and feel completely alone, in a timeless state is very appealing. This abandoned mine are like the skeletons of a by gone era. I hope I convey the feeling I am attempting too through these images. Enjoy!

mariscal mine1

mariscal mine2

mariscal mine3

mariscal mine4

mariscal mine5

mariscal mine6

mariscal mine7

mariscal mine8

mariscal mine9

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mariscal mine12

mariscal mine13

mariscal mine14

mariscal mine15

mariscal mine16