Technical Notes

(revised January 2006)




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As I like to stress, photography is about passion and feelings, not techniques and equipment. But good technique is certainly a crucial aid in expressing your feelings and passion....and since people often ask me about my gear and manner of using it, here are some comments on the subject.


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35 mm Camera Gear:

I shoot with my 35 mm camera about 80% of the time. It is the lightest and most versatile camera format, with the widest selection of lenses available. I don't consider the brand of camera one uses of much importance; the camera just has to be a light-tight container to hold film on one end and a lens on the other as far as I'm concerned, and any camera body will do that. For what it's worth, I shoot with Nikon gear with the N8008s as my mainstay body.

Nikon certainly makes excellent lenses, but another reason I like and stick with Nikon is that they, and few others, make their gear back-compatible. That is, an old lens can work with a new body and vice-versa (although potentially without full functionality of all features). Another reason to use Nikon is that, if anyone anywhere in the world makes some camera accessory gizmo, they'll make it to work with Nikon because of the line's popularity. The gadget might not fit some other brands, but it'll fit Nikon. (Note added in January 2006: this may change in time, as Nikon has just announced the discontinuation of the manufacture of most of their film camera bodies and lenses.)

I am something of a throwback, a dinosaur, when it comes to shooting. I don't wish my fundamentalist technique on anyone else, but it works for me. For one thing, I don't use zoom lenses. I only use fixed focal length lenses, also called prime lenses. Optical tests may show that zooms are as sharp as prime lenses, but I don't believe they are as contrasty. It takes both resolution and contrast to give the appearance of sharpness in an image. I also don't like the variable aperture found on most zooms. I work hard to judge and set my exposures manually and it drives me nuts if zooming throws off all my calculations. Another thing I am wary of is focal length creep -- the zoom collar can creep with one-touch zooms, laying waste the careful work I did to compose the image. Then there are other reasons not to like zooms, such as their generally small maximum aperture and the fact that some front elements turn as you zoom, botching any polarizer or split-neutral density filtration you might have had set up. A final, subtle, but crucial reason for me not to use zooms is that they give me TOO much choice in composing an image. I find that I work better making a firm decision of what focal length to use for a shot and then moving on with the other choices I have to make in composing an image....if I have infinite choice at my command for focal length, sometimes I find it difficult to move beyond to those other stages of the shooting process.

My style of shooting tends to be fairly deliberate, so I can usually get away with the extra time involved in changing lenses. For me it is worth the time and effort to change lenses to get a technically superior result. There are times, though, that I would trade in the technical edge of a prime lens for a zoom lens. One such time is when shooting candid portraits in a fluid setting (like parties). The other time is when blowing snow or sand makes it downright risky to your gear to change lenses.

I'm also a dinosaur when it comes to autofocus. I don't use it. I prefer to place the focus manually, to make sure it winds up where I want it instead of where the camera thinks I want it.

As for exposure, well, you guessed it. I do a lot of manual exposure setting. I probably use aperture priority about two-thirds of the time (often with an overall exposure compensation) and completely manual settings one-third of the time. In my fifteen years of photography I think I used a program exposure mode once, when I ran my first roll of film through my first camera. In fact, I bought my nice autofocus N8008s body mostly for its built-in spotmeter!

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Large Format

When I'm not shooting 35 mm, I'm using my 4x5 large format field camera. It's cumbersome to set up and use, but when there is time for it, gosh those large negatives and transparencies are wonderful! My model is the cheapest Calumet Wood Field I could get fourteen years ago. Again, I view it as a light-tight box to hold film and a lens, and therefore don't consider the specific make to very important. I have all of two lenses for it, 90 mm and 180 mm Schneider lenses. These give angles of view comparable to 28 mm and 50 mm lenses on a 35 mm camera. I plan to get a longer lens as well, but here I run into the only complaint I have with my camera, and that is the limited bellows draw available. But a 300 mm lens ought to work, perhaps with a lens extension board to add focusing length to the bellows.

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Medium Format

On occasion I haul out my medium format camera. Medium format is often an ideal compromise between the large negatives of a 4x5 camera and the ease of use of a 35 mm rig. It also can be expensive, so I did what one can do to get inexpensively into medium format photography: I bought a used twin-lens reflex (TLR). I bought a Yashicamat 124 TLR used for about $100. This camera provides negatives 6 cm square through an 80 mm lens (equivalent to a 50 mm lens on a 35 mm camera). The lens is not interchangeable but it takes great pictures if you want the perspective of a normal lens. And it is a few dozen times cheaper than getting a medium format rangefinder or SLR.

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In my opinion, the most important thing you can have to make good pictures is a good eye. The next most important thing is a good quality lens. Next in importance is a good tripod. So I call the tripod the most important accessory you can own. Not only does it stabilize the camera so you can shoot with slow shutter speeds, it lets you examine the viewfinder and carefully consider your composition. There are times and places when tripods are impractical, and I don't force a square peg into a round hole by insisting on using a tripod in those situations. But when possible -- as with my nature photography -- no other accessory improves ones images as much. I use a Manfrotto (formerly Bogen) 3221 tripod with a Manfrotto 3055 ball head. (Note: these were the designations when I bought them. The names have since changed, alas.) When I need to save weight, as on backpacking trips, I swap the 3055 head over to my Manfrotto 3001 legs. The tripod stability is wasted unless you use a remote release to trigger the camera, so my remote release always travels with the tripod.

I also use filters. I use primarily three filters: a polarizer, a warming filter, and a split neutral density filter.

Polarizing filters produce two effects. One is that they darken blue skies. This darkening effect is most pronounced at 90 degrees to the sun and is nonexistent directly toward and away from the sun. (Wide-angle lenses view so much of the sky that a polarizer can produce a pronounced gradient of darkening across the image, so I seldom use a polarizer on a wide-angle lens if the sky is in the frame.) The other effect of a polarizer is that it partially suppresses reflections. This lets one shoot more easily through windows, for example. More importantly for a nature photographer, most objects' color come to us as a mixture of their intrinsic color and reflections of the sky, which means they appear either excessively blue (if there's a blue sky) or pastel (if there's an overcast sky). By cutting the reflections, the polarizer serves to intensify colors. There are two things to be careful of in buying a polarizing filter. One is that modern cameras usually need a circular polarizer rather than a linear polarizer. ("Circular" and "linear" are a technical terms referring to how the polarizing material works and have nothing to do with the shape of the filter.) Visually the two types of filters do precisely the same thing -- indeed, the circular polarizer is simply a linear polarizer with an extra coating on its backside. But that extra coating is crucial to the correct performance of many modern cameras. The only difference you will see between the two filters is their price; because of that extra coating the circular polarizers are more expensive. The other thing to beware of when buying a polarizer is a possible color cast. Ideally the filter should be a neutral gray, but often they have a green tint to them.

A warming filter adds an overall warming color -- some version of yellow, orange, or red -- to the entire image. They are useful when shooting objects in the shade on sunny day. After all, shaded objects are illuminated only by the blue sky, and the warming filter cancels out this excessive blue tint. Warming filters also help when, well, when you just want the object to look warmer. The most common warming filters have an orange cast and are labeled as an "81" filter. The lightest orange is designated 81A, the next darker is 81B, and so forth. I use an 81B most of the time as my warming filter. It's a matter of taste, though: there are plenty of other filters available out there.

A split neutral density filter is essential for nature photography. It addresses a problem inherent in film: film can't see as broad a range of dark to light as can the human eye and brain. The film goes blank white and blank black in situations where we humans would perceive detail in the highlights and shadows. The problem is most severe in landscapes where the sky is significantly brighter than the foreground. The split neutral density (ND) filter is half clear and half a neutral density gray. By placing the gray part in front of the lens to attenuate the bright sky and letting the clear part let through all of the foreground light, the tonal range of the scene is compressed to the point where film has a chance of recording detail everywhere. The dark part of the filter usually blends gradually to the clear part so that the dividing line doesn't look obvious in the photograph. I use a two-stop split ND filter in an adapter that lets me rotate and slide the dark/clear dividing line so that I can arrange to have the division fall exactly where I want it in the frame.

Other things I always carry with me are an air blower bulb and a microfiber cloth for cleaning off lenses; lens hoods my lenses; spare batteries for the camera; and a Sharpie felt-tipped marker for labeling film canisters. And of course extra film. Lots of extra film.

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I always shoot my nature work on transparency film. This makes the images easier to edit and cheaper to shoot than if I used print film. The colors are also more vibrant. My eye loves bright colors, so I shoot on film stock that is as color saturated as I can get. Fuji Velvia is my longtime favorite, and now (January 2006) I'm shooting on Velvia 100F. There is a Velvia 100 (no "F") that is even more saturated, and I'm going to test it soon.

For my black & white work I am a fine grain junkie, so I shoot T-Max 100 almost exclusively. I am currently developing it in Kodak's Xtol developer, diluted 1:1.

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I used to print my transparencies on Ilfochrome (formerly called Cibachrome). The colors were saturated, which I like -- the combination of Velvia originals printed on Ilfochrome made for some truly eye-popping results! And Ilfochrome lasts a long time before noticeable fading. But it's very contrasty, so I then used 4x5 internegatives made of my transparencies and produce C-prints from these internegs. I got better tonality in the prints, I found the color of the C-prints to be perfectly satisfying, they were much less expensive to print, and I found no significant degradation in sharpness caused by the 4x5 internegative. More importantly, independent tests showed that Fuji's Crystal Archive C-print paper lasts longer even than Ilfochrome before fading or discoloring. Unlike Ilfochromes, I can drymount the C-prints to an archival backing board, a presentation style that I find the most appealing aesthetically.

Nowadays I print digitally. You get more control of the image than with C-printing from internegatives, and internegative film has been discontinued, anyway. I shoot on film, scan the film at very high resolution, and then go to work on the resulting digital file using Photoshop. For digital printing there are two main options, and I use them both: the first is inkjet printing, and the second is printing on good old Fuji Crystal Archive paper. Inkjet prints, as long as you use the latest archival inks (notably Epson's Ultrachrome K3 inkset) on the appropriate paper, are measured to last longer than those made by any other affordable color printing method. The colors are great, too. To make prints on Crystal Archive from your digital files takes an expensive machine that "burns" the file's color information directly onto the Crystal Archive paper with lasers or LEDs. You obviously can't do this yourself at home, but prints from a lab using these machines also look great, and can be cheaper than inkjet printing.

For black & white printing I always print on fiber based paper. RC paper has archival problems (metallic plating appearing on framed RC prints after only a few years, among other things) and I just don't like its look and feel. My favorite paper, while it was still available, was Oriental Seagull graded papers in a glossy finish. Now I print on Kodak Polymax Fine Art glossy (fiber based). This is a beautiful neutral-toned paper that almost looks selenium toned before the toning. Being the archival zealot that I am, I do everything I can to ensure proper archival processing of my prints: I use two-bath fixes, selenium toning, hypo-clearing, and extended wash times. Unfortunately, Kodak recently announced the discontinuation of their B&W papers, so I'm not sure what I'll do next. I might try digital B&W printing with the Ultrachrome K3 inkset.

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Timothy Edberg / 6511 Homestake Dr. South / Bowie, MD / 20720
(301) 809-5857 / 1-877-471-6414 (toll-free)