I was thinking if there were any analogies to lenses used in still photography. Let's try this: the fineness and quality of the brush used to make an amazing presence, impact and precision of mark on Reeve's Palo Ipso Doubleweight Rag paper, the 80 lb one. Or the quality of the pens and brushes used for calligraphy or the ability to control the mark you make in a finely detailed painting.

In photography the lens is everything. It is your picture's personality, plain and simple. The lens is the most organic in that you react with it, turn it, focus it, determine the depth of field with it, frame with i and set the aperture to boot. The lens is everything.

38mm Biogen on the Hasselblad Superwide circa 1957, the 35mm f2 Summicron for Leicas, the Nikon 14-24mm f2.8, the Goerz  Dagors, the 300mm f5.6 Nikon for 8 x 10: legendary lenses, some I have been honored to use over the years. Of course, in analog years, enlarging lenses played a role. This was the second part of making photographs, a crucial step as if they weren't good, you were losing all the quality created by the lens that took the picture. I used Schneiders for many years although I had a 240mm f5.6 El Nikkor enlarging lens for 8 x 10 that I liked very much.

In the early days of lens coatings, there were battles about the coating killing sharpness. Coatings are used to control lens flare. I never saw this. 

Falloff, corner sharpness, contrast, pincushion distortion, bokeh, maximum aperture, center sharpness, diffraction, best aperture, lens variability, focal length: all playing a part. Are there excellent lenses that don't cost an arm and a leg? Yes, a few. Are there bad expensive lenses? Yes.  

Best, of course, is to test the lens you're thinking of buying first. Shoot some frames with it. See what pictures made with it look like. These days, one option is to rent a lens you are considering purchasing. I did that recently for an expensive Sony G Master lens I was considering.

Used lenses? Yes, possible but be careful. It could have been dropped, shaken out of alignment, or have sand in it making it less than smooth to focus. Best is to buy from someplace like KEH or MPB so you can return it if it's not up to your standards.

As lenses get faster they get heavier and more expensive. One way to save can be by buying a slower lens of the same focal length.  Do you really need that extra stop of speed? Maybe not.

Last, I always test a new lens. Even high-end and expensive professional lenses can have inconsistency from lens to lens. A sturdy tripod, no wind, a textured subject that will show you how the lens is doing, shooting at different apertures will usually give you a sense of whether the lens is really good or not. 

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted July 19, 2021

The Show Here

If you've been reading the blog right along you know I had a one-man show at the Martha's Vineyard Museum over the winter, from January-April that was my aerial photographs of the island made over the past ten years or so. The show was called "ABOVE".

I always say that shows go out and shows come back. Well, in late April I drove to Woods Hole, took the ferry to the island, drove to the Museum then loaded up the work, had lunch with a friend, caught a ferry and drove the work to the studio the next morning.

This morning my daughter Maru and I hung about half the show in the hallway outside my studio. Why? To give you a chance to see the work. Many expressed regret at not seeing the real thing and now you can.

So, if you're local to Boston here's how to get to the show. The studio is in the large building at 119 Braintree Street in Alston, right next to the Mass Pike. There is plenty of parking at either end of the building. My studio is up the elevator to the 3rd floor with signs directing you to Neal Rantoul Studio at suite 320. The show is right outside my studio door.

You know how we're always saying that there is nothing like the real thing: the actual print hanging on a wall? Well, this is a good example of just that. So, get yourself off the sofa, get to 119 Braintree Street in Alston and go see the show. I don't believe you'll regret it.

BTW: the building is generally locked up on weekends, but is open all day and evenings during the week. 

Permalink | Posted June 10, 2021


My last blog alluded to a meeting with a cardiac surgeon to see what was going on. This to address my shortness of breath and fatigue. Well, we now know and it is blocked arteries with the solution being triple bypass open-heart surgery scheduled for June 29.

I've known this for about a week and admit it has taken me down a couple of steps. It is tempting to become fatalistic and yet I have learned that there are people close that love me, that I am generally healthy and strong so the prognosis is good and that open heart surgery these days is practically routine. 

And so, dear readers, your intrepid blog host for the past nine years may not be quite all photo all the time for a bit as recovery will be several months, altering my summer and travel plans, back-burnering a few trips and projects until the fall.

I do have a few posts in production and will roll those out over the next few weeks so:

Stay tuned!

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted May 30, 2021

Life Intrudes

As much as photography is large in my life,  there is "other". As a younger man, I believed photography constituted an escape, a way to divert away from all that noise and tune into something my own that was positive and beautiful.  

But our health issues cannot be denied and I went in late last week for a heart-based procedure that produced less than favorable results. A consult with a heart surgeon this week should decide my fate. I am looking to be less out of breath at the top of the stairs to say nothing of being able to tackle hills on my bike. 

We've had quite a year. From unfathomable numbers of deaths and misery to art-making held in check, such a loss of momentum that it makes one wonder if it will ever come back. I did what I always do when my tank is empty.  I kept working. And, I've made a few, although not a continuous stream of ideas made into real things as before, but prints in a box on a shelf, nevertheless.  

I look a lot. Driving, doing errands, getting by with too much streaming, not enough people to hear different ideas expressed. As I move around: yes, no, maybe, needs different light, a different season, I want that but can't stop here, more an accrual of single pictures than before when one was connected to the next for a series.  Simple really. Maybe that's it, we are addled, out of sorts, unable to concentrate or hold focus. But, it's good to look, to be on the hunt. Proves continued involvement. I've gotten to know a new neighborhood (I moved a year ago). What a pleasure to go around a corner to find something new. I lived in Cambridge and Boston so long there was not much new. Acton, Concord, Stowe, Maynard, Hudson, Marlborough, and so on.  All good, rich. As I've learned, it is a region of water: streams, rivers, ponds marshes and swamps.

Been a time to retrospect too. I am struck by just how much things matter and then later how little they do. When younger there were always students, crazed to soak up experience and knowledge, to hear stories, and then hand them down to others. Now, not so much. Non-photo and non-art family not so interested so who to listen and look, who then?

Soon, back to the usual, pretty much. You can see it on the trip to the market, to filling up, to going to work out. More and more vaccinated, feeling safer.

Leaving you with these: 

photographs © Neal Rantoul

All are from either Martha's Vineyard or Chappaquiddick.

Topics: Color,New Work,Digital,Northeast

Permalink | Posted May 23, 2021

Border/No Border

Decades ago I had a show at Northeastern University, where I taught, that included large pieces from a trip to the American southwest made while on sabbatical leave. This was my "tenure" show, designed to display my work to the NU community while applying for tenure. 

The pictures were all made with the 8 x 10 view camera, which allowed large prints.While the main body of the show was prints that were made on 20" x 24" paper, there were several that were 40" x50".

The large ones were framed like this:

These aren't mine, btw. They are by Terry Evans from a show at Yancey Richardson Gallery in NYC this past winter.

Mine had no white mat around the print and were flush edge with black metal frames, just like those above.  I didn't like the look of mine, feeling it trivialized the images and didn't properly offset them from whatever wall they were hanging on. I came up with a rule, "Neal, don't do that again."

So, for the decades since then no large works of mine have been framed and hung in shows that don't have a white border of some kind around them. Like this:

From last winter's group show at the Concord (MA) Art Association.

This and most of my large pieces are over printed with a several inch white boarder, mounted to foam core and installed in the frame with the photo paper exposed, as you can see.  Occasionally I've done the same using an overmat, but rarely. 

Obviously, what is already a big print gets bigger with this system.

Pros: the white border system formalizes the print, off sets it from the wall behind it and conforms to small prints in the show that also have white borders around them. Should the print be taken out of the frame, it is protected with a several inch white border around it. 

Cons: the white border formalizes the print, everything gets bigger and the framed prints may look a little dated at least in terms of presentation. Logistically there is more size to everything, affecting packaging, handling, transportation, weight and cost.

Last point: with a white border, a white on the edge of the frame of your pictures  fades right out into the border. For me, this means a white sky has no edge seperating it from the border around it. Not good. Having no border would solve this, of course. 

Time for me to relax my rule? Maybe. I liked the look of the Evans show and think it might really work to minimalize the work, to reduce it down to the image on the wall and that's it. I also think it might be best if all the prints in a show are the same size.

Let me know if this was helpful. Neal's Email

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted May 12, 2021