Topic: Commentary (182 posts) Page 2 of 37

2 AM

It's 2 a.m. and I can't sleep. I've learned that tossing and turning in bed while recovering from open-heart surgery isn't always productive.

So, I am turning to the blog which has been silent for a month or so. I have always tried to write about photography and my work from a perspective that could relate to your work or concerns and that remains of key importance to me. Let's see if you relate to this one. 

My recovery is going well. Last week I hit a bump in that my heart was found to be beating erratically so I was admitted into the hospital again for one night to have a "Cardio Version" where my heart was hit with electricity to kick it back into a normal heartbeat. It worked and I am now back on track. I have started to drive and so, am increasingly independent from my daughter, Maru, who has been looking after me. I don't really have words to express how grateful I am for her care through this ordeal.

I drove into town to my studio yesterday and looked at it through the eyes of someone that has not practiced photography for six weeks or so. It was an odd sensation, probably close to someone's reaction visiting for the first time. Flat file cases of work, portfolios of printed photographs, racks of framed pieces, a career's worth of negatives from analog days, computers and RAIDS, hard drives, and a 44-inch printer, framing supplies, a scanner, copy stand, and rolling carts of inkjet paper on rolls and in sheets. More distance and perspective than I have probably ever had from my own work. But also impressive that there is so much of it. Since it all began I have always worked through whatever else life threw at me, there has been the work, the making of photographs. Not that this is all a good thing for so much work presents a problem for the future: storing it, maintaining it, assuring its remaining viability and access. I find myself not so much inside the projects as in earlier times but outside looking in at work made in various phases or parts of my career, core mainstream work, and other bodies and series made as offshoots, or sidelines to the central themes of my artistic career.

Valuable, that. Perhaps to be outside the work more than at any other time. 

I don't know that I mean this makes for a real solution, just lending a different way to look at a career that I have never done or had before. I wonder if you've had that, the ability to look at what you do or have done with this sort of distance. 

Of course, this leads to the questioning of what I would have done differently. Perhaps fool that I am but I don't think anything. I've known for a long time, for instance,  that there is work that isn't at the same level as other work of mine. So be it. I can accept that but still find value in that less than "A" work that might be supportive of something or that might speak to me wrestling with an issue or a concern through visualizing a concept or an idea. 

But from this longer lens view, I believe that the work can stand. I am not likely at this late stage in my life to burn or shitcan it to the dumpster outside my studio. 

Will end this now with hoping to get back to sleep soon. Will the blog continue, thrive as in earlier years when I had so much to share? I don't honestly know. But I am grateful always for you coming along. It is a pleasure to be able to share my thoughts with you. 

(photographs from 2013 Artist in Residency, Hofsos, Iceland ©Neal Rantoul)

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted August 2, 2021


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


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

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


In the fall of 2019 I took a day to drive up to the Hampton Airfield to fly over the marshes that are just in from the coast near the Seabrook Nuclear Plant in southern New Hampshire.

Gold, bronze, brass, copper, chestnut, russet were the colors that day.

Incredible really and such a vivid contrast to what I'd shot in May a few years earlier of the marshes just south of the NH border near Newburyport and Ipswich.

But why the title "Significant"?

Ever since I began to make aerial photographs the formula for success has been whatever Nikon DSLR I was using at the time, be it the D3X, the D800E, the D810 and now the D850 with whatever generation Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 lens I was using. So very many successful photographs that it seems impossible to single any out. 

Here are a few:

If you go to the site and search through the aerials, they are all with some Nikon DSLR, except one: The New Hampshire Marshes.

By about 2010 or so I was clamping the Kenyon Gyro Stabilizer to the tripod fitting  on my camera when I was making aerials. Initially, starting with a too small unit, later upgrading to a larger one as my heavy camera needed a bigger gyro to work effectively. This made a tremendous difference in my aerial imagery and brought me close to 90% sharp compared to more like 30% without it. Vibration is no joke from a small airplane.

I won't bore you with the steep learning curve to making good aerials. Email me ( and I can steer you in the right direction. 

But, ever since I started with the Sony mirrorless cameras I wondered how things would go using one when making aerials. Initially, I was working with earlier versions of the full frame Sonys known as the A7r's. From the II to the III they were making files smaller than what I was getting with the Nikon, but when I switched to the IV at 61 megapixels I knew I'd need to try it from above. 

The NH Marshes pictures were made with the Sony A7R MK IV and the Zeiss 70-200mm F4 lens. I used the gyro stabilizer on this shoot with internal and lens stabilization turned off.

The end result? A major success. Excellent files, a good percentage sharp and well exposed. Lighter to hold too, as with the stabilizer this is a heavy set up and my arms get tired after shooting for an hour or so.

This one above was in a group show at the Concord Art Association this past winter (2021)at 40 inches across. It looked very good. 

How often can you make pictures for research and have them turn out to be useable for your practice?

Would I photograph aerially with the Sony again? Yes, absolutely. It was just too good. This therefore removes the last obstacle to selling off the Nikon kit, sadly. It is always hard for me let go of gear that has made me really wonderful pictures. The days of the Nikon D850 and a slew of first rate lenses are numbered. Photography has always been dependent on technological changes to making better pictures. From analog to digital and more recently from the single lens reflex to mirrorless. 

Thanks for reading the blog, always. 

Topics: Commentary,Aerial,Northeastern

Permalink | Posted April 25, 2021