Photo lessons from the Tucson Tattoo Expo

Our friends Alex and Charon flew in from their frosty home up in the northeast, to spend a week in Tucson enjoying our fine spring weather, and not incidentally attending the Tucson Tattoo Expo.  Our friends are best known as sword swallowers, fire breathers, and practitioners of other carnival sideshow specialties, but it just so happens that in their off-hours they pursue relatively typical activities as well.  Alex embalms dead people and Charon tattoos live ones.  (What?  Not normal enough for you?)

tatto-expo-013.jpgBeing fellow Airstreamers, they were happy to spend the week in our Airstream in the carport.  I put only one condition on their use of the Airstream: I had to go to the Tattoo Expo.  You just can’t pass up a photographic opportunity like that, and besides, I’m always interested in alternative cultures. Charon spent three days basically working non-stop on tattoos while Alex and I roamed around the booths of 30 or so artists who were also there.

I discovered that tattooing is part of a larger culture of “body modification,” which includes piercing, hair dyeing, and breast augmention.  People seem to regard the body as a canvas to be tweaked and altered to suit fashion or personal taste, which really isn’t as odd as it sounds.  After all, don’t you know plenty of people who dye their hair, wear makeup, or have had some sort of cosmetic surgery?  This culture just takes it a step further.  Sometimes two steps further.  There certainly was a lot of cleavage about.

tatto-expo-012.jpgNaturally, this was photographically a rich subject area (more photos on my Flickr album), but there were some complications.  I had to carefully ask permission before taking photos of anyone or any art.  Also, the lighting in the hotel ballroom was a mixture of the worst that I encounter at indoor trade shows and conventions:  fluorescent lights alternating in rows with tungsten lights.  That means it was impossible to come up with a reasonable white balance, because the white balance would change with every step across the floor.

One solution in such situations is to overpower the ambient lighting with flash, so I mounted up the trusty Nikon SB-600 and bounced it off the ceiling.  I was lucky that the ceiling was white and relatively low (about 12 feet).  Still, it was a struggle to get usable photos with my Tamron 10-24mm superwide lens.  It needs to be stopped down to at least f/6.3 to get sharp images and there were situations where that just wasn’t possible.  After a few hours I gave up with it and switched to the Nikon 18-200mm lens, which takes sharp photos at lower F-stops.  That helped during the fast action of the Saturday evening pinup contest.  (Now I bet you want to see my Flickr album!)

Alex is a walking encyclopedia of obsolete photographic methods.  His collection at home includes large-format 4×5 and 8×10 cameras.  He was once a professional photographer, and even taught people how to make their own emulsion for glass-plate cameras.  Digital, he knows little of, so we were happily exchanging knowledge all day. At one point he opened up a box of camera equipment and I was delighted to see an old Nikkor (Nikon) 50mm f/1.4 manual-focus lens in there.

Now, if you’ve gotten into SLRs only since the digital age, you may not have seen such a lens.  Like a lot of people, I learned the basics on a film camera, when everyone carried an f/2.0 or faster “normal” lens, but these days such lenses are ignored by most people (you young whippersnappers!) in favor of big zooms.  There’s good reason for that: today’s zooms can give you a lot of utility for not a lot of cost.  Inexpensive zooms are rather poor at gathering light, but digital SLRs can easily be cranked up to high ISOs (meaning fast “film”) to compensate.

But hey, one day you’ll be in an dimly-lit room trying to capture people moving around, and you’ll find that it’s a tough slog to get images without blur or adverse flash.  You’ll also find that the flash alerts everyone to your presence, and so it is harder to get good candids.  That’s the situation I found myself in at the Tattoo Expo.

tatto-expo-014.jpgSo I popped the old Nikon lens on and tried it out.  Wow, what a difference! I could shoot a full three F-stops faster, which meant no-flash images.  But the varying lighting, and dark shadows on faces, forced me back to bounce flash and the zoom Nikon for the balance of the day.  Still, I was intrigued, and so I’ve borrowed the lens from Alex for a few months to see what I can do with it.

I have to admit that I had some trepidation at going back to this old-tech lens.  It has no internal microchip, and pre-dates digital cameras by at least a decade, so all of the advanced features of the camera are defeated.  No auto-focus, no light metering, no distance information, no automatic aperture, and no readout on the camera.  All the camera can do is sort of electronically shrug and tell me “There’s a lens there and I don’t know what to do with it.”  The rest is up to me.  I wondered if I’d still remember how to manually focus and set aperture/shutter speed quickly enough to get photos before they got away.

I needn’t have worried. It’s like putting on a well-worn old pair of shoes.  In fact, it’s darned fun.  The lens takes beautiful pictures, and once again I can control depth of field indoors with precision.  I’m having a blast running around the house and snapping away at everything, just marveling at the visual effects I can create with de-focused backgrounds and shallow fields. Having this much fun with an ancient lens worth perhaps $25 is like a kid playing with the box his toy came in.  It just reminds me of how sometimes simpler is better.

The Tattoo Expo is over now, and we have two days in which to explore Tucson with Alex and Charon before they wing it back to the northeast.  Our primary mission, however, is already accomplished: they will be coming back to spend the winter here.  That’s the second couple we’ve converted from northeasterners to southwesterners (at least for the cold season).  My plan for world domination is to convince as many good friends as possible to come down here in the winter, so we have lots of people to play with.  It’s working … who will be our next victims?


  1. says


    If you want autofocus without breaking the bank, you could pick up a Nikon AF 50mm f/1.8 D for about $110. Not quite as fast as your oldie-but-goodie, but an excellent, extremely sharp lens that mates well with digital cameras. Alas, I sold mine recently but I don’t think I’ll go without one in my bag forever.

  2. Zach Woods says

    Hey Rich –

    You captured lots of great personality in your “Blue Cheescake” shot – wonderful photograph!

    As you know, we love the Southwest . . . If Deb’s work were more portable we’d be right there (although there is a large swath of multiple states so we might still have a bit of a drive to visit you!).


  3. Daisy says

    Way cool, although why did the winner of the pin up contest have no tattoos ???

    I love the last shot of the ice queen vamping though the pain.