By Walter Arnold
For the last nine years, I have spent much of my time poking around the darkened nooks and crannies of abandoned buildings. Not because I like the smell of mold and mildew or enjoy using my face as a spider web clearing tool, but because I LOVE searching for beauty in unexpected places. Since 2009 I have been creating a fine art photographic series called The Art of Abandonment. My travels take me all over, searching out historic and endangered locations, and creating scenes that tell a story.
Since day one, Sigma lenses have always been in my bag alongside a few pro-level Nikon lenses as well. In fact, my first ultrawide lens was the Sigma 10-20mm which I used for years on a Nikon D300. When I upgraded to the full-frame Nikon D800 however, I went with a different ultrawide bread and butter lens for the last five years with the same focal range and aperture. So, when Sigma contacted me and told me they had a 14-24mm F2.8 ART lens that was potentially “breadier and butterier” than the killer one in my bag, I HAD to try it out on one of my abandonment shoots.
When the lens came in the mail, I opened it like a long-awaited Christmas present. Pulling it out of the padded case, I could tell that the lens had a solid build. The focus and zoom rings are smooth with the right amount of resistance. Bear in mind the zoom ring is reversed from the house brand, so it took a little brain training for me to remember that zooming out is now a RIGHT turn instead of left! The lens cap has a padded ring which is very nice for sliding over the lens petals without scuffing or scratching them. All this is to say, I liked the lens even before I put it on my camera.
In the backyard I took several test shots settings zoomed out at 14mm. Looking at each of the images at 1:1 I was blow away: the Sigma, shows significantly more edge sharpness, very little chromatic aberration, and almost no distortion!
The next step was to take the Sigma out into the field and put it through its paces inside some abandoned locations. I headed to Florida to exhibit my work at several art festivals, where I also lined up several shoots, as well as in Alabama and Tennessee.
The first stop was a tiny abandoned church in rural North Florida. The church was built in the late 1800’s and was small by modern standards. The ultrawide Sigma 14-24mm was a perfect choice. While lining up and leveling shots along the backs of the pews, it was very clear that the Sigma had virtually no visible distortion. I could line up my composition with the horizontal backs of the pews, and they were perfectly straight across the bottom of my frame. Later, when zooming into these images in Lightroom, I loved seeing how I lost no detail in the periphery of the scenes. Blurry corners and edges were something I had grown accustomed to seeing in my ultrawide shots, but with the new Sigma lens, those days were over!
Next, I headed up to Birmingham, Alabama, to check out the abandoned Sloss Furnaces (Photos earlier in article). This historic site has been preserved as a museum of sorts. The old buildings and machinery are all there, with areas that you can walk through and photograph for a small fee. The old blast furnaces, rusty equipment, and labyrinthian pipes and gears is a photographer’s paradise and a steampunk lovers dream.
With many of the shots in my abandonment series, I will use exposure blending, or HDR to balance the extreme ranges of light. This is a useful tool, but deficiencies in lenses (such as chromatic aberration, edge softness, etc.) can be amplified when you stack multiple photos. It was a relief to work with the Sigma 14-24mm which minimized or eliminated many of these issues.
Lastly, I made my way up to Memphis, Tennessee, to the Mid-South Coliseum, a mothballed indoor sports complex that the city closed a little over a decade ago. For the last five years I have been working with Memphis Heritage, the local historic preservation group. They have been instrumental in helping me get access to many endangered sites in Memphis. With their help, as well as a special interest group dedicated to saving the coliseum, I received permission from the city for this shoot.
The coliseum was a perfect playground for an ultrawide lens. The sweeping circular indoor scenes with thousands of seats, old equipment, and collapsing ceiling tiles, made for very interesting imagery. The biggest challenge was the lack of light. While other parts of the building still had random flickering florescent lights, the arena space had only a few narrow shafts of natural light entering through small doorways. I was able to let in a little more light by opening a cargo bay door in the back. Most of my exposures were upwards of two minutes taken at F8 and ISO 200.
The Sigma 14-24mm 2.8 Art lens was performing so well, and, sadly, the loaner period was drawing to a close. I had put the Sigma through all the settings and situations that were important to me, and at every turn it met or exceeded my expectations. After these three shoots, I am totally sold on the quality, performance, and durability of this exciting new lens from Sigma. The only disappointing part about this whole experience, was that I had to return it when I got back to my studio! So I immediately bought it—my new go-to lens for all ultrawide abandonment scenes!
Walter Arnold’s Art of Abandonment series can be seen at TheDigital Mirage. Images and text ©Walter Arnold Photography LLC 2018. Images used with special permission from Sigma. Images may not be used without written permission from Walter Arnold Photography LLC.