Posts Tagged ‘digital’

Time Tales

5 August 2009

Dear J-

I keep my watch running fifteen minutes ahead of actual time — said actual time being defined by a radio-controlled atomic clock on the wall at work, which I set my watch to during another interminable meeting.  This is silly, no matter how I look at it; I always end up having to do a bit of mental gymnastics when glancing down at my watch, although fifteen minutes on an analog watch is no big deal, mentally rolling back the big hand by ninety degrees.  Plus the watch itself is sort of an anachronism with a 28,800 bph heart; we have cell phones which tell much better time — and never need to be set — on us most of the time anyway.

I used to own the kind of watch with both digital and analog displays, which was ultimately maddening as they refused to run on the same mechanism; either you learned to live with the fraction of a second discrepancy or you spent the better part of five minutes getting them sychronized adequately.  Part of that thinking carried over when I switched to analog-only; I used to set the watch anywhere from five to ten minutes ahead, but reading the time and then subtracting seven minutes became another laborious chore.  Fifteen minutes is a right angle and that makes it easy.  When someone asks me the time, they’re really asking one of two questions:  am I late, or how much longer do we need to wait?  Depending on the reaction I want (don’t worry about it or hurry up; or not much longer now) I’ll round up or down to the nearest five minute chunk instead of the precise time, which I was all too guilty of with a digital watch.  No one needs to know it’s precisely 5:28.  No, 5:29.

Time is a descriptive, not a number; we have our tools to measure it but the easiest method is via shared experience.  The moon set this morning in a roiling mist; I walked into the long light streaming in via the open curtains and looked up, surrounded by the quiet of a dark house before the lights come on.  Or perhaps it was that golden minute twice a day when the sun illuminates the bottom of the clouds but hasn’t ascended to its throne in the sky, and those clouds, now blushing, skid past just as majestically.  No?  Shuffling your feet past that house — you know that house, where grass grows wild in the summers and the sidewalk is never shoveled — you step on the brittle fallen leaves to hear the crunch underfoot match the crisp tang of cool air and woodsmoke in your nose.  I’ll bet you know exactly what time it is.


Design Time

1 July 2009

Dear J-

There’s a few things that are universally recognizeable — the McDonald’s arches, Snoopy, Mickey Mouse (I would also add Hello Kitty but that may be an artifact of my upbringing).  Product design, handled well, sells merchandise; the prospect of the Golden Arches on the horizon signals filling, if not particularly nutritious, fare.  With the advent of digital image capture, cameras which were once constrained by film cartridge size to a certain shape are now free to play with form; I’d say that we have the shapes we have because of product perception.  A camera should look like a camera — protruding cylindrical lens, body roughly in 3:5 proportions.

In the 80s and 90s camera designers started moving away from the brick school of design (Luigi Colani, with Canon’s T90; Giugiaro with Nikon’s F4) and those willing to go out on a real limb (Olympus ECRU and O-Product, which were the Twentieth-Anniversary Mac of their day;  high style and collectability) — there were cameras with retro features and “classical” lines (Leica Minilux, Nikon 35/28Ti, Minolta TC-1), but save for the hard points dictated by functionality (prism/porro viewfinder, film plane, takeup and rewind), cameras were starting to look interesting.  What’s happened?  Where’s my digital high-style camera?

I suppose that some designs are dictated by useability (handgrip and a body big enough to wrap two hands around), and others, by legacy requirements (again, that prism/porro viewfinder).  Panasonic and Olympus present two interesting contrasts — the first two 4/3rds system cameras were the E-1 (intriguing because there is no traditional “left side” — camera body left of the viewfinder), which was needed for the film chamber in 35mm cameras) and the E-300 (complicated light path and side-swinging mirror allowing for a flat top, faithful in concept and execution to the pioneering Pen F), both from Olympus.  On the other hand, freed from the mirror box and its mandate of a prism/viewfinder hump, the Panasonic micro-4/3rds G1 and GH1 resemble nothing so much as shrunken SLRs, even though there’s nothing but tradition (and that huge articulated LCD on the back) dictating the camera’s design.  You would think that a consumer electronics company wouldn’t skew conservative with camera design, but perhaps it’s just in comparison with one of the innovators in the camera world.


Wide Zuiko Review

30 May 2009

Dear J-

As part of my sporadic photographic review series, I probably should write up something about the lens that’s lived on the camera for the last six months — really, since I got it, the whole idea of using adapted lenses hasn’t made much sense to me, so it’s almost by default. All the advances of the past sixty years — from automatic diaphragms to automatic focus — were made for a reason, and going to adapted lenses loses much of that, no matter the brilliance in optical designs. On the other hand, I’ve also had another 4/3rds lens in my possession, with a theoretically more useful focal length range; but whether it’s the weather sealing or the feel of the lens, it’s the Zuiko Digital 11~18mm f/2.8~3.5 that’s gotten far more use.

Most folks agree that in the range it overlaps the 14~54mm, the shorter lens is better — whether that means sharper, less distorted, or what, it’s more likely that the 2x zoom lens will be less optically compromised than the 3.9x lens (and 3.9x is already a pretty short range to begin with). I’d looked at the 12~60mm lens as well — having wanted a lens that was at least weather-sealed — but ultimately decided that despite its brilliant sharpness, the 12mm end was too compromised, distortion-wise. One of the problems with wide zooms is that they’re often stretched into something that covers wide-to-short telephoto, and the wide end gets saddled with a complex mustache (“wavy-line”) distortion, where the corners are a bit overcorrected. All this is an exercise in pedagogy, as I have no experience with those two lenses, nor the inclination — for reasons I’ll explain.

I’ve read several different schools of thought on how people employ the 11~22 lens, but the one that resonated with me was the person who said he used it as a prime, with a bit of framing flexibility. To be honest, it’s my first extensive experience with zooms besides the ones stuck on the compacts I’ve used; I sometimes refer to them as bang-bang lenses, as I often find myself hitting the stops on one end or the other of the zoom. Having been raised on primes, though, the zooms made me lazy — instead of walking back and forth, twiddle the dial or play the trombone. Other folks said that f=40mm (on a 135-format camera) was the most natural perspective, so I walked around the first month or so at f=20mm, but unhappily — it was a bit narrow, and once I set it to f=18mm, it felt like I was able to breathe right again.

Pending Noodles 2736 -sm

The most important thing is that once I found the right focal length, the lens doesn’t impede my vision — I bring it up to my eye and it picks out the scene I see; no matter the aperture, there are no funny quirks to be worked around — no exposure compensation penalty to remember when working wide-open, no artifacts, no flare. Aside from the bulk, there are no significant vices to using it. If that’s boring and sterile, I’ll take it over the mental catalog I needed to carry around with each separate legacy lens I put in front of that E-1. The camera is best when it’s not obtrusive; I picked the E-1 because of its quiet operation, which does not disrupt the subject — now the lens doesn’t interrupt my train of thought.

One last thought: where do I go from here? My dalliance with Leitz lenses has been dizzying; both the price and consistency have been spectacular, but will there ever be a digital body that you can use them with automatic diaphragm at a price I can justify? The Nikkors that litter my life make me think that my future lies in the Nikon camp, but I wonder if the backwards compatibility is more than lip service from Papa Nikon. So if I delve deeper into the Olympus world, I go further towards a system that’s prime-lens-deficient; though the zooms are unparalleled, the prime lineup has gaping holes (no wides aside from the fisheye; no long macro, no affordable long lenses) that aren’t likely to be filled soon. Yet the f=18mm “prime” I’m using is seriously flexible, ready for nearly everything I throw at it; six months on, it’s been an incredibly wise investment, and a good first choice for a system.


Compact Followup

4 March 2009

Dear J-

I think I’ve hit on the line of reasoning I need to justify (or not, as the case may be) future expenses:  sure, it would be great to have all the advantages of the larger sensor in a compact body, but there’s been nothing — repeat that, nothing — that quite matches up to what I have in mind.  Between the control scheme and operational speed, the good old E-1 keeps soldiering on as my current best solution.  So the question remains what lenses look most promising, knowing that the recession — and the tax man — will be taking a bite out of our money before much longer.  That new Panasonic GH1 looks quite interesting — to the point where I begin to lament my camcorder choice — but even then, isn’t quite there, small size-wise.

For all the time I’ve spent looking over and researching features and details, that’s time taken away from actually shooting or other more pleasurable pursuits.  I’m not getting that time back.  Review sites seem to fall into various traps, either debating useless minutiae endlessly or injecting arbitrary criteria (“this camera was clearly designed by a photographer because it happens to coincide with how I, personally, believe how a camera should act”) that’s meaningless to most of us.  My experience, my resources dictate what cameras come to hand, and it’s told me, so far, that of the ones that have crossed my doorstep, the one I use the most is the one that works the best for me.

Eventually, the one number that doesn’t lie to me is the number of exposures I run through.  I end up taking maybe 150 shots a week, which is nothing for some folks, but me, with my mind still stuck somewhere in film-land, I see that as five rolls, where I used to regularly stretch out one roll a month, maybe.    If practice is the key to getting better, then it’s been a tremendous learning tool.  Some day there will be a compact that does it right — we saw a flood of serious film ones in the early 90s — but we’re not quite there with digital yet.  It takes time to learn how to use any camera, though, and I’m just starting to get the hang of this one, 8 000 clicks later.


Walkabout Rig

26 November 2006

Dear J-

The worst pictures are the ones you end up not taking because the camera was too bulky/complex to use. On the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to be relying on your camera phone for much beyond casual snaps, so what’s a budding photographer to do?

I have an absurd amount of grad student stipend invested in (politely, classic; popularly, obsolete) Nikon glass, so I ended up with the cheapest SLR capable of handling AI lenses with some grace and resolution — Kodak DCS 660C, which is a modified Nikon F5 with a 6MP Kodak imager stuck inside. In the nicest possible sense, this is a beast of a camera; the regular F5 is heavy enough, but when Kodak is done with it, it feels more like something you’d weigh corpses with, assuming you never want to see them again. The ‘developing’ process is straightforward but clunky — open files in DCS Photo Desk, tweak, save into 18MB TIFFs, then convert into JPEGs for sharing.

For a couple of years before, when I’d initially converted to digital, I was using a Sony DSC-D770, which had an optical TTL finder, mechanically-linked zoom, and decent (assuming you left it in manual focus) responsiveness. Ideal, then, except for the resolution — 1.5MP is enough for desktop backgrounds and e-mail, but not much else. Enough squinting through its keyhole of a finder and I was ready to chuck it; it was cheap enough that I didn’t mind bringing it in places I’d rather not lug an SLR rig, but boy did it attract attention, despite being nice and silent.

So, for now, the 660C fits my abilities as a high-end rig; given that the lens that lives most on it right now is a 50f/1.8 AI-S, I can’t be happier with the results I’m getting from it. All the errors are clearly my own, not the camera’s. But back when I was serious with film, I also carried around a Olympus 35RC, for those times when I didn’t want to be conspicuous and pull out a motorized Nikon F2 to blast and flap and scare any potential subjects (there’s a few folks who respond to the sound of a motor drive, but they’re fairly few). Maybe I should have loaded it with high-ISO film for that gritty street look, but I supplemented with a Vivitar 285 for when I needed more light — the camera can be small, but lots of light is going to call for a fairly good-sized flash (my other flash is a Metz potato-masher, ’nuff said).

So, I have my high-enough-end digital squared away. What’s the equivalent of the 35RC, then? What are the requirements?

  • Reasonably wide, bright lens (35RC = 42mm, f/2.8)
  • Compact — the 35RC is less than a pound
  • Flash shoe
  • Manual exposure capability
  • Dedicated controls — I don’t want to dip into a menu

Suffice it to say that there’s not too many new cameras that fit my bill, and honestly, not too much interest in providing photographers with manual controls in a compact body (the manufacturers are much more interested in selling you a cheap dSLR, which then may or may not entice you into higher-profit glass). So, just like grabbing a rangefinder from the 70′s made sense, it might be worth the effort to get a used ‘prosumer’ digital.

First off, forget cameras in the SLR/ZLR mold — Olympus E-10/20, Canon Pro1, Nikon x700, Sony F-series. Forget the superzooms; not compact enough. Think something more like a Canon G-series (or the slightly dimmer-lensed S-x0), or a Coolpix x400. Me, I’m going for a Sony DSC-V1 for one reason alone — it’s not as wide as some of the others, and it doesn’t save in a RAW format (but when you’re talking about a walkabout rig, wouldn’t you really rather have something useful straight out of the camera?), but it’s much faster/more responsive than its peers (Canon G5, Nikon 5400) — in a world of the decisive moment, response is key.

It’s an unassuming little brick of a machine, and it’s hit the MP-obsolescence curve gracefully (e.g. cheap enough to be a bit of an impulse buy, enough resolution to make good prints). As they’re all mostly leaf-shutter cameras now, noise shouldn’t be a critical issue, either, and should thus allow for less intrusive photography; I’ve always prefered the fly-on-the-wall approach to paparazzi-stalker long-lens tactics.

So, that’s my vote. Why no Powershot-G? Check the response times; it’s clear that electronic wizardry trumps silver halide in the veins, at least at that time. Plus the G’s have held their value absurdly well (as has the Coolpix 5000, which is usefully wider, as well as better-accessorized), compared with the V1.



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