Posts Tagged ‘camera’

Unusual Badges of Honor

14 November 2011

Dear J-

One thing I’ll tell you about the few photography blogs I read is that equipment is a fungible asset at best. The first question that they ask is what you took that picture with, and you end up forever branded with that appelation — that (system) guy — or (noted photographer), who takes pictures in (genre) with a (system). That leads to photographic equipment envy and/or the pursuit of something unusual for the sake of being unusual. Konica Hexar. Film snob. Medium format. How many times have you heard a particular camera described as a cult camera, in much the same way that cult classic cinema is discussed?

One of the blogs I used to follow and have since stopped showed off cameras of photographers this guy would meet on th e street, but there was a specific pecking order: only film cameras, unless they were Leicas, in which case anything goes. Part of me wants to get back into the world of medium format for that same reason: credibility and pretension. Look what I have to deal with. The more enlightened out there realize that the camera is just a tool — an interchangeable tool — that let’s you capture a slice of the world around you in your specific vision. If that happens to include the characteristics of the tool you’re using, then it’s a valid tool to use.

Most of us would like to take photgraphs that most accurately reflect the way the world is around us; there are a few who do have the ability to envision the way that art filters would affect the end product, but for me that’s usually some happy accident when that turns out well. I sometimes feel like we’re in a game of one-upsmanship to see who cmes up with the most unusual way to caputre the world around us. I remind myself that I still have a medium format camera, albeit one with poor frame registration (those Koni-Omegas were known for the fragility of their film wind mechanisms) and I keep laughing at the notion of free time I seem fixated on lately.

Mike

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Bankruptcy Plan

21 July 2010

Dear J-

So let’s pick out the perfect thing tonight — for me I’ll take the easy road out and say the perfect camera.  The perfect camera doesn’t exist.  It’s the next size up, for stability and low-light capability, or it’s the next size down, because you want to be able to take it anywhere.  It’s the one you left at home.  It’s the one whose battery just ran out.  It’s the one you’d use if you just knew how to make it work right, and it’s the one you’re so familiar with you forget about the right settings.  It’s the one with the feature you need, but didn’t get (video, macro, fast sequence shots, what-have-you) in the interests of time or money.

You can spend your time chasing what you haven’t got, of course.  And camera companies are always happy to part you with your money when you decide that what you have isn’t what you need:  it’s a business model that works for them.  It’s not planned obsolescence, it’s general philosophy:  Canon seem interested in rolling out the latest bells and whistles which makes Nikon fans defensive of that company’s conservative approach to change, but Nikonians gloat just as much when Canon’s initiatives fall flat and early adopters are revealed as late beta testers.  Meanwhile Pentax, Minolta, and Olympus guys are like Rodney Dangerfield:  no respect.

figgy keeps me sane, of course.  In the past month or so she’s somehow become a little girl who talks much more sense than nonsense, stringing together whole sentences and requests, not always politely, but clearly understandable.  I imagine her asking why — as she does ask why a lot (“Why aren’t you wearing any PANTS, daddy?”) — why I would need camera X, for instance.  It helps counteract the deafening voices on forums and review sites insisting that you need this feature or that capability; verbalize it and try to make it make sense (“Well, because when you peep through this little eyepiece, the picture is bigger”) to a three-year-old.  Whole companies could collapse overnight.

Mike

Battle Money

19 January 2010

Dear J-

Every so often I go through and clean out the camera that usually sits in the bottom of my purse satchel. I’ve been carrying it around for at least three years now and I’ve managed to take only a handful of pictures with it, really; the same thing happened with the Olympus 35RC I carried around in my old backpack; I managed to run maybe one or two rolls of film through before I got sidetracked into a video game habit. I tend to overcollect; there are games on the shelf that haven’t been collected, just as there are cameras and lenses which haven’t imaged scenes for years now (I’m looking at you, Nikkor-NC 35/1.4).

I suppose I feel a need to prepare for the unexpected, no matter how unlikely. I spent the last couple of weeks mulling over various portable photographic options, convinced that I had enough room to throw together a flat-topped SLR, like a Pen or GF1 hasn’t got my name on it in the eventual future. Throughout elementary school I saved bandage tins (when they came in tins) and armed with a basic knowledge and my usual pack-rat habits, would squirrel away random bits of aluminum foil, matchbooks, stale candy, and analgesics as a survival kit. After all, you never knew when it would come in handy, and wouldn’t that be a feather in my cap, to have that on hand?

The mind tends to invent the need for things you don’t need; I’ve been throwing around different lenses in my head because of a perceived need for missing focal lengths, for instance, or that I may run out of things to watch or play. When it comes down to it I can’t predict the future, and I sure can’t ensure that I’ll always have the right tool or survival kit at hand. Right now it’s not hard to drive those feelings down by asking the easy question of how often I’m actually going to use it, but I can’t count on it forever; the paean to materialism isn’t the most uplifting message, but understanding it is half the battle, really.

Mike

Basket Case

30 July 2009

Dear J-

Consider the dilemma of camera bags — if you want a camera on you, either get one that’s convenient (read that as small or built in to something you always have with you — phone, keys, wallet, hat) or you’ll need some way of carrying it hands-free.  The simplest solution is a pocketable camera, but the ones that fit well are generally compromised in some other way, so let’s say you get a neck strap, next.  I used to carry all my cameras on a neck strap, until I started to get extra lenses (and the lesson here is that either you have a zoom that does everything and is therefore compromised, or you have the wrong lens on your camera*) — where do you put the lenses?  I made do for years after that — large jacket pockets, satchels, begging theVet to carry extra-large purses — until finally I broke down and got a camera backpack.  Great way to carry things, especially with a waistbelt to shift the load from shoulders to hips; lousy way to work, though, until evolution blesses us with octopus arms and eyes on stalks — once it’s in the backpack, the backpack has to come off to get at it.

The flip side of the backpack is the shoulder bag; my dad has one and I suspect that it, along with the embroidered strap, was de rigeur for photographers who started in the 70s — you can work out of it, but it will give you pains by the end of the day, whether the standard mini-duffle or satchel/messenger style.  It is, however, my chosen way of working for now — remember to get one with a grip handle that you can use to lift the bag with the lid open and unfastened, or else you end up dumping all your cameras in front of Uncle Fred and looking like a donkey.

There are better ways of working and carrying cameras; I used to have an Army surplus jacket that had enormous pockets all over and that was just about perfect except that I looked impoverished whenever I went out in it, at least until the glass started coming out.  Vests and web gear, whether repurposed fishing, ALICE/MOLLE military surplus, or actual photographer fall into the same concern — it’s shallow, but you end up looking far more hardcore and ignorant all at once.  Hardcore for recognizing that it’s probably the most efficient way of hauling and using gear, ignorant for making your entire family embarrassed to be seen with you.  That said, I do have a MOLLE vest and belt hanging up in my closet waiting to be laden with pouches, and I need to be able to tote figgy around, what with her refusing stroller and backpack lately.

For those of you looking for concrete examples and brands, I own two brands and am contemplating welcoming a third into my life.  The first real photo bag I bought was a LowePro MiniTrekker; despite the Mini appellation, it swallows an enormous amount of stuff, it’s comfortable, and it hasn’t seen daylight in, hmm, 12 years or so?  It ends up being a question of access, and when my brother bought me a Domke F-2, I was all over it — and still use it to tote things around, as it’s rugged yet soft, but quickly grew to realize that it’s so big that you can load it down with enough equipment to give you a hernia (which didn’t, of course, stop me from getting two more Domkes — a F-804 I used for grad school (and which still has a beloved Olympus 35RC nestled deep within) and a F-1X, initially for the Kodak/Nikon boat anchor DCS 6×0 dSLRs, but lately retired because I keep forgetting to fasten the lid and dump equipment instead — that and the navy color attracts light-colored fur like nothing you’d believe.  If it wasn’t for the lack of (back/shoulder) comfort I’m pretty sure I’d still be working out of a Domke, but now I’m thinking web gear …

Mike

* This is one of what’s also known as Murphy’s Laws of Optics:

  1. If you have one (or a fixed) lens, it is the wrong lens.
  2. If you have multiple lenses, you have the wrong lens on.
  3. If you leave a lens at home, that’s the lens you needed. Corollary: if your bag only holds N lenses, the N+1th lens is the one you needed.
  4. You will not have time to switch to the right lens.
  5. The lens that does everything is always the wrong lens.

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.

Mike

Wide World

10 June 2009

Dear J-

As the work piles up I keep finding excuses to do other things — finding interesting links out there was something I always thought was the whole purpose of blogs:  a brief comment, a short analysis, and then the link to be shared with the rest of the world.  At different times I seem to pick up different themes; camera gear is an evergreen topic as only an infinite amount of money for the seemingly infinite amount of stuff out there would scratch that itch, but I also find time to look at the work of others.

Part of that has to do with the way they shelve photography books; whether it’s at the bookseller, Dewey Decimal, or Library of Congress, monographs are usually in close proximity to instructions and gear listings, so it’s a natural palate-cleanser to look at various bodies of work.  If you consider that flickr, for instance, regularly increases its collection of photographs by around 2-3000 per minute (that works out to over a billion photographs every year), there’s a ton of photos out there, and most of them are going to end up unremarked and unseen.

A couple of days ago, though, I ran across the World Press Photo of the Year gallery — one photo from all the journalists out there, out of the billions existing gets selected, so it’s a teeny little gallery of approximately fifty shots.  To my untrained eye, they are all stunning in different ways, but I will note that a good portion of them are heart-rending.  We humans are innately visual creatures — I believe it’s our dominant sense — and the photographs allow us to share realities around the world in a universal language.  Petteri has an excellent essay on boring photographs, by the way; it’s one that should be required reading for the next time you’re tempted to dismiss your own work as useless and trite.

Mike

Zoo News

8 March 2009

Dear J-

We were at the zoo — again — this weekend, this time without the heavy artillery (Tokina 100-300 f/4, manual focus version) I’d brought along last week; the big Tokina’s actually a pretty nice lens to bring to the zoo, as you can get decent subject isolation and background separation for some of the bigger animals, but for smaller birds, you still need more reach.  The combination of size/weight/aperture is just about the limit for my poor handholding capabilities, too; faster means either bigger (heavier) or shorter (focal-length), so for now it’s the Golidlocks Zoo lens:  just right.

It could be better wide-open, and given that it’s an adapted kludge, anything other than wide-open is not used.  Of course, there are, um, possibilities inherent in the matchup of the Zuiko Digital 50-200 f/2.8-3.5 and the EC14 teleconverter.  Better not think about it too much, not with the siren call of the internet moments away.  I’m gradually accepting the idea that the computer’s much better at focusing than I am, and having modern capabilities (auto diaphragm and exposure) is nothing to sneeze at, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never be able to justify the silly-money Super High Grade lens lineup.

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Today, then, as ever, I wandered around with the camera stuck at f=18mm (36mm equivalent), nearly wide-open.  Point, shoot.  It’s nearly perfect, in fact, for this purpose, aside from the excessive weight; responsive, always ready in the hand, and sufficiently wide to grab expressions.  Now, the next big thing very well may be the micro-4/3rds 20mm “pancake” lens they keep showing off as a prototype:  make it fast enough and that’s my next walk-around camera.  I’m honestly amused by the folks who want the pundits to be right:  that 4/3rds is nothing more than a dead end, that you can’t get lens performance like this without a more significant penalty; it’s as if the continued existence of 4/3rds is itself an irritant.

Mike

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.

Mike