What’s Missing from Your 4K Camera

A huge selling point for cameras in recent years has been their video capability. This is a result of the megapixel war being over, and manufacturers perceiving the need to sell their products with some magic number. For a while it was “full HD” (high definition) video, but now it’s “4K.”

For those of you who don’t know, 4K doesn’t express resolution the same way “megapixel” is supposed to express resolution in a still camera; it represents the fact that the long dimension of the recorded and projected image is approximately 4000 pixels.

Cue the eager reviewer in Hong Kong or Istanbul or Las Vegas, talking about bit rates and autofocus and color styles and F-log. Cue millennial in skinny jeans and pretentiously-ironic Fedora, leaping from the railing in a parking garage in super-slow-motion, super-high-resolution. The reviewer’s voiceover says something like, “If it weren’t for the better XYZ in the PDQ, I could recommend this camera for it’s striking 4K video.”

What’s missing from all of these reviews? All of them? A script.

Essentially, 99.99% of all 4K video is demo reels that don’t tell any story of any kind. It’s another seriously misplaced priority in the imaging world.

Take the following video as an example: In 1992, I bought some surplus VHS video cassettes at the Ada Public Library. Three of them were called Best of the Fests, which were collections of films from film festivals. On one of those was a 1988 short film called Spartacus Rex. It was the best of the Best of the Fests, and I have been enjoying it and occasionally quoting ever since. It was made by Loch Phillipps and Caroline Skaife. It’s brilliant, not because it’s HD or 4K (I think it was 16mm actually), but because it has a script…

1+

My Ten Dollar Camera Collection

I made this image with an Olympus Camedia C-750 digital camera, which dates back to 2003. I was very happy with the result.
I made this image with an Olympus Camedia C-750 digital camera, which dates back to 2003. I was very happy with the result.

Long-time webizens know that the controversial Ken Rockwell has a lot to say. He is both revered and reviled on the web, but remains popular in any case.

One concept he explored years ago was “futuretrash,” the idea that technology is inherently inclined to advance so fast that almost all tech machinations will be obsolete in a short period of time, like months or just a few years.

The article is ten years old, but it’s just as relevant today, particularly after I half-jokingly got on Ebay and bought 22 untested old digital cameras for just $10. They arrived a couple of days later, and my wife Abby and I have been playing with them ever since.

Here are $5000 worth of digital cameras reduced to a $10 Ebay grab.
Here are $5000 worth of digital cameras reduced to a $10 Ebay grab.

The oldest camera of the bunch appears to be from 1998, a Kodak DC210 Plus. The front of the camera brags “MegaPixel,” and the web confirms that yes, it is a one megapixel camera. The web also indicates that this behemoth originally cost $899. No, I am not making that up; that’s almost $1400 in today’s dollars.

Abby holds the 20-year-old Kodak DC210 Plus digital camera. It actually works.
Abby holds the 20-year-old Kodak DC210 Plus digital camera. It actually works.

Just for the record, one of these cameras, a Nikon Pronea S, is a film camera from the APS era.

The price of digital cameras fell for years, in accordance with Moore’s Law, so by 2008, this camera had been replaced with much better, much cheaper technology. Still, even the newest and best of this batch of untested cameras must have cost at least $300. To get them all for just $10 says this: what was once valuable is now garbage.

About a third of these cameras work. Some of them take AA batteries, while some require proprietary batteries I don’t have. Most of them use the ubiquitous SD card, while a few take CF cards. Two of them take SmartMedia, which I don’ t have, and one requires an SD Picture Card, which was in it when it arrived. A Sony Cybershot had a Memory Stick in it.

But I didn’t buy them to take pictures. I certainly have enough modern cameras for that. I bought them to ponder what we really value in a capitalist/merchentilist society from the perspective of someone in my area of expertise. Are we really asking the human race to throw away college savings, mortgage payments, health care, retirement, and any number of other once truly valuable things so we could take 20 or 30 1.2-megapixel digital photographs of our niece’s graduation?

Flash forward 20 years to now, and the real reason these cameras are in a pile in a box at the bottom of the coat closet is this: we have been brainwashed to believe we need to take tens of thousands of photographs of our lives with increasingly complex and sophisticated tools (iPhones for example), instead of living our lives?

Hawken the Irish Wolfhound was so curious about my woods walk that he got tangled up in a vine alone the south fence.
Hawken the Irish Wolfhound was so curious about my woods walk that he got tangled up in a vine alone the south fence.

Yes, I see this all the time: people watching their children grow up on the screens of their phones. And I can’t be certain, but my guess is that only a tiny fraction of these images and videos are ever seen again.

So, Richard, photographer and photography instructor, what is your bottom line? Quality over quantity? That we should all be artists? That we should turn off our phones and smell the marigolds once in a while? All this and more. Life is worth living instead of watching, and while photography can be a powerful tool for recording our lives, it shouldn’t take the place of our lives.

I made this image of a thistle plant in our pasture last night with the 2005-era Kodak Easyshare Z740. Possibly regarded as inadequate by today's standards of technology, the image is, nevertheless, lovely.
I made this image of a thistle plant in our pasture last night with the 2005-era Kodak Easyshare Z740. Possibly regarded as inadequate by today’s standards of technology, the image is, nevertheless, lovely.
3+

Funniest Repair Ever

This is the Gorilla Glue that squished out when I reattached a thumb grip on my D700.
This is the Gorilla Glue that squished out when I reattached a thumb grip on my D700.

When I bought my D700, it was missing the rubber grip for the right thumb. Some weeks later one of my D200s died, and I stripped it for parts. The thumb grips aren’t the same, so I trimmed it with a scissors and glued it on, and it worked fine.

Ten days ago, though, it came unglued, so I decided to glue it back, only more aggressively than before. I put a fair amount of Gorilla Glue on the spot, pressed the rubber grip into place, and put a book on it to hold it down while it dried. Apparently, the pressure from the weight of the book caused the glue to ooze out at a couple of spots.

I laughed hard when I saw the result. Of course, I can just cut off the extra glue with a razor or sharp knife, but I’m halfway tempted to leave it on and tell people it’s some kind of an accessory, like the glue spots are pressure points or massage balls or something.

2+

Breaking Things Loose and Keeping Things Fresh

Black and white barbed wire: am I creating, or just brooding? Does it matter?
Black and white barbed wire: am I creating, or just brooding? Does it matter?

I talk all the time on this site and on my personal site about creativity.

“If I take one more picture of a leaf, I’m going to explode” ~R. E. in 2015, about a creative rut he experienced.

Lately I’ve been social media friending a lot of photographers at bigger newspapers on the coasts. Their work is amazing and inspirational, but seems to flow from a different source: regattas, refugees, politics, enormous sports events, current affairs; they live in states that have counties bigger than Oklahoma, so it’s a different worldview just based on what we see every day. I look at their lives with some incredulity: how can you deal with millions of people, their noise, their traffic, their smell. I live in a town that has fewer people in it than the staff at the New York Times.

You can piss and pout all day about this not being original or groundbreaking, which it's not. It's an image I love of something I love. Done.
You can piss and pout all day about this not being original or groundbreaking, which it’s not. It’s an image I love of something I love. Done.

I caught a recent YouTube video from a channel called DigitalRev (“Rev” being “revolution” I guess) about photographic cliche’s to avoid. In it, he mentions just about every kind of photo. I’ve touched on this idea before, and it is this: in a world of literally billions of images being made every day, stop trying to reinvent the wheel and start trying to express yourself. It’s a subtle concept, but one worth merit.

Looking at the work of other photographers will make you chase your tail. It’s all been done to death. Don’t believe me? Do a web search for “Hong Kong at Night.” I’ll wait.

See? What can you add to that? Next, do a web search for “YOUR NAME in pictures.” Now, what can you add to that?

Finally, I know I’ve said this time and again, but it bears a lot of weight: you can’t buy mastery, you have to earn it. Trust me on this: when I take my pistol down to the pond and my first ten shots miss, there’s nothing wrong with my pistol.

Sometimes your camera can make you look great, if you're willing to let it. I made this exposure entirely by accident.
Sometimes your camera can make you look great, if you’re willing to let it. I made this exposure entirely by accident.

SaveSave

SaveSave

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A Camera Like a Sports Car

The Nikon D2H digital camera was Nikon's news and sports flagship camera in 2003. I have three working D2Hs, and I get them out once in a while and make great images with them.
The Nikon D2H digital camera was Nikon’s news and sports flagship camera in 2003. I have three working D2Hs, and I get them out once in a while and make great images with them.

My wife Abby owns a 1986 Toyota MR-2 mid-engine roadster. She is its only owner. It’s not her main vehicle, and she doesn’t drive it very often: parts on it are worn out, its technology is a couple of generations old, and it doesn’t do very many things better than her current vehicle, a Nissan Frontier pickup.

But it does do one thing better: it’s fun to drive.

Abby has owned her Toyota MR-2 since she bought it new in 1986.
Abby has owned her Toyota MR-2 since she bought it new in 1986.

I tell you this because all winter I used my “SUV” cameras, matching Nikon D300S digital cameras, for everything, and when things started to get sunny and green, I decided to give them a break for a few days and shoot with the much older Nikon D2H cameras I have locked up in my office. I don’t use them very often: parts on it are worn out, its technology is a couple of generations old, and it doesn’t do very many things better than the new cameras.

But like Abby’s roadster, the D2H does something very well: it’s fun to shoot. It features perfect, lightning-fast autofocus and an effortless eight frames per second frame rate. Nobody needs the speed and handling of a sports car, but it’s fun. The D2H is also one of the best-built cameras and feels great in-hand.

It’s also fun to make really powerful photos with outdated cameras because it shows the “upgraders” that it really is the photographer, not the camera, making pictures.

I know at least one gearhead out there is going to want to chime in with, “but it’s only a 4.1-megapixel camera, Richard. What if you want to print big?”

  1. I always hear this talk from people who never actually make big prints.
  2. You need to come to my office and look at my big prints… 24×36 inch… and tell me which ones were made with the D2H. You won’t be able to.
Want to get more compliments on your sports photos? Your first purchase should be a lens, followed by some training in how to use it. Your camera, whatever it is, isn't the problem.
Want to get more compliments on your sports photos? Your first purchase should be a lens, followed by some training in how to use it. Your camera, whatever it is, isn’t the problem.

So what doesn’t the D2H do well? It doesn’t do well at ISO 1600 and above. It doesn’t have a big, luxurious viewfinder, and it doesn’t have a big, bright monitor on the back. Otherwise, though, this camera does pretty well for 15-year-old technology.

In the month since the end of the basketball season, the D2H has been my main camera for baseball and softball, sunny sky sports, giving the D300Ss a nice rest period, and allowing me to make great pictures and have great fun doing it.

What makes an image like this work is attentive sports photography technique, and a decent lens, in this case my AF-S 300mm f/4.
What makes an image like this work is attentive sports photography technique, and a decent lens, in this case my AF-S 300mm f/4.
3+

Nail in the Film Coffin

Two summers ago at Ada's annual July 4 celebration in Wintersmith Park, I ran into a photographer who was shooting with a beautiful Mamiya C220. No one in town can process the film for it, so unless he has a darkroom, processing is an obstacle. He was the only person I've seen with a film camera in the field in the past few years.
Two summers ago at Ada’s annual July 4 celebration in Wintersmith Park, I ran into a photographer who was shooting with a beautiful Mamiya C220. No one in town can process the film for it, so unless he has a darkroom, processing is an obstacle. He was the only person I’ve seen with a film camera in the field in the past few years.

I recently posted that Kodak Alaris was reintroducing a black-and-white film to their lineup, T-Max P3200, which I regard as a likely mistake. Substantiating this is a recent announcement by Fujifilm that they are ending manufacture of all black-and-white film in October.

I've got a fair share of film cameras sitting around, but I can't think of a single reason to buy film for them.
I’ve got a fair share of film cameras sitting around, but I can’t think of a single reason to buy film for them.

For the entire first half of my career, I shot film, and though digital was fairly primitive when it came along, I embraced it, and have exactly no desire to go back to film. Fuji apparently agrees with me, though for a very different reason: profitability. It’s clear that companies can’t make money selling 20 rolls of film to 20 moody millennials who think film is “edgy” or “hip,” so the film game is over.

If I had my way (and/or a Kickstarter plan), I might be inclined to find a way to integrate digital photography into the millions of wonderful old film cameras we all own and relish, but I have no urge to shoot film with them. It’s pretty apparent that no one else does, either, because no one ever asks me to teach them anything about the darkroom or film, and I almost never see anyone shooting film in the field.

The Shrinking World of Film...
I came across my next door neighbors last night, and they had an old film camera with a broken-off rewind knob, so they couldn’t remove the film to have it processed. We picked at it with a pocket knife to no avail, and I went on with my chores. Even if they get the film out and take it to Wal Mart or Walgreens (the last places in town that say they can process film), those businesses no longer have actual C41 processors, and will need to send the film to Dallas or Los Angeles or Hong Kong to be processed. Like them, I am curious to see what’s on the film, but have no reason or desire to shoot any more film.

But hey, if you think there is money to be made in making and selling black-and-white film, get some investors and make Fuji an offer for their Acros brand, or start your own. What’s that? Only a fool would try to make a living selling film in 2018? Ah.

Somebody handed me a four-pack of Kodak color negative film recently. Upon opening it up and taking the rolls out of their cans, it felt very familiar to handle them. I have a lot of latent knowledge from the early period of my career.
Somebody handed me a four-pack of Kodak color negative film recently. Upon opening it up and taking the rolls out of their cans, it felt very familiar to handle them. I have a lot of latent knowledge from the early period of my career.
3+

A Look Back: The Sony Cybershot DCS-F828

Welcome to another in my series of older cameras that were once great but have been relegated to the dustbin of photographic history. Here is the Sony Cybershot DCS-F828.

The Sony Cybershot DCS F828 digital camera poses for me in my studio today.
The Sony Cybershot DCS F828 digital camera poses for me in my studio today.

Introduced in 2003 and shipped in early 2004, this replacement for Sony’s DCS F717 all-in-one fixed-lens digital camera was very expensive when it was introduced, and plagued with problems. At the time, my bridge/travel/all-in-one camera was the excellent Minolta DiMage 7i, which was still going strong, so I passed on the Sony.

I made this beautiful image of autumn leaves with the Sony F828. I'm sorry to say that this success is the exception rather than the rule.
I made this beautiful image of autumn leaves with the Sony F828. I’m sorry to say that this success is the exception rather than the rule.

This class of cameras is known as bridge cameras, crossover cameras, or even walk-around cameras, and feature a permanently-attached, very-long-zoom-range lens. They are a favorite of mine and of my wife Abby because they are so easy to integrate into activities like travel, hiking, and family reunions.

The back of the Sony F828 features a lot of useful controls, though they are accessed by very small buttons and switches. The LCD monitor is only 1.5 inches diagonally.
The back of the Sony F828 features a lot of useful controls, though they are accessed by very small buttons and switches. The LCD monitor is only 1.5 inches diagonally.

I got my hands on the Sony F828 years after its heyday, for about a tenth of its original retail price.

Positives for this camera:

  • Mechanical zoom lens that allows tactile access focal length.
  • Distinct 7-bladed aperture that creates 14-point sunstars.
  • Well-balanced with a good in-hand feel.
  • Many of the important controls use buttons or switches on the camera/lens body rather than hidden in a menu.
  • It’s a great-looking, sexy camera that never looks like a toy.
It's always nice to see a camera with a true PASM exposure mode dial. The F828's is metal and easy to grip.
It’s always nice to see a camera with a true PASM exposure mode dial. The F828’s is metal and easy to grip.

Negatives about the F-828…

  • Despite the use of a Carl Zeiss optic, the Sony F828 remains littered with image quality issues.
    Despite the use of a Carl Zeiss optic, the Sony F828 remains littered with image quality issues.

    The zoom lens’s images are very prone to purple fringing. Apologists for this camera had to whitewash this flaw with phrases like “under certain circumstances” but the truth is that my Minolta DiMage 7i never once did this.

  • Shooting RAW files locks the camera for ten seconds, ensuring a missed follow-up frame, even in continuous shooting mode.
  • The JPEGs out of this camera have an odd purple undertone even with white balance set correctly. I expect this is a combination of purple fringing from the lens and Sony’s weird four-color “HAD CCD” with its RGBE layout, the E being “emerald,” but really meaning something akin to cyan.
  • The hinge between the camera part of the body and the heavier lens part of the body gets loose, and soon either requires partial disassembly to repair, or putting up with the lens flopping into a straight-down position when holding the camera by the grip.
  • There is a tiny switch to change between the electronic viewfinder and the LCD on the back of the camera. Every other bridge camera I’ve owned has an eye detector and switches this automatically, including the Minolta DiMage 7i that came out two years before the Sony.

    The left side of the Sony's body is like a Star Trek fan's wet dream, covered in controls that are fun to imagine using.
    The 4color Super HAD CCD might be at the heart of the F828’s problems.
  • The Auto/Manual Focus switch moves too easily, sometimes resulting in the lens not autofocusing, with little indication in the viewfinder.
  • Although it will take both a CF card and Sony’s proprietary memory stick, the video frame rate is cut in half when shooting to the CF card, which I assume is to bully the buyer into purchasing the always-overpriced memory stick.
  • The menu system is a mess; some critical functions are accessed by pushing the “Menu” button, while others require setting the exposure mode dial to “Set Up.” Then within those dialogs are another mess. While this was common to cameras in the early transition from film to digital (and the migration of menus from film cameras to digital camera), I guess I expected more from a $1500 camera.
It didn't take me long to find examples of the Sony's F828's inclination to purple fringing, as seen in the extreme in this barn image; the holes in the barn should not be purple.
It didn’t take me long to find examples of the Sony’s F828’s inclination to purple fringing, as seen in the extreme in this barn image; the holes in the barn should not be purple.
Operation of the lens itself, a 7.5-51MM F/2.0-2.8, is smooth and precise; a pleasure to use.
Operation of the lens itself, a 7.5-51MM F/2.0-2.8, is smooth and precise; a pleasure to use.

A couple of years ago I half-decided to dedicate this relic to infrared photography, but a couple of weeks ago it killed a CF card, so now I only trust it as a conversation piece. I also don’t care much for Sony as a corporate entity – almost every Sony electronic I ever owned, tape decks, DVD/Blu-Ray players, and amps all died untimely deaths.

One thing the Sony F828 could do well was make gorgeous 14-point sunstars due to its lens having a seven-bladed aperture.
One thing the Sony F828 could do well was make gorgeous 14-point sunstars due to its lens having a seven-bladed aperture.
The left side of the Sony's body is like a Star Trek fan's wet dream, covered in controls that are fun to imagine using.
The left side of the Sony’s body is like a Star Trek fan’s wet dream, covered in controls that are fun to imagine using.

I know, I know. Sony is at the head of the line in camera development at the moment, but I still don’t trust them. If they sent me a sample of their new mirrorless to shoot, I would, but it will take a lot of trust-rebuilding to ever make me a Sony customer again.

And the F-828? If you find one at a garage sale, offer $25 and have fun, but don’t count on this machine as an image maker.

The Sony F828, the Minolta DiMage 7i, and the Fujifilm HS30EXR are show together in my studio today. The Minolta is an old favorite, and the Fuji is my current favorite, but despite its potential, the Sony falls short.
The Sony F828, the Minolta DiMage 7i, and the Fujifilm HS30EXR are show together in my studio today. The Minolta is an old favorite, and the Fuji is my current favorite, but despite its potential, the Sony falls short.
2+

Judge, Jury and Executioner

An Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery staff member prepares to place ribbons on items I selected at their spring photography show.
An Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery staff member prepares to place ribbons on items I selected at their spring photography show.
It was a beautiful day for the short drive from my home to Sulphur, Oklahoma to judge a photography contest at the Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery.
It was a beautiful day for the short drive from my home to Sulphur, Oklahoma to judge a photography contest at the Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery.

A long-time-ago photography student, Royce Gideon, invited me to judge a photography show at Artists of the Arbuckles Art Gallery in Sulphur, Oklahoma. I had no idea what to expect since photography is consistently inconsistent, but I had high hopes.

I drove down Thursday morning and had a look, and found myself in the midst of a some fairly amazing work. (I won’t show their work up close or say who won, since they are not my images. If you want to see them, go to Sulphur. It’s a nice little town.)

The judging process was pretty straightforward, as the staff made notes and placed the ribbons on the pieces for me. I discussed the merits of each winner and they took that down as well.

A reporter from the Sulphur Times-Democrat interviewed and photographed me.

One significant observation: more and more photographers are getting their prints on metallic steel about the thickness of a license plate. It makes for a handsome presentation.

Overall, I was impressed with the work and glad I could participate.

Photographer Royce Gideon makes notes about some of the image on display at the Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery Thursday.
Photographer Royce Gideon makes notes about some of the image on display at the Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery Thursday.
1+

The Love of Teaching

My students and I had an excellent session last night.
My students and I had an excellent session last night.
During the golden hour we were able to use this nice edge light.
During the golden hour we were able to use this nice edge light.

As the years have passed, I find that there are few things I love as much as teaching photography.

It’s fun and interesting, and, like last night, full of “ah ha!” moments for all involved.

The team makes pictures under a pear tree.
The team makes pictures under a pear tree.
After the sun dipped below the horizon, we got a very nice, subtle, rounded edge light.
After the sun dipped below the horizon, we got a very nice, subtle, rounded edge light.

Last night we had a great golden hour, followed by an even better blue hour, followed by a fun indoor existing-light session.

We then finished the night with some after-dark light painting with flash and flashlights.

We all had so much fun we actually ran ten minutes long.

My crew takes time to set up under a pear tree. It yielded the best photographic fruits.
My crew takes time to set up under a pear tree. It yielded the best photographic fruits.
As we stayed out during the blue hour, we came across this tree and used it as a compositional element to create strong leading lines. We were very happy with it.
As we stayed out during the blue hour, we came across this tree and used it as a compositional element to create strong leading lines. We were very happy with it.
0

An Odd Move for Kodak

While it's certainly true that I made many great images on Kodak's P3200 film, and that it was head and shoulders above Tri-X for low-light venues, I have absolutely no desire to go back to using it.
While it’s certainly true that I made many great images on Kodak’s P3200 film, and that it was head and shoulders above Tri-X for low-light venues, I have absolutely no desire to go back to using it.

Kodak Alaris, the film and paper division of the bankrupt Great Yellow Father, Kodak, announced recently the reintroduction of Kodak P3200 35mm film. I consider this an odd move – and probably a mistake – because this film, first introduced in the 1980s, was a solution to the problem that existing films weren’t adequate for very low light situations.

Even half a stop of underexposure in the shadows of a P3200 negative creates a very muddy image that's hard to fix.
Even half a stop of underexposure in the shadows of a P3200 negative creates a very muddy image that’s hard to fix.

In 1985, I was working for the Associated Press and, by November, a newspaper, and with the inherent need to cover sports in very low light – football, basketball, volleyball – found myself trying to figure out all the schemes my fellow news shooters and I were using to get existing films to act with more sensitivity to low light. We shot Kodak’s Tri-X, a great film in the 1960s and 1970s, but long in the tooth by the 1980s. We used all sorts of tricks and schemes to get more sensitivity out of Tri-X, from snake oil products like Crone-C developer additive, to relatively obscure chemistry like Accu-Fine and Diafine, to time and temperature experiments with possibly my favorite black-and-white developer, HC-110. None of it got Tri-X above about ISO 2000.

Technology needed to step in, and Kodak needed to bring it.

Enter Kodak T-Max P3200, a very high speed film that could be “push processed” into the ISO stratosphere, which I did all the time. I used Kodak’s T-Max developer and regularly exposed this film at ISO 6400. It was a game-changer. For more than a decade, I relied on this film for imaging, especially sports, in all manner of low-light, almost-no-light venues.

Ada High School Couganns greet their team in the Ada Junior High gym in 1998, near the end of the film era. It's a usable Kodak P3200 image, but compared to digital, it is grainy, contrasty, dusty, and expensive.
Ada High School Couganns greet their team in the Ada Junior High gym in 1998, near the end of the film era. It’s a usable Kodak P3200 image, but compared to digital, it is grainy, contrasty, dusty, and expensive.

Then in 2001, my newspaper bought my first digital camera, a Nikon D1H. From almost exactly that day, my use of P3200 stopped. Color film lingered a while longer, but by the end of 2004, I was done with film.

My wife Abby likes to tell me that her photography was reinvented by digital, and she could finally express herself without the hassle of film – processing, printing, archiving, and especially paying for film and prints.

I, too, was very happy when I could leave film behind and shoot my low-light stuff digitally. Digital solved every problem with film: toxic silver-based chemicals, grainy images, time-consuming printing and/or scanning, and, possibly most significantly, a very limited number of frames.

Calvin basketball fans clamor for their kids at the state tournament in Oklahoma City in 1994. Kodak P3200 was a problem-solver then, but a solution looking for a problem today.
Calvin basketball fans clamor for their kids at the state tournament in Oklahoma City in 1994. Kodak P3200 was a problem-solver then, but a solution looking for a problem today.

Sure, a good print or scan from a P3200 negative is good, but the same shot with a modern DSLR is amazing by comparison.

Also, think about what almost always happens to a film frame in the latter day: it gets scanned to make it digital, and from there makes its way to a print, a publication, or a web site. It does not get printed onto photographic paper using an enlarger, which, in the end, is the only true path to analog photography. Adding film to a digital workflow is like recording your phonograph albums to 8-track tape then ripping those tapes to MP3.

I can almost get interested in a super-low-ISO, super-fine-grained film for fine art, but on the grainy end? Did we not just spend a trillion dollars to get rid of grain and noise?

Also, if you thought dust on your digital sensor was a problem in the early 2000s, you are in for an unpleasant surprise: the cleanest negatives from the cleanest darkrooms have a ton of dust on them, and every speck shows up when you scan.

So what might Kodak be hoping with this move? To light a fire under a previously unknown revenue stream? To be the next big retro thing? To pander to the 1% of millennials who both regard film as edgy and retro and are actually willing to use it? Kodak certainly showed us how to navigate a corporate juggernaut right into the ground, and this idea seems like more of that same thinking.

I pulled a sleeve out of a file box from basketball I covered in March 1994, and found myself thinking about how slow and messy the film process is compared to digital.
I pulled a sleeve out of a file box from basketball I covered in March 1994, and found myself thinking about how slow and messy the film process is compared to digital.
0

A Look Back: a “Tank” of a Camera, the Nikkormat EL

My all-metal, tough-as-nails Nikkormat EL sits in my studio. It is heavy, blocky, and reliable.
My all-metal, tough-as-nails Nikkormat EL sits in my studio. It is heavy, blocky, and reliable.
Mounting a lens on old Nikon cameras required aligning a claw with a post, then rotating the lens to its smallest aperture, then it's largest aperture, to "index" the lens with the camera.
Mounting a lens on old Nikon cameras required aligning a claw with a post, then rotating the lens to its smallest aperture, then it’s largest aperture, to “index” the lens with the camera.

In the months and years following my first year at a full-time newspaper internship, I had a pretty clear idea about what kind of photographer I wanted to be. I wanted to be in the trenches, shooting football games in the rain, house fires in the middle of the night, perp walks on the courthouse steps, and the crowd going wild when the three-pointer hits at the buzzer.

The Nikkormat wears a 1960s-era 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens. The yellow hue of the front element indicates it was single-coated, but over the years I found that this lens was very sharp, and very tough.
The Nikkormat wears a 1960s-era 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens. The yellow hue of the front element indicates it was single-coated, but over the years I found that this lens was very sharp, and very tough.
The Nikkormat EL kept it's battery in an unusual spot, in a chamber under the reflex mirror.
The Nikkormat EL kept it’s battery in an unusual spot, in a chamber under the reflex mirror.

To do all these things, I needed tough cameras with big, fast lenses. I started with a Nikon FM in 1982, and slowly added to my system. On the occasions when I had a little extra money, I often hit the pawn shops at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where E-1 soldiers tended to blow all their pay on payday, then pawn what they bought two weeks later when they needed to make rent.

In the 21st century, it's weirdly unsettling to look at the back of a camera and not see a monitor. Pushing the white button on the back of the Nikkormat EL lit up the orange button, indicating the state of the battery.
In the 21st century, it’s weirdly unsettling to look at the back of a camera and not see a monitor. Pushing the white button on the back of the Nikkormat EL lit up the orange button, indicating the state of the battery.
This is a relic that many modern photographers might not even recognize: a selectable X-sync vs FP-sync flash setting on the shutter speed dial of the Nikkormat EL. FP-Sync triggers the flash slightly early to allow a flash bulb to reach it's full output.
This is a relic that many modern photographers might not even recognize: a selectable X-sync vs FP-sync flash setting on the shutter speed dial of the Nikkormat EL. FP-Sync triggers the flash slightly early to allow a flash bulb to reach it’s full output.
The mirror lock-up lever is situated above the lens release. It allowed use of optics that protruded into the body of the camera, and also allowed access to the battery under the mirror box.
The mirror lock-up lever is situated above the lens release. It allowed use of optics that protruded into the body of the camera, and also allowed access to the battery under the mirror box.

At several points in my camera shopping I came across nice Nikkormat cameras. Nikkormat was Nikon’s 1960s and 70s effort to manufacture less-expensive Nikons for amateurs, mostly by limiting their features. By the late 1970s, Nikon and Nikkormat had largely merged, and most Nikkormats had a fair amount of features.

All the cameras made by Nikon during that era were built like tanks: steel frames, brass mounting rings, real glass pentaprisms, engraved and painted markings. It was a golden ago of camera-making for most camera makers, including Nikon.

The Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 sits next to the new AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4.
The Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 sits next to the new AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4.
The shutter speed dial on the EL includes aperture-priority automatic. This feature was later quite common in many Nikon cameras, including the FE, which replaced the EL.
The shutter speed dial on the EL includes aperture-priority automatic. This feature was later quite common in many Nikon cameras, including the FE, which replaced the EL.

At one time or another I owned…

  • This is an odd little accessory that I used on some old Nikon cameras, a "soft touch" shutter release extender. It gave the shutter release a better feel and made it easier to find with your index finger.
    This is an odd little accessory that I used on some old Nikon cameras, a “soft touch” shutter release extender. It gave the shutter release a better feel and made it easier to find with your index finger.

    Nikkormat FT, the original 1965-design without auto aperture indexing. I eventually sold it after discovering a significant focus calibration error.

  • Nikomat (brand name sold only in Japan) EL chrome top. I often carried this as my second-camera, usually with a wide angle lens on it, when I would be in the field all day, like at the annual Fourth of July festivities. It died, and I gave it to someone (I don’t remember who.)
  • Nikkormat EL. For years this camera had a place in my bag, and it remained healthy into the digital era. It has an auto-winder, which is slow and bulky, and is difficult to hold due to a lack of handgrip. In 2002, I handed it to Jamie for our hiking trip to Utah. She had a great time using it, and ended up keeping it in her collection on permanent loan. I borrowed it this week to photograph, but I consider it hers.
Jamie makes pictures with the Nikkormat EL in Arches National Park, Utah in November 2002. Since then, this camera has been in her possession, which pleases us both.
Jamie makes pictures with the Nikkormat EL in Arches National Park, Utah in November 2002. Since then, this camera has been in her possession, which pleases us both.
Your host shoots with a Nikomat EL. I later gave away that camera.
Your host shoots with a Nikomat EL. I later gave away that camera.

The Nikkormats were Nikon’s last effort to create something that was both well-crafted and affordable. Starting in 1981, Nikon introduced the Nikon EM, their first SLR that was mostly plastic, and in keeping with an overall trend in camera manufacturing, never made anything like the Nikkormats again.

Despite being heavy and awkward to hold, the AW-1 autowinder for the Nikkormat EL was well-made and dependable.
Despite being heavy and awkward to hold, the AW-1 autowinder for the Nikkormat EL was well-made and dependable.
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A Look Back: the Rare Pentax Auto 110

The Pentax Auto 110 sits in my hand, illustrating just how small this SLR camera really is.
The Pentax Auto 110 sits in my hand, illustrating just how small this SLR camera really is.
Jamie and her husband Ian, along with a friend of theirs, pose with some of their collected cameras, including the Pentax Auto 110, in 2012.
Jamie and her husband Ian, along with a friend of theirs, pose with some of their collected cameras, including the Pentax Auto 110, in 2012.

Five years ago, one of my best friends, Jamie, received an unusual gift, a Pentax Auto 110 SLR (Single Lens Reflex) film camera, and brought it to me to size it up.

To say that this camera is “rare” is a double-edged sword: from my perspective, this camera is rare enough that Jamie’s is the only one I have ever seen. However, with Buy It Now prices on eBay hovering between $40 and $150, it’s obvious that quite a few were manufactured. My guess about this combination is that many cameras were sold and few were actually used to make pictures.

Photographers who remember the 1970s recall that the 110 film cartridge was one of Kodak’s efforts to reinvent film. Supposedly responding to a perception that roll film was difficult to load and manage, Kodak brought out the 110 cartridge in 1972.

The Pentax Auto 110 was a neat-looking little camera, show here with its lens and film removed.
The Pentax Auto 110 was a neat-looking little camera, show here with its lens and film removed.
Jamie holds her Pentax Auto 110 five years ago. She lent it to me this week to photograph.
Jamie holds her Pentax Auto 110 five years ago. She lent it to me this week to photograph.

Almost all of the cameras made for 110 were slim point-and-shoot cameras with fixed focus and exposure, relying on negative film’s latitude for exposure control. Many of them used flash cubes, which would fill a room with blinding light.

110 film frames are officially half the size of 35mm frames, so with the state of film in the 1970s, it was difficult to get decently detailed images with such a small film area, which is why 110 remained an amateur format.

The Pentax was an effort to cash in on the ubiquity of the 110 format, but came along just as the format was dying. The Pentax was nicely made and nicely accessorized. I got this list of lenses for the Auto 110 from Camera-wiki.org

Pentax Auto 110 lenses

  • Pentax-110 18mm F2.8 Wide-angle lens, 6 elements in 6 groups, filter Ø30.5mm
  • Pentax-110 24mm F2.8 Standard lens of 6 elements in 5 groups, filter Ø25.5mm
  • Pentax-110 50mm F2.8 Telephoto lens of 5 elements in 5 groups, filter Ø37.5mm
  • Pentax-110 70mm F2.8 Telephoto lens of 6 elements in5 groups, filter Ø49mm
  • Pentax-110 20mm—40 mm F2.8 Zoom lens of 8 separate elements, filter Ø49mm
The Pentax 18mm f/2.8 for the Auto 110 sits next to the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, roughly its latter-day digital equivalent. Though the 18mm was sold as a wide angle, it really isn't very wide.
The Pentax 18mm f/2.8 for the Auto 110 sits next to the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, roughly its latter-day digital equivalent. Though the 18mm was sold as a wide angle, it really isn’t very wide.
Believe it or not, this tiny camera could be fitted with an auto winder, using the fitting shown here on the bottom of the camera.
Believe it or not, this tiny camera could be fitted with an auto winder, using the fitting shown here on the bottom of the camera.

The camera is so miniature that it feels like a toy in my longish hands. The viewfinder is large and clear, with a split-image focus aid in the center. The lens mounts in the same direction as most SLRs (lefty loosey righty tighty), and focuses in the same direction as my Nikon lenses. Focus is smooth, but the focus throw is a little long. Exposure is set entirely by the camera (Program mode), with ISO being set by the film cassette. That’s a shame, since the driving force of a great camera is allowing the photographer to run the show. The Auto 110 has no manual exposure mode, and doesn’t even have exposure compensation.

Despite the issue of lower image quality due to small film area, the 110 cartridge was not without its charms. It required no feeding into a slot, and didn't require rewinding. Also, if you took the cassette out of the camera in the middle of the roll, it would only expose (and ruin) one frame, the rest of the film protected by the cassette.
Despite the issue of lower image quality due to small film area, the 110 cartridge was not without its charms. It required no feeding into a slot, and didn’t require rewinding. Also, if you took the cassette out of the camera in the middle of the roll, it would only expose (and ruin) one frame, the rest of the film protected by the cassette.

I know we owe a lot to Pentax, particularly for the K1000 and its role in teaching a generation of broke college students how to run an all-manual film camera, but the Auto 110, despite its innovation, came at the wrong time in history and with the wrong feature set. Still, it’s neat for Jamie to have it in her collection.

The Pentax Auto 110 sits in front of a full-sized DSLR, the Nikon D700, showing its petite size.
The Pentax Auto 110 sits in front of a full-sized DSLR, the Nikon D700, showing its petite size.
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A Look Back: The Olympus XA

The compact, rugged Olympus XA was a great choice in the film era for anyone who wanted a fair amount of image quality in the smallest possible size.
The compact, rugged Olympus XA was a great choice in the film era for anyone who wanted a fair amount of image quality in the smallest possible size.

For many years of the later film era, Japanese camera maker Olympus specialized in building very compact 35mm film cameras. Hardware like the original OM-1, for example, was thought to be the smallest you could practically manufacture an SLR camera.

The Olympus XA is pictured with an Olympus FE-5020 and the full-size DSLR, the Nikon D700.
The Olympus XA is pictured with an Olympus FE-5020 and the full-size DSLR, the Nikon D700.
To save space, Olympus created one small switch with three functions, self timer, battery check, and +1.5 exposure compensation. If you needed additional exposure compensation, you had to change the ISO, fooling the camera into + or - exposures.
To save space, Olympus created one small switch with three functions, self timer, battery check, and +1.5 exposure compensation. If you needed additional exposure compensation, you had to change the ISO, fooling the camera into + or – exposures.

Also from this company were the point-and-shoot class of cameras, which, without the need of a pentaprism for the viewfinder, could be made smaller still. One such camera I coveted was the excellent Olympus XA.

I had one for years, and in spite of my fanciful imaginations about the kinds of pictures I would make with it, I actually shot very few images with the XA.

The XA uses a two-window rangefinder focus system, creating the faint yellow image in the center of the finder: double-image is out of focus, and making the images come together is in focus.

I sometimes carried my Olympus XA on ski trips in a coat pocket. As you can see, it made sharp images in unchallenging light.
I sometimes carried my Olympus XA on ski trips in a coat pocket. As you can see, it made sharp images in unchallenging light.
Aperture on the XA is selected using this small slider on the front face of the camera.
Aperture on the XA is selected using this small slider on the front face of the camera.

Exposure is controlled using aperture priority, meaning you pick the aperture, and the camera selects the shutter speed based on how much light it sensed and the film’s ISO rating.

In hand, the XA is not particularly easy to use. The focus lever, just below the lens, is tiny and hard to reach with the camera to the eye.  The aperture selector is out of sight unless you point the camera toward you. The ISO dial requires a fingernail to operate.

The XA features a 35mm "prime" (non-zoom) lens, which buys it more quality for less size, and allows a decently large f/2.8 maximum aperture. A 35mm lens for 35mm film equals a slight wide angle.
The XA features a 35mm “prime” (non-zoom) lens, which buys it more quality for less size, and allows a decently large f/2.8 maximum aperture. A 35mm lens for 35mm film equals a slight wide angle.
This is the film rewind lever on the XA. In the film era, you could turn this in the direction of the arrow on top of it (clockwise viewed from above) to feel if there was film inside, and you could see it rotate in the opposite direction when you advanced the film to the next frame.
This is the film rewind lever on the XA. In the film era, you could turn this in the direction of the arrow on top of it (clockwise viewed from above) to feel if there was film inside, and you could see it rotate in the opposite direction when you advanced the film to the next frame.

The clamshell design is a good form factor. When it is closed, the camera is smooth and well-protected from pocket stuff like keys.

All this is put together to achieve true pocketability . The XA is so small, in fact, it had a wrist lanyard instead of a strap. It’s likely the XA is the smallest you can make a camera that will hold a roll of 35mm film.

I like to imagine that if I had a digital conversion kit, I would use this camera, but the truth is that I have an Olympus point and shoot that I almost never use. So the XA remains an amusing but unutilized item in my collection.

You can see from this image of the open back of the Olympus XA that it is just barely able to ingest a roll of 35mm film.
You can see from this image of the open back of the Olympus XA that it is just barely able to ingest a roll of 35mm film.
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The Rule of Thirds

The Las Vegas, Nevada, strip is an adventure in photography.
The Las Vegas, Nevada, strip is an adventure in photography.
I made this portrait in 1984 with my Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. It can be argued that we like the Rule of Thirds because it mimics the human face, but from that day until this one, I never used a "rule" of any kind to make portraits. I followed my heart.
I made this portrait in 1984 with my Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. It can be argued that we like the Rule of Thirds because it mimics the human face, but from that day until this one, I never used a “rule” of any kind to make portraits. I followed my heart.

Photography is a much more complex visual puzzle than its pervasiveness implies. Sure, everyone is a photographer, but not everyone is an artist. I might give the ratio of artists to everyone else as about 99:1. For every 100 people taking pictures, 99 of them are making pictures of their grandkids or the sunset or the deer in the pasture or the soccer match, while one of them has a real eye for the subtleties of imaging: composition, exposure, lighting, emotion, intimacy, storytelling, etc.

This isn’t a criticism of you and your pictures. The devil is in the details, and most people who want to take pictures are at the start of the journey toward art. If anything, this is a call to action. Look at images. Look at art. Look at the work of the masters. We all started in the same place. Maybe it’s time to put your camera down for a minute and look at the light, look at the human faces, feel the emotion of the moment. Time to grow?

What did I see when I made this image? Light, shadow, the looming shape, a messenger and potential harbinger, but no "thirds."
What did I see when I made this image? Light, shadow, the looming shape, a messenger and potential harbinger, but no “thirds.”

One of the more specious ideas about art, and thus photography, is that you can use tricks and rules to push your photography into an artistic state. One of the most common examples of this is the Rule of Thirds.

I saw this on a kiosk in a visitor center in a National Park. It isn't bad advice, but it isn't inspirational advice either.
I saw this on a kiosk in a visitor center in a National Park. It isn’t bad advice, but it isn’t inspirational advice either.

The conventional wisdom about the Rule of Thirds is that images are stronger if you divide your image area nine even squares, then try to place significant compositional elements within those squares. To me, the Rule of Thirds isn’t just bad advice, it is a restriction on creativity and self-expression that tells us to make images according to someone else’s vision of who we are. It isn’t a good route to the end goal of photography: storytelling.

You can reverse-engineer lots of photographs into the Rule of Thirds, but like this one, they didn't start with it.
You can reverse-engineer lots of photographs into the Rule of Thirds, but like this one, they didn’t start with it.
A wide angle lens on your wish list might be a solution in search of a problem if you imagine it will change how you compose photographs. Instead of a lens, consider movement and light.
A wide angle lens on your wish list might be a solution in search of a problem if you imagine it will change how you compose photographs. Instead of a lens, consider movement and light.

Consider a technique that I regard as far more valid than the Rule of Thirds: leading lines.

I use leading lines all the time, since I need to tell a story to an impatient readership, and want to keep them “engaged,” as we say in  marketing. I love the way we employ wide angle lenses for this, creating compositions that direct the viewer to the middle of the frame.

None of this matters if you cling to the idea that a piece of equipment will do this for you.

Instead of debating 18mm vs 35mm or large format vs APS-C, consider getting into better shape, being healthier, and once you are there, consider giving up your fear and prejudice and make a point to go the places you want to photograph.

Every photography makes suggestions. This one uses leading lines to suggest, "what's at the end of this path?"
Every photography makes suggestions. This one uses leading lines to suggest, “what’s at the end of this path?”
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Mirrorless: The Next Big Thing?

From the humblest cell phone camera to the priciest medium format digital, the pixel-based imaging sensor is at the heart of all digital photography.
From the humblest cell phone camera to the priciest medium format digital, the pixel-based imaging sensor is at the heart of all digital photography.
Four photographers with DSLR cameras shoot next to me last night at the Ada Cougar Activity Center.
Four photographers with DSLR cameras shoot next to me last night at the Ada Cougar Activity Center.

I have been adding more photographers to my social media list lately, hopefully to inspire my work, but also in an effort to distance myself from the young white girl latte scene. One of those photographers posted a link on Petapixel about long-time photojournalist David Burnett’s recent switch from Digital Single Lens Reflex (DLSR) to mirrorless.

First of all, despite its apparent surge in popularity, when most people hear this news, they ask, “What’s mirrorless?” In simplest terms, mirrorless cameras are interchangeable lens digital cameras that use their sensors as viewfinders, reading data instantly and showing it to us on the back of the camera or in an electronic viewfinder, eliminating the need for a mirror to redirect light into an optical viewfinder. No mirror = mirrorless.

Name that Product!
I find this choice of name to describe an entire class of photographic tool to be flawed: it’s named after what is isn’t. It’s like saying my car is dieseless, which it is, but that doesn’t describe anything about the car. I can rattle off a couple of better names (for example Direct-to-Sensor (DTS), but my impression is the name, like it or not, is here to stay.

In some important ways, these cameras are a fusion of the DLSR with the bridge/crossover/point-and-shot cameras we’ve had for years, which use the electronic viewfinder, but with a fixed lens. Smartphones use the same viewfinding scheme.

Tina Davis works with her Sony A6000 mirrorless camera last night. I tried it for a few seconds and found it had potential, though it didn't focus quite as fast as my Nikons.
Tina Davis works with her Sony A6000 mirrorless camera last night. I tried it for a few seconds and found it had potential, though it didn’t focus quite as fast as my Nikons.

The reason we have so many DSLRs instead of mirrorless is that electronic viewfinder technology has, until the last few years, lacked instantaneous feedback. There was a lag between the scene and the viewfinder; even a small lag can result in a completely missed photo. With a consumer point-and-shoot, lag wasn’t an issue because those kinds of cameras weren’t tasked with shooting action of any kind, so a little lag matched the photography.

Electronic viewfinder technology has caught up, and these viewfinders are virtually instantaneous.

A lot of web authors assert that mirrorless is taking over, but so far, I don’t see it in the field or in the classroom. Of the dozens or hundreds of photographers I know, only a few like Tina Davis and Doug Hoke seem to be shooting mirrorless every day. I had good talks with both of them about their mirrorless experience and both seem to love everything about them.

Bonus Time!
A surprise bonus of mirrorless is that because the distance from the lens to the sensor is much shorter, it allows many more lenses to be used with an adaptor. Beautiful optical glass that went idle at the end of the film era can have new life breathed into it on these cameras.

When I first wrote about mirrorless in 2011, those cameras of that era typically had micro 4/3 sensors, which were roughly half the size of a 35mm film frame, and in that infancy had some growing pains. Today, however, we are seeing surprisingly fast, capable mirrorless cameras with 36x24mm sensors, or in the case of Fuji and Hasselblad, 44x33mm sensors. Coupled with better viewfinder technology and faster hardware in the cameras, I am ready to retract at least some of what I said seven years ago about mirrorless, and proclaim that its era is, or is about to be, at hand.

Behind the lens in the DSLR camera is a mirror that flips out of the way to let light shine onto the sensor. It was inherited from the film SLR, and may be on its way to extinction.
Behind the lens in the DSLR camera is a mirror that flips out of the way to let light shine onto the sensor. It was inherited from the film SLR, and may be on its way to extinction.
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