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.
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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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Teaching Old Glass New Tricks

Old camera and lenses, like this Exa with a 50mm f/2.8 lens from 1950s vintage, are fine, interesting and compelling machines that fire up my imagination.
Old camera and lenses, like this Exa with a 50mm f/2.8 lens from 1950s vintage, are fine, interesting and compelling machines that fire up my imagination.

Fellow photographer Robert and I were musing on the phone yesterday about the demise of “digital film,” a product that tried to gain traction in the late 1990s when the future of photography was still hazy. The idea of digital film was to manufacture a cassette that could be inserted into existing film camera so they could make digital photos.

inspiration...
For my birthday one year, my wife Abby bought nearly a dozen antique cameras and hid them around the house for me to find like Easter eggs.

It turned out that one company, Silicon Film, got as far as a prototype before camera makers managed to get the price of purpose-built digital cameras into the affordable range.

Despite my nostalgia for film and its creative potential, I watched a lot of people, mostly reporters, ruin a lot of film with bad technique. This piece of film was wound onto the developing reel with a clumsy hand, causing it to stick to another portion of the roll, preventing developer from getting to it.
Despite my nostalgia for film and its creative potential, I watched a lot of people, mostly reporters, ruin a lot of film with bad technique. This piece of film was wound onto the developing reel with a clumsy hand, causing it to stick to another portion of the roll, preventing developer from getting to it.

Why would anyone have gone this route instead of just buying a Nikon D1? Well, we all had tons of great 35mm film equipment sitting around, for which we paid a lot, and which was still working fine. What if, instead of shelving all those Nikon F100s and F5s and Canon ESO-1s, and shelling out $5000 for a D1 or 1D, we could insert a cassette with a digital sensor in place of a film cassette?

This is my Nikon F3 with my rare and excellent 25-50mm f/4 on it. I sold it about 15 years ago, and kinda miss it ever since.
This is my Nikon F3 with my rare and excellent 25-50mm f/4 on it. I sold it about 15 years ago, and kinda miss it ever since.

It turned out the idea was mostly vaporware, and while most people believe this was due to technical hurdles, I believe it was at least as much the fault of marketing and profitability obstacles: why sell accessories at small margins when we could be selling new cameras at huge markups?

Today we see more attempts at the concept like PSEUDO, I’m Back and Frankencamera (though RE-35 was a branding experiment and April Fool’s joke) and I wish them luck.

A Call to Action?
One concern that remains difficult to solve even after all this time is how to trigger the sensor so it knows when to record. My idea, which I haven’t seen iterated on the web, is a tiny infrared beam striking the shutter blade that switches on the sensor when the shutter begins to move.

Finally, with excellent, affordable digital cameras in abundance all around us, why would even be of interest in 2018? Answer: for the same reason lomography has it’s niche, to allow us to expand artistically. There are millions of idle film cameras sitting on shelves from our own home here in Oklahoma to the towering apartments of Hong Kong that could be put to use in some worthwhile endeavor.

Once upon a time, this 100-year-old Kodak camera was someone's brand new prize.
Once upon a time, this 100-year-old Kodak camera was someone’s brand new prize.

As an artist, I find this idea very compelling. As Robert and I talked, one question he asked was, “So are we talking about shooting with old glass?” Yes, I think so. Old lenses, though often not as sharp (since they were designed and built by hand in a bygone era) can create images with a unique and engaging character. Oklahoman photographer Doug Hoke does this all the time when he shoots 40-year-old lenses on his mirrorless cameras. Filters in smartphone applications like Instagram mimic the look of film and old lenses.

I love this idea, and not just for 35mm. My wife and I have more than a dozen old cameras sitting around of various formats, including a beautiful, working 100-year-old Kodak No. 2A Folding Cartridge Premo 116 format  conventional film camera making a 4.5 x 2.5 inch image, and a couple of Polaroids that make 4 x 5 inch images. If there were a way to make digital pictures with any or all of these machines, I would happily do so, and in doing, hopefully open up another artistic avenue for my work.

I found this exposed roll of 116 film in an antique camera my wife Abby gave me for my birthday. Although I don't know anyone who can process it, if I did, I would have it processed because it holds a mystery.
I found this exposed roll of 116 film in an antique camera my wife Abby gave me for my birthday. Although I don’t know anyone who can process it, if I did, I would have it processed because it holds a mystery.
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A Look Way Back: The Fujica ST605N Camera

The Fujica ST605N camera sits in my home studio today. This camera was my first single lens reflex camera, purchased originally in July 1978.
The Fujica ST605N camera sits in my home studio today. This camera was my first single lens reflex camera, purchased originally in July 1978.
I photographed this evolving thunderstorm from behind our home on 52nd Street in Lawton, Oklahoma, in the late summer of 1978, with the Fujica ST605N.
I photographed this evolving thunderstorm from behind our home on 52nd Street in Lawton, Oklahoma, in the late summer of 1978, with the Fujica ST605N.

For Christmas when I was 13, I wanted a camera. My parents, with the caution of those who don’t know where their children’s lives will go, bought me an affordable Yashica Electro 35 GSN rangefinder camera. With it in my hands I started to learn and yearn about photography. It featured a fixed 45mm f/1.7 lens that was well-made and very sharp. Of course, I wanted one thing this excellent camera couldn’t give me: interchangeable lenses.

So, with some cash sent to me from my grandmother for my 15th birthday, I dug into the seedy underside of the back pages of Modern Photography Magazine to Cambridge Camera Exchange, a discount camera seller run in a rathole in New York City. In July 1978, I owned my first single lens reflex camera, a Fujica ST605N. I paid $127.

My sister Nicole splashes in our backyard pool in the summer of 1978. It was one of my first pictures made with the Fujica ST605N, shot at its fastest shutter speed, 1/700th of a second. At the time, I remember being very pleased with the stop-motion effect.
My sister Nicole splashes in our backyard pool in the summer of 1978. It was one of my first pictures made with the Fujica ST605N, shot at its fastest shutter speed, 1/700th of a second. At the time, I remember being very pleased with the stop-motion effect.
The green Fuji box is exactly as I remember it from the day my ST605N arrived in 1978.
The green Fuji box is exactly as I remember it from the day my ST605N arrived in 1978.

In 1981, I sold the Fujica to a janitor named Junior, and switched to Nikon.

Flash forward to 2018, and enter the nostalgia of Ebay, where a savvy shopper can get almost anything for almost nothing. I poked around and found a really nice ST605N, and paid for it with my PayPal balance.

Though not a large-aperture contender, the 55mm f/2.2 lens that came with the Fujica was, like almost all "normal" lenses, plenty sharp and easy to use.
Though not a large-aperture contender, the 55mm f/2.2 lens that came with the Fujica was, like almost all “normal” lenses, plenty sharp and easy to use.
Shot in January 1981, this image of Trish Jordan was made with the 55mm f/2.2. Trish is one of the kindest people I knew in school, and I am glad we remain friends.
Shot in January 1981, this image of Trish Jordan was made with the 55mm f/2.2. Trish is one of the kindest people I knew in school, and I am glad we remain friends.

In the package was the original green box with the original multi-lingual instruction manual, the camera, the lens, a lens cap, a rubber eye cup, the original leatherette carrying/storage case, and the original black shoulder strap with one of those funny leatherette film canister holders.

When it arrived yesterday and my wife Abby and I unboxed it, she said, “It looks like it’s never been used.”

When review sites and trade magazines talk about “entry level,” this is the camera at the bottom of that rung.

I used the Fujica ST605N for yearbook in 11th and 12th grade. Pictured at a football game in 1980 are, among others, are Jennifer Martin, Tracy Jackson, Mary Shanks, and Rhonda White. They are members of the pom squad.
I used the Fujica ST605N for yearbook in 11th and 12th grade. Pictured at a football game in 1980 are, among others, are Jennifer Martin, Tracy Jackson, Mary Shanks, and Rhonda White. They are members of the pom squad.

Some of its specifications include…

  • The odd fastest shutter speed of 1/700th of a second on the Fujica ST605N was likely a cost-saving measure to keep this entry-level SLR affordable.
    The odd fastest shutter speed of 1/700th of a second on the Fujica ST605N was likely a cost-saving measure to keep this entry-level SLR affordable.

    A horizontally traveling cloth focal plane shutter with speeds of a very peculiar 1/700 of a second to 1/2 second, plus bulb.

  • An M42 lens mount, with screw threads, that dates back to 1949.
  • Stop-down match-needle metering, meaning that to take a meter reading, you push the stop-down lever, darkening the viewfinder to the selected aperture while you adjusted aperture and shutter speed to make the needle on the right side of the viewfinder move up and down until it was centered.
  • A selectable ASA (the precursor to ISO, at least in America) with settings from 25 to 3200.
  • A hot shoe that would fire an electronic flash, and a PC port that would do the same.
  • The viewfinder includes a green shutter speed pointer and scale on the left side, the match-needle +/- on the right side, and combination split image rangefinder surrounded by a microprism collar, surrounded by a  lighter ground glass area, surrounded by the regular ground glass. Focus is smooth and bright in the viewfinder.
  • The standard lens for this camera is the Fujinon 55mm f/2.2. It has a plastic barrel, clicks at full aperture values, and stops down to f/16. It focuses smoothly, like the day I bought the new one in 1978. It focuses and stops down in the same direction as my Nikon lenses.
If the M42 screw-mount seems primitive in the digital era, consider this: it was primitive in 1978.
If the M42 screw-mount seems primitive in the digital era, consider this: it was primitive in 1978.
Whatever It Takes...
Here’s a fun trick from the film era: if your camera didn’t have a multiple exposure lever, you could push and hold the rewind release on the bottom of the camera and crank the advance lever, which would cock the shutter without (hopefully) moving the film.
My first girlfriend Tina, with whom I have lost touch, poses for my Fujica ST605N and its 55mm f/2.2, in 1980.
My first girlfriend Tina, with whom I have lost touch, poses for my Fujica ST605N and its 55mm f/2.2, in 1980.
Back in the film era, we had to carry lots of film. The Fujica I bought on Ebay had this funky little leatherette film canister on its shoulder strap.
Back in the film era, we had to carry lots of film. The Fujica I bought on Ebay had this funky little leatherette film canister on its shoulder strap.

One of the best things about this camera, that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time I owned it, is how small it is compared to its contemporaries. Nikons, Canons and Minoltas of the era were much larger. This camera is almost as small as the legendarily small Olympus OM series.

In the digital age, we can spend all night experimenting with images like this, and instantly review and revise. At the time I made this image, I read about how to do it in Modern Photography, and tried it with just three frames. It was made with the camera on a tripod, then rocking the kinetic sculpture, shooting with a flash, but also using a ½ second exposure to create the "ghosting" effect.
In the digital age, we can spend all night experimenting with images like this, and instantly review and revise. At the time I made this image, I read about how to do it in Modern Photography, and tried it with just three frames. It was made with the camera on a tripod, then rocking the kinetic sculpture, shooting with a flash, but also using a ½ second exposure to create the “ghosting” effect.
Believe it or not, they still sell leatherette camera cases to this day. They are meant for people who don't take pictures and want to keep their cameras locked up like virgins.
Believe it or not, they still sell leatherette camera cases to this day. They are meant for people who don’t take pictures and want to keep their cameras locked up like virgins.

In my review of the Fujifilm S200EXR, I said that an unused camera is a fetish object. I didn’t buy the ST605N to take pictures with it, but for the memories, so I guess it is a fetish object. On the other hand, I made quite a few pictures with it when I owned it the first time, some of which I have included in this entry.

Despite buying a cheap 28mm and getting a 75-200mm one Christmas, I kept coming back to the 55mm. The class of lens has been in my idiom ever since.

I photographed a super-gorgeous girl named Melissa in September 1979 just a few weeks before she moved to another state. This was shot with the 55mm f/2.2.
I photographed a super-gorgeous girl named Melissa in September 1979 just a few weeks before she moved to another state. This was shot with the 55mm f/2.2.

The Fujica ST605N was a beginner’s camera for when I was a beginner, and I learned a lot of important lessons about my craft from this small marvel of film technology from a very different era.

With the film wind lever half-cranked, you can see the cloth focal-plane shutter halfway across the light path. Shutters like this wound onto spools and spring from one spool to the other when triggered.
With the film wind lever half-cranked, you can see the cloth focal-plane shutter halfway across the light path. Shutters like this wound onto spools and spring from one spool to the other when triggered.

 

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A Look Back: The Fujifilm S200EXR Digital Camera

This might be my favorite image I made with the Fujifilm S200EXR, shot into a setting sun looking down Interstate 40 in New Mexico in March 2011.
This might be my favorite image I made with the Fujifilm S200EXR, shot into a setting sun looking down Interstate 40 in New Mexico in March 2011.
Your host uses the camera in this article, the Fujifilm S200EXR, in March 2011, in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
Your host uses the camera in this article, the Fujifilm S200EXR, in March 2011, in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

In 2009, I was hungry to get my hands on a bridge/crossover camera that would change my game when I was hiking, camping and exploring, mostly in the desert southwest. It was intended to replace my aging Minolta DiMage 7i. I knew from experience that portraiture and sports action photography weren’t in my list of top features sets, nor was the weight and complexity that comes with such endeavors.

In October 2009, I bought a Fujifilm S200EXR digital camera.

The Fujifilm S200EXR is a beautifully made camera that feels great in-hand.
The Fujifilm S200EXR is a beautifully made camera that feels great in-hand.
The S200EXR is a sexy, sturdy camera with some decent image potential.
The S200EXR is a sexy, sturdy camera with some decent image potential.

I wanted a one-camera solution for times where I wanted to get away, far enough that I felt lost and alone. Part of this strategy was that I needed to carry less; less gear, less weight, less photography equipment. A single compact camera with a versatile lens could do that, since trying to carry many lenses and the accessories can clutter such a strategy. For every lens or flash or pouch or tripod I could leave behind meant more water and food and shelter I could actually carry, thus travel farther and photograph more.

My idea of a perfect hike is one on which I see very few people and lots of our beautiful land, like the Peek-a-Boo trail at Canyonlands National Park.
My idea of a perfect hike is one on which I see very few people and lots of our beautiful land, like the Peek-a-Boo trail at Canyonlands National Park.
The S200EXR has a 16:9 mode, and a fairly decent black-and-white rendering engine. This image is at Angel Peak in New Mexico in April 2011.
The S200EXR has a 16:9 mode, and a fairly decent black-and-white rendering engine. This image is at Angel Peak in New Mexico in April 2011.
I started photography in the film era, when a decent film camera, a Nikon or Canon or Hasselblad, could be expected to last almost indefinitely. In fact, all my film cameras were working fine from when I bought them in college or early in my career until I sold them in the early 2000s as I migrated to digital. It’s frustrating that we regard a perfectly working digital camera as “outdated” after four years in the case of the S200EXR, or seven years for the DiMage 7i. Ken Rockwell dubbed this concept “futuretrash“.
This S200EXR has a fully-functioning PASM exposure mode dial with two user-programmable user settings, labeled C1 and C2.
This S200EXR has a fully-functioning PASM exposure mode dial with two user-programmable user settings, labeled C1 and C2.

As with all Fujifilm USA products, the S200EXR  is built to excellent, precise standards, and is a great-looking camera.

In fact, in recent years, Fuji has positioned itself as an innovator and leader, particularly in mirrorless. Last year they introduced the GFX 50S, a medium format mirrorless camera that I would absolutely love to use.

Some of the S200EXR’s positives are…

  • Great handling, especially that it has a standard PASM exposure mode dial, a real zoom ring (as opposed to motorized or “zoom-by-wire”), and an electronic viewfinder augmenting the back-of-camera monitor.
  • Controls like exposure compensation, ISO, and white balance are on buttons on the body instead of buried in menus. Although you have to re-memorize where they are when switching from Nikon or Canon, once you do, your can get right to them.
  • The Fuji Velvia slide film simulation mode creates absolutely gorgeous color.
The color capability of the S200EXR shines in this Sedona, Arizona image from October 2011.
The color capability of the S200EXR shines in this Sedona, Arizona image from October 2011.
Another excellent example of the bold, saturated color the S200EXR can produce is this image of The Devil's Golf Ball on Utah's Kane Creek Road.
Another excellent example of the bold, saturated color the S200EXR can produce is this image of The Devil’s Golf Ball on Utah’s Kane Creek Road.
  • The 30.5mm "equivalent" wide angle end of the lens on the S200EXR just isn't quite wide enough.
    The 30.5mm “equivalent” wide angle end of the lens on the S200EXR just isn’t quite wide enough.

    Solid grip and body; this camera feels good in my hands. It’s a good-looking camera.

  • The lens is sharp at most focal lengths and focuses reasonably fast.

Some of this cameras negative aspects are…

  • 30.5mm (equivalent) is the widest lens setting, and although there are workarounds, like stitching two images together, it’s often just not wide enough.
Those familiar with Arches National Park in Utah know that from this spot, this is a standard view with a wide angle lens, but with the S200EXR, I actually had to stitch two side-by-side images together to get this view.
Those familiar with Arches National Park in Utah know that from this spot, this is a standard view with a wide angle lens, but with the S200EXR, I actually had to stitch two side-by-side images together to get this view.
  • The electronic viewfinder is, for me, a make-or-break item, since I find shooting from arms-length, the so-called "selfie" distance, for everything, makes it particularly difficult to focus and compose.
    The electronic viewfinder is, for me, a make-or-break item, since I find shooting from arms-length, the so-called “selfie” distance, for everything, makes it particularly difficult to focus and compose.

    The RAW files are huge (26MB) and missing markers, so they require a lot of editing to create what you see in the camera. The S200EXR is one of the few cameras with which I shoot JPEGs.

  • Despite its best intentions in giving us a selectable dynamic range option, the camera actually doesn’t do very well in that regard.
  • The lens has a six-bladed aperture, and makes ugly, fanned-out sunstars.
I love a good sunstar to express brightness and contrast in a scene. As you can see in this image from Chaco Canyon's lonely South Mesa, the S200EXR makes disappointing, softish, fanned-out, six-point sunstars.
I love a good sunstar to express brightness and contrast in a scene. As you can see in this image from Chaco Canyon’s lonely South Mesa, the S200EXR makes disappointing, softish, fanned-out, six-point sunstars.
I love Fuji's style; the S200EXR is a great-looking camera.
I love Fuji’s style; the S200EXR is a great-looking camera.
I used the S200EXR to record the splendor of the San Juan Mountains along Colorado's "Million Dollar Highway" between Ouray and Silverton in October 2009.
I used the S200EXR to record the splendor of the San Juan Mountains along Colorado’s “Million Dollar Highway” between Ouray and Silverton in October 2009.
Abby shoots the iconic Delicate Arch in Utah in 2009. I made this image with the S200EXR. Abby and I got married there in 2004.
Abby shoots the iconic Delicate Arch in Utah in 2009. I made this image with the S200EXR. Abby and I got married there in 2004.

I semi-retired the S200EXR in January 2013, when my wife Abby and I found matching Fujifilm HS30EXR cameras on sale. The new bridge camera did almost everything better than the 200, especially being lighter, smaller, and having a more versatile lens.

For web presentation, I often prefer the 4:5 aspect ratio of cameras like this Fuji over the 2:3 ratio of DSLRs. They seem to command a better portion of the computer screen.

The back of the Fujifilm S200EXR is as handsomely appointed as the rest of the machine.
The back of the Fujifilm S200EXR is as handsomely appointed as the rest of the machine.
One thing superzoom/walkaround lenses seldom do well is render beautiful backgrounds. The "bokeh" created by the S200EXR isn't particularly pretty.
One thing superzoom/walkaround lenses seldom do well is render beautiful backgrounds. The “bokeh” created by the S200EXR isn’t particularly pretty.
The telephoto end of the S200EXR is quite long, and can reach out to create excellent compression of aligned items like these candles in the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona.
The telephoto end of the S200EXR is quite long, and can reach out to create excellent compression of aligned items like these candles in the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona.
When the "left" selector stopped working on the S200EXR, I could no longer access the setup menu or the macro feature.
When the “left” selector stopped working on the S200EXR, I could no longer access the setup menu or the macro feature.

I still pick up the S200EXR once in a while, but last year I discovered the left button on the four-way selector was dead, meaning I could no longer access the setup menu or macro mode. Fortunately, I had saved two user presents in C1 and C2 on the exposure mode dial, so it wasn’t completely dead. I decided to throw it in my car as a “grab cam,” and it serves me well on occasions when I want to roll down my window and shoot something by the side of the road, like deer, sunsets, or funny bumper stickers.

I made this image on a windy, cold evening near the Squaw Flat Campground at Canyonlands National Park in April 2011.
I made this image on a windy, cold evening near the Squaw Flat Campground at Canyonlands National Park in April 2011.
The author poses with the S200EXR under a boulder at City of Rocks State Park in southern New Mexico in November 2010.
The author poses with the S200EXR under a boulder at City of Rocks State Park in southern New Mexico in November 2010.

Finally, a camera is just a fetish object if you don’t use it, so I am happy to include many of my favorite images made with this camera.

Despite the fact that is regarded as outdated and that one of the controls on it is broken, it’s still a camera I was glad to have experienced.

I know I said earlier in this post that my I-40 in New Mexico shot was my favorite I made with the S200EXR, but this image, shot at The Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park in October 2010, exactly at sunset, may be my actual favorite. That's one of the difficulties of editing: picking a favorite from so many images.
I know I said earlier in this post that my I-40 in New Mexico shot was my favorite I made with the S200EXR, but this image, shot at The Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park in October 2010, exactly at sunset, may be my actual favorite. That’s one of the difficulties of editing: picking a favorite from so many images.
Another one of my favorite images is this eastern Arizona power plant at sunset, make with the S200EXR in October 2011.
Another one of my favorite images is this eastern Arizona power plant at sunset, make with the S200EXR in October 2011.
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A Look Back: Kodak DCS

The Kodak DCS 720x stands tall on its Kodak digital section. It's battery weighs more than a modern smartphone.
The Kodak DCS 720x stands tall on its Kodak digital section. It’s battery weighs more than a modern smartphone.
Coalgate Wildcat basketball fans get ready for an area playoff game. I made this image with my Kodak DCS 720x, which, as you can see, makes beautiful purple tones.
Coalgate Wildcat basketball fans get ready for an area playoff game. I made this image with my Kodak DCS 720x, which, as you can see, makes beautiful purple tones.

By now we all know the Kodak narrative: an innovative company has incredible success in the film era, then gets bloated with old management ideas and an arrogant “people will always need film” paradigm, then goes belly-up when they can’t compete. It’s a good lesson in the idea that no entity is immune to the fortunes of economics.

I thought about this when I recently came across a web post about a camera system that crossed my path some years ago, the Kodak DCS. The article delves all the way back into the 1990s with the intro of the first-generation of digital cameras, the NC-2000 based on the Nikon N90, and talks about how much photographers hated them compared to film. Fortunately, I didn’t come to the digital party until 2001, when these primitive beasts had been retired.

The "In Cooperation with Nikon" didn't last much longer, as Kodak rapidly fell behind leaders like Nikon and Canon.
The “In Cooperation with Nikon” didn’t last much longer, as Kodak rapidly fell behind leaders like Nikon and Canon.
Kodak's last digital SLRs came with an infrared filter with no anti-aliasing.
Kodak’s last digital SLRs came with an infrared filter with no anti-aliasing.

Readers might recall that on occasions I get out my ancient Nikon/Kodak DCS-720x and play with it. On at least one of these occasions I speculated my DCS 720x might be a candidate for infrared explorations, and though I was able to create a few interesting experimental images, I seldom dig it out of the box to do that, and later had better luck with a Sony F828.

Readers will also recall that my Kodak DCS 760 died years ago, and in August 2016, I took it apart, which was very fun and revealed a lot about how they were made. It’s worth reading if you have a minute (link.)

I made this image with the 720x with the infrared filter removed and a deep red filter placed on the lens. It creates a powerfully surreal near-infrared look.
I made this image with the 720x with the infrared filter removed and a deep red filter placed on the lens. It creates a powerfully surreal near-infrared look.

I originally got the 720x in 2003 when Kodak discontinued it and dumped the remaining supply of them on Ebay, for a tenth the original list price. In 2006 I saw a 760 on Ebay for just a couple of hundred dollars and thought it would be worth at least experiencing.

I asked a fellow photographer, Robert, to drag out his inoperable 760 and photograph it for this article, and his image reminded me that these behemoths came with a huge right-hand grip strap, which I hated and removed.
I asked a fellow photographer, Robert, to drag out his inoperable 760 and photograph it for this article, and his image reminded me that these behemoths came with a huge right-hand grip strap, which I hated and removed.

Even Kodak’s slick literature can’t make up its mind what these cameras are called. The one I have remaining, for example, is variously called the Nikon/Kodak DCS720x, Nikon/Kodak DCS-720x, the Kodak DCS720x, the Kodak DCS-720x, and the Kodak DCS 720x.

I asked a petite coworker to pose with the Kodak 720x. As you can see, it would be quite a challenge for her to work with this machine.
I asked a petite coworker to pose with the Kodak 720x. As you can see, it would be quite a challenge for her to work with this machine.

Kodak’s vision of digital photography by 2001 was to produce two very different cameras in the same Nikon F5 body: a slow, low-ISO, low-frame-rate, higher resolution (6MP) 760, and a faster, very-high-ISO, low resolution (2MP) 720x. The Canon versions of these cameras were the 560 and the 520.

One fundamental issue with Kodak digital cameras, particularly with their digital SLRs, is reliability. Although my 720x is still operable, both 760s I’ve knows, mine and Robert’s, died years ago with zero possibility of repair because of Kodak’s vacancy. Ken Rockwell also notes this in his review of the Kodak DCS 14n.

Despite this, it’s still fun to dig out the behemothic DCS 720x, charge its clunky battery, and squeeze off a few frames.

I shot this image of our friend Taylor Treat, Miss Oklahoma 2009, in the ECU homecoming parade with my 760. Since this camera's ISO ranges from 80 to 400, bright daylight is its forte.
I shot this image of our friend Taylor Treat, Miss Oklahoma 2009, in the ECU homecoming parade with my 760. Since this camera’s ISO ranges from 80 to 400, bright daylight is its forte.
High-ISO noise at ISO 400 is unheard of today, but in 2001, it was clearly present in files from the 760.
High-ISO noise at ISO 400 is unheard of today, but in 2001, it was clearly present in files from the 760.

Of note on the bad side for both the 760 and the 720x:

  • The buttons on the back are fundamental to the operation of the camera, yet are small and hard to push; I sometimes hurt my thumbnail using them.
  • Due to a long-expired capacitor or button battery, the camera can never remember the date, and interrupts every startup with a message that says, “Date/Time is incorrect,” which requires a reply of “OK.” It thereafter thinks it is March 2023.
  • In the 2017 world of huge viewfinders and three-inch back-of-camera monitors, the tightly cropped viewfinder of the Kodaks and their dim, two-inch monitor are hard to abide.

    The chunky NiMH battery and the two PCM/CIA cards insert on the left side of the 760 and 720x.
    The chunky NiMH battery and the two PCM/CIA cards insert on the left side of the 760 and 720x.
  • The front-to-back depth of the camera is huge, and though I have long fingers, I can barely reach all the controls. Coupled with its weight, this contributed to some tendonitis in my right elbow when I was using this camera a lot.
  • Battery life with the huge, heavy nickel metal hydride batteries was terrible. I always had to carry an extra battery.

    Every time I turned on my 720x from the day I got it until today, I saw this message, which is every bit as tiresome as it sounds.
    Every time I turned on my 720x from the day I got it until today, I saw this message, which is every bit as tiresome as it sounds.
  • The camera is covered in awkward, large ports for AC power, Firewire, and a 15-pin shutter release.
  • The media cards are PCM/CIA-based; I never owned such a device, and have adaptors that allow me to use Compact Flash cards.
  • The 600 and 700 series cameras had two card slots, but once when I was using both cards, it got into some kind of feedback loop, and each card had a folder inside called FOLDER01, each of which had a folder in it called FOLDER01, and each of those had a folder in it called FOLDER01, presumably forever until I turned off the camera or removed the cards. I never found the images, and had to reshoot the event.
If you think I am exaggerating the size and weight of the 760 and 720x, look at this image with the 720x next to two of its contemporaries, the Nikon D200 and the Nikon D2H.
If you think I am exaggerating the size and weight of the 760 and 720x, look at this image with the 720x next to two of its contemporaries, the Nikon D200 and the Nikon D2H.
  • The 720x could certainly rock the ISO stratosphere, as in this Blake Shelton concert from 2006.
    The 720x could certainly rock the ISO stratosphere, as in this Blake Shelton concert from 2006.

    Although you can program it to convert its RAW files into JPEGs, the JPEGs are uselessly noisy and flat.

  • These RAW files are best edited with Kodak DCS Photo Desk, which was never supported by Mac OS X, meaning any computers in the last 15 years (I can’t speak for Windows). They will open in Adobe Camera RAW, but look pretty shabby.
  • Instead of the now-standard RGB Bayer pattern array, this high-ISO DCS cameras (the 620x and the 720x) had CMY arrays in an effort to increase sensor sensitivity by using less-absobative dyes, meaning that even the best editing favored some colors and ruined others. The 720x, for example, makes gorgeous purples, but not once was I able to get an orange tone to look right.
  • The infrared filter is mounted in front of the mirror so it can be easily removed or replaced with an anti-aliasing filter (which was not cheap), so the camera was prone to some unexpected reflections between the sensor and the filter that weren’t visible in the viewfinder, usually pink.
This is the kind of aliasing the 720x can produce with little provocation. It can be partially removed with software, at the expense of sharpness.
This is the kind of aliasing the 720x can produce with little provocation. It can be partially removed with software, at the expense of sharpness.
On bright days with blue skies, these cameras could make beautiful images.
On bright days with blue skies, these cameras could make beautiful images.
I made this image of my father in law in December 2004 with the 720x and my long-gone Nikkor 24mm f/2.0. Despite a bit of aliasing in the edges, it remains a seminal portrait of the man, who passed away in 2010.
I made this image of my father in law in December 2004 with the 720x and my long-gone Nikkor 24mm f/2.0. Despite a bit of aliasing in the edges, it remains a seminal portrait of the man, who passed away in 2010.

On the other hand, I made some great images with these cameras, so here are the good things about them…

  • High-ISO images from the 720x were always very clean, thank to the Photo Desk software. I often shot sports at ISO 4000 or 5000 when the occasion called for it. The camera’s contemporaries like the Nikon D1H didn’t do as well in the ISO stratosphere.
  • Since there was no anti-aliasing filter in either of these cameras, pixel-for-pixel sharpness was unchallenged by anything else in the era.
  • Focus was super-fast and on-the-money thanks to these cameras being based on the excellent Nikon F5 film camera. I thought building on the best film body of the era was a smart move, but Kodak’s next, and last, digital SLR, the SLRn/Pro 14n, was based on the cheap, consumer F80.
  • The overbuilt quality of these cameras made them feel very rugged.
This was the last image I made with my 760, of a gardener in Roff, Oklahoma for a magazine story. The next frame gave me an error massage, and that was it for the 760.
This was the last image I made with my 760, of a gardener in Roff, Oklahoma for a magazine story. The next frame gave me an error massage, and that was it for the 760.
For a while in the early 2000s, the 720x was the undisputed high-ISO champ, creating sharp, clean images at ISOs up to 5000.
For a while in the early 2000s, the 720x was the undisputed high-ISO champ, creating sharp, clean images at ISOs up to 5000.
I shot the Wellington's, Rodd and Kathy, for a magazine story, using the 760, and the results were a complete success. Detail in the images is excellent.
I shot the Wellington’s, Rodd and Kathy, for a magazine story, using the 760, and the results were a complete success. Detail in the images is excellent.

Despite their shortcomings, I was able to make memorable, high-quality images for my newspaper that still look great today, using both the 760 and the 720x.

One characteristic of a really great camera is to do its job in the background and get out of the photographer’s way so we can do our jobs, and some aspects of the Kodak’s failed to do that.

I will continue to pull out the old Kodak once in a while and play around with it. But I will probably never do photojournalism with it again.

It's easy today to laugh at a 2 megapixel camera, but in all honesty, I have 13 x 19 inch prints from the 720x that look great. Resolution is the most overrated and misunderstood specification in imaging today.
It’s easy today to laugh at a 2 megapixel camera, but in all honesty, I have 13 x 19 inch prints from the 720x that look great. Resolution is the most overrated and misunderstood specification in imaging today.
The awkward giantness of Kodak's DSLR cameras is bluntly symbolic of the company itself: overbuilt, overconfident, and ultimately a failure.
The awkward giantness of Kodak’s DSLR cameras is bluntly symbolic of the company itself: overbuilt, overconfident, and ultimately a failure.

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A Sunstar Extra

Brilliant afternoon sun shines behind Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah in November 2002, the first time I photographed it. Note the beautiful 14-point sunstar made by the Minolta DiMage 7i's seven-bladed aperture.
Brilliant afternoon sun shines behind Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah in November 2002, the first time I photographed it. Note the beautiful 14-point sunstar made by the Minolta DiMage 7i’s seven-bladed aperture.
My AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 sits on a camera recently.
My AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 sits on a camera recently.

My friend Jamie and I recently reminisced about my first trip to Utah 15 years ago this month, so I took a look at the trip report, which I rewrote and expanded a few years ago. One thing I noted was how great my travel camera at the time, the Minolta DiMage 7i, did, particularly with its beautiful color rendition and spectacular 14-point sunstars.

Add to that the arrival of the holidays, and it’s a perfect time to revisit sunstars, an excellent tool in our photographic toolbox.

The nine-bladed apertures of many telephoto lenses, like my 200mm f/2.0, stopped down to f/16, create subtle 18-point sunstars.
The nine-bladed apertures of many telephoto lenses, like my 200mm f/2.0, stopped down to f/16, create subtle 18-point sunstars.
I photographed this Kokopelli-esque cactus at Dog Canyon in southern New Mexico in 2010, with a Fuji camera whose lens had a six-bladed aperture. As you can see, the six-point sunstar tends to fan out the light, and isn't as pretty as other sunstars. I noticed just last night that the movie "Lone Survivor" was filmed with lenses with six-bladed apertures.
I photographed this Kokopelli-esque cactus at Dog Canyon in southern New Mexico in 2010, with a Fuji camera whose lens had a six-bladed aperture. As you can see, the six-point sunstar tends to fan out the light, and isn’t as pretty as other sunstars. I noticed just last night that the movie “Lone Survivor” was filmed with lenses with six-bladed apertures.

I talked about sunstars a time or two before. They are created by lenses as rays extending outward from bright points of light, and help us express a feeling of brightness and brilliance in a scene. Most lenses produce some kind of sunstars, but some lenses produce better ones than others.

The formula for sunstars is pretty basic: if your lens has even-numbered aperture blades, it will produce that number of sunstar rays (six-bladed apertures make six-pointed sunstars.) If you lens has an odd number of aperture blades, your lens should produce twice that number of sunstar rays (seven-bladed apertures make 14-point sunstars.)

That’s the formula, anyway. In practice, it doesn’t always work our quite that way, and in testing today, I had a couple of surprises.

I grabbed some of my lenses I thought would be good sunstar producers and took them out to our Shumard oak tree. With clear skies and brilliant autumn sunshine, I know I would coax most of them into nice-looking sunstars. Most of these lenses are older AF Nikkor lenses with straight seven-blades apertures.

The AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 has seven straight (not curved) aperture blades, and makes gorgeous, brilliant sunstars.
The AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 has seven straight (not curved) aperture blades, and makes gorgeous, brilliant sunstars.
I've had the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 since 2005, but seldom used it because of many better options for 24x15mm sensors.
I’ve had the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 since 2005, but seldom used it because of many better options for 24x15mm sensors.

It wasn’t so much a controlled test or a lens shootout, as much as it was me getting a better feel for which lenses I currently own can produce sunstars and to what degree.

All these test images were shot at f/16, a very small aperture, since larger apertures don’t really produce sunstars.

The lack of real aperture blades is also why smartphones produce sunblobs instead of sunstars.

The AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 design dates back to its manual-focus cousin. This lens produces very nice sunstars, evoking a sense of brightness for the viewer.
The AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 design dates back to its manual-focus cousin. This lens produces very nice sunstars, evoking a sense of brightness for the viewer.
Predictably, my 20-year-old AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, with its seven straight aperture blades, sets the standard for beautiful sunstars.
Predictably, my 20-year-old AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, with its seven straight aperture blades, sets the standard for beautiful sunstars.
The disappointment for the day was from my AF 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, which I got for almost nothing on Ebay a few years ago. With seven straight aperture blades, I expected sunstar performance like the 20mm and the 50mm, but as you can see, it's a bit lackluster by comparison.
The disappointment for the day was from my AF 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, which I got for almost nothing on Ebay a few years ago. With seven straight aperture blades, I expected sunstar performance like the 20mm and the 50mm, but as you can see, it’s a bit lackluster by comparison.
I haven't shot with my AF 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 for years because I didn't have 36x24mm sensor, but getting a Nikon D700 recently changed that, and breathed new life into this lens. The sunstar with this lens is quite surprising, since the seven aperture blades are curved, but I have to say I was impressed. If you count, there are 28 rays of light in the sunstar.
I haven’t shot with my AF 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 for years because I didn’t have 36x24mm sensor, but getting a Nikon D700 recently changed that, and breathed new life into this lens. The sunstar with this lens is quite surprising, since the seven aperture blades are curved, but I have to say I was impressed. If you count, there are 28 rays of light in the sunstar.

It was fun to run in and out of the house with a different lens each time. Hopefully I have conveyed the power of the this effect, one of my favorites.

Part of what attracts me to the sunstar produced by my long-dead Minolta DiMage 7i is the bluish halo in the sunstar, which to me conveys a sense of the brilliance of the light.
Part of what attracts me to the sunstar produced by my long-dead Minolta DiMage 7i is the bluish halo in the sunstar, which to me conveys a sense of the brilliance of the light.
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iPhone 7 in Low Light: Not So Great

The Ada Couganns sit on Main Street and watch a skit set on a flatbed truck. The bottom of this image is in deep nighttime shadows, and full of noise.
The Ada Couganns sit on Main Street and watch a skit set on a flatbed truck. The bottom of this image is in deep nighttime shadows, and full of noise.
This is a 100% crop of a group photo I made at the pep rally, showing the noisy levels from the iPhone 7 Plus. The face is Kelly Maloy's. I have known the Maloy family since before the beginning of time.
This is a 100% crop of a group photo I made at the pep rally, showing the noisy levels from the iPhone 7 Plus. The face is Kelly Maloy’s. I have known the Maloy family since before the beginning of time.

I recently had a “web only” photo opportunity, since we published early in advance of the Veteran’s Day weekend. I decided that since I didn’t need print quality from my images, it would be a chance to take the camera in my iPhone 7 Plus, which my newspaper provides, to it’s limits to find out how well it’s camera performs in low light.

The event I chose was a nighttime, outdoor pep rally in downtown Ada, which was illuminated by street lights and traffic signals. The internet seemed confident that the iPhone would do the job, and recommended an app called NightCamera, which I downloaded and used.

The verdict? I wasn’t as impressed as the internet was, and although I was able to make some passable images that did the job, the overall image quality was disappointing. The f/1.8 lens combined with a maximum ISO 1600 to produce shutter speed in the 1/30th to 1/8th range. The images are surprisingly noisy, far moreso than a digital SLR set at much higher ISOs. The shadow detail dropped off harshly, leaving faces too dark even with in-camera brightening.

Though the NightCam app has pretty good control features, I can't recommend it due to it's annoying ad policy, which in interferes with basic operation.
Though the NightCam app has pretty good control features, I can’t recommend it due to it’s annoying ad policy, which in interferes with basic operation.

The main reason I’m telling you this is to set the web straight: despite all the fawning over the iPhone 7 and similar camera phones, DSLRs and large-aperture lenses remain well in the lead for low-light and almost-no-light situations.

The Ada Cougars football team players and fans enjoy a pep rally on Main Street in Ada.
The Ada Cougars football team players and fans enjoy a pep rally on Main Street in Ada.
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Funny Lenses and Expensive Lenses

My new free Opteka 500mm f/6.3DG lens sits on one of my D200s earlier this week.
My new free Opteka 500mm f/6.3DG lens sits on one of my D200s earlier this week.
Circular bokeh is a real thing with mirror lenses, as in this out of focus area I made this week with the Opteka 500mm.
Circular bokeh is a real thing with mirror lenses, as in this out of focus area I made this week with the Opteka 500mm.

I recently used a combination of online coupons and rewards points to “buy” a lens for no dollars, an Opteka 500mm f/6.3DG catadioptric, or “mirror,” lens. If you know anything about my cameras and lenses, you know that I have several lenses in this focal length range, all of which are better mechanically and optically better than this odd piece of hardware.

Catadioptric lenses use the same optical setup of concentric mirrors as very large space telescopes (like the Hubble) to fold the light path, making them much smaller than their refracting counterparts.

The black disk in the center of the front of the Opteka 500mm is an optical mirror, the second in the folded light path.
The black disk in the center of the front of the Opteka 500mm is an optical mirror, the second in the folded light path.

Why did I want one?

  • I wanted to be able to teach first-hand about this class of lenses and how they work.
  • I missed the first 500mm mirror lens I owned (a Nikon).
  • I wanted to play around with it.
  • Play around with it? Is that a real thing? Yes; to me there is no better learning tool than experimentation with the new and the unknown.
  • I wanted to photograph it.
  • I wanted to challenge myself to make good images with substandard hardware.
One of my first efforts with the Opteka 500mm was this wheat grass at sunrise. I found it ethereal and beautiful.
One of my first efforts with the Opteka 500mm was this wheat grass at sunrise. I found it ethereal and beautiful.

So what is this lens like?

  • Mechanically, focus is super-stiff, but it may loosen up as I use it.
  • Optically, I have been surprised that it actually has a sharp zone, though it is shallow and elusive.
  • Though advertised as “f/6.3”, even the best mirror lenses are only that fast in the center of the image, and vignetting (falloff) is very noticeable, such that I estimate it is about f/11’s brightness at the corners.
  • It is more compact and better-looking than my Nikkor was, though its engraving, metals and rubber grip ring all seem cheap.
  • It uses a t-mount to connect to the camera (so you can change camera brands by getting a different t-mount), which screws into the lens, and can unscrew during focusing if it’s not tight on the lens.
  • It came with the world’s cheapest teleconverter, a 2x, presumably so it could be advertised as both a 500mm and a 1000mm, but it’s impossible to use with the teleconverter due to a dark viewfinder image, an amplification of any camera movement, and the fact that even the best teleconverter is a quality thief.
  • Mirror lens are noted for their unusual, doughnut-shaped bokeh, which this lens certainly exhibits. Most photographers regard this as “bad bokeh,” but I’ll be treating like a tool in the toolbox.
The Opteka 500mm looks ridiculous on its no-name 2x teleconverter, and performs even worse.
The Opteka 500mm looks ridiculous on its no-name 2x teleconverter, and performs even worse.

I’ve already gotten a couple of images shot with it in the daily, so in the strictest sense, it is a pro lens, though I imagine this a case of my ability to extract something decent from fairly weak raw files. Time will tell, I guess, if this nonvestment was worth it, but so far, I’ve had fun with it.

I shot this police and fire escorted motorcycle toy drive yesterday with the Opteka 500mm, and while it wasn't nearly as sharp as, say, my 300mm f/4, it was quite workable.
I shot this police and fire escorted motorcycle toy drive yesterday with the Opteka 500mm, and while it wasn’t nearly as sharp as, say, my 300mm f/4, it was quite workable.

Finally, a couple of posts ago, I talked about my lovely little AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 and why a young photographer friend of mine, Mackenzee Crosby, should buy it instead of the far more expensive Sigma 35mm f1.4, especially since the Sigma was made for a larger imaging sensors than she owned.

The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 dwarfs the tiny Nikon 3100 digital camera.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 dwarfs the tiny Nikon 3100 digital camera.

She ended up buying the Sigma, which she received as she was walking out the door to attend Monday’s Open Mic Nyte. She and I were able to play with it a bit, and I photographed it. It is heavy and focused smoothly, but I couldn’t tell much else.

I expect she was temped by the elusive maximum aperture, f/1.4, which is tempting. It’s hard for me to flaw her for wanting great hardware – when I was her age, I paid a small fortune for a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 that turned out to be optically disappointing. I hope the Sigma works out for her. My only advice about it would be: wear it out.

This is the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 on my friend's camera. It is much heavier, larger, and more expensive than my own AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Time and her work will tell if this lens is a champ.
This is the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 on my friend’s camera. It is much heavier, larger, and more expensive than my own AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Time and her work will tell if this lens is a champ.
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A Lens from a Bygone Era

The Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF is as finely-crafted a lens as I have ever owned.
The Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF is as finely-crafted a lens as I have ever owned.

I teach the aperture formula to my students because it’s worth knowing why we use inverse, seemingly counterintuitive, numbers to express aperture values: big numbers = small apertures, and small numbers = large apertures. We get this by the formula: focal length divided by lens diameter (at the front opening) equals aperture value. Example: a 50mm lens with a 36mm diameter … 50 ÷ 36 ≈ 1.4. The 50 mm lens in this example has an f/1.4 maximum aperture.

Shot from just a few feet away, and just a few feet from the background, this image of an Open Mic Nyte guest shows just how thin the 200mm's depth of field is at f/2.
Shot from just a few feet away, and just a few feet from the background, this image of an Open Mic Nyte guest shows just how thin the 200mm’s depth of field is at f/2.
My Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 sits nose-down on its retractable, built-in lens hood. It looks big and heavy, but feels even heavier to hold than it looks.
My Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 sits nose-down on its retractable, built-in lens hood. It looks big and heavy, but feels even heavier to hold than it looks.

I thought of this recently at Open Mic Nyte, where I have become a regular, and where I like to bring a different lens every time as my “featured lens.” Last Monday, I lugged along my heavy, beautifully-made Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF, a lens which dates back to the late 1970s, and which I acquired in the late 1990s.

If you do the aperture math like in the first paragraph, you find that to get to f2, a 200mm lens needs a 100mm (almost four inches) diameter front element.

To say that this lens is rare is an understatement, since I not only do I seldom use mine, I have never seen another one in the field.

Made of steel and brass, with 11 very large optical glass elements, it weighs 5.3 pounds, and is even heavier than it looks in-hand. It is as smooth to operate as any device I have ever held. Its optics, however, lag behind today’s modern computer-drafted lenses, so it can be a bit quirky to shoot well.

If you look closely at this image from Monday's Open Mic Nyte, you will see the speaker's left eye is in focus, but her right eye isn't.
If you look closely at this image from Monday’s Open Mic Nyte, you will see the speaker’s left eye is in focus, but her right eye isn’t.
The Nikkor 200mm f/2 is even heavier than it looks, made of steel, brass, and exotic optical glass.
The Nikkor 200mm f/2 is even heavier than it looks, made of steel, brass, and exotic optical glass.

As I researched this post, I discovered several vloggers who asserted that lenses like this, and it’s insanely expensive modern autofocus version, are “hubris” lenses, created by the company and purchased by the customer in the milieu of “the best money can buy,” and not very useful.

One vlogger went as far as to say this lens is for “bokeh sluts.”

Very shallow depth of field can be an important tool in the toolbox, particularly when we are trying to express intimacy or, paradoxically, isolation.
Very shallow depth of field can be an important tool in the toolbox, particularly when we are trying to express intimacy or, paradoxically, isolation.
This image from Open Mic Nyte shows the peril of shooting at f2, even for someone experienced in manual focus as I am: his beard is in focus but neither of his eyes are.
This image from Open Mic Nyte shows the peril of shooting at f2, even for someone experienced in manual focus as I am: his beard is in focus but neither of his eyes are.

Shooting at f/2.0 with this lens makes a very difficult challenge to get the focus where you want it. Since depth of field is a matter of millimeters, moving the focus ring a tiny amount can result of a uselessly out-of-focus image. Of course, you could stop down to f/2.8 or f/4.0, but that defeats the entire idea of carrying and shooting a 200mm f/2. In fact, I have no idea how this lens performs stopped down because I never shoot it stopped down.

The Nikkor 200mm f/2 is equipped with a tray to hold a gelatin filter, which I have never used. Note the build quality of body and aperture ring, constructed in the era before plastic, massed-produced lenses became the norm.
The Nikkor 200mm f/2 is equipped with a tray to hold a gelatin filter, which I have never used. Note the build quality of body and aperture ring, constructed in the era before plastic, massed-produced lenses became the norm.

I always feel good when I make a point to get this lens out and use it. It certainly creates a unique look with its razor-thin depth of field and deep, deep selective focus. But I think for me, it is a combination of having something no one else can wield and my love of how finely crafted old Nikkor lenses were before the autofocus era.

The fit and finish on my Nikkor 200mm f/2.0, though worn, is absolutely luxurious.
The fit and finish on my Nikkor 200mm f/2.0, though worn, is absolutely luxurious.

 

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The Sweet Little 35mm

Hawken, our ten month old Irish Wolfhound, puts his paws on the gate at the back of the garage. Shot with my AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 at f/1.8, it is sharp, and exhibits a pleasing selective focus.
Hawken, our ten month old Irish Wolfhound, puts his paws on the gate at the back of the garage. Shot with my AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 at f/1.8, it is sharp, and exhibits a pleasing selective focus.
I bought my first 35mm lens, the venerable Nikkor f/2.0, in 1987. I later sold it to modernize, but sometimes miss its build and feel.
I bought my first 35mm lens, the venerable Nikkor f/2.0, in 1987. I later sold it to modernize, but sometimes miss its build and feel.

For much of my career in the film era, one of my favorite lenses was the Nikkor 35mm f/2. The focal length was great in the 35mm film era, and remains great in the digital era for several sensor sizes. Like its brother the 50mm, the 35mm prime (fixed focal length) can be manufactured inexpensively, can be made with a large maximum aperture, and remains small, lightweight, and inconspicuous.

A talented young friend of mine, Mackenzee Crosby, asked me recently about the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. She shoots with a camera sporting a 24mm x 15mm sensor, so the Sigma isn’t really the right choice.

Ken Rockwell has a review of the Sigma, and spells it out pretty clearly about it: “Do not use this lens on Nikon DX cameras simply because the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX is as good optically, better mechanically and compatibility wise, and is smaller, lighter and less expensive.”

My AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 makes a nice, compact package on my D7100.
My AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 makes a nice, compact package on my D7100.
Shooting into the partially shaded setting sun can be a challenge for a lesser lens, but in most situations, the 35mm f/1.8 makes it sing.
Shooting into the partially shaded setting sun can be a challenge for a lesser lens, but in most situations, the 35mm f/1.8 makes it sing.
Not the lens for me...
I read that the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 requires recalibration every few months using a USB dock and Sigma software, which to me is a bright red flag. When I spend $600, $800, $1200 for a lens, I expect it to serve me long, well, and reliably, not requiring a “patch” every few months to keep it running.
I saw this guy shooting at an event in June with a Canon 85mm f/1.2. Big lens or small, this guy was too far from the subject to take advantage of focal length or aperture.
I saw this guy shooting at an event in June with a Canon 85mm f/1.2. Big lens or small, this guy was too far from the subject to take advantage of focal length or aperture.
One minor flaw of the AF-S 35mm f/1.8 is its tendency to flare pink in the background. It's fixable in Photoshop, but it is a flaw.
One minor flaw of the AF-S 35mm f/1.8 is its tendency to flare pink in the background. It’s fixable in Photoshop, but it is a flaw.

I recommended a lens to her that I have learned to love over the years, the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX. Not only is this lens three or four times less expensive than the Sigma, it is lighter, smaller, and can render backgrounds – the real kernel of this class of lenses – just as beautifully as the Sigma.

As far as rendering backgrounds far out of focus, called selective focus, is concerned, the most powerful tool in the toolbox is the telephoto, not the wider-ish f/1.4s and f/1.8s. I recently talked about my 85mm, but the big guns, longer telephotos like the 70-200mm f/2.8, the 300mm f/2.8, and longer are the real kings.

If you are really serious about creaming your backgrounds into washes of soft colors, nothing challenges longer telephotos, like in this image, made with my AS Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 at f/2.8.
If you are really serious about creaming your backgrounds into washes of soft colors, nothing challenges longer telephotos, like in this image, made with my AS Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 at f/2.8.
The 35mm f/1.8's most endearing feature has to be its compact size and light weight, making it a perfect inconspicuous street lens.
The 35mm f/1.8’s most endearing feature has to be its compact size and light weight, making it a perfect inconspicuous street lens.

Also for what it’s worth, I am incredulous that some photographers I know own very expensive large-aperture lenses that they use stopped down two or three stops. The only difference between a 135mm f/1.8 art lens shot at f/4.5 and a 70-300mm kit lens shot at f/4.5 is $1500.

Also, Richard, (you might be asking), why are my friends getting such amazing images with the Sigma 35mm? It’s simply that by shooting on a larger sensor, the 35mm focal length gives a wider field of view, requiring the photographer to get closer in order to fill the frame. Closer + large aperture = shallow depth of field.

I consider the 35mm f/1.8 an excellent, nearly viceless lens, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone shooting a Nikon with a 24mm x 15mm sensor.
I consider the 35mm f/1.8 an excellent, nearly viceless lens, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone shooting a Nikon with a 24mm x 15mm sensor.
Abby smiles for me as I photograph her near the famous Bellagio Fountains on the Las Vegas Strip, shot with the 35mm f/1.8 wide open. Note how gracefully the lights and colors are rendered by this lens.
Abby smiles for me as I photograph her near the famous Bellagio Fountains on the Las Vegas Strip, shot with the 35mm f/1.8 wide open. Note how gracefully the lights and colors are rendered by this lens.
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