A fellow photographer recently asked me if I would do a head-to-head comparison between an iPhone or iPad and the cameras I use every day as a photojournalist.
I felt this comparison to be an apples-to-lemons challenge, since, for me anyway, there are many things my iPhone does better, and many things my DSLRs do better.
I prefer to use my phone for video, since the video I get from it is smooth, clear, and has decent audio, while video with my DSLRs tends to require a lot more production – microphones, steadycams – than my phone does. I also love the way I can seamlessly send lightly-edited images from the field to my staff with little effort, and of course there is video streaming.
My DSLRs are better at sports, a big one for me since I cover a great sports scene at our newspaper. They are much, much better in situations in which I want to add light, like with a flash, or when I need to create selective focus by using shallow depth of field.
Finally, there is handling. This may be the veteran in me talking, but holding a big camera and lens up to my eye is infinitely more commanding in almost every photographic situation. I can compose and organize much better with a DSLR than I can holding a phone or tablet at arms length… in some ways, using a DSLR or even a film camera is making pictures, while using a phone or a tablet is like watching television.
Despite all the advances we see all the time in smartphone and tablet technology, a camera remains a better tool for photography.
Photographer Kyle Phillips at one of our sister newspapers, The Norman Transcript, was out of action recently, so he offered to let me borrow their new Nikon D500 digital SLR since I was slated to shoot the college football Big 12 Championship game in Dallas on December 19, and I accepted.
The D500 is a professional-level 20-megapixel camera. It is a neat camera, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a news or sports photographer in a minute, but it’s not a game-changer.
The Nikon D500 is an incremental upgrade to the Nikon D300S, two of which I use every day. The main improvement the D500 makes is high ISO noise. Frame rate and pixel count are up, but not enough to really matter.
The ISO dial has traded places with the exposure mode dial, which I really don’t like, and not just because I’m used to buttons where they are. The mode dial belongs on the right next to the shutter and aperture dial and the shutter release. I kind of think Nikon engineers move stuff arbitrarily. Real photographers set their file type once, mostly on the day they get the camera, and leave it there forever. Only dilletants and dabblers change file types regularly, so as far as I’m concerned, this button could disappear into the menu.
I had to shoot JPEGs instead of RAW files, since my laptop at work has an older version of Adobe Lightroom that won’t read the newest RAW files. The D500 makes very decent JPEGs.
The D500 has a swinging/tilting rear display as well as 4K video capability, a feature that makes little difference to me, since I make short videos to go with news and sports, but would make a big difference to videographers.
The D500 is equipped with SnapBridge, but I tried several times and got the message, “Pairing unsuccessful. Make sure D500_XXX is turned on, in range, and is ready to pair.” That’s typical in a world of incompetent coding. My Fujifilm X-T10, a camera of the same era as the D500, did it without a hitch.
The D500 has two card slots, one for SD, and one for XQD, a high-speed replacement for CompactFlash cards, but I don’t have any of these cards and have never used them, and I find that the photography community regards this format as a dead end.
The D500 isn’t a particularly popular camera. I have only seen one other one, in the hands of Coalgate High School yearbook advisor Kathy Ingram.
I found that 10 frames per second and a nearly unlimited buffer resulted in shooting a lot more frames than I usually do, with little impact on the quality of my product. So many files of the same thing just tends to choke my workflow.
At the Big 12 Championship game, I brought my AF Nikkor 300mm f/2.8, betting on needing the f/2.8, but the lights were very bright and even. If I had to do it again, I might use my AF-S 300mm f/4, a much newer and somewhat sharper lens.
I pressed the D500 into service, and found that it does what a digital camera should: make photography easier by getting out of the way of the photographer. I was very glad to use it for a while, and really enjoyed it. Thanks again to Kyle for offering to let me use it. I know he will make many great images with it over the years.
A hard cold front roared through Oklahoma last night, leaving today the kind of day that inspired me to write awkward poetry in my youth. It was grey all day, and it eventually lured me outside several times to walk the dogs and, of course, make pictures.
I grabbed my Fuji mirrorless and my $50 Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5. Unlike the cameras and lenses I use professionally, this combination is challenging: the camera is smaller, and the lens is manual focus, super slow to focus, focuses in the opposite direction of my Nikkors, and will only run at one aperture, in this case wide open at f/3.5.
After the session, I walked our Irish wolfhound Hawken again, and he found a discarded work glove in the pasture and made it his new toy. He loves this weather.
I spent an evening this week with some friends old and new at a poetry/fiction reading event at a home here in Ada. Lit by Christmas lights, candles, and camp fires, it really was photography pushed to the edge of all the margins: ISO 6400, aperture f/1.4, shutter speeds down to 1/8th of a second.
I shot it with my Fuji mirrorless and the magnificent Pentax K-Mount 50mm f/1.4. The results are messy in a great way; the chaos and intimacy of the imagery mirrors the chaos and intimacy of the participants and their words.
In recent months, Mac has been curating film photography into her body of work as an aspiring photojournalist, and that has included disposable cameras, 35mm film cameras, medium format cameras, and even toy cameras. Photography with toy cameras is sometimes called lomography.
One thing I showed her while she was here at the office is some of the thousands of 4×5-inch black-and-white negatives we have in our files at The Ada News.
4×5 negatives are about 15 times larger than 35mm film frames, so they potentially contain a tremendous amount of detail. In fact, 4×5 negatives are large enough that they can be printed as contact prints, in which the film is laid directly on the printing paper and exposed to light, skipping the step of putting the film in an enlarger.
If 35mm film is common and medium format film is exotic, 4×5 film is the Wild West of photography.
I’ve never owned a 4×5 camera. I do have a photographer friend, Robert in Tulsa, who has a Burke and James 4×5 field camera. A field camera differs from a view camera in that it uses a viewfinder instead of a focusing hood or cloth. If you have ever seen the movie Flags of Our Fathers, the character of Joe Rosenthal uses a 4×5 field camera to photograph the raising of the second U.S. flag on Iwo Jima.
As Mac and I talked about film photography, she said she’d like to see what I could do with film, and I pointed out that in the very office in which she sat were literally hundreds of thousands of film frames I made during my career, from when I started at The Ada News in October 1988 until about the middle of 2005, when I had enough digital cameras to get the job done, and when the film scanner of 1998 vintage finally died.
I also told Mac that if she gets a chance to use a darkroom in her travels or education, I’d be glad to tag along and throw in my expertise. I’d also extend that invitation to anyone who wants to learn about how a darkroom works. It’s pretty amazing that I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but I can tell you exactly how to process a roll of film.
A friend of mine recently asked me to look over an older film camera of his. He told me he had grown up making pictures with it. I I told him I would be happy to look it over, and to drop it by my office. I wasn’t surprised when the that camera showed up the next day was a Canon AE-1 Program, one of the most popular cameras ever made.
Before I go on, let me say that I’m not usually a “they don’t build them like they used to” guy, since technology has swept us away with all kinds of advancement, from the smartphone to the self-diagnosing car engine, but on this occasion, well… they just don’t build them like they used to.
The Canon AE-1 Program came from an era of rapid advancement in camera design, and includes some very advanced technology in it, but it also inherited the build quality, fit, and finish of the handmade and hand-assembled era of camera development.
The AE-1 Program followed the AE-1, which was probably the most popular camera ever sold in the film era. The “Program” was a piece of tech that allowed the camera to pick both the shutter speed and the aperture, and was the first of that feature to be introduced.
In-hand, this camera has a big-camera feel. In contrast to almost any digital camera today, it is heavy. The corners and grips of the camera are fairly conventional, and the controls are laid out nicely. I can pick up a camera like this and immediately start using it.
I cleaned it up with a soft toothbrush and some canned air. It had a fair amount of back-of-the-closet dust on it. This particular one seemed to run just fine. The shutter and aperture cycled like they should. Focus on the 50mm f/1.8 lens, a fine piece of glass that every Canon owner had during that era, was smooth and accurate. The only thing I could find wrong with it was the light seals – the foam rubber in the slots on the film door – was dry and cracked, which could cause light leaks, especially in bright sunlight.
If my friend is willing to buy film then have it processed and scanned or printed, his Canon AE-1 Program is ready for the job.
Mirrorless digital cameras have matured nicely alongside the rest of digital imaging, and are, today, at the top of the game. There are plenty of great mirrorless camera systems in the photography world today. Sony was one of the first leaders in the field, but the industry has caught up in recent years, and Fujifilm, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and others all have competitive models.
So what exactly is “mirrorless?” For decades the most popular cameras in the industry, both film and digital, were single lens reflex cameras, or SLRs. These cameras use a mirror to reflect light entering the lens into a viewfinder on top of the camera. Mirrorless cameras do away with the mechanically complex system of mirrors and pentaprisms by shining light from the lens directly on the imaging sensor, then showing it to the photographer using a display on the back of the camera or in an electronic viewfinder.
Mirrorless matured hand-in-hand with smartphone technology. The same way a phone gives you a live view on-screen, the mirrorless camera does as well. 10 or 15 years ago, this process was too slow for action photography, as the camera took time to process and display the image, causing a lag between the action on front of the camera and what the photographer saw.
The biggest advantage of mirrorless is size and weight. Mirrorless cameras are small and light.
I hesitated to buy mirrorless because I already have a lot of really great cameras, but for my birthday recently, my wife encouraged me to find something I would like in the field. I hunted for a bargain, since I love bargains, and I mostly looked at finding a kindly-used Fuji. One of my first cameras was a Fuji, and my wife and I have matching Fuji travel/all-in-one cameras, and I love their style.
I’ve said this many times, but it bears repeating: buying cameras used is the way to go, at least for me. You get powerful, expensive technology for a fraction of the original price because someone decided to “upgrade,” which is industry code language for trying to buy better photography by spending money on hardware.
The camera I found and bought is the Fujifilm X-T10 of 2015 vintage. In 2015, it was at the top of photographic technology, and the introduction of newer cameras since then has no effect on what this camera can do.
I didn’t buy any lenses with this camera, because part of the allure of mirrorless is, for me anyway, the fact that with an adaptor, you can put just about any lens on your mirrorless camera. This is possible because the imaging sensor in mirrorless cameras is right behind the lens, not buried behind the mirror box and mechanical shutter of older cameras.
The only thing I actively dislike about mirrorless cameras are the name. “Mirrorless” is a lazy, techno-pop-culture fallback name. Saying that a class of cameras is “mirrorless” is like saying most cars are “diesel-less,” which is true, but a lame way of naming them.
I have already made some impressive images with this amazing machine, and hope to keep making more as I explore its potential.
Olympus, a Japanese camera maker founded in 1939, made a huge name for themselves by making cameras that were very compact. For years, because of this, my wife Abby and I owned and used several Olympus point-and-shoot cameras, and made some great images with them.
Sadly, for the last three years Olympus hasn’t been able to make their camera division profitable. This is despite their impressive Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras and excellent Zuiko lenses. One Olympus camera I have coveted since the day it was introduced is the TG-Tracker, a super-compact point-of-view/action cam that was not only tiny, it was incredibly great-looking. I never needed one, but I recommended it to several people who hoped to buy an action cam.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to sell cameras in a camera-in-smartphone world. My wife and I are examples of why: our current smartphones rival the images we got from our Olympus point-and-shoot cameras from years ago, so we are seldom motivated to bring a point-and-shoot along.
The photography press says that Olympus is selling their camera division to Japan Industrial Partners, but time will tell if their firm will continue to make cameras, or simply liquidate all the assets. It may be true: Olympus has fallen.
Anticipating an early voter turnout Tuesday, I drove directly from our home in Byng to Konawa to cover the school bond issue election. It was just after seven in the morning, and the sun was still below the horizon. I immediately noticed that farm ponds had fog above them and anticipated that the Canadian River, which I would shortly cross, would as well.
I drove across the U.S. 377 bridge, parked in a safe spot, put on my highway safety vest, grabbed three cameras and walked to the center of the bridge over the river. For the record, I don’t recommend this, and I did it as a journalist. I know, I know — do as I say, not as I do, but drivers can get distracted in a moment, and it’s not always easy to see in early morning light.
Sunlight caught the rising fog exactly as I had anticipated, and the scene did not disappoint. I shot it with all three cameras — one with a 300mm lens, one with an 80-200mm lens,and one with a wide angle. All three scenes expressed something slightly different about the scene, and I was glad I lugged all the hardware with me.
How many times has someone come up to me with their phone in hand and started telling me, “I didn’t have my camera with me, but…” They then show me an image they made with their phone that tells only part of the story. Despite constantly improving technology in smartphones, they lack something. Maybe they lack the attitude of a camera.
The lesson is: Always have your camera with you. I know this is easy to say if you’re like me and have had cameras within arm’s reach since I was in high school, but it can really pay off.
Sometimes I like to get out old gear and shoot with it, with the goal of making certain I don’t rely too heavily on technology to get my job done well. Yesterday I was inspired to dig my Kodak DCS 720x out of its box at the bottom of the gear cabinet to shoot a football scrimmage at the local college, and although that technology is from 2001, I made some great images with it. Look for them in my newspaper next week!
I read recently that Kodak only made about 1600 720x cameras. I’m not surprised, as the company was already deep into its inexorable slide toward bankruptcy.
It’s no secret that I am a lens guy. Old and new, cheap and expensive, I think photographic lenses are fascinating. I have quite a few lenses, from the tiny, dusty, fixed-focus, brassed-up lenses on my Kodak Retina, to the heavy, complex f/2.8 sports and news zooms I use every day. But if you ask me to name an all-time favorite… wow. All those lenses. But, my all-time favorite lens has to be the 85mm.
I have owned three, the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 of 1990s vintage, the Nikkor 85mm f/2.0 of early-80s heritage, and my current 85mm, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G.
Over the years I read that the oldest of the three, the f/2.0, wasn’t great, but my experience differed. It was an amazing lens. The least of the three was the AF from the 90s, optically similar to the others, but built with a lot of plastic, including a plastic bushing in the focus chain that wore out and made the lens stiff. Eventually Nikon stopped supporting it so I could no longer get it repaired, and I stopped using it. I eventually gave it away.
My current 85mm is a real gem. I wrote about it a couple of times right after I got it, but I thought it would be helpful to mention that after three years with this lens in my bag, I use it as often as I can, from weddings to portraits to commercial work, with lots of occasions when I grab it to photograph my wife Abby or our dogs.
Our photographer friend Robert used it to photograph Abby and me in November, and those images are among my favorite all-time images of us.
In class in October, I handed this 85mm to a photography student, Daniel O’Danielle, who used it for about 30 minutes. The next week, she had a new one on her camera. I also recently talked about this lens with another photographer who has one, Dan Marsh, who also sang praises about it.
I thought of all this last night at sunset. I grabbed the 85mm once again and walked out to photograph the peach blossoms in my orchard. It didn’t disappoint me.
I shot this on my way to work this morning, fortuitous that my first assignment required a different route to work than I usually take. I jumped out of my car and half-ran across a mostly-empty four-lane highway to get into position.
My wife Abby and I gave this camera, the Fujifilm FinePix S4500, to Abby’s daughter Chele and her husband Tom in 2013. Tom used it extensively on a trip we made to visit him that year in Baltimore, to photograph a D.C. walking tour.
Abby and I have several FinePix cameras (like the HS30EXR,) which have become our favorites when we place having fun at the top of the list, like when we are hiking, on the road, or at an event like family reunions. Smaller cameras like the these, in a class referred to as bridge, walkaround or crossover, allow the handling of a DSLR while offering the convenience of a point-and-shoot or even a smartphone.
The S4500 features a versatile wide-to-telephoto zoom lens, but doesn’t not have a zoom ring or a manual focus ring, relying instead on a W and T rocker switch around the shutter release for zooming. There is no option for manual focusing, though I seldom use manual focus on my other bridge cameras.
In hand, this camera handles like a camera, not like a toy or a computer, which is why Abby and I were attracted to it.
The sensor in this camera is quite small at 6.17mm x 4.55 mm, both to keep the camera compact, and to make it cheaper to manufacture.
There is an electronic viewfinder and a display on the back of the camera. For my work, an electronic or optical viewfinder is a must, though I know most people get along fine with the arm’s-length view that smartphones provide.
Color is good; this is a Fuji strength for me, though not everyone agrees.
High ISO noise makes the camera unusable in low light. I tried to make a feature photo of the score table at a basketball tournament, and it was a mess.
The S4500 has a real PASM exposure dial, a must for me. Of course, it can fall back on green box (red in Fuji’s case) mode and scene modes, which I never use.
Like a lot of lenses on this class of cameras, this 24-500mm “equivalent” zoom is a jack of all trades but master of none. It is an especially mediocre telephoto.
Other controls are where I like them, though over the years I’ve worked with so many cameras (due to teaching photography), I almost always have to search for where electronics engineers put them. Making the same functions a little different in every camera generation and every brand doesn’t really serve photography, but is all about marketing and creating entertainment in camera sales.
Like all tools in our photographic tool box, the FinePix S4500 has a place. It is fun and easy to use, lightweight and quiet, and does a lot more than a smartphone. I am very glad we got this one for Tom and Chele.
In the 2000s, camera makers like Nikon and Canon introduced digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) equipped with so-called full-frame sensors, imaging sensing devices that were the same size as an antiquated piece of 35mm film.
I have one such digital SLR, the Nikon D700. It is a professional machine on every level, from build quality to image quality. It is big, heavy, and built like a tank. It is so heavy, in fact, that I am a little glad I don’t use it every day at work. My D300Ss are heavy enough, but don’t begin to challenge the D700.
Much of the weight of cameras like this is one reason mirrorless cameras are overtaking DSLR sales. Combined with better electronics systems that can be made lighter and faster-operating, mirrorless does away with all the mechanics of the mirrors and pentaprisms.
A deceptive concept about formats is that larger formats exhibit “better” selective focus in the form of shallower depth of field. But the truth of this is buried in marketing and the internet. Depth of field isn’t controlled by format size, but by aperture and magnification. Larger-format afficianatoes don’t seem to understand that when shooting with a camera like the D700 with the same lens they might have on a smaller-format camera, they have to move closer to fill the frame with the same subject. That’s what makes depth of field shallower, not the size of the sensor.
I had this discussion not long after I bought my D700. You can read it here (link).
The D700 was one of Nikon’s earliest moves into the 36x24mm sensor market, and despite having been replaced by numerous newer models, the D700’s build and reputation create a higher than average cost on the used market.
Taking the idea of “full-frame” another step, we ask, “Is full-frame digital better than a full frame of 35mm film.” The answer overwhelmingly yes. Properly implemented, digital photography in general is far better than film photography: less noise, less risk, less waste, less time, more sharpness, better color, and on and on. (Coming soon: why the resurgence of film is folly.)
When I grab my D700, which usually has a larger lens on it, I feel it immediately. All that brass and glass tugs at my elbow and shoulder and reminds me why I try to lighten my load when I am able.
While I was writing this, I handed the D700 with the 28-70mm f/2.8 on it to my wife Abby, and she exclaimed, “Oh, my gosh, it must weigh 50 pounds!”
Files from the D700 are smooth, sharp and low-noise, and even with RAW file compression turned on, have a remarkable amount of color data. Despite the size and weight, the D700 has never let me down, and I hope to continue to make great images with it for the foreseeable future.