Monochrome Cameras: Epic Quality, or Expensive Indulgence?

There are a few digital cameras on the market today that have monochrome sensors. These sensors work the same way that color sensors work, in that each pixel, or picture element, senses the amount of light that strikes it. The key difference is that color sensors have one of three, red, green, or blue, filters above it, called a Bayer pattern array.

My wolfhound looks up at me in a recent monochrome image. I thought the tonal qualities in this image worked out pretty well.
My wolfhound looks up at me in a recent monochrome image. I thought the tonal qualities in this image worked out pretty well.

The real question is: what makes a monochrome sensor superior to a color sensor that has a decently high pixel count, basically any new camera sold today?

Sometimes  the idea of a monochrome camera isn’t even clear to consumers. While reading around the web for this piece, I came across an article on monochrome cameras from Adorama that listed two non-monochrome cameras , the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV, and the Fujifilm GFX50S II. The article says the cameras “allow you to switch between monochrome and color shooting modes,” but in case you just woke up yesterday, that is every digital camera made in the last 15 years.

I don't know where I got this glass dolphin; it might have belonged to Dorothy Milligan at one point. Anyway, I photographed it with some Christmas lights to illustrate an image that was mostly made of color.
I don’t know where I got this glass dolphin; it might have belonged to Dorothy Milligan at one point. Anyway, I photographed it with some Christmas lights to illustrate an image that was mostly made of color.
You can see how profoundly different an image of color can appear in monochrome.
You can see how profoundly different an image of color can appear in monochrome.

The article added that, “…you’ll be able to capture low light images far better than you could with a color sensor.” But who, in 2023, has a problem capturing images in low light? I routinely roll past ISO 12,800 with little in the way of noise.

I asked a photographer friend who had a monochrome Leica what he liked about it, and he said it made, “…nice files, with really crisp, dark blacks,” but then said, “the color Leica images converted are fine.”

He later sold the camera, saying he didn’t shoot with it enough to justify owning it.

Ah, there’s another point: the Leica M11 Monochrom (that’s the way they spell it) lists for $9195. No, that’s not a typo.

I got out a few cameras and played around with both their built-in black-and-white options, and options in Adobe Lightroom for converting color images into black-and-white, an activity I try to do several times a year. I had fun, and made some images I liked.

Then, along comes the elephant in the room: sharing, displaying, or exhibiting your images, color or monochrome, somewhere that matters. I see a very pointless chase unfolding before me: faster, bigger, better images, shared and diluted by cluttered, heavily monetized social media sites on which potentially brilliant 46-megapixel, super-clear, high-ISO gems get posted to Facebook or Instagram, compressed by their servers and never shared at resolutions higher than 2000 x 1400 pixels, which is equivalent to 2.8 megapixels.

I have a buddy (who lives in another state) who seems intent on chasing the photographic dragon, and it seems that all that camera power and photographic prowess is squandered on the ever-increasing views on smartphones.

The other side of that, though, is harder to see and appreciate, and that is the experience of making pictures is fun and exciting even if the images aren’t fully exploited on the other end.

My bottom line: monochrome cameras probably have a place in a few photographer’s lives, but for most of us, including me, shooting in a color camera’s monochrome mode is more than enough for the occasional creative excursion.

And if you do enjoy pushing the limits of camera technology, find a way to really take advantage of it by printing, publishing and displaying those amazing images.

Wheatgrass waves in the breeze on a recent photowalk.
Wheatgrass waves in the breeze on a recent photowalk.

More Thoughts about the Fujifilm GW670III

I was tapping away at this and that on my laptop recently. I listen to my Apple Music on shuffle most of the time. As I worked, I came across the song Silo Lullaby by Toad the Wet Sprocket, originally offered as a “hidden bonus track” on the CD Coil in 1997.

When I first got Coil, I used my made-from-scraps Windows 3.1 386-processor desktop computer to unhide the track, and played it many times. Later, in 1999, I went on a photo trip to New Mexico, called Villanueva, the tiny hamlet where I borrow a friend’s cabin, and still listened to Toad all the time. So, as can happen with music and the way it leads places in our imaginations, Silo Lullaby became something of an anthem, at least between my own ears, for that week in the desert.

That week in New Mexico was inspired by the beginnings of the move from printing film to scanning film at my newspaper, which meant I was suddenly in possession of rather a lot of orphaned black-and-white film and paper. What to do with it? Head west!

The Villanueva trip was a great opportunity to use my Fujifilm 6×7 GW670III, a rangefinder camera with a fixed 90mm f/3.5 lens, which was very sharp. The 6×7 negatives that came out of that camera were full of an amazing amount of detail.

The flaws of the Fuji in my workflow in New Mexico, however, remained as obvious as they had all those times I tried to use it in the newsroom: too slow to focus, plasticky controls, and because it was a rangefinder and used a mechanical parallax compensation system in the viewfinder, it was never really possible to take full advantage of the much larger area of the 6×7 cm frame size because something always ended up getting cropped in or out.

I was, and still am, pretty good with a rangefinder, since my first camera, a Yashica Electro 35 GSN I got for Christmas when I was 13, used a rangefinder. I had more time and less film in those days, so I spent a lot of time practicing with the rangefinder.

I don’t want to say my Fuji 6×7 was a failed purchase, but it certainly didn’t revolutionize my fine art photography.

In the end, I have built a career on discovering what does and doesn’t work for my photography styles; news, sports, illustration, fine art, travel, and on and on; and though I wish it had, the Fuji 6×7 just never worked for me.

Your humble host poses for a snapshot at White Sands National Monument on a sunny morning in September 2000. Hanging from my neck is the camera in question, the Fuji GW670III Professional 6x7, wearing a B+W deep orange filter.
Your humble host poses for a snapshot at White Sands National Monument on a sunny morning in September 2000. Hanging from my neck is the camera in question, the Fuji GW670III Professional 6×7, wearing a B+W deep orange filter.

A Solution without a Problem

For a long time, Sony was mostly known for their consumer electronics, like the Walkman, the Discman, DVD and MiniDisc players, televisions and more. In fact, my first television was a 13-inch Sony Trinitron.
For a long time, Sony was mostly known for their consumer electronics, like the Walkman, the Discman, DVD and MiniDisc players, televisions and more. In fact, my first television was a 13-inch Sony Trinitron.

The biggest news in photography in recent weeks has been Sony’s announcement of their release of the Sony A9 III, a $6000 mirrorless camera that is equipped with the first-ever global shutter.

Do a web search for “why is global shutter a big deal?” and you will find no shortage of articles and videos explaining why. At the top of all these lists are “rolling shutter” and “flash sync speed.”

As I read and watched these items this week, I kept coming back to this: I know what these problems are, but when do I experience them? The answer kept coming back again and again: never.

So what are the possibilities? Am I somehow divorced from the technology because of my age and experience? Am I cynical about endless technological developments as needless, pointless corporate money grabs? Am I somehow missing the point?

It’s not easy to write off my answers, since I make pictures for a living, sometimes thousands in a week, and I really don’t run into these problems.

Last week another photographer, a Sony shooter, echoed my sentiment: what does global shutter do for us? Are these actual problems that need to be solved, or is this just another technology to buy to “keep up with the Joneses?”

Let me also say that I don’t want to be that old guy shouting, “Back in my day, all our film was ASA 25. You kids and your damn contraptions! Get off my lawn!”

Here is a strange gift from Sony: as the sensor on my well-used Cybershot F828 started to malfunction and generated this this pattern for me, which reminds me of the tesseract from Intergalactic.
Here is a strange gift from Sony: as the sensor on my well-used Cybershot F828 started to malfunction and generated this this pattern for me, which reminds me of the tesseract from Intergalactic.

Okay, the final elephant in the room: video. This might be the obvious answer to the question of why global shutter is so significant. I don’t shoot a lot of video, and aside from a few people in my area who work in media relations, I don’t see a lot of “produced” video, just start-and-stop video from smartphones posted to social media.

Video in the last few years has become so self-referential, it’s hard to remain interested. There are so many videos on how good camera are at making video, but very little actual content produced from those cameras. “See what the new (brand) can do! Isn’t it amazing?”

So, is global shutter a solution in making videos? If it is, I’m not really seeing it. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Do you have a video that you have produced that benefits from global shutter?

Another angle: digital camera sales have been way down as they compete with the cameras built into smartphones, even to the point that a lot of my photography students are pulling camera out of their bags that they neglected, telling me that want to learn to use it, “but I’ve mostly been shooting with my phone.”

How can they compete? The only way is to produce cameras with more features, with faster this and that, sharper this and that, cooler this and that. Global shutter is one of those things. And you can’t make cameras slower and heavier, even if you are trying to make it more affordable, because no one says, “You saved money? Cool!”

What do you think? Is this a solution to a problem, or a solution looking for a problem?

I dug through my photo junk, and this, the Cybershot F828, is the only Sony camera I own.
I dug through my photo junk, and this, the Cybershot F828, is the only Sony camera I own.

Some Truly Amazing News in Photography

This week Fujifilm announced their newest camera in the “medium format” digital market, the GFX100 II. I am very excited by this camera, for several reasons.

Fujifilm announced their new medium format digital camera, the GFX100 II, this week. One of Fuji's marketing taglines for this line of cameras is "More than full frame."
Fujifilm announced their new medium format digital camera, the GFX100 II, this week. One of Fuji’s marketing taglines for this line of cameras is “More than full frame.”
  1. Fujifilm has always been a favorite brand for me. My first single lens reflex (SLR) camera was a Fujifilm ST-605n, which I bought in the summer of 1978.
  2. Fujifilm has been developing one of the most interesting lines of camera and lenses on the market today.
  3. Fujifilm understands that the idea of “full frame” for digital imaging has always been a compromise, as in, “full frame” is a full frame of what? 35mm film, a format that was the most popular film size in history, but which was never the film format that resulted in the best image quality.
  4. As a result, Fujifilm has developed two successful lines, one smaller-format, APS-C sensors, the other a larger format, in this case a 43.8mm×32.9mm sensor, about the size of a Post-It note.

The specs on this new camera include the ability to shoot 8K video, but in a world of 100-million-dollar action movies, more video resolution might be a selling point, but as it increases by leaps, my interest plunges by leaps. Imagine, for example, how much better your videos might be if you went to filmmaking school with the money you’d use to buy all the cameras you think you need to make films.

At the heart of any digital camera, from your smartphone to the biggest, most-expensive digital camera, is the imaging sensor. This is one I took out of a dead Nikon D100.
At the heart of any digital camera, from your smartphone to the biggest, most-expensive digital camera, is the imaging sensor. This is one I took out of a dead Nikon D100.

Of course new, this camera’s price is high, though not as high as cameras in this class once were. If I were constructing a camera system from the bottom up, and image quality, especially in terms of maximum resolution for high-end photographic applications like portraiture, advertising, product and food, or fine art are concerned, this camera might be the cornerstone of that system.

But honestly, how many pictures made with incredibly powerful digital cameras end up on social media and nowhere else? Does it make sense to make images at resolutions like 12,000 x 9000 pixels, only to have it instantly reduced to 2048 × 1371 by Facebook? And does it make sense to spend $7000 so your friends will ooo and ahh at you on Instagram?

In a way, this feels like a call to photographic artists to resolve to do more – much more – with their images. Think about how much more satisfying, and long-lasting, it would be to have some of these super-resolution images printed really big and displayed in our homes, in galleries, or for sale to the public? How great would it be to spread out a dozen of your best images, all printed the size of posters, for sale on the Plaza in Santa Fe?

I have been to Santa Fe, New Mexico many times over the years, and I have always loved it's artsiness, and have often daydreamed that someday I might like to sell my images there.
I have been to Santa Fe, New Mexico many times over the years, and I have always loved it’s artsiness, and have often daydreamed that someday I might like to sell my images there.

A Look Back: The Nikon N6006 and N8008

Between gifts from readers and estate sale box buys, I have a nice collection of cameras. From actual antiques to digital cameras that are almost up-to-the-minute technology, it forms a timeline of photography on my selves.

The Nikon N8008 and N6006 pose in my home studio.
The Nikon N8008 and N6006 pose in my home studio.

Two cameras that fall in the middle of all that are the late-1980s, early-1990s Nikon N8008 and N6006. These cameras were among the first to provide fully automatic everything, from shutter speeds and apertures to film winding and rewinding.

My fellow photographers and I grew up believing that manually-operated, mechanical cameras were our only safe bet, so when cameras like these came along, we were skeptical. We were especially suspicious of cameras that didn’t allow us to wind the film to the next frame or rewind the film back into the canister when we were done.

The control quad on the top left of the Nikon N8008 and N6006 are similar but not identical. The location and shape are inherited from the location of a mechanical rewind knob on earlier 35mm cameras.
The control quad on the top left of the Nikon N8008 and N6006 are similar but not identical. The location and shape are inherited from the location of a mechanical rewind knob on earlier 35mm cameras.

It turns out were were mostly right. The tech of the late 1980s and early 1990s was transitional, and while I understand that cameras like the N8008 and the N6006 were a part of the transitions that got us where we are today, I wanted nothing to do with it. Croaked-out batteries didn’t just mean you had to guess the exposure. They meant you were done using that camera, and your film was a prisoner inside it, until you could get ahold of fresh batteries.

When handling these cameras, the thing that strikes me the most is how heavy they are. I expect this is because another issue in the transition from film to digital was the idea that plastic was “junk.” Honestly, that’s mostly right also. There have been a lot of strides in the last 30 years towards better materials, both in plastics and metal alloys.

The surfaces of both of these camera is slick and hard, offering an uncomfortable grip surface.

The main display panel on the Nikon N8008 is smallish and a little hard to see, and is very evidently a transitional phase between all-mechanical film cameras and all-electronic digital cameras.
The main display panel on the Nikon N8008 is smallish and a little hard to see, and is very evidently a transitional phase between all-mechanical film cameras and all-electronic digital cameras.

If you put batteries in these cameras, they seem to come on and run as expected, but that experience is as clunky and awkward as a 14-year-old boy asking a girl on a date. The buttons are oddly placed, the displays are small and not very contrasty, and the sound the camera makes – kerrrrclunk-whrrrrr – as it winds the film is like an underpowered VW microbus climbing a mountain pass.

Autofocus is barely there. That is an area of development that has skyrocketed in capability over the years.

Despite all that seems wrong with cameras of this ilk, I am glad I have them in my collection. They stand as a moment in photography history.

The Nikon N8008 and N6006 are shown with an AF Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, a lens these cameras wore as part of a kit. Some, including me, think this lens is among the worst Nikon ever produced.
The Nikon N8008 and N6006 are shown with an AF Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, a lens these cameras wore as part of a kit. Some, including me, think this lens is among the worst Nikon ever produced.

A Look Back: The Nikon EM

During my freshman year in college, I sold my first two cameras, a Fujica ST-605 and a Yashica Electro 35 GSN. I liked them both, but even at the age of 18, I knew I would want and need more – much more – out of a camera system. I loved my first cameras, but I quickly outgrew their limitations.

The Nikon EM sits in my home studio recently.
The Nikon EM sits in my home studio recently.

I turned to Nikon, which was very much the frontrunner in professional photography in 1982. The Fujica and Yashica weren’t worth much, so I combined that money and some saved lunch money and visited Lawrence Photo in Oklahoma City. Photographers might recall that they went out of business decades ago.

I looked at the long glass merchandise cases at all the Nikon cameras. The most expensive at the time was the industry-leading Nikon F3, but as a starving college freshman, a flagship camera might as well have been on top of Mount Everest.

I started looking at realist options. For a short time, I actually held, and considered, the Nikon EM. It was very affordable, and not a bad-looking camera (kind of cute, actually), but it had a fatal (in my opinion) flaw: no manual exposure control. In those days, it was almost considered a sin to not shoot in manual mode.

A roll of 35mm film sits in the film chamber of the Nikon EM to give a sense of how small this camera is.
A roll of 35mm film sits in the film chamber of the Nikon EM to give a sense of how small this camera is.

The camera I chose, and used until it died, was the Nikon FM, followed by a couple of Nikon FM2 cameras. These cameras were tough, solid, and completely manual-everything, and I made a living with them up to the time they died, which was also the advent of the digital age.

A kind reader recently gave me an EM. It appears to be in pretty good shape. The shutter runs and it looks like it is metering pretty accurately. Instead of manual shutter speeds, the exposure mode dial simply has B, M90, and Auto.

The exposure quadrant of the Nikon EM has the shutter release in the middle of the film wind lever. Shutter options are B, M90, and Auto. The button to the left of the shutter release is a battery test button, so when you push it, the little red LED next to it should light up.
The exposure quadrant of the Nikon EM has the shutter release in the middle of the film wind lever. Shutter options are B, M90, and Auto. The button to the left of the shutter release is a battery test button, so when you push it, the little red LED next to it should light up.

The B setting holds the shutter open as long as you keep the shutter release button held down or open with a cable release, the Auto setting allows the photographer to set the aperture and the camera picks the shutter speed, and the M90 is an emergency 1/90th shutter speed that will run if the battery dies or is removed. There is a self-timer on the front of the camera in the traditional place, and there is a “backlight” button that serves as a one-dimensional exposure compensation feature; when you push it, the camera makes the image two stops lighter by switching the shutter speed two stops longer.

An interesting option for the EM was the MD-E motor drive, which would wind your film at a blazing two frames per second. You could use the MD-E on its successors, the Nikon FG and FG-20.

The baseplate of the Nikon EM shows where the MD-E motor drive would attach.
The baseplate of the Nikon EM shows where the MD-E motor drive would attach.

The EM was considered plasticky in its day, but in my hands it actually feels pretty sturdy. At the time of its release, 1979, Nikon’s “affordable” sub-brand was the Nikkormat line, and they were made of so much steel and brass, almost every camera after them seemed plasticky.

I’ve got a few rolls of film, but every time I think that sounds like a project, I recall the fact that all my film is expired by about 15 years, and how much it costs to have it processed, then, of course, scanned, which just makes it back into a digital image, so I’m not seeing a real reason to do it.

I seldom saw the Nikon EM in the field, and I never put a single frame of film through one, but thanks to my reader, I have another nice museum piece in my collection.

The Nikon EM sits on its back in my studio. It's actually a neat little camera.
The Nikon EM sits on its back in my studio. It’s actually a neat little camera.

A Look Back: The Fujica ST705

This week I added another handsome 1970s-era Fujica camera, the ST705, to my collection, thanks to a donation from a long-time friend.
This week I added another handsome 1970s-era Fujica camera, the ST705, to my collection, thanks to a donation from a long-time friend.

I ran into an old friend, Gerald, at the the park on Independence Day. Gerald’s wife Doreen took my photography class a few years back, and long before that, my wife worked for Gerald.

Gerald told me that he had an old camera and a few lenses for it, and asked if I would I like to have it to possible show to my class. Sure, I said, I never turn down a camera.

The Fujica ST605 and the Fujica ST705 sit on my glass dining table. The cameras are exactly the same size and weight, and are well-made.
The Fujica ST605 and the Fujica ST705 sit on my glass dining table. The cameras are exactly the same size and weight, and are well-made.

A few days later, a smallish camera bag appeared in my office, and I eagerly dug into it. I found, to my delight, that the camera was a Fujica ST705, one of the bigger brothers of the Fujica ST605, the first SLR I ever owned (link).

The 705 is the same size as the 605, and, in this case, came with the same lens, the lightweight, plastic 55mm f/2.2. The 705 has a full shutter speed value faster than the 605, at 1/1500th, as well as open-aperture metering.

Controls on most Fujica single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera are fairly simple, including this shutter speed dial on the ST705 that features 1/1500th of a second.
Controls on most Fujica single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera are fairly simple, including this shutter speed dial on the ST705 that features 1/1500th of a second.

Also in the bag was a 35mm f/2.8 Kamero lens, which interested me the most, since I have an adaptor to put M42 screw-mount lenses on my Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless digital camera.

The Kamero 35mm f/2.8 lens is well-made and decently sharp.
The Kamero 35mm f/2.8 lens is well-made and decently sharp.

I made a few frames with the 35mm, and was not disappointed, but also not surprised, since most normal and wide angle prime lenses are pretty sharp, even wide open.

Tomatoes sit in a bowl on my kitchen windowsill this morning. Shot with the 35mm f/2.8 Kamero lens on my Fujifilm X-T10, I was happy with the result.
Tomatoes sit in a bowl on my kitchen windowsill this morning. Shot with the 35mm f/2.8 Kamero lens on my Fujifilm X-T10, I was happy with the result.

I also found a Soligor 80-200mm f/4.5, a very common lens that is well-made and good-looking, but optically mediocre at best.

I had fun photographing this stuff, since I took the opportunity to shoot on one of my glass dining tables, allowing me to bring some light in from below.

The Fujica ST605 and the Fujica ST705 sit on my glass dining table. Note the red-filtered light from below, and the green-filtered light from behind and to the right. Both cameras are propped up on a roll of 35mm Fuji film.
The Fujica ST605 and the Fujica ST705 sit on my glass dining table. Note the red-filtered light from below, and the green-filtered light from behind and to the right. Both cameras are propped up on a roll of 35mm Fuji film.

 

The Sky was Alive!

Wednesday, April 19, 2023 began as most Oklahoma spring days do, with a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms, and a marginal risk of severe thunderstorms.

Robert makes a couple of frames with his iPhone as we exit a restaurant in Ada.
Robert makes a couple of frames with his iPhone as we exit a restaurant in Ada.

As it happened, fellow photographer Robert Stinson was visiting from Tulsa to do some photographic negatives scanning and archiving. We took a dinner break, and when we stepped out of the restaurant we discovered that the evening sky was maturing into something photographable, so we sprang into action.

Our first stop was the Ada Regional Airport, so we could use the Beechcraft Bonanza on display at the entrance as a compositional element, and it worked out pretty well.

Golden sunset light strikes the aircraft on display at the Ada Regional Airport. Above and behind it, the sky is bulbous with mammatus clouds, which indicates turbulence.
Golden sunset light strikes the aircraft on display at the Ada Regional Airport. Above and behind it, the sky is bulbous with mammatus clouds, which indicates turbulence.

As we drove the rest of the way into Byng, we started to see lightning coming from the clouds some distance to the north. We wanted to photograph it, but the evening sky wasn’t really dark yet, so I walked my wolfhound, then thought about where I’d like to be to photograph lightning.

As the evening faded, I took the opportunity to walk Hawken, my Irish wolfhound.
As the evening faded, I took the opportunity to walk Hawken, my Irish wolfhound.

I put my dog in the back yard, then went inside to grab a hefty tripod and my Nikon D700 with one of my favorite lenses, the AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 on it. I set it up facing true north, but as you know, thunderstorms move, and this one was moving northeast.

If you’ve ever photographed lightning, you know how fickle it can be. By the time you get set up to shoot it, the last bolt could have faded, and you end up with images of dark blue sky.

Another factor is being sure you are safe. In Oklahoma, thunderstorms can get severe pretty quickly, and lightning itself is very dangerous.

Wednesday night’s storm, however, was an entire county to the north, and as I was photographing it, unknown to Robert and me, it was spawning a destructive tornado in Shawnee, about 50 miles away.

I turned my camera more to the northeast, as that seemed to be where the lightning was moving. I started making images with 10-second exposures at ISO 400 with an aperture of about f/8.

There were quite a few strikes, but since they were far away, they were small in the frame, so I started thinking about loading all the frames into Photoshop and blending them, which I have only done a few times.

Robert left to go back to Tulsa, so I loaded my images, more than 200 for the entire evening, into Adobe Bridge, where I selected only images that had visible lightning in them, 21 total, and opened them using Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers. I then selected all the layers in the layers pallet, and selected the blending mode “Lighten.”

This is Photoshop with all the layers selected, but before I applied the blending mode.
This is Photoshop with all the layers selected, but before I applied the blending mode.

Wham. It was that easy. I admit to being surprised by the result. I’ll definitely use this technique again.

With one drag of the mouse, Photoshop blended 21 mediocre lightning shots into one eye-catching image.
With one drag of the mouse, Photoshop blended 21 mediocre lightning shots into one eye-catching image.

 

Photography is Full of Surprises

Photography, like many complex hobbies, can involve a great deal of head-scratching, second-guessing, and wishful thinking. So many photographers and those who would like to be photographers rest their hobby on, “If only I had (this lens or that camera)…”

The Sigma 400mm f/5.6 dates back to the 1990s, and, while it doesn't challenge today's huge super-zooms, it is surprisingly good if you know what you are doing. The rubber ring just behind the slide-out lens hood isn't originally a part of this lens, but a rubber wristband I sometimes use to keep the hood from collapsing in on itself as I use it. Some photographers use gaffer tape for this.
The Sigma 400mm f/5.6 dates back to the 1990s, and, while it doesn’t challenge today’s huge super-zooms, it is surprisingly good if you know what you are doing. The rubber ring just behind the slide-out lens hood isn’t originally a part of this lens, but a rubber wristband I sometimes use to keep the hood from collapsing in on itself as I use it. Some photographers use gaffer tape for this.

And sure, if I won the lottery… hm. You know what? Before I buy any more cameras, I think I’d buy an airplane.

But that’ll be the day, right? In the mean time, I am, and have been throughout my career, someone who puts hardware into my workflow to see how it will perform. Sure, anyone can shoot pictures of cats and brick walls, but those kinds of images will never tell you what you need to know.

With all that in mind, I got a grab-bag of photo gear before Christmas from an estate sale, and before long, I put all that hardware into action, including the Sigma 400mm f/5.6.

The front element of the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 is smallish by modern standards.
The front element of the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 is smallish by modern standards.

This lens was one of a group of lenses that were made by some third party, then labeled with brand names like Sigma, Tokina, Tamron, Pentax, and so on.

It was obvious from the day I took home those bags of camera gear that no one had made pictures with any of it for years, so it was exciting to use it.

The Sigma, however, comes from an era of sketchy quality control at the company, so I didn’t have particularly high expectations. I put it on my Nikon D3 and took it to tennis earlier this week, and I was able to surprise myself with the result.

The trick with a lot of lenses is that they are often not at all sharp at their largest apertures, and knowing that, I shot with the Sigma set at f/8, one full stop smaller than the maximum aperture of f/5.6, and sure enough, there was a sweet spot. Shooting at f/8, which in any situation is a small aperture, means either amping my ISO to about 1600, or putting up with slower shutter speeds. Even “stopped down,” though, this 400mm wasn’t as sharp as it’s 30-year-younger brethren.

So on sunny days when I want some reach and to carry a lighter piece of kit, look for me with this interesting legacy lens.

Traffic rolls down Mississippi Wednesday in this image made with the Sigma 400mm f/5.6, shot at f/8. This image is actually quite sharp.
Traffic rolls down Mississippi Wednesday in this image made with the Sigma 400mm f/5.6, shot at f/8. This image is actually quite sharp.

Another Camera?

As a photographer, I am friends with a lot of photographers, and we as a group tend to regard cameras and lenses as more than just tools of the trade, but as prizes and even works of art.

The small but mighty Nikon D5500 sits on a tripod in my home studio.
The small but mighty Nikon D5500 sits on a tripod in my home studio.

It goes without saying that this hobby can get pretty expensive pretty fast.

It also hopefully goes without saying that cameras that aren’t being used are a bit of a tragedy. It would be analogous to paint brushes that aren’t use to paint or kitchen utensils that are never used for cooking.

The Nikon D5500 has a swiveling/tilting monitor that displays a number of camera settings.
The Nikon D5500 has a swiveling/tilting monitor that displays a number of camera settings.

I thought of this the last few days for two reasons. First, I was in Oklahoma City to cover basketball playoffs, and that put me just a few minutes away from Bedford Camera. Second, I read an article this week about a couple who discovered over 2000 cameras and lenses in an abandoned storage locker.

And no, I am not making it my goal to collect 2000 cameras.

The monitor of the D5500 folds up for transport or storage, or to protect the display in rough conditions.
The monitor of the D5500 folds up for transport or storage, or to protect the display in rough conditions.

One of my very realistic goals, however, is to have the right cameras and lenses in my bag when I need them, and that goal includes the ideas that I need to be able to make good pictures, decent video, accurate notes, and, of growing importance, I need to be able to do all this in a way that keeps me mobile and healthy.

The only wear point on this camera seems to be on the front "D5500" medallion. I don't know who it could get worn, but as you can see, it is.
The only wear point on this camera seems to be on the front “D5500” medallion. I don’t know who it could get worn, but as you can see, it is.

Thus, as I was looking at some of the gear under the glass displays at Bedford Camera this week, one camera caught my eye, the Nikon D5500. This camera is at the top of the “advanced amateur” game, so it’s not really aimed at professional photographers like me, but it is small and very, very lightweight, and, thanks to a sag in the digital camera market and the huge upsurge in mirrorless camera sales, surprisingly inexpensive.

This particular Nikon D5500 is equipped with a third-party vertical grip, which holds two batteries. It's nice to have the extra power if I need it, but the real advantage of the vertical grip is in the way it improves the way the camera handles.
This particular Nikon D5500 is equipped with a third-party vertical grip, which holds two batteries. It’s nice to have the extra power if I need it, but the real advantage of the vertical grip is in the way it improves the way the camera handles.

Hopefully this camera will fill a niche for me for all those times you see me prowl around for hours at a time at events like Cruisin’ Main, AdaFest, the Stratford Peach Festival, and more, for which camera performance isn’t as critical as when I am shooting sports, and where lighter, smaller gear means fewer hotpacks and Tylenol at the end of the day for me.

In the coming weeks and months, I hope to take this small wonder to its limits, and see how it can help me make better pictures for you.

The top of the Nikon D5500 is small compared to my bigger, heavier pro cameras, and does not have an LCD display. Still, it is easy to see and use.
The top of the Nikon D5500 is small compared to my bigger, heavier pro cameras, and does not have an LCD display. Still, it is easy to see and use.

“A Magic Picture”

A friend in town messaged me recently asking if I would be at all interested in an old movie camera. My response was, as you might expect, heck yes. I never turn down a camera of any kind.

The full side view of the Filmo camera shows a large circular dial that allows you to put in various exposure factors, like winter or summer, deep woods or snow. It is only a guide - the photographer sets to camera based on this device.
The full side view of the Filmo camera shows a large circular dial that allows you to put in various exposure factors, like winter or summer, deep woods or snow. It is only a guide – the photographer sets to camera based on this device.

She dropped it by our newspaper office this week. I showed it to a coworker who immediately asked, “is that a video camera?”

In a way, yes, it is a video camera, or what would have been the equivalent of a video camera in 1940.

The camera is the Bell and Howell Filmo Autoload motion picture camera, and this little camera was full of surprises.

This sturdy metal door opens to allow 16mm film cassettes to be inserted.
This sturdy metal door opens to allow 16mm film cassettes to be inserted.

Firstly, it is a 16mm camera. Almost all the film cameras used by hobbyists throughout the 20th century were 8mm cameras. 16mm tended to be much more expensive, somewhat higher in image quality, and were mostly used by news camera people for theatrical newsreels and, in the second half of the century, television camera operators.

Secondly, it is surprisingly heavy. Despite being the size of a clutch purse, it weighs nearly as much as a modern laptop computer. I’m not sure who in the hobby would lug around such an instrument, but I guess its weight is a reminder of how well-built stuff was when they still made it out of brass and steel.

Lenses from many years ago seem quite small compared to modern large aperture lenses.
Lenses from many years ago seem quite small compared to modern large aperture lenses.

Thirdly, it used a 16mm film cassette. I’ve literally never even seen such a product, and even if I had one, I’d likely never find a place to have such film processed. I guess I could sent it off in one of those “memory boxes” I see on social media once in a while. You know the ones – pack up all of your film, prints, video cassettes, audio cassettes, and a myriad of other analog media – and have it transferred to digital in one form or another. But they don’t say they will process motion picture film, just that they will transfer it to digital.

As I prowled around the internet looking for information about this camera, I found a video that told me in the happiest, phonisest voice, that it was, “a magic picture that moves and talks that now comes to your screen at your command.”

So I’ll have fun playing with this beautifully-made relic. I might even use it as a prop in a photo session!

Removing the lens that came with the Filmo reveals that I could also use a Sylvania lens a photo buddy gave me last fall.
Removing the lens that came with the Filmo reveals that I could also use a Sylvania lens a photo buddy gave me last fall.

Four Decades with Nikon

Last week at the Oklahoma City Tennis Center, I was photographing a young Ada High School Cougar named Eden Boggs competing in the state tournament. Her opponent’s coach looked over at me and asked, “What lens is that?”

I told him it was a 300mm, and it was my workhorse lens for all sports in the spring and fall.

My workhorse long lens is the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4.
My workhorse long lens is the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4.

“It’s a Nikon?” he asked. I told him it was, and that I’d used Nikon equipment my whole career.

“Well,” he said, “I started with Sony so I still have Sony.”

I told him it was the same for me, ever since I bought my first Nikon camera, a Nikon FM, when I was in college in the spring of 1982.

Hm. 2022 minus 1982 = …yeah, my math must be off. Does that really equal 40?

Fun fact: since I had only my allowance and a part-time gig selling photos to Student Publications, I seldom had much money, so one month I bought the Nikon FM, then the next month I bought a 50mm for it, then a 28mm, then a 105mm. By the time I had my first newspaper internship, in May 1982, I had just barely enough gear to do the job.

The photography scene has certainly changed since then. In college, there was usually a week or two between shooting an image and actually seeing it. For the two summers I worked as a newspaper photography intern, shot-to-print times, due to deadlines, were usually a matter of hours or minutes. But neither offered the obvious advantage of instant review that digital gives us.

In the early digital era, there was a tendency for photographers to switch systems – sell all their gear from one brand and buy new gear from another brand – as technology matured very quickly, and camera companies introduced technically better products, leapfrogging over the competition for a while. That still goes on, but not like it did in the early-2000s, since some of the first digital cameras (the Nikon D1, the first Canon 1D, the Fujifilm Finepix S1 Pro) were quickly eclipsed by newer models with dramatically improved performance.

I never switched systems, since I was busy making pictures with what was in my hands, and since I started with Nikons, I stayed with Nikons.

This is a collection of some of my earliest Nikon cameras and lenses.
This is a collection of some of my earliest Nikon cameras and lenses.

How to Get a $5000 Camera for $500

One might think that this is an ad for one of those auction sites that claims, “I got this name-brand laptop for just $37!” But it’s not. Yes, I am up to my oldest trick: buying used gear for a small fraction of the original price.

The Nikon D3 sits tall on a tripod in my home studio tonight.
The Nikon D3 sits tall on a tripod in my home studio tonight.

What is it this week? I bought a Nikon D3 for just $500, thanks to some credit sitting in my Paypal account. Originally in 2007 it went for the actual MSRP of $4,999.95 (who imagines this is less than $5000?). The Nikon D3 is an absolute dream camera for someone like me who shoots news and sports in all conditions at all times of day. It’s got everything I need: clean high-ISOs, fast autofocus, long battery life, great handling, super-fast frame rate, good color, rock-solid build, and on and on.

If you use any Nikon DSLR made in the last 20 years, you will have no problems running the D3.
If you use any Nikon DSLR made in the last 20 years, you will have no problems running the D3.

Cameras like this are getting rock-bottom cheap thanks to the migration to mirrorless cameras. I have a camera in the mirrorless class, a Fujifilm X-T10, which I really love, but despite it being new just six years ago, it, too, was cheap on the used market.

Read more thoughts about that camera and mirrorless here (link).

The Nikon D3 has two Compact Flash (CF) card slots. You can program most two-card cameras to use the cards how you want, and I program mine to both write the same data so if one card dies, the other is a back-up.
The Nikon D3 has two Compact Flash (CF) card slots. You can program most two-card cameras to use the cards how you want, and I program mine to both write the same data to each card, so if one card dies, the other is a back-up.

Nikon’s latest mirrorless, the Z9, is incredible, as is Sony’s flagship camera, the A1, but I am finding that in recent years, cameras are quickly outclassing most photographers, whose photography, like mine, could be done with cheaper, uglier gear.

That is one reason I am unhesitant about buying well-used gear, especially gear that really looks used: I will be beating up on it from the moment it arrives, and every new camera I get looks like an old camera in less that six months.

I guess the question is: what if it breaks in six months or a year? New cameras have warranties and last longer! For $500, I’ve gotten my money’s worth in no time, and could replace it if I needed to with another $500 beater. And because I don’t feel like I have to treat it like a Ming dynasty vase, I’m not afraid to take a $500 camera to the house fires and severe thunderstorms and football sidelines in the rain.

I intend to throw this camera into the mix starting tomorrow.

With my use of the Nikon D700 in the last couple of years, my older AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8D has rapidly become my favorite wide angle lens, and I expect it will see plenty of use on my new used Nikon D3.
With my use of the Nikon D700 in the last couple of years, my older AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8D has rapidly become my favorite wide angle lens, and I expect it will see plenty of use on my new used Nikon D3.

Film Simulation Bracketing

An intriguing feature in my Fujifilm X-T10 is film simulation bracketing. When turned on, shooting one frame creates three JPEG files of the shot, each set to one of Fuji’s film simulations. You can choose which three film simulation modes you want in the menu. In this case, I told the camera to create one of each: vivid, sepia, and monochrome…

Vivid
Vivid
Sepia
Sepia
Monochrome
Monochrome

You can set the camera to use any of its nine film simulations. These frames are straight out of the camera, unedited. As you can see, a feature like this has some interesting potential.

Full-Frame Saves My Wide Angles

I am teaching another photography class this month at Pontotoc Technology Center.

On the first night of class, we talk about some of the basics of digital photography, and the topic of sensor size is always part of that discussion.

“A friend of mine wants to buy a ‘full-frame’ camera,” one of my group said.

My grungy Nikon D700 is shown with three wide angles that frequently find a home on it: the Sigma 15-30mm, the Nikon 20mm, and the Nikon 18-35mm. All three of these lenses were orphaned until the D700 came along.
My grungy Nikon D700 is shown with three wide angles that frequently find a home on it: the Sigma 15-30mm, the Nikon 20mm, and the Nikon 18-35mm. All three of these lenses were orphaned until the D700 came along.

Photography is full of misnomers and myths, and one of these issues is the idea that “full frame” is some kind of holy grail of sensor sizes. I hate to break it to the full-framers, but what, exactly, is this supposed to be a “full frame” of? It turns out, it describes a sensor that is the same size as a frame of 35mm film.

Over the decades of news photography, I used a lot of 35mm film, but whenever I could, I used larger film, as did most studio, magazine and portrait photographers. The bigger, the better. Having a larger negative meant you could make larger prints, since you didn’t have to enlarge the film area as much.

When digital came along, this idea came with it, and in the early years of digital, it made a giant difference, as most early sensors were quite small, and were prone to noise, bad color, and slow operation. The Kodak DCS 315, for example, had a 13.9 mm x 9.2 mm sensor, about the size of button on a shirt.

As time went by, sensors started to get bigger, until now we have some very large ones. The Fujifilm sells the incredible GFX100S, which sports a whopping 100 megapixel 33mm x 44mm sensor, and is currently being touted as “more than full frame” on their website. They are obviously after my heart, and my wallet.

Well, there’s the rub, really. We’d all love to shoot with these giant sensors with crazy huge resolutions, but the reality is that they are expensive. The GFX100S’s street price is about $6000.

So, maybe is does all come down to economics. My way to get around that is to buy yesterday’s treasures – used cameras – and take advantage of what they still offer even though they’re no longer shiny and new. My current “full frame” (although I just call it a 24x36mm) camera is the Nikon D700.

The main reason I have an use the D700 is that it breathes new life into three of my favorite old film-era lenses, a Sigma 15-30mm, a Nikon 18-35mm, and a Nikon 20mm. These lenses just sat on the shelf until the larger sensor came along, and now that are adding to my bag of tricks.

I love the way a good wide angle lens helps convey a sense of being right there in the midst of an event, like is this image of kids preparing for a Veteran's Day ceremony Thursday, Nov. 11 at Latta Panther Field House.
I love the way a good wide angle lens helps convey a sense of being right there in the midst of an event, like is this image of kids preparing for a Veteran’s Day ceremony Thursday, Nov. 11 at Latta Panther Field House.