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Part II; The Nikon Years

Almost every time I write about Nikon, I get the Simon and Garfunkel tune: “Kodachrome” earwig going. Can you hear it? 🙂

The “Nikon Years” – 1979 – 1983

Cameras.        I shot mainly with the Canon TX and a 50mm f2.8 lens for the next couple years. In 1979, I joined the photography staff at our College newspaper, and the photo editor and I became good friends. We lived in the same dorm, and at some point he and I worked out a deal in which I acquired my first Nikon, and became a near-lifelong Nikon guy. Again, at the time, the brand selection was nothing more than chance. But there was a perception, and a cachet, about a Nikon. You know, the “Kodachrome, they give us those nice bright colors … I’ve got my Nikon Camera … makes you think the world’s a sunny day,” kind of cachet. So I was excited about becoming a Nikon owner.

Nikon “Nikkormat” SLR Camera

The real motivation was that he traded the camera body and 3 lenses, and I wanted more selection. The deal we made was much more affordable for that same broke college kid, than purchasing another lens or two for the Canon. Ultimately, that Canon went to my sister. I don’t think she has it any longer, as we both moved on to digital years back.

Some of us tend to overvalue and undervalue certain camera components

My first Nikon was a Nikkormat FT, which was a “consumer” model made by Nikon for those of us who couldn’t afford (and perhaps didn’t need) their flagship Nikon F (and progeny) models. Some years later, after we had moved on to “electronic” cameras, I picked up a nice, used F2 and had a lot of fun shooting with it. But I probably owned that Nikkormat the longest of any camera (except the Asahiflex). It saw very regular use for two years as a Newspaper shooter and also the college yearbook staff. Then I went to law school in 1981. I think I got the camera out one time in the spring of 1982. After that, it stayed stored in the bag for many years. After law school, I got married, and got a job and bought a house.

Lenses.            It has been my experience that most new photographers (at least the “enthusiast” type – perhaps those with professional training got the benefit of wiser advice) go through a similar evolution. Some of us tend to overvalue and undervalue certain components. An experienced photographer knows it is not the sexy camera that is what matters. It is all about the glass. It usually takes us a while to learn that. The great irony is that we probably spend close to the cost of pro-quality glass, buy buying cheap glass high and selling it low, eventually going to the better glass anyway. But sometimes, it is just about the budget (and of course the manufacturers of less expensive glass appreciate and serve that market – nothing wrong with that).

An experienced photographer knows it is not the sexy camera that is what matters. It is all about the glass

In my case, the primary motivator for my “deal” was the 3 lenses. Ironically, I don’t even really remember what they were. None of them were Nikon. One was Tamron and one was Albinar, and maybe a Vivitar? One was a variable zoom, which I probably left on the camera most of the time (the other two, I rarely used). I did not have a 50mm lens, but picked one up shortly after, and used it more for my personal photography than any other. All but the 50mm were all cheap copies, and in 20/20 hindsight, the “trade” to obtain variety maybe did not really put me in the position I imagined. Or, maybe it did, because it allowed me to be able to shoot sports, speeches, and other events where I could not get close enough to make the “portrait” images called upon by the newspaper.

Medium.         Most of my personal work continued to be with Kodachrome. Kodachrome requires a unique, proprietary development process (which is part of what makes it “special” in my view – not that it does, but the results of the process). Kodachrome is actually a specialized black and white film base. Color dyes are introduced during the development process, rather than being imbedded in the film itself. Obviously, this is a much more complex technical process. And, unless you were in a major metropolitan market, the local processors could not afford the equipment, and development had to be by mail order. So I would shoot a roll or two and put them in my mailer with stamps, and then wait up to 2 weeks to get my results – a far cry from today, where we look at a representation of our results on the camera back, an instant after shooting.

Kodachrome 25

I did experiment a bit with Kodak’s other slide offering; Ektachrome. It used a less complex and more traditional development process (known as E-3), which meant it could often be developed locally, or in your own darkroom. It was also offered (eventually) in 64/160/200 (and in 1979, 400) ASA/ISO, which should have made it work well for more versatile lighting situations. But it didn’t have the richness of Kodachrome, and I always thought it looked too blue. I may have tried one of the other offerings out there but it did not seem like they were “ready for prime time.”

From that time, on, I always knew that I would have a color darkroom one day

Working for the Newspaper, however, put me with a different medium; one I had not used since the Kodak Brownie days. We shot exclusively black and white (B&W) film. We mostly used Kodak Tri-X film. It was rated at 400 and we often “push processed” it as high as 800 (ASA/ISO). It had a signature, grainy look that was pretty common for newsprint in those days and pretty good exposure latitude. This made it very versatile. I probably shot it 99% of the time. I did experiment with some lithographic film for making very high contrast black and white images (mostly for gravitars on signature lines).

One thing this experience did was gave me access to the darkroom. Because it was only equipped for B&W processing, it also drove me to experiment just a little with B&W in my personal work. I never really got good at it and never really got excited about it. But I learned things in the darkroom that would round out my photographic knowledge later. From that time, on, I always knew that I would have a color darkroom one day.

Doodads.        Really not much changed here for me. Mostly a polarizer and a rarely used cheap Velbon tripod. Most of the reportage shooting was handheld, of necessity. My personal work had not advanced to the level of appreciating a good support system yet. I did acquire a fairly powerful Vivitar Electronic Flash unit during this time. I used it when allowed. Flash has always been a bit of a mystery to me and it showed in most of my results.

Next . . . . “Updating”

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Renditions

Barns in Winter
(blue sky rendition)
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

Do you have a place or subject (or multiples) that have intrigued you as a photographic venue, but you just haven’t been able to “see” it through the lens the way your mind’s eye does?  A couple weeks ago, in my “Detours” blog, I spoke of a scene near where my office used to be, in Frankenmuth, Michigan, with red sheds against a weathered barn backdrop.  I probably drove by the scene several times a week and visualized it as an image.  A few times I stopped and “scouted” different angles and views and even took some “test” images.  Couldn’t get excited about any of the results.

I mean “manipulation” in the “good” – Ansel Adams – sense

And then one marvelous late spring morning, we had one of those totally unexpected snowfalls.  Probably a couple inches of wet, heavy snow following warm conditions.  It sticks to everythingSnow is one of those useful  elements that hides things in photographs that we don’t want to see.  So I had to take a “detour” on my way in that morning and was able to make a few “nice” images of the scene.

Barns in Winter
(original color image)
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

But there were still some elements of the image that just didn’t “work.” One was the leaden, grey sky.  As the opening image illustrates, I had images in my collection with clear blue sunny skies too, so I looked at the metadata.  I recalled that what actually happened is that the morning of the snowstorm, it was overcast.  I hadn’t thought of the image in monochromatic terms, because – well – I haven’t tended to think other than in color for most of my years of photography.  Until recently.  My “mind’s-eye” image had blue sky for color contrast.  But the sun did shine the next day and I got out there again, before things melted, and was able to get the blue sky.  Not sure it was an improvement 🙂 .

some elements of the image … just didn’t “work”

So, the barn scene was an addition to my collection of barn images, but it wasn’t until my recent, winter-doldrums, experimental phase, that I started looking at it again and seeing some possibilities for image manipulation (yeah, there’s that “nasty” word again).  I mean “manipulation” in the “good” – Ansel Adams sense.  So I began trying some different renditions.  Here, I show the progression of my photographic images.  In a future blog, I will show where maybe I crossed the line or went over the top, or something like that 🙂 .

Barns in Winter
(B&W Conversion)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

As I worked with the image, I could see that it had some characteristics that I have come to believe lend themselves to monochromatic presentation.  There are some prominent graphic shapes here to work with.  And in spite of the denuded trees in the background, there is not a whole lot of fine detail in this image.  There are some really good contrasting colors:  black, white and red.  As I thought about the post-processing of this scene as a B&W image, I felt that the red really needed to stay in.  The original image, post-processed in PS ACR and then Nik, shows a surprising amount of color.  It is spring and there is a lot of red in the new growth of the tree branches.  The sky, though grey, shows tones of magenta and even blue.

I hadn’t thought of the image in monochromatic terms, because I haven’t tended to think other than in color for most of my years of photography

I used Nik Silver Efex to render the image in B&W (a turn away from ON1 – more on that in another blog).  With B&W, I have learned that more is better in many cases, when it comes to contrast.  So I turned back to ACR first, and re-worked the raw image, “goosing” up the contrast.  In Silver Efex, I didn’t use any of their presets, but “worked” it to my own liking.  I then used a couple of the other Nik modules to do some “local” editing, adding some contrast and “structure” (which is, as I understand it, contrast adjustment aimed more at the middle tones).  I like the result.  But it it isn’t “spine tingling.” 🙂 .

Barns in Winter
(“colorized” B&W)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

That’s o.k.  I knew I was moving toward the “colorized” image here.  Using PS layers, I painted the red back in, and made some additional local adjustments to contrast and brightness.  I added a lot of structure to the snow in the foreground, along with some brightness.  The end result is an image I really like.  And it finally approaches the “mind’s-eye” image I visualized that spring morning.

What’s Next?

Venice Rooftops
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

In keeping with my latest theme, “playing,” I am still trying some new things.  I have been a student all my life.  I like to learn.  I don’t necessarily like to test though 🙂 .  In my “day job,” I have always felt that one of its positives was that it required me to be a lifetime student.  There are always good, new things to learn.  Indeed, if you aren’t actively learning, you are probably moving the wrong direction; backward.

So lately, I have ramped up the “learning” process in my photography.  And one of the areas that has always frankly intimidated me is black and white.  It may be because it is graphic and highlights the shortcomings of my craft.  It often lays the important elements of exposure and compositional interest bare.  And perhaps because it is relatively uncharted territory for me.

If you aren’t actively learning, you are probably moving the wrong direction; backward

I shot a fair amount of B&W in college, out of necessity.  I was on the college newspaper staff.  It was printed in B&W and we had a B&W darkroom.  I learned just a few things.  I have, of course, forgotten most of them 🙂 .  But that was mostly reportage.  the subjects were usually people and events and it was rarely a matter of “art.”  So when I look at some of my landscape and art-based images and think about them in black and white, I realize how little I know of the craft and how much I have to learn.  Some years back, I read Ansel Adams books on the Negative and the Print.  I really need to revisit them (but they are currently packed away in a box somewhere, awaiting my someday final move to Florida).  I am currently reading Michael Freeman’s “Black and White Photography,” but have a ways to go into the book before I venture into to much post-processing work.

B&W is uncharted territory for me

Meanwhile, I continue to experiment.  The opener here is an image that by now should be familiar, with a layering technique I have read about as a method to “colorize” a single element of a B&W image.  A bit sophomoric perhaps, by my beginning into experimentation with B&W.

Barn in B&W
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

I have been spending some time pouring through my image library for shots the might “work” in B&W.  One of the things I have learned from the Freeman book is that there may be some images in my library that don’t really make it as color images, but that actually might work better in B&W.  The barn image, in my view, might be one of them.  This image is a composite from the pencil drawing below (from Painter Essentials), layered with the original image, converted to B&W in NIK Silver EFEX Pro.  I want to add some gritty-ness to the image and the layer seemed to do it for me.

Barn; Pencil Drawing
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

More to come. 🙂