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Cruising “The British Isles” – 2019

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our recent Celebrity Cruise was entitled “The British Isles.” So why did I lead with the Eiffel Tower? The cruise “title” is mostly accurate. One would generally think of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and perhaps a couple smaller islands as the British Isles. Our cruise included ports of call in LaHavre, France, Bruges, Belgium, and Amsterdam, Netherlands. But who is complaining? 🙂 . As I often do, I made several hundred images over a 2 1/2 week period. In coming weeks, I will give a more detailed accounting of each of the many new places we visited. Today, I wanted to give just an overview of what a huge territory, and vast subjects we covered.

Dublin Port
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I have mentioned a few times here, that my wife and I like to cruise. When we can find like minded companions, that just makes it all the more fun. There were 4 of us this time, and I am pretty sure I can vouch that we all enjoyed our time in Europe. When we go to a new destination, we like to arrive in the departing port city a few days ahead, to explore, enjoy, and get to know the city. Though my wife and I had been to Dublin before, we found many new things to see and do during  our 4 days there.

Bushmills, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

When we were in Ireland back in 2014, we made a very brief trip into Northern Ireland, to see the Church where King Brian Boru was buried. This time we had a full (very full) day from our port of call in Belfast. Our driver and guide, Mark, was as good as we have ever had, and he had some surprises in store for us. As an “outdoor” photographer, I love a pretty scenic image. Northern Ireland did not disappoint. Indeed, as I have been processing images, it is “sneaking up on me,” that Northern Ireland may have been my favorite stop of this trip. I would definitely return and explore further, if given the opportunity.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The following day, we arrived in Liverpool, England, across the Irish Sea. We were scheduled for a Beatles Tour (what else would one do in Liverpool? – well; stay tuned, it turns out: a lot). For my Michigan friends, my quick research lead me to (wrongfully) conclude that Liverpool would be like Flint (maybe we need to organize a Grand Funk Railroad tour in Flint?) :-). Look for my upcoming post on Liverpool. It was eye-opening for me.

Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Next, we were back across the Irish Sea, and in the south of Ireland, at the tiny, but beautiful little port of Cobh. Cobh possibly rivals Northern Ireland in my view, for photographic potential. I made some nice images there, though at least one of them was one of those (perhaps hackneyed) “must do” shots that has already been done thousands of times. Known locally as “The Deck of Cards,” maybe I was able to make a unique “take” on the famous row of houses with the cathedral in the background. I will let you be the judge: again, in the weeks ahead. We overnighted in Cobh, and spent a day there, and a day touring Blarney Castle (site of the famed, “Blarney Stone”), and Cork City.

St. Pancras Train Station
London, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

By then, we had spent most of 8 days on our feet. Blessedly, the following day was an “at sea” day. It allowed for some much needed “R&R.” After our day of rest, we arrived in the British port of Dover. For reasons I will expound on when I get to Dover and London, a few weeks out, I might have planned this stop a little differently. But we took the train to London and had a day-long “Black Taxi” tour of London.

Champs – E’lysees
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our next port of call was LeHavre, France. We again overnighted there (this was unprecedented for my wife and me – two full overnight stops). We took advantage of an early arrival and a late departure 2 days later, and again rode the train to Paris, where we stayed overnight. A huge city, we spent 2 very full days there. That barely scratches the surface, but we saw a lot during our time there and I thought it was not only very worthwhile, but one of the highlights of the cruise. I will note in upcoming blogs, that both London and Paris really need multiple-day visits to do them justice. Unless a cruise ends or originates there, it probably they don’t really lend themselves to cruising.

Bruges, Belgium
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Again, not really the “British Isles,” we ended our cruise with stops in Bruges, and Amsterdam. Known for its beer and chocolate, I sampled a little of both in Bruges. It is an impressive, historical, and very small city, which was well worth the visit. In Amsterdam, we rode the canals, did the obligatory walk through the “red light” and “cannabis” districts, and generally saw some impressive sites. Amsterdam is, again, a massive city. We only got a little taste of the more touristic (as they say in Europe) parts of the city.

Amsterdam, Netherlands
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In the end, we were exhausted, but the trip served up many new places, and added to our list of places to explore in more detail in the years to come. The only “gear” I carried was the Sony small camera (RX100iv) and my small tripod (which did not see any use). On cruises, it is rare to be on location in early morning, late afternoon, or at night. The only possible “night” shot might have been the Eiffel Tower, but the timing and place were just wrong. If I were to make a longer stay, land based trip, I might rethink the gear. I love the lightness and portability of the small camera. But I find myself missing the versatility of the DSLR on some occasions. The coming weeks will cover each of the above – with images – in more detail.

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Odds & Ends

My recent series on my “evolution” got me thinking a little more about “gear.” I have done this before, in perhaps a different way.

Sirui 3023 carbon fiber tripod

As photographers, we spend a fair amount of time on art and a fair amount of time on gear. But the gear tends to be heavily stilted toward cameras and sensors. And there certainly has been no shortage of new developments in camera and sensor technology to discuss. But there are some other “odds and ends” which I think are pretty essential toward our craft. There is a lot of shooting that I do these days with just a camera in hand – and in the end – that is the essence of photography: making images with a camera. But whenever possible, I use aids to assist in the craft. One item I have been pedantic about over the years has been tripods. I try to shoot from one when circumstances allow – or demand.

Surui 3021

Surui 3021 small tripod

I have two tripods I regularly use these days. The primary tripod is a medium large, carbon fiber tripod. I use a Sirui 3023, but there are many affordable and similar models available. I also use a very small (also Sirui – 3021)) tripod, which works not only wonderfully well for travel and for my very small Sony RX100-4 camera, but also for the larger gear, in a pinch (especially during travel). The beauty of the small tripod is that it folds to around 12 inches, and is very light, while still being reasonably stiff. It can require some bracing technique though, particularly with heavier equipment mounted. There are other, more affordable small setups (notably the MeFoto aluminum model, which is slightly larger, heavier, and pound for pound, not a rigid a base as my carbon fiber setup). Here are some of the items I consider essential aids to shooting from a tripod.

Heads

As I noted recently, the tripod head de-rigueur, for many years now, is the ball head. Again there are various models of ball head available. The heads were popularized by action shooters, as it is much easier to move the camera around to stay with any moving target. The biggest problem with ballheads is that it is difficult to make them firm enough to avoid “creep” when setting up an image. Generally, it is a function of the size of the ball, and the construction of the clamping mechanism. The larger the ball, generally, the more rigid and stable the operation. Particularly if you are shooting large bodies/lens combinations, if you don’t use a fairly large ball, you will experience “creep,” which makes it difficult to compose a still scene in which you are being picky about composition. I learned I had to almost anticipate that it would creep downward a bit and tighten the ball head above where I wanted it to end up. My former, Induro tripod had a very large ball and it worked better. But none of them – in my view – work as precisely and surely as the old 3-way heads.

The biggest problem with ballheads is that it is difficult to make them firm enough to avoid “creep” when setting up an image

Even better, is a “geared” 3-way head, which essentially allows micro-adjustment in each direction. The problem has been – until recently, the available solutions were limited. Bogen/Manfrotto has made a nice, lightweight geared head – the Manfrotto 405. There are two major problems with it for me. First, it costs about $560 dollars. That is a budget issue. Second, and the real deal-buster, is that it has the clunky and insecure (in my opinion) Manfrotto quick-release system cast onto the head. For the more budget conscious, they do also offer the “Jr” model, (the 410) at $299 – but still with the QR system. I couldn’t make that work for me.

Benro Arca-Swiss compatible 3-way tripod head

To solve the QR issue, I could have purchased the very nice, well-built and sturdy Arca-Swiss geared head, with the dovetail QR system I prefer. Now we are in a range from about $1,500 to $850! Still couldn’t justify that cost. I have been perplexed for some time why other manufacturers haven’t produced a dovetail QR system geared head. Finally, in 2018, Benro introduced a 3-way geared head, at a comparatively reasonable, $200. After some research, I bought one. While I haven’t thoroughly field tested it yet, I have it on my large Sirui legs, and have used it enough to know it is what I had been waiting for. To each his own, but for landscape and architectural shooting, this is really a winner for me. I kept the Sirui Ball Head in the bag in case I wanted it for some action shooting – but not really being my shooting style, I doubt it will see much use. For portability, I will keep the ball head on the small legs and live with it for travel.

L-Brackets

The L-Bracket is an ingenious contraption that has become – for me – an indispensable item. It replaces the dovetail plate on all my cameras. The design is such that you can remove the camera from the tripod, rotate it 90 degrees, and re-attach it, keeping the image plane on the same axis. It makes shifting from landscape to portrait mode for the same scene very easy, with no adjustment necessary to the horizontal axis. I do that a lot, and wondered, after finally obtaining one, why I didn’t do so much sooner.

Dovetail L-Bracket

Like any equipment item, there are certainly disadvantages to L-Brackets. They add some bulk and weight to the outfit. These days, however, the extruded and cast aluminum and magnesium manufacturing and engineering processes have allowed for some very small and light pieces. I have a bracket on my Sony 7r that is barely noticeable.

Another major drawback to these brackets is that they tend to be expensive. They were, at first, produced as specialty items by companies like Kirk and Really Right Stuff. Both companies are small, U.S. based companies, and their costs – as well as the R&D for these items make them an expensive choice. Also, the majority of them are camera-specific, meaning each new body design begets another needed re-tooling and design of the brackets. Of course, this also means you have to add the cost of acquisition of one of these, each time you change camera bodies. And, for effective use, you really need to have one attached to each camera you carry. There are some universal brackets on the market, but in my experience (I have tried them) they are ineffective because they allow the camera to turn. An effective bracket must be physically married to the body in a way that it seems integral and doesn’t allow for even a fraction of movement.

All said and done, an L-bracket is an item I wouldn’t be without

Competition (and perhaps either the expiration of – or bypassing by unique design – of patents) means that today, there are dozens of these items available by different sellers (a quick Amazon search produced at least 20 pages of them there). While you have to do your research, many – if not most – of them are well made, lightweight, and much more reasonably priced. I have used the Sunway brand (I am sure, just an import name for a bracket line that is manufactured for many other sellers – most likely in China) and found them to be very good, effective and reasonably priced, for the most part. All said and done, this is an item I wouldn’t be without.

Level

I began photography in 1976-77. For the next approximately 30 years, I shot landscape images and more often than not, as time went on, did so from a tripod. And my eye for level was pretty good. At least that’s what I thought. :-). Here is the reality. They weren’t, and nobody else’s are either! Our eyes-brain interaction compensates for so much. It tells us what a level horizon in our view is. But the camera is mechanical. And because our eyes are so good, we trick ourselves into thinking our camera is level. Just look at the millions of “sunset” (very few “sunrise” 🙂 ) images over water on Facebook and Instagram that have tilted horizons. See, The world is not Flat.

Hotshoe Bubble Level

My good friend and gifted photographer, Al Utzig, in critique of some of my images a few years back, remarked that a few of my horizons were not level. I was inclined to disagree, but there are some mechanical tests that are brutally honest. I opened a couple of them in Photoshop and pulled a horizontal “guide” down to the horizon. Damn! Al was right (and not for the first time 🙂 ).

Before electronics became common in cameras, it was possible to change out the screen in the viewfinder of many of the higher-end cameras. I put an “architectural” screen in one of my cameras (cannot remember which one, but probably the N90s). It had horizontal and vertical lines etched onto it. When electronics did become common, “turning” these on became possible as an option – one I highly recommend for a number of reasons. But even with these aids, I frequently missed the boat with level horizons., more commonly with handheld images, but sometimes even with a tripod-mounted camera.  It was usually minuscule, but again, our eyes are good enough to sense something being not quite right about the image. The experienced eye recognizes it quickly as a tilted-horizon. Even with guidelines, it is possible for our own eyes to fool us.

3-axis Bubble Level

Shortly after our conversation, Al and I were shooting together, and he showed me an inexpensive little item that he religiously uses, and suggested I set up an image with my eyes and then we put it on my camera. It was a hotshoe-mounted bubble level. We did, and my eyes were wrong. The level is never wrong (assuming it has been manufactured to tight quality control). These plast gizmos should seem familiar to anyone who has ever used a carpenter’s level. The range in cost between about $4.00 and $15.00. My experience is that you may want to skip the $4.00 models, as they are often not manufactured to quality specs and may not – themselves – be level. Your mileage may vary. When I have purchased them, I have put them on a tripod on a level surface and actually done comparative testing with a carpenter’s level.

The level is never wrong

The two models pictured here are the most common. I have both. I prefer the cube myself, for a couple reasons. It is slightly bigger and harder to lose (they are easy to lose and having an extra is a good idea). I also like the way it reads and looks. All wildly subjective and aesthetic considerations. But here is a key point. These are known as 3-axis levels. Do not rely on the spirit level that it often part of modern tripod legs. While the might be helpful for setting up, they are essentially useless for the purposes here. There is a spirit level available, also, that mounts in the camera hotshoe. Again, in my opinion, do not waste the money.

Compass

While a compass is not an item one would think of as a photographic accessory, it is a very useful item. I always carry one in the field. As a one-time mentor said to me once, “the compass doesn’t lie” (though it can “fib” if you aren’t careful about how you use it. Because they are driven by the earth’s magnetic pull, you must be careful not to use it very near any magnets, or ferrous material). I use a software program called The Photographer’s Ephemeris, to do my pre-scouting and research. This mapping program gives an overlay of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset angles on the scene. When you arrive, it becomes pretty important to know at least the cardinal points (North, East, South and West) that the compass reading will give you. They are small, cheap, and an essential “carry” item.

Filters

There is a school of thought that after having spent $$$$ on expensive glass, you need to protect the front element by having a filter on the front of it. The most commonly used filter for this purpose is a UV or “Skylight” filter. Historically, these filters were designed to reduce the amount of ultra-violet light, rendering possibly better colors. Over the years, lens technology has included multi-coatings which integrally accomplish this purpose.

There is also a school that asks why you would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a highly engineered, quality optic for your camera, and then place another piece of – usually much cheaper and lower quality – glass in front of it. I am in that school. My gestalt view is that I never put anything in front of my expensive glass without a specific purpose. There are, of course some very good reasons. When I am around salt water and salt spray, I tend to have something on to protect my lens. If I am trying to achieve a particular effect, I use a filter. Usually, there are only two reasons I ever use a filter, and only two filters I use: a Polarizing Filter and a Neutral Density Filter.

I learned the virtue of a polarizing filter early on, probably because I had one and was able to play around with it. Polarizers mainly reduce “glare,” which is caused mostly by bright, blue light. Blue light rays are short and therefore often scattered. It is this scattering and omni-directional quality of the light that produces glare, and reduces the clarity of the image being captured. The polarizing effect creates a linear filter which only allows blue rays which are parallel to the filter to enter the lens.

There is also a school that asks why you would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a highly engineered, quality optic for your camera, and then place another piece of – usually much cheaper and lower quality – glass in front of it. I am in that school

There are some drawbacks to this filter, of course. The polarizer must be manipulated mechanically, by physically rotating it. This may be difficult in a handheld situation, and virtually impossible for “action” subjects. By its nature, it also reduces the light entering the lens, causing you to lose 1 to 2 effective stops of light. In tricky lighting conditions, this can be a handicap. However, with modern sensor technology, it is much easier to override this issue by bumping the ISO up with little penalty than it was back in my Kodachrome/25 ISO/ film days.

Another drawback is that they tend to be expensive. This is partly because of the technology needed to do them right. First, it requires dual rings in order allow the rotation. This can create a vignetting problem with wider angle lenses, and I always have purchased the thin ones, which are more expensive to manufacture. They also can create unnatural color casts, and the truly “neutral” polarizers just tend to be more costly.

To add to the issues, when auto-focus became more or less “the norm,” standard straight line polarizers interfered with the AF mechanism on most DSLR cameras, so circular polarizers, which were much more expensive, had to be purchased. The AF technology on the mirrorless cameras is different, and isn’t bothered by polarizers, and it was nice to be able to reduce my out-of-pocket for them once I shifted to my Sony mirrorless system. At the same time, some of this may be becoming moot. I shot with a polarizer on every lens probably 80% of the time for many years. However, with the software available today for post-processing, I use them significantly less than I did.

Neutral density filters are something I very seldom use, but almost always have with me. I generally use them in situations where I have too much light and am trying for a longer exposure – most notably water, and waterfalls. I use the square ones designed for a holder, and generally hand-hold them. There was a day when we used split-neutral density filters to try to bring high contrast scenes under control. The best example was a landscape in early light, where there was a bright sky, but shadows in the foreground. There was a line (it could be hard, or a gradient) halfway up the filter, with 1/2 being the ND filter and the other being clear. Because nature is rarely in perfectly straight lines, I found I had very little success with this technique, and once I learned how to blend images in Photoshop, stopped trying altogether.

Remotes

Popular wisdom has always had it that if you are going to go to the trouble of mounting your camera on a stock-still tripod, you should trip the shutter remotely. The theory is to avoid camera shake caused by our touching it. In fact there are many variables at play. There are times (e.g., a very windy day) when we must touch the tripod to brace it. Other times, I will admit to laziness, and have often triggered my camera with my hand resting on the tripod. Except in touchy situations such as, perhaps, a macro shot, I am not sure that – once everything is at rest – it truly makes that much difference.  Though generally, it is good advice, many shooters live life happily never having owned one.

There are various methods, from a mechanical cable release, to wireless, to using the self-timer on the camera. I don’t care for this latter method, mainly because of the degree of control you give up over the precise moment you want to trip the shutter. Most pre-electronic cameras had a mechanical, plunger wire type cable which screwed into the release on the camera, or around the housing of the release. Even my vintage Ashahiflex had one. Electronics in cameras, and particularly AF, changed all that. On most modern cameras, one or more electronic functions are actuated by a partial press of the release. This meant we had to go to electronic cable releases. Another cost, and something to screw into the camera body somewhere. I had the MC 30 release for my Nikons and they are still $65.00 at B&H. Of course, they were proprietary, though fortunately, the MC30 worked on all my cameras from the N6006 through the F800.

MC-30 remote

As great as their cameras are, Sony lags behind Nikon and Canon on accessories (especially flash). They just don’t have any elegant remote cable solution.  At some point, cameras began to be able to be remotely triggered wirelessly. Unfortunately, the built-in systems are just not very good. The wireless signal is not particularly strong and is very directional, meaning that you normally have to hold the wireless trigger close to either the front or back of the camera. In short, I have found wireless cables frustrating, and that wired cables interfere with my L-bracket. Plus, I like the idea of wondering away from the setup at times, while shooting.

Wireless remote

Having an affinity for gadgets, I recently purchased a Pixel Pro wireless remote apparatus that I am really enjoying. Part of what drove me to it was my flash setup. I needed to be able to trigger the camera and a flash setup with multiple flashes, and wanted to do it at night. The existing remotes weren’t up to the task. This unit only triggers the camera, but that sets the whole chain-reaction moving. This unit works even when I am a substantial distance away from the camera.

There is a downside, of course. It takes more batteries, more setup, and a learning curve to make sure everything will be working as expected when you are in the shooting situation. They work on channels and it is pretty important to make sure the sender and receiver are “married” at the same channel. And its just more moving parts to cart around. I will probably continue to play with it. But it may be more trouble than its worth. I will need to keep the focus on making good images and not having cool equipment.

Flash

My Asahiflex outfit had a large, bowl-shaped reflector which attached to a bakelite housing (holding 2 D cell batteries), which in turn attached to the side of the camera. When attached and turned on, triggering the shutter would also ignite a flash bulb. Some of us are old enough to have grown up with incandescent light bulbs and have experienced the pop when we turn on the light, and it burns out. Flash bulbs were light bulbs designed to do just that and to emit a certain color and intensity of light when they did. They were, unfortunately, one-time use, and relatively costly. They were also very hot to handle immediately after use. For those reasons, I seldom used flash.

Nikon SB600 Speedlight

In the ensuing years, electronic flash units became widely available, and were much easier (and perhaps safer) to use.  They are generally referred to as “Speedlights.” They only expended batteries. They were, in most cases, at least partially adjustable. And as camera manufacturers became more advanced, the electronics in the cameras controlled the flash, with properly dedicated units. None was better than Nikon, and it was pretty easy to set things more or less automatic and let the Nikon system do the work. Nikon’s TTL (“through-the-lens”) worked by reading the light measured at the film surface.

I have always thought and said that digital changed everything for the better. Well, it was not really everything. Digital really messed up electronic flash for a period. It could no longer read the light off the film plane and, at least in the beginning, unable to read it correctly off the sensor. Eventually, it has been resolved and, true to its reputation, Nikon probably did it best first. Today, they have their i-TTL system. The drawback is that it only really works well with certain newer cameras and flash units. And they are relatively expensive. The SB600 (guide number of 98/30) was $350. The SB600 is now discontinued, but it can be found used for around $100, which is a bargain. The upgraded model is the SB700 and is about $330. I am not sure it is worth buying against the 1/3 of the cost, used 600. It has a slightly higher guide number, slightly faster recycle, and built-in remote control (for what its worth, I have a third-party setup for this that works pretty well, on virtually any flash – more below). The SB600 worked perfectly well for my purposes, and I found it basically as good as I had experienced with my film based system. The SB800, was larger and over $500 new. It was eventually upgraded (replaced) by the SB900, which was upgraded to the SB910. All of these are now discontinued but can be found used at some pretty good bargains. The current big flash is the SB5000, at $600. Too rich for my blood. Again, these are tools, and if you make a living with flash, the $600 may well be worth it.

Nobody has really made a third-party flash that works as well as Nikon’s own system for Nikon. Once again, my switch to Sony threw me out of the “good flash” loop again. I have been a rare user of flash over the years. I have always carried a speedlight in the field when on a dedicated photography excursion. I have mostly done so because I will occasionally find a scene I wish to photograph where there are some deep shadows in daylight conditions. I use the flash to “fill” those shadows without blowing out the brighter parts of an image. Occasionally, I will use it for portraits in very sunny conditions, but I don’t do much with those. Part of the reason is that without a really good automatic system, proper use and understanding of flash involves math. “I was told there would be no math.” The very thought of math makes me quake with fear. I am one of those persons who cannot add double digit numbers without a calculator. :-).

Godox TT685 – Sony-dedicated Speedlight

Sony offers 6 dedicated flash units. One of them is small enough that I don’t consider it useful. One, the F60m, is still on Sony’s website, but it appears to be discontinued, as I only find it used on site like B&H. With a guide number of 60, it would work for me, but is a bit on the low power size for its $300 price tag. It also is reputed to have overheating issues, which shuts it down, apparently even during moderate use. The other 4 units range from $300 – $600. Sony also seems to have had some disorientation when it comes to their electronic shoe system. This means there are compatibility issues, and a given flash may only fit a given range of cameras – at least without an adaptor (another item, another cost). And none of them, frankly, are close to as good, or as turn-key, as the Nikon system.

Voking Speedlight

My current solution has been to buy a book, and try to learn the basic math (ugh), and go with third-party units. I bought a Godox (made in China and found and purchased on Amazon) unite compatible with my Sony A7. It has enough “automatic” features to work for my needs. I also wanted to experiment with multiple lighting and some night shooting, along with the ability to trigger the flash independently. So I later purchased a second, manual Voking branded light and a Godox TTL wireless flash trigger. Total cost to me for all of this stuff was under $200. The downside is it is more gear to lug, and more learning curve and setup and practice prior to going into the field.

Odds & Ends

It seems suitable to end with a connection to the blog title. There are a few items I keep in my bag, which (depending on the nature of the trip), I try to always consider:

  • Extra batteries and a couple chargers (you never know when one might fail)
  • Extra memory cards
  • Flashlight (and batteries) – (I also carry a headlamp with a red option, as red supposedly messes less with our night vision)
  • Proper clothing – especially rain gear (and covers for the camera and lens)
  • Towels and garbage bags (an assortment of large and small towels and large and kitchen size bags will be of great assistance in wet conditions)
  • Tools (small [jewelers] and medium phillips and regular screwdrivers, allen key/wrenches, small adjustable wrench, electrical and duct tape)
  • I keep a small spiral notebook and pen with me
  • First Aid Kit

 

Part V; Fundamental Changes

As I write this, it is amazing to me that I have been shooting with my current Sony system now for 10 years! It seems like only yesterday that I made the momentous complete switch to a new system and brand.

Fundamental Changes – 2007 to Today

Cameras.        During the foregoing time period, I owned a handful of small, “Point & Shoot” digital cameras. At first, it was the only affordable alternative, and for some of our personal use (travel, family events, etc.) was convenient to be able to shoot digitally, and then upload, send, and post images. We started with a Canon < 2megapixel model we ordered on QVC. It didn’t have a viewfinder and I always found that awkward. We used it some, but it wasn’t my personal cup of tea. Not sure what ever happened to it.

Nikon Coolpix 5000

  • Nikon Coolpix E5000.  In 2001, I purchased a Nikon model that was more suited to my liking, the Nikon Coolpix E5000. With a 5 megapixel sensor, a 28-85mm equivalent lens, a viewfinder, and raw capability, I was able to do a lot of what I was trying to do with digital capture. And, as you can see from the image although it was smaller than an SLR body, it was substantial, and had somewhat familiar controls for a Nikon SLR-user. All non-DSLR digital cameras back then had an unfortunate “lag” from the time you depressed the shutter and the actual capture. This was frustrating, though I did learn to capture action by using the burst mode and starting before I thought it would happen and continuing until after. With a very small sensor, there were also some limits to the image quality, and significant noise in low light conditions or high ISO images. I traded this one in when I bought the D100 DSLR.
  • Canon G12.  During the time I was shooting DSLR equipment, I wanted a small camera for convenience, daily carry, and travel. But I was only interested in one that would meet certain demanding standards: namely, high image quality files and raw capture/save capability. My research indicated that in the point and shoot line, the one camera that continued to stand out was the Canon G series. In 2012, I purchased a 10 megapixel G12, and shot that for a number of years. But as the DSLR lineup – and my personal ability to own them – got better, the point and shoot cameras were relegated to only occasional use. What they did have was the convenience of small size. The G-series were truly pocketable cameras. And that, we will see, drove my next phase of gear in a huge way.Both the Coolpix and the G12 had electronic viewfinders. Unlike the old 35mm viewfinder cameras that folks like Alfred Steiglitz made famous, the electronic viewfinders were electronically “linked” to the lens, so that it mimicked the look of an SLR “through-the-lens” viewfinder. Sort of. The were grainy, black-and white-ish, and not really a great representation of the scene. But the still beat – in my view – the LCD screens on the backs of consumer point and shoot cameras (a feature that these days comes on all cameras, including DSLRs). They weren’t great and they didn’t give the user experience the DSLR did. But technology marches on.

Canon G12

  • Sony NEX-6 – The Segue.     By 2013, we had begun to do a fair amount of travel. When it was a “dedicated” photo trip, lugging a bunch of gear seemed to be part of the mystique of the experience. And other items were held to the minimum necessary. It was a given that we would be checking bags. Most often those trips were with my buddy, Rich and involved just the two of us and our gear.

    Sony NEX-6

But my wife and I had also begun to take more extended trips, including some cruises, and some trips to faraway places. Sometimes it would be just us, and other times, we would join friends and/or family. Lugging photographic equipment (and even finding time to shoot in the best light) became a challenge. And even when we did travel, lugging the DSLR body and zoom lens around started to become a bit of drudgery. And because I was with a group and traveling more socially, so to speak, the shooting was less planned, the excursions less photography dedicated, and the time to focus on shooting curtailed. So I started thinking about alternatives. I needed something small, portable and relatively non-intrusive, while at the same time, rendering the image quality and giving me the setup flexibility I was used to.

I “met” pro shooter Ray Laskowitz years back on the old Nikon Professional Message board sponsored at AOL. Ray was always generous with advice, very knowledgeable about his craft and the equipment surrounding it, and very factual in his approach. We remained friends over the years, long after the AOL boards became nostalgic history. We e-mailed from time to time, and I was expressing my thinking about a “lighter” travel rig. I had “stumbled” upon the Sony NEX “mirrorless” interchangeable lens cameras, and in particular the NEX-6 and 7 models. When I raised that with Ray, he told me had had been shooting with a couple of the NEX-7 models for some time and was very impressed. He encouraged me – for numerous reasons – to give the “small camera” a try. At the time, I owned Nikon’s estimable D7000 (arguably the best and most popular APS DSLR they ever made). The image quality, even in low light situations was excellent. The APS sensor in the NEX-6 was said to be the very same sensor as the D7000 sensor (or very close). So I traded the D7000 in for a used NEX. That camera was my first introduction to mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras; and to Sony. I was dually (see what I did there?) impressed. In fact, I can say it is one of the few cameras I have owned, that I truly regret not keeping. It sold me on Sony and what they were doing in the photographic world.

Japanese Maple Leaves
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

The NEX-6 generally sold as a kit with a Sony 15-50mm f3.5/5.6 zoom lens. It was frequently discounted by writers and critiques as not a very good quality lens. I found it to be of very good quality and very versatile. And it was small! The entire rig was reminiscent of the old viewfinder cameras. Two other things got me excited about my new find. First, the new electronic viewfinders were (are) amazing. They are full color, and it is virtually indistinguishable from looking through the through-the-lens prism viewfinders I had grown so used to. And, because they were fully electronic, they could be programmed to work in what we might call “real time.” As you change the exposure solution (shutter speed or aperture) the viewfinder can actually darken and lighten, simulating what the exposure might really look like. I have now grown so accustomed to these electronic viewfinders, that when I pick up a DSLR, it often confuses me as I make changes and nothing seems to happen. The second think was that Sony entered into a partnership with the acclaimed Zeiss Optical Company. This meant that they were manufacturing lenses with Zeiss specs, under Zeiss supervision, and also that Zeiss was manufacturing lenses that were designed to mount on Sony Cameras. The 24mm f2.8 Zeiss lens I shot on this camera had the most amazing bokeh of any lens I have ever owned. The Japanese Maple was in my front yard and I took this image with the NEX-6 – Zeiss 24mm combo shortly after rain one morning. The daylilies were also shot in my front yard with this combo. Keep in mind that on the APS sensor, the 24mm appears more like a 35mm in terms of 35mm film/sensor size.

Sony NEX-6; Sony-Zeiss 24mm f1.8 lens

  • Sony A7 ILCE.  I probably should have been satisfied with the NEX-6. But I was hung up on the thought that I “needed” so-called “full frame.” So I shot with my Nikon D800 for a while as my primary camera. Having the pro Nikkor lenses was also partly a motivator. But I remember doing some side-by-side comparison shots at one point and not being able to say the Nikkor pro lens was any better than the Zeiss. I may have had my own bias by then, but I preferred the Zeiss look. But wanting the “full frame” for image quality, I waited until Sony introduced the first “full frame” mirrorless camera, the A7. I took a leap of faith, and traded my entire bag of Nikon gear in for the A7, the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 zoom, and the Sony 70-200 f4 zoom. The entire setup is smaller and lighter. In 20/20 hindsight, I gave up an awful lot in those two stops of aperture – not so much in versatility – but in the loss of the really nice blurred backgrounds the wider apertures provide. And in 20/20 hindsight, I was also amazed at just what great bokeh a quite wide angle lens on a much smaller sensor size produced in the APS-matched 24mm Zeiss. Those extra stops of aperture on the wide end are truly enviable. I have never been able to reproduce that with my current gear (even with a 50mm 1.8 Sony lens on the A7 – its just not Zeiss optics). I am not saying I regretted the change. I did like the smaller, lighter setup, and the A7 (now a pretty old model) is a quality piece of equipment.But my buddy, Rich, a couple years later, asked about making the same switch and I told him for our shooting styles, I wouldn’t do it again. He had an identical setup to mine at that point (a D800, the same two pro Nikkor lenses, as well as my old Tokina ATX-AF 300 f2.8 and a nice Sigma 24-70 zoom).  This reflection was particularly in light of another shooting change I made shortly after buying the A7.

Sony A7

Over time, I have come to feel that in today’s world, with my presentation needs, I really didn’t need “full frame.” And, at the same time, the quality of every part of digital technology continues to improve. But APS would have been fine, and if I could turn back time, I would have kept the NEX-6 and concentrated on lenses.

Sony RX100-iv

  • Sony RX100.    I carried the A7, with the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 on the next 2 or 3 major trips we took. It packs nicely as the footprint is substantially smaller than the D800 and Nikkor 24-70. It is also much lighter. But not enough that it still seemed like an anchor much of the time. I started looking at the point and shoot cameras again. And they had come a long way. by 2015, Sony was, into its 4th iteration of its RX100 camera. Measuring 4″ x 2.25″ x 1.75,” it is a truly pocketable camera. It extreme quality build gives it some heft, but it is still a far cry from the bigger cameras. It sports a Zeiss f1.8-2.8 lens with optical image stabilization and a 24-70 35mm equivalent zoom. The smallish sensor was newly designed to improve the size of the exposure surface and reduce noise. It is fully capable of raw capture, as well as pretty much everything the A7 can do.  So, 24-70. Zeiss. Raw. Less than half the size body and miniscule lens. See where I am going with this?Of course, image quality would be the biggest test. Again, I sought Ray Laskowitz’s advice. Again, perhaps not coincidentally, he laughingly told me how he had just come home the day before to find a box for him holding the RX100. He had no hesitancy about the quality issues – so of course, I bought one. And never looked back. I have an Epson inkjet professional printer capable of making gorgeous 13″ x 19″ prints (longer in landscape with roll paper). I took a similar flower image to one above, and printed it on my inkjet, side by side with a print made from an A7 “full frame” file. I couldn’t see the difference. In a few weeks, I would be making the trip of a lifetime; to Japan for my son’s wedding. We spent 3 days in Kyoto and the balance in Tokyo, and I took just the RX100 and a small tripod. During the entire week I can think of only one instance where I wish I had my longer lens. The image quality on this little camera is amazing. On family travel, I haven’t carried any other camera since, and that includes a couple trips to Europe.I am not ready to fully give up the bigger gear, and still carry and use it on dedicated photo outings. So, you will see here and on my SmugMug site, that my primary camera is the A7, with the RX100 as my backup/travel camera. It has made my luggage needs much smaller and lighter. And, if the economics supported it, I wouldn’t hesitate to move to the NEX-6 or equivalent, along with some of the lenses, as my primary camera. My buddy, Rich did exactly that last year.

Lenses.  Lenses and size drove my current equipment lineup.  Though I have had the good fortune to have a couple really nice lenses in the lineup over the years, until I finally moved up to the Nikkor “pro” zooms, lenses had always been a bit of a compromise in my bag. The closest I came was probably the Tokina 300mm f2.8, which was arguably as good as the Nikkor equivalent. Piece for piece, high quality optics are the most expensive component of the system. And the larger the medium, the more costly it is to produce high quality optics with wide apertures. It is more difficult and expensive to produce a 35mm lens than the equivalent Point & Shoot size or even the equivalent APS size.

That all changed with the NEX-6. I had read and heard about two legendary optics: Leica and Zeiss. I wasn’t necessarily a believer. But I was able to purchase the 24mm Zeiss lens used for a pretty good price and after some research, wanted to give it a try. Even on the smaller sensor, it is/was amazing. I can say without a doubt that it was my favorite of any lens I have ever owned. It got lots of use, along with the 15-50 “kit” lens. Sadly, I no longer have it.

Sigma made a couple lenses for the Sony E-mount (the NEX mounting system) that were really inexpensive and some of the sharpest lenses ever made. At one time, B&H had a BOGO deal on the two of them – a 30mm f2.8 and a 19mm f2.8 and I picked them both up for $199. Needless to say, I had some fun shooting with the NEX-6 lens combinations.

When I bought the A7, I traded the Nikkor gear. I matched up as close as I could at that time, with the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 and the Sony 70-200. In terms of build quality, They are both as nice as any Nikon I ever owned. They both AF quickly and quietly. They are marginally smaller than the Nikkors. But they are also 2 stops slower which helps account for the size. As small and compact as the A7 body seems, the good lenses are all disappointingly large and heavy. For working photography, I have liked them fine and believe they render good, sharp images.

One of the “draws” of the Sony camera was the fact that Zeiss has a continued comittment to make their own proprietary lenses in the Sony mount (E for APS and EE for “full frame). There are a couple Zeiss lenses out there that I might like to own some day. But I just paid off all my mortgages and car loans, and am not sure I want to mortgage the house. As was historically the case, the Zeiss lenses are expensive! Time will tell.

I did purchase – more recently – two lenses. Each had a specific purpose. The first was a Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens. It is fully mechanical and was purchased primarily to engage in some night time photography – particularly of stars and the Milky Way. I have not really dedicated the time and effort to that yet, but it is on my “to do” list.

The second, was the Sony 50mm f1.8 lens. That was done specifically to try to achieve some of the bokeh effect I had been able to create with some of my prior gear. Again that one needs some sorting out and use. Stay tuned on that one.

Medium.  This is an area where nothing really changed. Digital is obviously here to stay, and the change will come in capture technology and quality. Today, we are seeing iPhone images that probably weren’t possible with my D100. That is technology. That is good, in my view.

Doodads. The same factors that influence my gear changes effected this area. I happily shot with the Induro Carbon Fiber tripod for a few years. It was very rigid, light, and easy to use. My body height needed that length it offered. But it was really a bit of a travel hassle. Even in my checked bag, It would only fit with the head removed (not a huge deal). But for the type of travel I was becoming accustomed to, it was just too bulky. And with the RX100, it was massive overkill. With a smaller camera, in general, I was able to get by with a smaller tripod. And there were times and places I just could not go with the big legs.

Around 2010 – 2011, I began searching for a very small tripod that I could use in a pinch on any of my equipment. I ultimately found a carbon fiber legset with a very small ball head and a reasonable price tag. For a short time, I used an aluminum tripod from a company (owned by Induro) called MeFoto. It was – ironically – slightly larger than the carbon fiber model I now have – and not quite firm enough to do the job. I ultimately gave this to my daughter.  The model I purchased is the Sirui T-025. It is perfect for the RX100, and I have used it on a rig as big as my Nikon D700 full DSLR with a fairly heavy 28-300 lens, to shoot the San Francisco skyline on a windy night on Alcatraz (sounds like a song). The link is to my 2012 blog describing this great little tool. The folded length of this little ultralight gem is under 12 inches. Of course it is not going to extend up to my full 6’1″ of height. Life has its compromises. 🙂

Years back my decision was Bogen vs. Gitzo. Today there are 100’s of brands of carbon fiber tripods available and many of them are quality-built at reasonable prices. I was impress with the build and price point of the Sirui equipment, and so, in 2014, purchased a larger Sirui to replace the Induro. I was looking for a smaller folded size and was able to move to a slighlty smaller and lighter build model, because of the size and weight of equipment I was supporting. Many of these new tripod have a design in which the legs fold back over the main part of the tripod, making their folded height smaller. My regular tripod is the Sirui M3204X. There are 4 leg sections, which does compromise the stiffness a bit (though I often only use part of the lowest section). But it also makes for a shorter folded length. With the same folding design as my smaller model, this one is under 21 inches (with the ballhead attached). I changed my head recently, which may require removal for packing, but the 21 inch tripod legs will actually fit in a carry on bag (though I am not necessarily likely to do that). If you can sense a pattern here, I am trying to go smaller whenever possible.

Bogen Tripod with 3-way head

My first Bogen tripod had a 3-way adjusting head on it. Until ballheads became popular, that was the common configuration. That head itself weighed more than my bigger Sirui tripod. With long handles for adjustment, it was cumbersome, and of course it sported that clunky Bogen quick-release setup. The primary reason I moved to ball heads was to acquire the dovetail quick release system. But I always missed the 3 way head. For my kind of shooting, when I am using a tripod, I am almost always shooting stills. I usually have plenty of time to make adjustments. The ballheads have two drawbacks that annoyed and occasionally frustrated me. First, any vertical and horizontal adjustments were made completely by hand. There is no indexing mechanism and it can be difficult to make very small adjustments. Second, unless it was a fairly large and very well constructed head, ballheads are susceptible to “ball drop.” In the best case, it meant you would work hard to get your composition, tighten it down, and it would still move a fraction – especially with a heavy lens. In the worst case, if you didn’t get it tightened down, the entire lens could slam down against a leg (of course, possible with a 3 way also – but less likely in my experience).

Ball Head with Arca Swiss type QR

Three way heads are much more positive. This is especially true with geared heads. I have always coveted a geared head. But until very recently there were two alternatives. One was ungodly expensive (Arca Swiss manufactured – $1,100 to 1,500), or Manfrotto (Bogen) with its quirky QR mechanism. The only way I could see around that was to “Rube Goldberg” a dovetail mount on a Manfrotto, and I wasn’t really ready to try that. Too bad, because the Manfrotto Jr. model looks very well built and comes quite reasonable (the Manfrotto is about #450.00 and the Jr. about $200). I find it surprising that it took this long to see an Arca Swiss mount geared head come on the market. But over that last year or so the Benro company (same parent company as Induro/MeFoto), finally release a very nice, cast magnesium, dovetail mount 3-way geared head at a $200 price point. Of course, I now have one :-).

Benro Arca-Swiss compatible 3-way tripod head

Finally, in the past couple years, I have been fiddling with electronics (Flash/controllers/remote controllers)

 

Part IV; Quantum Change

Quantum Change – 2000 – 2007

Cameras.        In 1991, the Internet (perhaps better known then, as “The World Wide Web”) was introduced to the public. Prior to that time, companies like Compuserve had offered limited computer-to-computer communication, primarily used by gamers. In the mid-1990’s America Online pretty much dominated consumer use of the internet, offering a friendly user interface, email, and internet browsing. One of the major components were “listserve” type communications boards. I spent a lot of time on a couple of the AOL boards and met some good “friends” (a few of whom I have never met face to face, but remain friends to this day). Although those AOL boards are long gone, and newer “social media” sites have taken over that area, they were pretty amazing in 1995!

Early Nikon/Kodak DSLR
DCS100

By the late 1990’s, digital images were pretty much an established thing. Even before the internet, photographers had begun working on digital images. In 1987, the Knoll brothers introduced ImagePro, which was sold to Adobe Systems in 1988 and at some point renamed Photoshop. As they say: “the rest is history.” It wasn’t long before we were having our film images digitally scanned (eventually buying our own scanners) and were able to present them on line, and print them on color printers. The Internet had been “born,” and along with it a whole new way of communicating and presenting. And for me, a way to the color “darkroom” I had always wanted.

But the real “revolution” in my mind, came with digital capture capable cameras. In the early 90s, a digital SLR camera cost $20,000. Even though photographic scientists and engineers had been fooling around with digital capture since about 1975, it was neither widely known nor commercially available. The first consumer “digicams” were of the smaller, point and shoot variety, and weighed in at between 1 and 2 megapixels. I owned a couple of them during the second half of the 1990s, but “serious shooting was still done with my SLR Nikons. Seeing what Nikon had done with its D1 series, I (as did many enthusiasts) yearned for a digital SLR body that was more within my means.

In 2000, Canon released the EOS D30, a 3.1 megapixel DSLR, at just under $2,500 (interestingly, taking a different marketing approach, this was a year before they introduced their first Pro DSLR Body, the EOS1D). I again very briefly considered a move, the hit on my Nikon gear, along with the cost of that body and new lenses, was daunting. And in terms of cost per megapixel, it was a non-starter.

Nikon D100

Nikon D100.   Then in 2002, Nikon released the D100. On nearly the same day, Canon and Nikon both released approximately 6 megapixel “enthusiast” DSLRs, with very similar specs, and both in the $2,000 range. The “race” was on!

The D100 was down to $1,400 within the year, and sometime during that period, I made a move to digital. It was not without some trepidation. One would think that, given its name (and the first in its line of “prosumer”/enthusiast DSLRs, that it would be similar to its film-based cousin, the F100. Alas it was not even close. The F100 was probably the best quality/feature film body I had ever owned. I loved it and it was difficult to box it up in trade for the clearly “lesser” D100. But it was the price of admission, and I knew I was going to digital sooner or later and wasn’t willing to wait. I am glad I didn’t. For me, digital opened up a world of photography that was probably not going to happen; the “darkroom.” A big part of the darkroom challenge was the substantial cost of darkroom equipment. Ironically, digital processing drove the cost down over the years to the point that it is almost difficult to give away. But I suddenly already had a “darkroom:” my computer. And that was a huge thing for me.

Years back, Nikon and Canon marketed cameras with what was hoped to be a somewhat revolutionary new film cassette. Its beauty was that you could shoot it partially, remove and replace it with another, and then re-insert it, a process that was “doable,” but very difficult with a normal 35mm cassette. It really didn’t catch on. Part of its downfall was, in my view, that the film rectangle was smaller than 35mm, which wasn’t the right direction to go for serious photographers. It was known as APS size. It is relevant, because when manufacturers began to make digital sensors to replace film, the cost and technology to make them 35mm or larger was prohibitive. There were many issues, including noise, cost, etc. So they ultimately arrived at a size that apparently worked better, and was essentially the same as the APS sized film cross-section. Thus, at first, all DSLR bodies were APS sized. Eventually, demand and technology would cross, and they would begin to make 35mm sized sensors (which became known as “full frame”). The D100 was an APS sensor.

The challenge with the APS sensor was that although Nikon continued its forward compatibility with lens mounts, the lenses most of us SLR shooters owned were designed for a 35mm cross section. This meant that only part of the lens covered the APS cross section. The effect of this was to “crop” some of the lens’s image coverage, producing what some said was a telephoto effect. The merits of that argument are for another blog, but suffice it to say that all of our “short glass” became much longer, making wide angle more difficult without newer, wider, lenses. On the long side, most of us considered that a plus. But it was certainly a new challenge.

Eventually, the manufacturers would begin to make lenses specifically designed for the APS sensor. But as you might imagine, the momentum toward “full frame” sensors, would eventually clash with new lens design, making for some interesting compatibility issues.

Nikon D200

Nikon D200.   In 2005, Nikon announced the D200, which was much closer in build and specs, to the old F100, and although I have not usually been an early adopter, I put my name on the list, for a new D200 body. It was supposed to be available in December and though my memory is fuzzy, I believe I did get my copy shortly before Christmas.

Nikon D700

Nikon D700.   In 2010, I traded the D200 for the “prosumer” D700 (which had been announced in late 2008). My primary motivation for that move was that the D700 was that it was the first “prosumer” DSLR that was so-called “full frame.” I was able to find a used copy for a pretty good price. This was an interesting re-transition for me, as I had become accustomed to the lens relationships for my APS sensors. In my case, I had stayed with my 35mm-designed lenses, though, so all was well.

Nikon D800

Nikon D800.   In 2013, I again upgraded to the D800. Many shooters I knew, both enthusiasts and professionals, were shooting the D800 body. It was, much like the F100 of years ago, probably the best and favorite DSLR bodies I owned. Around that time, I bought a D7000 (perhaps the highest-end consumer APS camera offered by Nikon) from a friend of mine who wanted to upgrade to full frame and gave me a deal I could not refuse. I usually had some kind of “backup” body in my bag, so it seemed to make sense. I played with it and was very impressed by the image quality and build of the camera. The sensor was the newest sensor technology Nikon offered at the time (and was reputed to be manufactured by Sony).

Nikon D7000

Lenses.            By the time I bought my first DSLR, I was carrying the 60mm micro, and a 28-200 consumer nikkor lens (f3.8-56). I also picked up a used copy of the Nikkor 24-120, a lens which never got rave reviews, and was always considered a tad soft. I also found it outside my useful range. It seemed like I was shooting around 135 a lot of the time, or I was shooting much wider. The APS sensor size really made it odd, and I very shortly traded the 24-120 for a Sigma 14mm. I had been told by a pro friend that he felt it was every bit the quality of the same spec Nikon lens – again, at half the cost. It was a very sharp, very fast AF lens with nice bokeh. With APS, it gave me closer to 21mm, and worked very well.

Nikkor 28-300

In 2007, I upgraded the cheap 28-200 to a newly released, and higher end (though still not “pro” quality), Nikkor 28-200. Still rather slow (f3.5-5.6 variable), it became my “workhorse” lens for the next several years – getting lots of use. I used it while shooting in Vermont, in Alaska, and several other trips. In 2010, I replaced it with the newer Nikkor 28-300 with virtually the same specs, and bit more reach. The “kit” of the 28-200/300, the 60mm Micro, and the 14mm Sigma stood me in good stead for a long period of years.

Nikkor 24-70 f2.8

In 2012, I decided to buy myself a late Christmas/early birthday present (actually, 2). I felt it was time to move the lens quality up. By then, I was shooting the near-pro “full-frame” D700 body, and it seemed that the only other equipment based upgrade I could do was with lenses. So, I bought myself two of Nikon’s “big three” pro zooms; the 24-70 f2.8 and the 70-200 f2.8. These lenses were wonderful quality pieces, with stellar optics. Razor sharp, the open apertures provided some wonderful blurred backgrounds. The AF was ultra-fast, quiet, and accurate. The only non-economic “cost” was that they were both heavy. By that time, I was also shooting with a large leg-diameter, carbon fiber tripod and large ball head, so that part was not a problem. Carrying the gear for any distance was a workout though. I have only ever owned one lens I thought was better than this pair. The 14mm and the 60mm saw little use after these were acquired. They were the last Nikkor lenses I ever purchased, but perhaps not for the obvious reason.

Nikkor 8–200 f2.8

Medium.         This really isn’t a category that needs much comment any more. The medium is always the same: digital captures. The only comment is that the sensors just keep getting better. Early on, we learned that image quality was largely dependent on sensor size. The physics of a larger sensor meant larger pixels, which meant cleaner, more detailed capture results. See Size Matters.[ https://lightcentric.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/size-matters/%5D Science and technology would eventually make size less of an issue, to the point that, today, I believe I can capture every bit of quality necessary for any conceivable use I might have with the smaller, APS sized sensors (and even smaller) in today’s mirrorless cameras. But during this period, the major change for me was the move to so-called “full frame” (35mm equivalent). “Full frame” is, in my mind, a misnomer. So far, both the film and digital sensor media have been rectangles. There are many sized rectangles from quite small, all the way up to the 8” x 10” sheet of film used in large view cameras. So-called “medium format” cameras have a film (or sensor) rectangle substantially larger than 35mm. Yet they are medium and 35mm is full frame? A bit of a pet peeve of mine, but it caught on and we live with it.

Sensor Sizes Compared

I should say a thing or two about the format of digital files here. In the early days, the most common format (and it continues to be so – and most popular, today) was JPEG. A slightly higher-end format that was favored by some pros and enthusiasts, when possible was TIFF. Most early digital cameras were only capable of delivering JPEG files though. I say “delivering” because the actual capture and save process was much more fundamental, and the “bits and bytes’ captured in the native format of the camera is referred to as “raw.” Abbreviations like JPEG and TIFF stand for longer, stuffier, terms (e.g., TIFF stands for “Tagged Image File Format”). But “raw” is not an abbreviation. Many writers think it is and mistakenly show it in their text capitalized (“RAW”). But it doesn’t stand for anything other than its plain English meaning (as in uncooked, or un-rendered). Most consumer level cameras automatically render the files to the JPEG format. A couple of the very high-end models give a choice of JPEG or TIFF. Only the higher end consumer (most DSLR’s, MILS and a very few point & shoot models) and pro models offer the choice to save the files in their raw format.

There are a couple drawbacks to using raw files. First, they are large. These days, memory is cheap and most processors are pretty fast, so that shouldn’t be a significant issue for most of us. But in the early days, memory was expensive, the capacities of cards smaller, and processing much slower. A second drawback is that all raw files are proprietary. This means they are specific to the manufacturer, and often even the particular model of camera. This means you need a raw converter in your computer system. Manufacturers offer converter software as part of the purchase, but it is often clunky and hard to use. And then you still have to decide how to finally save and store images.

One of the pluses of digital imaging for journalists and sports photographers is the ability to shoot and upload immediately. JPEG images are ideal for this, and raw just isn’t going to cut it.

In the beginning, Adobe Photoshop and several “light” versions of software by Adobe, were the conversion and manipulation software of choice. Today there are a number of excellent and very competitive choices out there. But since the raw files were proprietary, in order for Adobe to be able to read and convert them, they had to have permission from the owners of the proprietary information. This wasn’t always completely forthcoming, and even when it was, it was usually a space of time after the camera was released before Adobe could get the pieces in place.

To me, those drawbacks are minor in light of the very substantial positives of shooting and working with raw file images. I have always likened it to having a negative. There is so much you do with the original negative in the darkroom. Not so much with a print someone else has already made. And the software that resides in the camera to render the raw data to a JPEG is going to be more rudimentary than a program on your computer – though it is really very good these days. But I always have shot and saved in raw format. [see “Why you should shoot raw” https://lightcentric.wordpress.com/2009/08/09/why-you-should-shoot-raw-and-some-of-my-other-prejudices/].

Doodads.        I have actually always had a bit of a “less is more,” philosophy when it comes to gadgets and doodads for photography. I carry very little gear outside of the camera, lenses and tripod(s). But I have learned that there are some essentials over the years. I seldom am without 2 filters: polarizers, and neutral density filters. I don’t use any other filters 99% of the time.

Tripods continued to be a premium item. When I finally got religion and purchased my first real tripod, I went with Bogen (Manfrotto). The popular brands in those days (there were certainly others, but these were what you saw in the field) were either Bogen or Gitzo (ironically the same company today). If Bogen was “Chevy,” Gitzo was “Mercedes.” Unfortunately, this was in terms of price as much as it was in terms of quality. So I naturally went with a standard set of Bogen legs and their 3-way head. By then “quick-release” systems had also become de rigeur. Bogen’s was proprietary, pentagonal plate and locking system. While I am sure Bogen engineers thought it ingenious and users found it very convenient, it frankly sucked. I had a collection of the camera plates. But unless you bought a more specialized plate, they would allow a heavy camera and/or lens to spin on the plate. They were clunky, heavy, cast metal chunks. And most importantly, they really weren’t secure! I was very fortunate not to have an incident, but I certainly read about them from others.

Bogen Hexagon QR plate and clamp

At the same time, I became aware of the “L” bracket concept. This bracket is – in my mind – a near-essential accessory for shooting from a tripod. It allows you to change the camera from portrait to landscape on the tripod while maintaining the same axis, level, etc. But with the clunky Bogen QR system, the L bracket had two of the pentagonal hunks of metal on it. It was heavy and ungainly (though I had one and shot with it for several years). In fairness, Manfrotto does offer a slightly slimmer, sleeker version today, but with their rectangular QR plate, which might be even less secure.

Bogen L-Bracket

Somewhere along the line engineers came up with a much simpler, and frankly elegant solution; the dovetail quick release system. The Arca-Swiss company is credited with it, along with the patent. It is not only simple and elegant, but very secure, and very versatile. I switched to this system, and it appear that virtually every other manufacturer of tripod heads and equipment did too – except, of course, for Bogen.

Dovetail L-Bracket

Unfortunately, most tripod heads available today are of the “ballhead” design. They are great for quick movements and adjustments and have been favored by wildlife and sports shooters. As a still/landscape shooter, I have lived with them, but never liked them. I missed the precision of the 3 way head, but the only option was either the Bogen, or others that did not even have a quick-release. I have always kind of fancied the Bogen “junior” geared 3-way head – but not enough to go back to their clumsy QR-setup. Fortunately, finally, the Benro company recently came out with a very nice, light, magnesium geared 3-way head with the Arca-Swiss type mount and I have one on my tripod today. And I still keep an L- bracket on any camera I own.

Benro Arca-Swiss compatible 3-way tripod head

The other thing that has really changed is legs. The favored material today is carbon fiber, which is both lighter and stiffer than tubular aluminum – a lot lighter! I have 3 carbon fiber leg sets today.

Induro C314 Carbon Fiber Tripod Legs

In 2009, my best buddy, Rich had a “connection” with the owners of the Induro and Benro brands. We were able to obtain at a very reasonable cost, 8x carbon fiber legs, with 1.25 inch diameter upper leg sections, that would extend to over 5 feet without the center column extended. I am a tall guy, and height was important. With 4 section legs, the folded length was still pretty capable of being packed in a checked bag for the airlines (perhaps with the head removed). The weight with head was around 5 lbs. Much lighter than the aluminum legs. We were shooting with big cameras and big lenses in those days, and this was a premium setup. Similar Gitzo, or Really Right Stuff would have been 2 – 3 times the cost, and though wonderfully built, just hard to justify on my enthusiast’s budget. I shot with the Induro tripod for all the remaining years I had my Nikon gear.

In Search of “Tripod Holes”

The Colosseum is one of Rome’s “postcard” images. It is very difficult to get without crowds and often repair/construction scaffolding.
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

Ray Laskowitz’s comment on my recent post inspired me to think (and write) about this. His “been there, done that,” observation is insightful (as always).

This is probably my favorite shot in Rome. I turned away from the crowds and made “my own” image.
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

In the 1980’s and most of the ‘90’s, photography was a very different world. There were – seemingly – two different photographer groups out there: The serious (including pro) shooters with “sophisticated” equipment, training and experience, and “point & shoot” camera-toting tourists (not meant in a pejorative sense).

This is my hands on favorite shot in Venice. The “postcard” image would include The Grand Canal and perhaps the Ponte Rialto, where the crowds can be unbearable. This one was made early in the morning, on a back canal.
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

We used film. The point & shooters used color negative film and had prints made at the local drugstore. The serious shooters used a variety, including black and white, and color slides. Most of us had our developing done by either a local or mail-order photo processor. The serious among us worked hard for our images, scouting and studying locations and other photographs we saw. But there weren’t very many of us, and except for the very most popular sites, it was pretty normal to either have it to yourself or only be sharing with one or two other shooters on any given day.

Differing accounts put the number of “smartphones” in the world in use at between 2.5 and 3 billion. Billion!

And then came digital (of course, like all short writings, this is a bit of an oversimplification. But in general, I think these are valid observations). I have been as enthusiastic a cheerleader as anyone about the “digital photography revolution.” It has certainly made making images and showing them more convenient for me. And the “digital darkroom” has opened doors for me that I either couldn’t have opened, or at least not very easily.

The Golden Gate, of course, is the big bridge in San Francisco, and is perhaps the most famous and photographed bridge in the U.S. And, it is not too difficult to catch, since there are multiple perspectives to shoot it from. But “my” image is this one – The “Bay Bridge,” taken at first light, from the Embarcadero. I was there all alone.
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

But technology, we continue to learn, often comes at a cost. Differing accounts put the number of “smartphones” in the world in use at between 2.5 and 3 billion. Billion.

One approach I have always advocated is to get up close and look for a more intimate image. This – if you can do it – excludes crowds and other shooters, and is likely going to be “your own” take on a scene.
Copyright Andy Richards 2007

Compare that with about 5 million in 2000 (my research may be a bit questionable. I had a hard time finding this information, but this was from a site that gave numbers of shipments of digital still cameras during the years 1999- 2018. Presumably, this would include DSLR cameras).

With the right foreground, a sunset or sunrise can always add mood to an image. This is an example of a shot where nobody goes – but I did 🙂
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Incorporate 3 billion smartphone users (they all have cameras, and so virtually all smartphone users have now replaced the “point & shooters” noted earlier), with the combustive growth of digital media and you have a true explosion of the conditions I mentioned in the early paragraphs of this blog. As I noted in the last blog, it is difficult for me to illustrate the difference between a small crowd of shooters in 2013 and absolute mob scene we encountered in 2017.

Honeymoon Island is a popular beach, but certainly not an “iconic” photo opportunity. But it IS a good photo opportunity for those famous Florida Gulf sunsets. The unrequested “pose” made this image a “keeper” for me
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

So what do we, as photographers, do now? I am as much a fan of the “postcard” iconic image as the next guy. Indeed, in an earlier phase of my photographic quest, I sought primarily those images. Even though somebody had already done it, I wanted to have “my own.” No apology for that.

I worked to get this “already done” image, even doing a bit of “photoshopping” to get it the way I wanted it.
Copyright Andy Richards 2014

However, there are some palpable certainties that come with the “new age” of digital and smartphones. One is that the opportunities to make these “postcard” images have gotten much, much more difficult. You will have to plan to be present at odd times (which can be difficult for a traveler that is not staying in a destination). You may have to fight the crowds, and thus, change the physical perspective of your images.

I have never been to the Jenne Farm, which is the most photographed barn in New England, but have heard the stories of having to “fight” for tripod position even before sunrise. Instead, my single favorite Vermont Barn scene is this one, which I learned about from a friend. There are not very many shots of it out there (yet).
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

And in the end, Ray is right. We need to get away from the crowds and the icons; away from the “tripod holes” already made by others. I have known it for some time, and my own shooting has (glacially, I admit) evolved in that direction. These days, I look for my own images of the place (those are much more, “my own” than a copy of the postcard shot). And many times those images are away from the crowds, or at the edges of the crowds. My best imagery seems to come when I can spend some time in a location and get out very early or be out late, when the tourists are in bed or in the bars and restaurants. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, because of our chosen method of travel, which often puts us into places during mid-day. Even so, I have found images when I have been looking for them.

Big News in Mirrorless

During the past 30 days or so, both of the big camera companies, Nikon and Canon have announced their entry into the full frame, mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MIL) market.  I wondered it this was ever going to happen!  Without getting into the “white hat vs. black hat,” “Ford vs. Chevy” discussion, suffice it to say that there are a number of other players in the market, all of whom make some very estimable camera gear.  But it is difficult to argue that, over the past 30-40 years, Canon and Nikon have been the market leaders.  Consequently, when they do something, it usually get noticed.

I intuitively knew that the industry would eventually move away from the popular and ubiquitous DSLR, to the smaller MIL

I got “married” to Nikon in 1980, and we had a happy relationship until sometime in 2013.  I think by then, that I intuitively knew that the industry would eventually move away from the popular and ubiquitous Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR), to the smaller MIL.  In 2013, after hanging around and watching Nikon, it became apparent that they had no intention of making a serious entry into the MIL marketplace.  Their eventual contestant, the Nikon 1,  offered no compatibility with the existing Nikkor lens line, and a sensor significantly smaller than the competitors and only slighly larger than the typical “point & shoot” (P&S) equipped sensor.  Disappointing for Nikon loyalists.

The NEX series by Sony, first introduced in 2010, signaled a commitment on their part to the MIL camera market.  The earliest DSLR consumer and “prosumer” cameras were equipped with a sensor smaller than the 35mm film cross-section which was the benchmark of Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras that were the most popular film cameras in use at the time, popularly known as “APS” sensors (eventually, technology allowed for affordable and useable sensors equivalent to the 35mm film cross-section.  These became know as “full frame.”  Cost and technology were factors.  The NEX line was one of only a couple mirrorless cameras that offered the APS sensor.  It was still a bit of an unknown at the time and what attracted me to Sony was the sensor that was the same as the one in my Nikon APS backup camera, along with Sony’s partnership with Zeiss lenses.

The “mirrorless” camera, of course, is not a new phenomena.  Rangefinder cameras were widely used by film shooters, even in the light of the popularity the SLR (single lens reflex) camera gained when it later hit the scene.  I was an SLR user.  Like the many other users, I liked the “what you see is what you get” view through the viewfinder (even though in most cases, it wasn’t 100 percent of what the lens actually captured).  But what really made/makes the new digital “rangefinder” cameras stand out, is the new electronic viewfinder (EVF).  Early copies were just not very good.  Today, I actually prefer the EVF.  One of the things I like is its ability to mimic the look through the lens as you stop down or open up, making your view brighter or dimmer (my Sony can override that if you find it disconcerting, but I have grown to really like it).

I know there are a lot of challenges to adding a new technology to very successful existing lines.  Lens mounts, lenses, and focusing technology are among them.  But given the inexorable growth of this camera platform, I have been surprised at the apparently sluggish progress both of the big guys have taken to this.  The recently announced entries by both of them come nearly 10 years later than the first popularly used MIL cameras!  I have thoroughly enjoyed the past 8 years of carrying much smaller, lighter gear in the meantime.

For those who waited patiently for Nikon or Canon, there may be a reward

For those who waited patiently for Nikon or Canon, there may be a reward.  Both of these bodies spec out pretty impressively.  For Nikon, this is only the second physically “new” mount they have designed for any of their interchangeable lenses (the only other one being the Nikon 1 mount).  By that, I mean that even though there have been changes over the years, every Nikkor lens is capable of being physically mounted on every Nikon interchangeable lens body (except for the Nikon 1).  Nikon has already also announce several new lenses (three of which, I believe, will be available yet in 2019) for its Entry, the Nikon Z series (currently, 6 and 7).

I am not sure what offerings Canon has – or will have for their new EOS R.  But both companies have adapters for their “legacy” SLR/DSLR lenses.  Again, in the case of Nikon, that should mean virtually any Nikon mount lens should mount on the Z series with this adaptor.  Of course, there is certain to be limits on functionality, depending on the age of the lens.  Not being familiar with Canon, I am not certain, but I am guessing there will be more limitations on which lenses will mount and which won’t.  But you should be able to use your professional glass on either of these models.

It remains to be seen whether this will be a workable thing.  I could see having one or more of the new lenses for a “travel” outfit, but still being able to use the pro glass for situations where you would be carrying the bigger equipment anyway.  For me, its too late.  I am perfectly happy in my new relationship with Sony.  For now.  🙂

Preferred Post – Processing Software?

Crystal Beach Twilight
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Recently, I have been trying to branch out and explore some new, or at least rarely visited, territory.  For me, this usually involves reading:  both on the internet and books on particular topics.  In the past months, I have read about B&W, painting images and converting photographic images, flash photography, and more recently, night photography.

Almost everything I read has at least a short section on post-processing.  Because our world has become digital, it is, at the very least a “necessary evil.”  But some of us find it to be a huge positive to our photography, and even enjoy playing around with it.

I would appreciate if readers would respond here and let me know what their “go-to” software for image editing is, and why?

What I see in virtually every text and article though, is the inevitable reference to either Adobe Light Room, Photoshop (which has become a generic reference in many cases to all things digitally manipulated), or both.  It is understandable that Photoshop was the original image editing program, but over the many years since it was first introduced, there have certainly been a number of other programs designed with photographic image-editing in mind.  I have recently experimented with some of these offerings, including, most notably, On1‘s all-in-one, stand-alone, photo-editing software competitor to Photoshop (though I have not used any of them enough to have any judgment about them, there is an impressive lineup, including Capture One, Corel, DxO, ACDsee, and numerous others (interestingly, they all compare themselves against the Adobe “benchmarks” – Photoshop and Light Room – and often mention that you can work in and out of the Adobe programs, “seemlessly.” I gave On1 a pretty thorough test drive over a couple weeks.  Ultimately, I could not get the software to play well with my HP Desktop or my Microsoft Surface 3 and they graciously refunded my purchase.  It was an impressive program at what appears to be a lower price point than Photoshop.  I am currently subscribed to the Adobe Cloud solution; Photoshop CC and Lightroom Classic CC and whether the price point is actually significantly lower may well depend on how often these stand-alone programs need to be updated and at what cost.

In a recent post, I spoke about keeping up with the newest iteration of Photoshop, and concluded that it would remain my “go-to” software for all phases of image editing, for the time being.  The books all seem to suggest that most photographers are either using Light Room, Photoshop, or both.  The then go on and say that the image-editing process is pretty much the same.

Having come from earlier versions of Photoshop that predate Light Room, I never embraced its image-editing capabilities.  Early on, I felt that it still had too much missing from my workflow, and the Photoshop Adobe Raw Converter (ACR), now essentially the same conversion “engine” in both Light Room and ACR, seemed more capable in its early days.  By the time Light Room “caught up” to Photoshop, I was thoroughly entrenched.  I appreciate that Light Room was really developed specifically for photographers, and many who came to digital image-editing later than I did, probably started with Light Room.  There is little doubt in my mind that it is an easier learning curve, and its design is perhaps more logical to photographers.  But that is a little like saying that the metric system is a little more logical than the “English” system to a 62-year-old who has used the latter system all his life.  🙂  I am sure it is more logical.  But that doesn’t make changing my thinking to it a breeze.  So I pretty much stay with Photoshop (and use Light Room as an expensive cataloging tool).  That may change.  But for now, it still does a few things that Light Room doesn’t.  And Lightroom integrates well with it.

The point of this rambling blog is really to try to satisfy my own curiosity.  I would appreciate if readers would respond and let me know what their “go-to” software for image editing is, and why?

Oh, and by the way, I haven’t lost all interest in the “doing” phase of photography.  Not much shooting lately, but a little:  mostly experimentation.  The image here was taken a couple nights ago near my Florida home.  We often have spectacular sunsets here on the gulf.  But this night it was more subdued.  I made this image after sunset during twilight, and used my newest toy, a remote flash trigger, to walk over near the vegetation in the foreground and light it up with the flash.  I am a long way down on the learning curve for using lighting with my Sony system.  Nikon made it so easy.

Now, Fall rapidly approaches, and I suspect the excitement to get out will build.