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Liverpool; But it REALLY IS About The Beatles

Fab 4 Beatles Tour Car Liverpool, England Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In the previous post, I illustrated some of the normal parts of the impressive British City of Liverpool, and tried to set a historical context. While it was for a time, historically, considered the “New York” of Europe, Liverpool’s size is really more like Minneapolis, MN, or Kansas City, MO. It had – to me – a U.S. mid-western city “feel.” And I could envision the 4 young men who would turn the music world on end, as having grown up in Minneapolis, Kansas City, or even Detroit: small enough to know each other, but large enough to give it a city feel. Our visit to Liverpool began – fittingly enough – with a “Beatles Tour.” Since each of “The Fab 4” grew up in Liverpool, there is a lot of their history there. I have learned over the years that most songwriters get a wealth of material from their own natural surroundings and as we learned, The Beatles were no exception. So much of what influenced their music – and particularly Paul McCartney, the Beatles most prolific songwriter – was what happened around them on a daily basis, right where they grew up.

The band that was to turn popular music on end, “The Beatles,” was set and its members: “The Fab 4,” were John, Paul, George, and Ringo

John, Paul, George and Ringo were all heavily influenced by “Skiffle” music, a style of music comprised of jazz, blues and folk music, which had become wildly popular in Europe in the 1950s. Each were in some type of “Skiffle Band,” early on. Influenced by his

Our guide Eddie, met us just inside the port, in one of the little black “taxis” that seem to be the norm in Britain. Laying out this blog logically has been a bit of a challenge for me, as we did not necessarily visit each site in any logical order (I expect some of it was geographical and some of it was our guide’s local knowledge of when the best time to hit a spot was).

Liverpool University Student Housing
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

John Lennon; Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison all grew up in Liverpool, we saw the boyhood homes of each of them. And while each had their own unique contribution to The Beatles, John and Paul had perhaps the most significant influence. The Beatles would likely never have been, had the two of them not met first, and begun making music. We began our day with a stop at what is now Liverpool University student housing, but was historically the maternity hospital where John Lennon was born.

Liverpool University
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

John’s parent’s split when he was a relatively young boy, and there was, it seems, some question by many, whether his mother, Julia, was capable of raising him. There was a fair amount of instability in John’s early upbringing, and he eventually went to stay – more or less permanently – with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George Smith. They were stable, if not practical folk. Mimi had a considerable say and influence in John’s upbringing, but Julia maintained and influence, visiting John frequently at Mimi’s home, and John frequently visiting her. It was Julia who purchased John’s first guitar, knowing that Mimi would not approve of such foolishness and would urge John to do something more practical that would allow him to earn a living. Julia taught him about art and music, and encouraged that side of him. Tragically, Julia was killed by a car while walking home from the Smith home one evening following a visit with John in 1958. John was 16 at the time.

The Home Of Mimi and George Smith
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

By late 1956, John had formed his first band, The Quarrymen (named after his High School: Quarry Bank High School). They played skiffle and rock and roll, and were comprised, loosely of other boys who attended St. Peter Church and/or Quarry Bank High).

Brian Epstein Apartment
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

John’s first wife, Cynthia, was an art student at Liverpool College of Art. The two of them met there in the late 1960, and sometime in 1969, she moved in with him at his Aunt Mimi’s home. In 1962, she became pregnant with Julian and they were married shortly after the discovery. When they were married, the band was just getting some notoriety, and their agent did not want the world to know of the marriage, so he let John and Cynthia use the apartment shown here to live when they were in Liverpool.

Liverpool Institute High School For Boys
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We also visited the Liverpool Institute High School For Boys, where Paul McCartney and George Harrison attended for short periods and became friends. Not necessarily connected to The Beatles, the suitcase sculptures are unique and are a tourist attraction in this part of the city.

“Luggage” Sculpture
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

During a performance, affiliated with John’s church, St. Peter’s Church, John was introduced by a mutual friend, to Paul, who was invited to play along with the band. Shortly afterward, he asked Paul to join the Quarrymen. The band took a turn in direction away from skiffle and country influence and more hard toward rock and roll, obtaining a manager (Brian Epstein) and a few of the old Quarrymen fell away from the band, preferring the prior music to the new direction. McCartney recommended his friend George Harrison to be the lead guitarist. Lennon thought that Harrison, only 14, was too young, but McCartney persuaded John to give him a chance. Sometime in 1959 – 1960, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe became “The Beatles”. In 1960, Pete Best joined them as their drummer. In the beginning, the band changed the name from the Quarrymen to “Johny and the Moondogs.” But the group was heavily influenced by Buddy Holly. At least one source suggests that they took on the name “The Beetles” (originally, the “Silver Beetles”) because of Buddy Holly’s band: “The Crickets.” Somewhere along the line, it is said that Lennon changed the spelling to incorporate the word “beat” into the name. At any rate, by the early 1960, the name of the band was “The Beatles” and its history was set.

Performance Hall
St. Peter’s Church
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The original Beatles group, a fivesome made up of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Sutcliffe and Best, went to Hamburg to play some gigs there. A couple times, another Liverpool native, Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr), filled in for Best because he was unavailable. The reason permanent changeover from Best to Starr is unclear, but during that period in Hamburg, and at the time they went to record their first album, Best was no longer with the band and Ringo was. Also during that time, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band and return to Liverpool School of Art, to finish his art education and pursue art as a career. Tragically, in 1962, Sutcliffe developed a brain tumor and died.

St. Peter’s Church
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The band that was to turn popular music on end, “The Beatles,” was set and its members: “The Fab 4,” were John Paul, George and Ringo. While already wildly popular in Europe, their seminal moment, and one of, if not the most important moment in the history or rock and roll music, was on February 9, 1964, when they made their first appearance on American Television on the extremely popular Ed Sullivan Show. They played 5 songs that night before a television audience estimated at 73 million and the rest is, as they say: “history.”

Penny Lane
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In keeping with my comment that surroundings influenced their work, here is a musical “earwig” that is bound to stay with you for a while after reading this. We visited the namesake for one of the most famous McCartney written songs: Penny Lane. As you can see, it is a rather unassuming, quiet suburban street.

Paul McCartney Signature
2018 – 2019?
Penny Lane
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

But some of you might remember watching a James Corden “Carpool Karaoke” special a year or so back, where James and Paul take one of James’ semi-famous rides around Liverpool together, and stop at some of the same stops our tour did, including Paul’s boyhood home, and of course the street sign for Penny Lane. We watched it, not knowing at the time that we would be at that very place one day in the very near future. We watched Paul sign it, and I was able to capture that signature shortly after he did that. One funny passage from that was when Paul mentioned that he and John wrote “She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. They tried it out on Paul’s father, and his comment was couldn’t you say “She Loves You Yes, Yes, Yes.”? They said no. It makes you think about what one word can mean in a song. I commend you to see the movie, “Yesterday.” Not only was the music (and story) wonderful, but there is another similar “word” moment, involving the song “Hey Jude” ( I won’t give it away – but its awesome).

So. That Earwig? There was a commercial intersection near where Paul McCartney lived, that he frequented in his travels about the city. It isn’t Penny Lane, but its a much more interesting name. The rest is pretty real, though. “On Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs ……

On Penny Lane there is a Barber Shop
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The barbershop is right across from the “shelter on the roundabout” on the same street . . . . . . . (now a restaurant called St. Pepper Bistro,”). I looked but did not see the pretty nurse selling flowers. 🙂

The Shelter in the middle of the Roundabout
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I am sure there was a busy banker or two there somewhere, as this was in a little corner off a very busy couple of city streets. The firehouse was a ways down the street, and though it was still there, it is closed and is no longer a firehouse so, alas, no clean fire engine to be seen! But after seeing these, you can’t help but have that song in your ear, and a context for the lyrics.

Paul McCartney’s boyhood home
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Paul was born a couple years after John Lennon, in Walton Hospital in Liverpool. One of three children, Paul was influenced by his father, Jim, who was a professional musician who played the trumpet and piano. He had his own jazz band (Jim Mac’s Jazz Band). What you hear about most journeymen musicians has some truth to it. They are not generally wealthy, and Paul’s nurse mother was said to be the family’s primary bread winner. Nonetheless, Jim encouraged all his children to play music and kept an upright piano in the living room of their family home. While it is difficult to get to see the inside of the home(s) (we were told that showings can be done through the Liverpool Trust), I once again, remembered, rather vividly, the James Corden show in which he and Paul went into the home and Paul sat at the piano and played. We got to see the outside.

Strawberry Field
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Another place Paul remembered rather vividly as a child was a youth home named Strawberry Field. His memories of the children and his longing to play with him partly inspired his “Strawberry Fields for Ever.” The red gate and fence is historically authentic. Currently, the Salvation Army has put many dollars into restoration and maintenance, but it is said that it is possible to buy bricks from the gate. Note the many signatures of Beatles fans.

Strawberry Field
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

George Harrison may have been the most private of the Beatles. It was a surprise to me to learn through my research that George was responsible for getting the band many of its performances and contracts and may have been the most businesslike of the 4 of them also. Born in Liverpool, George attended the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys for 4 years. He was always interested in guitars, and his father – though skeptical of its utility for George’s future – bought George his first guitar. George attributed his beginning interest in rock and roll to Elvis Presley. We saw his boyhood home, but it was neither remarkable, nor particularly well kept up by its current owners. For some reason, it does not seem to be the tourist attraction that the other 3 homes are. Not as prolific a writer as Paul, John or even Ringo, he was the author of their hit, “Here Comes The Sun.” Not much else was devoted to George during the tour.

George Harrison’s boyhood home
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Richard Starkey was the oldest of the group, born in Liverpool in 1940. Apparently, the Starkeys were avid dancers and spent a lot of time in ballrooms, prior to Richard’s birth. After his birth, his mother stopped dancing and spent her time raising Richard, who was afflicted with an illness. His father, however, apparently couldn’t get it out of his system and his many after hours of dancing and drinking probably were the prime contributor to the Starkey’s splitting in 1944. No longer able to afford the rent in their current home on Madryn Street, Elsie and Richard moved into what was Richard’s home for his remaining boyhood in a neighborhood known as Admiral Grove. Richard’s mom, Elsie lived there until the Beatles moved to London in 1963. The home was public housing owned by Liverpool. After Elsie and Richard moved out, another Admiral Grove Resident was moved into the house during a period of rehabilitation of the Admiral Groves Homes. Margaret Grose became a lifetime Beatles fan and instead of growing weary of the visitors daily outside the home, she invited them in – for a small fee – which she gave to charity. She also maintained the home as it was when the Starkeys lived there. Margaret died in 2016, and another fan purchased the home, which still stands, intact, today.

Ringo Starr’s Boyhood Neighborhood
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Ringo Starr’s Boyhood Home
Admiral Grove
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In 1954, when Richard was 13, Elsie married Harry Graves, who was a big fan of big band music, and introduced Richard to it. In 1957, Harry gave Richard a second-hand drum set for Christmas. I was intrigued to learn that, left-handed, Ringo had to learn a number of things “backward” including rolloff progressions, which later became notable as a unique style and added to Starr’s fame. He played in several bands, eventually finding his way to a Liverpool group called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes eventually accepted a “residency” in Hamburg and it was on the Hamburg music scene that Ringo met and eventually became the drummer for The Beatles.

Ringo was know for his quirky turn of a phrase, like: “It was a hard day’s night.”

Ringo, in addition to drumming, was lead singer in several Beatles Hits, including “With a little help from my Friends,” and “Yellow Submarine.” His own more prolific songwriting came perhaps later, after the band split up, in his own solo career, including hits such as “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Your 16,” and “Back Off Booglaloo.” But he was surely a contributor to some of the Beatles most memorable songs, particularly in names and lyrics. Ringo had a unique and often off-kilter turn of the phrase and is credited for the phrase “hard day’s night” which prompted Lennon to write the song, as well as becoming the Title of their 3rd record. He was also credited with helping fill in the lines in the famed “Eleanor Rigby” with Father McKenzie “darning his socks in the night.” And there is that “surroundings” thing again. We visited St. Peter’s Church, including the small graveyard inside the walls. Guess who we found?

Eleanor Rigby’s husband’s gravestone
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

As our tour came to an end, I found myself much more a fan of the Beatles music than I have been previously. My generation, of course, grew up with this music, but it was pretty interesting to put the development of the music and the early lives of the band members into a perspective. Like almost every successful band, they eventually came to an end. The stories are similar. The personalities – probably more John and Paul had differences in direction and leadership thoughts. They all had at least some aspirations for solo careers. McCartney and Starr especially, went on to have very successful secondary careers. Lennon and Harrison perhaps less so, but still very successful. Lennon and Harrison also unfortunately met with tragic endings. But I, for one, am glad to have had Wings and Ringo’s All Starr Bands, to entertain us into the foreseeable future. Obviously whole books have been written on this subject. My “musings” are just that. Probably mostly historically accurate – but not guaranteed to be so. I encourage you to do some digging on your own, if you are interested.

Meanwhile back on Penny Lane ……….. (I didn’t want you to lose the earwig) 🙂

Whew. Long post – sorry. I know that the original idea of a Blog was short, punchy, regularly added material. Mine has never been that way. They are all long. This one may have been the longest ever. And I couldn’t even scratch the surface. I wanted it to reflect my own personal visit to Liverpool, illustrated by photos I felt motivated to make. I hope it succeeded.

There is so much that could have been touched on: the friendship and eventual friction between John and Paul; the reputed awful way John treated Cynthia and Julian, the dispute over who really wrote the songs – especially the early “Lennon/McCartney” signed ones; the drugs; Ringo’s real last name; George’s cancer; John’s activism and tragic death; but I wanted to leave that to the more serious writers and chroniclers.

I just watched the U-Tube James Corden piece again, and it was even better because I was there at those places. I encourage you to take a few minutes and watch it and it may even bring a tear or two (you can skip through the ads).

 

 

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Liverpool; Not JUST the Birthplace of “The Beatles”

Liverpool Port
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Interestingly, our cruise was labeled a “British Isles” Cruise. Yet it was a 12 day cruise in which we really technically only spent 3 days in the UK. We also spent another 4 days in The Republic of Ireland. While it might be appropriate to call the Island of Ireland “The British Isles,” I think the majority of them would disagree.

The Vooo Lounge
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Be that as it may, with our pre-cruise days in and around Dublin, we certainly spent over half of our time in Europe in Ireland and Britain. The day following our Northern Ireland adventure, we sailed across the Irish Sea, to Liverpool, England. Perception often varies from reality, and my (admittedly ignorant) opinion of Liverpool was no exception. For my Michigander friends, I was thinking Flint (sorry to you Flintstones 🙂 ); to a perhaps broader audience, Newark (no, not Ohio 🙂 ). But I was wrong (as perhaps a visit to either Newark or Flint with one “in the know” might also prove).

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The primary focus of our day at shore was, not surprisingly, a several hour-long “Beatles” tour. But we were to also learn that Liverpool was an important seaport (particularly historically), and a rather thriving city, with some very impressive architecture, and an active pub and distillery culture.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Granted “borough” status by King John in 1207, it did not obtain its British City Charter 1880. Liverpool replaced nearby Chester, which was on the River Dee and further inland, as the major port for world trade with Britain, around 1207 ant thereafter was Britain’s primary northern port. During the Industrial Revolution, it served as a port and became a first-world manufacturing city. Liverpool also served as the point of departure for British and Irish Emmigrants – mostly to the U.S. In earlier times, Liverpool Port played a significant role in the Atlantic Slave Trade. While probably not among its prouder historical accomplishments, the result was a very diverse city, including not only influence from Ireland and Wales, but the largest black population, and oldest Chinese population in Europe. Trade with the West Indies eventually exceeded trade with Ireland and other parts of Europe, and in 171, the first commercial “wet” dock was built in Liverpool.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The ensuing growth and the industrial revolution soon made Liverpool one of the wealthiest communities in Europe, its wealth surpassing that of London a number of times during the early 19th century.  In the 180s the city was often referred to as “the New York of Europe,” and was a sought-after destination well into the early 20th century, attracting immigrants from across Europe. During the Second World War, Liverpool became a critical strategic point. The city was heavily bombed by the Germans, suffering a blitz second only to London’s. The “Battle of the Atlantic,” which proved to be a turning point in the war, was planned, fought and won from Liverpool. Most of the U.S. Troops brought into the European theatre were brought through Liverpool Port.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Sadly, in the 1970s, largely due to significant changes in the shipping of cargo world-wide, Liverpool began a decline, and for a period had one of the largest unemployment rates in the world. Resilient, however, in the late 20th century, the Liverpool economy began to improve and has been on the upward curve ever since. As you drive through the city, it impresses you as a very middle to upper middle class city in places. With a population nearing 1/2 million, it is hard to believe that its population was only around 500 in the 1700s.

Ma Edgerton’s Pub
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our visit was focused heavily on The Beatles history. That deserves its own blog, which will come next time. After our tour, we spent some time in the very cool main Railroad Station, a couple of downtown pubs, including the Liverpool Gin Distillery, and The Alchemist (a unique UK chain originating in London, where food and mixology meet), before boarding our ship again in to return to the Island of Ireland.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Dublin, days 2 & 3

Dublin Port
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

When I travel to a new place I try to do some research about it. That mostly entails contemporary goings on, things I wish to see, and of course to photograph. But in-country, I always learn so much. I was a dual-major business and history degree student in college. While I studied some medieval history and the obligatory “Western Civilization,” my focus was on the U.S. So traveling abroad is a learning and perspective-building experience. It is my observation that, possessing a sometimes fatalist sense of humor, the Irish people are self-deprecating, and at the same time fiercely proud of their heritage. They have much passion and perhaps not surprisingly, as their identity as a sovereign nation is much younger than our is. But their history is thousands of years longer, and full of hardship.

My observation is that, possessing a sometimes fatalist sense of humor, the Irish people are self-deprecating, and at the same time fiercely proud of their heritage

I wanted to put a small amount of Irish History perspective to these blogs. Popular wisdom has it that Ireland (and Scotland) were mainly of Celtic origin. History disputes that. There is evidence of humans from other parts of Europe well before the Celtic tribes began to migrate to Ireland. Nonethless, there is certainly a significant Celtic influence to the end-result. At the same time, the Vikings, primarily from Norway, invaded parts of Ireland, particularly along the seacoasts. Dublin, in fact, was founded and originally established by the Vikings, sailing up the River Liffey, perhaps around 800 A.D. Later around 900 A.D. the Vikings again sailed into the harbor at Waterford, and established Limerick and Cork. It was not until the Battle of Clontarf that Bart O’brien’s King Brian Boru defeated the Vikings and established perhaps the first independent Irish nation. It was, however, to be short-lived and there was much warfare during those time. In 1014. In the late 12th century, the Normans from England began a series of invasions and eventually conquered much, if not all of Ireland, making it part of the British Empire. This lasted until the majority of southern counties won their independence and became the Republic of Ireland in 1951! Sometimes you just have to be there to understand things, but for a bit of silliness, it dawned on me that maybe they thought Superman would save us all 🙂

Superman in Dublin
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our second and third days were kind of broken up. We boarded our cruise ship in the late afternoon of the day 2 (we originally arrived in Dublin at about 10:00 a.m., so by now we were really on our 3rd day). We had tickets for the Guinness Storehouse tour that morning, so our plan was to do that, grab some lunch, and then collect our bags and head for the cruise port. My wife and I had already done this tour, so I didn’t take any photographs this time at all. This is a pretty interesting tour, and the ticket price traditionally included a pint of Guinness from their “Gravity Bar” at the top of the building. There is a panoramic view of the city from there. They have changed things up a bit now, though. Now they have a tasting area on one of the lower floors and you can elect to do that in lieu of the pint up at the top. It includes a flight of 3 of their beers of your choice, and short explanation about them. They also had a very talented group of Irish Dancers who put on a short show for us. Two for one. :-).

St. Catherine’s Church
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In keeping with my comment about the bounty of church architecture in Europe in general, and in particular in Ireland, we happened upon the very small and beautiful St. Catherine’s Church on our walk from our hotel to the Guinness Storehouse.

Dublin City Center Near Christ Church Cathedral
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We spent that night on the ship, as Dublin Port is a ways out from the city center. I was able to get a different perspective on the city from our ship, however. But in the morning, we headed back toward the Guinness Storehouse, and to a small whiskey distillery that our first night’s guide, Nimhb, had recommended: Pearse Lyons. The distillery is set up in an ancient Church, very near the Guinness Storehouse.

Dublin Port
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The St. James (protestant) Church of Ireland dates back to medieval times. It is likely the the building currently standing was preceded by an earlier structure. My research suggests that the current building is at least 800 years old. Over its history, it fell into a state of disrepair apparently a couple times. last used as a church in 1956, it most recently served as a hardware store (Lighting World) until 2009.. In 2013, Dr. Pearse Lyons purchased the building and grounds (except for the adjacent – and ancient – 1.5 acre cemetery, which is owned by Dublin City Council). The distillery has done a wonderful job of preserving the historic integrity of the building, down to the amazing stained glass windows.

Pearse Lyons Distillery
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Pearse Lyons Distillery
St. James Church of Ireland Building
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I have an upcoming blog dedicated to “whisky,” and our two significant distillery visits (Pearse Lyons and Bushmills) so I will not go into detail about the Pearse Lyons distillery tour until then. After a nice tour and tasting, we were ready to head back to the cruise ship and look forward to new venues and adventures. Next stop: Belfast and Northern Ireland.

St. James Cemetery
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Exploring my New Backyard

Anclote Gulf Park Fishing Pier
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

For a while now, I have realized I needed to get back out with the camera. I think I have learned over the years that making compelling images does not stem from some sudden inspiration. Indeed, each time there has been a hiatus in my shooting, I have to get out and “knock the rust off” a bit. And what I have learned over the years is that my best images most often come from a combination of shooting a lot and being very familiar with my camera and what it can do for me, planning, exploring, and sometimes, just whatever nature brings me. So, in my mind, these images do not really represent my “best work.” I think that As I continue to repeat visit some of these places, creativity and opportunity will present better fortune.

The Florida Gulf Coast is photographically known more than anything else for its spectacular sunsets

So lately, I have been getting out again to shoot. I recently made some big moves in my life. I was raised in Northern Michigan, and lived and worked in mid-Michigan for nearly 40 years. Except for a few years between high school and graduating law school – when I had the good fortune to live in Vermont and Washington, D.C. – I have lived most of my life in Michigan. Unlike Florida, Michigan is varied on both climate and geography, providing some diverse photographic opportunities.

Anclote Gulf Park FIshing Pier
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Florida presents some new challenges. It is mainly one huge beach, varying only as you move inland. However, it is also a peninsula, just like Michigan, which means that it has miles and miles (and more miles) of coast. Although there are certainly some “inland” opportunities, it is this coast that will provide, I am sure, the most opportunities. That is a stroke of luck for me. As my additions here, and my imagery on my LightCentric Photography Website demonstrate, I am drawn to water, and to sunrises and sunsets. My biggest challenge here will be finding variety that is unique for my own shooting.

I am not sure I am off to a very good start

I am not sure I am off to a very good start. The Florida Gulf Coast is photographically known more than anything else for its spectacular sunsets. With the vast backdrop of the Gulf of Mexico to the west, that makes some sense. But the theatrical sunsets are generally created by good atmospherics. Cloud formations and haze later in the day will usually yield some dramatic results. In my last few outings, after some cloud buildup during the early afternoon, the skies over the Gulf have cleared, yielding mostly featureless sunsets.

Anclote Gulf Park Fishing Pier
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We actually bought our home here in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area several years back, and I “commuted” between here and Michigan. In March I retired and moved here permanently. Prior to that time, I made a couple trips to areas very close to me – Honeymoon Island and Crystal Beach. Both are minutes away, and I got some nice shots. I will return often to both places, as they are convenient, and present some good shooting opportunities. But I wanted to explore some new areas along the coast.

Anclote Gulf Park Fishing Pier
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The Anclote River enters the Gulf north of Tarpon Springs. In addition to its very Greek culture, including the historic and locally famous sponge docks, there are some nice, picturesque shooting opportunities in and around the community. On the north side of the Anclote, where it enters the Gulf, there is a power plant which can be seen as a landmark from as far south from the water as Clearwater, and a rather elaborate fishing pier. I scouted it one day, and thought it might make an interesting element. So my first foray was to the Anclote Gulf Park, to “work” its fishing Pier.

Anclote Gulf Park Fishing Pier
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

What I have been fortunate to find, though, is some pretty good shooting scenarios. A year or so back, I posted that I believe that a compelling sunset (or sunrise) image needs some elements in the frame other than a spectacular sky, regardless of how breathtaking the colors of that sky might be. Sure, it is o.k. to have an abstract, or two in your portfolio. But images of just the sky just don’t get it done for me. The Florida coast, I am learning, has varied topography, from pristine, sandy beaches, to tidal flats, to rocky coastline. So, even though I have felt like they have been kind of “ho hum” sunsets, I have been able to make what I think are some pleasing images.

Fred Howard Park
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

As I was leaving Anclote Gulf Park, a couple fishermen engaged me in conversation, and offered information about a couple of other good sunset photo destinations. One of them, I had already scouted, and it is on my list, but I want to wait for the angle of the sunset to change a bit: Anclote River Park. It is about a mile south of the Gulf Park and is the part of the river where boats can go to and from Tarpon Springs (the outlet by the Gulf Park is blocked near the power plant).

Fred Howard Park
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

There were also two new places, Sunset Beach and Fred Howard Park. Both are on the south side of the Anclote, on the Gulf; an area known as Anclote Anchorage. There is also an island to the west known as Anclote Key State Park, where there is a lighthouse. It is only accessible by boat. I don’t know if, or when I will get there. I scouted Sunset Beach first, thinking perhaps I could put the Fred Howard causeway in my image. It looked like there might be some nice opportunities to “frame” the sunset between some palm trees, but I moved on to Fred Howard Park, and remained there for the rest of the evening. It looks like there are numerous possible composition options there, and I am sure I will return a few times. I the last two images, you can see the Anclote Lighthouse as just a tiny “stick” to the left of the land mass, which is Anclote Key.

Fred Howard Park
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I will be MIA for week for two. We are heading to “The British Isles,” and I am looking forward to many new images, and lots to write about when I return. As always, thanks for following and reading here.

I post-process my images (I “Photoshop” them). In many cases, I try to make the image look as I saw it when I made the shot. Sometimes, I am not satisfied with that, and then I make it look like what I think it could (or should) have been. In every case, I believe “Mother Nature” has it in her palette. I hope as we get into the summer months and stormy season, that she will yield more drama. But these seem like a start to me.

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.