Into the Night

San Francisco Skyline
I shot this from Alcatraz Island on a mini tripod on a very windy night. Though not the razor sharp image I was hoping for, I was happy to be able to get it as sharp as I did
[Copyright Andy Richards 2011]

For many of us, night signals the end of our primary activities, work, school, and even “play.” We generally come home, prepare and eat dinner, wind down, and go to sleep.

When night comes, we often think it is time to pack up our gear, and go home

Photographers often take the same approach. Much attention (rightfully) is focused on the “golden” hours in the early morning and again in the early evening. Events are often either during the day, or in well-lit settings. And, after all, the word photography roughly means: “painting with light.” So when darkness comes, we often think it is time to pack up our gear, and go home.

Grand Canal; Venice, Italy
I shot this handheld, leaning on a bridge, at 1/30 second. Images like this really demand a tripod for maximum sharpness. Unfortunately, I did not have a tripod, but I did my best without by bracing on the bridge
[Copyright Andy Richards 2013]

But we really shouldn’t. Because if we do, we are missing out on a significant venue for photography. It really pays to take your camera out and explore the night. My “Into The Night” Gallery on my photo website contains my “low light” imagery.

Tokyo Tower
This was taken from inside our completely darkened room at the Park Hotel. It is difficult to do night images through glass windows, but we could not find an outdoor vantage point to get this perspective
[Copyright Andy Richards 2015]

The subject matter will most likely be different. Except in unique and limited circumstances, traditional landscape and nature photography will not work well at night. It is difficult enough to photograph wildlife in the low light conditions when they are active. It would be mostly impossible to do much with them after dark. Most “grand landscape” scenes and the elements used to frame a good photograph” will go dark to black and detail – less.

Capitol; Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial from across the reflecting pool
This was my first ever foray into nightime shooting, This image was made with Kodachrome 25 slide film long before digital was available to most of us
[Copyright Andy Richards 1980]

A notable exception to my “landscape” exclusion is shooting the night skies. That is an area I have not yet made the time and effort to pursue. I have two very talented friends who have spent a lot of time shooting the night sky – mainly the milky way. I encourage you to visit the of Al Utzig’s “After Dark” Portfolio, and Margy Meath’s “Night Sky” Gallery, to see their excellent night sky photography.

Iwo Jima War Memorial; Rossyln, Washington, D.C.
Strong graphic elements and artificial lighting expose the details and textures in this image
[Copyright Andy Richards 2011]
Copyright

My own night shooting has mostly been in and around cities, or areas with substantial architectural details. There need to be some strong graphic elements in most cases.

Bay Bridge; San Francisco, CA
[Copyright Andy Richards 2014]

Artificial light also makes up an important part of night shooting. There are opportunities, and there are challenges. One opportunity is to show movement creatively. Moving vehicles, for example, show streaks of light (usually the red-colored tail lights give the best result). There are often many different colored lights, which present great opportunities for photographs. The shot of Tokyo Tower, with its colorful night time lighting is a great example, I think.

Port of Barcelona
Sometimes high vantage points help with night images. This was taken from the top deck of our cruise ship
[Copyright Andy Richards 2020]

Nightime lighting can also create great reflection opportunities. The Port of Barcelona and the Bay Bridge images are good examples of reflected light and in the case of the port, color.

Cruise Ships
The noise in this image, made with an early version Canon Powershot, was so bad, that I did the only thing I could think of: I made it “worse,” by applying one of Photoshops many so-called, “artistic” filters
[Copyright Andy Richards 2012]

There are “challenges.” The most obvious is the lack of light; lilght being the very thing that creates a photographic image, either by reflecting off a photosensor, or if you are “old school,” off of an unexposed silvery halide film emulsion. Back in 1980 when I shot the monuments my ISO rating was 25! If you wanted something “faster” (meaning less light needed to make the exposure), you were basically relegated to B&W. And 400 was blazing fast back then (sometimes you could push it to 800, but with a sacrifice in quality). When digital came along, it offered faster ISO speeds (and the ability to vary the ISO from shot to shot). But it took many years from the time the first digital cameras hit the market until we had any real gain in that area. The primary problem with higher ISO sensors was something called “noise.” Borrowed from the radio/electronics industry, the term “noise” refers to random electronic signals generated in the camera’s electronics. There are numerous culprits, including sensor size and density and heat. But day after day, the technical design and manufacturing just gets better.

Port of Naples
This shot was made at 6400 ISO and though there was some noise in the water in the foreground and the black hull of the boat, most of it was made more palatable with NIK’s Dfine noise reduction software.
[Copyright Andy Richards 2013]

Current sensors give us the ability to go more than 200 times higher ISO than my Kodachrome 25. The Grand Canal image, for example, was made at 6400 ISO. This allowed for an f6.3 aperture at 1/30 of a second. There is evidence of noise in that image, but it is certainly not unpleasant. and at slower ISO, or larger sensors visible noise has been severely reduced, if not eliminated. The Tokyo Tower shot was a 4 second exposure with no noticeable noise.

Hotel Monteleone, New Orleans, LA
This image, made with my smaller sensor Sony RX100, at ISO 3200 and 1/80 sec, is uniformly noisy, but not unpleasant
[Copyright Andy Richards 2018]

Of course, the other way to deal with lack of light would be to affix your camera to something stationary – most often a sturdy tripod – and make longer exposures. Remember, the Grand Canal image was made handheld (I didn’t have a tripod with me, but I made the best use of the camera I had with me – the important point being I had the camera with me). Obviously the ability to shoot high ISO speeds is giving us more flexibility and versatility than in years past.

Frontier Street; Las Vegas, NV
City streets, colors and neon make great night time shooting subjects
[Copyright Andy Richards 2016]

And, longer exposures bring with them another set of challenges. Historically, there has been a direct corellation between length of exposure and noise. Although similar to grain in film, it is really a technically very different phenomena and a new concept to work with for photographers. Noise can show up looking like grain. It can also show up as “color” noise which gives the image a kind of blotchy, red/green/blue look. In the past we have had to work with it by watching both ISO and exposure length, and often depending on post-processing “denoise” software. There is still occasion to use such software, but it is much less often necessary. And did I say the sensor technology has gotten better? Again, current sensors all very high ISO performance, and create less heat, rendering relatively noise-free low light images. There is still not much doubt, though, that my full frame sensor gives “cleaner” results than my Sony RX100.

Split Rock Lighthouse; Two Harbors, MN
Fireworks always make great night image shooting. Often shot from or over water venues, there are almost always reflection opportunities. I was fortunate to be at this lighthouse on one of the few nights it is lit during the year – and the fireworks were just an added bonus
[Copyright Andy Richards 2010]

Even before noise was an issue, there were circumstances that made longer exposures problematic. The biggest ones? Wind and subject movement. Neither, of course, is solely a night issue. But it makes things you may not have thought about now an issue. In 2016, I was in Rhode Island and took some night shots of a lighted bridge with boats in the foreground. It was windy and I just couldn’t get an image I liked, of the lights strung along the structural cables. The wind made it impossible to shoot at a shutter speed that would capture them as sharp.

Newport Bridge; Brenton Cove; Newport, RI
This photograph was made after sunseet at the remaining light was nearly gone. The ability of modern cameras/sensors to capture light is astounding. To our eyes, that wonderful pink glow in the sky was barely visible. And there was enough wind that it was difficult to get the lights on the bridge sharp
[Copyright Andy Richards 2016]

Another challenge to this kind of shooting environment is, ironically, the light. As I noted in one of the post-processing blogs recently, color – to photographers and viewers – is largely a matter of perception. Having said that, it is also the case that there are limits to our variation in perception. For most of us, there will come a time where color just won’t seem “true” anymore. One of the most difficult areas to control has historically been when shooting with artificial light. We are geared to sunny daylight in our judgement of color. These days, LED lighting technology has made it possible to mimic daylight. Just a short few years ago, that wasn’t the case. Regular incandescant light tended to give color a yellow (“warm”) cast. Those ubiquitous flourescent tubes (think offices, kitchens, garages and basements) gave off an ugly greenish cast. Outdoor (mercury vapor) lighting was yellow or orange. Of course, many of these light sources still abound – especially outdoors at night. And they definitely make colors – interesting. 🙂 The Saginaw Waterworks image has such a mix of light sources and colors that it was virtually impossible to recreate what my own eyes “saw” (our eyes and brain work together to “color correct” in these situation when you are on site. But viewing a photograph shows us what was really captured and/or presented. Sometimes, I think these color inconsistencies make for good photography. Nobody would say the “night sky” in the waterworks picture looks “natural.” And the “reds” and “greens” aren’t exactly red or green. But it certainly makes for a colorful holiday image.

Saginaw Water Treatment Facility; Saginaw, MI
There may be no better subject for colors and lights than holiday images. I always try to get out at night during the Christmas Season. The shear number of lights, as well as the already ample year-round building lighting almost makes the sky look like daylight here. But is was assuredly after dark
[Copyright Andy Richards 2009]

Before the digital “age,” films were “color-balanced” to a certain standard. Most were “daylight” balanced. Some specialty films (Kodak had a “tungsten” slide film, for example) were purposely balanced to produce “truer” color under artificial light. Digital gives us the ability to adjust the color balance for each image. To me that is a spectacular advantage to digital processing. For those who only shoot jpegs, color balance needs to be set on the camera, and adjusted for the condition. Most cameras refer to this a the “white balance” setting. In most cases, if you shoot raw, you can color balance in post-processing, which is what I personally prefer. Unless I am shooting jpegs for some reason, I don’t worry about the white balance setting.

Pete’s Lake; Hiawatha NF; Michigan U.P.
We arrived year well before dawn in darkness lit only by the moonlight; to shoot the sunset. But this was the most memorable image of the morning for me
[Copyright Andy Richards]

One other things probably deserves mention here. I am writing about “night shooting.” Perhaps a definition of night is needed? I don’t know. For me, night is any time after sundown and before sunrise. I have done an awful lot of shooting during the beginning and end of the day period known as twilight. What I have learned is that sometimes the “show” really isn’t the sunrise or sunset at all. Sometimes the real image is before things start up and after the sun has passed well below the horizon. The Newport Bridge, Bay Bridge, Goat Island Light and Pete’s Lake images are examples. The Pete’s Lake image also demonstrates one of those exceptions to my “traditional landscape” shooting comment earlier.

Goat Island Light; Newport, R.I.
I used digital processing to “bring the light up” on the adirondack chairs here. You could imagine that it is actually the moon lighting them, but there was an artifical source of light doing that
[Copyright Andy Richards 2016]

An American (or four) in Paris

(Left-Clicking on an image opens it in a new window, bigger and with better resolution)

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Ah, Paris! It conjures that accordian music and a bustling city (with some Gershwin in the background). And food. It was all there. Our next port of call, LeHavre, was just a short ride accross the English Channel. We arose and left the train early, for another train ride – this one 2 hours.

Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

This cruise, as I have noted previously, was rather unusual for us in that the ship docked overnight in 3 of our ports of call (Dublin, Cobh, and LeHavre). In our experience this usually happens, if at all, in only one port. In this case, not only did the ship dock overnight, but it did not depart LeHavre until midnight of the second day (technically you might even say it docked for two nights). We took full advantage of this time, booking an overnight stay in a Paris Hotel, and we had most of two very full days in Paris.

Champs-‘Elysees
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I have learned from travel in other countries, that shooting from a moving train is essentially impossible, and I have really given up trying. So all I could do was enjoy the French countryside as we headed toward Paris.  And the bulk of the trip was countryside, with many small, and very well-kept farms. I wanted to stop the train a number of times and just get off and shoot. Maybe someday.

Paris, France

Much like our London experience, less than 2 days is really not long enough to see Paris. There is just too much. Several days would be easy to fill.

The Louvre
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

But we were a little better organized, here, with pre-purchased tickets to the top of the Eiffel Tower, a walking tour around the Notre Dame Cathedral and neighborhood, and plans to use two forms of public transportation which really worked well for us – the “Hop on – Hop off bus and boats.”  While we again only scratched the surface, I think we were able to see the main points of interest we had, including the Cathedral, the Louvre (outside only), the Eiffel Tower, Champs-‘Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe.

Arc de Triomphe
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The Eiffel Tower is probably the central icon of Paris, and it is one of those landmarks that is rarely out of sight, wherever in Paris you might be

I overdid the Eiffel Tower. I don’t know how many images of it I made, but I know more than I really needed to.  We saw it from the river, from the tour bus, and from various points on the ground. And I shot it. I shot it at night and I shot it again during the daytime. The Eiffel Tower is probably the central icon of Paris, and it is one of those landmarks that is rarely out of sight, wherever in Paris you might be. So I had lots of opportunities. We knew we would be on the grounds of the tower the first evening – we were up on the top for the sunset – an unforgettable experience. But I had also done some research on vantage points to shoot it from. One of the best turned out to be Place du Trocadero, a plaza directly across the Seine from the tower.

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

From the grounds, it was difficult to shoot. The same dynamics as I mentioned in London were at play here. It is a massive structure, and perspective is just impossible up so close. But there were still some interesting and perhaps dramatic images here, especially at night.

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

As we left the grounds the evening we were there, I saw a nice reflection opportunity. In another life (or on another trip), I would like to go back with a tripod and better equipment and explore this a bit. But I was happy enough for handheld, point-and-shoot results in this case.

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The next day, I shot the tower again; this time from the Seine. There are more, but these are probably enough for now 🙂

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019
Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Next to the Eiffel Tower, the one thing I wanted to see most was the famed Cathedral Notre-Dame de-Paris, with its gothic architecture and 850 year plus, majestic wooden spires and roofline.

Catheral Notre Dame de_Paris
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The news of the fire on April 15th (just short weeks before our visit), destroying much of the old wooden infrastructure, including spire and rooflines that were made from wood timber construction, was heartbreaking to viewers around the world. I had been looking forward to seeing the inside and grounds. We were fortunate to get some good views from the exterior, but the interior is not accessible to the public at this point, and a large, opaque construction fence surrounds the entire grounds, so that only views from farther away are possible. I hope to return someday, and see the entire thing.

Catheral Notre Dame de_Paris
Under Reconstruction
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

What you can see of it It is still magnificent.

Catheral Notre Dame de_Paris
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We met our walking tour guide at a small cafe in the neighborhood of the Cathedral. These tours are free (you can find them and similar tours in most cities). They are usually given by locally attending students, or members of local art, history or acting programs. Our experience has been that our – normally youthful – guides are enthusiastic, fun and very knowledgable of their subject. The normal treatment is to give them a gratuity, usually what you think appropriate. We have tried to be generous over the years, knowing they are usually young students and truly appreciating the value we get from the. I highly recommend that you seek these types of tours out and partake. We have never been disappointed.

Cafe Odette
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The Cathedral is on an island in the middle of The Seine. The cafe was on the mainland, on the south side of the river, known as “The Left Bank,” and directly across the main street is the Saint Severin Roman Catholic Church. Originally built in the 11th Century, the church is one of (if not the) oldest churches in Paris.

Saint Severin Church
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019
Saint Severin Church
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Originally built as a smaller church, in the Romanesque style, it was enlarged years later, and today had Romanesque and Goth styles combined. The interior, much of it believed to be authentic original construction, includes impressive arches and stained glass.

Saint Severin Church
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019
Saint Severin Church
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

After spending a few minutes in Saint Severin, we walked across the bridge to the front of Notre Dame. We learned that the Cathedral is not only a church. It is a neighborhood and much of the surroundings made up that neighborhood.

Catheral Notre Dame de_Paris
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The quiet little street in the image here could really be a quiet back street in almost any city in the world. But it happens to be in the famous Notre Dame neighborhood.

Notre Dame Cathedral Neighborhood
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

After our tour, we boarded one of the “Hop on – Hop off” bateaus (boats) for a cruise up and down the Seine. Making images off a moving boat is only slightly less challenging than from a moving train or vehicle. Nonetheless, you do have a bit more mobility, and I was able to make a few “keeper” images.

Paris from The Seine
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019
Paris from The Seine
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019
Île de la Cité
(Notre Dame) from The Seine
Copyright Andy Richards 2019
The Louvre
from The Seine
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

T
The two days went by fast, and we were soon enough, boarding the train for the ride back to LeHavre and departure for Bruges. But there will be many memories of Paris, and anticipation of another visit in the not too distant future. One of the best memories will be being at the top of the world on the Eiffel Tower and seeing the sunset over that same Place du Trocadero that we had photographed the tower from earlier that afternoon.

Sunset over Paris
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

 

 

Cruising “The British Isles” – 2019

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

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

Dublin Port
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

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

Bushmills, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

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

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

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

Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Bruges, Belgium
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

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

Amsterdam, Netherlands
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

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

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)