A First Time for Everything

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This is a new photo of my younger son, taking a shot while warming up at his most recent basketball game. I used the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, mounted on the D750.  This was the first time I used the 70-200 in this particular gym (I’ve photographed my older son playing ball in this gym several times), and will no doubt be the last time I use the 70-200 in that gym…there just isn’t enough light in there to get away with not using something wider than f/2.8 (with this particular camera, anyway).  It’s a very poorly illuminated room, with those harsh fluorescent bulbs recessed into an awkwardly high ceiling.  It’s a weird gym in that regard…it’s narrow and small, with bright red padded walls, and the ceiling is ridiculously high.  When out on the court, you feel like you’re at the bottom of an enormous McDonald’s cup.

This was also the first time I used the D750 to get action shots.  Since I could go no wider than f/2.8, I bumped up ISO to (gulp) 5000 in order to get enough light for the exposure.  And, the photo leaves you with no doubt that the camera was not pleased with me shooting at this high of an ISO…there’s significant grain, and it’s not the attractive kind of grain.  It’s the tear-my-eyes-out-with-a-blunt-wooden-spoon kind of grain.  I used to own the D4, which was able to handle higher ISOs more impressively than the D750 seems to…which is to be expected given the D4’s reputation.  I guess I got a little spoiled using the D4, because the 750 is seemingly pushed to its limits in this environment.

And, let’s be fair to the D750…this particular gym is a pretty harsh environment to shoot in.  As I said before, the gym has poor lighting, and those bright red padded walls make for an atrocious background.  Fortunately, the subject in this image is adorable enough to take your eyes away from the background.

Had I brought the lens I’ve always shot with in this gym, the Nikon 200mm f/2, I could have worked at f/2, and dropped ISO down to 2500 (everything else being equal).  With the D750, there’s a HUGE difference between 2500 and 5000.  The D4, not so much.  I could have shot all day long at f/2.8 in this gym with the D4, and ISO 5000, without any significant grain to speak of.

Regardless, I much prefer shooting with the 200 f/2 over the 70-200 f/2.8 anyway.  It’s just a better lens.  Don’t get me wrong, the 70-200 is a good lens…a little overrated (some people kneel before the 70-200 2.8 as if it’s a gift from God), but still a high quality product.  The 200mm f/2, however, is truly a gift from God.

I absolutely love the 200 f/2.  It can handle any environment I’ve thrown at it, and it’s always there to cover for all of my shortcomings behind the camera.  Physically, it’s not light by any means, and it’s awkwardly chunky and short…if I were to randomly visualize a portable grenade launcher, the 200mm f/2 looks pretty much like how I draw one up in my head. (And I use the term “draw” very loosely, as I cannot draw a stick figure without royally screwing it up.)

Here’s one of my older son taken with the 200mm, at ISO 1600, 1/1000s, f/2 (in a gym with clearly better lighting and better background):

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The 200mm does a spectacular job isolating a subject off the background.  If you (and your subject) can deal with its relative girth, the 200mm is a wonderful portrait lens, either on a tripod or hand-held.  Some people tend to get a little nervous when a portable RPG is pointed at them…but if you can calm them a bit and talk them into believing it’s really a lens and not a finely tuned piece of military equipment, you will get some amazing shots, regardless of where you are.  Even if you’re in a poorly illuminated gym…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nikon Coolpix 5700 (circa 2002)

I was cleaning out some of my shelves in the office yesterday, and came across a bit of nostalgia:  The first digital camera I owned: The Nikon Coolpix 5700.  I bought it back in 2002 prior to my wife and I going on our honeymoon.  We had some spending money thanks to all the wedding gifts, so we figured we’d splurge and get a nice camera to record our trip.  We should have splurged on a better hard drive backup solution, because around 2005 or 2006, a computer virus crashed our computer, and the entire contents of the external hard drive…including but not limited to:  My entire CD collection burned into MP3 files, and our entire collection of digital pictures.

We got some very cool pictures of some amazing waterfalls on the big island in Hawaii…but I can’t show them to you here, because I wasn’t smart enough to switch over to a Mac soon enough.  Had I been using a Mac, I seriously doubt that virus ever would have wreaked havoc on all our stuff.  But, more importantly, I should have had a better backup solution than one external hard drive which was always attached to the computer.

IBM compatible machine + crappy backup solution = I am dumb.

Always have a backup of your stuff somewhere in a safe location that’s not connected to any electronics.  These days, storage memory is so cheap and ubiquitous, there’s no excuse not to have an extra set of your stuff saved somewhere offsite.  Anyway, I digress.

 

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Just in case a random stranger walks up to you and asks you technical specifications about this camera, Nikon slapped a huge cartoonish looking billboard of the camera’s finest attributes right on the lens barrel. Tasteful.

 

 

I had owned cameras prior to this one, but they were all of the film variety, and I didn’t really know how to use them. Back in 2002 photography wasn’t really even a hobby of mine, so it took a momentous occasion to make me want to go out and actually spend my own money on a camera.  (Boy how times have changed in that regard, but again, I digress)

Brand new, this camera cost $1200, in 2002 dollars.  At the time it was considered a top of the line consumer digital camera.  It’s not a DSLR, and frankly, in 2002 I literally didn’t know what a DSLR (or SLR, for that matter) was.

The Coolpix 5700 is a 5 megapixel powerhouse…which means it blows away my iPhone’s 1.2 megapixel sensor.  It boasted an electronic viewfinder that had all of 180,000 pixels working in its favor.  With that type of resolution, concrete will blur while you watch it dry.

The LCD monitor was 1.5″ wide, with a resolution of 110,000 pixels.  Seriously, 110,000?  Everything looks like it’s put together with Legos on that screen.  LCD screens on a camera are sort of like caller ID. We all did just fine without them before they were invented, but I have no idea how we could survive as a culture without them now, with many people practically depending on them.

 

Welcome to pixel hell.

Welcome to pixel hell.

 

If you can’t tell, that’s the playground behind our house, shown on the LCD screen of the D5700. Image that on a 1.5″ screen.  Now imagine navigating through an options menu on that screen.  Trying to change menu options on this screen feels like someone is pulling back your eyelids with a tweezer.  It’s not pleasant.

The lens has an optical range of 9 to 71mm (in 35mm format), with a max aperture of f/2.8 to 4.2.  This little sucker can get wide.  Digital zoom was available up to 4 times…but digital zooming is a farce…it was then, and it still is now.  All a digital “zoom” does is take a smaller portion of the center of the picture, crop out the edges, and blows up the remaining center portion to the size of the original image.  You’re left with a lesser quality center portion of the non-digital zoomed image.  Digital zooming is easily done in post processing simply by cropping yourself.  If anyone ever leads off the sales pitch for a camera by talking about its digital zooming capabilities, it’s a sure sign the camera’s a POS.

ISO range went from 100-800 on the Coolpix 5700.  Back then, shadows actually stayed dark in post process.  It was much tougher to take a good photograph back then…before Lightroom and Photoshop blossomed, which afforded the photographer an ability to hide a lot of mistakes made at the scene.

You can put filters on the lens of the 5700 with an optional adapter.  To me, in 2002, filters were for cigarettes, not cameras.  I hadn’t the slightest clue what a polarizer was until probably 2010 or 2011, and I didn’t quit smoking until July 4, 2005.  Smoked for 19 years…about a pack a day, peaking at two packs a day for the first couple of years in college.  I went to school in upstate New York, and winters were hideously cold…so all we did from November through March was huddle up in someone’s dorm room, play Super Tecmo Football on Nintendo, and smoke.  Barry Sanders was stupid good in that video game.  So were Jerry Ball (NT for the Lions), and Bo Jackson.  They were men among boys.  Later on in college, we had a foosball table in the basement of our fraternity house, and that’s why I diverted my attention to in winter in my last two years in school.  I’m sure my parents would love to know that I majored in Tecmo with a minor in foosball.

Anyway…back on topic…

The electronic shutter peaks out at 1/4000 speed, which is the same as the modern D750 (the comparisons end there)…and it actually had a bulb mode up to 5 minutes long.

The camera could save files in RAW (2560 x 1920), TIFF, or Jpeg format.  With that size, you can barely fill up your typical monitor with a shot of a coffee maker.  And, hold yourself to your seat…this little monster could churn out a mind-numbing 3 frames per second.  At 3 frames per second you might have the opportunity to catch a crystal clear, freeze-frame shot of your grass growing.  In the winter.

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If a postage stamp looked like an LCD screen…

 

 

For its diminutive size, one thing that strikes me about this camera is its weight…it’s not light. I won’t be confusing its mass with a D4 anytime soon, but it’s much heftier than modern advanced point and shoots, which are mostly made of plastic.  You can definitely feel how Nikon stuffed as much glass as they could inside the lens barrel.  As is typical of most quality Nikon products, the body of the camera feels rock solid.

I’d take some new shots with the camera, but my trusty Mac Pro won’t recognize the CF card from the 5700.  I’m working on a solution, but as of yet, the card won’t show up on screen when I drop it in the CF reader.  I have the technical capability of road kill, so don’t hold your breath.  Seriously, it took me weeks to figure out how to start my own blog online.  No joke.  I tend to overcomplicate the simple issues life presents us.  But, that’s what makes this so much fun!

 

 

 

St. George, Utah

I was going through my Lightroom library to do some routine housekeeping, and came across this photo I’ve shared on my Facebook page before…taken a few years back while on a trip to Zion National Park. This isn’t inside Zion, but off to the side of a golf course in St. George, Utah, which was where we stayed (it’s an easy drive to Zion from St. George).

This shot was taken the night we flew in…I wasn’t planning on doing any shooting that night, as we had just checked into our hotel.  I was exhausted, and smelled like an airplane seat.  But while unpacking I noticed the gorgeous sunset, quickly grabbed my tripod, camera, and 24-70 lens…and walked around the golf course a bit, settling in on this scene.

Those ripples off to the bottom right side of the photograph look like some sort of horrifying Photoshop cloning catastrophe, but they were caused by the water flowing over the rocks.

 

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Five “Must Shoot” Locations in Central Maryland

From a photographers’ point of view, Maryland is one of the most widely diverse states in the entire country, which is impressive given its diminutive size.  If you started out heading west on Route 50 in Ocean City, onto route 97 up to the Baltimore Beltway, then took route 70 out to 68, exiting into West Virginia, it would be six and a half hours of constantly changing terrains, environments, and uniquely interesting places to photograph.

Just in Central Maryland alone, there are countless places to visit which could keep a photographer busy for season after season.  Some of them, however, are “must-sees” for anyone who considers photography a hobby.  If you’re one of those people, here are 5 places in Central Maryland which you must visit to shoot:

1) Annapolis.  You could spend your entire lifetime photographing just parts of this incredible little capital of the state.  Home of the Naval Academy, and self-proclaimed “Sailing Capital of the World”, the town boasts an endless number of marinas from which to shoot infinitely different waterscapes featuring boats sailing into and out of their dock.  For the photojournalist, the downtown area, while quite small in size, offers endless quaint brick and stone streets funneling you from the outskirts of town into the center of it all at the main downtown harbor, which is littered with eccentric shops and outdoor dining.  Cross the Spa Creek bridge, and you can track down the perfect spot to shoot the harbor, and sun setting over the capital building as sail boats pass you by in the foreground.

In doesn’t really matter whether you’re a photographer or not, Annapolis is a must-see for anyone.

 

Sailing By

 

 

2) Jones Green State Park.  A stone’s throw from Annapolis, this little state park sits on the Severn River, neatly tucked underneath the Naval Academy Bridge (route 450).  One one side of the bridge there’s a view of the Academy across the river, on the other side an iconic view of the Severn’s natural beauty.  If you’re shooting wide waterscapes, you will most likely be dodging fisherman perched over the dock or along the beachside…or making them part of the scene.

Many photographers also choose to include the bridge along the south side of the images, which provides some interesting architectural spice into an otherwise purely natural landscape.  Given that you’re looking predominantly west, if you choose a night where Mother Nature cooperates with the setting sun, you can be treated to some memorable experiences at dusk.

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3) The Late-Summer Sunflower Fields.  Every summer there are farms all over Maryland which grow sunflowers…the one I frequent is in southern Harford County, on the corner of Jarrettsville Pike and Hess Road, right across from the Royal Farms gas station. If you go, bring a ladder and walk to the top of the hill. You will be awestruck by the enormity of the seemingly endless rows of sunflowers.

It’s also a great place to grab a family photo…there are people all over the place taking in the scene, and I’m sure anyone would be more than happy to help grab a picture of you and yours with the field as a beautiful backdrop.  And, the kids will have a great time running through the maze of flowers.

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4) The Federal Hill Skyline.  Baltimore City offers all kinds of interesting landmarks to photograph…and one of the easiest to get to is the skyline of downtown Baltimore from the top of Federal Hill.  It’s easy to reach…simply park alongside any of the roads in the Federal Hill neighborhood.  And it’s the perfect scene for a panoramic shot…as well as a nice opportunity to work on cloning in Photoshop, as the lights which illuminate the volleyball courts below stick up and get in the way of the scene, especially at night when they’re on.

Late afternoon/early evening shots are perfect (depending on the time of year), as you can grab the sun setting behind the buildings on the left.  Sunrise is OK also…the sun rises off to the right, away from the skyline…but as the sun rises up, those fresh rays of light illuminate the buildings and cast a pleasant, warm glow over the architecture.

If it’s a partly cloudy day, try a long exposure…it will add the element of movement as the clouds will appear to be “stretched” out.  A long exposure at night will create laser beams across Fort Avenue, Light Street and Pratt Street, as moving cars end up looking like beams of light when the shutter stays open and records them moving across the scene.

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5) Kilgore Falls.  Saving the best for last…this is my favorite location to shoot in Central Maryland.  The falls are tucked away inside the northern portion of Rocks State Park, a moderately painful jog from Street, Maryland.  There’s a small parking lot off of Falling Branch Road (the Falls are a part of the Falling Branch tributary)…park there, walk a quarter-mile along the easily navigable trail, and you’re treated to a beautiful waterfall that offers many different vantage points for photographers.  You can shoot it from downstream (the south)…the falls looked tucked away behind an enormous boulder which sits directly to the right.  To shoot it from the left is tricky, as there’s very limited space to situate yourself and your tripod, and the rocks there are perpetually slippery.  Shooting it head-on is possible from many locations, but getting close-up requires some careful footing, as those slippery boulders offer up an interesting way to leave you with a week-long limp.

The best times to shoot the falls are late in the afternoon, around sunset, or early in the morning just around sunrise, which offers diffused, warm lighting…and the best season is the fall, when the foliage around the scene offers up the opportunity for a beautiful wide-angle image.

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DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras

The Nikon D810 alongside the Panasonic GX7.

The Nikon D810 alongside the Panasonic GX7.

Over the past several years, the mirrorless camera has made significant technological gains in the industry…so much that the debate has begun to rage over how close mirrorless cameras are to catching up to the DSLR.  And, perhaps, is it possible that the mirrorless camera will eventually render the DSLR technologically obsolete?

Personally, I don’t really think of them as competing enterprises.  Instead, I think they both have valuable characteristics that make them each good to have on your camera shelf.

Here are some of the characteristics which separate a mirrorless camera from a DSLR:

1) Size and weight.  A mirrorless camera, as you hopefully picked up on pretty quickly, has no mirror.  Since there’s no mirror to flip up and down, less parts and space are required.  As shown in the picture above, the GX7 (the mirrorless camera I own), is a fraction the size of Nikon’s D810.  As you may have guessed, it’s also significantly lighter.

This makes a mirrorless camera much more suitable for traveling, hiking, and as a walk-around camera.  Given that mirrorless lenses are also much smaller and lighter than DSLR lenses, you can literally fit some types of mirrorless cameras in your pocket, with lenses attached!

2) Electronic Viewfinder. EVFs can be very helpful because the camera will afford you the ability to “see” how the picture will actually look once its taken.  You’re literally seeing a live view of the digital image that will be shot. For the beginner or intermediate, this trait can be very helpful.  But, for the purist, you can’t beat the clarity and simplicity of a DSLR optical viewfinder.

3) Durability.  Most higher-end DSLRs can withstand significant abuse: rain…dropped into puddles…dropped onto concrete floors…dropped onto concrete floors with puddles…kidnapped by 3 year old…kidnapped by mean, vindictive 3 year old…you name it, the DSLR can handle it.  Mirrorless cameras, by comparison, feel kind of fragile on the exterior.  I don’t get the confidence when holding the GX-7 that it could survive even a single drop onto rocky ground from eye level.  The D810 would not only survive said drop, it would scar the rock.

Additionally, DSLR lenses, especially the top of the line models, feel as if they are hewn from solid granite.  They feel practically indestructible…assuming your strong enough to hold one up.  They are heavier than mirrorless lenses, but what you lose in portability, you gain in toughness.  Ever hand-hold a Nikon 600mm VRII?  You need a forklift to mount that lens on the camera, and once mounted, you feel like you’re operating a grenade launcher.  By comparison, holding the 100-300mm (200-600mm equivalent in 35mm format) Olympus MFT lens doesn’t quite give you the same sense of power and strength.  It feels like large straw compared to the Nikon 600mm. And, if you ever drop the 100-300, I wouldn’t be surprised if it exploded into tiny little bits of plastic seedlings.

4) Manual Focus aids. To use “Live View” in a DSLR, you are relegated to the rear LCD screen. If you peer through the optical viewfinder in a DSLR, all you have to let you know you’re in focus is that little green dot, and the two little arrows advising you to turn the ring clockwise or counter-clockwise.

On most mirrorless cameras, whenever you peer through the EVF,  you’re automatically in live view.  What you see is exactly what the exposure will look like if you hit the shutter. Furthermore, the EVF can use focus peaking (highlighting the edges of areas which are in focus) to let you know when you’re in focus.  That’s incredibly helpful when focusing manually.

There are many other characteristics which differentiate the two types of cameras. But generally speaking, I see no difference in image quality when taking a shot with a mirrorless or DSLR.  Ultimately, it always boils down to who’s behind the camera, rather than the camera itself.

So where will all this lead us in the marketplace for consumer/pro cameras?  For the foreseeable future, I think we will continue to see a mix of both mirrorless and DSLR options on the market, with companies like Sony pushing the label to attempt to create hybrid cameras which bring the best of both worlds to one product.  And, maybe we will see Canon and Nikon take some of the advantages of mirrorless cameras and attempt to morph them into a DSLR body.

It won’t be long before a 36 megapixel powerhouse camera will come in the size of a MFT body, which is also as durable, tough, and fast as a D4.  And it will probably rival the cost of a base model Honda Civic.