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After putting a few dollars aside whenever I could, finally the fateful day arrived when I counted the contents of my little envelope and found myself in possession of a cache of cash of sufficient size to permit the purchase of a Nikon D80.  I ordered it with the 18-135mm kit lens (since the 18-200mm VR was still on a seemingly interminable back order) and then had to go back to the site to order the memory card that I had forgotten about in my excitement.  Waiting for the camera to arrive was torture (made worse by a long Memorial Day weekend), but by Wednesday it finally arrived.  What follows is a collection of emails to friends, some notes and a few images from the first month of shooting.

Why get so excited over a new camera?  Well, sometimes photography is about much more than just taking pictures.  For some it is a form of self-expression, for others a means of social and political change.  For some it is a convenient means of recording life's moments, for others it is a lifelong obsession. In my own case, whatever it was that photography might have been about began around 1967...

It is probably not unusual for a nerdy only child to gravitate toward solitary hobbies, and I was certainly no exception. Bicycling and model building competed with more art-oriented activities like drawing and painting, all combining to occupy my time just enough to prevent me from dwelling on the fact that I had nearly as few friends as I had siblings. When I was fourteen, my dad gave me his old Argus C-3 Matchmatic that had survived our house fire in 1961.  Today it is known to collectors with both affection and derision as "The Brick," mostly because of its appearance.  But it was also brickish enough in its construction  to have survived the fire none the worse for wear, aside from a non-functioning meter and a leather case that smelled of smoke.  Like so many others who crossed paths with the C-3, I was immediately hooked by this inexpensive but solid camera with its full compliment of manual controls.  Still, it only took a few rolls of film to realize that photography, even with a free camera, was going to be an expensive undertaking for a kid with no paper route or other means of income besides a meager allowance.  Compounding this was the frustration (which lasts to this day) of having my awakening creative vision thwarted at every turn by the individuals who processed my photos.  So within a few months I had a makeshift darkroom and was spooling my own film from economical 100 foot rolls (about six dollars for black and white in those days).

I think I enjoyed making prints even more than shooting photos... soon I was falling asleep in class with some regularity, having stayed up all night in the darkroom (as quietly as possible, so as not to wake my parents).  Thanks to one of my teachers, Bill Peckham (and  the monthly issues of Popular Photography, Modern Photography and Camera 35), I soon discovered that I could process my own Ektachrome.  I bought the kit and immediately took over the bathroom, since the tub was the only convenient place to immerse the many bottles of chemistry that had to be kept at a constant temperature.  How my parents put up with all this, I don't know.

A kind and understanding uncle who worked at the Photo Products Division of Xerox began sending me boxes of slightly outdated paper and chemistry, which meant I could save my money for a better camera.  In 1968 I bought a Fujicarex SLR whose fixed lens had interchangeable front elements (35mm, 50mm and 80mm), and in 1970 my world changed when a friend of my high school art teacher returned from his tour in Vietnam with a brand new Nikon FTn that he sold me for $230.  That camera and I were destined to be very close friends... I carried it everywhere with me for nearly 15 years.  My loyalty to Nikon is based partly on the rock-solid durability of that camera, which I put thru hell on numerous occasions.  I still have it and it still works. 

By the time the 80's rolled around, I was married and a father.  Restrictions of time, space and finances put an end to the darkroom.  Discouraged by the lack of creative control over the final images, I became a snap-shooter, recording family and friends and keeping records of my artwork... but not doing much in the way of serious shooting, even after moving up to a Nikon F3 and 80-200 zoom that my father passed on to me (thanks, Dad!).

In 1986 an interesting thing happened... I got into computer graphics and animation, thanks mainly to the Amiga computer.  This led to a job at a TV station in 1991 and after a few years I became aware that photography was moving away from film and into the digital realm, a move I welcomed since I had already seen the darkroom-like capabilities that computer software offered.  The only problem was, these digital cameras were strictly for pros and very expensive... several times what a film camera of comparable quality would cost.  Less expensive consumer cameras with non-interchangeable lenses became available a few years later, but they still cost quite a bit.  I remember the first Sony Mavica I held... it saved a dozen or so 640x480 images on a floppy disc and cost about $1000.  To put that in perspective, today's cameras costing a fifth as much will capture images so large that it would take about three of those floppies to hold a single shot.

A few more years passed as I continued to shoot film and dream digital.  By 2001 I was able to afford a Minolta Dimage 7, a 5MP camera with a 28-200mm macro lens, versatile enough to take some of the sting out of its non-interchangeability.

The digital camera changed my life... not only did I have my darkroom back, but the film and developing costs complimented my non-existent budget.  Along with the lower overhead came a freedom and lack of inhibition that is perhaps digital's greatest gift... it is so much easier to experiment and be creative when it's not costing you two bits every time you press the shutter.  Combine this with a computer program like Photoshop (whose list of incredibly versatile and powerful features is probably topped by it's most taken for granted one... the "undo") and the possibilities seemed limitless.

But after shooting for a while, my enthusiasm was dampened a bit by the serious inadequacies of the compact digital camera, at least when compared to the good 35mm cameras I was used to.  Dynamic range was restricted, shadow detail was poor, low-light images were noisy, auto focus was slow, and worst of all, the interminable shutter lag (even when pre-focusing) made any sort of action photography a matter of pure luck.  I dreamed about an interchangeable lens D-SLR, but the costs were still high, unless I wanted to jump ship to Canon's "Digital Rebel," the only camera whose price was in the same ballpark as the high-end compacts.

For a loyal and long-time Nikon user, the thought of moving to Canon was not to be contemplated except in moments of direst desperation, so I held off for five years.  Prices crept down as cameras like the Nikon D70 and D50 were introduced.  Finally came the release of the D80 which seemed to have the desired combination of capability, quality and price that I was looking for.  Slowly, I began putting a few bucks away.  One day soon, I'd be back in business...



23 May, 2007:

After almost a year of saving, I ordered my camera yesterday.  I am very excited, I had butterflies all day long and then last night I dreamed that I was setting the new camera on my tripod to shoot some pictures of the Little Grand Canyon (a scenic spot about 40 miles south of here).  Unfortunately, I never got to shoot any photos because Jimmy Carter showed up with a work crew to build a Habitat For Humanity house on the rim of the canyon and spoiled the shot.  I don't know why, but things never seem to run smoothly in my dreams.

I still don't know how I'm going to break the news to Beth about this camera.  I did mention a few months ago that I was "thinking of getting one" and she was not pleased but I assured her that most of the cost would be covered by selling my Minolta plus some of my film gear.  She dropped the subject, but not in the sort of way that would lead one to believe that the matter was settled.

Maybe if I get some Rustoleum and paint the Nikon silver.  It's about the same size as the Minolta, perhaps if they are the same color she'll never know that it's a new camera.


25 May, 2007:

To give me something to keep my mind occupied until the camera gets here I bought an aftermarket book that goes thru all the menus and features in more detail than the Nikon manual... 340 pages to this sucker (and it's all English, not multi-lingual).  I keep finding out cool stuff that this camera does that simultaneously promises to greatly enhance the quality of my photographs and complicate my life beyond all measure. 

For example, you don't have to use the self-timer any more to reduce vibration for long telephoto shots on a tripod... there's a shutter delay function (0.4 sec) that is built in for the purpose (provided you can figure out where the feature is hidden) that has a delay just long enough to let the mirror vibration die, but not long enough to create an inconvenient delay with subjects that may decide to move.

And there is no simple matter of just choosing between Manual Focus and Auto Focus.  Oh no, once you have entered the realm of auto focus you are presented with a myriad of options like "3D Matrix Predictive Auto Focus" or something like that... apparently the technology is based on some principle of Quantum Theory and alternate universes.  And to top it off, there's enough lights and sensor spots in the viewfinder to cross the eyes of a veteran air traffic controller.

No matter, I learned to used this damned cel phone, I guess a new camera should be no problem.


30 May, 2007:

It's HERE, It's HERE, It's HERE, It's HERE, It's HERE, It's HERE, It's HERE.

There's a Nikon D80 sitting in my hands, finally, and thank God it arrived with enough battery power to let me play with it a bit or I'd be going nuts.  Somebody online said that they ship these cameras with half-charged batteries, now I see why... I'd be climbing the walls if I had to wait six hours to switch this thing on. 

I would be about ready to bust out of here right now and go shoot some photos but it is awful outside... the wind is from the southeast and the wildfires that are over in the Okeefenokee (about 200 miles from here) have us shrouded in smoke.  So I guess I'll just hang out and shoot some stuff in the building for now.


Here's a shot of the AFLAC tower, only a quarter mile away.

This camera is incredible.  Everything they say about "big-chip" DSLRs is true... wide dynamic range and very low noise.  I took a shot of my workstation, (a very dark room, no lights except the computer monitors and what spills in from the hall) and even with the fill flash, the carpet and everything else near the floor was very dark.  After running it thru Shadow Recovery in Photoshop (the strip in the middle is the original exposure), not only did all this hidden detail come out, but there was none of the oatmeal noise in the shadows that my old camera had.  I'm amazed.

I guess I'll get a better idea of what it does this weekend (I have to shoot a wedding).  Damn, I've got a lot of buttons and dials to learn by then ;-)



31 May 2007:

This shot of Miyagi was taken with flash in a totally dark room (using the focus assist lamp) and shows the amazing difference in dynamic range between the D80 and my old camera. His hair is pure white and pure black... resolving detail in both has always been a problem for the Minolta, requiring a lot of bracketing or a lot of Photoshop work.  In this case, the shot was great right out of the camera, requiring only a bit of color balance adjustment.

2 June. 2007

Here are a few sample images from the last few days (it's still smoky from the wildfires, so the lighting is not very spectacular).

This Hydrangea was shot in our front yard.  Fading light had me shooting a pretty show shutter speed so it is not as sharp as it could be, given that the thing was waving around in the breeze.  This is a full size image, so downloading may takea while.  Here's a smaller version.

Geese at Oxbow Meadows, full size image. (Smaller version) Looks like fog along the tree line, but that's the smoke from the fires.


Here are a couple of variations. In  the first image, I tried to get rid of some of the blue haze at the tree line and switched to a vertical format to emphasize the horizontal bands of water, marsh plants, brush, field, trees and sky.  I was also hoping the tighter composition would draw a bit more attention to the hay bales along the tree line.  In the second image, the cropping, color saturation and contrast  are all more extreme.  Focusing on one cluster of geese and eliminating most the curving waterline strengthens the rigid symmetry.  Have you got a favorite?  I see things I like in each of the three images and I am grateful almost beyond words for programs like Photoshop that make this kind of experimentation possible. 

How much of the real art in photography is done in the camera and how much in the darkroom (or Photoshop)?  This used to be a popular topic of discussion in college, both in class and at the pub afterward.  Certainly, the image has to be there in the camera... Cartier-Bresson's "Decisive Moment," when a photographer's creative vision combines with his reflexes and his instincts to capture one instant in time that is significant in a way that the moments immediately before and after were not.

Still, there is no arguing that a camera does not see reality the way the eye does and Cartier-Bresson's refusal to crop or manipulate his images in any way always struck me as a copout of sorts... why accept what Tri-X and straight development gives you, instead of taking it a few steps further to more closely match what you saw in the viewfinder?  Maybe I'm missing something here, but to totally accept the camera's reality rather than the photographer's vision sort of negates the point of the "Decisive Moment."

I guess that's one of the reasons I always admired W. Eugene Smith... he was a gifted photographer but also a gifted printmaker.  If the impact of the image he saw in the viewfinder got lost because film alone was not able to display the depth of what the human eye could perceive in a given scene, then he would go to almost any length to restore that vision in the darkroom.  Often, the classic Smith print appears dark at first but on closer examination usually contains a full range of tones in the shadows, and an interplay of lighter areas that naturally lead the eye to linger on exactly what is most important in the photograph.

Today these sorts of manipulations are far easier with Photoshop and other image editing programs, and in fact even more complex manipulations are possible, of the sort that Jerry Uelsmann is known for doing in the darkroom with multiple enlargers.  But more than ever it is important that the initial image have the potential and the strength to tolerate this extensive manipulation.  And that means paying attention when you look though the viewfinder... the "Decisive Moment" may depend mostly on instinct, but you can hone the skills that will allow you to shoot instinctively by being more methodical when shooting static scenes where you have the time to deconstruct the image before you record it.  How often do we ask ourselves what it is about a particular composition that made us raise our camera to our eye?  How often, once the camera is raised, do we ask ourselves what we can do to make it better?

Haven't identified this plant yet but it looks like some sort of Oleander. Moving in close on subjects that have this much depth can be a troublesome unless it is completely still and you have a tripod.  No such luck here, I was hand-holding and the whole shrub was moving in a slight breeze.  and of course, it was also a smoky day with little light.  Triple whammy.  I shot at 1/125 of a second which put me at f5.6, too large an aperture to get everything in focus.  I should have tried another shot at high ISO... would have gotten a lot more noise but at least I could have gotten the foreground leaves in focus.

These Water Cabbage blossoms were on their way out unfortunately... the ones I shot two weeks ago were in much better shape.  I did get to compare the two cameras with these shots though.  My best quality RAW image out of the Minolta had weak color and a lot of noise in the shadows.  The .jpg from the Nikon was superior in every way (wish I'd shot the Nikon image in RAW as well to see how much better than the .jpg it would have been).


This full size image of a Hydrangea blossom was shot at night with flash.  I hoped that the flash would provide sufficient light to allow me to use a small aperture to get everything in focus without having to also worry about shutter speed.  The original was a RAW file and it had tremendous dynamic range... There is more than enough juice in the original file to bring the surrounding leaves up to a bright green with no quality loss (left side of second image).

So far, so good.  I haven't taken any really spectacular images but I've been learning the camera and discovering what its capabilities and limitations are. I know it will take a while to feel comfortable this camera, what with all the menus and options.  But as a backup, it's nice to know that the automatic capabilities of the D80 are good enough to take very solid images with not too many worries (good thing, since I'm shooting a friend's wedding tomorrow).  I guess the real work will be in the weeks ahead, learning how to get the camera to produce the desired results in less than ideal situations, so that I don't have to spend a bunch of time in Photoshop manipulating the images.

By the way, when I said "Automatic" back there, I really meant "Program."  The D80 has both modes.  The Automatic mode is really too narrow for my taste... but Program mode will do a good job of  "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest," while still giving you some creative control.  While in Program mode, the main command dial will allow you to select different combinations of shutter speed and aperture while maintaining the same exposure.  Normally, you can alter the exposure value by pressing the EV button and rotating the main command dial, but I reprogrammed the sub-command dial to do this without having to press the EV button... that way the control is active all the time (and its effect is visible at all  times in the viewfinder, not just when you press the EV button).  All in all, a faster way to work, especially if you compensate your exposures a lot like I do.


2 June 2007:


Well, I had my trial by fire with the new camera... a wedding.  Believe me, I know the warning about taking new cameras to wedding shoots but I did have a couple of days to warm up with the camera and felt fairly comfortable when the day arrived.

In this case, I am happy to report that things went very well.  I shot about 200 pictures at the ceremony and reception, another 150 at the rehearsal dinner Friday night with no major disasters.  Maybe I just got lucky.  Actually tho, I had four things in my favor...
First, it only took me an hour with this camera to realize that it takes better photos in "auto" mode than ANY camera I have ever seen, no lie.  Well, I should say "program" mode, since auto takes over the whole camera (does not even let you specify picture size or compression quality) while program lets you set up the camera as you like and then functions as a point and shoot after that (and if you don't see what you like on the LCD, you can still adjust EV or flash output, while "auto" won't let you).  Even when used as a point and shoot, this camera produces photos miles beyond what my Minolta could do.
Second, the Minolta and a ton of fresh batteries were in the van as backup.
The third thing is that the couple had by accident or by design asked two people to photograph the wedding, so each of us had the other person as backup.  And when you are shooting for no monetary compensation, having this sort of mechanism in place to reduce the stress level is quite welcome, we each managed to take some good photographs and enjoy the wedding as well.  That's something I was thankful for since this may be the only wedding I have gone to as the photographer that I was able to really enjoy.
Finally, this couple is older than dirt (well, older than me anyway...) and as such were way beyond the "fancy wedding" thing. They were there to enjoy themselves and share that joy with family and friends, period.  The ceremony was simple and the crowd was under a hundred and the bride was walking around barefoot ten minutes after their exchange of vows.
That said, there were several opportunities for disaster.  A couple of shots I used a slow enough shutter speed (along with the flash) to fill in the further reaches of the reception hall and a few folks moved enough to blur a handful of shots.  Fortunately, I didn't lose anything important.  I guess the worst thing that happened the whole two days (rehearsal dinner and ceremony) was one badly out of focus shot of Beth and a couple of underexposures when I forgot to pop my flash up, but all the important shots of the bride and groom came out OK. 
Actually, a third photographer showed up carrying a nice Nikon D2X, and this guy claimed to have shot weddings for a living for a while so I think the couple will be smothered in photos, more than they'll ever need (well, the bride's hobby is scrapbooking so I guess you can never have too many shots to pick from).
So next up are four or five hours of work selecting the best images and doing the Photoshop thing... color correction, cropping, etc.  Fortunately, I don't have to print them... they'll just go on a CD and they can pick the ones they want to commit to paper.

3 June 2007:

Sunday I grabbed my old manual focus 100-300 f5.6 and 2x extender and went to the park to shoot some ducks and geese.  Sieren went with me and was really excited because I let her use my old camera which has a hell of a lot better zoom than hers.  200mm still ain't much tho, she spent a lot of time stalking the geese that were brave enough to stay on land (most of them are used to people, but even the tamest ones usually take one look at that motorized wheelchair and head for the water).

I wanted to see how much of a hassle it would be to focus an f11 lens on plain ground glass (I still miss the microprism and split image in my film cameras).  It actually worked much better than I expected... the D80's autofocus was still working (it is supposed to be no good below f5.6) so the little focus confirmation light lit up in the finder which saved me from squinting at the ground glass too much.  Lots of reach too... with the 2X extender and the 1.5 multiplication factor of the digital sensor, the range was 300-900mm, but it was also an f11, which meant I was shooting at 1/125 or less most of the time (I went around sunset to get the golden light, like an idiot... shoulda gone at noon).  Consequently, only about four shots out of the fifty I took were worth a damn.  Yes I had a tripod... but between the slow shutter speed, the breeze, the mirror vibration and the long focal length, I was screwed from the start.  Next time I'll either forget about the 2X converter or maybe try a few shots at a higher ISO... with 10 megapixels to work with I guess a little noise won't kill me.  Actually, I should have done that this time but I was too stubborn.

Let's see... 2 stops less if I ditch the extender, that would get me up to 1/500.  Either that or raise the ISO to 400, that'd do the same thing and let me keep the extender.

Oh, the one other thing with the D80 is that it will not meter with manual lenses. So I had to guess all my exposures. Boy, that kinda takes me back to the old days... my old Argus C3, where every shot was a surprise.  But that was because it didn't have a nice LCD on the back so that you could see how close your estimates were.  Guesstimating exposures with the D80 should be far more successful.

That said, quite a few of the shots in the shade came out too dark... Photoshop salvaged some of them, but most of the dark ones were beyond help.  I guess in a situation where I'm not able to nail the exposures, I should at least go ahead and shoot RAW, that'd give me a lot more latitude in post processing.

The other thing that gave me fits is this tripod... I haven't used it in quite a while so it's pretty stiff.  I need to take it apart and clean it or at least give it a squirt of oil here and there.  The Bogen 3047 head was great when I got it, but now it doesn't seem to want to behave... it takes too much force to tighten it when I don't want it to move at all, nor does it have that "sweet spot" that it used to where you could snug it up and it'd hold it's position but you could still move it without jerking.  Maybe part of the problem is that I'm used to the video tripod we've got at work... you can set that fluid head so that the camera will be rock solid when you're hands off but you can nudge the handle and it'll still pan or tilt as smooth as silk.  But then, we're talking about a $2,500 tripod with a $3,800 head.  Eeek!  Come to think of it, I've got an old Bogen tripod with a fluid head that I should try (I inherited it when the news department got new Gitzos... I've been using it for astronomy with my homemade astrobinoculars:  Only problem is, the thing weighs as much as a Buick... I wouldn't want to have to set that thing up more than a few feet from the car.

Well, in spite of (or maybe because of) the problems, Sunday was a good learning experience.  I'm glad the park's only a couple of miles away, I'll be able to visit often to get my technique down in case I ever get to go on a "real" shoot out in the boonies.


I think these two ducks were shot from about fifty yards.  I had a lot of shots that were more expressive, but these were the ones that weren't blurred and weren't too dark.


These sunset shots were from the other side of the lake as we were leaving (both were shot with the regular lens).  The second image is  actually a merge of two shots... an underexposed shot to get the color in the sky, and another shot that had a better exposure for the water and birds.  After I matched the sizes (yeah, like an idiot I picked two shots that had different zoom settings), they were melded together, then I bumped the saturation of the sunset on the water a bit so that it would match the sky better, also ran some curves on the sky to keep the color but get some of the brightness back. Then after I did all that, I had to do it all a second time because Sieren looked at the finished shot and wanted me to show her how I did it.

By the way, I used a cool trick to saturate the sunset on the water that you may already know about but just in case, here goes.  It is fast and effective and best of all doesn't require any fancy selections, just a couple of clicks.  Open the Hues/Saturation tool in Image/Adjustments, then select "Reds" from the dropdown menu (actually doesn't matter which one you select... just get the selection off "Master" to activate the eyedropper).  Use the eyedropper to select an orange reflection in the water and you'll see the range arrows (on the color bars at the bottom) jump to a new location.  The inner two marks define the active area, the two triangles define the fade area, and you can move them by dragging them if you want.  Anyway, now you can use the sliders (in this case saturation) and it'll only affect the selected color range. So the saturation of the orange reflection gets bumped and the blue water gets left alone.  Cool, huh?  It works globally though, so if you only want it to affect the orange in the water and not the sky, you'll have to lasso or mask a selection to limit it (I didn't need to in this case because my water and sky were still on separate layers).  Or you can use the history brush to get rid of what you don't want.

I still continue to be amazed by what is possible on the computer.  Some photographers still consider the above manipulations somehow dishonest, but I feel they are now an essential part of the photographic process whose purpose is only to get as much information that was in the original scene into the final print.

The camera is like the eye, it is a light receptor.  Unlike the camera, the eye has the tremendous power of the human brain behind it to modify and interpret its output, and if there is any analog at all in the photographic world to the brain, it has to be computer software like Photoshop (or the darkroom when shooting film).  For example, even the most perfectly exposed photo taken on a sunny beach is probably going to have some dead-black shadows and blown-out highlights.  But the eye is great at adjusting for stuff like this... it can perceive a contrast range of something like 10,000:1 or more, many times what the best film or digital camera can capture.   Also, the eye adjusts almost instantly to color temperature... it sees a white piece of paper as white, whether it is in incandescent light or sunlight, while a camera will see it as blue, yellow, orange, green, etc., depending on the light source.  The digital camera can adjust fairly well for white balance, and with film you have some control with filters or sometimes film stock... but the camera and film alone can NEVER adjust completely, either for color temperature or contrast range.  
Since childhood, we are trained to interpret a photograph's "reality" just as we all trained ourselves to listen to recorded music.  Almost no one with good ears believes that recorded music really sounds like live music, but we train ourselves to accept that reality (while engineers and audiophiles labor year after year to make that illusion require less work on the part of our brains).  In photography, some of the work of recreating reality in a photo is done by a brain that has been trained from childhood to interpret photos... but the interpretation is never complete or correct, so the photographer owes it to the viewer to bring that image as close as possible (to his own recollection of the scene) using every tool available, not just the adjustments on his camera.
That said, I must agree that there is often a temptation to contrive a good image out of a bad photo.  Please understand that I'm only talking about taking already good images and doing whatever is necessary after the shutter has been tripped to take them the extra mile.
An image made with a camera (digital or film), it is never going to look like what the photographer saw at the scene, no matter how good a photographer he is.  All the photograph can do is make a good match to the mind's preconception of a photographic reality.  Many photographers make a mental compromise by compensating for this when they take the picture, for example, knowing that if they want a silhouette of a figure against a sunset, they're going to have to underexpose.  But the camera has always been only part of the equation... since the camera/film/print combination was so pitifully inadequate compared to the eye/brain combination,  the darkroom part of the process was essential in bringing the final image closer to what the photographer was seeing when he looked thru the viewfinder.  That's where different contrast grade papers or Polycontrast filters, burning & dodging, different developers and toners, etc. came into play (or these days, Photoshop).  In that respect, there can really never be such a thing as a "straight" photograph, and a photographer who doesn't take advantage of these tools is not making the most of the medium (just like the photographer who trusts an averaging light meter and never makes compensations for shooting silhouettes or sunsets or whatever).  Cartier-Bresson did this in his later work... he had all his photos printed full frame on #2 paper because he was disdainful of the darkroom process, he just never cared about it.  Please don't get me wrong, I truly admire his work and he took many beautiful photos, but he was kidding himself when he insisted that his prints were exactly what he saw.  They weren't... they were what his film and camera saw and he accepted that altered reality, rather than doing the extra work that photographers like Edward Weston and Eugene Smith and Ansel Adams did to make the entire process work for them so as to bring the final print closer to what they saw in the viewfinder.
I guess the point is, using every tool at your disposal to get the final image to match your vision is not manipulation... it is as much a part of the photographic process as where to set up your tripod or when you snap the shutter.  Capturing exactly what your eye saw (or thought it saw) at the moment you took the photo, or for that matter, recreating a mood that was only in your mind's eye when you took the photo (and wasn't in front of the lens at all) are both valid aims of the photographer, and it is very seldom that either one can be captured with the camera alone.
The idea that true creativity lies in taking the photograph while computer creativity is a dishonest manipulation of reality is nothing new... the same attitude existed for a hundred years toward darkroom "manipulations." Darkroom work used to be voodoo to most people because only enthusiasts did it... most people sent film off for processing and assumed it was subjected to a "standard" process that produced pretty much the same result every time, like starting a car or flushing a toilet or dialing a phone number.  Anyone who altered the process had to be doing something dishonest.  But the truth was, there was so much variation in the process that identical results were impossible, and average folks were never aware of the variability because they never shot the same scene twice on different rolls of film and had them processed by two different labs. 
But the variables were there and at first it was natural to want to eliminate them.  One of the reasons Ansel Adams invented the zone system was to map tonal ranges when he took the photo so that they could be accurately remapped in the darkroom, regardless of what the gremlins might do along the way (and also so that he could be certain that the wider dynamic range of film would make the transition to paper's narrower range).  Then other photographers like Eugene Smith decided that these variables should be manipulated creatively because the eye was always seeing things differently than the camera anyway, so why not use the darkroom process to lead the eye to the center of interest (using manipulated light and dark values), the same way the photographer would use compositional elements when setting up the scene?   He became the master of burning and dodging (also using ferricyanide and a cotton swab to bleach areas after development), often spending days printing a single negative.  This type of  darkroom manipulation is absolutely no different than moving a few inches to the left or selecting a different focal length lens or using a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus... it is all part of a creative process that tries to imply an objective reality for the viewer, one which (hopefully) is in sync with the photographer's very subjective reality when he was at the scene.
This was one of the reasons I went digital so early, before the camera was really as good as what it was replacing (well, the cost of film and processing was part of it too...).  When I lost  my darkroom, I lost a valuable part of what I felt was required to make a photo that matched what I saw in my mind when I snapped the shutter.  Two fancy Nikon bodies and six lenses were not enough to overcome what the pimple-faced teenager at the drug store was doing to my prints.  So I put away the film gear and got a (far less capable) digital camera, because getting back the control (in cropping, color correction, tonal value control and other factors) was far more helpful (than my 35mm gear) in matching my final images to my mental notion of what they were supposed to look like when I shot them.
Of course it must be repeated that manipulation will seldom improve a bad photograph enough to make the effort worthwhile.  Any sane person would have to agree that nine times out of ten an Ansel Adams negative printed by the drug store kid is gonna be a lot better photo than the drug store kid's negative printed by Ansel Adams.  But I can't agree that as little manipulation as possible (of a good image) is necessarily the best course of action for its own sake.  There is nothing inherently valuable in a minimalistic approach when the whole photographic process itself is by nature seriously flawed (in other words, the camera has never been an adequate substitute for the combination of eye and brain).  Sometimes, the limitations of the process make a great deal of manipulation necessary, and doing so is not a contrivance or a crutch.


6 June 2007:

I took a few interesting images at lunch today... the camera is starting to feel really comfortable now, a lot like my old 35mm bodies.  This old mill was a favorite shooting spot of mine back when I was doing a lot of black and white.  Unfortunately, they cleaned it up a lot about five years ago, I guess they were afraid of kids getting hurt... there used to be a lot of great old machinery there.


I am still astounded by the range of tones and richness of color and low noise that this camera produces compared to the smaller chip compact cameras.  Between these qualities and the fact that the shutter actually fires at the same time that you press the button, I'm having a great time and I am starting to wonder how I put up with the Minolta all these years.

By the way, if you want to see the full size images, here they are.  The first set is straight out of the camera, the second set is after some Photoshop work (just exposure in the rusty machinery, also perspective correction in the building).




10 June 2007:


Cirque du Cyclisme weekend.  Took a few snapshots, but nothing really exciting... besides the fact that there was something going on every minute, it is always hard to pay attention to shooting photos when surrounded by so many good friends.

20 June 2007:

On Father's Day I went out to see my parents.  Got one or two nice shots of my mom's flowers and a few of my dad in his vegetable garden. 

When I left the light was getting really nice... great, in fact.  So I took the back roads home, really taking my time and driving slowly.  Got some shots of a few horses that looked wonderful, even on the little LCD... low sun coming from just the right direction to bring out their muscles, colors so rich they looked fake.  Most of my shots I underexposed a bit to make sure I got good sky color (I still don't have a polarizer), I've only worked on two so far but there's another half dozen or so that have real possibilities. 


Man, when I got back in the car I was really feeling good.  When I got back to Columbus, the sun still hadn't gone down and Beth wasn't ringing me up on the cel wantin' to know where the hell I was so I figured I'd play hookey a while longer at Flat Rock Park.  I ended up getting some nice shots there too, probably four or five promising ones and a bunch of others that didn't quite make it because the sun was too low to make it over the hill that borders the park.

Here are a few samples:


I want to go back and try the one with the three tilting trees again, I think it can be improved.  The middle tree is quite a distance behind the outer two, so moving around really affects the negative shapes between the trees in a major way.

Also, there was a guy in the background of this shot that I retouched out but I would have preferred that he just not be there to begin with.  All hell broke loose just after this shot was taken... his wife and three kids were behind him and down the hill a bit (hidden by the rocks on the left in this shot) and just as I was taking the photo his son (about five years old I think) took a face plant on the rocks and broke a tooth.  There was lots of blood, he was crying and then Mom started to get hysterical, which got the other two kids crying.  Then she started screaming at the father to stop standing there and do something right this minute, even though he was already doing his best to comfort the kids.  Happy Father's Day, Dad...  ;-)

But back to the photo, it's funny how just a little movement or waiting only a few minutes for different light can drastically alter a scene.  I remember a wonderful painting by Monet of the Rouen cathedral that was at a museum (Clark Institute) close to my home.  I later found out from my art teacher that it was only one of a series of twenty paintings of the same cathedral from the same vantage point that Monet did, trying to capture nuances of light at different times of the day.  I wonder what kind of learning experience it would be to pick one single landscape composition that is close to home (so that it can be revisited conveniently and often), then shoot it to death to explore its many variances.  I think too many photographers, myself included, are ever in search of the new and different, perhaps not spending enough time exploring the familiar in sufficient detail to reveal all its subtleties.

Hey, speaking of revisiting sites, have you heard about these bozos who have examined some of Ansel Adams' most famous photos and using elaborate trigonometric calculations (I knew there was a reason we had to learn that stuff in high school) have determined the exact time of the day and day of the year these photos were taken, along with the exact GPS coordinates of where his tripod stood. All this effort so that they (and other bozos who get this info off their web site) can make some sort of holy pilgrimage to the hallowed location on the proper day and fight over who gets to take a picture from that exact spot.  Lordy... if Ansel Adams is watching from heaven, I can only hope that he uses whatever influence he has with the Great Almighty to get a meteor to nail that little group of loonies when they congregate, so that we can be rid of them for good, and in lieu of leaving us a bazaillion bad imitations of famous Adams photos, their surviving relatives can just boast that these poor slobs made the ultimate sacrifice for their "art."


21 June 2007:

Yesterday I got this shot of a blue heron when I was at the golf course shooting some video.  Yes, I know the shutter speed was too slow, but it was a grab shot so I didn't have time to mess with the settings... I was sitting in a moving golf cart balancing a 25 lb Beta SP camera in my lap with my left hand, a wireless mike between my knees and the Nikon in the other hand, so I was really lucky to get anything at all.  And I can't believe I actually had the presence of mind to pan... to tell the truth, I don't even remember doing it.  I guess I should blame it on the camera... since I got the D80 all my 35mm instincts have been coming back  ;-)

So, can you tell I'm having fun?  The Minolta was around for six years, my shot count got up to around 7,000 I think.  I've had this camera three weeks and I'm up over 800.  And every time I raise the thing to my eye I still get a little shiver down my spine.


22 June, 2007:

I was excited about getting that heron shot but by the time I got off work yesterday I was feeling a little depressed... because once again I was wondering what it would be like to just jump in the car and leave this city behind for a few days, to spend some time close to nature, to not have to deal with traffic lights and Mack trucks and car radios played too loud.

Then too, that heron was still on my mind.  I was in such a hurry that I'd had to settle for a pretty poor quality shot.  But that little guy wasn't going anywhere, he was practically tame.  I knew it would be a piece of cake to get some better shots of him, if only I had more time, if only I was one of the upper crust who had regular access to that expensive country club.

Well, it's bad news when a middle-aged married guy starts thinking about his lack of freedom AND lack of financial comfort at the same time.  I went home last night feeling kinda blue and did some yard work so I could mope around in peace (I try not to be around Sieren and Beth when I'm in a sucks-to-be-me mood, they've got enough problems as is).  I don't stay in these moods for long, the more sensible part of my nature eventually reminds me of the many good things I've been blessed with and presents a convincing argument that life's too short to waste on self pity and negative drama.

So I decided the best thing to do was make the best of my own Columbus backyard and head back down to Oxbow Meadows during lunch today.  Maybe I could find a few birds down there that would let me practice on them.

Only problem was, when noon rolled around, there was no time.  I had left my cel phone at home  and had to go back and get it, because if Beth and my boss couldn't get hold of me, there was no way I could play hooky and take pictures on my lunch hour.  So by the time I grabbed my phone and a couple of bananas, it was too late to go to Oxbow which is all the way on the south side of town.  Disappointed, I headed downtown... it was close to work and I remembered a pair of egrets nesting there a couple of years ago, I figured I could check it out in the 45 minutes I had left.

Downtown is not the place you go to find wildlife... there's this huge TSYS office complex right on the river (huge enough so's they don't call it a "complex", it's a "campus")  and between the buildings and the cars and all the people walking and cycling and fishing along the Riverwalk, you'd think any self-respecting wild critter would have headed for the hills long ago.


But ninety degrees to the right of this view, what do you think there was?  Not the egrets...  on the tiny islands out in the river I counted eight adult Blue Herons and at least twelve nests.  I went nuts!  The nests were way up in some tall trees so I could see right away there would be plenty of opportunity to get some good flying shots.  Only problem was, the river's pretty wide at that point and most of the islands were closer to the Alabama side so they were all pretty far away.  I wasn't gonna do much with my little 135mm lens... and I only had a half-hour left for lunch anyway.  But I managed to grab a few good shots, and I plan on going back with my long lens ASAP.  Below are a few samples.  As you can see from the resolution, most of them are pretty aggressively cropped, but it's the best I could do with the short lens.



Oh, one other thing.  This is the first camera I've ever owned with a motor drive... and so far, I've left it turned off because I have always been a single-shot person (in fact, I always told anybody who'd listen that motor drives were for wimps).  Today is the first time in my life that I ever fired off more than one shot at a time.  I gotta admit, there may just be something to this newfangled feature ;-)

So my lessons for the week number exactly three:  Don't knock a camera feature until you've tried it, don't waste time feeling sorry for yourself, and don't ever assume that what you're looking for might not be right under your nose.



25 June, 2007:

I went over to the Alabama side of the river to see if I could get closer to the islands and you know what, they are even farther from shore over there.  I guess it is some sort of optical illusion or foreshortening or something... from the Columbus side, it looks like the islands are so close to the opposite bank, but from over here it looks just the opposite.

Looks like I'll be needing a much longer lens, or some very tall waders.

I did get there at the right time to catch the evening light though.  I took a few shots of the railroad bridge just as a train was going over, and I got a pretty nice shot of some ducks with the water all lit up... it looks like the reflection of the setting sun, but it was really the reflection of a railroad bridge supported by red sandstone and concrete pillars (which were lit by the setting sun ;-).


27 June, 2007:

At lunch I brought my 100-300 zoom down to the Riverwalk and went down the bank to the water's edge.  Actually, I went out on some rocks that went another ten feet or so out into the river.  Not that it helped much, the birds were still pretty shy.  I did get a few good photos, but like the others they all needed some serious cropping.

This little duck was the only one who got close enough for me to back off from full zoom.

When I heard this guy calling overhead, I thought it was a hawk.  According to my bird book, its a killdeer.   I had just enough time to raise the camera, I didn't get to focus or adjust the aperture... but maybe I'll get another try at him one day.



Where do I go from here?  Limited as I am by budget, the wish list is going to have to be short.  Right now, the only things I can see myself getting are small items like a lens pen, a wireless remote and a camera bag. 

I can see that if I keep on shooting wildlife, I am either going to have to figure out a way to get a longer and faster lens, or else really improve my stalking skills and learn to get closer the old-fashioned way.  Birds in flight have been particularly frustrating... manual focus lenses are slow and inaccurate without the microprism and split image screens that my film cameras had.  Then there's the fact that you need fast shutter speeds to stop a flapping bird, but all my long lenses are slow as hell... so even in bright light I've got problems.

Macro work is a problem also.  My present lens covers an area 3.5" across at its closest focus.  Good enough for larger flowers, terrible for insects or other small subjects.  Bellows, extension tubes, reversing rings, screw-on diopter lenses or a dedicated macro lens are all possibilities but they will have to wait.  For now I think I can make do with the 52mm closeup lenses on one of my old manual focus prime lenses.  It won't get me down to 1:1 but it should do in pinch.


 29 June, 2007:

Some of the photography I did with my old camera was work-related and I guess the new camera will be no different.  Grabbing signage that the client does not have in electronic form, shooting product closeups, copying old photos that would take to long to scan, grabbing surface textures for backgrounds and 3D mapping are all uses to which I've put my digital camera.  One of the biggies is shooting a storefront... clients often like to have a shot of their store at the end of the spot (even if they may be aware that it is not the most attractive shot) so that prospective customers will recognize it right away when they come to visit.  If the storefront is clear and good looking, we usually shoot it on video when we are on site shooting interior footage.  But sometimes I end up going back with my still camera for one reason or another.  In the case of the shot below, there were too many power lines... these would have to come out in Photoshop and while I was at it, there were a few other changes that would be beneficial.

First step was to choose a good image of the store itself, well exposed and with no cars going by on the street:

The next step was to retouch out all the power lines and telephone poles that obscured the building and to take out a couple of cars.  No single tool works best for this type of work.  The clone stamp tool usually feels the best, but at other times it is faster and easier to select a source area and make a new layer of it, then move that layer into place over what you want to cover up.  In any case, lining up patterns and compensating for lighting differences will be the biggest headaches, with the exception of having to scratch-build areas for which there is no clone source material.  Here you may find yourself doing a lot of hand painting, or massaging adjacent areas into place with the smudge tool.  The most important thing is to keep in mind the end use of the image... do not get bogged down on details that will not show or will be too small to register.  I've kicked myself several times for spending unnecessary time repairing areas that would later be cut off, covered up or scaled down.  Below are the before and after shots.


The right hand image above also shows the next step or two... cutting the store and parking lot away from the sky and trees.  In this case, cutting the store out was easy since it was mostly straight lines.  I used the Polygonal Lasso tool which allows you to step from point to point, connecting each point with a straight line.  Once the selection is closed, it can be cut or copied to a new layer or the selection can be used to create a layer mask (which will mask the layer non-destructively).  If it had been a more complex solid shape, I probably would have used the pen tool to define a path with straight lines and curves, then create a selection from the path.  If it had been a highly irregular and non-solid shape (like trees), I would have used a combination of magic wand, lasso and path to create a layer mask which I could then finesse with a brushes and other tools.

I had decided to keep the trees to give another layer of separation between the store and the sky... but I had a problem with the trees in the original shot.  There were not enough of them and the ones I had would have to be heavily retouched to get rid of the power lines.  So I just ditched the trees entirely and substituted an uninterrupted line of trees from a nearby park:

Next came the sky.  I planned on moving the store from its original position in the middle of the frame to the bottom (a large expanse of sky would serve as the background for the client's logo), so I imported a different shot with the largest expanse of sky (something I'd shot for that very purpose on same day).  After getting rid of a few power lines I made sure it was large enough to cover the area and then some.  A large chunk of sky was important because it will be imported into the video editor on a separate layer so that it can track and scale independently, giving some added movement to the scene.

Erasing a few trees from behind the store's facade (above) and adding a delivery truck (below, cut from an earlier photo) completed the image.

Just for good measure, I grabbed a different sky shot a few days earlier on the other side of town.  It never hurts to have more than one choice.


After I had finished shooting the above shots, I found myself with some time to kill (I was on my lunch hour and I usually don't leave the TV station much so I was in no hurry to get back.  Cooper Creek Park was right across the street so I wandered over to visit the mutant ducks.  Yes, I know that's not their official name (I believe these are domestic versions of the Muscovy duck). 


These ducks have always creeped me out...  I forgot who started calling them mutant ducks, it was either me or my daughter.


These guys are about as tame as you can get.  The visitors feed them and they are even in the habit of leaving the park grounds and raiding the dog food bowls at the nearby apartment complexes.  These guys have got it made.


Following these extremely docile ducks did not require much movement, I noticed that the usually shy dragonflies seemed to be tolerating my presence.  I had tried shooting these guys before but they were always a bit too fast to get a reasonable shot from a close distance.  Noticing that one dragonfly seemed to like to revisit the same twig, I inched closer and waited for him to come back.  When he did, I had pre-focused on the twig and was ready for him.  I used a similar technique to get the second one but it took several tries to get the shot I wanted.

It's been a month now, so I guess this diary is officially over.   I haven't had this much fun with a camera since I was a kid.  And  if any of you are wondering if I would favorably recommend a D-80 to someone considering moving up to an SLR, I would say yes, definitely.  Though I must admit, I am not the flag-waving Nikon fanatic I once was... there are a lot of good not-too-expensive SLR's out there, like the Canon 400D which has some nice dust removal technology, and the Pentax K-10D which has both dust removal and image stabilization built into the body (which makes a heck of a lot of sense... why build it into each lens?).  No, the days when I would argue long into the night, waving my fist and chanting the merits of Nikon to the unenlightened ears of the Canon infidels is over.  By far the most important thing is to just get a camera... something, anything... and get out there in the wide wonderful world and start shooting pictures.