So what did I do?

By , May 5, 2014 5:24 pm

I cannot believe that six months have passed since my last post. I don’t think I have stopped, so time really does seem to have flown. For the moment, though, I shall make this brief. I note that my last post was about the launch of the Nikon Df. I got a chance to play, and while it is nice, I really could not get comfortable with it. So what did I do? I bought the D4, which feels almost exactly like my D3 did, but with a few tweaks here and there. In the end it’s not the camera, or the glass, it’s how the person behind it sees the world. That’s what matters.

art deco, eltham palace, 1920s, beauty

An image made a couple of days ago.
Nikon D4 50mm f1.4 AFS

Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2014

Style and substance – the outcome

By , November 6, 2013 2:13 pm

After all the teasing, we have the outcome, but is there an answer to my earlier question?

The fourth video in Nikon’s teaser series was set in that wonderful city of Edinburgh, and it reminded me of this photo which I took while I was there to deliver a speech just under a year ago. I was, as I recall, pacing the bitterly cold streets trying to arrange my thoughts in some coherent order, and looking for inspiration when I came across this scene.

Edinburgh at dusk, seeking inspiration.

Edinburgh at dusk. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2012

I rather like the quiet contemplative nature of this image, which was very much at odds with what you do not see, namely Princes Street with pre-Christmas bustle. It was taking this image that started to give order to my thoughts, and the speech I gave the following day was a great success as a result. Perhaps then, when you view the fourth of the Nikon videos, the reason why I should think of this one image will become clearer. But it also raises some questions, now we know what the tease was all about.

With great fanfare, Nikon have launched the Df. A full-frame DSLR with retro styling, and more than a nod to the idea of beating obsolescence. I will not embark on a detailed review of what this machine can and cannot do, as there are more than enough equipment fans doing that already. What I am more interested in is whether the marketing is just hype, or whether (as the title of these posts suggests) there might be some substance to go with the style.

To be fair to Nikon, they have created a camera which is backwards compatible with all but three (I believe this is correct) of the lenses that have been created for the venerable F mount. Suddenly lenses which may have had no value in the modern age will have an attraction for the very real and different qualities which they can bring to image making. That is not just style, it hugely expands the range of tools available to photographers. It is something which no other camera manufacturer could do, with the exception of Leica. Canon and Minolta and all the others abandoned their lens mounts around the time that autofocus was invented in the late 1980s. Nikon, however, took the view that cameras were not as important to photographers as lenses, and the Df is a natural extension of that philosophy. It is a philosophy for which they should rightly be praised.

Nikon Df

Nikon Df

One of the other intriguing things about the pre-launch tease was the suggestion implicit in the six videos (the fifth and sixth are at the bottom of this post) that “pure” photographers are British and love Scotland – which is of course true! The “pure” photographer is a refined person who likes to be at one with his or her thoughts, and the image making comes as a deep-seated emotional or visceral reaction to the circumstances in which he or she finds themselves. It is undeniably poetic nonsense. But like all such things, it rings with an element of truth, and that resonance is what makes the marketing so successful. The world is overrun with people who want to be “photographers” not because they are interested in the world around them, but because they like the idea of the way it makes them look – serious, comtemplative and erudite; at one with the real issues of the world. It is a kind of mock-bohemian ideal, a 21st century equivalent to the 60s beat generation. Photography in the digital age offers a fast track entry to creativity with none of the apparent hurdles of training, skill or talent. The reality is of course at odds with this, and we find ourselves drowning in a sea of visual sewage, to paraphrase Grayson Perry in this year’s BBC Reith Lectures.

Nikon’s launch of the Df yesterday was accompanied by suggestions that it was a future classic. Many have suggested that this is wishful thinking, but the truth is that only time will tell. My interest in this camera comes about only because I was about to buy the D4, and it stands to reason that I would want to see if this camera could meet my needs as a working photographer. On the face of it the answer is yes, but looking deeper I have some reservations which will only be resolved once I have had the chance to try it for myself. Each of the reservations is a little thing taken on its own, but collectively I think they undermine Nikon’s attempt to create the “future classic” for “pure photography”.

Firstly, it stands to reason that Nikon would assume serious photographers attracted to the Df would frequently already be Nikon users – hence the desire to make it backwards compatible with the entire lens lineup since 1959. That suggests such people would already be using cameras like the D4, D800, D3, D2 etc. All of these cameras use only, or offer the choice to use, compact flash cards. The Df, however, is SD card only, and while the other cameras mentioned have dual slots, the Df appears only to have one. The dual slot is not just about capacity, it is also about backup. With film photographers when they were processing, but in the digital era it is not unknown for memory cards to fail, or for cameras to suddenly format data for no apparent reason. The dual slot gave workign photographers the chance to work without fear about the security of the images, so by offering only one slot with the Df, Nikon has undermined the attempt to give photographers that relaxed and carefree walk through the highlands which the marketing promises.

Secondly, my cameras get used heavily, and while the D4 has a shutter mechanism tested for 300,000 cycles, the Df is only tested to half that number. True, it is only half the price of the D4, so one could buy two, but it necessarily leads one to wonder how well built the Df actually is. The marketing material says that it has the weather-sealing of the D800, but frankly if I want to be out in Scottish weather, I think I would rather have a Nikonos. OK, I am taking the mick, but the D4 would have no problems with inclement conditions – I would be a bit more circumspect with the D800.

Thirdly, even in the days before autofocus, one of my favourite cameras was the Minolta X700 with its motordrive, which allowed for an extra shutter release with the camera in portrait orientation. All of Nikon’s pro-spec DSLRs have either had such a release built in, or available as part of an optional battery pack. Not so with the Df. Admittedly one of the draws of the Df is that it is very light for what it is, the portability being its great selling point compared to much heavier bodies, but that is at odds with its purist ideals – if the purist of purists Ansel Adams could climb the mountains of Yosemite with a 10×8 Deardorff I think we can cope with a couple of extra ounces  – one might argue that a purist’s camera would cater for all approaches. Indeed, the mechanical marvel that was the FM2 had the option of a motordrive, so it does seem an odd ommission not even to have the possibility of this being introduced later for the Df. Just in case you are wondering, I have seen nothing written about this anywhere, but a simple view of the bottom plate of the camera shows that there is no lug-hole to allow registration with a pin one would normally expect on an accessory batter pack.

Finally, there is the styling itself which I think is a distraction. Don’t get me wrong, I love dials over buttons, but it seems to me that all of the things Nikon wanted to achieve with the Df could have been done without the retrostyling for its own sake and that includes the dials. In the final analysis, pure photography is actually about what you are taking a picture of, and not what you are taking it with.

The outcome then is that it is almost all style without substance. Aside from the facility to use any Nikon lens made, nothing about the Df is revolutionary in any way. Is it any good? Like any other camera it really depends on who is behind it and their relationship with what is in front of it. I will reserve judgement until I have had a chance to play. It may well be that I get one, but it will be because of whether it will cope with what I throw at it, not because of what it looks like.

Style and substance 3?

By , October 29, 2013 11:24 am

And another…

Nikon have clearly engaged a new marketing strategist for their latest (impending) release. As the third in the series of teaser films goes public the internet (well, that part of it that has nothing better to do than speculate about things that haven’t happened yet) is awash with rumour, claim and counterclaim about what the new offering will or will not do.

Everyone is claiming as fact that it will be called the Nikon DF, and it is being said that this stands for “digital fusion” (so, not a reference to Nikon’s single greatest achievement, the F mount then?). But the most interesting chatter revolves around the fact that it will, apparently, be a retro-styled camera. The reason this is interesting is because so much weight is being placed on its importance, but I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation as to why this matters.

I am all for cameras which make it easier to concentrate on the moment and not get bogged down in buttons and menus, so if the proposed retro-styling will deliver that, then good. But in my experience there is more than a grain of truth to the adage that form should follow function, and style for it’s own sake is pointless and expensive in what is for me a working tool. Perhaps the most persuasive argument against making cameras pretty can be taken from my early experience with the Fuji X100 – a lovely little camera that was also given retro styling. In my experience that styling became a hindrance because I want to be invisible with my camera, but in the case of the X100 I have often had to fend off potential subjects who were attracted to me not because of what I was doing, but because of how pretty the camera was.

I just hope this does not apply to the DF or whatever it ends up being called.

Style and substance 2?

By , October 28, 2013 1:47 pm

Nikon are milking this for all its worth. Epsiode 2 in their teaser campaign has just been released.

Style and substance?

By , October 24, 2013 2:47 pm

For those of you who prefer Nikon cameras (note to self, need to talk about pictures on this blog not cameras, otherwise no one will believe me when I say cameras do not really interest me), and who have a long enough memory and experience that they used film-based SLRs, the following teaser from Nikon seems to suggest a possible new direction for Nikon and its stable of digital cameras.

The question is, to what will it make a difference: how your pictures look, or how you look?

Now that’s service

By , October 18, 2013 10:06 pm

Those of you who have the patience to follow my posts will know that I use the X100 from Fuji, amongst other things. While not perfect, it was and is to my mind the first digital compact to be of practical use to the serious photographer.

Today Fuji demonstrated unequivocally that their support of customers is sincere and long lasting. Why? Well given that the X100 was superseded by the X100S quite some months ago, they could be forgiven for turning their attention away from what is in effect a discontinued model. But they did not. Today they launched a firmware upgrade from version 1.30 to version 2.0. It is an upgrade which is significant not only because it massively improves the performance of the camera, but also because I cannot think of another occasion when a manufacturer has chosen to support an end of life model when there is no clear short term material benefit for them to do so.

Fuji X100

Fuji X100 – which started the ball rolling.

Fuji X-E2

Fuji X-E2

I am not the only one to have said this. But I am the only one to point out that Fuji went out on a limb and took what seemed at the time to be a considerable risk in launching the X100 in the first place. It was a camera which answered all my requests, despite people telling me at the time that no one would make a camera like it. Its success spawned a whole series of X cameras which are highly sought after and seem obvious in retrospect. As a result I think that this firmware update is in keeping with the ethos of a company which appears to be saying “we are serious about supporting photography and photographers”. It is the kind of action which will win them a lot of good will and loyalty, and if they continue to launch cameras like this, and the XE2 also launched today, they will swiftly cement a place as one of the serious photographers’ manufacturers of choice. These are proper tools made for photographers, not simply pieces of short-life consumer electronics.

Thank you Fuji, but to be honest, in the words of Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, you had me at hello.

No ordinary field

By , May 2, 2013 10:53 am

The great joy of being a photographer is the access to things and places you might not otherwise see. An associated pleasure comes from talking to people and listening to the little gems of information that they might pass on. I have to confess that I am not very good at listening – it is a skill I am constantly trying to improve, ever mindful of the old adage that we have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in equal measure!

Anyway, for the past few months I have been engaged in a commission, a side-effect of which is that I have discovered some fascinating things (largely as a result of chance conversations with people I have happened across) about the area in which my studio is based, including some places which I have passed on many occasions without a second glance. Which leads me nicely to this image here.

Sir Hiram Maxim and powered flight bexley

No ordinary field.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013

We all know from our schooling that the first powered flight of a heavier than air vehicle took place at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in December of 1903. Thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright and their Flyer, aviation as we know it was born. Now consider this unremarkable cricket pitch at Baldwyn’s Park just outside Bexley in Greater London.

On July 31st, 1894, Hiram Maxim with a crew of three, piloted an aircraft of his own invention down a 1,800 foot test track sited where this cricket pitch now basks in the spring sun. The aircraft weighted about 8,000 lbs and was powered by two 360 horse power steam engines (yes, steam engines!). About half way down the track it took off and flew for a distance of about 100 feet before crashing back down to the ground again. It was only meant to be a test, and didn’t fly very high -  some two or three feet up. But despite its instability it proved that very heavy machines could indeed get off the ground and stay up. All that was needed was to understand and develop the means of controlling such craft.

Sadly Maxim did not really pursue his flying invention (although he did invent many other notable things, and is worthy of further investigation). Amercian born he became a naturalised British Subject in 1900, and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1901. It is telling that he was asked towards the end of his life in 1916 about the lack of monument to his work at Baldwyns Park. His response was that the authorities had “demonstrated their appreciation by building the largest, finest and best-equipped lunatic asylum in the world there!”.

So the next time you’re boarding an aircraft somewhere in the world, think about this bit of green in South East London where a little bit of history was made nearly ten years before the Wright Brothers.

Not very green at all, it would seem.

By , April 2, 2013 10:01 am

It’s taken a couple of weeks, but I have finally had a reply from the Executive Assistant to the MD of Samsung UK. It reads:

Dear Mr Cockerham,

Thank you for your email addressed to our Managing Director, which you forwarded on to me.

We have considered your communication and will not be commenting further.

Well, I’m glad that’s sorted out then. Clearly any pretence that Samsung might make towards being ethically driven and environmentally conscious can be seen to be just that: a pretence.

I have to be fair to Samsung, because contrary to what they might think I like to be balanced and objective. So in the interests of balance what are the possible reasons for them declining the invitation to comment?

Firstly they might think I am not serious and therefore they wish to call my bluff. I’d porbably do the same. In the meantime they will be drawing up a formal response just in case the story/question actually does make it to the mainstream media. In effect, this is the keeping your powder dry approach, and by asking the question they are now forewarned. I hope this is the case.

Second option is that they hadn’t thought of this problem of perception, they are crapping themselves that the story will break as they have no proper response and know that they will come in for a storm of damaging criticism to which they have no real reply.

Third option: they are a huge company making products that well-off people and companies buy, and they don’t really care.

My own feeling is that if there is a good reason for this practice they should have just come clean with it now, as that will be less damaging in the long term, but I suspect that it is driven by nothing more than greed.

I wonder what else is not quite what they would like it to appear?

How green are we?

By , March 22, 2013 11:06 am

There was an advert about ten years ago for Mercedes cars which stuck in my mind and has remain firmly wedged ever since. From memory it pictured a man standing between a brand new Mercedes and a much older one. The legend on the ad was something like, “I would like a new Mercedes, but I haven’t finished with the old one yet.”

The message was clear: Mercedes make cars to last. But actually it touches on a more important message that very rarely gets heard, namely that the most environmentally friendly thing we can do as consumers (certainly from the point of view of carbon footprint) is to keep using things for as long as we can, and only to replace them when there is no other option.

Unfortunately this does not sit well with an economic model predicated on consumption and disposability. What’s the relevance to photography? Well there probably is a general one, but I will save that for another day. I just want to have a rant about something related to this.

I have just sent the following email to Andy Griffiths, who is the Vice President of Samsung Electronics UK. It’s pretty well self explanatory, and when and if I hear something in reply, I will post said. Comment, please if you have views. I would really like to hear them:

 

Dear Mr Griffiths,

In common with most reputable companies these days, Samsung likes to promote itself as being ethical and environmentally friendly as a part of its overall CSR strategy. In light of this I wonder whether you might be prepared to comment on the following issue, which to be fair to Samsung is not something unique to your company.

Amongst my various pieces of business equipment is a Samsung CLP 300N colour laser printer. An inexpensive unit which I have had a little over three years, performs very well, and originally cost somewhere between £100 and £200.

Yesterday it stopped functioning. Not because there is anything wrong with it, but because the counter on the transfer belt had reached the manufacturer determined “end of life”. To be clear, the transfer belt is working fine, it is merely a counting mechanism that has shut it down. My only “official” option is to replace the part at a cost of about £90 plus vat. I could do this myself, but even if I did the unit would not continue to function because the counter needs to be reset as well by an engineer who has the appropriate utility (apparently this is a software item called CLP-300_Reset_RLCv04.exe); realistically the overall cost would probably be in the region of £200 to £300. You and I both know that no sane person would do this, and in fact most people will simply dump the printer and buy a new one.

I am not averse to paying for engineers and parts – as a photographer I have a wide format printer and only a month ago spent over £500 having the carriage return motor replaced at end of life. But in that case allowing the machine to function past the counter setting had the potential to do £1500 damage to a £3500 machine. It made sense to spend the money. In this case, the worst thing that can happen by my simply resetting the transfer belt counter (if I could do it) would be that eventually the printer kills itself and gets ditched – which would make me no worse off than I am now. Although, allowing for the possibility that it might function perfectly for another year, I might actually be better off.

ethical business practice

This printer works perfectly. The question is whether Samsung would rather that I throw it away, or see that it gets used fully before that happens?

In common with most people I have no problem with replacing a machine that has died, nor in servicing a machine that it makes financial sense to service. What I have a problem with is sending to landfill a machine which works perfectly save for the fact that a designer has incorporated an arbitrary stop code. This is not a safety issue, there is no risk to my other possessions, and it does not make commercial sense for Samsung. This last point cannot be overstated, because as I have already intimated no sane person would pay for the parts and labour to fix it when it is much cheaper to buy a new one, and equally, most people in this position will do exactly that, but in a fit of pique determine that they will not be buying another Samsung printer.

A more rational approach would be to have the printer pause and require that the user contact Samsung, at which point the user can be advised of the likely outcome of resetting the counter and not replacing the part. On accepting the conditions the user could be told how to reset the counter, fully aware that they might be buying a new printer at some point soon. At least then they would feel more loyal to Samsung, and could get the full use out of the unit before replacing it. Equally they might decide for their own reasons to have the unit serviced.

Binning things that work is neither ethical nor environmentally friendly and is symptomatic of a disposable culture that really ethical organisations ought to be doing more to mitigate against.

I look forward to hearing your response.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Cockerham

Silk purses and sow’s ears.

By , March 8, 2013 10:40 pm

In my last post I mentioned that I could pick up a guitar and make a noise with it, but that it did not make me a musician.

One photographer who was a musician was the great Ansel Adams – a virtuoso pianist by all accounts. Unsurprisingly he was disposed to musical metaphors when talking about photography, and perhaps his most well known proclamation was that the negative is akin to a musical score, while the print is the performance.

A couple of days ago the following photo appeared in my personal Facebook news feed.

Tracy, poorly "performed".

Tracy, poorly “performed”.

It is a “portrait” of a good friend of my wife. I didn’t take it, and I don’t know who did. But my reaction on seeing it was that it was the photographic equivalent of my playing the guitar, but with a slight twist. In this case a photo that I wouldn’t ordinarily have given a second glance caught my eye because the problem was not with the “score” as such, but the “performance”. It had been posted five years ago, but in all that time had merited virtually no attention from her friends, until someone happened to comment on it this week – hence it appearing in my newsfeed.

I couldn’t help myself. I pulled the photo from Facebook, spent 90 seconds retouching it, and then reposted it to her Facebook wall with a tongue-in-cheek quip apologising for touching her up in public.

The reaction was immediate, positive and huge. And it just goes to show that while being able to “see” a good photo at the time of taking is important, part of that creative vision has also got to be about visualising the “performance” of that musical score.

Tracy re-imagined or re-performed.

Tracy re-imagined or re-performed.

Panorama theme by Themocracy