Posts tagged: cameras

We are always being influenced

By , February 4, 2016 3:36 pm

No matter how hard we try to pretend that we are doing things our own way, the fact of the matter is that there is very little we do which is original. Almost all the photographs we take will be informed or influenced by others we have seen in the past. Often that influence is gentle, almost hidden, but occasionally it is quite blatant.

Consider, for instance, this image which I took at a wedding shortly before Christmas. It was long service and I was exploring the rear of the church with a newly acquired (and utterly sublime) 56mm f1.2 on a Fuji X-Pro 1, when I saw a young girl playing with the votive candles, as I pulled the viewfinder to my eye I already new it was an image I had seen before.

Girl with votive candles

Girl with votive candles. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2015

The image it conjured in my mind was by the photographer David Seymour (aka Chim), of a girl called Tereska. The original caption for the photo said:

“Children’s wounds are not all outward. Those made in the mind by years of sorrow will take years to heal. In Warsaw, at an institute which cares for some of Europe’s thousands of “disturbed” children, a Polish girl named Tereska was asked to make a picture of her home. These terrible scratches are what she drew.”

Tereska draws her home, by David Seymour/Magnum 1948

Tereska draws her home, by David Seymour/Magnum. 1948

Clearly they are very different subjects, with one traumatised by war and concentration camps and the other presumably having had no experiences other than a safe a secure upbringing, and I am not trying to draw specific parallels between the two. But equally it is clear that the compositional elements of the older photograph by David Seymour of Magnum were informing the decisions I made as I moved to take that photograph in December.

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.

So long, old friend.

By , January 26, 2013 9:45 am

J Alfred Prufrock, according to TS Eliot, measured his life in coffee spoons. In common with most photographers, mine has been measured with cameras. I have said before that I am not an equipment freak, and that remains the case. They are a means to an end, and it is the end, the image, which captivates me.

But a curious set of circumstances in recent weeks has caused me to look back on my life as measured by the tools of my trade, and I thought it might make a good post. Besides, for some reason blogs about gear are always more popular than ones about pictures – read into that what you will.

It all began when my D3 failed to recognise my AFD lenses a couple of weeks ago. The lenses concerned worked fine with other cameras, so I knew it wasn’t them, and the camera itself worked fine with different lens types. As (bad) luck would have it, this all came about the day before I was due to shoot a big wedding. One of the affected lenses was my standard zoom, a 35-70 f2.8 AFD which I have used with every Nikon I have owned since about 1996. As a result I decided to hire an AFS 24-70G f2.8 ED for the day (since G lenses were unaffected by the problem) to get the wedding out of the way, before sending the camera into NPS for servicing. I fell for the hire lens, and started to think that I should upgrade anyway. It felt like infidelity not to mention extravagance, and I rejected the idea.

A couple of days later I got a call from a prospective new client, with the offer to meet to discuss a major assignment. I had an old friend and student of mine in the studio at the time, and she was asking me how I had got on with the hire lens. I told her about my adulterous feelings, to which she exlaimed “I’ll buy your old one from you!” I was stunned, and tempted. Very tempted. I suggested that if I got the assignment I had just been told about then I could justify the upgrade and I would sell her the lens.

markings on Nikkor lens

The “10” in a circle of arrows reveals something telling about the profligacy of modern society.

I got the job.

I bought the lens.

While all of this was going on, I noticed a strange symbol on the underside of my AFS 14-24mm lens (which also exists on the 24-70 and no doubt many other new Nikkors), a “10” inside a circle of arrows. Apparently this logo indicates that Nikon expect that the lens will be “dumped” in about ten years time. Really? A £1500 lens dumped in ten years? Why? Now that’s extravagance!

It’s a precision optical instrument, which unless it is trashed will keep going pretty well indefinitely, surely? As I have already said, my 35-70 is already over fifteen years old, and I have many other bits of gear working perfectly that are far older than that. Perhaps with cheaper consumer lenses it might make some sense (only some, mind you). But the kind of lenses that serious photographers buy have a much greater lifespan, and more tellingly, while cameras might come and go, we tend to have a much closer relationship with our lenses than our cameras. They are our friends, our family. They are the ones through which we not only see the world, but through which we fix our vision, whether on film or sensors. They may become battered and worn, but we take to their idiosyncracies and adopt them as a part of our creative vision. That’s why it felt so disloyal to contemplate replacing a lens that has fixed tens of thousands of my images, and travelled with me all over the world attached to a myriad of different cameras.

So who am I? How did I get to be the person that I am now? The cameras that we use and discard tell us more about ourselves than we might think. Each of us has our own history. This is mine.

Minolta Autopak 430EX

Minolta Autopak 430EX

My first camera was a birthday present at the age of ten. A Minolta Autopak 430EX. It was a 110 format cartridge camera, and I vividly remember the very first photograph I ever took of my younger brother wrestling my Dad on the floor. I am not sure if you can still get 110 film, but I still have the camera, and I have fond memories of using it, and there are a few pictures I took with it that even with my greater experience I still think are pretty good. Needless to say it was fairly restrictive, and my love affair with photography did not start here.

When I was 18 I went on a two week tour around northern Italy with my classmates from school, an elongated bar-crawl loosely disguised as a cultural tour of Italian art treasures. I wanted to make sure that I had the capacity to record it as clearly as possible, so I borrowed my Dad’s Minolta SRT-Super with his 50mm f1.4 and 135mm f3.5 Rokkor lenses. It might appear disingenuous to include this camera in my list as it wasn’t ever mine, but this trip and the use of the camera was pivotal to the rest of my life, hence the reason for its inclusion.

Minolta SRT-Super

Minolta SRT-Super

My Dad was rather proud of his camera (I suspect this explains why the first camera he bought me, above, was also a Minolta) and he made me promise that I would not let it out of my sight. A marvel of mechanical engineering, it used matched needles for metering, and had a gloriously bright screen with the 50mm lens attached. I wasn’t so keen on the 135mm lens because it made the screen so much darker, which just shows how green I was that I didn’t understand the relationship between the maximum aperture and the brightness of the viewfinder. For that matter, I didn’t understand anything at all. I couldn’t figure out what the point of the depth of field preview was – it just made the viewfinder go dark!

Nevertheless, I heeded my father’s warning, and never let the camera out of my sight. On the third day of our trip, the coach we were travelling on was robbed while we were on the beach. Thirty-something people had their cameras stolen, except me, as I had it with me – not out of my sight. I ended up being given a load of film, and became the de facto “official” photographer. Out of five hundred photographs, only three didn’t come out. I thought I had a bit of a talent for this. In retrospect most of the photos were awful, but it was too late – I was hooked and determined that I needed to get myself a decent camera.

Minolta Dynax 7000i

Minolta Dynax 7000i

Perhaps unsurprisingly I was convinced that I had to get a Minolta, and at the time Minolta were at the vanguard of photographic advances forging ahead with the first usable autofocus SLRs. Their flagship second generation AF camera, the futuristic Dynax 7000i caught my eye.

I bought it at first with a 35-80mm f3.5-5.6, and quickly added a 70-210, a 50mm f1.4, a 28mm f2.8, and of course a flashgun. I had a system. I had no bloody idea what I was doing with it, but I was starting to feel like a photographer. However, something was missing. I needed a backup. I wanted to be able to have another camera which I could load with black and white film while the Dynax was loaded with colour. So I made possibly the strangest purchase choice in the history of poseurs trying to be photographers – or as the late Gene Nocon called them, fauxtographers – I bought a Minolta X700.

Minolta X700

Minolta X700

It’s not that there was anything wrong with the X700, far from it. I think, in retrospect, that it is one of the best cameras they ever made. It’s just that with all the money I had spent on the Dynax it would have made sense to buy a body which fit that system. The X700 had a different lens mount and was completely incompatible, the only thing they had in common was the make. So I had to buy a lens for that too, another 35-70, which if memory serves me right had a continuous maximum aperture of f3.5 throughout the zoom. I also bought the motordrive, and later a Sigma 24mm f2.8.

Not long after I started university I met a fellow student and keen photographer called Roland. He had an F3HP, a Nikon. It had a grid screen, and an MD4 motordrive. I fell in love. In a curious way the Dynax for all its advances in techology was actually too restricting. The more I thought about the F3 and its bomb-proof build, the more I hankered for the creative release that I thought its simple controls would bring. I sold the

Nikon F3HP with MD4 motordrive

Nikon F3HP with MD4 motordrive and 50mm f1.4 lens

Dynax outfit and found a mint second hand F3HP and an MD4 with a 50mm f1.4 AIS lens. It tells you something that the Minolta with four lenses and a flash only bought a camera and drive with a standard lens. I had moved from consumer gadget, to a proper image making tool, and for the first time I really started to spend more time thinking about pictures than the camera. I loved it’s heavily weighted and idiosyncratice metering. I understood how it “thought” and the HP viewfinder was like looking at an Imax screen.

Although I had always felt similarly about the X700 it pretty quickly dawned on me that it was mad to keep it. I now had the opportunity to build a system, and when my best friend and student film director offered to buy the X700 and lenses from me, I agreed, and put the money to an FM2 with an MD12 motordrive. Another Nikon, it could share the lenses with the F3, and as it was fully mechanical and didn’t require batteries it made a perfect backup body. At about the same time I bought a 24mm f2.8 AIS and a 105mm f2.5 AIS. The FM2 was new, but everything else was second hand. A word to the wise – the world is full of really good second hand gear. Don’t buy new unless you really have to. I missed the X700, but not as much as when my friend later told me he’d used it as a stake in a poker game and lost.

Nikon FM2 with MD12 motordrive

Nikon FM2 with MD12 motordrive

I bought a Metz 45CL4 flashgun, a 180mm f2.8 AIS telephoto, and a 55mm f2.8 AIS micro (macro to every other manufacturer on the planet – I never understood why Nikon call them “micro” lenses) and my system was complete. I had no desire for zooms. I loved the simplicity and clarity of the prime lenses.

Yashica T4

Yashica T4

All I needed was a small compact camera that I could carry all the time. For me the answer was a Yashica T4 – discreet with a good fast Zeiss lens.

Needless to say, it was not “all” I needed, because the more I learned the more I began to appreciate the massive difference in image quality that comes from making the jump to medium format. Just as I did with 35mm, I jumped too quickly and bought completely the wrong system. I was lured by a Bronica ERTS system including a couple of lenses and backs and various other gadgets.

Bronica ETRS

Bronica ETRS

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad camera, but it was at that time the “consumer” option in medium format. At about the same time I started freelancing for a number of studios doing weddings and other things, and the limitations of the Bronica were all too obvious. I was attracted to the Rollei SLRs which were the first choice of the studio. They were rugged, simple, and ideal for the job, with a 6x6cm format compared to the Bronica’s 6×4.5. I don’t think I had the ETRS for more than six months before I sold it all and bought a mint second hand Rollei 6006 mkII with a standard 80mm F2.8 Planar lens.

Rollei 6006 mkII

Rollei 6006 mkII

By now my skills had grown to the point that for all the beauty and simplicity of the F3 it was holding me back. I wanted something which could focus faster than me, and that something was the Nikon F5. I so desperately wanted to keep the F3 – I think it is honestly the only camera I have ever really “loved” – but I could not afford to keep it. I needed to sell it to finance the F5. I remember parting with it in a Hilton hotel to some guy who had answered my classified ad. “You’re sure it’s never been used professionally?” he asked. “No, not at all,” I lied. To be fair, compared with the way I hammer cameras now it was immaculate, but I did feel a pang of guilt, mostly because I wanted it to stay, not because I lied. I met a man called Mark in Victoria Station and parted with my cash to take his F5 from him, and a few days later I bought a brand new 35-70 f2.8 AFD zoom (the one mentioned at the start of this post) – autofocus and zooms were back in my life.

The Nikon F5

The Nikon F5

I had a falling out with my girlfriend. She left, and I thought about all the money I could spend on myself, so I promptly went out and signed on the finance dotted line, and committed to the biggest impulse purchase of my life, and something every serious photographer hankers after. I hankered too, and with no woman to waste money on, why not, I thought? I would devote my life to my first love and mistress: photography. I bought a brand new Leica M6 with a 35mm f2 Summicron. The girlfriend came back wanting reconciliation. I agreed, fool that I am.

Leica M6

Leica M6

Over time the manual Nikon lenses were sold, with the exception of the micro which I still use regularly as I never saw an advantage in autofocus for macro work. I replaced them with a 24mm f2.8 AFD, a 50mm f1.4 AFD, and an 80-200 f2.8 AFS, and extended my telephoto capability with a TC20EII  teleconverter, effectively giving me a 400mm f5.6 AFS. The Metz flashgun was used exclusively with the Rollei, and a dedicated Nikon SB28 joined the system. The lenses may now all have been autofocus, but they worked perfectly with the FM2 – it was still a professional and integrated system.

The more I worked professionally, the more I used the Rollei for commercial work, but it wasn’t long before the need to crop the square images started to grate, and I invested in a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II system. Its unique revolving back, sharp lenses, and 6x7cm format which produces a near perfect 10×8 or A4 print without crop meant that the perceived increase in image quality was immense.

Mamiya RZ67 Pro II

Mamiya RZ67 Pro II

My love life had moved on. I met the woman of my dreams (although that rather crept up on me, I didn’t realise she was until about a year into the relationship) and we married. I took business more seriously, and since she was a photographer as well, I needed another camera to equip her to shoot for me. We bought a Rollei 6001 with another 80mm f2.8 Planar.

Rollei 6001

Rollei 6001

It was around this time that photography started to make serious strides in the digital world. I wrote occasionally for the Photographic Journal and the editor arranged for Nikon to send me their D100 to test. Ordinarily it would be wrong for me to include this in my list of cameras owned, but Nikon forgot that I had it for about a year, and I used it extensively. I experimented and found all sorts of ways that it was ideal for corporate and editorial jobs. Although I would not have used it for more significant commercial work, and certainly not for weddings or portrait work, I was still sufficiently impressed by it that when Nikon asked for it back, I went out and bought my own.

Nikon D100

Nikon D100

Next there was a project I was working on that would mean extensive travelling and walking, and the need to keep my equipment light. Neverthless I wanted the quality which I knew I could only get from medium format, so I acquired a Mamiya 6MF medium format rangefinder. It is a testament to just how good this 6×6 format camera is that it is one of the few that has grown in value since I bought it. They are very highly sought after.

Mamiya 6

Mamiya 6

While many photographers were diving into the digital pool I was still reluctant to commit to using it regularly. It just lacked the quality that I wanted. There was the Canon EOS 1D series, and the reviews were very encouraging, but it was expensive, even without lenses, and I felt committed to Nikon. As far as I was concerned it was simply a matter of biding my time.

The Nikon D1 was a news tool, and not for me, and I felt the same when they released its successor, the Nikon D2H. But that all changed when they brought out the 12.4MP D2X. I tested the camera, and took unedited files to a professional printer where we could compare the output to prints from my medium format negatives. We were both astonished by what the D2X could do. I ordered one of the first to come into the UK – a hefty investment at over £3,500 for the body. Almost overnight my practice went from 80% film 20% digital, to 90% digital 10% film.

Nikon D2X

Nikon D2X

It wasn’t an easy shift. There was a steep learning curve in post-production, and massive investments of time and money in upgraded computers, storage and back-up systems.

Nikon D200

Nikon D200

Also the DX format of the sensor started to annoy me for its 1.5x crop factor – great for the telephoto stuff, a royal pain for the wide angle. I also needed dedicated flashguns, so a pair of SB-800s and a 16-35mm AFS were soon in the bag. The D100 was replaced by the D200, and after a while I was in my creative comfort zone again. With the advances that Nikon was making in iTTL dedicated flash I found it hard to believe that cameras could really get that much better at doing their job. I didn’t feel any of the “love” that I had felt for the F3, these were just tools, and the easier they made my job, the happier I was.

Toyo 5x4 large format monorail

Toyo 5×4 large format monorail

Creatively I was looking for new avenues and opportunities, and while the world moved inexorably down the digital expressway, I made a move into something altogether slower and more considered, and bought a Toyo 5″x4″ rail camera. This is photography for the perfectionist, and it taught me to think, really think, about why I wanted to take particular photographs. There is no way to hurry when there is only one frame, and when loading that sheet removes the means by which you can view the scene through the camera.

I have already said how comfortable I was with the D2X system, so much so that when Nikon announced the D3 even the fact of its full frame sensor (something photographers around the world had been begging Nikon to incorporate into any new professional body) was not enough to make me look at it more closely. I had only had the D2X for about two and a half years, and didn’t see myself making another big investment so soon. That changed when I saw some sample images taken at the world athletics championships in Japan… at 6400 ISO. It remains the only time in my life that I would describe my jaw as having dropped.

Nikon D3 with 14-24mm f2.8 AFS

Nikon D3 with 14-24mm f2.8 AFS

People who have only recently come into photography will not understand how revolutionary the D3’s low light capability was (and frankly, still is). In the days of film, your fastest – by which I mean most responsive to light – option was ISO 3200 film, which was in a word, crap. The price of high speed film was lack of contrast, lack of saturation, and grain like golf balls. Apart from the occasional artistic imperative, no one chose to use 3200 film unless they had no other option. The digital world started as a step backwards. Cameras were less forgiving of exposure errors (especially over-exposure), and anything much above ISO 640 was pretty well unusable. It wasn’t grain as such, but the digital equivalent called noise, and there are two types: luminance and chrominance. The former isn’t too bad if well controlled, the latter is bloody awful. Anyway, back to the point. The D3 suddenly offered the possibility of shooting at upto ISO 6400 with genuinely useable results. This represented a sea change in image making possibilities. I had to have one. I sold the D2X, got one of the first D3 bodies in the UK, and promptly spent a week photographing conferences in Barcelona and Madrid. I never set the ISO below 4000, and I was taking photos I had never thought possible.

The lenses changed over time. The 24mm was replaced by the astonishing 14-24mm f2.8 AFS, an SB900 became my main flashgun, working seemlessly with the two SB800s, and a huge commercial assignment requiring tilt/shift capabilities justified the acquisition of a 45mm f2.8 PCE lens.

Somewhere along the way I parted company with the Yashica T4. It seems odd in retrospect that I don’t know what happened to a camera. Did I lose it, sell it, give it away? I have no idea. But the absence of a compact had bothered me for some time. For all it’s flaws (and they are legion) the digital revolution’s most transformative effect was the chance to be far more experimental with one’s work than had been the case with film, but from a creative standpoint manufacturers had all but forgotten serious photographers with the compacts they were creating. In essence there were two fundamental problems: sensors which were too small and rendered results unsaleable if not unusable, and the absence of a viewfinder.

Fuji X100

Fuji X100

I have said it before, but a camera is supposed to be an extension of your eye, and walking about like a zombie with your camera held at arm’s length is not intuitive. I complained on this blog, and gave a list of attributes I wanted to see in a decent digital compact. The response was almost universally “it can’t/won’t be done,” or “there wouldn’t be enough demand”. And then Fuji released the X100. I was right, the naysayers were wrong, and the X100 (and the X series it spawned) marked another turning point in cameras. The demand for the X100 despite many imperfections in its performance was huge. But Fuji was wise enough to listen to the feedback and release a series of firmware updates that addressed many of the key complaints. Naturally I put my money where my mouth was almost immediately.

Agfa Isolette

Agfa Isolette

Along the way I have experimented with many things, particularly old cameras. If you learn to accept their limitations and work within them you can have great fun and take some great photos. I don’t remember most of them, but I do have fond memories of an Agfa Isolette which I picked up from an antique shop in Greenwich about twenty years ago. No one would take you seriously with it, which allowed you to get in close, and the results (6x6cm medium format) on black and white film were really great – the lack of decent coatings on the lens was not so good for colour stuff. I still have it… somewhere, but for the life of me I cannot remember where I put it.

The D200 niggled at me. It was my backup camera, and if you are doing this for a living a backup is not an optional extra. But it bothered me that I had an expensive camera sitting in my bag almost never seeing the light of day. It gradually dawned on me that an ideal backup would offer something fundamentally different to the main camera. In effect it would have to have its own role and justify its existence in my life. The problem was that from my point of view no such camera existed.

Nikon D800

Nikon D800

And then Nikon launched the D800 with its astonishing 36.4MP sensor. Here was a camera which was ideal for my studio and commercial work, but could play backup to the D3. It integrated with my system and offered something qualitatively different  – the detail it is capable of resolving is as breathtaking (from a camera of this size) as the low light capability of the D3 had been.

Of course it wasn’t long before that resolving power started to show the inadequacies of my oldest AF lens, the 35-70 f2.8 AFD, which is where we started this post. I said goodbye to an old friend, and welcomed the 24-70 f2.8 AFS into my life. It is now responsible for most of the pictures I am making.

Of course, this is not the end of the story, merely a staging post and a chance for reflection. The D4 is on my horizon, along with the SB910, and a brace of other lenses. In time they shall pass too, leaving the images as the only things of permanence. It’s ironic that the fleeting transitory nature of time and experience is rendered permanent, while the physical objects employed in their capture come and go to be forgotten. I have affection for the occasional tool, especially the F3, but most are just that: tools of the trade.

As I said at the start, I am interested in pictures not cameras, but if you must measure me by the equipment I use, then this has been the measure of my life thus far.


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