Nostalgia for the good old days....of early digital.

This is not so much a walk through remembrance gardens as it is a quick salute to one old war horse of a camera.  My Kodak DCS 760's last battery bit the dust.  It holds enough charge to get off maybe ten or fifteen images before shutting down altogether.  I've made no secret through the years that this is my favorite digital camera for all the same reason I've always talked about here.  I doesn't have an extensive menu of choices.  It was built to be a RAW only camera and Jpeg capability was added later via a firmware upgrade.  There are very few user settings to work with.  There's no "dynamic range enhancement" feature because the camera already kicked butt when it came to dynamic range.

There's only two focus modes and while you can set single and continuous for frame rates you'll only get 1.5 fps as your fastest throughput.  There are no "sports modes".   There's no "vivid"  or "landscape" setting.  The body is based on Nikon's venerable F5 and the whole thing is a nearly five pound block of metal.  The screen on the back is miserable.  It pushes you to double check what you're doing with a good light meter.  And, even in their prime of life, the batteries sucked and the camera sucked down batteries.

So why do I love this camera?  Well,  it's the same reason any photographer should love any camera:  The files look so nice.   So very, very nice.  Even today I love the look I get from this camera.  It's enough to make me plug in the A/C adapter and get busy.  When I look back over the last ten years at all the digital cameras I've owned this one consistently gave me images and campaigns that looked different and better.  Almost magical.   In fact, one of the things that attracted me to the first generation of  Olympus professional cameras (as exemplified by the E1's that I still own.....) was the look of the files from the Kodak sensors.  So different from the other solutions on the market.

Yes,  I've been using PhotoShop for decades.  I can probably emulate the look with enough post processing but the point is that the art just squirted out of this camera with reckless abandon.

The shot above was part of a series for the Austin Lyric Opera.  We shot it with a Nikon 105 DC lens nearly wide open.  It was lit with a six by six foot screen to the left of frame, very close in and slightly over the top of Meredith.  The main light source was a 1,000 watt Profoto ProTungsten, continuous halogen light.  The background (nearly 60 feet away) was lit with a single 300 watt DeSisti spotlight.  I used an 80B filter on the camera to bring up the blue spectrum and avoid blue channel noise in the file.

The image was processed in Kodak's Photo Desk software and then tweaked in PhotoShop.

I had other cameras available to me at the time but I chose this one because it matched my vision of the palette I wanted for this job.  Too often we buy one camera or one system then shoehorn everything into that one set of tools.  And it's not always an optimum choice.  The painfully high res camera may not always be the ultimate choice.  One system may have lens strengths in one area by not another.  Your mood may change.  Even now,  with all the feedback I've gotten over buying some Canon gear it's good to remember that I shoot with more than that one system.

Granted, it's easier to shoot with the cleanest, highest res LCD's as guides.  It's nice to have great high ISO performance.  But I still keep two different Kodak cameras around for their unique color and file contrast.  I keep a Sony R1 around because it love that lens for outdoor stuff.  I love the Pen series from Olympus for its feel and its gorgeous jpegs (and good movie mode) and I still keep a drawer full of Rollei SLR MF film cameras when I want real black and white and not just the canned SilverFX  looks. (I'm sure I'll hear from SilverFX fans so I'll just say that they're really good.  They're not Tri-X on Seagull warmtone or Ilfobrom Gallerie).

I'm not writing this to suggest that you rush out and buy old cameras.  Or even new cameras.  I wouldn't have brought it up at all if I hadn't just put together a portfolio full of portraits and lifestyle shots and spent the better part of a month selecting and printing images.  I assumed that the old Kodak images would fall apart compared to some of the newer stuff I'd been shooting on the Canon 5D2 but it just wasn't the case.  When it comes to portraits it's a whole different ballgame than technical subjects with lots of detail and sharp edges.  At 13 by 19 it all looked technically good.  And that included images from the 6 megapixel Kodak, a ten megapixel Olympus, some Nikon D2x files, some Canon files and even an entry from the Leaf AFi7 system (39 megapixels).  They all coexisted just fine in one book.

I showed the book yesterday at a design firm called Pentagram.  The designer I showed the book to stopped and savored the four images from the Austin Lyric Opera series.  I included a variation of the one above.  To her, the look outweighed any sort of technical differences.  It might have been a different ballgame if I'd been showing landscapes or big production ad shots.  But for portraits.  I think I was right a year ago.  The Kodak's were a milestone.

Note:  I wrote this last Summer.  And I'm reposting it today because I was able to get brand new batteries for the DCS 760 and so I've been shooting with it again.  It's wonderful.  It's also written as an argument for people who want to hold my feet to the fire for not sticking with one brand, one style, one way of being a photographer.  Photography is a celebration of diversity and evolving ideas and techniques.  Not a hobby embedded in the amber of "best practices."  That's great for doctors and engineers but nonsense for artists and visual communicators....


Andrew said...

This is a great topic. Lately, I've been reading quite a bit about the first generation Ricoh GRD and how much people loved it and still do. Slow, crappy LCD, but it has character. Real character to the images. Virtually everyone who knows it swears that the GRD2 and GRD3 don't have it. Much the same for the Ricoh GX100 (which oddly has been showing up as NOS on Amazon) followed by the lesser though more technically sophisticated GX200. And the Canon SD700 P&S that I passed on to my wife still beats any newer Canon P&S I've tried.

Peter Frailey said...

Kirk, Speaking of older posts, I recall an old post in which you indicated that you used a default WB (in Kelvin) when shooting outdoors. Could you repeat what that was? 5000?

Thanks. Peter F.

kirk tuck said...

Hi Peter, For the last few years, if we're outdoors I set a white balance of 5400 or I use the little "sun" icon. That way when the light gets warmer or cooler the camera won't "correct" out the warmth we really wanted to get anyway.

Jeff Snyder said...

Kirk, enjoyed this post. I am doing retro-camera thing myself. I have been an E-1 shooter for a couple of years now and I've just picked up a D1X to see what it can do.

I had no idea what this camera was so I looked it up. Man! that is one big honkin' camera. I think you should know however that it only received a 'recommended' rating from a respected photo gear site.

Cedric said...

Good read but if I may be so bold I would suggest that perhaps it's not the camera or the sensors or the technology but rather the user of all these things which brings out the best or worst in a device. I have this sneaking suspicion that the Kodak DCS 760 in my hands would not give such appealing results. In your hands I suspect that a homemade, cardboard, pin-hole camera would deliver drop-dead gorgeous portraits.

dbledsoe said...

I appreciate your perspective in that I have similar. I have an old Canon D30 (not 30D) 3 mp DSLR that I use to this day. It has a signature that I haven't seen duplicated in any digital camera since.

Simon said...

5lbs?! you are a hero amongst camera nerds for that feat of masochism, Kirk! Results look very nice but I don't see the magic other than that of the 105DC, even at fullsize. I will take your word for it though, and I'll never complain about my D700's weight again.

Peter Frailey said...

Thanks, Kirk. That was what I was looking for.

Archer Sully said...

Nice essay, Kirk. I always enjoy your writing and photography, and writing about photography.

As for fossilization of practices: engineers and doctors best practices evolve and change, too, as new knowledge is discovered and technology invented. Its only a fundamentalist that puts a flag in the ground and tries to stop time. I'd really hate it if my doctor decided that all worthwhile medical knowledge had been discovered by 1950.

Finally, no one should go out and buy the old cameras. I don't want the competition ;-).

kirk tuck said...

Archer, don't misunderstand me. I think there are fields that need to follow best practices and the ones we've both delineated make sense. And it's implied that the best practices evolve. But photo doesn't depend on technique over vision, there are hundreds of niches and this year's "best practice" is next week's hoary cliche. That's what I meant.

Reza Farivar said...

Kirk, how do you compare the E-1 and DCS 760? Both use the same generation of Kodak CCDs if I'm not wrong?

Also, is there any other current camera using Kodak CCDs aside from Leica M9 and Pentax 645D, both of them at pretty hefty price tags?

Ashley Pomeroy said...

"I used an 80B filter on the camera to bring up the blue spectrum and avoid blue channel noise in the file."

Now that's interesting. I've had a few of these old Kodaks - the oldest was a DCS 460, which didn't even have a screen - and they always had trouble with the blue channel at higher ISOs, or in the shadows; the green channel was lovely and smooth, the red channel not so bad, but the blue channel went all splotchy, which threw the colours out of whack (the images tended to have a purple-yellow cast).

I'd always wondered if boosting the blue channel by using a blue filter would have any effect (relative to the other channels, anyway) and although I tried it once I couldn't really see any benefit. I must try it again.

All the Kodaks seem to have have distinctive colour, although it depends if you open the files with ACR (which makes them very warm) or Kodak's own plugins, or Photodesk (which makes them look a bit flat); a while back, when Kodakchrome was going out of production, I tried some out, and it seemed to be the same colour, a kind of slightly cold, slightly steely-purple look. The big problem is that nowadays they're all getting old, and if some internal component shorts or breaks (the date battery will have died by now, for example) no-one alive will fix it. I've never tried to full-frame models.