Superbowl Sunday and the retro camera adventure.

Most things start out sounding pretty fun and sensible when the ideas first rattle around in my brain.  And that's probably what happened on Saturday.  I was in a camera shop and one thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was walking out with a bag that had one Canon 1dmk2 and one Canon 1dmk2N, a couple extra batteries and a charger.  It was the charger that scrambled everything.  The used 2N body I really wanted didn't have a charger while the older model did.  Long story and much bazaar haggling later it all came together as one transaction.  

Why the hell did I do that?  Well.....since the sinister dark energy of advertising shoved me and dragged me to the Canon side for pro cameras I've done the nerdiest thing possible and read up about their digital cameras.  In detail.  Engineer/English major detail.  Left handed detail.  And I had the idea that I'd really like to play with the 1D series of cameras.  See if the bodies were as fun and bulletproof as my Canon shooting friends led me to believe.  If I like them I'll keep them and offset the $$$ by consigning my 60D and a few EFS lenses.  At least that's my rationale. But.....

Couple dancing at Jo's Coffee Shop, outdoors in the middle of the afternoon.  Warm weather in Austin can be so romantic.  Especially in the middle of February....

.....Before I could make any pronouncements, use the cameras on paying jobs or talk about them to other people I had to take one out for a spin and get my greasy fingers all over it and abuse it.  Then I had to drag the files back to my little computer and see what transpired.  That's what we're talking about right now.

I knew that the young singer and muscian, Ruby Jane, was giving a concert at Jo's so I headed over with the 2N and the compact 50mm macro 2.5 in hand  I stayed just long enough for a small coffee and an oatmeal cookie....and to take a few shots with the camera.

The screen on the back is primitive even in comparison with $400 cameras in 2011, and it was interesting to take a time travel trip back to 2005's reality.  The screen can't really be counted on for color  or exact tonality but the histogram reads out in all three colors so critical exposure information is still at one's fingertips.

The only way to be stealthy with a camera this big is to be un-stealthy and emanate the idea that what you're doing is routine, non-exceptional and part of the scene.  Within minutes everyone ignored me and went on with real life.

I liked shooting with the 1dmk2n.  It reminds me of one of my favorite Nikon cameras, the D2hs.  They are big and solid and have uranium-like mass.  Great as a platform for lenses but kinda sucky for walking around.  Camera with lens and battery is something like 3.5 pounds.

Regular Austin guys hanging out at Jo's on a sunny, mid-70's Sunday afternoon.

While I was shooting the only feedback I had was the screen.  I was right to trust the histogram.  The screen is too bright (I'll adjust that) and I keep having the compulsion to dial in some negative exposure compensation to.....compensate.  But in addition to the histogram I have a platinum level kirkogram that's the result of using manual, non-metered cameras for the last thirty years.  I also know the "sunny sixteen" rule and if there was ever a day when using that knowledge was a slam dunk it was today.  On screen, back in the hallowed halls of the VISUAL SCIENCE LAB headquarters the files look the way they are supposed to look.

But......I'd been slamming around with the Olympus EPL2 for the last month and the jpegs out of that camera were like delicious candy.  I was used to not having to lift a finger to get really pleasing color.  Now, that color wasn't always accurate but very pleasing.  The Canon 1dmk2N, shot in RAW takes a different tack.  It seems to be all about accuracy.  If you shoot in open shade the file WILL have a blue cast.  The color out of camera is less saturated.  The files not quite so finished. 

This is counterbalanced by the malleability of the raw files.  They take direction well.  Want more vibrance or saturation?  Dial it in during "post" and you'll get the look you want.  Dial in sophisticated sharpening and noise reduction and you're at least on par, at 1600 ISO, with the files you'll get out of a 7D at the same setting.  

Austinite at Jo's sitting ten feet from the live music texting with intense concentration.

When it comes to the stuff the camera is supposed to do well it really does. The two things I was expecting were great AF and fast frame rate.  After 30 seconds of playing with the 8.5 fps I set the camera in single frame and got on with my life.  As for AF, set in my default (center sensor, lock and hold) it snapped to attention with the first pressure on the shutter button and locked focus so fast I didn't even know what I wanted to focus on.

The camera is an odd mix of Sumo wrestler and ballerina.  It's thuggishly hardened but also fast and graceful.  I don't plan on slamming it around.  I'm not very brutal with my gear and never have been. But it does feel nicely sturdy.  

The real performance testing will be at a dress rehearsal for Zach Scott that I'm shooting on Tues. night.  I haven't quite decided on all my gear but I'll take these two new (used) cameras with me along with the 35mm f2 and the 85mm 1.8.  I'll probably add a 135mm just for grins.  Even with a 1.3X magnification of angle of view (in comparison with a full frame camera) I won't need anything shorter than the 35.  That's pretty much a sure thing.  I may bring along a 70-200 just to make sure.  I hope I can shoot everything with primes.  Will 8 megapixels be enough?  Well, we used to do it with 4 megapixels and we've got walls of 16 by 20 color prints and posters from those files hanging around the Theater.  I think with 8 megapixels of really big, fat, high quality pixel power we'll be just fine.

So, why the retro insanity?  If you're new to this blog you are probably bewildered.  If you've been here for a while you know that I love the cliche:  "Variety is the spice of life."  I also am of the belief that cameras from only five years ago are much better performers that our benevolent overlords at Canon and Nikon would have us believe.  They, and DPReview, have a vested interest in getting us to turn over gear as quickly as possible.  When I read the DPReview of the 1Dmk2 from late 2004 they bandied about the phrase: "Is this the best digital camera in the world?"  They thought it might be.  Could things have really changed so profoundly since then?

Yes.  It's true.  Files have gotten much bigger.  Now the 5Dmk2 I've been shooting with for the past year has 21 megapixels to choose from.  And yes, the screens on the backs are getting so, so much better and more accurate.  And if you must shoot at ISO XXXXX I'll have to admit progress has been made.

But not much has changed since 2005 to create demand for these new powers.  Most of us are still shooting ultimately for website and blog use.  Most print use is for smaller sizes or on crappy, uncoated or budget matte paper.  And I still own studio lights that allow me to pick and choose the best ISO for the job at hand.  At about $600 a body these two cameras together, with batteries set me back just a tad more than the 60D I bought a few months ago.  And I'm convinced that, for 90% of what you and I do they are still as "earth shattering" as the day DPReview got weak in the knees just talking about them.

But the bottom line is that it's really just about showing up.  Being where the pictures are.  Capturing them in your style and with your taste and insight.  These gear asides are fun because we can all talk somewhat objectively about stuff that can be measured.  But really, using them is what's important.

I sure hope no one out there mis-interprets this blog and starts a run on the used DSLR market.  At least not until after I've got my hands on a mint 1DS and a 1DSmk2.  I'm sure I'll find one of each for less than the price of a discount 5D2.  I've got my eyes open.  What do you expect from a guy who still shoots with a Kodak DCS 760 from time to time?

I shot this furniture at the W Hotel this afternoon.  I want to see how the noise was at ISO 1600.  With the white leather ottoman and the shadow under the close chair I've got a full range of tones to look at.  My take?  Very granular noise patterns and very homogenous in both highlights and shadows.  Better than my old Nikon D2X at 400 ISO and it was a contemporary.

The biggest revelation to me today is how much I like the performance of the Compact 50mm Macro 2.5.  It's sharp and tasty.  From f4-f16 the performance is flawless on these old, old bodies.  And wide open it beats the pants off the "nifty fifty" and the 50mm 1.4 at the same f2.5 to f4 apertures.  It's my true "L" series 50mm lens and I'm proud to have bought a used one for a paltry $125.  

If I were still a Nikon shooter I'd be putting my nose in the air and talking about how much better my D3 was than anything else in its range.....but at the same time I'd be scrounging around looking for a couple of older D2h's or D2hs's because those things rocked.  I still like em better than all the stuff that came in between.  And they are now officially (via the sanction of The Visual Science Lab) collectibles.

One blog delivered under a super tight deadline.  Super Bowl starts in 15 minutes.  I mute during the game and the boy and I joke about how odd football is but we're riveted to the commercials and to the chips and dips.........Go Jets.  GOAL!!!!!


Michael said...

Only just recently started reading your blog Kirk and its been a pleasure/inspiration reading every sentence.

I agree with you – in that technology from the past few years is still very powerful and useful. I guess we rarely take the time and reflect on what was and get preoccupied with the latest stuff.

From this post, for some reason, I'm quite intrigued by your shot of the hotel lounge.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Dave Jenkins said...

Looks like your photowalk with the gear freak had a worse effect on you than we realized.

Anonymous said...

you rock, Kirk! I didnt even see you there. Miss ya! - JoBelle

JohnL said...

Great images but to my mind the files look superb and smooth!

John Krumm said...

The look good to me, a pleasing naturalness. I've had a longing for a Canon 1Ds mark ii after a friend got one. I never cared for his landscape shots with his 50D for some reason, so was surprised when all of a sudden they looked gorgeous using the 1D. Something about the subtle color looked really good (and I'm also used to Oly). They still cost a bit though.

Michael Ferron said...

I was also in on Sat. and eyeballed those cameras. (and the nice 5D) Unlike you I walked out with just ink and paper. :)

Jessica said...

I love your forays into gear that I will never buy. Vicariously it satisfies an urge I never knew I had. Keep it up.

gbt said...

Yes, in the last 18 months I've gone from a 1Ds to a 5D to a Panasonic GF1, and now I've figured out I was trying to get lighter but in fact the best camera was the 1Ds no matter how much it weighed and how rubbish the LCD was...

Silvertooth said...

Interesting weekend. I was photographing some pelicans on the Dike this weekend when another local stopped to chat. He was engaged in a similar activity of birding and was using his 10D with an L series 500mm f4.5 FD mount manual focus he had converted to mount on the EOS body. In our conversation of lenses, he suggested that I pick up a manual focus 105 Micro Nikkor for the D90. He said I would be impressed. Now I'm looking. Beautiful color from your obsolete, how-can-you-even-think-of-using-something-that-old camera. Enjoy the heat wave.

Steve Burns said...

Kirk: They are wonderful cameras! For years I used a couple of the Mk2's and a Mk2n. Just sold them, the Mk2's went to Russia, and the Mk2n when to Indiana. They were real work horse cameras that had a very special look for me. Always shot RAW and processed out in Capture One.

They were replaced with several of the original 5D's, and a 1DsMk2. The 5D's were needed to lighten my load (literally).

Thee purchase of the 1DsMk2 was to have a full frame body that could take licking like what I was used to. What I found out about it is that while it is the match for the 1DMk2, its files when down sized smooth out beautifully.

Enjoy them!

Steve Burns said...

Two things about them I've learned. Turn off automatic AF point expansion, and get either a split image or micro prism focus screen for them so you can use MF if you want, or need to.

s.e. miller said...

I agree with you about the 50mm f2.5 compact macro. I think it's the sharpest lens Canon makes and the best thing is that it's so cheap!


Archer Sully said...

That Austin Motel sign is the most phallic thing I've ever seen ;-).

I found a bunch of Fuji 100 Acros in a drawer the other day, and now I'm looking at really old cameras to shoot it with, something luggable as opposed to the Mamiya C33 sitting on the shelf. Something like a beat up Autocord, or even a Nettar. Who needs a stinkin' meter?

Mel said...

"But not much has changed since 2005 to create demand for these new powers." This quote from the piece nails it. Images are images, cameras are tools. We lose something when we get those confused.

I recently picked up an Olympus 300mm f/4.5 lens for the OM system and stuck it on my E-3, giving me a 600mm lens. Nice and sharp, focus is smooth and solid, colors are just like the Olympus palette. Kirk, you've sold me. Older gear is simply old, not obsolescent.


Ron said...

Great post, Kirk.

Somehow, we've adopted the mindset that a piece of photo gear suddenly performs poorly when a newer model comes out.

My stepson recently enlarged some photos he took with a 4MP point and shoot camera (16x20's) . It was an old camera I had replaced long ago, so I gave it to him. His photos look beautiful...a nice reminder that the gear is as good as the hands that use it.

Anonymous said...

You are an evil man. :-) Every camera you play with transcends its pedigree in the hands of a master. You've proven you can play a Stradivarius and a barnyard fiddle with equal mastery. I wish my cameras (the same models) worked as well as yours.

Anonymous said...

I am so out of date. When I saw 'retro' in the title I envisioned film. Then I remembered that now, with digital, retro applies to any camera introduced more than 6 months ago. (He said in a snarky sarcastic tone)

Ken Bennett said...

Thanks for this post -- saw the link on a friend's Facebook page.

I retired my 1D Mark II cameras last summer, after five years of heavy use. They look like they've been dragged behind a truck for a few laps, but they still work just fine. The original 1D Mark I was a great camera with only so-so files, in that they could look good with a lot of work. When the Mark II came out, the improvement in file quality was astounding -- I have plenty of big prints and 2-page magazine spreads from those cameras. They are fast, easy to shoot, and the image quality is very good. You will have a lot of fun with them.

However, when I got the new Mark IV, the improvements over a five year period are quite impressive. The files are larger, but not too large, and have a lot more room for saving a bad exposure (not that I would ever do that....heh.) I found the Mark II was terrific at ISO 800, and very usable at 1600. When I first got the Mark IV, I shot a major event at ISO 3200 and got a 2-page spread that looks fantastic! Dang, that is very cool. Yeah, a pair of them set my employer back $10,000, but over a five year period that isn't so bad.

kirk tuck said...

Ken, Thanks. I'm certainly having fun with them. Took em on assignment today and I'm very happy with the results. Most of the stuff we sot will run 3 by 3 inches in print and then on website. Still overkill. Wish my "boss" would buy me a 1D4........

Steve Burns said...

"Somehow, we've adopted the mindset that a piece of photo gear suddenly performs poorly when a newer model comes out."

Ron: Every time a new piece of gear come out I drool over it for a time. Then I listen to other's significant bitching about what ever its weak points may be on various forums.

The next thing that happens is that an even newer item comes along and many of my local camera store's "well healed" customers down the street from me jump boat to the newest stuff, unloading their "old" and barely used gear for consignment sales.

I from time to time cruse that store's shelfs for my working gear.

I picked up my 5D's for $1,300.00 each, all in new condition with under 3,000 exposures on each. My 1DsMk2 I bought the same way two years ago in new condition with a total of 90 exposures having been made on it for $3999.95!

I love it when new stuff comes out, and then the world has a chance to sort out all of its short comings. The bleeding edge of technology is not a place I need to be. I'm one happy camper here with my current gear.

Josh said...

"But the bottom line is that it's really just about showing up. Being where the pictures are. Capturing them in your style and with your taste and insight. These gear asides are fun because we can all talk somewhat objectively about stuff that can be measured. But really, using them is what's important."

That should be a blog post in itself. It's a tool. A means to an end. Too bad camera's aren't looked at that way.

Anonymous said...

Tuck could make art with a bucket and the bottom of a coke bottle. The only people who need really nice gear are the ones without any ideas in their heads.

Anonymous said...

I shoot a pair of 1D2's on a regular basis for nature work (mainly avian photography), and have for the last 3 years. I like the way you describe them as tankish but graceful. That's exactly how I see them as well. I think you'll like them even more if you take them out in some adverse conditions. I've had mine covered in ice, in heavy snow, out on the beach with blowing sand going everywhere, covered in sweat in the nasty Florida heat of the summer, and completely drenched when I got caught in an unexpected downpour 1 mile from any tangible shelter. They have some battle scars, but still clicking away. They are serious workhorse cameras.

I agree with Ken, though. The Mark IV's improvements over the Mark II's are drastic with a price tag to match. Eventually, when I can afford it, I will upgrade to a pair of Mark IV's, but for now, I'm still enjoying my Mark II's. They do everything I need and more. I hope you will enjoy yours too.