6.14.2011

Paean to an ancient camera. Kodak, please come back to us.

This is Missy.  I swim with her.  I also cast her in a series of photographs of athletes for Austin Sports Medicine.  This was shot back in 2003 or 2004.  It's one of my favorite advertising images for a number of reasons (not the least of which was quick payment by the client).  We were shooting on one of those obnoxiously bright days and we were in the middle of a little league baseball field.  I used a 3/4 stop silk on a frame just over the top of Missy to cut the direct light of the Summer sun.  You can see one of her knuckles sticking out into the sunlight but miraculously still holding detail!!!!  I used a small white reflector near the camera to pop just a little front fill onto Missy.  The way the camera handled the giant range between the sun drenched clay field, the tree line and the sky is amazing.  And the other amazing thing is that this image (and other from the same shoot) was blown up and used on posters and looked sharp and rich.

It was shot on the Kodak DCS 760, a six megapixel camera.  I used the Nikon 80-200 2.8 zoom lens.  And, importantly, I used the camera with only the UV filter in place, not the optional anti-aliasing filter. And I think that had a lot to do with the detail the file yielded.

Would my Canon 5D Mk2 do as well?  From a resolution point of view?  Yes.  Probably much better.  But from a tonality and rich color point of view?  Maybe yes.  Maybe no.

For a while this was my favorite camera.  And then I got lured away by the Nikon D2x and the promise of high sharpness and higher resolution.  Silly me.

This image was shot at the Austin Kipp School and used in an annual report for the school.  It was lit by one large softbox (54 by 72 inches) using a one Profoto Monolight and placed just out of the frame.  There is no fill.  I used the light in such a way that it mimicked the light coming into the window and across the white board behind.  A month later I went to a luncheon honoring the school's donors.  They decided to take all of the images I'd shot for the annual report and blow them up into four foot by six foot posters.  Austin Photo Images took 16 bit raw files I made for them (unsharpened) and made LightJet prints.  I almost fell over when I saw them at the luncheon venue.  I hadn't tried printing many of the early digital images much larger than 12 by 18 inches and had no idea that, in the right hands, they could be blown up so large and retain so much detail.  And with so little noise!

The camera?  Once again it was the Kodak DCS 760.  And again, the 80-200mm Nikon zoom.

I had occasion in the same year to do big enlargements with the Nikon D2x and, to be honest, the results were not nearly as good.  There was more pixelation, less sharpness.

You would think I would have trusted this camera and continued using it but there was the almost universal drum beat consensus that all digital cameras should be able to handle high ISO settings without noise and with more grace.  The DCS 760 was beautiful at ISO 80 and 100 but beyond that it generated enough blue channel noise to make your eyes go crazy.  And it was impossible to really remediate with Noise Ninja or its competitors.  A succession of cameras followed.  All worked okay but none really made such a convincing and robust file.  To be fair,  I did shoot them at ISO like 200 (a must on Nikons) and even up to 1600 on a Fuji S5, and while the noise was better.......well.....maybe it was a nostalgia for the early days......

At any rate, as I collected more and more cameras whose files were easier to process, whose batteries lasted days or weeks longer than the Kodak batteries, whose LCD screens were actually usable, the Kodak(s) ended up in a drawer in the gear cabinet, unused.

I thought about getting rid of them lately and I pulled them out of the drawer and fired them up.  The ancient NiMh batteries spit out ten or fifteen frames before dying.  I couldn't sell them to anyone like that.  So I hit Amazon.com and started looking for replacement batteries.  What once cost $125 each was now replaceable for around $30.  I bought a couple batteries thinking they would help me find a willing buyer for the whole package.  Then I made the mistake of putting a CF card in the adapter that fit into the PCMCIA slots that were part of the camera's "early days" design.

And I went for a walk around town.  Actually, I started in our kitchen and shot the plates in a drying rack.  And then I moved to downtown.  I couldn't tell what I was getting during the day because of the dismal screen but when I came home and processed them I was amazed at how different the files look that those I get from my Canons or those I got from my Nikons.  The color was richer without being overly saturated.  And the tonality was amazing.  Very long tones.  Very smooth transitions.

A gracefulness that belies the ancient technology.

I'm putting the camera back into service in the studio.  I'm using it to shoot portraits.  Not with little battery powered units but with big Elinchrom monolights pumping photons through giant Octabanks and layers of diffusion.  I love the style and the look and I'll be showcasing some of the portraits here. 

While some technical factors work to obsolete some technologies I think we just didn't understand how advanced Kodak's grasp of imaging technology was and how well it was informed by over a century of making film.  I wish they would re-enter the market with their sensors and their electronic pathways.  It would give us more choices, and perhaps better ones than we have at hand right now.  Wouldn't it be cool if you could choose which sensors you wanted in the camera body you wanted?

I'd love a Kodak sensor (like the one in the Leica M9) planted right in the middle of a Canon 1dMk4 body.  That would rock.

Kodak DCS 760 with Nikon 50mm 1.1.2 Lens.

Luddite thinking?  Not hardly.  I've used and owned newer cameras.  At some point you need to acknowledge that for some steps forward there can always be a few steps back to accomodate the changing tastes of the market.  We've talked about wanting dynamic range and long tonal range for years.  Now if we could just wean ourselves off the megapixel buffet table........

17 comments:

Fábio @ GearOracle.com said...

There was something magical about the lack of anti-aliasing filters and the lower resolution. I've never used one of those Kodaks or the 14n, but my Nikon D70 produced beautiful images with any lens I've used in it. It was also much more forgiving to my own errors. As cameras progressed and resolution increased, I keep finding faults on every glass that I own. Maybe this is why the full frame Nikon D700 is so highly regarded: less pixel density, but better quality per pixel than most cameras.

Eduardo said...

I have been tempted to get a Kodak DSC-14N pro by reading your blog entries about those cameras, there are still vendors who will sell you off brand batteries for them

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm :)

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Yup. A modernized Olympus E-1, with a sensor of the Leica M9, making use of just 4/3rds of the available space. I'd jump from my E-520 I guess...

Jeff G. Rottman said...

Kirk, ever used a Kodak DSC-14/c (Canon mount)? I have lots of Canon lenses and would like to get that fine Kodak color and imaging. Do you think that body would yield equivalent images to the Nikon mount Kodak bodies?

Sean Muphy said...

"Bigga" pixels not "mega" pixels!

kirk tuck said...

Sean. You got that right.

Jeff, no experience with the Canon version but I think the chip is supposed to be the same.

Rick Dickinson said...

There's just something magical about those Kodak sensors. The Olympus E-1 is another magical camera with a Kodak sensor, and you'll never get me to give mine up!

Bruce Bodine said...

Second the E-1! Never giving it up and the zuiko glass is not bad either.

Jeff G. Rottman said...

Yea, I now have 2 Oly E1's. They are great!

kirk tuck said...

I still have an Olympus e-1 as well. Wonderful cameras. Really wonderful. Olympus went off the rails when they changed sensor suppliers...

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Would love to try one, and to take and see comparison shots between the E-1 and my E-520. Not studio walls and resolution charts, but real world photos...

Ronald said...

I have an E-1, and E-510 and E-600 and a Lumix GH2. That old E-1 can still hold it's own against the the new kids on the block. The GH1 comes closest to that E-1 "look" in regards to tonality, and out does it in detail/resolution, but there's something about those E-1 files that are really special.

It's my favorite camera to use on cloudy days, because the RAW files do such a wonderful job picking up the subtly of tones and colors when good light is scarce.

Put an Olympus 14-54mm zoom on front of that E-1, and it's match made in heaven.

I'd love to see Olympus (or anyone else) give us an option to use Kodak sensors again.

Low Budget Dave said...

Good article. You also gave us good examples of why we don't need to run out and buy the newest camera to take great pictures.

I would always be glad to read your comments on older cameras.

granitix said...

I loved the E500's 8Mpixel 4:3 sensor that I'd heard came from Kodak. I had hoped to see it in an IS body - but alas, Olympus IS arrived as that sensor departed, replaced by a liveMos chip whose DR sent me elsewhere. Kodak knows how to make great sensors, and they're a 4:3 member - where o where, Kodak?

Dave Elfering Photography said...

I kind of feel that way about the D40. Great, accurate color and when paired with the little Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 it's a magical little combo. Heck it even does a reasonable job of IR and I love this little camera.

jason said...

FWIW i bought a small Kodak digicam on a street sale.The monitor screen appeared at best monochrome! The images shot over a long afternoon emptied into my drive in a flash. Thought small JPEGS.Yeah right. Each one 3.5MP. The result on the monitor of my computer were like"what the hell!" Sharpness, beautiful color, long tonality. There is a fly in the ointment. 100 ISO that's it.
Sometimes magenta cast(non-removable) due to Infra-red light.My guess. $5 to Cancer Research.
Kodak will NOT tell you which cameras have the Rochester sensor.(None of YOUR business reply)

Erie Patsellis said...

Kirk,
Having an SLR/n, I'd have to agree with you, there's just "something magical" about the images the Kodaks produce.