My old camera can beat your new camera. I think. Maybe.

Back in 2005 I bought a Kodak SLR/n which, until the arrival of the Nikon V1, was the most villified DSLR camera ever introduced into the market (except for its predecessor...).  This was a camera with issues.  If you aren't familiar with it go back to DPReview and read the review of the Nikon version's Canon sibling here: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/kodakslrc.  What you'll find is a flawed but somewhat brilliant camera for the times.  It was the direct descendant of the first full frame digital camera on the market, the Kodak 14N.  In 2004 the SLR/n delivered 14 megapixels of big pixel, full frame files and it did so for about $3,000 cheaper than the Canon 1DS that followed it onto the market.

The issue is that photographers aren't engineers.  In the film camera days you could press a camera into service to do just about anything.  But the Kodak engineers were building a camera that worked very well in circumscribed situations.  It was a great portrait camera with lots and lots of RAW file headroom.  And that translated directly into big time dynamic range for the time.  But the parameter that endeared it to me (and you'll notice it's one of the few cameras in my studio that hasn't been upgraded, traded away or resold over the years) is the fact that the sensor did NOT have an anti-aliasing filter over the top.  That means a great impression of sharpness all the way around.  In fact,  at ISO 160, in a head to head comparison with the Canon 5D mk2 at 21 megapixels I think you'd give the nod to the Kodak as far as impressions of overall sharpness go.

So why didn't it sweep the market?  Well, in the hands of studio portrait photographers who could control light and lenses, it was a hit.  But Kodak marketed it as an "all arounder"  and that's where the SLR/n hit the wall.  It was pretty well controlled for noise up to about 320 ISO but over 400 ISO and it fell to pieces.  It would take six to eight seconds to start up and, as the temperature changed, it would stop to recalibrate its electronics.  Kinda of a "turn off" when you are building up to that shooting crescendo....

The whole machine was based on parts from a less expensive Nikon camera body and the finder wasn't great.  But man, could it knock them out of the ballpark when it was working in the narrow constraints that described its strengths.  I routinely used (and should still be using) its special, low ISO menus.  Choose ISO 12, 25 and 50 and the camera turns into a detail machine.  The longer exposures let the camera do iterative exposures which are then binned and sampled and in camera crafted into noise free, high quality files.  I've done 40 by 60 prints of product for clients that brought tears to my eyes and those of the lab manager who printed them our for us on a Lightjet printer.

But as a low light, wedding/photojournalists/art camera in chancy available light.....it sucked.

The files it kicks out in RAW are true 14 bit.  They are also 4,500 by 3,000 pixels.  And none of the pixels sees the image thru a blurring filter.  If you shoot at the lower speeds or at 160 ISO I think you'd find the camera keeps up with the 18 to 21 megapixel wonder cameras of the moment.  And it does so with lots of dynamic range, its own very desirable color balance and palette and an edge acutance that most camera makers would kill for.  
I hadn't used it in over a year but I felt like taking a long walk all by myself today and just doing something different.  No small cameras with small sensors today.  No film today.  No agenda today.  I plastered a Nikon 50mm 1.8D onto the front, set the camera the way I like it and hit the long route through downtown.  Walking and looking and not feeling compelled to shoot too much.  But little by little I came to remember what I liked about this camera.  I did a quick shot of a leaf on a fence with the sun behind it.  And when I got back to the studio and looked at it at 100 % I was happy.  So I made a 100% crop to show off the structure of the leaf and the detail of the edges.

I have stack of batteries for the camera and I charged them all.  I find that digital cameras really need to have a battery attached to them at least once a month and I'd been negligent by about 11 months.  The attached battery allows the camera to suckle over time and keep small capacitors formed.  I'm sure it helps maintain other electronic needs as well.  For the first hour or so the camera was antsy.  It would give me random "card corruption" messages and tell me that a file couldn't be written.  But like a spirited horse it eventually took to the bit and calmed down.  By the end of my walk it stopped giving me messages and was writing every file to memory.  I've decided to pull out the A/C adapter and put the camera onto the adapter once a month (at least) over night.  I'm hoping that keeps it happy.

I spent the late afternoon just soaking up the newly re-emergent sunlight and spinning an ancient Nikon circular polarizing filter in front of the lens.  The files that emerged in ACR were wonderful right off the card.  Very punchy with solid highlight structure and lots of sharpness snap.  The colors need a bit of nursing but that seems to be endemic with all older digital cameras.

I'm convinced that the files (at ISO 160) are just a bit better and sharper than the files I get out of my recently (Canon) overhauled 1DS mk2.  And nearly as detailed as those from the Canon 5D mk2.  Not a bad performance out of a camera that basically died of marketing neglect and was sabotaged by reviews aimed at the great general marketplace.  Like just about anything else some of the coolest performances necessitate the greatest practice and skill.  

We all love the newest and greatest stuff to shoot with but I'm convinced that for studio portraits the Kodak is just about where most of us want to be.  Long tonal scale, great bit depth and wonderfully rich colors.  Just be sure you have some substantial lighting and tripod support standing by to take advantage of the strong points and to ameliorate the weak ones.  

I came back home as the light faded in the west.  The afterglow was beautiful today.  I chauffeured the child somewhere and headed back to the studio to look at what I'd shot.  Wish I had two of these cameras, in perfect condition, because I'd love to use them to make artful portraits.  As it is I ordered yet another battery so I could be sure of at least having the camera functional for another year or so.  If it finally gives up the ghost I do believe I'll have some sort of ceremony for it.  It was, after all, my first full frame digital camera.