Out for a walk with an old friend. Raiding the camera orphanage and a lens from the far past.

Waiting for the bus on S. Lamar.

I've been mulling over the purchase of a Sony a99. I'm reasonably sure that it's a wonderful camera and would work well in my business and in my new hobby of making short movies. But for some reason I just haven't been able to snow myself with enough rationalizations to pull the trigger. Maybe it's the imminent cost of paying for Ben's college education that's slowing me down but maybe it's also a process of trying to figure out what the camera will really buy me in terms of improved performance. The first a99 rationale that perked up was the need for the full frame. And I pondered that after having owned, used and subsequently sold off both Canon and Nikon full frame cameras in the last couple of years. 

The devilish lure of the full frame argument came wafting through like the Sirens' song and for a while I felt an unnerving desire to get into my car and drive closer to Precision Camera. But I slowed down and decided to do a few experiments before my usual frantic lunge for whatever is new and shiny. I actually started going back and looking at the work I'd done with the Sony a77 and the Nex 7 and I really liked what I was seeing. No big, glaring hole in the fabric of my imaging universe that needed to be filled lest we trip and fall into a different and dangerous dimension. In fact, my little foray into recent files made me long for yet another Nex 7 just to keep on the shelf, in its box, in case it disappears from the market and I'm never able to get another new one..... (down that path lies madness).

As part of my exploration into the vagaries of desire I started looking through the equipment cabinets, affectionately named, the camera orphanage, and started thinking about how we got down the road to this point.  That's when I saw my old friend. A scion of the second full frame camera family to hit the market. The Kodak DCS SLR/n. (The first being the Contax 6 megapixel full frame camera. Legend has it that only four hundred were made). 

The Kodak SLR/n is enigmatic and wrongly maligned. It came onto the market at a critical time in the evolution of professional digital cameras and was killed by unskilled marketing at its worst.

The DCS SLR/n was proceeded to market by the Kodak DCS 14n. That was a challenging camera. It had no real power management which meant short battery life. The sensor was noisy and prone to color shifts from magenta to green from side to side but at it's nominal ISO it was very sharp and could make very nice images. The Kodak SLR/n was a vastly improved camera with a new sensor, good noise characteristics at 160 to 400 and no real issues. But it was not a sport or event camera. It should have been marketed at studio photographers, fine art photographers and portrait photographers. It excelled at portrait work in the right hands.

At any rate it was a victim of the march of materialism. When a better camera came to market in the full frame sensor catalog at Nikon I jumped and bought a D700. But what is better? The D700 was good but the Kodak was sharper. The D700 handled better and was much, much faster but I never liked the color palette. The D700 was much, much, much better at making files at high ISOs and combatting the intrusion of noise but most of the portrait work I did with both cameras was created with the aid of powerful strobes. I could have worked at just about any ISO.

In the end it was really all about the screen on the back of each camera and the annoying propensity of the Kodak to stop in the middle of a shoot and recalibrate itself for 10 seconds or so that convinced me to put it into a bottom drawer, along with its battery charger and four batteries and let it rest next to the Kodak DSC 760 which it had all but replaced. Until the day before Thanksgiving 2012.

This is what a digital camera file looks like when it gets corrupted writing to a memory card. In the old days (around the time of the DCS SLR/n) this used to happen to many camera and card combinations and was random enough to drive photographers crazy.

Mired in my indecision about whether or not to throw more resources into the ongoing battle for good images (when I and my clients are already very satisfied with my current imaging production) I decided to revisit the Kodak and see whether full frame shooting is what's missing from my quiver of imaging arrows.  I didn't remember the camera being so big! It's rock solid and substantial. For those unfamiliar with the SLR/n it is a full frame camera with a 14 megapixel sensor. It was the first digital camera made with no option to use and anti-aliasing filter of the the sensor. Because of this exclusion it is much sharper than its 14 megapixels would imply, in the same way that the sensor in the Leica M9 is sharper than its 18 megapixels would lead one to believe.

The SLR/n was made to take Nikon lenses. Sadly, I've sold off all of mine save for a nifty fifty, some older, manual focus lenses and a macro lens. I made my way over to Precision Camera and went straight to the used cases. I was directly attracted to an ancient zoom lens, the 70 to 210 AF-D f4-5.6.  Even though the lens is an early D lens from the early 1990's it looked as though it just came out of a box, brand new. I paid $115 for it and headed back out into the world of potential iamges. I did a little research when I got back to the studio and discovered that I'd done well. The lens has a cult following and is widely reviewed as "wicked sharp." It is the first zoom lens I've seen in a long time with a push/pull zoom instead of having a ring to turn. Very cool. Very different.

So, yesterday I ventured out to better understand the lure of full frame and, more importantly, why I had originally abandoned the Kodak DCS SLR/n for cameras whose color, contrast and rendering I liked less. And these are the images I took.

I've come to understand that many of my images will never be used larger than the screen so I've been shooting and processing smaller. The Kodak camera has the ability to write RAW files as either fourteen, six or three megapixel files. I chose to shoot all of these as six megapixel files.

The camera is quirky. It likes to recalibrate itself when the temperature changes. It's finicky about memory cards and sometimes hesitates to write files until prodded. Sometimes it just stops and calls the cards, "defective!" But turning the camera off and turning it on generally makes the problem go away; at least temporarily.  The screen is a scant two inches and not very visible in any sort of strong, ambient light. But the buffer is fairly deep (offset by painfully slow processing and write times) and the meter is dead accurate nearly all the time. The RAW files are 12 bit instead of 14 bit. But none of that really matters.

The bottom line is that the files are more film like (in a good way) than any other digital camera I have used. And in my mind that's the ultimate plus.

The 70-210 Nikon was wonderful to use. Its small size and high sharpness makes me wonder why the majority of shooters punish themselves with the enormous, and enormously expensive, 2.8 zoom lenses.  Yes, I understand the need to shoot wide open in dark conditions but so much imaging is done on nice days, in bright sun. If you shoot Nikon and you like the idea of a 70-210mm that's bite sized and around $100-$150 you might want to search one of these out. It's pretty delicious.

I moved through Austin in the late afternoon unaided by niceties like image stabilization and sensor shaking dust defeaters and I was able to muddle through. In most images with blue sky I thought the images even trumped the famous Olympus blues. I'm confident that the camera is sharper (but not as detailed) than the Canon 5D mk2 that I used for a year. In short, it's competitive in the fields for which I use cameras. And then some.

Ultimately I could of course see the aesthetic advantage of the full frame in the way the image's fields of focus are rendered. That's a given. But in all other regards it's the more subtle aspects that make the Kodak different from what's in the market today.  And maybe those differences are what I like very much about it.

The camera seemed to sense that this day in downtown was a re-audition because it was so well behaved. I worked with only one battery for the entire afternoon though I had two in my pocket, just in case. The card mishaps were fleeting and the focus, exposure and other operations of the camera came back to me quickly. In fact, other than file size and few other parameters there are very few things to set. The selection menus are quite limited with the presumption that you'll do your heavy lifting in the raw conversions.  And make no mistake, because of the slow speed at which the camera writes Jpeg files, this is a raw-only device. The camera is relatively quiet and has a very effectively dampened shutter. I'm pulling some friends into the studio to see if the camera is as good as I remember it to be.  Here's a portrait sample from years ago:

This image was done with a tungsten light source and an older, one hundred and thirty-five millimeter, manual focus lens.

The convenience and modern touches of the Sony cameras I currently use will probably overwhelm the aesthetic preference I seem to have for the Kodak in my everyday work but the camera is most tempting for images that I want to look different from the mainstream. Essentially the Kodak has what I can only describe as an authentically American palette of tones and colors. And it's one I'm acculturated to like because of my years and years of shooting Kodak film. People raised in photography after the uprising of digital probably won't have the same prejudices about color and tonal presentation. I see it especially in portraits and images with various skin tones.

Now I really want to see how the camera works with LED lighting. Will its auto white balance live up to the challenge or will I toil away in RAW trying to make it all work? We'll know soon.

Are modern digital cameras better? The answer is "yes" if what is important to you in an "all terrain" device that's easy to use. Faster to focus, more adaptable to low light levels and so on. The answer is not so obvious if your parameters are less about operation and more about the actual look of the files. It's almost the same argument I would make in regards to shooting medium format film versus shooting state of the art (affordable) digital. While a Nikon D800 might resolve more details and give one a much wider technical dynamic range is there something missing from the recipe that makes it different and in some ways inferior to an image done on the best kinds of color negative films? I'd say yes. And I would argue that it's about non-linear characteristic curves, the unpredictable action of chemicals and silver particles and the random distribution of grain. I'd also say that it just looks different.

Most digital cameras now seem to be designed to measure well and be accurate as opposed to be pleasing or mellow or to have any flavor at all. I would say that one of the big advantages of the Olympus cameras is now and has been (since their first foray into digital) the almost romantic color palette and tonal rendering of the images. The engineers have found a tweak for the blue rendering that resonates with users. The highlights always seem to be more "protected" than other digital cameras. In the same way the Kodaks have always seemed much more film-like than anything else on the market. And why not? Kodak always understood that "pleasing" is easier to sell and more important to most end users than "accurate." It's just human nature.

Many (most) audiophiles will tell you that analog recordings and very high bit digital recordings always sound better than MP3 files. Everything works but everything works differently. I wish we had more choices in digital photography. The measurability of sensor output seems to be moving every company closer and closer to a monopoly color rendering in which all cameras have the same thumbprint. Yes, we can change the surface attributes in post processing but the underlying DNA has its own influence and momentum. Just my opinion. God knows I've owned enough different cameras to form one..

In the end all of the camera we use to do our work function pretty well. It's a luxury to dissect the nuances. 

Look at the aliasing in the bottom windows. Exacerbated by the smaller file size...

But the thing I come away with from all this is that the last eight years of technology in digital cameras has been aimed more at convenience and technical extension that in sheer, unalloyed pursuit of beautiful files. And that should be a comfort to those immune from being dashed on the rocks of materialism and peer pressure. You can do good work with a good camera = even if it was made 8 years ago. And some lenses from twenty years ago can still hold their own in the age of plastic craziness. Don't write off the old tech too quickly, everything is a trade-off.

What did I finally decide about the a99? Will I rush out and spend yet another $2700? Where will it stop?  What I found out was that of all my cameras the one that can make sharp and contrasty files with color I like, after the Kodak, is the Nex 7. I'm thinking I'll just slowly transition the bulk of my shooting gear in that direction and keep the a77's around for the telephoto heavy lifting. Makes sense. Find a camera you love and stay with it....

And, as the sun sunk over the hill country I walked back across the river and rejoined the studio car. I walked into the house as the last glow of twilight ebbed away.

If you are up for some holiday shopping please consider using the link to Amazon here on the VSL site. It helps keep me in coffee and by extension, in front of the word processor. If you like what you read here every little purchase helps. Or, you can save up and buy the novel. Coming soon.

Also, take a look at the LED book. I think it's a technology that's here to stay and I think the book is a great primer.  See the link below.  Thanks. 


atmtx said...

There seems to be a mellow-ness and depth to the Kodak images. That green wall looks so different. I love that golden glow. I've never seem that in any of my digital cameras.

Michael Matthews said...

Mull no more. VG900 now shipping, as of 11/21.

waardij said...

Hi Kirk,

This is probably not what you want to hear, from someone who has bought the a99 a few weeks ago. I also have an a900 and a nex-7. I like the nex a lot and have made wonderful pictures with it. there where several reasons for me to look at the a99, part was having great lenses for it, but not liking the optical view finder of the a900 much anymore. I bought the a99 for the interface, the evf, the way the lcd can be moved in every direction. A sort of a combination of the lv experience of the nex-7 and the better optics for the a900. Once I had it, I found out that the files are great. A bit like those out of the 7, but even better. All the technical aspects are there, resolution, dynamic range, color separation, but there is more. There is a quality I find hard to define. The files are very believable. And they look very film like, large format film like (if you do not overdo print size, but they look great at 20x30(inch)). If I where you I would try to borrow one, to have a look. and put a really good lens on it, like the CZ24-70. Or perhaps the 100mm macro (possibly more your length).
I came from the D2x to the a900. That was from 12Mp aps-c to 24Mp full frame. And somehow the step from the a900 to the a99 feels bigger than that previous step. And I am not even using high iso (not much anyway). mostly iso 50 on a tripod.

all the best,

Hans van Driest

ps. I really like your site. great portrait's. like your take on camera's.

Peter said...

Interesting to hear about your 70-210. I got a very well kept version of one of these recently (and can echo your thoughts about it – very compact and very capable). I got it because I needed something that would play nice, i.e. not a Nikon G type, with my Nikon FM3a. The files from that are definitely very film like! (Could even be a contender for best ever camera!)

Libby said...

Still use my SLR/n. Nothing like it, even among cameras today. And the bonus is if I go out in winter and run about a dozen consecutive frames, my hands get warm from the camera heating up ;-)

With the right raw converter, the shadow blacks and color tones are still nothing short of breathtaking. Not all raw converters play nice with the camera. And I heard the old Kodak Photodesk does not want to run on Win 8. I still use the old Photodesk for portraits from time to time. My best wedding pics with this camera were all run through Photodesk.

Kirk Tuck said...

I think, based on the files I shot yesterday, that the 70-210mm f4-5.6 Nikon AFD is a great lens. I think a lot of the slower zooms have performance at their wide open apertures and smaller that rival or exceed the faster versions. The only downside is the slower aperture but then with all the cameras that seem to shoot at 200,000 ISO I can't see that it's much of a downside...

Bat54 said...

A bit off topic, but I see your "studio car" is a CRV. How's it working out compared to your Element? Been thinking about a CRV for awhile now, but don't know anyone who has one

Kirk Tuck said...

There's a bit less space in the back vis-a-vis the Element but the back seats fold down nicely and I can put nearly as much stuff inside. The upside is that it drives much more like a nice car and much less like a small truck. The interior finish is much nicer. And the gas mileage is in a whole different realm. On the highway the Element averaged 24 mpg. I just did a long trip to Abilene and the overall trip, including driving around town, was 34 mpg. I like it a lot.

AlexG said...

I am frequently tempted by the Kodaks but the Fuji S3 gets more usage than others, its slow with a mighty 3 frame buffer and then wait for a file to write (seconds). The files from her just please me so much. It lives with a prime on it 99% of the time a 35mm or 50mm. Newer cameras may be slicker to operate but sometimes that quirkiness of older models offer a lot of pleasure and its always good to have a different rendition.

Carlo Santin said...

Almost all of the new digital cameras are wonderful and you can't go wrong with whatever you choose...but...I think there is some sleight of hand at work here as well. The cameras focus faster, they have more megapixels and features, loads of bells and whistles...really more than a photographer would ever need, and the photos themselves do not look any better really. With nice glass on it, my ancient 6mp Nikon D50 still surprises me with the images it gives me. I've made large prints (I consider large to be a 20x30 inch print)from the files and they look great, though I tend to stick to 11x14 or 13x19 or thereabouts. My Olympus EP-2 also gives me really nice images that print very well also. Those two cameras pretty much fulfill all of my needs as a hobbyist or enthusiast, whatever the term is for what I do with my cameras, and they are fairly well built so I anticipate using them for a good while still. Lenses, on the other hand, are like potato chips and peanuts in the shell, it isn't right to stop at just a couple. So many beautiful lenses, so little money.

Dave Jenkins said...

Rich, rich colors.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Dave. They seem to have more "base" or stronger foundation than more recent digital files. Don't know how to describe it but they seem denser.

Frank Grygier said...

Sometimes you just need to scratch the itch

Douglas Chadwick said...

I am always surprised at your interest in the a99. I was out shooting today with my NEX-7 and as much as I like it, the electronic VF is quite a challenge. Oh the exposure pre-viewing is nice and I use the peaking and two-push enlargement for focusing, but when I go back to my D700 I can once again see what I am shooting, and I can focus right there on the groundglass (or whatever it is) a huge improvement to my eyes.
Of course I focus and set the exposure manually so perhaps my shooting style is just too different to be relevant. And I shoot a lot of film, color neg, often on the same subjects, I find the D700 acquits itself well enough there, though I am comparing the digital to contact prints from film so there is always a difference in quality.
Doug Chadwick

Kirk Tuck said...

Frank, does this mean you've pulled the trigger on an a99? Just curious...

Kirk Tuck said...

Douglas, I guess it's very subjective because I always disliked my D700. Maybe more than any other camera. That said, it certainly generated nice images.

Noons said...

Wow, the 70-210 af-d Nikkor! One of my preferred all time "bokeh machines".
And something I discovered recently: with a step-down 62-52 ring and a reverse ring in the front, it works a treat with any of the 52mm filter-size Nikkors for variable true macro shooting with a m4/3 camera! I particularly like the 105/2.5 for mild mag, and the 28/f2 for much higher. One of the amazing things of this combo is that vignetting is non-existing. While with most other reversed lens combos it is a true problem.

Doug Chadwick said...

You dislike the the D700'finder and prefer the Sony's EV?

Corwin said...

Fuji has something similar to Kodak. They both have own color palette. S3, S5 even today X-Pro 1 and X-E 1 have Fuji colors. And its pretty good colors.

Corwin said...

Its because not only Kodak created own CFA, but they even tuned sensor response towards certain wavelengths of light they wanted. My guess is they somehow tried to mimic response of their film emulsions. Quite successfully I would say..

Corwin said...

Sony is 100% coverage and bright at any light, you see what you get (if you dont tweak JPEGs for better DR in EVF). And its pretty big, like small room in camera.

D700 OVF is quite big, but not that much. Its actually suprisingly dark even with fast lens (well compared to 1DsMK3 or A900, I know not entirely fair). And in low light, you can pretty much just hope. Plus its 95% coverage I think, it doesnt matter much, but frankly if you like to compose just by using viewfinder, then EVF is much better as its always exactly what you get.

Im not EVF guy or OVF guy. I like both, but frankly Im sometimes bit "angry" when I see beautiful image in OVF which I know my camera wont be able to capture no matter how much right I will do that pic and how much PS massage I will give it. Ofc when you loose fast action shot due EVF, you wont be happy either. :D

Its always compromise, but I think in not so distant future, OVFs will be more compromise than EVFs.

Corwin said...

Just out of curiosity, did you ever have that digital Contax N?

Btw. in case you find somewhere some C/Y lens or some Leica R and accidently Leitax them to Nikon F mount. Dont try them on Kodak SLR/n .. you might never stop shooting with it. :D

Frank Grygier said...

I am oh so close!

Doug Chadwick said...

And the high contrast, blocked shadows and low resolution don't bother you? I tend to focus manually and the EV makes this quite a bit harder, even with peaking and magnification.
In general I just don't find enough visual information in the EVF to satisfy me, but I still love the NEX-7 and carry it around much more than the full-frame DSLR.