Ben and the Leaf A7i Digital Camera.
Thursday, last week, was a lot of fun for me. I had nothing pressing to do. The hoopla of Independence Day was past. I had signed up to photograph the kid's programs at long time client, Zach Theatre, and I was ready for a day spent playing with two cameras, three lenses and no shot list, no minute by minute schedules.
I clipped my official, silver colored Zach name badge onto my shirt pocket, picked up a magnetic key card and spent the day walking between the theater's three stages, two rehearsal halls and two temporary classrooms. I was aiming to get a representative sampling of the program's participants; kids from five years old to high school age, and I was looking for a nice mix of activities; from acting to dancing to playful improvisation.
The theater will use the images to promote their programs and recruit students from across every neighborhood in Austin.
I started in the biggest rehearsal hall where the kids were learning the basics of ballet and where the theater had set up about forty feet of portable ballet bars against which to practice the various dance positions. Since the kid weren't moving fast here it was a great place to concentrate on tighter compositions of individual kids concentrating on their poses and showing off a bit of innate physical grace. I started off shooting with an 85mm 1.8 lens but I felt like I had to get too close to get the tight compositions I wanted and my proximity seemed to invasive. I then opted for the 70-300mm VR and it allowed me to comp as tightly as I wanted without being right in the mix.
That lens, the 70-300mm afs ED VR has gotten mixed reviews over time. When it was first introduced reviewers like Thom Hogan called it, "Highly recommended." Other reviews claimed it to be very, very sharp at every f-stop up to and past the 300mm mark, giving up only a bit of sharpness as one neared the maximum 300mm. Over time, as the fashion of "no holds barred" everything must be the best in the universe took over the photo universe a new mythology started to take hold in which the 70-300mm lens was "okay" but "not in the ballpark" with the $3,000 Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AE-P etc. lens. It seemed as though someone reached in and threw a switch which turned a good lens bad just because much pricier lenses could perform better at the edges of the use envelope.
At first, because of the revisionist reviews, I was reticent to use the lens at its longer settings but as I started shooting I started ignoring all the written metrics and started just enjoying the reach and the scope of the lens in my hands. Ditto with camera noise. Soon I was routinely pegging the lens over to 300mm and shooting it with reckless abandon; handheld. The light in the hall dictated that I abandon fear of image noise and head right into ISO 6400 territory with both my D700 and my D800e cameras. After reading the hysterics on the web I was almost certain that I'd spend hours doctoring files peppered with chroma noise but I was happy this isn't what happened.
The beauty of a lens you can use at 200, 250 or even 300mm is the ability to compress images in interesting ways and to also pull out individual subjects by rendering them in sharp focus while dropping the objects around them nicely out of focus.
The 85mm was great for closer, tighter spaces. But I never felt the need to go wider than 70mm during my day of photography.
With the Nikon D800e I felt comfortable using the auto WB even though I was shooting medium sized fine Jpegs with that body. I could tell from spot checking the rear panel with a Hoodman loupe that they color was quite usable. The D700 isn't quite as good at nailing auto WB in hard mixed light situations so in those venues, when using the D700, I made custom white balance settings by doing a preset from a Lastolite white balance target.
I think the secret of working with kids of all ages is to always have a sincere smile on your face, to be calm and relaxed at all times and to not care too much about making every shot work. It's truly a situation in which the mode and affect you convey are more important than worrying the technical stuff too much. A vibe of being overly concerned with nuts and bolts is contagious and it makes the kids feel like like being photographed isn't as much fun as they otherwise thought. Being mellow and ready to move on if something isn't working perfectly is the preferred method. Things fall apart and re-group all day long. If you didn't nail that perfect expression at 10:15 am so other kiddo will give you and even better expression to try and capture five minutes later.
I used to work with a small camera bag but I used my small, Amazon Basics, photo backpack instead. I'm using some heavier, traditional cameras these days and along with the full frame sensor size comes bigger, heavier lenses. The backpack makes for balanced portage as, as the day went on and I used the 70-300mm more and more I found myself dipping into the backpack for stuff less and less often.
At the end of the day I had captured about 1200 images. I narrowed the take down to 600 and sent them along to the theater. The marketing director was very happy and had an immediate use for three of the photos. The catalog will serve the theater for at least a year or so and give the marketing team a nice folder of images for fast breaking project.
The business adopts a second D700.
It's embarrassing but I have to admit that I've loved using the first D700 I bought, on a lark, a few months ago. I owned one years ago when they first hit the market but I guess I wasn't ready for it back then. Now, after having been through so many systems, the old school nature of the D700 has much more appeal to me know. It's so much more a match to the old film based systems I worked on in the early days of my photography. The D700 is heavy but so solid. And while I own two cameras that are 36+ megapixels each I've come to understand that a great looking 12 megapixel file can also be a very good thing.
On Friday I took a walk and made some images with the D700. When I examined them in detail I liked what I saw very much. The huge pixel pitch and the enormous size of the pixels gives a different look than files from cameras with much higher pixel density and smaller pixels. I can't explain it technically but the difference seems apparent to me. The files feel tighter and the edges sharper.
The interesting thing for me was comparing similar files taken in crappy light on Thurs. While it's obvious on a 27 inch screen that the D800e files have more resolution it's not the astounding difference most would expect when they hear that one camera has THREE TIMES the number of pixel more than another camera. While it's true you can blow up the files from a 36 megapixel camera to larger sizes you really have to look at linear pixels to understand that you're getting slightly less than twice as big a file if you just compute the number of pixels on the long side of the rectangles.
The reality is that a 12 megapixel files makes a perfect 10 by 15 inch print at about 300 dpi. Can you go bigger on a print? Oh heck yes. Even on my older Kodak DCS 760 (Six megapixels) I was able to have prints made as large as 30 by 40 inches that looked great at appropriate viewing distances. But cameras are so much more than just the sum of their resolution. For anything we're looking at on a Retina screen that's 27 inches across, our 6 megapixel cameras were the tipping point of sufficiency and 12 megapixels is generous. Bigger than that and we're constantly in the weeds of interpolated screen images.
However I want to rationalize my choices I really wanted a second D700 body. The one I bought previously has a bit over 100,000 shutter actuation and I wanted something closer to "new." A week or so ago I was in Precision Camera looking over the used inventory when I came across a mint looking D700. We checked the shutter actuation count and found it to be just a hair over 10,000 clicks. Barely used. I was grappling with too many other things at the time, all financial, and just didn't have the bandwidth to do the amount of self-inflicted justification to buy the camera at the time. But yesterday was different. And the camera was still there. A brief hiatus in the ongoing popularity of this particular model...
The price was $600. The camera was put aside on the hold shelf for me and I headed out to pick it up. When I got to the store (God Bless Bricks and Mortar Camera Stores) to pay for and collect the camera the sales associate informed me that it was "Used Equipment Day" at the store and that ALL used equipment was 10% off. I walked out of the store having spent $540 on a nearly new D700 and with a smile plastered across my face. I only wish I had more time to work this year (I've spent about 45 days this year in San Antonio working on legal and estate issues for my parents...) because the store also had a used Hasselblad 205 TCC with prism and a 110mm f2.0 FE series Zeiss Planar lens, all for about $3300. I could have saved some cash if I had picked it up yesterday.
But....film?... probably not. There are more D700's out there that could use a good home....