05 June, 2005

Another Trip to Moab - Equipment Notes

I find the nuances of cameras themselves fascinating, and am always intrigued by the role the camera plays in the creative process. I also like to ramble on about my own creative process. If you don't find this interesting, skip this post. My wife and I took another early May trip to Moab, Utah for some camping, Jeeping and photography. I was a bit happier with my output this time around; I feel like I'm starting to get the hang of the cameras with which I'm shooting.

This is no small deal, as it takes me some time to learn both the controls and the quirks of a given camera. This ends up slowing down the shooting process, and creating mistakes. Last year the Nikon FM2 was a very recent acquisition, and I was using a Canon Canonet for rangefinder shots. This year I've had a year with the Nikon, and my Olympus XA made rangefinder shooting much easier. The Nikon had replaced two SLR's: a Canon FTb that belonged to my grandfather and a Minolta X-700 that had replaced an earlier X-370. The FTb is a fine instrument with a fine piece of glass on it, but was starting to show serious signs of wear. Not wanting to degrade it further, I retired it. The Minolta X-700 simply stopped working one day. I was later to learn that this is a common complaint with this vintage of Minolta SLR, and there's naught for it but to replace the body. Since I wasn't particularly crazy about the lenses we had for this camera, there was no compelling reason to stick with Minolta, so we decided to make the jump to Nikon. Since I generally buy cameras off the used market, I wanted to feel like I was buying into a platform that I could rely on, and for which a healthy after-market exists. The Nikon FM2 is constructed like a tank and does not use an electronic shutter, which means that even if the meter battery dies I can continue to shoot with it.

The Minolta was an program auto-exposure camera, which meant that when it was in auto mode it was trivially easy to shoot with. The Canon is a match-needle metered manual camera. I had been shooting with the Canon for so long that shooting had become second nature. The Nikon was a bit of a shock, doing metered manual with a simple plus or minus LED display, and little windows to show f-stop and shutter speed. More informative than the Canon viewfinder, but still takes some getting used to, and I find the LED is easier to ignore than the match needle. In addition it has a motor drive fitted, which means it's easy for a rusty shooter like me to fire off half a roll before I realize I haven't been paying attention to exposure. Rookie mistake, I know. Anyway, the Nikon is starting to feel more natural. I'm not particularly happy with either of its lenses. Not that they're not good glass, but due to the eBay nature of how we came to own this camera, it so happens that the two lenses we have are a 28-200mm zoom and a 500mm prime. Neither seem particularly well suited to landscape photography, and the zoom lens has a problem where the barrel will tend to slide back and forth on its own if the camera is tilted. And they both weigh a ton. I think the next gear investment I'm going to make will be a couple of shorter-length prime lenses for this beastie, say a nice standard 50mm and a 100mm. And I think I'm going to take off the motor drive, at least until the next time I'm doing a studio shoot.

As for the Olympus, I have to say at this point I wish it had a higher resolution lens, since I keep using it for landscape photography. When I'm out in the Jeep, it's just much easier to grab and fire a couple shots with than the Nikon. When I have the Nikon out Jeeping, I'm constantly worrying about whether it's going to get hurt. I'm getting good shots with the XA as well, I just miss out on some detail in the negatives. Of course, this is probably also a function of using a flatbed scanner with a film attachment, so for now I'll keep shooting with it. It's quick to focus, has a nice bright viewfinder, and is almost totally silent. I'm convinced it would be a great street shooter, if I had the guts to do street photography. Anyway, it's a much more reliable camera than the 40-year-old Canonet it replaced. The Canonet is extremely finicky about things like how you press the shutter release. The result is that sometimes you can advance the film without cocking the shutter. A pain in the ass when you're in the field trying to get a shot. It has a nice fast lens and a lot of personality and history, plus it has a selenium photocell meter, which means that it never needs a battery. In the end, though, it was so flaky that I didn't enjoy shooting with it.

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