Monday, December 29, 2008

It's hard not to like the D40!

I must admit, ever since I got my first DSLR, a Nikon D40, earlier in the year, I have looked for ways not to like it.
That is becoming increasingly difficult.
As a dyed-in-the-wool film guy, digital somehow did not seem real but the more I use the little D40 the more I like it and the harder it is to cling to my belief that my film cameras are better than my new digital toy.
Over the dreary holiday period I had the time to play with the D40 and to get to know it better. I am now absolutely convinced this is a little gem!

Let me say right up front, I only use the camera on its “manual” setting so, apart from the ergonomics, the picture-taking process is not all that different from that followed when using my analogue cameras. At least half of the time I set the exposure using a hand-held meter to take incident light readings.
But what is truly amazing about this camera is the amount of control tucked away in the menu system.

Flash-triggering is now easy

By setting the on-camera pop-up flash to “manual” -- as opposed to “TTL” I was able to turn off the horrible pre-flash sequence and so have the flash fire only once, when I pressed the shutter release button.
I also discovered I could turn the flash power right down. This opens enormous creative opportunities, as it is now a simple operation to use the on-camera flash as a trigger for off-camera flashes fitted with cheap “peanut” optical triggers.
It is easy to purposely over-power the on-camera flash with the stand-alone units or to tailor it to pop just right amount of flash onto subject in order to soften shadows.
It’s a facility that effectivley allows me to carry a full studio in my camera bag.
But another benefit is I can now safely use my old hammer-head flashes, because, when used as slave units, their high trigger-voltage obviously has no effect on my camera.
Modern digital cameras’ circuitry can easily be fried if the trigger-voltage of a hot-shoe-attached flash exceeds that specified by the manufacturer.
I believe Canons should not exceed 6v while Nikons can handle anything less than 250v. I am not sure what the numbers are for other brands but some older flash units pump out as much as 500 volts.
Naturally, if the flash is not attached to your camera -- ie it is a slave unit -- it cannot damage your DSLR.

Cheap manual flash units

There are heaps of excellent, old, manual, flash units to be found at give-away prices. I have a Sunpak 5000 hammer-head that is unbelievably powerful that I bought at camera flea-market sale for R10 (about $1.00). It will now be reporting back for duty.
Yesterday afternoon I saw storm clouds gathering so I grabbed my Rolleiflex and the D40 and headed for Breedtsnek, one of the highest points in the Magaliesberg.
From the top of the pass I watched rain storms moving across the valley. I quickly set up the Rollei on a tripod and fired off a few frames of black and white then grabbed the D40 and shot about 20 frames -- just because I figured I should.
I haven’t had the chance to process the shots taken with the Rollei but have posted a few shot with the Nikon.
More than ever, I am beginning to feel my firm positions are increasingly on shaky ground!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Some pictures from the Rollei

Please note that all images and text on this site is copyrighted material and may not be used with my written permission.

I ran a roll of Ilford FP4+ through the Rolleiflex I swapped for a Nikon SB600 Speedlight and now, more than ever, I am convinced I got the better deal in the trade.
The film was rated ISO64 and developed in D76 for nine minutes.
I am absolutely delighted with the results. In my opinion the quality of the large neg pretty well blows away any image created on a DSLR.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Exposure is just like filling a bucket

How do you get the right exposure and take control of your camera?
I decided to write this after I met a few, new camera-owners who complained that they completed a photography course through an online photography "college" but still did not know how exposure relates to aperture and shutter speed settings.
First off it is important to understand there is no single "right" exposure. For any given picture-taking situation there are a number of different exposure combinations, each of which is "right" but only one that will achieve exactly the effect the photographer wants.
If you truly want to master the craft of photography you must go back to the basics, understand the fundamentals and take control of your camera.
A good analogy is flying an aircraft. A modern, commercial jet has so much sophisticated electronic wizardry it can almost fly itself. The pilot may use the technology available to make flying easier and more convenient but he or she still needs to know how to override the systems and take control. Ultimately the pilot must be in command of the aircraft -- not the other way around!
The same principle applies to you and your camera and, if you can grasp the principles that follow, you will be able to cope with almost any photographic situation.
The foundation of all photographic technique is the triangle or pyramid of exposure.
On a blank sheet of paper draw a triangle. Above the top point write "ISO," then, beside the bottom left-hand corner write "shutter speed" and next to the right-hand point write "Aperture (hole size)".
You have just drawn the Pyramid of Exposure, but what does it mean and how is it applied?
We must step back to the days of film and film cameras. When you bought a box of film it was (and still is) marked with an ISO number, for example, ISO100, ISO400, ISO1600 etc (sometimes the label read ASA100 etc but ISO or ASA ratings are the same thing.

ISO400 film

From a completely simplistic point of view, film is made up of light-sensitive chemical crystals laid down of a strip of celluloid (don't write and tell me about about dyes and other components, the purpose of this article is to present an easily-understandable point of reference.)
These crystals are laid down in different grain sizes to allow the film to react to light in a certain way. Larger grain sizes let the film accept and react to light and fast film has many advantages. So why do not simply always use a "fast" film such as ISO800 and be done with it?
Because the down-side of a larger-grained film is when the image is enlarged, grain becomes more visible and sometimes unattractive.
Slow film on the other hand has smaller crystals that, when enlarged, do not show up to the same extent.
The obvious question then is why not always use slow film? Because slow film requires light be allowed to fall on it for longer period. That sometimes makes it difficult for the photographer to hold the camera steady while taking the picture.
There are ways to work around the problem that I'll discuss later.
What does all this have to do with digital photography? Scroll through your camera's menu you will see an option to set the ISO speed rating. Your camera's sensor -- in practical terms -- works much the same way as film in as much as the lower you set your ISO rating, the finer the "grain" will be. Higher ISO settings bring more "noise", the digital equivalent of film grain. I have no idea what the process is behind the sensor. Don't worry about it. All you need to do is remember the principle outlined above.

Shutter speed

The next point on the triangle you drew you marked "shutter speed". Earlier I talked about the amount of time the film crystal need light from the image to shine upon them and that time is called "shutter speed."
When you press the shutter button on your camera it causes a little "door" -- the shutter -- to open to allow light to fall upon the film or the sensor. One of the ways you (or your camera if is automatic mode) contol the quantity of light allowed in is by deciding how long the door will be left open before it is shut again. That is shutter speed. Typically your camera can open the door for a period as little as 1/8000th of a second to as long as a few minutes or even hours.
It is important that I point out that all the corners of the triangle of exposure are linked and changing any one, will affect the other two.


Inside the barrel of an old Sun lens showing different aperture settings and a reflection of the photographer.

The final corner of the pyramid, "aperture" is often the most difficult for students to understand.
Inside a camera lens is a series of "blades" arranged to form an adjustable hole through which light passes on its way to the film or sensor. The blades can be set to form a smaller or a bigger hole (aperture). This hole is called the "f-stop". On some cameras -- many digital camera lenses won't let you do this -- you can see what I am talking about by removing the lens from your camera, setting it to its manual setting and then moving the ring on the lens with markings that read 22, 16, 11, 8, 5.6, 4 etc. Your lens may have more or fewer graduations. As you twist the aperture ring look into the lens and you should clearly see the aperture size change.
What you will also notice is, the bigger the number on the aperture dial, the smaller is the hole (aperture) size. The hole visible when (f)16 is selected is much smaller then the hole that appears when (f)4 is selected. In fact, each aperture size is either double or half the size of the setting on either side of it.
Let me explain: the hole when f11 is selected is twice as large as the hole when f16 is chosen but only half the size of the aperture at f8.
Do not worry now about why or when you choose a particular aperture -- that will be covered in another post. Now it is enough to simply grasp the idea of what goes on inside your camera's lens. On a digital camera you set the lens aperture with a thumb-wheel on the camera's body while apertures on mechanical cameras are set manually on the lens.
To properly understand how the three points of the exposure pyramid how they relate to each other we must once again step back to film and the ISO rating.

Sunny 16

When you buy a roll of film that, for example, is marked as being ISO100 that number has a specific value and is not simply arbitrarily-chosen. ISO ratings tell the photographer how to set the camera in order to produce a properly-exposed picture. ISO speeds are linked to a rule known as the "Sunny 16" rule that holds, on a bright, sunny day set your aperture at f16 and your shutter speed at the speed closest to the ISO rating of the film (or sensor) for correct exposure.
An example will better explain. Let's pretend you have bought a roll of ISO400 film -- or set your digital camera to ISO400 -- the sun is bright and clear so, using the "Sunny 16" rule, you can set your shutter speed at the nearest speed to 400 (a digital camera will most likely allow you to set your shutter speed at exactly 1/400th of a second but on a manual camera you will need to set it at 1/500th of a second), set the aperture at f16 and go out and take pictures. Do this and you pictures, in those specific lighting conditions, will all be properly exposed.
But what happens in this example if you want to set your shutter speed at 1/1000th of a second? What must your aperture setting be?
It's really quite simple. When you use a shutter speed that is twice as fast (1/1000th is twice as fast as 1/500th of a second) it stands to reason you will only be allowing half the light to fall onto the film or sensor -- remember the principle of how fast you open and shut the door. In this case then, if the door is going to held open for only half the period, you need to use a bigger door (aperture) to let in the same amount of light.
Remember, aperture settings are double or half of those adjacent to them. Therefore, if I half the time the shutter stays open and still want to allow in the same quantity of light I must then double the size of the hole in the lens. F11 is twice the hole-size of f16. So, in this particular example, to keep the amount of light that strikes the film or the sensor constant, if I want my shutter speed to be 1/1000th rather than 1/500th of a second, I must open the lens aperture up to f11.

Filling a bucket

An easy way to grasp this concept is to liken the photograph you plan to take to an empty bucket you intend to fill from a tap that has an attached hose.
If you increase the diameter of the hose (the aperture) to allow more water to flow, you will have to turn the tap off sooner.
Conversely, if you make the hose diameter smaller you are going to need to let the tap run for longer.
On your camera, full aperture stops are f22, f16, f11, f8, f5.6, f4, f2.8. Digital cameras show an intermediate value that is one half or third stop between the two nearest full stop values. So between f16 and f11 you will be presented with an intermediate value of f13. Do not be concerned about intermediate values. At this point, all you need to remember is full f-stops allow in half or double the amount the light let in by adjacent full f-stops values.

Amaze yourself with a field outing

To see this process in action a field outing is in order.
Choose a sunny day and follow these steps and it will all become clear:

1. Set your camera to "manual".
2. Choose and set an ISO rating.
3. Set your shutter speed to the speed nearest to that of the ISO setting.
4. Set your aperture to f16.
5. Take some pictures and, if you are using a digital camera, check the histogram and the image on the screen.
6. Be amazed at how good the exposure is.
7. Now go into some shade. It is darker than in the open sunlight so obviously you need more light. Allow more light in by opening up your aperture to f8 or alternatively by slowing the shutter speed down by two stops (eg from 1/500th to 1/125th).
8. Take the picture and check the histogram and viewing screen again. If you feel the image is too dark open up another stop or slow down the shutter speed further. Tweak the aperture and/or shutter speed settings picture the exposure is exactly the way YOU want it.
9. Pat yourself on the back -- you have just taken back control of your camera.
In the next post we will explore the reasons why we choose particular apertures and shutter speeds.
Let me know how you do.

P.S. I have no idea why these postings do not insert spaces at the beginning of the first sentence of a new paragraph. I put 'em there but this thing seems to have a mind of its own!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

SB600 speedlight for a Rolleiflex

Yesterday I traded my new Nikon SB600 flash for a mint 1962 Rolleiflex T medium-format camera, a few rolls of film and some black and white chemicals.
I think I got the better deal.
The Nikon SB600 flash is a dog! Stay away from it and all its ilk!
The problem is, the flash forms part of Nikon’s fancy 3D matrix lighting system and, in order to set the exposure, it fires two flashes of light in rapid succession. The first is used by the camera system to provide the information needed for the second flash.
The system doubt about that. Exposures are perfect. So what’s the problem? Nikon claims the intense flashes of light are fired so rapidly the subject will not notice. That is simply not the case.

Closed eyes

In more than half of all people I photographed while using the SB600, the subject blinked after the first flash and was captured by the second with eyes half or altogether closed. Imagine presenting a set of wedding pictures where in most images the bride is dopey-eyed!
Of course the SB600 can be used as a manual strobe and, with a simple homemade, “flash meter” that costs a few cents to make (I’ll post instructions in the future) it performs perfectly.
But being forced to use a strobe that costs in the region of R3000 (approx US$300) to do the same job as a unit you can pick up for less than a third of that price, somehow doesn’t seem right.
The simple fact is, with a digtal camera and its instant feedback, you don’t need a strobe with all the bells and whistles, unless you intend to use it as a remote unit fired by a “commander”.
A digital camera allows you to take the shot, examine it in the viewfinder and then chimp the image until it is exactly the way you want it.
The fact is, many photographic products are like fishing lures -- designed to catch fishermen rather than fish!
Save your money, learn the underlying foundations of photography so you can MAKE the images you want.
In the meantime I can’t wait to get out with one of the greatest cameras ever made and to view the silky, rich tones of a 6cm x 6cm negative that allows me to make poster-sized prints.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

My impressions of the Nikon D40

I have been using a Nikon D40 for about eight months now. These are my impressions.
This is not intended be a technical review -- there are many better qualified to do that than me.
Rather, these are my impressions and experiences, other users may have different opinions.
For over 30 years I have steadfastly used mechanical film cameras, both 35mm and medium format. A few years ago I bought a Minolta Dimage, mainly for the immediacy that digital photography offers. I liked the idea of being able to see the image and being sure I had it correctly exposed and composed.
I also liked the fact that the work-flow would be streamlined (no taking the exposed film to a lab) and that I would not have to scan the negs with a film scanner. Why didn’t I just get the lab to do the scanning for me? Where I live, in the armpit of the world, the quality of labs and lab technicians leaves much to be desired. I spent more time trying to clean up dust and scratches from their scans than I spent doing the scans myself and that didn’t make the task any less monotonous and soul-destroying.
Thankfully, a new lab has opened and their work-quality is outstanding -- they even do 120 film!


But my experience with the Minolta Dimage was, to put it plainly, disappointing.
I hated the camera’s ergonomics and any ISO setting above 200 produced terrible, clumpy, noise and fringing. In my opinion, the Minolta Dimage is not good for anything other than posting pictures on the web and even that is questionable.
Why did I not just buy a top-of-the-line digital slr and be done with it? Ever heard the stories told about starving writers?
In any case, the top of the line dslrs of that time are now superseded by the specifications -- if not image quality -- of some cellphones!
I figured that even if I could afford such a camera, I would not recover the cash plonked down before it became obsolete.
Since then prices of digital cameras have fallen so that argument may no longer be entirely justified, however, I still remain, largely, a starving writer.
After the Dimage experience I quickly went back to my old, manual, film cameras, and probably would not have given digital photography another thought...except I started losing jobs because clients increasingly wanted a CD with images at the end of a shoot.


I chose the Nikon D40 because I could afford it and because it accepts the Nikon lenses I already owned.
Because Nikon decided to fit the focusing “motor” into the lens body rather than the camera body, all of my lenses, except the kit lens that came with the camera, will not auto focus and the camera will not meter with the older primes.
I do not consider that a problem because they can all be focused manually and there is a focus-confirmation light in the viewfinder that lights up when the image is sharp.
Metering when using my older lenses is done with a hand-held incident meter or applying the “sunny 16” rule.
If I had to do it again I would probably buy a Nikon with the focusing motor in the camera body, as it would be more convenient and quicker to focus in some circumstances.
The D40 is a six mega pixel camera (the D40X has 10 mp) and despite the fact that six mega pixels is now considered to be towards the bottom end of the scale, I figured the camera would serve all my purposes. After all, only a few years ago, the top-of-the-line pro dslrs came with three mega pixels and pros happily used them.

A3-sized prints

I have not yet felt I needed more mega pixels. With careful interpolation using either GIMP or Photoshop 7 I have successfully made A3-sized prints that are effectively grainless. On the basis of those enlargements I think going up to A0 is certainly feasible.
Since buying the camera I have probably taken around 1500 shots and the operation remains flawless. Battery-life from the included, rechargeable battery is just fine for a day of my type of shooting but it is very unlikely I will ever come back with more than 100 shots -- I still tend to shoot as though I am using film.
The D40 came with an 18 to 55 zoom lens that looks and feels cheap but produces surprisingly crisp, sharp images. It’s a case of handsome is as handsome does.
Controls are straight forward although some settings are buried deep within the menus but I guess that is normal for most digital cameras.
Some people have complained that the camera is small and awkward and in some modes, changing the aperture setting is fiddly as a small button needs to be held down at the same time the control wheel is turned. It’s just not as quick and convenient as an old manual camera but I am no doubt flogging a dead horse.


The D40 comes with matrix metering, (the camera analyses a number of points in the frame and then, using a sophisticated algorithm, calculates what it deems the correct exposure), traditional centre-weighted metering and spot metering, although some would argue it is not true spot metering.
Metering is excellent and in most circumstances is not fooled. When not using a hand-held, incident meter, I use the spot meter and expose for the brightest highlight in which I want detail to be visible.
However, I still believe, in most cases, the best exposures result when the camera is set to “manual” mode and the photographer sets the exposure to achieve what he or she wants.
Am I happy I purchased the Nikon D40? Yes I am. The issues I have, tend to be about digital photography as opposed to capturing images on film and really have nothing to do with the camera and its functions.
The D40 does what it is meant to do and it does it very well.

Document your history

In a previous post I talked about how history is being lost. In South Africa, this is particularly true.
It is said that one of the spoils of war is the victor gets to rewrite history and that certainly is the case in this country.
There are many examples where our current government has removed statues and icons dating from a previous era and the history text books are all being rewritten but I came across an example in my own little town.
A few years ago I was commissioned to write a book detailing the history of this town and, in doing so, I took photographs at the local war-memorial park.
Recently I revisited the park and was horrified to see the that plaques containing the names of boys killed in South Africa’s border war have all been removed. The wall stands empty, those soldiers’ existence expunged.
No matter what anyone’s particular beliefs or political leanings may be, history and it’s symbols should be left intact.
If we adjust or modify the past to suit ourselves there can never be truth.
But the fact is, like it or not, it is going to happen. Today’s government will massage history and perceptions to suit itself and the government that follows will set about wiping out what this government has done.
In the end, it is going to be up to ordinary citizens to document -- and the best way is by taking photographs -- the life and times in which we now live. Get out there and photograph those monuments, statues, paintings and buildings -- the things that are important to you -- because, if history continues to repeat itself, in all likelihood, the things you record today will soon no longer exist.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Film for important pictures?

I waited a long time before dipping my toes into the digital photographic waters. In the end it was only because clients wanted a speedier turn-around.
I have not worked for newspapers for years and of late my editorial work was for magazines where turn-around time is not an issue.
My first digital camera was a Minolta Dimage that, in truth I hated. Noise levels at any setting above ISO200 were horrible! Image quality was nothing to write home about and peering into a screen to take the picture was just too foreign.
I quickly went back to shooting on colour negative and having the negatives scanned.
Using a bunch of Nikkormats, an F2 and an old, but much-loved, Voigtlander Prominent, got me labeled a dinosaur but the images those old gems produced were better than anything I saw shot with a digital camera.
However, this year I had no option but to buy a digital SLR.
I chose a Nikon D40, a decision determined by my limited budget and because accepted even my oldest Nikon prime lenses. The fact that I cannot meter or auto focus with them is of no concern. I have always preferred to take incident readings with a hand-held light meter any way.
I will review the D40 at some other time.

Some impressions

Now, after almost a year’s use, a few impressions:
A digital slr is a wonderful and convenient tool. It is fantastic to be able to shoot and know you have the image. There is no need to clean dust spots off the scans and it is convenient to be able to present a client with a finished image in only a minutes.
In my opinion, quality is equal to, or better than, that of 35mm film.
But despite all of that, I still prefer shooting film. To me digital images appear sterile and lifeless -- perfectly exposed for sure, but nonetheless sterile. They’re a bit like comparing real leather with leatherette or a Timex with a Rolex -- the former do the job and in many cases better than the latter but they’re still not the real thing. Nostalgia? A Luddite? Maybe. Probably.
But there is a more practical reason for my preference. I believe the move to digital communications is resulting in the loss of much history and, in the future, the only history left properly recorded will be the “official” history.
As the author of a couple of historical books -- the best know of which is Days of the Generals, the story of South Africa’s Apartheid-era military generals -- I know how much information is gleaned from personal documents, letters, photographs etc. My mother, for example, has letters I wrote from the operational area while serving with the South African Defence Force in Angola in 1975. The letter Billy the Kid wrote to the governor so long ago is still accessible.
In 20 years time will we be able to say that about the emails and digital pictures servicemen and women are sending from Iraq and Afghanistan? I doubt it.


Those invaluable, personal accounts will disappear.
Even news agencies acknowledge this fact. In the past, negs and transparencies -- even those not published -- were filed and stored. Now, because of the volume of digital pictures shot, those not used, are deleted and gone forever.
Of course images can be stored on CDs, DVDs and hard drives but right now, I sit in my office with a draw of stored documents saved on floppy disks. Maybe I should have kept the computer I used to write those disks!
I wonder about the thousands of weddings and special occasions that were shot on Betamax video tapes and can only imagine how difficult it must be to relive those moments.
I think there is a strong case to be made to shoot important events and occasions on film.

What do you think?