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In any case, the top of the line dslrs of that time are now superseded by the specifications -- if not image quality -- of some cellphones!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?