Sunday, December 21, 2008

Our Town

Where else do we begin to learn but at "our town"?

That's where we find the value of a silhouette...

And also where we learn to appreciate the telling details...

And the stuff that makes life worth living. 

I live in a small, unpretentious town in the Midwest: DeKalb, IL (pop. 39,018), home of Northern Illinois University, where I teach.  The town is not known for its picturesque views but for being the cradle of barbed wire and Cindy Crawford (proud DeKalb High School graduate).  

DeKalb is also the place where I cut my photographic teeth.  I couldn't do it in Guatemala, where I was born, simply because I had eyes, but no camera.  Here, I found myself with both. 

My theme for the next few entries, then, is, you guessed, my town, what it looks like, and what I've seen in it.  Of course, that includes shots in film and digital.  The ones above, for now, are recent additions from the D700... which is, indeed, a joy to use, and very tolerant to low temperatures (as the GM grill should prove).


Friday, December 19, 2008


Like many things in life, sharpness can be a blessing in disguise.

Why obsess about it?  What does it bring with?  Are the great photos in the world all that sharp? 

And, conversely, what's with the opposite of sharp?  What does it say?  What can it suggest? 

Long before plunging into digital photography, one very good photographer with years of excellent work explained to me his reason to drop film and buy a Nikon D200 this way: "No grain."   I was still thinking about the amazing sharpness of my Leicas and some of my Nikons (especially the AF ED 80-200 I have), and decided that if grain was a problem, sharpness was overrated.

Above are some old images, made with my Nikon F5 and my AF-S 24-120 VR on Kodak tungsten film ISO 160, in December 2007, in Chicago, in the midst of a hellish winter.  These images show (gasp!) grain.  In fact, the grain here is just gorgeous... and makes me wonder about the reasons, the legitimate reasons why I fell in love with sharpness. 

And now, one that stands out, at least to me:

Dearborn Bridge in Chicago

In this photograph of the Dearborn Bridge in Chicago, there was a lot of grain in the lower right corner before I tinkered with it. While I was initially annoyed about it, suddently I realized that this precise aspect drew me to certain images: grain, like the painter's strokes, is not a problem here, not something to eschew, but the artist's "signature", the proof that we're not looking at nature itself, but at something that represents a particular subjectivity. 

Pretty nice, huh?  Grain, as opposed to what others term "coldness" or "impure perfection", separates two different media.  Digital gives us a perfect image, but film is still a personal choice.  Since this film has a slow ISO (just 160), what would the photos be like with, say, a typical B&W ISO 400?  Grain galore...  Does it mean "imperfection" or is it just an interpretive view?

What do you think now? 

Monday, December 15, 2008

My menu: or the choices we make.

What have you added to the "My Menu" tab in the D700?

I have decided to make a choice about activating D-Lighting if I'm going to use it in uneven lighting situations.  So, that's one item (Candy jars, Sycamore, IL, with Nikon AF-S 24-70 f2.8, at f5.6, ISO 5000).

Another option I singled out and added to "My Menu" was battery order and battery information.  Even though I have the MB-D10, I don't want to rely on the battery icon that appears on the LCD.  In my experience, it can go from one notch below full, to very urgently low in the blink of an eye (Chicago Christmas Market, with the same gear above, but with lens wide open). 

Then, I also added "Image Area" (the choice between DX and FX coverage).  Why not?  At times it does come in handy (Chicago, a view from the Daley Plaza, shot just like the cats photo above: lens wide open and fast ISO; only difference is that I turned off the Auto D-Lighting).

Now, the photographs above DO NOT illustrate necessarily any of the functions I added to "My Menu," and I've used them just to show what this camera can do.  Oddly enough, I tend to use it more and more for very low light situations, in which the WB gets, let's say, "challenged."  The jury is still out (to me) about whether it is better to use the Auto or to select a choice.  In a few situations, the Auto has worked well, and given me the same results that the Tungsten choice yields (under tungsten light, of course).  I also used it with the flash option, and the results seemed better than Auto.  The problem I face is that choosing constantly can be a drag.  Hence, Auto is the least bothering choice, and also the most convenient.  

I will be using RAW sometime soon... hopefully, before I leave for San Francisco, on Dec 26.  Who knows, if it is possible, I may post from there and share what can be done with RAW, even if I had to turn it into jpegs first.  

Monday, December 8, 2008

Shooting in the cold

In very cold temperatures...

Of course, with the AF-S 24-70 f2.8 (minuscule speck of flare fixed in PSE here)...

And with the Nikon matrix meter.

I can report that the D700 worked wonders in very low temperatures.  The manual shows that the camera can work at 32°F, but then, any given camera can perform at this temperature.  The fact that this one, just like other Nikon bodies, can work flawlessly at something like 12°F really means the world to me.   Nice it is to add that the battery didn't lose significant amounts of power here: it left the house and came back at the exact same level.  Granted, it was not a long walk... after all, I am not insensitive to cold! 

Other findings: forget about perfect WB.  That's not a thing with this camera alone.  It's a problem with digital.  I recall some of the playful shots I made with a small Lumix under different light conditions and they showed a peculiar color cast.  Just in case, readers recently converted to digital (like me) expect a magical rendition of color under challenging lighting conditions...  rest assured that it won't happen.  Digital sensors ain't that smart.

More to come as I make a little more time.  

Monday, December 1, 2008

Portraits with this combo

Portraits with the D700 and the AF-S 24-70 lens.

These girls were roasting and selling nuts at the Krist Kindl Market in Chicago.  While I saw one of them completely in the dark (and wondered what the lens saw to lock focus on her), the fact that I had Active D-Lighting on helped a lot.  Their faces are visible... and they're smiling. 

Another vendor at the Krist Kindl Markt in Chicago IL.  With Active D-Lighting on and the camera on P&S mode (more on that later), it's not too bad.  Problem: the color cast is simply part of the image.  There's no way I can fix this without altering the white balance completely. 

This one was different.  The lens wasn't completely extended to the longest, and the window was letting in a fairly strong bit of sun, so I used my built-in flash here.  No D-Lighting trick was necessary, as the photograph looks good on my screen and in print.  

These two girls looked friendly enough to say yes to my request to photograph them.  Since I was in a bit of a hurry, I focused on the one on the right, and compensated the exposure by opening it two thirds (the D700 has the Easy-Exposure feature on).  That will explain the blown highlights behind them. 

Portraiture does not need to be with long lenses only, and this zoom just proves that.  Of course, there's the operator's skill at play here... but that's enough for another day, when we deal with urban 'scapes.  In the meanwhile, I will keep using long lenses for anything but portraiture, and wide-angles for people shots.  Why not?