Techno Geeky Friday - Gear

You may not know this but I cannot stand getting all techno geeky with my photography. It's not that I don't have the capability of understanding the technical or that I find it in some way hard, or even that I don't know what to do "technically". It's just not where I want my head when making images and something I really don't want to spend a bunch of time on after shooting an image. Yeah I write a lot of techno geeky stuff - more a mission to hopefully help a few people along so they don't have to waste so so much time covering the same ground.

You may actually find a couple of things I declare a bit contradictory if taken out of context. Maybe but on the whole my intent is just making pictures. Everybody has certain "needs" and little fetishes when it comes to what they are looking for in a piece of gear they will for the most part have to live with. Some of those needs or desires will be critical in helping or hindering making the kind of pictures that you want to make - others are just fantasies or distractions and have nothing to do with your photographic endeavors.

Patrick LaRoque wrote a short piece this week that given his usual cool and pleasant demeanor amounts to nothing short of a rant. I happen to agree with him on his point which I will boil down to photo-arm-chair-quarterbacking and sweeping generalizations of internet gear forum logic that people take to heart is for the most part utterly ridiculous. Things like comparing two really bad images shot with two similar lenses with similar rendering properties and declaring one of those slightly less bad due to some esoteric property like a minuscule difference in "bokeh". Who cares?

The dangerous part comes in when the internet armchair quarterback mob piles on and somehow extrapolates that nutty "bad" and slightly "less bad" image comparison somehow has any relevance to images that you might want to make. As if some barely noticeable difference in bokeh will translate theoretically into your images being bad or fantastic based on that piece of gear. Pure lunacy.

That brings me around to what does matter in gear. There are some generalities of course but the most important things are probably going to be highly specific to you and your pictures and how you want them to look and how you shoot them. I do not at all dismiss psychological or subjective factors when choosing gear. Some of those less definitive things can be determined prior to your own personal use - maybe. I would however propose that most cannot and should probably be settled upon after your own experience. For your amusement I will briefly share a couple of tangible and not so tangible examples of my own gear geeky-ness. By no means does this mean they will be shared by you. If you shoot like I do and gravitate towards similar kinds of things they might…

First off bokeh. Since the dawn of my own photographic endeavors I have had or used lenses that I liked they way they looked or disliked they way they looked. I couldn't possibly nail down any one particular factor that would be definitive as to why that is. When I say this it's absolutely not some anecdotal take a few shots and if they looked good I liked the way the lens "looked" and if they turned out bad I decided the I didn't like the way that particular lens looked. It's way more of an overall experience for a very large number of images in a lot of different circumstances that I came to this point of view. More relevantly that was with a large number of what could be considered "good" images shot with a particular lens. Especially with lenses I decided that I didn't like the way they looked.

Take the image at the top of the post. Just a semi-random selection shot with a lens I use all the time - the Nikon 85mm 1.8 AF-D. I have had this since the mid-90's. Small, light, well built, cheap, idiotically sharp and… wait for it… the world's more horrible bokeh. Well if you listen to internet armchair photo logic then it does. Really? I actually really really like the way this lens looks over all. Somehow as time has worn on some ridiculous probably inconsequential remark from someone that may or may not know better about a "bokeh preference" that may even be anecdotal has mushroomed into a collective thought process that some how this lens is the one not to buy because x, y, and z have far far far far far "better bokeh". Whatever. This was shot at f4 - a particularly "bad" aperture for bokeh on this lens. Ummm yea.

Moving on to cameras etc. Of critical importance is how you feel using a camera. If the camera bothers you and somehow it's particular properties annoy the shit out of you that is a big problem. If it makes you comfortable - that's a win all other things aside. There are as many factors to this some extremely tangible and technical all the way to psychological. Some of these factor overlap where tangible differences affect your psychology. Here's one that's near and dear to my heart. Digital and the way highlights look. I have mentioned more than once I am a highlight fetishist more than a highlight nazi. Detail, no detail, whatever - how do the highlights look - that's my "thing".

Maybe the highlight thing has everything to do with my expectations. Maybe it has to do with what I like to shoot. Maybe it's how I like to shoot it. Most likely it's all of the above wrapped up in a way that cannot be untangled - for me. This is probably the biggest reason why I praise the Nikon D600 as if it's like nothing else before it while at the same time I condemn the D7000. Cameras that most would probably consider so similar it's not even worth discussing the differences beyond full frame vs APS-C. Maybe - noise performance is on par. Techno IQ specs are really negligible if you are an arm-chair photographer. Maybe some minor improvements in the ultimate measurability. Nits except for that FX vs DX thing. For you maybe - for me - these cameras are a world apart that has nothing to do with DX or FX.

Looking at the image at the top again. A subject with lighter toned caucasian skin. Probably the thing I point my camera at the most. The lighting here is not what you would call challenging in the least. Low ratio soft light. Do we need a shit load of dynamic range? Nope. Do we need crazy ISO performance? Nope. I just happen to like lighter toned skin placed somewhere around the 3/4 mark if you are looking at a histogram. That's around zone VI or VII with some highlights going into zone VIII in Ansel Adam's speak. That's the way I want it to look - that's the way I like too shoot it.

With the D600 I can shoot it like this all day and it looks great. I can go around to the opposite side and have the highlights leave while rendering that same skin at the same level and everything looks like it "should". Try that with the D7000 or many other digi-cams. Heck even in this exact same set of conditions I cannot shoot it anywhere near the same. If I put the skin at the same values I will absolutely for sure blow the red channel way before anything else goes. That's the techno talk. What's important is that the skin anywhere near that will start to look all digi-shitty to my eye.

Here is a somewhat contrived example but illustrative.

For me that whole left side of the face looks all digi-shitty from a skin point of view. No not just the tiny tiny specular parts. I couldn't care less about those having "no detail" I care about the blatant (to me) digit-nasty-ness that surrounds all of it getting anywhere near that transition. It looks "off". For those that are looking for a techno-answer as to why. Here's about the best I can do.

The red channel has left the building. In truth there is way way more to it than just the ultimate blowing of the red channel or lack thereof. In the end it only matters how it looks. It's one of the reasons that I am so un-impressed with digital "progress" over the last decade. This kind of shit was stuff that happened with my very first digital SLR. I was absolutely sure that this kind of thing would be the first thing to get solved. Nope. I have had to put up with this crap for more than a decade before the D600.

By "put up with" I mean compensate for it by either modification of the scene via lowering the contrast with gear or underexposing it. Either way - shooting subjects really really really flat or underexposing and "fixing" it later just bothers the crap out of me personally. Why the fuck to I have to shoot it so it looks bad on the back of the camera or at a lower contrast than I want to just to fix it later? I never had to do that before - this sucks. Of course I can get the exact same results or so close you cannot tell. I had to for more years with commercial clients when I shot digital. It's just something that I didn't "like". Hey the light is perfect - it looks great now I have to shoot it one way or anther "wrong" - just didn't register with me. I did it of course but didn't like it that way. D600? Not any more. Common scene pretty light - I can actually shoot it the way I want to and have it look good on the back of the camera - at least to me.

The point being that it's at least as much a psychological issue to me that nagged at my head when shooting. Anyway you slice it that's not a good thing. That's why one of the reasons I love the D600 and didn't like the D7000 so much - much more of a meh… Does that make the D7000 a bad camera that is useless? Of course not. At todays prices that camera is a deal. It's just the factors for my own comfort where I live in my photographic world are night and day - to me. I shoot fairly close, I have a particular very limited set of focal lengths I gravitate to. I have a way I like skin to look with not a lot of work. I like certain lighting conditions. Etc, etc.

I found all of the factors, limited selection of focal lengths with properties I wanted, the so-so rendering of skin in lighting conditions, etc to be lacking on the DX D7000. For you it might be the perfect camera. It's fluid, it's cheap, it's fast, it's compact. You may like tele lenses. The bottom line is it's really really hard to know until you actually work with different gear, you know what you like, what affects your thinking positively or negatively when you are using it and how you feel.

Just like the Fuji XPRO-1. Great camera but it just didn't float my boat. Was it smaller than my DSLR - for sure. Just not enough smaller for me to make any sense. My go-to kit was about size neutral compared to my D600 so for me it was a wash. X100 - completely different story for my needs, wants, and desires. That camera hit all the right notes for what I wanted. If the XPRO-1 was the same size, with the same sized lenses - in other words an interchangeable lens X100 - EXACTLY, then it would have been what I wanted.

I would suggest you figure these out for yourself with your own eyes and your own experiences instead of trying to extrapolate them from other people with completely different points of view at best and completely full of shit at worst.


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