Monday, May 1, 2017

Technical advances in photography

I pause now to take a look back at the path that has brought me to where I now stand, photographically speaking.
I received my first camera in the sixth grade (1973). It was a gray square instamatic a bit larger than my hand with large, square negatives (perhaps 120mm?). After plugging a one-use flashbulb in the socket, you looked straight through the viewfinder and pressed the button. BAM!

Single-shot bulbs were plugged into the flash socket. My first camera might have looked like this.

That was it. You waited for the flashbulb to cool off, pulled it out, and stuck in another one. However, with a weekly allowance of 25 cents, I couldn't take as many pictures as I probably would have liked to. I took a couple of rolls of film with it, sent them in an envelope to somewhere in Pennsylvania to have them developed, and waited for the prints to return. They were 4x4 inches with rounded corners. I made a photo book with captions and a story. Interestingly enough, that's basically what I'm still doing today, only now they are textbooks for language learners. I've been able to combine all my interests into my professional work.

Sharon and David Greenberg on their way to class in 1973
My motivation behind making the photos initially was to capture images that were important to me: friends from school and the neighborhood, our pets and relatives. I may have satisfied that urge with the few rolls I shot.
When our family moved to Indiana a couple of years later, I must have had another camera because the next photos I have are also square but in color. Again, I wanted to capture the faces and gestures of those close to me. The only photos from this camera are those taken outside.

Eva and Christian Hill (13 and 12) just as I remember them
Then in 1978 a friend lent me her Canon FTb so that I could take pictures for the yearbook. It had a f1.8/55mm lens. I did not know anything about other lenses or flashes.


For the next 10 years I took thousands of photos with this camera, mostly with the Ilford 400 film we were provided by the department of public relations at our school. I was one of the main photographers and, in my junior and senior years, the editor-in-chief of the Roll Call. I shot formal portraits and groups, sports (everything from ice hockey to basketball to golf), club activities, and random shots around campus. I usually carried my camera with me wherever I went. The school paid for the film development and we ordered prints from contact sheets for the school paper and yearbook.

Juana Barrios, the angel who lent me her Canon FTb
Using the Canon FTb, I had little knowledge of photographic theory. I learned everything by simply doing it, which was a blessing in disguise. I could play without knowing I was actually learning. Once I watched my sister develop some prints in the darkroom there, an experience which would come in handy 10 years later.
Juana was a fantastic artist even back then - as was my mother. The two of them struck up a deal in which Juana got one of my mother's paintings and we got to keep the camera.
In Europe and at college I used the camera - somewhat more sparingly, as I had to pay for the film and processing myself - and gradually discovered the joy of color film. The camera accompanied my friend Craig Freshley and me on our epic search for Phil Collins back in August 1980. While we were not successful in finding Phil, we did visit Mike Rutherford at his house.

Mike Rutherford and me in his backyard, August 1980

Craig Freshley at Mike's gate
Needless to say, I could work this camera with my eyes closed. When I began teaching high school, I became the yearbook adviser for a Catholic military school for boys which had burned down the previous year. My first task was to make a yearbook for the school year 1986-87, for which I had nothing to go on except for a few hundred negatives and a few cadets interested in helping me put names to faces. During an ice storm which kept Richmond schools closed for three days, I went into the darkroom and, remembering having seen my sister expose the photo paper and then dip it into the three baths, developed hundreds of images those next couple of days. Only later did I realize that it would have taken me only half the time in the development bath if I had exposed the paper a second or two longer!
I continued to photograph school activities for the next four years. During the third year the cleaning crew stole my beloved Canon out of my desk drawer. It was simply gone one day. The school didn't want to get involved with the crime, so I had to have my insurance pay for it. They were very slow with the paperwork and a colleague had asked me to photograph her wedding (my first) a month hence, so I went to Richmond Camera and bought what the man in the store said would be a good match for my needs, a Nikon 4004s, a.k.a. 401s, with a f3.5-4.5/28-85mm lens. No longer equipped with a fast f1.8 lens, I was challenged in low-light situations, but I suddenly had autofocus and a zoom lens. As payment for the wedding, I received (in advance) a Nikon Speedlight SB-22, which I think cost about $100. I didn't have time to test the camera - much less the flash - before the wedding, but the photos came out fine, albeit somewhat "artistic" looking with dark vignettes on the group pictures I had taken with the flash.
Speaking of flash, the Nikon has a built-in pop-up flash, which served me well in many situations.


That is the camera I took with me when I moved to Germany in 1990. I still have it. In the meantime, I've also bought an old Canon FTb with 28mm, 50mm and 70-200mm lenses. The shutter sticks at slow exposure speeds, but when I held it in my hands for the first time in 20 years, my hands immediately turned it on and knew how to use it!
From 1990-2001 I didn't produce photographs on a large scale. Friends and parties were captured with the Nikon. And then our first child was born. I had seen my first digital camera in 2000 and was intrigued, but they didn't seem to produce what I considered a good picture and memory cards (8MB) were expensive, so I postponed buying one.
After the birth of our second child in 2003, I purchased a webcam to be able to send pictures quickly to my parents and sisters back in the US. The picture quality is, of course, poor, but I'm glad I have these digital snapshots and videos (in AVI format) of our kids.



My first digital camera purchase was a 5MP ALDI Traveler in 2004, which took pretty good pictures and made decent videos. They were bright, vivid and sharp. I would soon realize that the life of the thin rechargeable battery required carrying a second - and third - one in the bag. I ended up shooting 5905 pictures with it altogether.


I would get those photos developed at the local drug store and slowly began saving them onto my computer; after all, it had a "huge" 20GB hard drive! Friends asked me to photograph their wedding back then. I used my trusty Nikon analog camera together with their digital Olympus pocket camera, which used alkaline batteries. The shutter lag on the Olympus made me miss the shots I normally would have captured with my SLR, but the Nikon saved the day on the important occasions.

Family, Traveler DC-5300
I still knew nothing about post-processing digital images, but since I was shooting nothing but JPEGs (knowing little about RAW back then) I didn't need to do much processing - or so I thought. That all changed when I met Jim Palik at a local writing workshop. A former student of Ansel Adams, Jim took me under his arm and taught me all about (digital) photography.
Just around this time my best friend, Christian Ruvolo, became interested in digital photography as well. The two of us stepped up each other's gear game over the next decade until we both finally reached the point where the picture (and not the camera) was most important (see an old blog post about that race!). Christian is not a perfectionist but when he sets his mind to something, he is able to achieve success. He is a concert pianist and wonderful musician and teacher. He brought that ability to photography and post-processing, passing on his knowledge enthusiastically to me and others.
I visited him at Lake Como for New Year's Eve 2006. On January 2 we went into the MediaMarkt in Como and he bought me the camera he was then using, the 7.2MP Casio Exilim, convinced that it would improve my photography. I used it for a good year, but gradually became frustrated with its picture quality, especially in indoor situations. I took only 817 pictures with it.
In April 2008 I purchased what I thought was the best camera for my budget, an 8MP Pentax Optio M50 packaged with a CD containing ACDSee software, which provided me with new possibilities of optimizing the 5210 pictures I took with it. By then, however, Christian had bought the Canon 450D and Jim kept asking me when I was going to purchase a "real camera". By Christmas 2008 I had decided to go with a 10MP Sony A300 DSLR because it felt better in my hands than did the Canons or Nikons I had tried out.
I learned more about RAW (or, as Sony calls it, ARW), began going on photo walks, starting obsessing about lenses and other gear, read every photo magazine I could get my hands on, met my other mentor, Uka Meissner-DeRuiz, and started becoming a digital photographer.

Touch, Sony A300, Minolta 28-105

A year later I  won a Canon 450D in a contest, but by that time Christian had invested in the 5D, Mark II. I was still searching for the perfect camera for my budget, so I bought the 12MP Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 bridge camera for its compactness, silent shutter, good focal length range (27-486mm). supposed minimal shutter lag and ability to shoot video. I shot 7662 pictures (most still JPEG) with it before turning it over to my sister-in-law, who is still using it.


Schirmburg, a photo which ended up in my solo exhibition about Stuttgart, Lumix FZ38  
With the Sony A300 I took 21,746 photos before passing it on to my niece. Pretty much the entire time I owned it I wanted to own a different, better camera. I thought it would make the difference in my work. I had been attending workshops, rented a studio to photograph friends (under Jim Palik's tutelage) and entered photos in Digital Photography Review's challenges every week, learning from other's entries.
Then - finally - I bought a used 12MP Sony A700, which became my favorite camera (as witnessed by the 109,366 photos I took with the three I purchased over several years). The placement of the buttons on the body makes it easy to change settings even when your eye is up in the viewfinder. Even without live-view or video capabilities, the in-body stabilization and excellent picture quality kept me satisfied for a long time.


Moonrise over Rotenberg, Sony A700, Minolta 100-300 APO

In June 2010 I purchased the relatively new 14.2MP Sony A550, which was certainly a step up from the A300. With its live-view capabilities I was able to see what the exposure would look like before taking the picture. It sill didn't have video capabilities, as did the new Nikon D90, so I still wasn't totally happy. After taking 4726 photos with it, I passed it on to my nephew.


Stripes, Sony A550, Minolta 28-105
Many good - and not so good - lens purchases accompanied these cameras, as I hoped to be prepared for every possible circumstance: macro, sports, portraits, landscapes, family photos. My main emphasis was on street photography, but I tried my hand at everything, gently encouraged by friends and colleagues. When the 24MP Sony A77 came out in October 2011, I bought it immediately. Featuring 12 frames/sec, live-view, video capability, built-in GPS, internal image stabilization (as all Alphas have) and a flip-and-twist LCD screen, the camera sold me immediately. Seven years and 74,227 images later, I'm still using it on a regular basis, even though the high ISO images are less than stellar. The A77, Mark ii, supposedly has a better image quality.

Manhattan from the Circle Line boat, Sony A77, Minolta 100-300 APO
By this point, I was the photographer for a large-print family magazine in Stuttgart, was busy shooting weddings and other events, was leading workshops, had participated in many exhibitions, and was teaching photography at the Media University in Stuttgart. Then came the game-changer.
In June 2012 Sony came out with its answer to Nikon's 1 V1/J1 high-quality pocket cameras. When it was first released, I tested a (somewhat defective, perhaps pre-release version) Sony RX100 at Fotohaus S√§nger. The Sony rep couldn't get it to focus on close-up objects, so I figured it was not a good camera and certainly not worth the €549 price tag. I liked toting around my big A77 and an extra lens or two every day. In February 2013, having heard only good things about the small camera, though, I finally broke down and bought it. I haven't regretted it for a single minute since then. My interest in street photography was waning and I became interested in expanding my photographic eye. This camera helped me do both.
With its relatively large sensor (compared to body size), RAW capability and 28-100mm focal length range, I was able to make photographs which were of exhibition quality without having to drag around a big camera. You can take pictures with one hand while driving!

NY Bus, Sony RX100 (the two images above were exhibited side-by-side 60x60cm at the K√ľnstlerbund in Stuttgart)


With the A77 I didn't play around with the creative picture effects much, thinking "RAW or nothing" with a "serious" camera, but I have been able to loosen up and have more fun with this small one and have enjoyed what it has to offer. Most of my professional colleagues own this camera by now and enjoy the silent shutter, built-in flash, compact size and robust body. I took 33,639 photos with it before passing it on to my sister when she was stuck in picturesque Iceland without a camera.

Hot pepper, Sony RX100, Mark iii

Taking that as the impetus I needed to upgrade, I splurged for the RX100, Mark iii, which features a tilt screen and a viewfinder, plus a faster f1.8-2.8/24-70 Zeiss lens. I took 7000 pictures with it this past year, nearly a third of all my photographs since last May. That is twice as many as I took with Sony's first full-frame mirrorless camera, the 24MP A7, during that same time.

Katharinengrab during a thunder storm. Sony A7, Sony G70-300mm

I had always thought I had wanted and needed a full-frame digital camera ever since becoming a photography professional. Dreams of improved picture quality and increased control over depth-of-field made me shell out €1500 for this lightweight camera and another €1600 for two lenses and the adapters I would need to be able to use it with my collection of Sony Alpha flashes and lenses. I was staying with Sony but it was like a system change because the mount and hot-shoe are both different. Unfortunately, the camera does not have internal image stabilization (available in the Mark ii) and the availability of good, affordable native lenses for the FE mount is still very limited. The image quality is very good, but since I shoot hand-held most of the time with Alpha lenses hanging on the adapter, perhaps with a wobbly flash sitting on the hot-shoe adapter on top, I see little advantage for me in owning this full-frame body. Since buying it in December 2013, I've taken 41,249 photos with it, most of those with various Alpha lenses.
In 2012 I bought my first smartphone with a camera on it. As is the case with most of us, one must purchase a new one every two years because the non-replaceable "rechargeable" battery simply gives up the ghost. After a Nokia and a Mobistel, I went for a 20.7MP Sony Xperia, which was fun for all the apps one can use, and practical for its portability and ability to transfer images to various platforms quickly and easily. But after the Xperia's battery needed recharging twice a day and sometimes just went from 33% to 0% without notice, I gave it up.

Passion melon, Sony Xperia D5503

I went looking for a phone/camera with a long battery life. I decided on the Huawei Honor 6X, which has a double camera on the back side, allowing images to be sharpened in post-processing, sort of like one was able to do with the (now defunct) Lytro Light Field Camera - admittedly a camera idea that intrigued me when I saw it several years ago. I'm having fun with this camera/phone, especially since I always have it with me. It is easy to upload and share pictures from it. Have my expectations regarding picture quality changed as the sensor sizes of my cameras have changed? I would say they haven't. Not all the 370,000 digital images on my hard drives are ready to be hung on the wall of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. I still make and process high-quality images, but I am also able to expand my photographic vision with these other instruments, maintaining or letting go of control as the situation requires. I am looking forward to testing new cameras, such as Sony's A99, Mark ii, and to following new developments in imaging, such as the Light compact camera.