Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Monday, April 19, 2010

What digital can do / Equipment

Originally posted April 16, 2010

This is not a photography blog per se, or at least I don't mean it to be such a thing. Not that I don't enjoy, and frequently visit, photography blogs, just that this isn't meant to be one of them. But then it would be silly to pretend that it has nothing to do with photography per se either, so I though that once a week or so I'd do a post on photography in the narrower sense as well.

I've put the nitty-gritty stuff towards the end of this post, so feel free to bail out at that point, if you haven't already by then (I know you'll know when it's time to bail).

I never really had a camera until about six years ago, when a friend gave me an Olympus C2000 — 2 (!) mega-pixels which was a bit of something when it was new, circa 1999-2000. I just didn't have the patience to deal with film, and for some reason I didn't want to have to learn about ASA numbers and apertures and focal lengths and depth of field and all that stuff I heard friends who were into cameras talking about.

(Yes, I did then have to learn all that stuff anyway, but the immediate, or nearly immediate feedback you can have with digital surely accelerated the learning process.)

So I can't really get into what digital can or can't do compared with film, except that, having scanned some terrific 8" x 10" negatives for friends, I know that digital can't (yet) match that, and having spent a summer a couple of years ago shooting 35mm film (Ektachrome, Kodachrome) with a Leica R8, I think digital emphatically can match that. Others, I'm sure, will disagree.

What digital can, unquestionably, do, is make projects like New York in Plain Sight feasible and manageable to an extent that would be virtually impossible with film.

Imagine trying to shoot roughly 11,500 street corners in 6-8 months with a 8" x 10" or even a 4" x 5" view camera! And imagine the editing and scanning involved, to say nothing of the storage requirement!

Of course, it would be terrific if you could only do it. Maybe a compromise, using a technical camera with a high end digital back would be feasible — but again, it's the economics of the capture medium that make the difference.

Twelfth Avenue & 134th Street, Southwest Corner

So then, for anyone who's interested, here are the mechanics of shooting New York in Plain Sight.

About two-thirds of the photographs in New York in Plain Sight were taken with a Canon 1-Ds Mark II camera body. It would have been 100%, but the camera failed in June, 2006, and while it was in for repairs (about six weeks, owing to the repair depot "losing" the camera), I used its predecessor, the Canon 1-Ds (and for a couple of shoots, before I got the 1-Ds, I used a Canon 20-D).

Subsequntly, the reshooting, and shooting the corners I've missed, has been done first with a Canon 5-D and then, this past year, with a Canon 5-D Mark ii. The same Leica 28-90 "R" lens has been used throughout, except for a few regrettable experiments with a Canon 24-105 "L" on the Canon 20-D.

The 16.7 mega-pixel Canon had the highest pixel count of any DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera when I bought it in 2005, and I wanted all the pixels I could get for the project that was beginning to take shape and that, a year later, became New York in Plain Sight.

Of course, even then, higher pixel counts — and probably better image quality — were available with medium format digital backs, but a whole new system: medium format camera body, digital back, and lens(es) would have cost three to four times as much as the Canon 1-Ds Mark II, and I already had the Leica lens (and the Novoflex adapter) and had been using it with a Canon 20-D, so I was comfortable with the Canon line, so I figured there was a learning curve advantage to the Canon as well.

And I knew I would want smallish apertures (8–16) and faster shutter speeds (generally above 1/500th sec) and so would want the higher ISO's that the Canon would give me.

Finally, Canon 1-D series camera bodies are big and heavy, and the Leica 28-30 "R" lens is big and heavy too, with a maximum aperture (at the short end) of 2.8, so that was enough weight to contemplate lugging around all over Manhattan day in and day out. 

Equipment this big makes it almost impossible to take a picture unobtrusively — though this wasn't such an important consideration, as I wasn't thinking of New York in Plain Sight as an exercise in "candid" street photography (though of course there are strong elements of that to it) — and I was often asked about it.

The most common question was, "is that a digital camera?" — That was in 2005 and 2006. Recently I've noticed, going about the job of catching the corners I missed the first time around (with a Canon 5-D Mark II with the vertical grip, and the same Leica lens attached, which makes a package of about the same bulk as what I was using in 2005/2006), that nobody asks this question anymore.

If they ask at all, the question today is now, "is that a film camera?"

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