Nikon D70

Reluctant Retirement of a Workhorse – The Nikon D70s

d70s-01 A couple of weeks ago I put my faithful Nikon D70s out to pasture. A new and more powerful model had eclipsed it, and at a resolution of 6.1 megapixel, it had “grown long in the tooth” in the DSLR world. I bought the D70s in 2005. It was my transition to digital from film. Economically, it was the most successful photography purchase I have ever made. It paid for itself in savings within the first couple of months, and has paid for itself many times over in the succeeding years. It convinced me of the validity of digital photography – the speed, economy and quality of its production could not be ignored. If you would like to read a detailed technical review of the D70, click here.

In the past five years, the D70s has traveled with me everywhere and shot a bunch of pictures of which I am very proud. I have other cameras, and I have gotten some nice shots with them, but the D70s has been the dependable one that I could always rely on to come back with the picture. When there was work to be done, I grabbed the D70s. There never has been a “firmware update” for the D70s because it was the update for the original D70. It fixed the small bugs in the D70 and slightly increased the size of the view screen.

The internals of the D70s are sort of odd-ball. It has a CCD sensor rather than a CMOS sensor which gives it a flash sync speed of 1/500th. It has a 1,005 segment color meter which was unusual at the time. It also had the best automatic white balance of its time, with detailed white balance adjustments which were lacking in cameras costing four or five times as much. The net result of these unusual features is excellent color even in crummy lighting conditions. If you asked me why I have hung onto the D70s for so long, my immediate answer would be the color, but there is more.

So why did I leave it behind? It still shoots terrific photographs, and it rides in my bag now in the back-up role. With a maximum ISO of 1600, the low-light performance of the D70s is OK, but not great, and I shoot in a lot of low-light conditions. My photography is often printed at absurdly large sizes for show booth displays and banners, and I have run into situations where the D70s just did not give me enough pixels to blow up a photo to extremely large sizes. So, the time came when I knew I had to move on, but I didn’t really like it. I still love this camera, and wouldn’t sell it for any amount of money (well, if someone wanted to offer me a couple million…).

Beyond the inherent qualities of the camera, there is another, more fundamental reason that I have been reluctant to retire it, and that is familiarity. I know it like the back of my hand. I can change all of the adjustments in the dark – well, at least all that matter to me. I know how it behaves in particular conditions. I don’t have to think about it. It has become a physical extension of my imagination. Any new camera, regardless of how good it is, is a venture into the unknown, and a new learning curve. That comfy “old shoe” feeling is gone.

I see some photographers who never seem to shoot on the same camera. They always have something new and different and tout the virtues of the latest and greatest camera of the day. To do that successfully requires a lot of work, and I don’t want to spend my life with my nose in a manual. I want to learn an excellent instrument and shoot pictures. I don’t really have time to do a lot of new product testing. I admire those who do and I benefit from their work, but it’s not my style of operation.

Recently, I was researching Stevie Ray Vaughn, the great blues guitarist who was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 1990. The specific line of inquiry I followed was the obsessive attitude he had toward his guitars. He only played Fender Stratocasters built between 1959 and 1963. He owned a couple of custom built guitars which weren’t Stratocasters, but they were built to imitate the Stratocaster. Each of the Strats had names like “First Wife,” “Red,” “Yellow,” and “Lenny” (named for his wife). Stevie Ray would play particular guitars on particular songs, seldom varying in his choice of instrument for a song. Perhaps the pickup winding on Lenny gave just the right sound for “Crossfire.” Stevie Ray played hard on extremely heavy strings. “First Wife” a.k.a. “Number One” was re-fretted so many times that the neck could no longer accept another re-fretting. Most people would go to the store and find a new guitar, but instead, Stevie Ray got another maple neck of the same vintage so that First Wife could be returned to service.

I don’t propose to compare myself to Stevie Ray in any way except to say that I relate to that feeling of getting attached to an instrument that gives you the results you want. The D70s was that way for a long time for me. The new camera is a wonder, and I have no nostalgia to return to the days of yore. In thinking through this, a couple of thoughts did emerge. The hardware is just hardware, and it makes a lot less difference in our photography than we like to imagine. Great photography comes from vision and imagination. The particular model of camera is purely secondary. The greatest camera cannot produce a photograph by itself, and some great photographs have been produced on extremely primitive cameras.

I believe that it is OK, and maybe even necessary, to step away from the gear race. If you find that the 1959 Stratocaster makes the music you want, then that is your axe, and your job is to learn everything there is to know about it. It is a huge mistake to tell yourself that if you only had camera X, you could do the kind of photography you want to do. It probably isn’t true. While I wouldn’t want to take on the Madison Avenue fashion photography business with a $100 point-and-shoot from Best Buy, the hardware limits us far less than we think it does. If you have the vision, you can find a camera that will realize it. Hardware is our Number One Excuse.

Another thought that came to me about this question of familiarity is that if you are thinking about the camera, you aren’t thinking about the photograph. It really pays to become intimately familiar with your camera. There is a wonderful scene in the movie “Scent of a Woman” in which Colonel Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino, though blind, completely disassembles and reassembles his Colt .45 automatic pistol in about 30 seconds. That’s the kind of familiarity we need to attain with our cameras. Any kind of photography involving living beings and dynamic situations do not allow us the luxury of looking up camera functions in a manual. In a political rally, baseball game or fashion shoot, you really can’t be thinking about how to operate the camera. There just isn’t time. So, we need to shoot and practice enough that the camera operation becomes second nature to us, and we can focus on the scene in front of the lens. This means we shoot a lot and then shoot some more. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” He was talking about practice, about getting the mechanics of photography hardwired into your nervous system so that the boundary between photographer and camera disappears.

Finally, time moves on. Technology improves. It’s important to be able to recognize the moment when a new instrument will help you to make a better photograph. There is something about the passage of time that makes us stiff. Once we have experienced significant success with a particular platform, it is hard to let go of it and move on. It requires effort to remain flexible and open to what is new. I have one camera that is older than I am. It still works, but with each passing day, spare parts and the film to use in it become harder to come by. Were I to take the position that this is the only camera for me, a day would come when I could no longer make photographs. My objective is to make photographs, not idols out of cameras. So there comes a time when even a camera which has served as well as the D70s gets lovingly packed away.

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Cooling Off in Waterfront Park

There’s a park on the waterfront in Louisville, creatively named “Waterfront Park.” Through the park runs a long fountain and wading pool that was put together with an artistic eye. Part of the fountain runs underneath a section of Interstate 64 so that you get not only the cooling water, but also shade. We went down there today and there seemed to be a picture everywhere the camera was aimed. (Click on images for a larger view.)

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Louisville’s Central Park

Arbor-at-Central-Park-Louisville Of Louisville’s great parks, Central Park is probably not the most impressive. It’s about the size of two city blocks, square and flat. It has a building in it that once was an athletic club but is now a substation for the Louisville Metro Police. It has a wonderful arbor which supports an ancient wisteria vine that gives shade to the whole thing. Most significant probably is the stage for “Shakespeare in the Park” which runs every summer and gives people the chance to come down and see Shakespeare’s plays performed for free.

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I happened to catch a show on KET done by metro councilman Tom Owens, who is also a history professor at the University of Louisville. Tom Owens knows the history of Louisville like no one else. His knowledge of each inch of this earth at the Falls of the Ohio can only be called supernatural. In this show, he was doing Central Park and St. James Court in Old Louisville. His narrative of the creation of the park and St. James Court from a hunting camp owned by the DuPont family fascinated me. On a hot Sunday afternoon we went down to Central Park to soak up the history and shoot some pictures.

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Central Park is one of the Olmstead parks which give Louisville its distinctive character. Frederick Law Olmsted designed 18 parks in the city of Louisville. He was characterized as “the father of landscape architecture” and I wouldn’t trade our Cherokee Park for New York City’s Central Park, which Olmstead also designed. Louisville’s Central Park must have been a challenge to the master landscape architect. To be fair to Olmstead, he didn’t have much to work with on this patch of ground. There are no hills, no naturally occurring waters or interesting outcroppings of rock – just a flat rectangle of ground. He built the athletic club, laid out the sidewalks and fountain, and planted some trees. I can’t think of anything he could have done that he didn’t do that wouldn’t be totally artificial, and artificial wasn’t Olmstead’s style.

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And yet, Louisville’s Central Park has something that no other park in the world has: it has St. James Court across Magnolia Street at its southern edge. From the St. James Art Fair information site:

“In 1890 after the Southern Exposition site was cleared, William Slaughter led the development of St. James Court, one of Old Louisville’s most renowned neighborhoods. Centered on the picturesque fountain, the court was envisioned as a haven for turn-of-the-century upper class and was completely occupied by 1905. Slaughter set up deed restrictions to ensure that all houses on the court were constructed of either brick or stone. From its start, court residents established a homeowner’s association, one of the oldest in the country. Described as the epitome of Victorian eclecticism, the neighborhood included homes in such styles as Venetian, Colonial, Gothic and others. The Conrad Caldwell House on the northwest corner of St. James Court prominently features the turrets, towers and bay windows associated with the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style. Through the years the court has been home to several city officials, judges, doctors, writers, poets, and business leaders. St. James Court residents are proud of the unique history and friendliness the neighborhood offers. When strolling through the tree-fringed court, you too will experience a vibrancy and vitality that no suburban neighborhood can match.”

So, when you visit Central Park, not only do you see an historic old park, but also, you can stroll down a shady boulevard where Louisville did its best to create a little piece of Victorian England in the 1890’s.

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Some additional reading on the history of this area:

A History of Old Louisville’s Central Park.

St James Court and Belgravia, Louisville, Kentucky

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Friday Night at the Hideaway

How I spent my summer vacation…

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Friday_Hideaway_3 …and none of these photographs are for sale, dammit.

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Pictures for the Day: The Louisville Bats Play the Scranton Yankees at Slugger Field, May 25, 2010

It was a great night down at Slugger Field. Two fine teams faced each other, and my youngest son particularly wanted to see Curtis Granderson who is temporarily playing with the Scranton Yankees while he heals from an injury. The Bats managed to win it but it could have just as easily gone the other way. The Scranton Yankees are an excellent baseball team. I took two Nikons. Here’s the shots:

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Click on Pictures for Larger View

Technical Information: Nikon D70s with AF Nikkor 80-200mm

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Pictures of the Day: 3rd annual Mighty Kindness Earth Day Hootenanny

If you want all the details of who was there and what went on, you can find them here. Here’s some pictures: (Click on the pictures for larger views)

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Memories that Haunt

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That’s me standing at the shallow end of the swimming pool at Mt. Carmel, east of Waco, Texas, the site of the Branch Davidian compound which was destroyed in an FBI assault on April 19, 1993. I’m shooting a picture with my Nikon F3. Just after that trip, I wrote a detailed account of my impressions which can be found here. I don’t intend to rehash that now. Alex shot this picture with my Nikon D70s.

Like millions of others who watched the tragedy unfold on television, I wasn’t there and had no connection to any of the main players. I was born and spent my formative years in Texas, and in that general area, but that’s about it. I’m no fan of the FBI or the Davidians. I think the FBI is power mad and the Davidians were just plain old crazy. What I find intriguing about this event is the way that it haunts me.

I think about it often. I have read hundreds of pages of “after action” reports and commentary about it. I felt compelled to drive the country roads east of Waco to find and physically visit the site to shoot pictures of it. Why? I don’t know.

The large chunks of concrete in the foreground are what’s left of the “concrete room” in the center of the compound where most of the women and children died. The FBI pushed them into the pool with a bull dozer. I guess they didn’t want any monuments left to their handiwork. I have seen photos of the children’s bodies who died in the fire. That’s a visual I wish I could get out of my head.

This memory isn’t even mine. It’s a meta-memory. I wasn’t there, but I might as well have been, given the persistence of the haunting. I was there virtually in that I watched it live on television and participated in the electronic auto-da-fé. Maybe I feel guilty about that. Maybe I’m just amazed that so many people could make so many bad decisions in one place and one time. Maybe it’s one of those things that undermines my confidence in humanity to do the right thing.

Mt. Carmel was religion which had become sick. A charismatic but perverted leader with a cadre of brain-washed disciples and assault rifles is never a recipe for a good time. Mt. Carmel was federal government run amok. When federal law enforcement agencies care only for the assertion of their own absolute power, and forget the value of human life, due process of law and basic justice, bad things will surely happen. It was all bad. I just wish I could understand why it won’t leave me alone.

Deep down inside, I’m an optimist. Deep down inside, I still want to believe that people are capable of good decisions, capable of doing the just and moral choice. Waco is like a corrosive acid poured on that basic trust. No one did the right thing. Good didn’t win out. Perhaps this is what haunts me about Mt. Carmel.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free,
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above,
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats,
Blowing through the letters that we wrote.
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves,
We’re idiots, babe.
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

— “Idiot Wind” by Bob Dylan

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Alex on the Laptop

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This is my son, Alex working on my laptop. He really loves my laptop and it is a pretty cool computer. He’d like me to give it to him, but I won’t because I’m greedy and I like it too much. Besides, I need it for my work, so he’ll just have to get his own laptop.

Besides my son’s handsome visage, what’s really interesting about this shot is the way it was done.  I used a manual Nikkor AI f 1.8 50mm lens mounted on a Nikon D70s, a digital SLR. The 50mm Nikkor lens is a dinosaur. It was probably built forty years ago. It has been a favorite of mine since I got one on a Nikon FM I bought in ‘81. I sold that camera and lens but immediately regretted it. I found one on Ebay and bought it for song. The digital D70s camera will not meter through the ancient manual lens so I had to find another ancient photography artifact, a Gossen Lumina Pilot 2 light meter. I found it also on Ebay and picked it up for pennies.

With a maximum f-stop of 1.8 the Nikkor 50mm lens can do wonderful things in low light situations. Being a fixed focal length lens, its sharpness and clarity of focus are almost supernatural. Try to buy a camera these days with a fixed focal length lens. I dare you. lol What most people don’t realize is that zoom lenses create distortion and soft focus. A fixed focal length lens can be calibrated much more precisely because it doesn’t have to try to focus at a variety of different focal lengths. There’s physics to back this up, but I can’t explain it here. Trust me. In this picture, the only area that is in really sharp focus is Alex’s face. That’s because the aperture is nearly wide open, resulting in a very short depth of field, the range in which the image is in sharp focus.

In this setup, focusing is a challenge. You don’t have the auto-focus of  the digital SLR, and you don’t have the split-prism focus screen of a traditional film SLR; you really have to “eyeball it” to get the picture in focus. I’m lucky that I have pretty decent close vision and I can do it, but for someone who needs glasses to read, focusing this lens without any of the assists from the camera could be tough.

I hate flashes. You can get good pictures with a flash, but it’s always artificial. When you shoot with a flash, you almost always get something different from what you were seeing when you tripped the shutter. I much prefer “existing light” photography whenever possible. It’s just more natural. This old 1.8 lens will let me shoot “existing light” in almost any situation in which the sun is still somewhere in the sky — natural light, real shadows, colors and textures the way I saw them in the viewfinder. Add to this the optical richness of the vintage lens and the result is a delicious, if slightly retro, texture and feeling about the image.

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