Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis


Posted in photography, technique, Uncategorized by Jason Gray on July 3, 2010

“An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.” -Annie Dillard

Photography is one of the most honest mediums available to a person driven by an urge to create. It is the only one (I include the motion picture in with photography) which requires the knowledge of a scientific process simultaneous to possessing an impassioned sense of creativity, and the one best suited to the person looking to “explore the neighborhood” with an engaged bewilderment. As a painter first, I realized early on that photography is peculiar among the arts in that you start out being able to create a recognizable image, and only after time, do you learn to infuse that image with meaning. In painting, it is reverse. It is that ability to instantly record what you see, before you learn to alter that with meaning, which makes it honest, and the camera is the wonderful device that acts as the initiate’s means to explore.

So what are cameras? That answer to that question has been alluded to already in my Basics of Photography writings, but it is basically a box of varying size, with an opening called an aperture at one end, and some sort of light sensitive media (film, sensor, etc.) on the other. In terms of controlling the eventual exposure of light upon that light sensitive media, it is important that the inside of the box be sealed off completely from light, save for that entering through the aperture. The mechanical “door” that opens and closes the aperture is called the shutter, and the length of time that it remains open, along with the size of the aperture, are the factors which determine exposure.

The development of the camera from its origin until what it is today is a complex lineage punctuated by advancements in both chemistry and technology. The earliest recorded observation relating to photography, that light passing through a small hole into an inner, concealed chamber projects the phenomenon of an inverted view of what lies on the outside where the light originated, was made by Aristotle. Around 1500, the Italians began using a device called a Camera Obscura as a curious sketching tool. This device consisted of a small room (the camera) with a tiny hole (aperture) that enabled objects placed in front of it to be projected upon a wall inside the room. British artist, David Hockney posited that the camera obscura was the device that enabled the Renaissance, a concept that has been vehemently refuted by most scholars. In any case, a series of advancements in chemistry, beginning in 1727 with the German Johann Schulze, and continuing until 1826 enabled the recording of Aristotle’s phenomenon. In this year, an impoverished French inventor, named Joseph Nicephore Niepce, took the world’s earliest known photograph, a view from his laboratory window. From that point on, exponential advancements, first, primarily in chemistry, and later, predominantly in technology, led to making the camera what it is today.

The three most popular types of cameras used today:

1. Rangefinder Cameras

(click image above to go to Karen’s site)

Rangefinder Cameras are distinct from most other cameras available today because their viewing system is separate from the lens, meaning that you line up what you see through a window atop the camera with a second image projected into this window by an angled mirror behind the lens to achieve focus.  This manner of focusing, getting two images to align correctly, offers a unique problem.  Parallax Error is the differing of the focused image with what appears on the light sensitive media, whether film or digital sensor.

Example of Parallax Error (from Wikipedia):

This format of camera is a favorable choice for many street photographers because of its portability (relative to its small size, due to it lacking a pentaprism), its quiet shutter (a loud “shutter” is a side-effect of the through the lens mirror complex), and its good image quality.  Photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, and many others built their bodies of work around this type of camera’s assets.  Currently, there is a resurgence of this camera format in digital technology, led by the popular film rangefinder manufacturer, Leica.  However, these cameras tend to be more expensive than comparable DSLR’s, which denies them widespread use.

2. Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) or Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) Cameras

(Click image to go to my Nikon D50 review)

SLRs and DSLRs are cameras that feature a through the lens viewing system enabled by a mirror mechanism positioned between the lens and and the light sensitive media.  Looking through a viewfinder directly above the lens, the mirror mechanism allows the photographer to make focus adjustments in near real time by projecting an image of whatever is seen through the lens’ aperture onto a small viewing screen.  When the photographer is ready to make an exposure, the mirror mechanism raises up from obstructing the shutter curtain, which in turn opens, and the shot is made.  The advantages of this design over the rangefinder’s is that the photographer see almost exactly what will be imprinted on the film or digital sensor, and parallax error is simultaneously avoided.

Most SLR and DSLR camera bodies feature a common set of interchangeable lenses designed for specific purposes.  They are:

Wide-Angle Lens- this lens provides an angle of view greater than 90 degrees, enabling a generally expansive view of a scene

Example 1:

(Click photo to see my review of the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro)

Example 2:

Telephoto Lens- this lens is used to make far away objects appear closer.  It has the side-effect of decreasing depth of field, due to its general design.  They also tend to be the largest, heaviest, and the most expensive lens designs on the market.

Example 1:

(Click  photo to see my review of the Tokina 80-200mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro)

Example 2:

Macro Lens- (called “Micro” by Nikon), this lens provides a closer working distance between the front of the lens and the subject than other lenses.  They also tend to feature close to a 1:1 magnification ratio between what is reproduced and what is being photographed (which means that perspective is actualized). These lenses have different focal lengths generally depending upon how close the photographer desires his/her working distance to be.

Example 1:

(Click photo to see my review of the Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G)

Example 2:

Prime Lens- these lenses feature set focal lengths, and were the first types of lenses developed.  They remain popular today because they are often faster, less expensive, more compact, and sharper than many other types of equivalent lenses.  Generally speaking, most camera manufacturers make a prime lens that acts as a Normal Lens, equivalent to the diagonal of the format with an angle of view generally about 50 degrees (close to how the human eye sees), for each of their camera bodies (more on in a later essay).

Example 1:

(Click photo to see my review of the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D)

Example 2:

Zoom Lens- these types of lenses are a relatively young category of lenses, which combine many of the features of the other lens categories into one single package.  Zoom lenses used to be characterized as representing poor quality, but that stigma has largely since changed, and these lenses can be purchased intended for a broad range of uses.  Most of the time, with today’s cameras, a zoom lens comes packaged with your camera.

Example 1:

(Click to read my review of the Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G)

Example 2:

Note: It is important to understand that these categories of lens design, listed above, are not exclusive of each other.  For instance, of the lenses pictured above, the Tokina 11-16mm is both a wide angle lens and a zoom lens, and the Nikkor 105mm is a macro lens, a short telephoto lens, and a prime lens.

While discussing SLRs and DSLRs, it’s probably also worth touching upon the film versus digital debate. I can speculate upon it from three perspectives:

Market Current- Most DSLRs still take a proportionally smaller picture (they are known as APS-C, DX or “crop-sensor” cameras) and magnify it to fit the ratio of a typical 35mm film negative because of the size of their digital sensors. This leads many people to mistakenly believe that they get a free bit of “reach” added onto their lenses when, in fact, the image taken on the SLR with a 100mm lens is not different than the one taken on a DSLR with a 100mm lens from the same distance, but they look different in the result; how? What happens is that the DSLR crops a portion of the image out of the center, and enlarges it to the proportions of the 35mm camera. The result is no different than if you were to crop the same portion out of a scanned film image in post-processing. Luckily, there are some differences at play here between how the two formats record light, so that the flaws which would become apparent in cropping the scanned film version are not universal to the digital image. Nonetheless, what most people observe is a 1.5x (Nikon) or 1.6x (Canon) magnification when using lenses traded between formats (ie. a 100mm lens appears to deliver images like a 150mm lens).

Market Future- Nikon and Canon have each had DSLRs featuring larger digital sensors on the market for several years. The larger sensors mean that cropping is avoided, so the final result is equivalent to that of 35mm. Although there is still high demand for crop-sensored DSLRs, due mainly to their lower cost and/or smaller size, it seems likely that eventually full-frame sensors will be doing the lion’s share of professional photography. At this point, it seems also worth bringing up that there as been a popular trend toward using a micro 4/3 sensor (even smaller than APS-C) in extremely light weight and portable DSLRs featuring electronic viewfinders as opposed to optical ones. These cameras, the Olympus Pen e-ps, Panasonic gfs, etc., fill a niche somewhat equivalent to the old rangefinder film bodies, and are generally less expensive than many of the DX and all of the FX (full-frame) DSLRs. In any case, it seems clear that DSLRs have outpaced their film counterparts for most applications, and that, once full-frame sensors become even more affordable, many people believe 35mm film will end production.

My Experiences with Both- It is undeniable that digital media affords the non-chemist with the largest degree of personalized control. The downside is that a person completely ignorant to any of the basics of photography can pick up any of the latest DSLRs and, with its complex internal computer and automated controls, take great photos like they’ve been practicing for years. This actuality provides certain complexity for the professional photographer; especially in terms of how they charge, and the sudden influx of new “competition”. As for film, it is a beautiful and expressive medium, no doubt. One that requires artistry combined with know-how even if you intend to develop your pictures commercially. The bottom line is that both formats are great mediums with individual strengths and weaknesses, and they are not altogether very dissimilar to each other. But, I am certain that, as time passes, the number of film enthusiasts will continue to decline (so be proud if you are starting out as one!).

3. Twin-Lens Reflex (TLR) Cameras

Twin-Lens Reflex Cameras feature a viewing lens that is positioned directly over the picture-taking lens. There is a mirror at the back of the viewing lens that reflects the image up onto a fold-up screen at the top of the camera. Adjustments to focus are made using that screen. The photographer generally positions the camera at chest level in order to look down upon the screen. Like Rangefinders, TLRs are susceptible to parallax error, but unlike either of the other two camera types, TLRs have a larger viewing surface that makes minute adjustments to focus much easier.

“The truly capable photographer is no more conscious of the physical presence of his camera than the musician is conscious of his instrument or the good driver conscious of the mechanical operations of his car, but achievement of this creative independence requires discipline and practice.” -Ansel Adams


7 Responses

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  1. […] Cameras 2. Film 3. Lighting Equipment 4. Filters 5. Lenses Tagged with: Basic of Photographic Equipment, […]

  2. Cameras « Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis | Prime Lenses said, on July 3, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    […] from:  Cameras « Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis Tags: generally-speaking, less-expensive, more-compact, most-camera, normal, other-types, […]

  3. […] essay on cameras lists many of the different types of lenses commonly used in general photography.  However, I do […]

  4. 101quickandeasysecrets said, on May 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Hi–Great post, with compelling shots. How about the mirrorless micro four-thirds cameras like the Sony Alpha?

  5. Jason Gray said, on May 4, 2011 at 8:56 am

    Thanks for reading!

    I think that there is definitely some potential in the extremely compact micro four-thirds cameras that are suddenly flooding the market. Personally, I like the concept behind Fuji’s latest (although not a micro 4/3) more than that behind those like Olympus’ digital Pen series, for instance; I just think that it is more geared towards photographers.

    I should note that I have no hands-on experience with any of these. I only know about them from what I have read online.

    In terms of Sony, I am not aware of a micro four-thirds body in their lineup. It is my understanding that they introduced the NEX series to combat the influx of m4/3 in the market, but the NEX bodies still have a APS-C sized sensor (which should produce better pictures, user interface aside). I have used Sony point-and-shoots from time to time, and found them pretty intuitive. In fact, Sony was the other big contender (with Nikon) for my money when I decided to go digital. Obviously, Nikon won out, but that was a decision largely made because of the lens selection differences at that point.

    Bottom line is that you can produce excellent pictures with any number of cameras/formats currently on the market. The trick to deciding which to use is going out and putting the actual cameras in your hand, and thinking about how you typically shoot. Do you only do street photography- then maybe you’ll want a Fuji x100; only do weddings- maybe choose a Nikon D3s. The point though is that neither the Fuji x100 or the Nikon D3s are the only only cameras available for those types of photography. Myself, I have chosen a system that is portable, compatible between all parts, and geared towards doing well at a wide variety of photography scenarios.

    Hope this helps.


  6. […] the photographer aims the camera at something and takes a picture, he or she is making an exposure.  An exposure is the net result […]

  7. […] the photographer aims the camera at something and takes a picture, he or she is making an exposure.  An exposure is the net result […]

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