Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tools for Writers: The Camera

I am perhaps a bit obsessive about cameras. One corner of my office is completely taken over by a vast and untidy heap of Canon and Pentax 35mm SLR bodies and lenses, Canon and Yashica 35mm rangefinders, medium-format twin-lens reflexes, and other assorted historical oddities. (E.g., ever seen an Olympus Pen half-frame camera? Cute and clever little bugger. Takes great pictures, too.)

illo: The Heap

This doesn't even begin to count the stuff that's tucked away in storage: the enlarger, the darkroom timer, all my dad's old 8mm movie gear, the spools of film and thousands of slides that he shot on his world travels and that I'm going to catalog and scan one of these days.

Am I professional photographer? Depends on your definition. Am I remotely comparable to Oleg Volk? Not by a long shot. Have I been paid for photos that have been published in newspapers and nationally distributed magazines? Yes. But even if I didn't get the occasional snapshot published, I would still consider a decent camera to be an essential tool for the serious writer. It's my offline memory. It helps me to remember exactly what I've seen, and serves as an index into what I was doing, thinking, and feeling at the moment I took that picture. Ergo, over the years, I have spent a ludicrous amount of money accumulating photographic gear.

I don't use any of that stuff anymore.

About a year and a half ago, I went digital. I'd flirted with digital before that — I was what they call an "early adopter," buying my first digital camera back in the mid-1990s — but being very disatisfied with the image quality then, I'd put the thing on the shelf and gone back to film.

It was film that brought me back to digital. Or rather, it was coming back from a long road trip with a sizable amount of exposed 35mm color film and realizing that for what it would cost to get that film developed and printed, I could buy one of the lower-end digital cameras then on the market. So I had the film developed and printed — and then I bought a Nikon Coolpix L4, just to get my feet wet.

I've since become a total convert.

My "serious" camera these days is a Nikon D50 digital SLR, with the usual battery of lenses and filters. But more often than not I wind up catching the shots I like with the L4, because it's the camera I'm most likely to have with me. Lightweight, rugged, about the size of a pack of cigarettes — can I still say that in this country? Proof that a Kodak in the hand beats a Hasselblad back at home.

The L4 takes nice pictures, too. Good lens, great color sensitivity, terrific auto-focus and auto-exposure functions. The pics are "only" 4 megapixels, so the full-sized images are perhaps not quite as a sharp as a perfectly exposed piece of chemical film. (You can download the full-sized .jpg files by clicking on the following images, but be forewarned, each file is roughly 1MB.)

illo: Hmong New Year

Remarkable range of light-sensitivity. This one was shot using only moonlight — and, admittedly, a tripod.

illo: Moonrise over Lake McManus

The 3x zoom lens is serviceable, which is not surprising, but the macro mode is actually quite good, which is. For example, it makes these quarter-inch nightshade berries look like their distant cousins, the tomatoes.

illo: nightshade berries

In addition to the auto-everything mode, it has what seems at first like a bewildering array of "tuned" modes. I'd never before had a camera that came with a built-in online help system. But the modes are actually quite easy to learn, and once you get the hang of them they help you capture shots that would be a real chore the old-school way. For example, I might have spent half an hour with the Pentax, mucking about with polarizing filters and the like and ultimately missing the light as I tried to capture the dramatic clouds in this bleak winter twilight sky.

illo: winter sky

And there's no way I would have gotten this shot — at least, not hand-held — although I would have wasted a lot of film trying. Clouds are really difficult to photograph well.

illo: flaming sunset

Which brings up another of the L4's advantages: it uses the seemingly ubiquitous SD cards for memory, so you don't have to use your frames conservatively. You can take the dozen shots you want in order to get the one image you want to keep. It also comes with a couple of different USB cables and Nikon's image-handling sofware, which I must admit I've never even taken out of the shrinkwrap. For me, transferring the images to my computer is simply a matter of popping the SD card out the camera and putting it into the SD slot on my computer, at which point it becomes just another removable file storage device, like a thumb drive, and I can copy and move files at will.

I will admit that from time to time I do succumb to the urge to pull pictures into Paint Shop Pro and "improve" them...

illo: The Cat from Hell

Another of the L4's advantages is that it uses plain old AA alkaline batteries, which is one of those things that doesn't seem important until you've had to find a replacement for that oddball battery in your Canon AE-1 in Slackjaw, Kentucky, at 8 p.m. on a Friday night. But that's another story.

What's not to like about the Nikon L4? First off, the same complaint I have with pretty much every camera ever made; that it's built for right-handed people, and as much as I'd like to get my left index finger onto the shutter button, it just can't be done. I've learned to live with that.

Secondly, there is a noticeable lag between the time you press the shutter button and the time the shutter actually fires. This lag varies, depending on how much automatic functionality you have engaged and how tired the batteries are. If the batteries are low and you're shooting in automatic everything mode under poor lighting conditions, it can spend a second or more hunting for the focal point and the right exposure, and then a few seconds afterwards storing the snap to memory — which is irksome to someone who's used to the nearly instant gratification of a first-rate 35mm SLR with a motor drive — but the solution to this is simple: replace the batteries before the camera tells you that it's running low on juice. (In all honesty, there have been plenty of times where I would have gotten a better picture if I had not been able to snap it instantly, but instead had been forced to take a few more seconds to get my focus and exposure right.)

Third, though, is the seemingly insurmountable one: the Nikon L4 is discontinued. The successor camera is discontinued. The successor to the successor... Let's face it: as with computers, if you're waiting for the absolutely latest and greatest technology, you have a window of about five minutes between the time it's introduced and the time it's obsolete. What you have to decide is whether what you can buy right now is good enough for your immediate and short-term foreseeable needs.

The good news is that the successor to the successor to the successor — the Nikon Coolpix L11

— well, apparently it's discontinued, too. But it seems to have all the features and functionality of the L4, plus an image size beefed up to 6 megapixels, and your choice of either a prosaic silver or edgy black case. More importantly, Ritz Camera is blowing them out this week for $89.95 apiece. So if you're thinking about going digital and still looking for that last-minute nice gift for yourself or someone close to you, I highly recommend taking a closer look at this one.

Your thoughts and comments?