The iPhone is Not Enough

On Labor Day, I was hiking my way back from an overnight in the backcountry.  The next morning, I was up at 5:30AM so I could get on a plane to Orlando for a work conference at Disney World.

Because our conference hotels overflowed, I was moved to The Animal Kingdom Lodge.  Having not been inside the Disney World gates since I was 9, I didn’t know that there would be an actual animal kingdom outside my window.

Had I known, I might have figured out a way to pack my camera.

Having reduced our worldly possessions by about 80% over the course of many years and moved into a small apartment with ridiculously limited storage space, one of my greatest challenges has been not to keep acquiring more stuff that won’t fit anywhere.

I make this point because I am starting to think about getting a small, point-and-shoot camera.  Something that will do a better job than my iPhone camera.  And something I can carry backpacking without getting an ache in my neck.

Now, some might argue that I should think about trading in my iPhone 4S for a phone that has a decent built-in camera.  But, I’ve had my iPhone for less than a year and I really don’t believe there is a phone with a built-in camera that’s going to suffice.

Let’s look at the camera in the iPhone 4S. Like all built-in phone cameras, all zoom capability is digital.  By this, I mean that when you are zooming, it’s enlarging the image in software, no moving glass around to magnify the image before it is captured digitally (also known as Optical Zoom).

When you look at the images in the gallery, you can see that as you move from left to right, the buffalo get bigger and the quality of the image gets worse.  This is the same thing that happens when you enlarge a low resolution photo on your computer and the pixels get spread too far apart for the image to look good.

In comparison, when optical zoom is used, the image is magnified by the glass and then captured on the sensor at that size, so there is no loss of resolution in the image.  Maybe instead of a point-and-shoot, I just need an adapter so I can use my lenses with my iPhone?  They really exist:


But, then I’d have to carry heavy lenses plus an adapter.  Besides, that little adaptor costs $250.  I’m pretty sure I can get a really good point-and-shoot for that much money.

I started investigating MILCs (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras), which are smaller and lighter.  I’m not ready to spend that much money on a new technology that’s step down in quality, although they do seem quite promising.

Maybe fuzzy animal pictures on work trips and an aching neck on backpacking trips will just have to do for now.


Crayons and the Camera

I was reflecting today on what first excited me about photography.  I always appreciated others’ work, but the expense of film and printing photos just to discover if they were crap seemed like overwhelming deterrents to me when I was young.

There were two things that gave me the push to get started.  First, there was the advent of digital photography, providing immediate feedback and reducing the cost of learning.

The second was a work friend, Rick, who was (and is) a wonderful photographer.  He advised me on the camera purchase that started my endeavor to learn the fundamentals.  It was not a DSLR, however.  That would have been a waste of money for me back in early 2003 given that I had never heard the words “aperture,” “shutter speed,” or “depth of field.”

Instead, my friend advised me to look into the PowerShot G3.  It had one of the best lenses in a point-and-shoot with . . . wait for it . . .4x optical zoom and . . . drum roll . . . 4.0MP!

This photo was the first picture I took that made me think photography might be the most exciting hobby on the planet.  Who knew you could make it look like the wall was on fire with a camera?

While I won’t be putting this in my portfolio, I love it all the same.  The reason I love it so much is because it evokes the utter glee I felt in discovering that creating such an image was possible.  It was like handing a child their first box of crayons and a blank piece of paper.  I didn’t know enough to be self-critical; I was just having fun.

That camera with that attitude got me through my first five years of sporadic shooting.  It wasn’t until 2008 that I upgraded to a DSLR.  This was because I wasn’t shooting frequently enough to improve beyond my camera’s capabilities until 2007.  That year, I shot frequently enough to be frustrated repeatedly by the limitations of a point-and-shoot.  I knew exactly why I needed a DSLR when I bought one.

As I contemplate my next camera body, I pull out some of my photos from the old PowerShot G3.  Have I improved as a photographer since upgrading to a DSLR?

My photos with my latest gear are sharper, cleaner, and quieter.  But, I am reminded of when I was doing triathlons and I was choosing between Shimano Ultegra vs 105 components for my new road bike–would the extra $400 to shave a fraction of a second off how long it takes to shift make as much difference as, say, training more?

This helps me get clear in my own head on when to invest in gear.  In the end, I really don’t need to buy anything if I am not being frustrated by the current limitations of what I have.

Note on today’s dog picture:  Tisen is taking a break from modeling today due to having had too much fun at doggy daycare to pose for mommy in any position other than “sleeping on the couch,” which I think we’ve seen enough of for now.  So, here is another one of my favorites from my PowerShot G3 instead–this is Katie, who died along with a piece of my heart in April 2007:

Sunrise Spectre

This morning, as I wait for Pat to get ready for our morning walk along the riverfront, I decide to take my camera.  After all, I missed some really great shots on our last walk and I hate that.  As I change the lens on my camera, I look out the window and see a large cloud hanging so low that it has to be fog rising off the river.

It’s lower than the roof of the 4-story building across the street and stretches in a long tube just over the trees along the river.  I call Pat to come look while I finish getting my camera ready.  Pat comes out and says, “It’s like the Smoke Monster!”  That is exactly what it looks like–the smoke monster in Lost.

By the time I can get a shot, it’s already shrinking.  I rush to get out the door hoping we can get down to the river and get another shot before it dissipates all together.  Pat is walking better today–his pulled hamstring is still somewhat touchy, but it’s healing.  We make it down to the river, but all that is left is a puff of cloud hanging over the water.

Although I’m disappointed that I missed the smoke monster at its peak, I’m happy that I’ve brought my camera with us this morning.  The sun is rising behind Veteran’s bridge and fog continues to swirl and rise off the surface of the water.  I play with getting different angles of the rising sun, but make a note to myself to do some reading on dealing with shooting directly into the sun–I can’t seem to avoid sun spots, even with my polarizer on.  But I love the effect of the sun backlighting the scenery anyway.

As we work our way along the riverfront with me shooting from various vantage points and Pat patiently waiting for me, we spot a hawk sitting on the paddle wheel of the Delta Queen.  The Delta Queen is an old riverboat that’s been converted into a permanently parked hotel.  It sits at anchor in front of Coolidge park and adds a nice touch to the riverfront scenery.

I, of course, did not bring a telephoto lens this morning, not wanting to have to do any lens changes while on a walk or have to carry my tripod.  I do not immediately recognize the hawk because it’s backlit.  I’m hoping to get a few shots good enough to blow up so I can identify it later.  With a 17-55mm lens and low light, that’s not going to be easy.  I snap as many shots as I can, trying to get as close as possible without spooking the hawk.

As we get closer and on the front-lit side of the bird, it appears to be a Red-tailed Hawk, but it doesn’t have a red tail.  Probably a young one, but I will double check when I get home.  Now that I am less worried about getting a shot good enough to ID the hawk, I go back to shooting landscape shots.  The hawk must like being the focus of my attention, because it flies up onto the Walnut St Bridge and perches in the sunlight for me.

About this time, a woman walks up and start asking me about my camera.  She is shooting with a point-and-shoot and carrying the smallest tripod I’ve ever seen that still has plenty of height.  She is a small person, so I suppose it might even be at eye level for her.  She also carries a larger tripod.  She tells me she’s shooting with her point and shoot this morning but that she has a Canon 7D in her bag.  She asks what I’m shooting with.  I feel embarrassed to tell her it’s a 40D for some reason.  She talks about the zoom in the point and shoot she’s using, which I guess is why she’s using it in lieu of carrying around multiple lenses, but I’m still confused as to why she would have a 7D and leave it in her bag.

This morning, I alternately yearn for a full size sensor that will allow me to include more of what I see before me and the full 400mm of my telephoto zoom lens on the smaller sensor of my current camera so I can shoot the hawk.

When I was at a photo workshop at the Tennessee Aquarium and asked one of the instructors for advice on selecting a focal length, she told me that it just depends on whether I like to be tight on my subjects or if I prefer a wider view.  She went on a bit of a diatribe about how some photographers preferred one look over the other.

I was completely perplexed by this.  In my mind, some scenes call for a wide angle and some call for a telephoto.  Isn’t that the whole point of having a selection of lenses in your bag?  Given that we were shooting wildlife in tanks, it seemed clear to me that getting up as close as possible on individuals would make the most dramatic images, but maybe that’s where others have a different opinion.

Another woman in the class started talking about how she never changes lenses and does’t even use a zoom lens.  She has one focal length and that’s what she works with.  I am reminded of a story I read where a photographer took a 35mm fixed focal length lens (on a 35mm film camera) on a trip and how it forced him to be very creative in his photography because the lens was so poorly suited for some of the things he wanted to shoot.

This is a constant battle for me–is the effort required to carry extra lenses and the risk of changing lenses worth the difference it makes in my shots?  Given that I tend to shoot very wide or very telephoto, I have to say yes.  After all, a shot of a hawk 100 yards away perched on the side of a bridge shot at 30mm makes the hawk a tiny surprise–the photo is all about the bridge.  A shot of a hawk 100 yards away at 400mm eliminates everything except the hawk–the photo is all about the hawk.  They aren’t comparable.

This morning, I point out the hawk to the lady with her point-and-shoot.  She doesn’t seem interested in the hawk.  This surprises me, too.  What kind of person isn’t interested in a hawk?  She tells me about going on some photography workshop with “real photographers” and how they are all using point-and-shoots, too.  Apparently justifying the use of a point-and-shoot is more important to her than shooting.  I am no longer following what she is saying.  The only parts I pick up are when she asks where we’re from two times and I tell her “just over there” with a vague gesture two times.  I gather she’s trying to identify our origin by our accent, but I’ve gotten to the point where I stop explaining that we recently moved here from Ohio.  We are, after all, from “just over there” now.

Eventually, she stops talking at me and goes off to shoot some more or leave, I’m not sure which having given up on our conversation about the time she took no interest in the hawk.  The peace of my morning was somehow disturbed by this strange little woman with her point-and-shoot.  I am left with the vague sensation of having been in a competition that I didn’t enter or participate in but somehow managed to lose anyway.  I find myself wondering if she is somehow related to the smoke monster.

I try to shake away the ghost of the little woman and return my focus to the rising sun, Pat, and our walk.  I set aside my camera for now, reach for Pat’s hand, take a deep breath, and just look.