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My New Camera - Day 1

Really Bad Photographs & Steep Learning Curves in D200 Land

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lamp in office (it's actually white fluorescent) — not a great photo, but the first on this new camera
1/400 @ f/10 - ISO 100, hand-held, 1:05 pm, February 23, auto everything

I know it's ugly, but it's the first.

LESSONS: my first D200 shot: imprecise auto white balance. I hadn't noticed before that the frame is full 35mm format 2:3. This was the only thing in my office I could focus on, hand-held in near darkness. Date set one day ahead (Photoshop says I shot it tomorrow — easy time-travel.

Thursday February 23, 2006: I got my new digital camera today. Not hardly my first digital camera; that was 15 years ago. This is my fourth digicam. There's a history somewhere, with illustrations of and comments about the cameras I've owned and used. This is the best one yet, by a long shot.

It is a Nikon D200. I forget what the first one cost. It was 640 x 480 black & white — I should say grayscale, only. The second and third ones were color and each cost a little more than a thousand dollars with memory and batteries. This one cost nearly twice that.

My first and second D-cams each had about a third of a megapixel, well before that term came into use. My last camera, which still works, has five megapixels. It also had a lot of automatic and manual controls the first two didn't.

This one has gobs more. The stiff learning curve is one of my attractions to the D200. Posters (people who post messages) on Digital Photography Review were clear about that. They said I would learn more about photography by taking this one, expensive step than I ever have before. I know a lot about photography, nearly got a Masters degree in it, have taught it and showed my work in galleries, museums and art centers, been published in newspapers, magazines (including Life) and online.

I'm going to miss many of my now five-year-old Sony D707's features. I loved looking in the viewfinder and being able to adjust the exposure directly and immediately. The D200 offers only an optical viewfinder, which means I'll look through a lot of dots and circles etched in glass, past exposure infobits and out into reality as we know it.

I have to trust the camera to expose correctly. Well, that, and the nice, big 2.5-inch LCD I can play back everything I shoot. From the couple dozen photographs I've shot tonight, I know that it doesn't always get it right. Nope, I'm going to have to think for it, often.

wire heart by J R Compton.

Wire Heart in room light at night
1/3 @ f/5.6 aperture priority 5:23 pm, auto exposure

LESSONS: it is possible to focus, but only narrowly; I want the sun back; f/5.6 provides slightly more depth of field, not not enough; auto white balance is closer; I need to get this sucker out in the daylight;

I'm already excited by the possibility of using high ISO (called "film speed" in pre-silicon days). My D707 would only shoot as high as ISO 400. Tonight, most of what I shot was at 1,000. At 400, my aging Sony prosumer camera rendered images with what looked like the same golf-ball sized distortion we used to call "grain" when film used a layer of silver halide pressed onto plastic (the real film in the equation) to record light. When film was "pushed" to higher film speeds by extending its time in developer or using more sensitive silver, the halides tended to clump together.

Digital doesn't work the same, but in some cameras (even some new ones), the result looks very similar. Now it's called "digital noise" and is often visible in broad, flat-colored areas, even at low ISOs. Many of the newer, higher megapixel prosumer cameras have too much digital noise.

I've never been a big fan of using flash's bright but unnatural light with over-strong shadows to make photographs (although I have to sometimes). Using much higher ISO sensitivities without the fear of grain will be a liberation from flashes and from not being able to record the shot.

Glenna Park shot in the dark copyright 2006 by J R Compton

1/2 @ f/5  iso1,000 tripod  Manual exposure  Pattern metering (before I knew where the dial was)

LESSONS; My first art shot. That's art in the middle and a painting at the edge. We're not sure if the flat, iron horned frog is art or not. I just assume he is. The gold-leaf painting is by Glenna Park, who now does art and political cartoons in Washington D.C., but she used to live in Dallas. I have not adjusted the rather bleak exposure any here. This is pretty much waht I shot and what I got. My 17th image on the new cam. Considering that the walls of my living room are deep Parrot Green, this is pretty good color rendering. It looks right on target. I would rather have had it a little brighter, but there's always Photoshop. It's even in focus.


I'm going to the lake tomorrow. There, assuming the sun comes out (it didn't today), I'll shoot at low ISO. Probably around 100, the lowest ISO the Nikon uses. Images recorded at ISO 100 should look substantially better than the ones I shot tonight at ten times that.

The other thing I did a lot of today was research on new lenses. The only lenses I now have are from my days as a film photographer. I was a staff photographer for the Dallas Times Herald when there was one of those and Dallas was a two-paper town. Now Big D only has one daily newspaper.

Luckily, the last lens I bought was an automatic focus 180mm f/2.8 telephoto. It was my first and only auto-focus lens, and it was — is — a great lens. All my other lenses are manual focus, which I'll still be able to use on the D200, but not as easily.

It's a little unwieldy, because it's such a long lens. Because the image size on 35mm film was 24x36mm (larger than the digital sensor on my new Nikon), my old, already pretty long telephoto lens is now the equivalent of an even longer 270mm lens. Besides which it's heavy and about as big as my new camera. It's a lot like carrying a club.

I have lighter lenses, but they don't focus automatically. Gradually, I learn how to use them on this camera, too. But I want my first baby-steps to be easier. Then, as I figure this new camera — I am still learning about my Sony F707 after five years — I'll buy new lenses.

In anticipation of that, I've been researching lenses for much of today. I have a good wide angle lens, a great telephoto, and some pretty good lenses in between. What I really want and need (!) is a wide-angle to short telephoto zoom lens.

Roses  2006 by J R Compton.

Carnations (Thanks, Anna) - vertical crop from horizontal frame in near darkness
1/13 second @ f/4.5 - ISO 1,000, tripod

LESSONS: tripod won't hold D200 with 180/2.8 steady enough to shoot verticals. I need to learn various focus possibilities — spot, full frame, specific areas. Here, focus is soft. But earlier shots of same scene were too bright, so I closed down some and switched to Manual exposure.

One of the problems (issues) with the D200 is that, because it is a dSLR (digital single lens reflex), every time I change lenses, there's a good chance I'll accidentally let dust into the camera where it might settle on the image sensor. So it's a good idea either to change lenses less often (the whole purpose of having a single lens reflex is that you can change lenses) or only do it in a dust-free zone.

Zoom lenses help this situation out by providing various magnifications of that reality we sometimes think we know about, without changing lenses. My first big professional outing with my new camera may well be my girlfriend's daughter's wedding in March. This is February.

That same lens would probably be just about perfect for wandering around art galleries taking photographs of art, which I do a lot of. For me, a lens in that wide to short tele range would be a great "walking around" lens. So I've been looking in the DPR D200 forum, at Björn's website (he tests Nikon lenses), the Nikon site and at a lot of camera stores, in Dallas and online.


I've narrowed my search down to these. All are Nikon lenses, and either Björn or members of the D200 forum on Digital Photography Review says they are among the best.

Focal Length
max f/stop
35mm equiv
13.5 oz.
cheap, light
19.8 oz.
amazing lens, good macro, long tele, nearly perfect but hard to find, so far
great macro
a 509
long zoom
of 5

So far, it's a toss-up between the 18-70 and the twice as expensive (or more) 18-200. The 18-200 is stellar and VR (but hard to find or over-priced. Nikon says $700, but even Amazon is selling it for $100 more).

VR is vibration reduction. My hands shake sometimes when I hold cameras, and I need something that will help stabilize my hand-held shots. VR is Nikon's version. In the list above, the VR lenses are in bold.

DX are lenses specifically designed for Nikon's sub 35mm film-sized digital sensor. Because they project the image onto a smaller sensor, their components are smaller, and the lenses are comparatively cheaper. Non DX lenses were made for 35mm film cameras. They are older, and sometimes that means they're not as expensive, although they may be more difficult to find new, since Nikon has announced that, that except for a precious few professional models, they're getting out of the film camera business.

Pam Nelson paper bird

Pamela Nelson's paper bird shot at an angle
1/10 @ f/5.6 on tripod @ ISO 1,000 tripod

LESSONS: Very shallow depth of field with 180/2.8 at short focusing distance, closed down to f/5.6, which Björn says is its optimum aperture. The lens' sharpness is very apparent in the full-size version of this shot.

Zoom lenses with shorter zoom ranges tend to be smaller. I want a lens that's easy to carry. More important, I'd like a lens with a wider maximum aperture (literally, the hole in the lens where the light gets in) — what is often called a "fast" lens. Or at least faster. What I love about my big club of a telephoto that's on my D200 now is that it's a fast telephoto lens.

It's not a zoom. It's not light. But it automatically focuses itself (eventually, although I think I could do it quicker), and it's maximum aperture is wider by at least a half stop than any lens on the list. Unlike all the zooms above, its maximum aperture does not diminish as it is zoomed into telephoto. It's already well into telephoto. But it would be very difficult to photograph crowds (like families at a wedding) with it, because I'd have to back up farther than I could shout instructions.

The major stops are: f/1  1.4  2  2.8  4  5.6   8  11  16  22  32  45  64  90  128

A math wiz will note that each second number is a double of the first. And photographers will note that these numbers are expressed as fractions. I.e. f over that number. The deal is that an f/1 lens (which supposedly lets in all the light that hits it) lets in twice as much light as an f/1.4. An f/2 lens lets in half as much light as an f/1.4 and one-fourth as much as the f/1. Etc.

I used to drill this sequence into my students, but if you leave your camera and lens on full automatic it only matters some of the time, and many who take pictures haven't a clue about any of this.

If, however, you use a camera that shows the working aperture, it will eventually make sense that larger numbers mean more objects at different distances can be in focus.

Imagine each spot in view creating a cone of light (light reflects out in many directions, only a few of which hit the lens, cutting it down to a cone). The rays then refract through the lens to form a smaller, reverse cone focusing [literally] to a point. If there's a flat plane of film or digital sensor intersecting at that point, it is the image of that spot focused.


Rock and Prism

Rock and Prism   1/5 @ f/5.6  iso1,000  room light
tripod  Aperture Priority (thinking it was A for Auto)

LESSONS: Showing that by frame 35, I could at least focus. The picture is a tad yellow. I doubt I even knew then how to set the White Balance at all. The window frames are just about that exact color, though, and so are the plants. The rock is just a rock. The prism is a Captain's Prism, supposedly sucks outside light in one end and refracts it into the Captain's Quarters on an early ship. I think of it as a lens.

Aperture matters, because the bigger the number, the smaller the fraction, so less light gets through. Smaller apertures tighten the cones, yielding more depth of focus (depth of field indicates range of distances in focus in front of the camera; depth of focus is the range of distances behind the lens the image [or parts of it] will be in focus). Tighter cones make smaller circles so more's in focus.

Lots of cones come through the lens at once, of course, so the closer to the same "film" plane the important spots are, the more likely they'll be rendered as sharp.

Any basic photography instruction book can explain this multi-dimensional phenomenon in a lot more words than I just did. Trust me, it matters, and I know why it matters, and because of all that, I want as fast a lens as I can put up with, because I love to shoot in low light and nearly no light; I often have no choice; and I'd prefer to avoid using flash.

I love my 180 f/2.8, even though it's big, heavy and club-like, because it's a long telephoto that lets in a lot of light when it has to, and it's at its best in the lower register of f/stops. It's got reach and will let me take closer-up pictures of Pelicans than ever before. And because the Nikon has twice as many megapixels as my F707, those images will look better and make better prints.

To shoot art and weddings and people and scenics and landscapes, I also need a shorter, lighter, zoomier lens.

The Nikon lenses I already have [listed just below] are why I bought a Nikon instead of an Olympus (Their new E-330 EVOLT (and thei identical Panasonic DMC-L1) has both EVF and optical viewfinders, just for one instance), or the popular Canon or a newer Sony. I figured I could use them to learn with till I figure out what else to get.

I got them all well back into the last century. The 180 is the newest. It's only 17 years old. The others are from the 1960s and 70s. I assume they'll still work. We'll see when I finally get over using the 180 behemouth.


My old Nikon lenses as used on the D200

20/4 wide angle   fine lens and grand fun  
35/1.4 normal 14 oz. very difficult to focus  
55/3.5 medium telephoto   focuses very very close, grand fun to shoot  
105/2.5 telephoto 15 oz. very very sharp, easy to use  
180/2.8 AF   27 oz fabulous lens, sharp, fast, long reach, amazing wide aperture  

Except for the 20mm, all are listed among Björn's Best of the Best Nikon Lenses, so we're talking some serious glass here.


[All shots taken with the Nikon 180mm 2.8 AF lens.]