Learning photography: A tale of a photographer & his gear

This essay was first intended to counter-balance a mild rant elsewhere on the site but managed to grow into a lengthy, full-blown reminiscence. It's probably pretty tedious reading, but I don't apologize. Reminiscences like this are an old person's privilege, which you only really find out once you're old yourself. Youngsters wonder why old folks go on so about even the smallest details from the past. When you’re old, you understand it’s because the past is most of your life and old folks want to hold on to as much life as they can.

So here’s my reminiscence, meandering along, recalling something of how I learned about photography through the equipment I used, with occasional thoughts about photography generally. The essay emerged in slow stages because many byways suddenly appeared and needed exploring. Not so they could be recounted here but because they just need exploring. Anyway, with luck there may be something to what follows. Probably not, though, and that’s okay by me.

In the mild rant referred to, I complained about how often people, on seeing a good photograph, deprecate the photographer’s role as creative artist in making it. Must have been a really good camera, people say, or (unmentioned in the rant) must have been Photoshopped. Because, you know, cameras just spontaneously make photographs and Photoshop can make any vacay snapshot a wall hanger.

It’s the photographer’s creativity that makes a good photograph. That's what I said in my little rant and I don't take a word back. But this doesn’t mean there isn't an important technological element in photography. If when visualizing a photograph the photographer employs their eyes, mind, and heart (as Cartier-Bresson said), then distilling what has been seen, thought, and felt into visible form requires technological tools and skill in using them. Such craft-like blending of photographic creative expression with technology is nothing new, nor is the familiar fundamental sequence through which it happens. This sequence, largely unchanged in its broad outlines from photography’s earliest days, runs from visualization and composition through exposure, development, and fixing for display. Beginning with the photographer’s creative decision, every step that follows is aimed at realizing in the final display what the photographer visualized before even looking into the viewfinder. The creative why always governs the technological how. 

The effects of technological change in photography are sometimes overestimated, I think. Of course there’s been change, momentous change, since the foundations for the digital revolution were laid down in the 1950s and 1960s. Digital has become so dominant that film hangs on only with aficionados and fanatics. No one doubts that technology has given us amazing equipment to make amazing photographs. But the photographer’s path to creative expression, that fundamental sequence of tasks, remains nonetheless largely unchanged. The techniques and tools used to handle those tasks have been refined, made more accessible, and are for most photographers now relocated to a studio computer rather than a darkroom. Yet photographers continue to do what they have always done in pursuit of their creative visions.

I emphasize the continuity in basic photographic tasks, and for that matter also techniques (e.g. dodging, burning, masking, etc.), because few vocations or avocations seem to get as wrapped up in equipment (or gear or kit or whatever you want to call it) as photography does. Maybe audiophiles, videographers, and ham radio operators. And heavy metal rock bands. Yeah, them, too. Maybe we all need to get a life.

Technology is basically about tools, that’s all. Lose sight of that, as we too regularly do, and we start confusing using tools with doing creative photography. Or even good photography. A photographer once showed me a group portrait, crowing about its technical image quality while ignoring the telephone pole growing out of someone’s head. (Maybe it’s me, but that just ain’t right.) I’ve watched a photographer’s assistant lug a battery-powered softbox  along a breakwater out to some lakeside rocks, then hold it just above several people’s heads while the photographer shot directly into the setting sun behind them. (Yuppers, bet that worked.) Think of all the overly processed, contrasty, or heavily saturated images you’ve seen, attempting to be painterly or dramatic but winding up being only garish. You get the point: Technology can perhaps make you a better photographer, but by itself alone it can never make you a good one.

Scientists once referred to human beings as the tool-making animal. Maybe we should also learn when not to use tools, at least in photography. Yes, we must understand our kit technically, how it works and why. But it's more important that we  turn our technical understanding to creative uses. As we use our kit, we learn its creative strengths and weaknesses, how it suits and shapes our preferred shooting style. All kit, especially lenses and camera bodies, has assumptions built into it about how photographers work. Some of these assumptions are highly technical, others more cosmetic. We need in any case to ask how these assumptions mold and enable our work creatively, and not just do technological tricks because we can.

Thinking about this (I really need to get a life), it occurred to me that one way of understanding what and how I'd learned about photography over the years was to trace the history of my gear, mostly cameras but other kit as well. Sometimes the lessons were small, other times huge. But all influenced the way I approach doing photography creatively.

Two notes before launching the wayback machine. First, all lenses are listed with their native focal lengths (plus 35mm equivalents in parentheses for Olympus lenses). What this means is discussed here, especially in the second paragraph; you can safely skip this if you want. Second, rather than describe the different types of cameras mentioned below, each is labeled as follows with links to Wikipedia articles if you're at all interested. Again, no one is gonna call you out if you skip this.

SLR = single lens reflex camera

dSLR = digital single lens reflex camera

FF dSLR = full-frame format dSLR camera

4/3 dSLR = 4/3 format dSLR camera

Micro 4/3 = 4/3 format mirrorless camera

And now, finally, welcome to the wayback machine . . . and I do mean way  back.

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Argus C3 (SLR)

That camera when I was eleven -- About has the  backstory -- wasn't more than a toy, making my first real camera a used Argus C3, known as “The Brick” for obvious reasons. It was among the most popular cameras ever produced. I still have my mine and if it got tuned up a little, it would probably still record decent images. But that's not why I keep it.

It’s 1962. I’m a teenager looking at a display case filled with new cameras I can’t afford. The photography store owner knows this, but I still tell him I want nothing less than a "serious camera." I’m going to be a serious photographer and that takes a serious camera, right? The owner has heard this all before, but somehow decides not to blow me off as just another jive punk wannabe. He walks over to a table of used cameras, saying in gruff Philly speak,  "C'mere, kid. Ya wanna be a serious photographer? First ya learn the basics, then ya get a serious camera." He hands me the C3. "Here ya go, kid, sixteen bucks. The telephoto I'll throw in for nuthin’."

Lousy telephoto, good camera, priceless advice. Rangefinder focusing taught patience and precision. No exposure meter, so master the exposure triangle or die: F-stop + shutter speed + ISO (formerly known as ASA or DIN). You rehearsed the sunny 16 rule so much you mumbled it in your sleep: In direct sunlight, use f/16 and set shutter speed to the reciprocal of ISO. So good old Kodak Tri-X 400 meant  f/16 at 1/400 second. Journalists usually just adjusted f/stop in changing conditions, but you could be seriously creative by understanding the exposure triangle well enough to control depth of field.

Changing lenses on the C3 was so tedious that you used its f/3.5 50mm lens almost all the time, zooming with your legs in in a "dance" with your subject looking for the best angle or perspective. In other words, you learned what it is to really work a shot.

Bottom line: The C3 forced me to learn the basics, just as that crusty photography store owner had known it would when he sold it to me. Yeah, he'd known exactly what he was doing, God love him. He'd unloaded an older camera on a young loudmouth, sure, but he was also challenging me. Did I really want to be a serious photographer? Well, okay then: Have at it. And whether he meant to or not, he probably couldn't have sold me a better learning tool. I'm still thankful all these years later, and that's why my Argus C3 sits in my studio as a reminder. 

The Argus C3 did yeoman duty when I went to Germany as an exchange student from 1963 to 1964 (there are C3 images in my portfolio from those years). Still, by the time I hit college, it was pretty clear that moving forward  meant acquiring some new kit. Not until 1971, however, back in Germany courtesy of Uncle Sam, did motive (always present) and means (generally sadly lacking) come together.

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Minolta SR-T 101 (SLR)

Through college and into the Army, there was neither time nor money for me to be an active photographer or even to stay current on advances in equipment. Finally arriving at my duty station in upper Bavaria in summer 1971, nine years after buying my heroic C3, I knew it was well past time to take the next step. When I did, the capabilities of a serious mid-level camera like the 101 came as a revelation. No more eyeballing exposures or split-image rangefinder focusing. The newer SLRs set the photographer free to truly concentrate on creativity. Or that's how it seemed to me at the time.  

The 101 had reasonably advanced through-the-lens (TTL) systems, something entirely new to me after the C3. Its full aperture TTL metering system was particularly attractive. The viewfinder remained fully illuminated while composing and focusing, rather than being "stopped down" to the selected f-stop. Setting exposure was straightforward: A pointer visible on the viewfinder’s right side indicated the amount of light coming through the lens, while a needle topped by a small ring responded to exposure triangle adjustments. Move the ring so it overlapped the pointer and you had a technically correct exposure.

The film’s ISO served as the base for calculating exposure; setting it moved the ring needle a corresponding distance closer to or away from the first needle. Next the shutter speed or f/stop was set, depending which had priority given the photographer’s intentions. Again the ring needle moved closer to or away from the first needle. Then the third setting, shutter speed or f/stop, was adjusted to bring the two needles into alignment. So long as the first needle was somewhere in the ring on the second needle, you had a good exposure. Again my camera was teaching me how to manage the interactive nature of the exposure triangle.

A second feature of the 101’s metering system was its “contrast light compensation” (CLC). Early TTL light meters did not allow selection among different metering modes (e.g., spot, averaging, matrix, center-weighted averaging). Most therefore used center-weighted metering on the assumption that the most important elements in a photo will most likely be at or near the center of the frame. The 101 also used a center-weighted meter, but added one light sensitive cell at the front of the viewfinder and another at the rear. These linked cells (through some wizardry I can neither understand nor explain) provided a more nuanced reading of the frame, functioning somewhat like a primitive matrix meter though it accommodated landscape (horizontal) framing much better than portrait (vertical).

The 101’s focus system was manual, of course. Lens focus ring adjustments sharpened or blurred a circular grid visible in the viewfinder. A thin Fresnel prism that overlay the grid facilitated focusing by brightening the grid for better visibility. Though quite different from and an improvement over the C3’s rangefinder system, it required the same patience and precision. The lesson here was that good focus is challenging and can't be rushed, no matter the camera body or lens, and should have carried over to later autofocus equipment. But I had to relearn it, to my cost, because I allowed myself to depend on technology at the expense of technique. This in itself was a valuable, if painful, lesson.

The 101 taught me that photographers must think of their kit as a system designed for their particular shooting interests and styles. Camera bodies are usually regarded as the hub of a photography system, but I think it's lenses that make or break you and that you should buy a camera body because of the lenses it lets you use.

Nothing compensates for poor quality lenses. Although it’s often possible to work around a camera body’s shortcomings, bad lenses create problems in every image you make and even if correctable, require considerable effort to do so and drive you crazy in the process. And if you’re like me, you’ve already got enough crazy to deal with.

Lenses are the priority when building a photo system. Not just the first lens, but also possibilities for upgrading down the way. What’s available for your camera line? Because if you're serious about photography, you’ll want to multiple lenses.  

I learned this guideline when buying the 101 (and ignored it one time later, to my cost). The 101 had a decent Rokkor 50mm f/1.7 kit lens, but generally “kit lens” is not a compliment. Most kit lenses are not very durable, are seldom moisture and dust sealed, and have no more than average image quality. The kit lens’s chief advantage is low production cost, allowing manufacturers to package them inexpensively with camera bodies to simplify consume decision-making and provide the immediate gratification of "out of the box" shooting. A cynic might suggest this also snares a consumer into a specific camera brand and so creates additional revenue streams as consumer upgrade to better lenses. But of course there are no cynics here, right?

Anyway, I quickly upgraded to the MC Rokkor-PG 58mm f/1.2, a simply brilliant lens that was a principal reason I bought into the Minolta line. The 58mm was a so-called normal lens. These  have focal lengths ranging from about 45mm to 58mm, which roughly mimics the human eye’s angle of vision. Photographs made with normal lenses are thus familiar in terms of scale and proportion. Such lenses have been a photographic mainstay for decades, perhaps especially in street, event, and journalistic shooting.

However brilliant the f/1.2 was, it was still only one lens, and of course I needed more than one. Photographers like having gear and become quite adept at justifying additional or backup kit. So it seemed only natural that I should have at least two additional lenses, and as a budding landscape photographer it also seemed natural the first of these two lenses should be a standard wide angle, with a focal length between 24mm and 35mm. I settled on a Rokkor 35mm f/2.8 that turned out to be a very solid performer.

Buying that lens seemed natural because I mistakenly thought the primary use of wide angle lenses was to capture the full breadth of the landscape, the full sweep of the land. They do this, but with an important and possibly limiting caveat. Wide angle lenses have angles of vision ranging from about 64 to 84 degrees, considerably wider than the human eye. Our eyes therefore see objects as larger than they can be recorded with a wide angle lens. The wider the lens, the smaller objects become relative to how our eyes see them (see here for illustration). However logical, this is often forgotten in the field, leading to disappointment at how small objects appear when wide angle shots are sized for print or screen. Compositionally, it's more effective to let a “slice” of landscape with larger features stand in for or suggest the "flavor" of the whole. Which may not require a wide angle to accomplish. 

I now consider wide angle lenses, certainly anything wider than 24mm, as “special purpose” lenses, perhaps even as niche lenses that perform two tasks especially well. The first is when working in close quarters while trying to get a lot in the frame, like the shot from Balcony House at Mesa Verde National Park. The second is when including something in the close foreground against a more distant background or using a close foreground as a frame, like the image of Washer Woman Arch seen through Mesa Arch at Canyonlands National Park.  (Full disclosure: These and other examples were made with gear other than the 101, for reasons I describe at the start of the section about going digital.)

Moving on . . . . Normal lens, wide angle lens . . . geez, what came next, I wonder? Actually, I did wonder if I really needed a telephoto lens in my kit, especially if landscape was going to be my thing. (Okay, please stop laughing at me: I was young and foolish, remember?) The answer is obviously and emphatically yes, so I added a nifty Rokkor 135mm f/2.8 mid-telephoto to my kit. Happily so, because not only do telephotos capture distant objects and details, but they have inherently greater depth of field and can compress the apparent distance between objects, somewhat as happens in this photo of a pioneer barn and background mountains in Grand Teton National Park. Frankly, I should use my telephoto far more than I do, but I’m bad about switching lenses while in the field, another technology-induced shooting fault that I need to correct.

When I'd worked out my basic kit -- which included a good tripod and remote shutter release cable, both essential for any serious photographer even now with internal stabilization systems standard in digital cameras -- my duty station officer-in-charge, a fine man and leader, generously permitted me to set up a small darkroom in the basement of our office building in exchange for doing duty-related photography. For this and many other considerations I will always be grateful to him. The 101 spent many days on the ground and some in the air along the then West/East German border in northern Bavaria, with the happy result that not only did my comrades and I become well acquainted with the border's military features but also with the many small village pubs in the region. Liaison work at its finest. I’m sure some of those border and military images contributed significantly to winning the Cold War . . . . which you can believe if you want, but it's not required.

The SR-T 101 remained with me for many years, through graduate school and beyond. It held up under rugged conditions on uncounted Minnesota North Woods canoeing and camping excursions, rock climbing sessions from Wisconsin to West Virginia, and mountaineering in Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming. Some of the images most precious to me personally were made with it. It sits in my studio today, next to the Argus C3.

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Olympus E-500, E-3, E-5 & OM-D E-M5 (4/3 dSLRS except M-5 micro 4/3)

I entered the digital age and returned to active photography all on the same day. As the man said, it was good. First, however, I had to get there.

Christmas Day.  I'm away visiting my family.  Also away is my upstairs neighbor, who is an idiot. To save money, he turns his heating down before leaving. Way down. Water pipes freeze, then burst. My apartment is inundated and uninhabitable for months. Most of my photographic equipment and almost all of my slides, negatives, and prints, plus academic research records, are destroyed. The sudden loss of so much that is irreplaceable demoralizes me well into the future.

For years I dropped serious photography altogether, though I tried to use the water-damaged 58mm and 101 on some family excursions. Eventually there was also an entry-level film SLR that I used to document historical sites after a chance discovery stirred my interest in family history. The lab scanned negatives and slides to digital files that I processed in Photoshop Elements. Not altogether satisfactory. I bought a basic scanner for some surviving photos and slides. Scanning was a means to leverage film’s still superior resolution with the growing power of digital processing. To me, it seemed clear that photography’s future was full bore digital. Which meant mine was, too, if I wanted back in the game. I started getting antsy and it was only a matter of time.

After various adventures, my wife and I landed in a central Illinois town, where there happened to be an independent photography store with an energetic, knowledgeable staff. I dropped in on a "just looking" basis several times, then finally made a serious visit in 2006.The young store manager patiently answered my questions, which  seemed painfully basic to me. I’d had the sense to ask my wife along and she eventually approved the purchase of an Olympus E-500 dSLR with two kit zoom lenses. I suspect she's since regretted that decision a time or two.

Digital was a new world. Other than compositional techniques, almost nothing transferred directly from film to digital, at least not for me. This wasn’t refreshing or relearning something once known; it was learning something entirely new. 

But there was still the advice given me so long ago by that crusty camera store owner, the one who sold me the C3. That advice paid off once again. “Learn the basics,” he’d said. The basics apply regardless of what camera system you’re using. I studied the E-500 manual, learned what a jpeg was and then a RAW file, figured out the dials and buttons, discovered autofocus, overcame my aversion to zoom lenses, and made my first test snapshots of the cat on the back porch. (It's always the cat, right?) The basics came back, quickly, but it took time to understand the differences in the behaviors of analog film and digital sensors, how digital technology both extends and constrains. The comeback journey was starting.

Three basic differences between film and digital photography became apparent. First, digital equipment is much more technologically complex than film equipment. Second, the nature of digital processing makes the computer and even printer part of a photographer's system in a way the darkroom never was. Third,  understanding your equipment is considerably more important in digital than in film photography. If you want to get to M on a dSLR, and so make full use of its capabilities, you must understand that a dSLR is essentially a computer with a lens attached and know how that computer works.

Once you grasp these three points, learning to shoot digitally is a straightforward iterative process.Understand as much as you can about using your camera, about digital shooting generally, and about basic composition. Shoot as much as possible as often as possible, analyze the results (being sure not to mistake improvement for quality), adjust, then repeat the cycle in as many different contexts as possible. Learn, shoot, analyze, adjust, repeat. That's all there is to it. Well, that and the occasional swearing sessions.

Olympus (which left camera manufacturing in summer 2020) helped develop the small 4/3 sensor, allowing for smaller, lighter cameras and lenses. The E-500 was a serious "prosumer" dSLR with several features well above its modest price point. The E-3 and E-5 were flagship dSLRs intended for high end enthusiast and professional shooters. The E-M5 was a mirrorless camera with an electronic rather than optical viewfinder. Its specs and performance were equal to or better than many dSLRs. Oly innovations have since become standard in dSLRs: a sensor cleaning system, blazing fast autofocus; with the E-3, E-5, and E-M5, in-body image stabilization reducing camera shake when shooting hand-held at low shutter speeds, and articulating rear LCD screens. Oly gear also had superior "weather sealing," meaning it could withstand harsher conditions than many other brands.

What made the Oly system for me was -- you'll never guess -- the lenses. The E-500 had two kit lenses, one of which was the worst lens I've ever shot with. I quickly dumped it for a Zuiko 14mm–54mm (28mm--108mm) f/2.8–3.5 which then became a Zuiko 12mm-60mm (24mm--120mm) f/2.8-4. The 12mm-60mm had a weird correctible distortion pattern, but was otherwise outstanding. The Zuiko 50mm-200mm (100mm-400mm)  f/2.8-3.5 was also outstanding, as were the Zuiko 50mm (100mm) f/2 Macro and Panasonic-Leica 25mm (50mm)  f/1.4 Summilux. On the E-M5 the f/1.4 was brilliant. A lot of great shots with those lens, some of my very best.

So why did I stop using Oly after seven years? Basically because of what I'd learned from the Minolta SR-T 101, that photographers buy into and build a system.  I wasn't sure what kind of Oly system I'd be able to maintain. Oly had wonderful lenses, but their camera bodies lagged  behind. The flagships had fairly modest megapixel sensors when released, 10mp for the E-3 in 2007 and 12mp for the E-5 in 2010. The E-5 definitely improved on the E-3, and megapixel counts do not define image quality, but the E-5 still couldn't do those lenses justice.

Nor did Oly seem very keen to develop its dSLR line further, preferring to emphasize mirrorless micro-4/3 cameras. These jumped ahead in terms of features and sensor development, as with the E-M5 in 2012. I started shooting with the E-M5 in January,  2013, primarily with the Panasonic-Leica 25mm (50mm) f/1.4 and occasionally my Oly lenses on an adapter. The E-M5 with the f/1.4 made some interesting images, like this stairwell shot, and produced spectacular color, as in this from Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia. But it was too small for me to work with comfortably. And questions arose whether the micro-4/3 sensor's small size might limit its further development. As I age still more, I will almost certainly take up the smaller mirrorless format, but it wasn't for me then and isn't now. After shooting with the E-M5 for only five months, in May I set it aside to make about as big a system jump as possible at the time and still be shooting a dSLR.

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Nikon D800 & D810 (FF dSLRs)

Somebody once said, "Go big or go home." I went big, jumping to the Nikon D-800 in May, 2013, a year after its release. The D800 had a 36.3 megapixel sensor, then the market's largest in a dSLR. It won a number of awards and set a new benchmark for dSLR image quality. The successor D810 arrived two years later, offering improved auto-focusing and a new sensor with still better image quality. The D810 and D800 are feature packed full frame workhorses, and I love them.

I've considered moving to the newer D850, which has a staggering 45.7 megapixel sensor as well as several focus innovations, or perhaps to the Z7 II, Nikon's flagship mirrorless dSLR. But I'm not sure how much more camera I really need right now, as opposed to using that money for travel to new shooting locations and experiences. Maybe I'll win the lottery and do both. Maybe I'll see a unicorn, too.

Anyway, there's one benchmark that has become steadily more important to me: dynamic range (DR). DR is the difference between the darkest and brightest details a sensor (or film) can capture. It's usually expressed in stops, which can be calculated in various ways. Most familiar is the f-stop, the ratio between lens focal length and the width of a lens opening. This ratio is used to indicate how much light is being admitted into the camera. On the scale of full f-stops, each stop is a factor of two brighter or darker than the stop following or preceding it. Thus a full stop increase from f/5.6 to f/8 reduces the light admitted by 50 percent, while the full stop decrease from f/5.6 to f/4 doubles the light admitted. It helps your mental stability to keep remembering that the stop is a ratio.

DR has been a problem for dSLRs. The D810 didn't solve the problem, but it does achieve a very high DR of eleven stops (some sources have said even higher). That means at its base ISO, the D810 can capture a scene where the brightest element is about 1100 times brighter than the darkest element. That's a lot, and very important when working in the outdoors.

Starting with my Oly cameras, I began to use zoom rather than prime lenses. Part of this was by force of necessity. Buying lots of prime lenses is expensive; carrying them in the field is a pain. Fortunately, zoom lenses have steadily improved and their flexibility is now usually worth the slight decrease in image quality between them and primes. Nikon has an excellent stable of lenses, some of them ranking among the very best available. Nikon's "gold ring" lenses are stabilized, allowing more confident hand-held shooting, and they're well-sealed against moisture and dust. I've really been happy with their quality: Nikkor 16mm-35mm f/4, Nikkor 24mm-70mm f/2.8, Nikkor 70mm-200mm f/2.8, 80mm-400mm f/4.5-f/5.6, and Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 micro. 

The image quality I'm getting from these lenses on the D810 and D800 often astonishes me. I've made some of my very best shots with them, often in challenging lighting conditions: the cathedral in Bayeux, France, at night; low  interior light in the Reims, France, cathedral; a high contrast night scene in Bayeux; and a challenging morning shot of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. They take me from the sweep of a Badlands sunset or a Yellowstone sunrise, to the solemnity of the cemetery above Omaha Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, and on to quiet beauty of a mountain blue birdThat makes this old fart photographer happy.

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(5/26/21 rev.)

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