Running with cameras

DPReview has an excellent review of the 18-200mm Nikkor travel kit lens, a lens I happen to own.

I wait for Pizza with my Nikon camera (from side)

I wait for Pizza with my Nikon camera (from side)
Patxi’s Pizza, Palo Alto, CA

Lumix DMC-LX1
1/3 sec @ f/2.8, iso 200, 6mm (28mm)

One criticism missing from the review is how annoyingly long the lens extends when zoomed—I’ll miss the slickness of the way the 18-70mm handles zooming as well as its build quality. One criticism in the review I take exception to is the complaint about complex distortion at wide angles—the reason is that DxO Optics Pro easily fixes this problem.

The review is especially notable because the excellent flash applet they have that shows the test results. This confirms something I’ve always suspected, but never really tested: the lens is not sharp at the long portrait telephoto distances.

Still, I think people reading the review might get so obsessed with MTF curves and assorted “pixel peeping” that they won’t gather why this lens, warts and all, is still a great lens.

Through the lens

Through the lens
Riverstone Townhomes, Mountain View, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-4.5G VR
1/30 sec @ f/5.6, iso 1000, 200mm (300mm)

This image easily made the front page of Nikon’s Stunning Gallery after I submitted it. It was taken with the lens I had on my camera: the 18-200mm at 200mm and taking advantage of the impressive close focusing capabilities of the lens.

This is good timing. When I got this lens two years ago to replace my 18-70mm, I managed to be one of the lucky few who got it quickly and for almost $100 than list price (Thanks, Roberts Imaging!). A year later, this lens was so scarce it was still reselling for almost $100 above list on eBay, I felt I made off like a bandit.

Now the price and availability have come more into line. Though I do wish the build quality was slightly higher or that the price was slightly cheaper.

Jeremiah, Holly, and Jessica (2007-0038 068)

Jeremiah, Holly, and Jessica
NetGear, Santa Clara, California

Nikon D200, Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G VR
1/90sec @ f/3.5, iso 800, 18mm (27mm)

The 18-200mm makes a great documentary lens because you don’t have time to switch out lenses. Here I capture a few of my friends talking after Lunch 2.0.

[Defending the all-purpose kit]

Optical cost and convenience

I’ve already mentioned the advantages of a travel kit lens before. Basically, if you want this lens for “full frame” you are talking about an optic that cost and weighs three times more!

But I thought I’d try to get my point across without the numbers or and without the vitriol.

Go with Galen

In Galen Rowell’s excellent book, there is an essay titled, “Photography on the Run.” Here is an excerpt:

When I worked on a book that matched the text of John Muir’s The Yosemite with my images, I wanted to do more than put his flowery words beneath a modern set of rock and tree photographs. I wanted my selection of Yosemite photographs to be uniquely tied to his visions…Muir Gorge goes years at a time without a single human passage. It is impenetrable except late in the summer of very low water years and even then you have to rock climb, scramble down waterfalls, and swing in glacier-fed waters. On an August morning of one of the lowest water years of the century, I set out in my running gear with my camera and two friends. This time I brought six plastic Ziploc bags. We ran sixteen miles of trail through the canyon and began scrambling through the gorge until we were forced to swing a series of long pools. I used three of the bags to triple seal my camera and the other three to triple-seal my extra zoom lens. I climbed out on the rocks several times, undid my camera, and took pictures of my companions as we duplicated Muir’s traverse through the gorge 115 years later in much the same fashion.

I own a Nikon D3 now, but I find it hard to believe that Galen, were he alive today, wouldn’t be shooting with a D60 + an 18-200mm VR for his “first run” excursions.

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls
Yosemite National Park, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G DX
1/500sec @ f/9, iso 800, 35mm (52mm)

We were just returning from reparking our car when I had to jump out of the shuttle, run to this spot, kneel, and take a photo shooting above the heads of the tourists with the only lens I had on: a kit lens. I was in a rush because my friends were waiting for me at Camp 4. Because of its accessibility, this is one of the most photographed scenes in Yosemite—the very antithesis of area Galen is describing—but because of my angle, my rush, and the time of day, I don’t think the other tourists quite got this photo.

Reaching places

I like to say

A good photograph is about seeing different. Showing something that others cannot see is the key to capture. Maybe they cannot because they don’t have access to the subject, or haven’t been to that place, or at that time, or with that lens, or from that perspective. But in the end it’s about seeing different and showing it.

Galen’s story is one about reaching a place—a place that Ansel Adam’s could have not gotten to lugging the equipment of his time period. That is one of the reasons that as an adventure photographer he’s unsurpassed. I could never reach the places he has.

On a multi-day hike in Point Reyes, we opted for an excursion. We did this by parking our cars at opposite ends and heading out at a time computed for a singular negative low tide that winter.

All I carried that time was my Olympus bridge digital and a cheap toy video tripod.

Neither would last the trip. Both succumbed to the elements.

Elephant rock

Elephant Rock
Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Olympus C-2500L
(3 images, 1/1300-1/2500 sec @ f/4.5), iso 100, 9.2mm (36mm)

I almost died this day, but the photography was amazing, even if the camera is totally outclassed by todays $200 pocket digicams.

So much of the coastline had eroded as to make certain areas impassible and other areas nearly so. I don’t know if this point can even be reached anymore. And certainly the points beyond are now impassible.

It’d be nice to reach this place again, even with my pocket digital or even without a camera at all…


Harnessing your powers

Once you’ve gone SLR, it’s hard to resist the allure of it. And once you start carrying camera equipment, it is nearly impossible to have the discipline to leave stuff behind.

Don’t believe me? My friends seem to think that a Nikon D3 and a large zoom classifies as a “walk around” kit. Heck, have you seen Jeremy Johnstone’s gear case? 🙂 Photographers are packrats. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, “Sure, I’ll just stuff that Lensbaby in my pocket” and notice that I never once took it out and used it that day.

But if you’re going to take these photos and refuse to do so without SLR in hand, you’ll need to leave that case at home and book. In that case, I suggest a harness system from Think Tank or Kineses, preferably with a “yeah I look like a dork, but at least I got here” chest harness.

Oh yeah, you can start strapping shit to your utility belt like Bat Man, but I don’t recommend it. Just because it sits on your hips doesn’t mean it isn’t going to hurt after the fifth mile or so.

“When You Can’t Take it With You.”

Ditching it

From the same book:

I did not use my running rig to take what has become my running rig to take what has become my best-known photograph, but I would never have made that image…unless I had developed the discipline of running with a camera. When I saw the rainbow in a field well to the side of the palace, I began to run with my shoulder bag of camera equipment to try to line up the rainbow with the palace roofs. After a few hundred yards at 12,000 feet, I realized that the rainbow would likely be gone before I culd get to where it was in line with the place. I ditched my camera bag in some bushes, grabbed a Nikon F3 with motor drive, a 75-150mm zoom, two rolls of film, and began running. The Op/TECH strap took the shock of the camera off my neck as I held it against my chest with one hand. I could see that the direct sunlight was hitting a broad curtain of raindrops, so I knew that the rainbow was quite likely to continue moving with me as I rushed across the field. When I got to the perfect place wher ethe rainbow seemed to be emanating from the golden rooftops, yet another factor came into play to make the photograph even more extraordinary. A beam of light came through the clouds and onto the palace for a brief moment while I had my camera solidly braced against a post with focus and composition set exactly where I wanted them.

Buy the book.

And about that lens. Here is a snippet from the second edition preface to Galen’s classic book on outdoor landscape photography:

I save this simple, old-fashioned, light camera body for simple, old-fashioned light trips into the back country, even to the point of taking a Nikon 75-150mm zoom from the seventies as my only other lens, because it still offers the best combination of light weight, zoom range, and sharpness. The majroity of newer broader-range zooms I’ve tested simply aren’t sharp enough for my standards…

Before rushing out to find a used 75-150mm zoom, consider that this old lens never makes it into my standard camera bag for general photography. My newer Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 zoom lens is faster, a bit sharper, and longer in focal length with optional auto-focus to aid my over-fifty eyes in dim light. It also weighs more than twice as much.

Buy the Nikon 18-200mm lens (Sigma version for Canon EF-S, Sony/Minolta version, Sigma version for Pentax or Tamron version for Pentax, Sigma version, Leica version for Olympus/Panasonic Four-Thirds, …)

DX on FX

Matt even mentioned to me that he was enjoying his 18-200mm on a Nikon D3. The DX lens automatically sets a 6 megapixel crop and shades the viewfinder to show the coverage. But he told me that able to see around the image has helped him framing and composition.


6 thoughts on “Running with cameras

  1. Sadly I brought most of what was pictured (the two smaller cases in Niche #3 of my post) to Austin. On the flip side, I have actually used a large number of lenses already (call my indecisive). In less than 24 hours I have used:

    50mm F/1.8 – Facebook Party
    Lensbaby 2.0 – All day at random times
    24-70mm F/2.8L – Dog Park
    135mm F/2L – Dog Park + Facebook Party
    135mm F/2L w/ 2x convertor – Dog Park
    17-40mm F/4L – street walking

    The only thing I have used yet which would annoy me if I didn’t use on this trip (since it was a loaner) is a 200mm F/2.8L. It would have came in handy at the dog park, but unfortunately I didn’t bring it.

  2. Well this is about outdoor photography so you can be excused for prinign all your gear to a tech conference.

    I hope you are enjoying your time at SXSW. 🙂

  3. Stick to coding, your better at it. Your a bottom of the foodchain event photog. And thats all you will every be. All the nikon equipment cant help your eye. If all you are going to do is event photography buy a canon for gods sake, leave nikon to the pros.

  4. I have my own stalker. Cool.


    I had no idea that they’re calling hiking snapshots “event photography” nowadays. Thankfully, most of the photos in this post were made with a nine year old 2.5 megapixel camera, an optically better and more versatile camera can be purchased for less than $200…Sadly, trolling on my blog is going to pay less than my “event photography” pays me.

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