Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! – More adventures in econo-camera land

9 May 2021

I make no secret about it; I’m absolutely not a camera snob. I will give any piece of photographic equipment the time of day as long as it has the ability to do what I want when I need it to.

In late 2017, I bought a used Sony α3000 (aka, ILCE-3000) simply because it was attached to a lens I wanted to use on my go-everywhere NEX-6 (which, by the way, is my favorite camera). I never really intended to use that bottom-of-the-line body at all, but I have since found it to be both incredibly capable and fun to use. I wrote about my experiences with it here a few years ago. It is true that the α3000 is a textbook example of compromise for profit, but it has many of the same internal imaging components as the more highly-regarded α5000 which doesn’t have the EVF or the comfy ergonomics of the α3000.

Very recently, I sold a couple of my older, Pentax-mount lenses to make way for newer, more capable glass with Sony E fittings. One of those older lenses was a 1980s version of the Tokina RMC 400 f/5.6 that I had owned for about a decade. I used that lens on a variety of cameras, but it had so many severe limitations that I never liked using it even when I got what I wanted out of it. On my Pentax K-5 and K-30 bodies, I could use that lens along with the in-body stabilization to get good images in decent light at f/8 and smaller, but it was a lot of work to focus because the lack of focus peaking (except in live view).

Sony’s own FE 100-400 tele-zoom had been on my radar as a telephoto option since it was released, but the €2500 price tag made it seem well outside of a justifiable expense in my case. Even a well-used copy of that lens fetches nearly €2k. When Sigma finally got around to offering their optically-stabilized 100-400 mm DG DN OS lens in Sony E mount, at a price that was €1500 less than the native Sony equivalent, it definitely caught my attention.

Lens-based optical stabilization is usually much better than body-based stabilization for long telephotos. Plus the ability for the Sigma to be used at its widest aperture (something my old Tokina simply could not do) makes it a much faster lens in practice than it at first seems with a maximum aperture of f/6.3 at 400 mm. I can use the Sigma effectively at f/6.3; I could not use the Tokina at aperture settings wider than f/8.

I don’t own any Sony FE ‘R’ bodies, so I am currently restricted to 24 MP in the FE format and ~10 MP in the crop mode with the A7. Thus, it makes sense for me to use one of my higher-MP APS-C bodies for the purpose of maximizing telephoto reach.

The α3000 wearing Sigma's 100-400 DG DN OS f/5-6.3 lens

When I got the Sigma, I decided to try it out on the α3000 because of its 20 MP sensor and also its rather comfortable grip. I wasn’t expecting much because the body is now pretty long in the tooth (released in 2013) and at the very bottom of the stack in terms of performance in many respects (it was that way even when it was first released). The sensor, however, gives me approximately the same pixel density of a 42 MP body in crop mode, so that’s the carrot worth chasing in this scenario.

Well hello Mrs. Blackbird - the Sigma 100-400 @ 400 and f/7.1

I’m happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised when using the new Sigma telephoto zoom on the old α3000. Within reason, the combination works remarkably well. If I use the autofocus limiter on the lens appropriately, focus acquisition is pretty good initially, but very good in situations where only minor refocus is necessary. I have used the Sigma/Sony combination in all modes and even in rather lousy lighting with better-than-acceptable results.

Where the α3000 falls down very hard is with the frame rate and the write-to-card rate, especially with JPEG+RAW capture. There is practically no buffer inside the α3000. If I want to use multi-frame capture and at a fast enough rate to actually be useful, I need to switch to JPEG only which is certainly not great for PP purposes.

Female stonechat on a wire - Sigma at 400 mm and f/6.3

That said, I have been very happy with the output from the α3000's sensor when the Sigma 100-400 is on board. Birding is now possible thanks to the 600mm equivalent reach and I still have the option of cropping a good bit if necessary since I have 20 MP to start with. The in-lens stabilization is nothing short of amazing. With stationary subjects and a bit of breath control, I have captured repeatable, crystal-clear images at 400 mm and 1/30 second with the α3000/Sigma DN combo hand-held. That to me is absolutely astounding.

Whimbrel working the inter-tidal zone - Sigma @ 400 and f/6.3

Someday I will probably bite the bullet and buy a much more advanced Sony body for this specific purpose, but until I do, I will continue to have some fun with my econo-telephoto setup. I will encourage the curious out there to do the same if so inclined.

Longing for AZ and the Four Corners Region – There is no place like it

28 March 2021

Last June, I started to write the entry below with a focus on Cameron Trading Post in Northern Arizona. Then I stopped, suddenly.

It was an overwhelming feeling of homesickness that washed over me as I contemplated that it might be as much as two to three years before I would be able to return to my home again. Thankfully, we have some light at the end of the tunnel with the potential of vaccine technology to at least help us begin to return to a life more normal than it is now.

Thus, I’m sharing the unfinished piece below. I have added a bit of analysis of my feelings at the end.

I thought about adding another equipment post this month. However, as the photography world’s obsession with the latest-and-greatest “kit” has risen to the point of neurotic behavior, I’m going to refrain, especially in this travel-less time we’re currently living in.

During a brief trip to my home state in November [November 2019, that is], my wife and I took a friend, who’s originally from France and who is now resident of Ireland, on a road trip to see a handful of the bright spots in Arizona’s extensive repertoire of beautiful places. No such trip for the completely-uninitiated AZ visitor would be complete without a chance to stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon.

With only enough time for a short visit, logistics can be a challenge. Grand Canyon Village is roughly 60 miles from just about anywhere (except Tusayan, which is not my cup of tea when it comes to places to stay in Northern Arizona).

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The Grand Canyon - As if it needed an introduction!

In my opinion, the best way to go about maximizing time at the Canyon is by staying close by the night before and, ideally, after a visit. Thus, my wife and I chose to take our traveling companion from Phoenix to Williams on the first day of our excursion, spend the night there, and then drive to the South Rim early in the morning to maximize the amount of daylight available for exploring the length of South Rim Drive.

When the sun finally disappeared beyond the view of Desert View’s expanse, we concluded our Grand Canyon adventure by driving to Cameron Trading Post (CTP) which stands roughly at the junction of highways AZ 64 and AZ 89.

CTP is superbly located 27 miles outside of Grand Canyon NP’s east entrance. As such, it’s only a half hour drive from Desert View to the trading post after sundown. I first visited CTP in the 1970s as a boy with my parents and grandparents on trips across northern Arizona. I don’t believe we ever stayed there when I was a kid, however.

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The Little Colorado River Canyon at night as seen from Cameron Trading Post

Today, CTP has a good number of rooms and a great restaurant that welcome visitors traveling along 89A between Flagstaff and Page. I’m not usually excited about motels and road-side cafes, but those at CTP have my highest recommendation. The rooms are modern, clean and comfortable. No, they are not what you will find at some of the chain hotels, but they are in line with the décor of the region and, in a way, are a lot more timeless. The beds are great, the bathrooms are better than average, and there’s enough room to stretch out without tripping over luggage. The restaurant offers great breakfasts and dinners aren’t bad, either.

Perhaps the biggest bonus is CTP’s proximity to the Little Colorado River and its beautiful canyon. After breakfast, we piled into the truck and headed out to the Little Colorado River Gorge to see the canyon in the morning light.

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Morning on the road near the Little Colorado River Gorge

That’s all I wrote last year before I stopped. In the 9.5 months that have passed, my feelings about Arizona and the Four Corners region have only intensified. What is it about my home state and those of the Four Corners region that is so incredibly special?

First, and probably foremost, it’s the large amount of public and publicly-accessible lands each of these states has to offer. Living in Ireland, I am stifled (that is truly the term) by the fact that nearly all of the land is privately owned. It’s extremely difficult to be out in any sort of natural area without trespassing on someone’s private land.

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Tonto National Forest - Part of Arizona's wealth of public land

Second, it’s the absence of persistent rain and the ability to effectively plan time outside largely free of foul weather. Ireland’s weather is so changeable that I really don’t know why anyone bothers to try to plan anything out of doors beyond two days. I have only attempted one backpacking trip in Ireland and it was ruined by (heavy) rain and (gale-force) wind that had not been predicted.

Finally, it’s the pure scale of the Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico which have to be experienced to be appreciated. Ireland is just over 1/4 the size of Arizona. The combined Four Corners states therefore represent a land area about 12-14 times the size of Ireland. The immense scale of the American West represents massive possibility on so many fronts, not the least of which is getting away from civilization with relative ease.

When the pandemic subsides, I’m destined to return. If not permanently, then for as long a segment of time as I can manage. I’ve been away far too long.

Waxing Photographic – Keeping it all on the tracks during lockdown

14 March 2021

So far, 2021 is turning out to be a bit too déjà vu for my liking. It was on the Leap Day of 2020 that I first suspected we were in real trouble and it turned out to be less than two weeks before I was sent away from my office, laptop in hand, and told to hold tight at home until further notice. I have not set foot in that office for 367 days and counting

In many ways, it seems a bit silly to write about photography as something important just as Italy gets ready to shut down the entire country ahead of Easter and as I sit here stuck in my 5km maximum roaming range for the fourth time in twelve months. However, photography continues to help me keep it all on the rails when all else has failed. It used to be music, but a number of factors have contributed to that being largely eliminated from my life.

In terms of out-and-out activity, I’m about as active in my photographic pursuits as I have ever been. I’m also working with the most diverse array of tools and toys at this moment that I ever have, even if the subjects available for photography are less diverse at this moment than they have ever been.

Calling to my inner Nick Carver – Getting local with my mobile phone’s camera

Film photography has been bigger in my life over the past 12 months than it has been in the past 20 years. I’m using both 135 and 120 film now, and it’s been greatly assisted by a will to experiment with bits of equipment and techniques that I’ve learned about on the ‘net during lockdown.

Tip of the glassberg – I’m just getting to know the Agfa Record I

As with all learning and experimentation, accidents will happen. I’ve botched a few things here and there while trying out new (old) cameras, emulsions, and post-capture techniques. There have been some happy accidents in the form of slightly messed-up processing, post-processing and poor camera operation (double exposures are frequent with my 120 cameras) and they have led to some great discussions with people even if I think the images themselves aren’t great.

Accidents will happen – Negative duplication gone FUBAR

Revisiting some of my older images has been beneficial, too. I’ve spent some time looking through images and re-working those I never really cared for either by alternatively cropping and processing to make them more faithful to the original intention or to fully transform them into a totally new vision. Many of those have made it to my Flickr account for sharing and a couple have gone to my website without shame.

Recharge necessary – An image from 2015 given an alternative treatment

To conclude, I'm very glad that I have photography in my life right now. It's made it much easier for me to stay at least somewhat positive over the past year and that's no small feat.

The next entry in this blog will be something about my home state of Arizona, so stay tuned. Until then, please stay safe.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, Toto – An upside-down world

7 February 2021

I’ve put off uploading the first of my blog entries this year for so long largely for one reason; it’s been hard to write anything positive when so much across the planet is so out-of-whack. True, I’m lucky that my immediate situation is mostly stable and that I and most people around me remain healthy, but the rest is just so hard to believe. It’s now been 11 months since I last set foot in my physical workplace and it’s been 14 months since I boarded an aircraft. That’s the longest stretch between fights (by far) I’ve observed during the past 16 years of my life, by the way.

Where’s my photography in all of this? The drive to actually get out and do something constructive continues to be hampered by the weather on the Soggy Island and the 5km restriction still in place for travel within Ireland. Most days, I feel that if I have to look at another stitch of the 5 km radius around where I live I’ll simply scream. I do realize that’s not fair to the many people who are in much more confined situations that I am, though. At least I have Galway Bay to the south and 5km of bogland to the north and west. The east isn’t so good - it’s the ‘burbs of Galway city and I don’t venture that way unless I have to.

One recent development (no pun intended) is that I acquired a 6x9 folding camera last month. It’s a near-mint Agfa Record I without any of the bells and whistles. The particular camera I purchased has the ‘base’ triplet lens and the bottom-of-the-line Pronto shutter.

I’m only one roll of film into our nascent relationship, but the experience has already shown me a few things. 1) I’m glad I didn’t plop down a lot of cash for all of the parts required to build a (Dora) Goodman Zone camera (yet), 2) zone focusing is a bitch, and 3) eight images per roll really is drastically more limiting than the 12 one gets with a 6x6. On the up-side, 1) I really like the camera’s feel and operation, 2) 6x9 suits my style of photography a bit better than 6x6, and 3) high-quality, mega-negatives are what I needed to keep me excited about film. On a tripod, and with a cable release, I find the old Agfa absolutely lovely to use (except for the focusing part). Handheld, not so much. More on that beast as we move forward this year.

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1953 Agfa Record I with the Agnar 105mm, f/4.5 lens and 4-speed Pronto shutter

Too much isolation and a desire to remain ‘inspired’ led me to actually start a Flickr account and upload to it. I’m trying to use it differently than my website. Here (the website), I want to keep images that I feel are my best. On Flickr, I want to experiment a bit and see what the world gives me for feedback. I am uploading a mix of old and new images as well as a load of things that I have not ever shown to anyone. So far, it’s been fun. In about a month of uploading, I’ve gained some followers, begun to follow a bunch of people’s work, and have found some thought-provoking images and words along the way. Good stuff, mostly, but, like so many other things on the ‘net, it’s a time suck if I’m not careful.

We’ll see what the balance of 2021 brings. I’m not overly optimistic, but I haven’t lost hope.

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