Thursday, June 27, 2013

Caught Cheating With An Old Friend

Back in 2002, Nancy and I took a big leap. While I was recovering from my second back surgery, brought on not by the heavy lifting issues of pottery, but rather by the stresses that came from a desk job at Cornell. Ironic. I worked in an air conditioned library, handling the operations, complaints and billing problems. It should have been a relaxing job, but not at the Hotel School at Cornell. But that is a story for another time...
I want to talk about what I did during my recuperation from my second back surgery.

The leap was to try to get our pottery studio off the ground... to get our work into galleries and to start wholesaling our pots around the northeast. In order to make that happen we visited a newly opened gallery in Watkins Glen in hopes that the owner would be willing to purchase our pots wholesale. He asked for a price list and we were incredibly unprepared. I had expected that he would want to see pots in hand, not some price list.

After getting turned down flatly, we licked our wounds and started figuring out what we would need to do to create better promotional materials for the studio. We knew we needed a price list that reflected our broad range of glazes that could be had on about sizteen different forms at the time. Unfortunately, we didn't own a digital camera so we borrowed one from the tech department at the Hotel School. It was the older brother to the camera we would end up purchasing as our first digital camera. With that little camera we set up tungsten lights, figured out a backdrop of white seamless and shot some of the absolute worst photos of pots I have ever seen. But they were ours and they started us down our current path.
The next step was buying our own camera so we wouldn't be reliant on borrowing the camera when we needed it. I did my research and settled on the Olympus C-5050z. It got better reviews than any of the new up and coming dslrs. Color fidelity was off the charts. It was a 5MP camera in a time when everyone thought 3-4MP would be plenty large enough. Who would want bigger? Memory cards were measured in 32, 64, and 128MB. Eventually we wound up buying 2  256MB cards thinking that even with a hard day shooting, we wouldn't fill the cards. Seems so quaint ten years later.

I would love to say that there was something horrible about this camera. I would love to say that it failed to create amazing images. As you can see in these images, they are fantastic. It was a workhorse. Sure, I had my gripes, but I also loved it dearly. After about three years of shooting with it, we bought a Nikon D80, thinking that the availability of a broader range of lenses would be a huge asset to my photographic skill.  

While the D80 was (and is) a fantastic camera, it has its faults too. Nikon simple fails to have the color fidelity that Olympus seems to achieve so easily. I struggled constantly with getting my sunset glaze to appear in photos the way it looked on the pots. Throughout these years, we built a couple different overhead lightboxes, using primarily tungsten "hot" lights. Around 2008 we switched to daylight balanced fluorescent bulbs that were about $40 a pop. We figured we would never need to buy a new bulb ever again. 

Throughout this entire span of about five years, these images that we took in our first few months photographing pottery as Cold Springs Studio, hold their own specifically because they were fun! One of the best things about the Olympus C-5050z was that it had an articulating LCD screen on the back. Looking at it compared to any modern camera and it looks tiny. At the time, it seemed HUGE! By articulating up and down, I was able to look down on the screen much like I did with some of the medium format cameras with the waist level finders. Much easier than having to get down low and look through the tiny tiny viewfinder. It also meant that with a small wireless remote, I could trigger the camera's shutter and avoid all sorts of vibration and shake. 

When folks tell me that you have to have the latest and greatest camera for your clients, I am mystified. This was a 5MP camera. Cameras nowadays are 16-24MP for the most part... and yet everyone is still clamoring for higher pixel count. The photo of the plates below was blown up to poster size as well as being used on our studio open house postcards... and it never showed the limitations of low resolution. Hmmm.

The race is on now for cameras to have obscenely high ISO sensitivity. Some of the latest dslrs have the ability to take darkness and turn it into daylight (or pretty darned close). The problem is that the depth of the color in most instances has suffered. My Olympus C-5050z would almost always be set at ISO 64. Yeah, low ISO, higher color fidelity. Amazing tonal range. There was something "fleshy" about the colors. They never seemed muddy or off.

So why am I talking about this ancient camera? After my surgery last week, I am limited to lifting ten pounds or less for the next few months. Where my Nikon is concerned, that is doable, but not easy. Just putting a few lenses into my bag, along with my D300s body, and other assorted stuff I always seem to need on a shoot, and suddenly that bag weighs twenty pounds at the very least.

During my week-long hospital stay, I found myself using my only available camera... the one in my iPad. I am not a big Apple fanboy. Sorry. If you are, enjoy it. I can certainly appreciate the design experience, but there are so many failings of Apple products for me, but that can be discussed another time. As I was saying.... I was shooting things in the hospital by using my iPad. What I enjoyed more than anything was being able to do all of my post-processing immediately. Flip from the Camera setting to any one of the dozens of photo editing apps, and BOOM! It was edited, played with, saved and shared to Facebook. Total elapsed time: minutes. Hmmm.

All of a sudden I was enjoying photography for a new/old reason. I was digging the immediacy of the process. More importantly though I think, was that there are some massive limitations of using an iPad compared to a "real" dslr. For me, those limitations become easy access to creative problem solving. It forces my brain to do more thinking than just going click. This was also the case back when I was using the Olympus C-5050z.

Since returning home from the hospital three days ago, I have taken the Olympus everywhere I go. It hasn't left my side. I shoot things that I would normally ignore. They aren't snapshots as much as feelings. They are an attempt for me to find visual ways to communicate some of the difficult aspects of the healing process. I never thought I would fall in love with this little camera again, but I am head over heels. It is such a pain in the ass camera compared to my Nikons; it shoots slow as hell, it sucks down batteries, it takes forever to process just one image, and the list goes on and on. When I load them up in Lightroom, at least half are blurry due to the lack of optical stabilization (or faster shutter speed)...but the few images that are spot on, ... those images are what I want. And it makes me want to push myself harder each time I pick it up.

At the end of the day, I am left wondering if there is a modern equivalent of this tiny handful of a camera. Is there something out there that will make me gush like this ten years from now? Quite a few photographers have suggested I go with the Fujifilm X100s which just came out. Other ideas? Have you used something that you think would work perfectly for my needs? I am all ears.

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