Why I think Nikon is better.

12 06 2011

Nikon Fe2. Bought for $50. Used it for year. Sold it for $150!

I bought the N90s right about the time digital cameras were beginning to find their place on the shelves of my local camera shop. They seemed mostly a novelty then.  Serious photographers were still shooting film and Nikon’s F4 was the choice for professional photographers, but you could begin to see that digital was soon going to change the way photographs were made, forever.  In the 1970s, 35mm SLRs were evolving at a fever pitch.  Seemed every issue of Modern Photography or Popular Photography contained a review for the latest new camera.  Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Olympus, Pentax and a few others were trying to out do each other with faster shutter speeds and intricate metering systems.  Just about the time you thought you had bought the latest camera, the factory announced a new model with more bells and whistles.  It’s still true today. New camera models are coming out all the time and the latest camera seems to make the one before it obsolete. Over time though, I have learned a few simple things:

1.  The latest, most expensive camera will still make crappy pictures if you don’t know what you are doing.

2.  The camera body isn’t all that important.  A good lens is.

3.  A good photographer can make a good photograph with most any camera, even a cheap point and shoot.

I bought the N90s for one foolish reason and one good reason.  The foolish reason was that I always wanted one and when I finally could afford one, I indulged myself.  The good reason was that I was lucky enough to buy that camera at a real old fashioned camera shop where the guys behind the counter were photographers and knew what they were talking about. What I didn’t realize until I bought the N90s was that Nikon lenses, in addition to being wonderful pieces of glass, were, for the most part, never going to become obsolete.  No matter which Nikon lens you bought, it would work on most every new Nikon camera body that came out.  That means if you are lucky enough to own the latest new Nikon DSLR, you can pick up a 40 year old Nikon manual focus lens at a flea market, slap it on your DSLR and start snapping photos! There are some exceptions of course.  The 50mm manual lens you bought on eBay won’t autofocus on Nikon DLSR, but it’ll still work if you are willing to focus manually.  And if you pick up an old Nikon Fe2 for a hundred bucks or so and slap the latest Nikon AF lens on it, it’ll work just fine.

My point is this.  Cameras are expensive, but the bodies are disposable. It’s much more important, I think, to invest in good lenses. Camera bodies can become technically obsolete almost overnight, but lenses can be relevant for decades. A fast Nikon manual focus 50mm lens from decades ago will still work on the latest new Nikon DSLR and make great pictures.  And if you’re shooting photos with an old Nikon F2 and want to slap your friend’s 24-120mm Nikon AF lens on it, it’ll work!

If you’re like me and don’t have an endless supply of money to spend on photography, Nikon is a good investment.  Their lenses never become obsolete.  You can pick up older Nikon manual focus lenses on eBay or at flea market, use them for a few years and then sell them for what you paid or even for a few bucks more!  And Nikon has made very few bad lenses.

And if you are willing to buy used cameras rather than new ones, a used Nikon film camera, like an old F3 or F4 are incredible values right now!  A camera that sold new for thousands of dollars can be had on eBay for just a few hundred dollars.  Buy one, use it for a few years, then sell it for what you paid for it.  Kind of like having a free camera!  Even the earlier generation Nikon digital cameras are great buys.  And no matter what camera body you have, know that your Nikon lenses will work on it!


My first Nikon.

6 06 2011

My first Nikon was the N90s. Matrix metering, super fast autofocus!

The purchase of the Nikon N90s was supposed to signal a new era of creativity for me.  I was anxious to revisit photography again, this time with real tools.  The N90s was Nikon’s most advanced camera at the time, with features that rivaled their then professional F4.  Of course, I really wanted the F4, but it’s price at the time was way out of reach for a young father with a house and raising two girls.  The N90s had matrix metering, super fast autofocus, allowed full automatic operation or a slew of other options–all the way to full manual operation once I got my feet wet again.  I decided on the Nikkor 24-120mm lens as a good starter lens, allowing me options from wide angle through to medium telephoto.  I also bought the Nikong SB-25 flash, which was the companion Speedlight for the N90s.  I was set!  Ready to take the kind of photos I always wanted to.

The arrival of my first Nikon coincided with the beginning of a change in my life.  A gradual slide towards what ended up being the most difficult personal and professional time I had known.  At the time I wandered into the camera shop, my life was right where it was supposed to be.  I was successful and well respected in my career.  Earning a good living.  I owned a house, a pickup truck and a minivan.  All the bills were paid.  My two daughters were in school, well adjusted and happy. My wife, a stay at home Mom (by her own choice) seemed happy and fulfilled.  I worked hard and when I wasn’t working, I was being a Dad.  Like my parents before me who raised three children, happily and without major incident–this I thought, was the American dream.

Most of the photos I took with the new Nikon were family photos.  Trips to Disneyland.  Soccer games.  Birthday parties. School plays. Holiday get-togethers.  Once in a rare while, I would slip out for few hours on a Sunday afternoon to shoot some landscapes.  Family photos were always shot in color.  My personal stuff was shot in black and white, which I had processed at a local custom lab.  I was learning again, but for the most part, I left the Nikon on “AUTO”, letting the matrix metering make the decisions for me.  Nikon’s metering systems have always been fantastic, all they way back to the early F cameras, and the then state-of-the-art metering system in the N90s never failed to provide perfect although sometimes uninspired photos.  I knew that the camera was perfect, but the photographer needed lots of work!

And so, the journey begins.

5 06 2011

Sometime in the early 1960s. Taken by my Dad, Retina IIIc, Kodahrome, bulb-type flash

For as long as I can remember, there was always something exciting about putting a fresh roll of film in a camera.  No matter how many rolls had come before it, pulling the film from the cartridge, across the shutter, then placing the end of the film in the take up spool and closing the camera back always held promise, hope, new adventure.

Film you say?  Yes, film.  I know it seems very analog to shoot film these days when my iPhone can take a pretty darn good digital image and I can sail it off to my relatives on the opposite coast in seconds, but there is something sublime about film. Something deep and reflective. Something permanent.  Something that seems, for me, at this moment…appropriate.  I’m at a point in my life where it is time to put a fresh roll of film in my camera, take deep breath and a good look around.  And see. Really see.

My first camera was a hand-me-down from my father–a vintage Kodak Retina IIIc.  He bought it in Germany in 1953 and hauled it all over Europe during the Korean War.  That old folding Retina was part of our family.  My father always had it loaded with Kodachrome, recording family vacations, Christmas mornings and all sorts of glorious family firsts.  Every once in a while, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, he would pull out the old Argus slide projector, put up the screen and we’d sit on the floor, smiles on our faces in the glow of projected light through film.

I became interested in photography sometime in junior high school.  It was the early 1970s.  My best friend Mike had an old Argus C-3 and a Yashica twin lens reflex and was always taking pictures, shooting rolls and rolls of Tri-X Pan and Plus-X Pan film and developing them himself in his home darkroom.  I guess today, he’d be a geek, but he was passionate about photography and it was infectious!

My father saw that I was becoming interested in something good and in an effort to keep me out of trouble, gave me his precious Retina camera.  The Retina’s companion light meter had died years ago, so I learned exposure from reading those little instruction sheets that came with every roll of Kodak film.  Sometimes it worked.  Sometimes it didn’t.  Once I’d shot three or four rolls, I’d spend an afternoon at Mike’s house in his basement darkroom, swirling the film around in a developing tank, washing it, then hanging it from a clothesline to dry.  An hour or so later, we’d be printing 8x10s on Mike’s old Federal enlarger.  Most of what we shot was awful.  But we learned a lot.  And some of those old photos are tucked away in an old leather folder in a box in my garage.

Back when I was shooting pictures with my Retina, about all I could afford besides film was a subscription to Modern Photography and Popular Photography magazines.  Remember, these were the glory days of the 35mm single lens reflex and new models were coming out in record numbers. Each month, I’d rush to the mailbox and crack open the latest issue of Pop or Mod to drool over the new SLRs.  Nikon and Canon were the biggies, but Minolta, Pentax and Olympus were out there too!  I visited a camera store sometime in the mid 1970s and held my first Nikon–an F2 for the first time.  It was very impressive…and very expensive.  I wanted one, but couldn’t afford my first Nikon until some 20 years later.

Soon after high school, life grabbed me hard by the hand and pulled me along like a leaf in the wind.  My first job, a girlfriend or two, then I met my future wife.  We got married, got an apartment, had our first child.  A move across country, our first house, a second child, a minivan, a new job.  Life was good and very full.  Sometime in the mid 1990s, I wandered into a camera store and looked at the rows of new Nikons.  I was at a place in my life where an expensive camera was still a luxury, but within reach.  I bought a Nikon N90s and a 24mm-120mm AF zoom while salivating over the Nikon F4s.  In my mind, photography still had all the wonder and excitement of my youth but, unknown to me at the time, I was at the beginning of the darkest, saddest part of my life.