Local Walks

I wrote quite a post here, but accidentally wrote over it. Well, I saved it, then began another one with a different title as I didn’t think it ready for publishing and it looks like that was interpreted by the WordPress software as ‘overwriting’ it. Not too sure I am good at using that quick post tool after all! One of the reasons I started this blog, even more than  various other, often half-hearted web projects, was to find my own voice. I assume everyone has their own, unique voice as after all, whilst it may be convenient to see people statistically, we are individuals. I am actually from a family with not 3.25 people, living in an apartment with 2.5 rooms. Well, I’m not the 0.25 if that’s what you’re thinking, sleeping in 0.5 of a room, anyway (though some might beg to differ)!

Anyone who knows me will know that as well as loving to take photos, I take many of them (probably too many) and in fact do so almost every day. Digital has allowed me to be prolific in a way film would never have permitted and as cameras get faster and easier to use and get good results from, the temptation is to take even more! Of course, what’s more important is quality over quantity, so such a machine-gunning approach has severe limitations, which might only be apparent after the fact, when you see a friend’s collection from the day and envy their 15 good ones as opposed to your 800 mediocre ones, but that’s the way it goes. In some cases, it does help, for example getting the composition or focus just right, or being free to experiment with angles. I’m not sure it’s really better than a slow and meditative style, with less shutter-clicks and more looking, though. Large, ‘endless’ memory cards are as much curse as blessing in this sense.

I often head out for a walk in my local area, a ‘walkabout’ in the hours of best sunlight. Best sunlight for photography, that is, which means the early morning, though this can be as late as 7:30 in winter, or around and including the ‘golden hour’ before sunset, when that luminous golden aura surrounds everything from the setting sun. I truly enjoy these walks and the bonus is that not going to far means I can get back and do other things at home more easily. Once I start messing with trains, a necessity for a lot of interesting places to be sure, the whole thing takes up much of the day. So what do I photograph? There is a beautiful shrine near me, called ‘Suwa Jinja’ that is a favourite place. The shadows and streams of light between trees are evocative. The only thing is, it’s pretty small and being a shrine has hardly any flowers and the trees don’t change much outside of Autumn. Another favourite is a small stretch of water, connected to a larger river, where reeds have been planted and small fish and turtles swim. Yet what I go there for, despite it’s (hideously) concreted-over banks, a seeming favourite reducer of unemployment figures here in Japan, are the migrating wild birds that cluster there. Alongside ducks are cormorants, blue or white herons and egrets. I try to catch them in beautiful take-off, which necessitates a fast camera, either that or zoom in very far on their faces with my ultrazoom.

Then there is the area I jokingly call ‘beautiful countryside’. It has some nice paths, rice fields, old farmhouses and some small half-forgotten shrines here and there. Some of the local farmers are very friendly, offering me a drink and none has really been hostile, though I don’t like hearing the yappy, barking dogs much. Wild birds are to be found here and there and depending on the month, autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, various insects and at times even snow, though that is only once or twice a year. These local walks are something I truly enjoy, getting lost in the mystery of my surroundings. Each time I can find some new minutiae of detail to obsess over and sometimes whole new places. It’s a kind of adventure for me, a smaller scale camera trip with the advantage of no time limit and knowledge that I can always come back and photograph later.

So what gear do I use? Currently, pretty much all of my collection. These expeditions are also a good way to find out more about them and realise which ones I enjoy using most and why. I suppose ultimately, I’m learning more about myself this way.

What I’m Shooting With

Nikon D300

This is my main high-quality camera and after 5 years, the oldest one I’m still using. It may have an aging sensor, but the AF, shooting speed and viewfinder are, in the cropped sensor world, at least, still state of the art. The D300S that came after made a few improvements, but only a D400 promises anything major. I have a really huge collection of lenses for this and the AF helps for my birds in flight. The only problem is it’s weight is restrictive, so I only really use it when I need to, for example for lenses with no built-in motor, or for wildlife. I would like better high ISO/dynamic range, so who knows I may get the inevitable update, so long as it has a similarly good body, something we don’t know for sure will ever emerge now the D600 is seen as ‘enthusiast class’. Still, it works fine for me and should do for years to come.

Nikon D5100

This is my ‘handy’ DSLR. Despite the mediocre AF and shooting speed, it is about half the weight of my D300 and gets out a lot more. The tilting screen, 1080p video and a much better sensor help a lot and it is currently my class-leader for image quality. It too has an update out, but not needed by me yet- the D5200, which adds more video modes, higher resolution and much better AF, though all this at a high price. Still, the D5100 is a wonderfully balanced camera. Used on a tripod for live-view, you lack nothing in the small viewfinder. The results at highish ISO continue to surprise me, being a lot better than any predecessors.

The road to the D5100 wasn’t so simple for me, as I used some of Nikon’s lower-level DSLRs before it, namely the D3000 (which was nice and light, but under-specced as having no video and poor high-ISO, but great clarity with it’s D200-based CCD sensor and AF unit). I got that at an incredibly cheap price (32,000 with the kit lens) on a day when I’d left my lens at home and needed the 18-55mm VR, which is a suprisingly good lens and to my mind one of Nikon’s best in the 18mm- range. Then came the D3100, bought for a trip to Europe, which is a fine camera for the price, but lacking a bit in dynamic range. I loved up to the D5100 for the magnificent sensor, tilting hi-res screen and video options, not to mention baracketing for HDR. Although the (currently expensive) D5200 is better in almost every way, it’s still a fine camera and probably a bargain with the kit lens(es).

Olympus EPL-2

This is my best m4/3 camera, due to its decent middle-range ISO (640 still looks pretty good, in good light especially) and wonderful colour output, which I am pretty much in love with. It also has something all cameras should include; built-in stabilisation. I know lens-based is better for long lenses, but you can always use such lenses on this anyway. It makes for a great prime shooting experience, despite its smallish sensor. In fact, frustration waiting for DX or small FX primes lead me this way and I haven’t looked back. What it does lack is decent tracking AF (phase-detection based), its dynamic range is very poor compared to both Nikons and also the build is a bit flimsy, very plasticy. I have a screw-on leather case which helps give a better feel, though it does weigh a bit more with that on. Another good feature is the flash, which can actually be tilted up to bounce! Very nice camera, but shame about the build.  The EPL-3 and even a better ‘5’ are out, but I’m waiting for a smallish Pen with built-in hi-res finder to really have a nice upgrade.

Overall, this is my favourite camera to use, with decent handling, the small size and easy lens changes (no worries about dust help) and some wonderful output. All it’s missing from my Nikons is dynamic range, good high ISO and more resolution (compared to my D5100).

Panasonic GF1

This is without a doubt the nicest camera design I own. I’ve always preferred rangefinders to SLRs, despite their generally short lenses and this really does feel like a digital rangefinder, like no other m4/3 camera before or since manages! The wonderful controls, ergonomics, even the generous shutter-button and it’s satisfying click feel good. Where it falls apart is the inside. The sensor and processing are very noisy, even at base ISO and they forgot the stabiliser  which makes it hard to use in lower light. Then you have the colour output, which is something like vomit from the Star Wars Cantina bar. Yes, that bad, the skies look like there’s been a toxic chemical leaked all over them, every day. Raw output is a bit better, as you can edit this, but it never gets as good as Olympus, Fuji, or even Nikon for that matter. Panasonic also can’t manage to have a bilingual menu, I mean what, this is the 21st century isn’t it?

Where it excels though is beautifully crisp and contrasty black and white modes, pretty fast autofocus, definitely a lot better than the EPL-2 and that sublime handling. If they could have Olympus software and colours and a Sony sensor, it would be heaven, but unfortunately real life is rarely so perfect (though Panasonic is switching to the superior Sony sensors in some models). A plus from this CCD sensor is the incredible clarity. I’m not sure the newer CMOS models can compete here.

Nikon P5100

My ultrazoom. It has an incredible lens range of 24-1000mm, so is interesting to use just for that alone! I can get close-ups of birds or flowers with a nice bokeh and even moon or Fuji shots right from where I live. It has a fantastic, tilting LCD, full HD video and a ISO 100 can get some very sharp, 16mp (well, less really, but still detailed) photos. A remarkable camera, which fortunately has manual modes and good colour output. Unfortunately, no Raw, or hotshoe, poor continuous  shooting and only contrast-detection AF so it’s for things that can’t or don’t move. Also dynamic range is poor, necessitating bracketing and HDRs in some case and any ISO over 100 is poor, so I only use it up to 400, as a sharp shot is better than none at all.

It’s successor, the P520, seems much the same and if it is better in many ways (I’m waiting for reviews), I may well upgrade anyway, at least once the price falls a bit, for the better video capabilities and hopefully slightly better sensor. All in all a wonderful travel companion and second camera, I’m using it a lot more than I thought I would. One problem I go into in other posts is its short battery life. I often carry two spares just to get through the day.

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1 Comment

  1. what a lovely shots…:)


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