Tools of the Trade
Last updated August 2016 (Originally written in 2003)
I purchased a Canon EOS 1Ds digital SLR in February 2003 <sound of wallet having a heart attack>
While it is unlikely that anyone who spends that sort of money on a camera body is going to say it sucks, I do think it is pretty amazing. The 1Ds was the first really successful DSLR camera whose image quality (to my feeble mind) equaled or bettered slide film. Its basically a widebody Canon 1V with a full frame digital sensor so the good and bad stuff from that camera carries over.
Niggles: Why no lithium ion or polymer light weight battery? Why no compact travel charger? Why no LCD review zoom set from the factory? Why no 100% zoom available (you can't tell if you got a really sharp picture until you download it to a PC)? Why can't you change ALL the custom/personal settings via the menus? Why can't the menus be easier to navigate? Why can't it boot up faster? Why firewire and not USB (fixed on the Mk2 versions)? The 1Ds a big heavy lump as hefty as a steel girder (which will be a plus when I drop it). Dust collects on the sensor - one wonders how long it will be until someone comes up with a solution for this... OK, that's enough complaining.
A nasty side effect of full-frame high megapixel cameras is that you'll be disappointed with less-than-perfect lenses and also your technique, as 11mp really shows up focusing errors, speed blur, shallow depth of field and so on.
Long term update 2011: Eight years on, and this thing is still running fine. Its been in stinking hot (40 plus degrees C) and nut-freezing cold (35 degrees below) weather. Its been rained on, covered in dust, dropped onto tiles, dropped face down into snow without a lens attached, been fallen on twice (once resulting in the destruction of a 50mm 1.4 airbag lens) and taken a tumble from the back seat of a rental car while attached to a rented 300mm 2.8 that dislodged the focusing screen. But it still runs. And it still takes great pictures in the sun, but she doesn't get used much anymore.
Bought a replacement battery a few years back which makes it almost useful again and had the viewfinder repaired by Canon Professional Services in 2008 after something became loose in they eyepiece.
In late 2007 I bought a Canon 40D as a backup camera body to the aging 1Ds for an upcoming China trip. Mainly because I couldn't justify shelling out eight grand for a 1Ds Mk3 given that I was about to take some time off work.
The 40D is smaller, lighter and thus way more portable than the 1Ds, and the pictures seem ok with better noise reduction at higher ISOs. I left the ISO set at 320 unless I needed more. It starts up fast, the tiny battery is awesome (even in -35 degree Chinese winter mornings), it has a sensible-sized charger, and the big LCD screen is great as is the image review zoom. Menus and controls are more logical, with the possible exception of exposure compensation to curmudgeonly old me who likes the 'old 1Ds way' of doing it.
I went to watch a workmate play soccer to test the camera when I got it. OK, the reality is that I went to watch lots of athletic women in short shorts running around. But I did take the two cameras with me. I was surprised to find the AF was much better on the 1Ds - yes, it has 45 sensors vs the 9 on the 40D, but it's also, what, eight? years or so behind in its AF technology as this was lifted from the 1V. Maybe I didn't have the settings dialed in optimally, but the 1Ds seems easier to focus, both in AF and manual (the big viewfinder helps).
A minor niggle is that the knob on the left which is used to select the program mode is pretty easily knocked to another setting, which can provide some 'aaaarrrrk' moments at the last minutes because as well as the obvious things like shutter speed, different groups of programs can have different settings: including ISO and image quality (Raw vs Jpeg) which is kinda important to me... I like to stuff the camera under my jacket in the cold and found this happened quite a bit on one trip .
Unlike most DSLR folks, I'm having to get used to the crop factor of the smaller sized chip. In some ways its a boon - pop the 400 or 300 on and you've got some serious telephoto firepower. At the other end of the scale, I love the 16-35 on the 1Ds when traveling.
The higher useable ISO, portability and crop body tele-factor was a boon, but overall image quality still goes to the old bird. In mid 2009 I decided I didn't like the 40D and sold it. I didn't like its colours, I didn't like the AF and I didn't like its noisy images.
June 2009: OK, so the 40D isn't panning out, and while the 1Ds is still a reliable warhorse after more than 6 years, its only at its best when its sunny, as sun chases noise away. Canon's 5D Mark 2 seemed the obvious choice: 21 MP, well regarded for low noise at higher ISOs, and even 1080p movies.... I considered a Nikon switch, but I have to much investment in Canon stuff to move at this stage. It would be nice if Canon would get of their arses and spit out a few decent wide angle lenses. Or any other brand with a Canon EF mount... I don't care, I just want to take pictures.
Late 2011: the 5Dii is impressive. The AF isn't great, but it's ok and I use live-view to pre-focus when I can. The high-iso performance isn't great - but it's ok - Canon is certainly a few steps behind Nikon here. The 5Dii has that annoying program knob problem I had with the 40D but you can get the knob replaced with a locking one. 21mp is great, the battery is awesome and the colours/wb are usually pretty good straight out of the camera. Its images are so good that its hard to justify spending twice as much for a 1 series over this. Ergonomics could use a refresh - when will we see touch screen (or soft buttons around the screen) and mirrorless/shutterless DSLRs with mini-lcd viewfinders?
August 2016: I've had a Canon 1DX
since they were released and sold the 5D2 shortly thereafter. 18mp seems a backwards step but they are all
usable dots as opposed to the 100% crops on other cameras which usually look grainy and nasty.
The AF (and overall speed) is orders of magnitude better than the 5D2 and I love having a big proper
camera again. At Victoria Falls during a steam trip, a friend had his 5D2 killed by water spray while the
1DX just kept on running... as it has through -35c degree Chinese Winters, 45c degree african summers and all the
dust, sand, rain and snow I've been able to accidentally throw at it. Given all the hype around the camera
when it came out, seeing all the noise at higher ISOs it's a shock, but that's easily removed in Adobe Camera
Raw (move the luminance slider a little). I've taken shots at ISO 25,000 that come out ok and the camera has
opened up a new world of low light train photography for me. I'm also a huge fan of the C1/2/3 modes and using a
custom button (I use the tiny one just beside the shutter) to flip between them.
I still dislike: size and weight (its bigger and heavier than the 1Ds). A few mm off the height and it would fit in camera bags more easily and its damn heavy carrying around with a few lenses in a backpack through airports. I still don't know why we can't have a petite travel charger that takes one battery a-la the 5-series cameras. Wish it had auto AF micro-adjustment by adjusting the usual 'AF' to what the sensor contrast-detect results give the camera. I assume this is how the new Nikon works. I change lenses a lot and always have dust on my sensor, so I'm still not won over by that feature. I wish the glass on the sensor extended a few mm in each dimension so you could sweep dust bunnies outside the sensor area rather than merely re-arranging them into the corners. The new menus and button customisations are great but there are so many options and custom settings and functions that the whole UI could do with an overhaul. Have these guys never used a smartphone with 'soft' buttons on a touchscreen? And why do we persist with that useless wee LCD window near the bottom of the camera? Does anyone ever use that? Grumble.
I still have the 1Ds, boy does that camera seem slow now. Still takes decent pics though.
Camera Bodies - Film
Anyone remember film? Prior to the 1Ds, I bought an EOS 1V camera body in early 2001 <sound of wallet gasping>
Likes - lots of things you can customise (sounds like a gimmick, but for example, it's great being able to AF with one button, then compose and snap with another to avoid those last second AF heartaches), back lit lcd screen, adjustable self timer (for night and model shots in lieu of a cable release), depth of field program and button, 1/8000 shutter speed (now that's a gimmick), water and dust resistant, accurate, quiet and fast AF with manual adjustment even in AF mode, quiet/fast rewind, 100% viewfinder with diopter adjustment, eyepiece shutter to block out light entering from the viewfinder end when your eye isn't there during model and night shots.
Dislikes - Why not 'S' for shutter priority and 'A' for aperture priority mode? Don't like the location of the on/off switch, I hardly ever used the pop up flash on the Nikon, but that would be handy to have at times.
Other than Mum's medieval instamatic Braun, my first real camera was a Pentax SFX... which I should have kept. Unfortunately it was next to impossible to find second hand lenses for it in NZ, so in 1995 I was lured to the dark side and bought a second hand Nikon F601/6006 body from a dodgy camera shop on Auckland's Queen st. The Nikon had a clearer viewfinder, an adjustable self timer and bracketing - which I don't think I actually used now that I think about it. On the other hand, I thought the Pentax did a better job of auto-metering and except for occasional AF spasms, the Pentax 35-70 was sharper than any of the Nikon zooms I owned.
I've seen whacko railfans who carry around three cameras and a dozen lenses... and unfortunately I'm now one of them. Quality vs practically: many photographers love their prime lenses, which is fine if you know your territory, but I travel and like to run around finding new spots and don't always want to lug around a truckload of gear. Quite the balancing act.
This is what I've used over the years to take the pics that appear on this website - presented in a random order...
|EF 24-105 f4 IS L||OK, its hard to take train shots from a helicopter with primes... sometimes you just need to zoom. I expected this lens to be a bit of a dog, but IS was great, but didn't like the distortion and softness and really wanted f2.8. Sold it.|
|EF 24-70 f2.8 L Mk 1 and 2||For
the price and weight, I took more than a few disappointing pictures with this
big lump of a lens.
I just couldn't get consistently sharp results. With the 50 covering the middle, 16-35
(or 24) covering wide and 70-210 (or 85) covering
mild tele, I sold this big lump in 2005. I've used three of these now
owned two, one of which which was bought second hand. I wish could have bought one that I
rented in 2011 as it was a nice copy. The second one I had was very sharp in the
middle, soft around the edges, especially on the left 10% side of the frame.
My experiences with the varying quality of this lens seem common on the
interweb. Roll on a sharp image stabilized, mk 2 version PLEASE!
So we eventually ended up getting a Mk2 but alas no IS. The mk2 is sharper but feels far more plasticy and rattly, especially with the zoom extended (the opposite way to the old lens which went wide as the barrel extended within a proper-looking lens shade). The Mk2's silly petal shaped lens hood sticks if you ever try to take it on and off. The front element of mine seems to have loads of small scratches or perhap even peeling of the front coating and the whole thing is a little soft on the left hand side. Its also ingested a bit of dust from somewhere so I'll probably send it into Canon for a look. As an aside, I've always been very impressed with the pricing and service from Canon's US repair center. In summary, the Mk 2 is good, but Canon still isn't there with what should be its bread and butter everyday lens.
|EF 16-35 f2.8 L Mk 1 and 2, and f4 Mk 1||Mk 1 - I
like this range a lot... It's lighter and despite the awful
reviews you'll find on the internet, I found my copy more consistent than the 24-70
I had although its soft in the corners. 16mm sounds a little
extreme but it's a great walk-around lens and the extra width
is very handy for interiors of cabs and tourist non-trainy shots. When traveling, the
16-35 and a 70-210 does me nicely .
The mk 2 version is quite a bit sharper in the corners.
The f4 Mk1 version is the sharpest of the lot and the IS is a huge bonus - but a trade off against 2.8 in low light situations... Be nice if the upcoming 2.8 mk3 had IS...
|EF 70-200 f2.8 L non-IS and IS mk 1 & 2||An awesome lens. The full monty. Big, heavy, conspicuous and expensive... but super reliable, fast and sharp as a tack. If I had to complain, I'd wish it was lighter, cheaper and had more zoom range. While we're at it, I wish I'd win Lotto and that Elle MacPherson had been my live-in lover in the late 80s. I now have the mk2 IS version of this lens which is as incredible as its price tag. Far better than the Mk1 , which to my eye was a step down from the non-IS one.|
|EF 50mm f1.4||Sweet. Light, fairly sharp and not super expensive (mine's second-hand). What more can you ask for? Bad news, this lens broke my fall and sacrificed itself for the 1Ds and my knees one dark night in China. Written off, new one purchased. What! It doesn't come with a lens shade?! I'm on my third one of these consumable lenses now, and really can't fault it. Great for night shots on the full frame camera. Not as sharp as the L primes of course, but the sharpest images a few hundred dollars can buy. I hear if you have the cash to flash, the Sigma Art is better.|
|EF 1.4x and 2x extenders||Used with the 70-200 and 300/400. The 1.4x is ok, the 2x isn't that sharp and often gives headlight ghosting so is rarely used for trains. Be aware that most of the AF sensors on your camera are excluded when you run extenders because the effective max aperture (light-hole / f stop - for the non-technical and technical respectively) that they see through is reduced. Unless you are using nice 2.8 or bigger lenses, your AF will suck, particularly with the the 2x.|
|EF 300mm 2.8 L IS and non-IS||Awesome. I rented the IS version a few times on Tehachapi trips. Big, heavy and pricey, but... what an amazing lens. IS is awesome. I now own a second-hand old non-IS version, and slung over your shoulder, it's not bad to travel or hike with. The images are superb even though its probably getting onto 20 years old by now.|
|EF 400mm 5.6L||I know, I know, I should have bought the 2.8, but this was a fifth of the price, bulk and weight. Alas the pics are a fraction of the quality. Reasonably OK for shots of non-moving wildlife, but it's not the sharpest tool in the shed. Don't bother using it with an extender or on anything moving. This doesn't see a lot of use these days. I like the build in retracting lens hood. Sold...|
|EF 400mm 2.8 IS L||And I thought the 300 was a big heavy expensive monster. I'm actually a little embarrassed to have bought one of these solid-gold diamond-encrusted bling-bling lenses in a spasm of fiscal irresponsibility, but man, the pictures are awesome. A lower cost alternative in hindsight would have been to have bought 4 crop-bodies and attached them to a 300 2.8... in 2011 Canon released a mk version of this for insane money.|
|Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD||This lens is really, really good value for money. Insane zoom range, pretty sharp (as long as you can manage f9-f13) and portable - as light as and not a lot bigger than a 70-200 2.8. Its a great travel lens. Mine was great shooting straight into the sun when new, but its picked up a little flare since during its wide and varied travels (dust I suppose). They say the newer Sigma Sport equivilent is better, but I've been very happy with this. Great for birds and surprisingly sharp for the trains.|
|24mm f1.4L, 85mm f1.2L, 135mm f2L||Superb, very big, very heavy, very pricey (even second hand). Not as inflexible as you might think. The 85 and 135 are sharp enough to shave with. The 85, which was purchased second hand in mid 2005, had at least one of its rear elements come off their internal mounts in Sept 2008 which was somewhat unexpected as I've always babied these lenses. Repaired by Canon Professional Services promptly at what I thought was a very reasonable rate. All these lenses are a bit unnecessary now - the 24 mk1 is a bit soft and the 24-70 does an ok job there, plus the 70-200 IS mk 2 seems as good as the primes for what I need, so these three will be sold.|
|14mm 2.8 mk2||Super-wide and super-odd looking with its bulbous front element. Bought this with a few shots in mind - most of which have yet to come to fruition. It's pretty sharp for such a wide lens when used properly (which I only do half the time)|
|Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm 2.8||The sexiest lens I'll ever own. Gorgeous, silky, smooth, precise, SHARP! Wonderful in the corners. Alas I couldn't justify owning this pricey beauty for long and the Canon 16-35 f4 IS is almost as good and a lot more practical...|
|8-15mm Fisheye zoom||Interesting but certainly an unusual kettle of fish... It has its uses, but you can't use a fisheye that often so its not the most practical lens ever. I will probably sell mine. Despits its crazy price, the Canon EF 11-24 rectilinear is probably more useful (I didn't say sensible) option.|
|50mm f2.5 macro||For my train models. It does the job, but the Nikon lens did it better.|
|EF 28-105 f3.5-4.5 II||An all purpose, lightweight, reasonably priced, take it with you, go anywhere zoom. I was pleased with it... before the 1Ds revealed it's image quality. Sold.|
|35-105 AF||Second hand, a great range for trains|
|75-200 AF-D||Nice and light, fair quality.|
|75-300 AF-ED||Foolish purchase at Amsterdam's airport while going through a "need a longer lens for Tehachapi" phase. Not that sharp and hard to focus.|
|28 manual||Dirt cheap second-hand Vivitar.|
|55 macro manual||Bought third-hand for model train photography. Goes to f32 and consistently takes sharp pics of models and big trains. Manual focus. Great lens.|
|35-70 AF||Really sharp. Why did I sell that camera again?|
|70-210 MF||Sigma one touch zoom.|
|28-135 MF||Bought second-hand maybe a year before I sold the Pentax. Heavy, MF, slow and had fungus growing in it ("built-in soft-focus"), but I still liked it. This is such a useful range for train pics.|
|? 35 fixed focus lens||Mum's 1960's instamatic. Horrid fuzzy pics unless the subject was standing still and close to you on a sunny day. She says it still works too.|
Although I've been lazy of late, I try to use a tripod whenever I can - not really for its 'stability' benefits (because you are usually using relatively high shutter speeds to freeze a train anyway) but its real value is in holding the composition you'd planned. It's great being able to set up for a shot and just pop it when the train is in the right spot. When handholding, its so easy to follow the train a little, cut off the top of that hill, lop off the back of the train and click when the telegraph pole is right in the way. A revelation.
I had a number of small-light-cheap and subsequently broken tripods in my youth for model and night shots. With longer zooms and a realization that a lot of my pictures were not that sharp, I became much more aware of camera shake and bought a Bogen/Manfrotto 3001 in '01 with a 3265 /190D grip/trigger ball head, which I find easier to use single-handed in a hurry than a standard ball head. That whole sentence sounds like it should be censored. Its lightish, almost tall enough and reasonably sturdy while at the same time, not too expensive. The latter bears repeating, as that setup was stolen through an accidentally-left-open rear window on the rental car at Tehachapi once. And I broke a head in China. And I drove over a set of legs in Arizona. What an idiot.
For years I had a little camera bag that was always bulging at the seams and when slung over a shoulder when climbing it would slide around a lot. I looked for a long time for a 'backpack' style bag that could hold a reasonable amount of stuff and have a tripod strapped to it for longer walks. The closest I came to what I wanted was a Lowepro one. It is almost big and comfy enough, but wish it had easier access for lens swaps and maybe a little more room inside. I'm now seriously running out of room in that bag...
I also have a ThinkTank Glass Taxi which takes the 300+TC+body or 400 (at a squeeze). Nice and comfy, and probably the most inconspicuous way of carting expensive lenses around.
Oh and a massive The Gura Gear Kiboko 22L somethingorother that weighs a TON when loaded up but has its uses.
Oh, and one more - a Think Tank Retrospective shoulder bag Surprisngly capacious, yet inconspiculous in its mossy green colour.
Before the digital wave swept me asunder, I used Fuji 100 Provia or Velvia slide film when I could unless I was forced to use Kodak or print film. It was surprisingly hard to find Fuji slide film at stores in the US unless you went to a 'real' camera shop, and now I expect its even harder.
I have an Icom R5 or something which is small and not completely impossible to use. Prior to that I had a Welz scanner for about 8 years which was tiny (about the size of a small pack of cigarettes) and next to impossible to use without the manual as it only had about 2 buttons ("simply press shift-alt-ctrl-fn-9" -what?!) Before that, the Uniden Bearcat was easy to use, but was about the size of a brick and had a built-in rechargeable battery pack, so of course you'd always run out of battery miles from the car and had to do a lot of emergency in-car charging between spots, which killed the batteries. There's nothing like being able to just pop in a fresh pair of AAs in the middle of a field. That sounds rude too.
I hang the little scanner around my neck on a lanyard from a trade show and use a single earpiece that hooks around your ear - much easier to listen to than the crappy speaker and good when driving, as the single earphone allows you to hear important driving noises (such as the radio and people honking and cursing at you).
|Sunscreen||- you'll burn quick when the long wait is on!|
|Straw hat||- as above|
|Bug repellant||- a must on Tehachapi and NZ West Coast trips.|
|Cable release||- for tele shots, I often use the self timer for night shots and models|
|Travel pack of tissues or napkins||- for allergies, colds or other emergencies that I won't detail...|
|Scanner handbook/cheatsheet||- told you it was hard to use.|
|Frequencies list||- in case your scanner reboots|
|Camera cleaning stuff||- Sensor Swabs +Pec Pads + Eclipse fluid (I have this in my carry on camera bag and the TSA never seems to notice...)|
|Spare film (before digital)||- I never take enough and can never get the sort I want at the local shops|
|Spare batteries||- scanner/camera.|
|Band aids||- damn those barbed wire fences|
|Swiss army knife tool (pre 9/11)||- constantly amazed how useful this was.|
|Pens, paper||- of course|
I used to carry a mini torch around if it was likely that night shots would be had so I could see what I was doing, but the fancy Canons have a backlight (as they bloody well should for that price). For real night shots, a Petzl style headlamp is a must.
Maps, mags and books can be helpful for photo spot ideas and to pass the time.