A LENGTHY REBOOT

By Richard Hsu
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Photography

Photography is the only creative thing I do and it has been a hobby for the last 10 years. Here is an equipment centric account of my photographic journey. There is something to be said about my teachers and influences too but that is for another day.

My earliest memory of photography is from Darjeeling, a hill station in India close to Kolkata. My two brothers and I had a good time on that trip (chilling water baths, seeing snow covered Mount Kanchenjunga on the last day of our trip). I borrowed a film camera and bought a tripod for the trip. Don't know where the photos are now but I remember using the tripod to make a photo of us three at the Rock garden. It was a heavy metal tripod that didn't get reused and was eventually disposed. That trip was perhaps the first time I ever used a camera.

Fast forward to 2004. I got a job that required me to travel. The income from that job and travelling encouraged me to buy my first camera. An entry level 2 megapixel Kodak digital camera. The first photo was made in a taxi (digital fare meter). That camera was useful and I had it in Kerala, later in my work trip to Ghana and eventually, it came with me to Canada. The photos made with it takes me back in time and I revisit the places and moments in Kerala and Ghana (Thank you Biju).

On the way to Canada, my wife and I stopped over in Germany for a week to meet her uncle. He had a Casio QV-R51 digital camera that was slimmer and better camera overall compared to my Kodak (Wolfsburg photos). When I landed in Canada, I continued to use my Kodak but soon replaced it with 5 megapixel Canon Powershot A610 digital camera. I paid around $500 (lower end at the time). The image quality was much improved and at par with the Casio I had tried. I got into photography more seriously, learning about technical aspects of photography, following photography websites (Flickr, photo.net, Ken Rockwell) often planning ahead for a photo. The Canon Powershot is a capable camera with features like long exposure and macro photos. I have photos and videos of my son as a baby and toddler made with it. Precious memories that I shared with my family and friends near and far. The camera and internet reduced the vast distance between us. They still bring a smile when I view them from time to time. Nice camera. I still have it but it is out of use.

After using Canon Powershot for many years, it was time to upgrade to a Digital SLR (DSLR), I was hoping DSLR prices would drop below $500 but ran out of patience. Trusting the recommendation of Ken Rockwell, I bought a used Nikon D40 body from Henrys for $250 and matched it with a Nikon 35/f1.8 prime lens from Futureshop. Sometime later, I added an external flash (SB 400) for bouncing light from the ceiling (to avoid the harsh white light on the face). I still have this kit today.

The DSLR difference? bokeh, detail, low light and fast.

Bokeh With the 35mm lens, I could control what and how much was in focus (bokeh). This is the No. 1 reason I wanted a DSLR. The photos with blurred out background is more pleasing. With my Canon Powershot, the only way I could get some bokeh was with macro photos. For portraits or any subject farther than an arms length, I would not get any bokeh. With the 35mm lens on the D40 DSLR, I had much more control, enough to make a portrait photo that had the eyes in focus but the ears are blurred!

Detail The D40 has a bigger sensor so it captures more details. Detail matter when we make prints or zoom into it. The difference in megapixel (MP) between the two cameras is just 1 MP but the difference in detail is much more. Megapixel is not a good attribute for comparing cameras. Today's camera phones have more than 6 MP but the photos will not print as clear as my D40. With more detail, the image remains sharp even after cropping. I don't make large prints so don't yet know the limits of the D40's 6 MP images. Most entry level DSLRs today are 10 MP or more so that is one reason to upgrade :).

Low light In low light it is difficult to get sharp, well lit images with Point & Shoot cameras like my Canon Powershot. The only solution is to use flash but you get unpleasing results due to harsh white light on the foreground subject and dark background. To show the background, there is a "Night Snapshot" option but due to longer exposure, if the foreground subjects are not still, they will show up slightly blurred.

The D40 can make sharp, well lit photos without a flash in low light (Higher ISO, larger aperture) and with an external flash like my SB400 pointing at the ceiling, you get even better color and more detail. I plan to buy a better flash (SB600 or SB700) that will give me off camera flash and more creative lighting options.

Fast Due to the mechanics of the DSLR, there is no delay between pressing the shutter release button and the capture of the image. This means less retakes. Also, it increases the chances of getting a sharp photo of moving subjects (like children). I typically use continuous shutter for moving subjects (5 images in 2 seconds) to ensure I get a sharp photo. The Canon Powershot is much slower even in daylight.

Video One thing my 2006 D40 cannot do is make video (current generation entry levels can) so I had to buy another camera. Again, going with Ken Rockwell's recommendation, I bought a slim, pocketable Canon Powershot SD780 that makes videos and photos. We gave this camera away and replaced it with another slim pocket sized Canon Powershot (300HS). It is adequate as a video camera but its image quality is poor even compared to the SD780 (not sure if it is my unit or the model in general). I make more videos with the iPad than with this camera so its days are numbered.

I have made thousands of photos with D40. The majority of them are of my kids. It is still the only creative hobby I have and enjoy but I seldom carry it outside and hardly ever take it to some place just to make a photo. The need to make photos of events and people will remain but I don't know if I will get back into photography as a creative hobby.