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My early years with digital cameras

A long, long time ago, back in high school and college, I mostly used Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras. My first SLR (a gift from my immigrant grandfather) was an outstanding Exakta made in Germany. Later, I owned SLRs made by Ricoh and then Nikon.

But I'm not here to talk about any of those cameras. This is a quick review of my first ten years with digital cameras, from 1998 to about 2008.

1998: Kodak

The first digital camera I can remember using was a little Kodak point-and-shoot. Here's a picture I took in November 1998, hiking the Grand Canyon with my wife and some friends.


I probably took it on that trip because it was light and I didn't want to risk damaging my film SLR. I don't remember for sure, but I think that little camera cost several hundred dollars. It didn't encourage me to expect much from digital in the future.

2001: Olympus C3000

In April 2001, my wife and I traveled to China to adopt our third daughter, Catherine. Although I had given up on the little Kodak camera, I'd been paying attention to developments in digital imaging, and when Joan and I decided around Christmas 2000 that we needed a better camera for our forthcoming trip, I had changed my mind and felt that digital cameras were just about ready to replace film. My wife, who is more skeptical about technology than I am, was unpersuaded, so we ended up buying two cameras: a new Nikon N65 film SLR for her, and an Olympus Camedia C3000 (3MP) for me. We paid over $600 for each of the cameras. 

She took some nice photos with the N65. But the photos I took with the C3000 turned out pretty well, too, or at least I was pretty impressed with them at the time. This photo, taken in Lanzhou (north central China), was published some years later in a university journal, in connection with an article on personal milk production in China.


Here's the compulsory image of the Great Wall at Badaling (north of Beijing).
Great Wall of China at Badaling, April 2001. Taken with Olympus C3000; slightly reprocessed in 2014 with PhotoNinja.
I cringe a little looking the pictures from that trip now. The memories are wonderful, of course. And at the time I thought the photos were great. It was that trip and that Olympus C3000Z camera that got me excited about photography again, after I'd away from it for about 20 years. But looking back at the images now, I have to admit that they're technically mediocre at best. My iPhone 5 takes much better photos. And apart from the cameras, I'm a much better photographer now than I was in 2001. 

It no longer seems to work, but I still have that C3000 and we still have the Nikon N65, too. What can I say. I'm sentimental. 

2005: Canon PowerShot S1IS

I kept shooting with the C3000 for another couple of years. Around 2005, I decided I needed a camera with more powerful telephoto reach, and I got the 3.2 megapixel Canon PowerShot S1IS. The S1IS was released in early 2004, when the megapixel race was just getting started. It was actually less expensive than the Olympus C3000 had been. 

This pic was taken with the Canon S1IS on a ranch in Bandera, Texas.

Bandera, Texas, September 2005. Taken with Canon PowerShot S1IS and lightly processed in PhotoNinja.
The S1IS had several advantages over the C3000. The lens on the S1IS may have been a little better, and the camera was certainly more versatile. The S1IS could take movies. The S1IS had a better in-camera image processor than the C3000. And it had IBIS or "in-body image stabilization." This helped particularly with photos taken at telephoto focal lengths.

Here is a little bit of video taken with the S1IS in December 2005 at Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, in northwest Arkansas (near Russellville). Now I love to watch movies, in fact, and I've learned a lot about photography from the great cinematographers. But I've never cared much for making movies myself and I seldom use the video feature on my cameras and I admit that this bit of video isn't much to look at. But one thing I learned from this experience is the value of sound. We were standing in a field as thousands and thousands of snow geese hovered ahead, then landed near us. The sound was deafening.

Snow geese coming down for night at Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. Taken with Canon S1IS.
At a wedding in 2013, for the first time, I shot some video of the ceremony, not to capture the look of the ceremony, but in order to record what was said.

The versatility of the S1IS helped me start thinking about what I liked to photograph most. When I first got the S1IS, I thought it was birds. I loved shooting with the telephoto zoom, at focal lengths greater than 300mm (in full-frame terms). But eventually I discovered again what I'd known decades earlier, that what I really like to photograph is people.

2008: On to a DSLR with the Pentax K10

In 2008, I decided that it was time to "graduate" to a proper digital SLR.

Olympus had something to do with pushing me over the edge here. I was taking personal photos at the Dallas Arboretum when a fellow asked me if I'd take a photo of him and his girlfriend. He had an Olympus dSLR, the four-thirds E-520. After composing and shooting for years with the S1IS's rear display, which was low-res digital, the experience of looking through the Olympus dSLR's excellent optical viewfinder was nothing short of a revelation. I remember saying to myself, Wow! Immediately I sensed what I'd been missing from my film SLR days. In addition, shooting with my eye to the viewfinder seemed so much more direct than shooting with the camera held at arm's length. It truly was a conversion experience.

But although I was about to reject the S1IS, Canon also had a major influence on my choice of dSLR. The image stabilization in the S1IS had persuaded me that in-body image stabilization was a must-have feature. I never considered either Canon and Nikon dSLR bodies because they did not (and still do not) have image stabilization. I didn't look seriously at Olympus, either, although I don't remember why not.

Instead, I went with Pentax, buying a K100D. I knew of Pentax's great contributions to history of SLR photography. The fact that the Pentax K100D was one of the most affordable cameras on the market at the time was also a factor. I didn't take many photos with the K100D but one of them happens to be one of my personal favorites out of all the photos I've taken.

Abby Running, taken February 2, 2007, with Pentax K10D.
The K100D was soon replaced by the K10D, which at that time was Pentax's top-of-the-line pro camera. I used the K10D for the next couple of years, to take vacation pictures:

Catherine in the snow (Mt Nebo, Arkansas, December 2007). Pentax K10D.
Landscapes like this shot taken in Rocky Mountain National Park:


I took thousands and thousands of mostly very bad photos of school sports like basketball and volleyball:


And swimming:

I like this photo — although to get this view of the bored swimmers waiting their turns, I had to shoot over a most unattractive, overflowing trash can.
I started shooting portraits for the Dallas Arboretum with the K10D, and used it for other family portraits in the White Rock Lake area:


And the K10D helped me through my first several weddings:


Great photographer Edward Steichen said that "No photographer is as good as even the simplest camera." I became a better photographer using the K10D and I've continued to get better as I've moved on to better and better cameras. But I have to confess that Steichen was right: I never came close to being as good as the K10D.


2008: After the K10D

That Pentax K10D was eventually succeeded by a Pentax K20D. Both were excellent bodies. Fashion photographer Benjamin Kanarek had left Canon for Pentax (for a while) because of the K20D. Pentax was also an excellent choice because the Pentax lenses were outstanding. Unlike Canon and Nikon, Pentax didn't really make a clear distinction between its consumer dSLR systems (mediocre but cheap) and its pro line (high quality but very pricey). Instead, Pentax had only a couple models for sale and basically one lens line, in which practically everything was very good.

Of course, eventually I moved from Pentax to Sony APS-C and then to Sony full-frame (A99), and most recently, I moved again from Sony full-frame to Olympus micro four thirds. But that's another story for another blog article.

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