Backgrounder 2

Reflections on my photography and process

Self-portrait: reflected in a defunct ballpoint pen, less than 1mm in diameter.

In my first backstory, I noted that my photographic efforts during my first two years of photography were rudderless and dispassionate. My interest increased dramatically as I developed a sense of direction fostered by the two serendipitous events I noted in the first post of this series. I set some modest goals and had some modest successes.

Going into 2010, my interest had become more focused on closeup and macrophotography of subjects of the natural world, in their natural worlds. I liked the challenge of finding snippets of life external of myself going on all around me—us—that we tend not to see, really see because 1) they are not in plain sight given their world-scale compared to ours, and 2) our failure to sense they have any importance or consequence to our lives. That if we think of them at all, it is probably as just being pests, even if they are completely benign. We don’t care, or think we need to. Out of sight, out of mind.

Landscape photography and general “nature” photography are very popular. Closeup nature and macro, not so much. They require a different focus, both intellectually and technically, as well as specialized equipment. It’s not the same as being out and about, coming upon a scene or vista, whipping out your camera or phone, and thinking, “Wow, this would make a beautiful picture!” I often have to plan how to actively explore, find, and figure out the best way to capture my subjects. It’s the difference between “seeing” with a 35 or 50mm field-of-view mental perspective vs. a macro-lens perspective.

The closeup natural world is often fraught with impediments such as inconsistent or just-plain bad light, bad shadows, light streaks, distracting backgrounds, or backgrounds so close to the subject they can’t be drop dropped out through lighting or aperture adjustments. Small creatures generally don’t like being your subject, generally refuse to take posing direction or otherwise do your bidding so you, an interloper into their world, can get that perfect shot.

While I was generally pretty happy with my subject matter, there was always that lingering doubt about the quality of my images. Despite selling some prints and winning a few competition awards, my portfolio is a constant source of a sense of failure within me. I constantly thought that anyone with access to my portfolio and eyes to see would agree (which is why I didn’t display much of my portfolio and why publishing on this type of platform is a big leap). My images don’t have the best composition or framing. They are not always well exposed (according to pros who have critiqued my work but don’t do this kind of shooting. A subject for another time). And the biggest fault of all: They aren’t the sharpest.

All of these flaws contribute to the sense that nothing I shoot, edit, archive — or even choose to display on rare occasions—is ever really good enough. Even my award-winning images are not as good as they could have been, should have been. This sense of introspective angst seems validated and compounded when I see images such as (some) of these.

I bring up all these shortcomings to make two points. First, problems such as framing and chasing exposure settings as I chase my subjects (I shoot full-manual everything, almost all the time), are all my technical fault. And I developed another.

After a surgical situation came up in late 2017, with its long recovery, I wasn’t in good physical shape or much in the mood to shoot, even handheld, let alone lug around my tripods, focus rails, and various flash and other accessories to take the kind of shots I knew I should be taking. Even after recovery, worn and aching joints exacerbated by the bad effects of long-term use of a certain antibiotic made me less able, and thus less willing, to get myself out and about, let alone get into the contorted body positions I previously would have easily done in order to better frame my subjects without disturbing their environment.

Did this affect my approach to how I went about shooting? Absolutely. I wasn’t “doing the work” required to get the results I intended or had been in the past. Yes, there were the physical impediments, but perhaps there was more of an attitude deficit. I wasn’t doing the work required, so I wasn’t happy with the results, which I turned into absolution for not doing the work.

I need to get my head (and body) back to where they need to be to do this kind of shooting and to think more about how and what I want to shoot. There is good reason to take more of a two-camera approach using tripod-based set-shots with one, handheld shots with the other. I know I need to do more set-shots and less chasing after my subjects, shooting handheld just because it is more convenient, takes less time, and requires less patience. In short, I need to rethink, retune, and reinvigorate my work ethic and change my process so I take fewer shots of higher quality.

Second, it’s easy to blame the equipment, or to think, “If I just had that nifty piece of new gear, my images would be better.” Admitting and addressing the previous issues is absolutely necessary. But there are legitimate reasons to think about equipment.

In a previous post, I gave a little background into how I got into photography and the kit I purchased which seemed more than adequate for my initial purposes—despite not having the video capabilities I needed. In August of 2008, a little over a year after I got the Nikon D80, the D90—the first DSLR to do video—was released. I bought one during the winter. The video capability came in very handy immediately with the neighbor situation.

Besides the video capability, the D90 had some other incremental technical improvements over the D80. Once spring had sprung, it quickly became my go-to camera for my general shooting, now focusing more on close-up nature subjects.

Over the next two years, I purchased an SB-600 flash, then another, the Nikon closeup lighting system, an SB-900, a ring light, and a ring flash. I had a monopod, two different-sized tripods, and a focus rail. I had already purchased the pro-level Nikon 105mm macro lens and a 50mm prime very soon after buying the new body (other lenses would follow). I had a healthy smattering of closeup filters, extension tubes, and reverser rings, and a few different types of wired or remote shutter releases.

The D80 and 90 feature the smaller DX sensor, resulting in smaller camera bodies, able to get into tighter spots. And the DXs are lighter, a blessing when you are trying to hold a steady physical position while waiting for your subject to do something. My chosen equipment seemed to allow me to do everything I thought I wanted to do. I used it a lot and learned a lot.

Until it was discontinued, the D90 was at the top of the Nikon “prosumer” product line. The next camera in the line crossed over into the professional category, all with full-sized bodies with the larger FX-sensor with professional-level prices. Loaded with features I would never use, I could never justify the expense of making that jump, so the D90 has been my primary camera for more than 11 years.

Sometimes it’s good to have two cameras with two different setups. The D80 fit that bill nicely. I also bought a D70 and D70s years later, but that’s another story for another time, about how those technically “obsolete” throwbacks relate to the new mirrorless technologies.

The D90 is factory rated for 100,000 shutter actuations. I just checked mine. As of the day I was writing this, it had 104,078. While I do not see any signs of shutter problems, there are some signs that the camera is getting tired and showing its age, the most important being the flange of the lens mount. It or the lock is wearing and getting sloppy. I feel and hear my lenses locking in, but on increasing occasions, when zooming in or out, lenses have, at times, barely slipped out of lock and lost electrical contact, causing me to miss shots. The same problem has become more frequent with my heavy 105mm macro, either when using my non-trigger hand to support the camera on the lens barrel or when just focusing.

Even if the shutter assembly should fail, sending the camera to Nikon for that and other repairs needed might cost around $600. But should I? Or should I buy something new?

I found three reasons to justify (finally?) making the leap to a considerably more costly pro-level body. All would impact image quality.

1) The D90 cannot do “mirror up” shooting. Even on a tripod, that mirror slap affects image quality.

2) Getting closeups of my subjects often requires getting close to them in tight, low-light spaces. Sometimes flash is not going to work effectively at all in those environments, even a ring flash. That means shooting handheld at slower shutter speeds, which is not conducive to sharp shots. Also, flash on shiny insect body parts or light-colored flowers is a significant problem, especially when shooting at very close range. The fix should be to utilize higher ISO without flash. DX sensors are more prone to noise than full-frame FX. I was never happy with the noise in low-light situations on the D90 going beyond ISO 400, which gives me only a one-stop increase in sensitivity over the default 200. Over the years, I have heard fantastic claims about huge improvements in sensor sensitivity and noise reduction since the introduction of the D90. It’s a solid inducement to upgrade.

3) The D90 cannot do front/back focus adjustment. For years I wasn’t even aware of this problem, but once I was, I did focus chart testing and saw that it is an issue for all but one of my (least used) lenses. This issue, compounded by the mount flange wear, explains a lot of my focus issues.

All three problems, in combination, impacted sharpness, a BIG part of what’s messing with my results, my sense of satisfaction, and my drive. Fixing this issue alone would take a huge weight off my suffering psyche and, I suspect, provide that element that would elevate my images to a true “pro” level that has eluded me.

I also have to wonder if I have reached the maximum potential of what I can do with the D90. No doubt, a new camera body would offer new technical abilities and opportunities that would also inspire me to be more creative with my images in an “artsy-fartsy” way and rejuvenate my passion.

I decided to step up to a pro-level camera. But which format should I choose? DX has some advantages. The smaller size and weight is one. Another is its built-in crop factor in which any lens of a given focal length produces an image as if the lens had a 50% focal length increase, giving greater “reach,” producing a sense of greater magnification (e.g, a 50mm lens produces an image like a 75mm lens). But stepping up to FX offers more resolution and more lens options, on top of the tech improvements since the introduction of the D90.

Do I want to step up to the apparently fantastic top-shelf Nikon DX DSLRs, or go with one of the new mirrorless bodies, either DX or FX? Maybe I should also rejuvenate the DX-format D90 as a secondary setup to an FX primary? I am weighing pros and cons ( I am heavily invested in Nikon equipment, and that is where I shall stay) and need to make a decision.

So it is November of 2020, and winter approaches. Most facets of nature in my little slice of the world have shut down or shifted to another part of their lifecycle. Others are in the throes of annual die-off. The outdoor shooting season is rapidly coming to a close. I am reflecting on all I have written here and what I might do over the winter to prepare myself for next year.

If I choose to get a new body, there is wisdom in doing so sooner than later. I could become immersed with it over the winter by doing some serious desktop shooting and testing so I am confident, ready-and-raring to go in the spring, assuming snow shoveling or the next wave of COVID don’t kill me.

UPDATE 5/3/21
As it turns out, the Nikon I wanted (the X-sensored Z6 II) wasn’t available that fall. The pandemic had severely curbed production and there were none to be found. That changed on 4/27/21 when I was notified by Adorama in NYC that the camera is now in stock. I completed the purchase in less than 10 minutes and it arrived the next day. The learning curve has begun.

Update 5/13/21

Unfortunately, after some time spent with the camera, I decided to return it. There is a lot to like, but it is not suitable for my primary type of shooting, which is close-up small subjects such as insects and other critters, in motion. The electronic viewfinder refresh rate is nowhere near fast enough to give me a clear view of my subjects in flight. The jittery jumpcut-style imagining in the viewfinder when trying to focus is unacceptable while tracking small fast-moving subjects. Many reviewers of mirrorless cameras, especially sports photographers, have noted this shortcoming.

I returned it and swapped it for the DX pro-body D500 DSLR. But I still wanted to get into mirrorless technology, so I also got the nice little Z50 to tinker with (I see the potential for video work). I got both for just a little more than the Z 6II alone.

Update 10/31/21

I love the D500. I should have found the means to buy one back when it was introduced in 2016 (It’s almost six years later, way beyond the usual 4-year cycle for introducing replacement models). The electronics on the mirrorless Z50 take a lot of getting used to. It doesn’t have the features of its larger and more expensive cousins, most of which I wouldn’t use, but a couple I wish the Z50 had. There is a lot to like and learn. I just discovered a focus mode, that after some practice, may make this camera a good fit for my shooting process after all. I wish I had found this sooner, while I had the Z6 II, and not at the very end of the season when the insects I need to use as test subjects are now gone.

The story continues in Backgrounder 3.