Assuming A Photo Identity

Two aspects of a photo identity (photoID) are:

  • peripheral environments we incorporate into our lives: computing platforms and operating systems, mobile devices and operating systems, camera systems and their vendors, image/video editing software
  • specific camera features, capabilities, and technologies we choose to assist us with the kinds of photos we produce.

Probably you have already made the big decisions that define one’s photographic peripheral world: camera phone vs. dedicated camera, a specific phone or camera manufacturer, specific mobile and desktop computing platforms, specific camera technology, specific image editing software.

A professional photographer will likely assume the professional photoID, simply availing of all useful technology to support one’s skill set and a business income, usually incorporating equipment to assist with advanced lighting techniques. The rest of us may choose multiple options also, but largely will be constrained to make do with natural light or on-camera flash and one specific set of vendors/technologies, for reasons of training, ease-of-use, and cost. There are now two competing major camera vendors, Canon and Nikon, and a few less dominant players.

Choice of photoID for amateurs will as often be accidental as planned. My peripheral photographic identity is iPhone, Nikon, Apple Macintosh, Nikon CaptureNX2 (no longer supported but still usable), Apple Final Cut. In this section, I speak mainly from my experience within this identity.

My photoID began to come into focus when a co-worker, a Nikon aficionado, took me on a lunch trip in 1971 to Bel Air Camera in Westwood, where I purchased my first single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, a Nikkormat FTn with 85mm f/1.8 lens. It replaced my consumer quality Argus C3 rangefinder camera. I still own both these cameras, and still use the 85mm Nikon lens (since upgraded to Nikon’s AI technology) with my latest camera. The Nikon sustainable quality and uninterrupted product evolution attracted me and keeps me in the fold.

In 1985, my boss put an Apple Macintosh SE on my desk and said ‘learn this’. It was computing nirvana at the time. The Motorola CPU’s address space measured in Gb, as much an attraction to me as the windowing Mac OS. I still use only Apple computers, and have made considerable money in Apple stock, both early on, and then again in recent years.

Being in the Apple fold for 30 years, my occasional camera of choice today is the iPhone in my pocket (8+). While disappointed that Apple initially treated the camera as an afterthought, I am now pleased to find Apple competing by extending the still and video technology as far as possible. While they still lag the best of the rest in camera tech, they are in the game to stay and the margin is now very narrow.

The modern digital SLR (DSLR) is complicated. My Nikkormat manual was a brief pamphlet. My current camera manual extends to nearly 400 pages. Most of this deals with functional options localized to the camera operation. But a few relate to the image format and image quality produced by the camera.

These output format and quality choices extend one’s photoID and thus become a subject for this discussion. These options offer choice: the best quality the camera can produce, versus a lesser quality that may still provide all the quality one’s visual processing can appreciate, or that an output device can reproduce. The lesser choice also may be more convenient in terms of work flow: file size, processing time, or format compatibility.

I cannot tell how output devices may improve in the future, nor whether another observer’s visual acuity will be better than my own. My own choice is an extension of my personality, opting to future-proof my results by choosing the highest quality always: the greatest RAW bit depth and the broadest color space. Also, I’ve already made the investment in a fast computer and terabytes of available disk space. But as a sanity check, I still want to understand the trade-offs surrounding my choices.

My default camera settings further pin down my photoID: lossless-compressed 14-bit raw format, Noise Reduction OFF, Active D-Lighting NORMAL, AutoISO min shutter speed 1/80s, White Balance AUTO, Picture Control NEUTRAL, Color Space ADOBE RGB. Images are post-processed in Nikon Capture NX2 for assigning final tone curves; adding sharpening, contrast, and noise reduction; performing touch-up and final crops.

Yet one’s choice in all these peripheral regards has no merit of itself. The real meat of one’s photoID pertains to the kind of photos one will produce. Such decisions will determine several aspects of the equipment and features that best suit one’s needs.

My photoID is centered on my love of close-up nature photography, both small critters at great distance, and tiny life forms from very close up. I also enjoy landscapes, from grand vistas to more intimate garden scenes and street scenes. Debby’s photo likes are street scenes and portraits. Our photo gear reflects these needs.

Debby has no need beyond a mild telephoto lens. Her needs are satisfied largely by her camera phone. But she likes to do some macro work also. Should she want to get higher quality and more flexibility, I would recommend a digital rangefinder camera as her step-up for street scene and people photography. She can borrow my DSLR for any casual macro work.

I need the longest telephoto lens I can afford; image stabilization because I am nearly 100% a hand-held photographer; the best low light performance I can afford. I require two or three competent zoom lenses covering 24mm to 500mm focal lengths. I have no need of an ultra-wide lens, but a tilt lens is on my wish list.

Cameras come in different sensor sizes. Professional-grade and some semi-pro DSLRs offer pricey full-frame sensors (~36 megapixels). Most semi-pro and mainstream DSLRs offer crop-frame sensors (2/3 of full-frame). The crop-frame sensor effectively extends the focal length of a lens by over 1.5x, in the sense that a subject that fills the frame on a crop-sensor at 400mm will require a 610mm lens to fill the frame on an full-frame sensor.

Since length is my greatest need, a crop-sensor becomes a characteristic of my photoID. I use my telephoto lens far more than most people, and I need a longer lens than most people. A crop-frame camera will enhance the apparent reach of the best telephoto lens I can afford. The crop-frame sensor also performs acceptably well for my purposes at normal and wide field of view. What I save on the crop-frame camera I can invest in the better lenses that I tend to appreciate.

One’s photoID extends to lens choices, both regarding lens speed and lens coverage. Some lenses are purpose-built for crop-sensor cameras. They are smaller and cheaper than lenses that must cover a full-frame sensor. Even though I will use mostly a crop-frame sensor, the best edge-edge performance will be provided by full-frame lenses. Since image quality (IQ) is my greatest photographic interest, my photoID excludes purpose-built crop frame lenses.

One can opt for the fastest lenses available, large, heavy,  expensive zooms of class f/2.8 or larger; or one can opt for smaller, cheaper lenses in the f/4 class. With optical image stabilization, the f/4 class lenses achieve the low light functionality of the faster lenses, so long as there is no motion in the field of view that requires stop-motion shutter speeds. Some snooty-sounding pros preach that stabilization is for people who have poor technique. I am not proud; I’ll take any help I can get. My photoID excludes fast glass, seeking equal IQ in smaller, lighter, cheaper packages, with the help of image stabilization.

In summary, my photoID specifies a crop frame DSLR, together with high quality, medium fast, full-frame-sensor zoom lenses from wide to long focal lengths, all with optical image stabilization for enhanced handheld use. Since my photoID is based in the Nikon side of the world, that is where you will find me in the following pages.


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