Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Camera

So, I 'bought' a new camera, and I just can't decide if I want to keep it.

The item in question is a Sony Digital Single Lens Reflex (or DSLR), model number A300, with a 10.2 megapixel sensor, an 18 to 70 mm zoom lens and a 'live view' lcd image viewer that also tilts up and down for low and high shooting angles. There's a whole slew of specs that I won't list, but it does have the same kind of manual control and superior optics that first led me to enjoy photography now many years ago.

My first real camera--after the Brownie Box and an ancient Kodak Retina--was an Argus SLR with a 50mm lens, and it had no light meter, so I had to carry one separately. With this tool, I learned from my father Bill the art and skill of taking photographs. I learned, first of all, how to judge the light and decide what shutter speed/ aperture combination would be best for the film in the camera. Although he relied on a light meter, Bill taught me how to use my eye and experience to make the correct decision.

In the days of film, it was important to minimize the number of wasted frames, since each frame cost money, and even today, when the digital age has freed me from that constraint, the discipline instilled in those early days helps me understand light and shadow and how they must interrelate in a good photograph. In the days of film, black and white was not only cheaper than color and therefore less 'risky' it was also more artistic in a way, relying on the contrast between lights and darks to form the composition.

Composing the photograph in the frame is another skill that Bill taught me, again as a way to minimize the difficulty and expense of taking good photographs. A well composed photograph does not need to be cropped. These days, cropping is almost too easy, but the discipline of looking carefully at the arrangement of the items in the viewfinder makes the chore of manipulating the image digitally even easier in the end.

All this is to say that when I took this camera out of the box and hung it around my neck for the first time, it brought back this whole flood of images and memories of my father. These were good memories, too, for I always considered Bill to be a good photographer and an even better teacher of the craft. He could be very disapproving of waste and angry with the way I mistreated my equipment, but he taught me how to use the camera and lens to express myself. I lost this ability when I broke the Leica.

While living in Paris in 1976, I begged Bill to allow me to borrow his most precious state-of-the-art 35mm Leica M5, and to my surprise, he relented and let me take it with me. Of course, I was inspired by the street life and people and couldn't wait to use it. I carried it with me everywhere, to my ultimate detriment.

One day, while walking along the street with my bike in one hand and my girlfriend's hand in the other, the camera slipped off my shoulder and crashed to the ground. It was not destroyed, but severely damaged, and when I took it to a camera store to be repaired, discovered that it would cost me every penny of the next three months allowance. It had to be done, so for the three months, I lived on potatoes and bread.

I returned the camera on my next visit home and did not tell him about it. I explained my loss of income by fabricating a story about having my wallet stolen in the Metro, and resolved never to tell him, or my mother the truth. In fact, neither one ever learned what happened to the Leica.

So, as I held a camera again for the first time in thirty years, I realized what I had lost. Since that day till the day I bought my first little digital camera (ironically for a return trip to Paris) I had never considered photography as a creative outlet.

Even these little digital cameras had begun to lose their appeal, because they never took sharp pictures, and never quickly. There is always a shutter lag with the digital camera and the optics just aren't there. The lens was so small, it just never took a sharp image. It makes sense, of course, that good optics are required for good sharp pictures, but it wasn't till I looked at the results from this new camera that it finally hit me.

So, as I try to decide whether or not to keep the Sony A300, here the pros and cons.


It is a real camera, with full exposure controls.
It has real lenses that are interchangeable.
It reminds me of Bill and encourages my creativity.
I love it.


It is expensive ($600).
It is heavy (1.1 lbs).
I already have a digital camera.
I don't need it.

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