Switching Camera Systems

Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer recently posted an article about not switching camera systems, which was sparked by Thom Hogan’s article on the topic. Very very briefly, Thom is suggesting that all the systems have gotten so good that most of the old semi-decent reasons for switching no longer apply to most photographers.

This is not obviously stupid.

And it got me thinking about my camera system switches. Several of mine can be described at least as unsuccessful (not always for reasons I should have anticipated though).

So, let’s see.

First Camera

Around 1962 (I have negatives dating from that school year) I was given a Tower Pixie 127 camera, for my birthday or perhaps Christmas. I had little input on this, and didn’t know anything about cameras, and had no previous camera, so this is not in any sense a switch. But that’s the baseline.

First 35mm Camera

I was given my mother’s old Bolsey 35 in 1966, before we went over to Switzerland for a year. It had become surplus when my mother got a Minolta fixed-lens rangefinder camera with a light meter in 1964, before our summer trip to Uganda (my father was going there to work on a project writing mathematics textbooks for the English-speaking countries in Africa).

Again, I had little input (though I could have ignored the camera). It doesn’t tell my much about my system switching behavior.

I soon bought a little light meter for it, and shot some Kodachrome slides with it as well as B&W negatives.

This camera eventually lead to my starting to do my own darkroom work, a couple of years later, so having a 35mm camera was important.

First SLR

This was all my choice, and did represent acquiring a new system (I didn’t lose the Bolsey; though I didn’t use it much any more). I chose a Miranda Sensorex with the 50mm f/1.4 lens. Largely, I chose this because they got the highest ratings in Consumer Reports review of SLR cameras.

Getting a serious interchangeable-lens camera was certainly the right choice for me at this point. In the next few years I acquired a Tamron 200mm f/3.5 lens and a 28mm (going both longer and wider than the usual choices at the time). I took a lot of photos with this setup, through high school and into college. This was the camera I wielded for the Norhian, my highschool yearbook, and which I was shooting when I built my own darkroom and started doing all my own B&W printing and processing.

It was not a particularly good choice. One thing I learned from this is that Consumer Reports reviews are not really good guides for expert users. While I wasn’t an expert user when I bought it, I was heading that direction, and various limitations became apparent (in range of lenses available, particularly).

Leica

Getting a Leica M3 was an excellent choice. Over the next 2 years I added 90mm Summicron f/2 and 35mm Summicron f/2 lenses, and used them a lot. This was one of my main cameras when working for the Carleton Alumni Publications Office (their full-time professional quit during a hiring freeze so tight that the people who were responsible for a lot of the fund-raising couldn’t replace a key employee; so they ended up using a number of student photographers a lot, including me).

The rangefinder focusing worked better than early 1970s microprism screens for focusing in dark situations, and I did a lot of shooting in the dark (late night parties and music sessions, stuff at science fiction conventions) or by flash in rooms that might be pretty dark. The lenses were faster than the wide and telephoto choices I had previously had, too, which helped. And the non-reflex viewfinder meant I could see the exact moment the flash illuminated, so I had a better idea whether I got the shot than with an SLR.

I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have been as well off getting a Nikon SLR body and f/1.4 lenses, though. I might have lost some on focusing still, but I could have extended out to the 135mm f/2 lens to get a longer reach (I owned that lens later, it’s wonderful). The pricing of Leicas was going crazy, and it became less and less of a viable option for a price-conscious user as things went forward, but I’m not sure I should have known that when I bought the M3.

Pentax Spotmatic

Shortly after getting the M3 I swapped the Miranda for a Pentax outfit, with more lenses and longer ones (out to 400mm).

I picked it specifically as an adjunct to the Leica; I’d be using it for longer or wider lenses than I could support on the Leica (well, than there were frame lines for; I could use wider lenses at least with an auxiliary viewfinder, but then focusing and framing would be separate windows).

Pentax had a wide range of lenses, and very high optical quality in general. I never bought a prime lens for it (it came with such a set I never really moved to add to it; it was a decade later that I went out as wide as 24mm for the first time). Stop-down metering wasn’t particularly a problem, by my standards at the time. This may have been a good choice, at least as a simple swap for the Miranda.

I don’t see this as a mistake, more as the correcting of a mistake. But the more I think about it, the more I think that with 2020 hindsight (okay, I’m 2 years late) my best choice would have been to buy a used Nikkormat or Nikon F first and just stick with that, adding lenses and bodies here and there. Where’s the transtemporal mailbox?

Pocket Instamatic

Don’t worry, I didn’t get rid of any of the other gear.

The technology was hyped and interesting (they gave up on holding the film really flat, and instead calculated the lenses to focus properly on the film as the cartridges actually held it). It was my first step back into a “toy” camera, and I used it for a lot of snapshooting. The small size was convenient, but I never worked with those photos in the darkroom.

This was clearly a mistake. The idea of a “toy” camera, something smaller to keep with me more of the time, was good, but there was no need to step down this far. At that point there were very good small rangefinders like the Olympus 35RC or the Canonet QL17 with f/2.8 lenses and pretty good rangefinders, and light meters or even auto-exposure. I didn’t actually carry the Instamatic in a pocket, so these would have worked as well for carry I think, and much better for photography (and I could use the negatives in the darkroom myself).

The insane choice that keeps attracting my retrospective eye was the Minox system. Much smaller negative, and would have caused darkroom problems for me (the enlarger in my home darkroom was a Durst M35, which supported 35mm only, and had no alternative negative carrier options, so no way to handle smaller formats (or larger), and the darkrooms at college didn’t have such negative carriers in place, though they would have been available for purchase. Probably would have been a mistake, but I don’t know.

Canon AF35M

Then I graduated, and lost access to the college darkrooms, and had no darkroom access. There was a 4-year gap between roll “ddb-396” and “ddb-397”. I regret this gap rather a lot. I could have set up a good enough darkroom in my apartment (Bozo Bus Building basement) and my first house, though it would have required buying an enlarger (since I had sold mine when I got to the good darkrooms at college).

And sometime during that period (not at the beginning) my camera gear was stolen, along with some other stuff, out of my closet at home.

After a while I decided I had to get back into at least snap-shot photography, so I bought one of the new breed of auto-focus 35mm compact cameras (successors to the Olympus 35RC and friends). It was a marvelous toy camera, and I still do things with the photos from it. The idea of a toy camera was, once again, proven good!

Nikon FM

Just a few months after that, I bought a Nikon FM and Nikkor 35mm f/2 and 105mm f/2.5 lenses. The FM had a brighter focusing screen and viewfinder than many older SLRs, and you could get especially bright focusing screens for it (which I did).

My thinking included that I might need to also replace the Leica for low-light work, but I certainly needed to replace the SLR for wider, longer, zoom, and such, so I’d try a modern SLR first before committing the money for the Leica (which during those 4 years had definitely gone up a lot). And in fact I never did replace the Leica, I got more bodies and lenses for the Nikon system instead.

I have no idea why I got the 105/2.5 lens. It’s a classic portrait lens, but what I knew I loved was the 90mm, and Nikon had an 85mm that was available in either f/2 or f/1.4 (nearly 2 stops faster than the 105/2.5). I somehow didn’t know about the famous Nikon 85mm? I would definitely have been better served by the 35/1.4 and the 85/1.4; and then adding the 135/2 rather sooner than I actually did.

Despite that lens selection error, this was one of my best system choices. Nikon was “the photographer’s camera” from the 60s through the 90s at least, and staying with the same lens mount that whole time would have been better for me.

Nikon L135AF

For some reason I got this to replace the Canon AF35M. This was a clear mistake; it didn’t expose as well as the Canon. I don’t recall brand prejudice having anything to do with the choice. Apparently if I’d gotten the L35AF, it would have been much better (at least so Ken Rockwell says).

Olympus OM-4T

This was one of my most carefully considered system switches. And it turned out to be entirely unnecessary (though one of the reasons I couldn’t have anticipated in 1987).

I had been waiting for Nikon to introduce spot metering in their SLR line. Olympus came out with their multi-spot metering. I thought that I could get considerably better slides (which have high contrast and a restricted brightness range, remember) without slowing myself down too much using multi-spot metering to evaluate the scene and pick an exposure that places things in useful zones (not full zone system, since I wasn’t proposing custom development to match the lighting!).

Well, the multi-spot metering worked fine, it really was easy to spot the high and low brightness areas and see them displayed on the bar as I shifted them around with exposure changes—but it didn’t in practice result in significantly better exposures.

I got a pair of these bodies, and lenses from 24mm to 200mm (including a second 24mm lens that had shift, to handle cathedrals and castles on a trip to England).

And then in 1994 (7 years was my longest run in any camera system to that date, to be fair) auto-focus became important, and Olympus completely missed that boat (until much later). The Olympus gear served me very well, but no better than what I’d had before would have, so the switch was not a good choice.

Nikon N90

The N90 was a rather good prosumer body, but it was expensive, first body I bought that was nudging at $1000. Used to be lenses were expensive and bodies relatively cheap, but AF ran the bodies up, and then of course digital ran the bodies through the roof since the sensor and all the electronics were there. Those things also vastly shortened the useful life of the bodies, which most of us didn’t realize immediately. (They’re not repairable without electronic parts from the manufacturer, who don’t keep them available very long. After that it’s scavenging from other dead bodies.)

I rented one, and an AF lens, for the weekend to test whether I really needed AF, and sadly discovered that oh my yes, I got a lot more interesting pictures if I could focus that fast and that accurately. (Frustrating when the camera missed, but it didn’t miss more often than I missed myself.)

I hadn’t succeeded in unloading much of my Nikon gear during that 7 years, so it was fairly easy to slip back into the Nikon world.

So then over the years I added bodies and lenses and flashes and things.

I’d say that this switch back to Nikon as a very good move for me.

Then digital came along; but I did well remaining in Nikon (no system switch); my first DSLR was a Fuji S2, which was a great choice, then a Nikon D200 (maybe should have waited for the D300).

Then a D700, which was the most amazing camera I have ever owned. The put everything I considered valuable from their top-of-the-line D3 professional camera into the D700, plus at least 2 things I valued that the D3 didn’t have (built-in flash that was a CLS controller, and sensor cleaner)…and sold them for half the price of the D3. Mind you, it was still by a factor of 2 the most expensive camera body I ever purchased. I ended up selling a fairly special lens to finance it (but the lens had been better in theory than for me in practice, anyway).

It was a photojournalist’s camera, excellent for its time in low light, excellent AF. Not especially high resolution (it used the big sensor for big pixels). Fit me perfectly.

I thought I’d committed to APS-C format, and had revised my lens collection somewhat, when the D700 hit me, so that was expensive, undoing some lens decisions.

I suppose the change to and then back out of APS-C should almost count as system changes, even if the cameras had the same lens mount.

The D700 was the camera that made my first years of Roller Derby photography practical (light doesn’t look that low, but for action that fast I needed high shutter speeds).

Olympus EPL-2

This started out to be my new toy camera. With the 20mm f/1.7 pancake it wasn’t much bigger than the Panasonic LX3, and was much better in low light.

But it grew on me, or some of the lenses did. Also the video did, and getting the OM-D EM-5 opened up HD video to me fairly seriously; I used that camera for the Cats Laughing reunion concert movie “A Long Time Gone”, as well as for a lot of the still and video work used to promote the Kickstarter and provide the packaging and such.

And then I found myself maintaining two digital camera systems to near-professional levels. On consideration this seemed financially unsustainable, and after kicking this around a lot, I decided that it was time for me to get rid of that old flappy mirror thing I’d been lugging around since 1969, and go mirrorless. I sold off the Nikon gear (I really did sell it all off this time) and and bought an OM-D EM-1 mk II and some more Olympus lenses (the 40-150/2.8 is amazing; angle-of-view of an 80-300 f/2.8, much lighter, and much cheaper).

Fairly shortly after that, Nikon came out with their mirrorless system, and Olympus went through some major restructuring that leaves the photo division in a somewhat interesting position. So…I think this switch was great for me, but the world is rather making it less pleasant.

Conclusions

So, hind-sight certainly has huge benefits over what one knows when actually having to make decisions. I don’t really feel any of my choices were stupid or poorly thought out; the ones that I would like to retroactively improve were largely due to legitimate ignorance really, either in the present or of the future.

Still, it’d be great to send a letter back to myself, long enough to convince myself I had real knowledge of the future. Go Nikon from the beginning. 85mm! Get a toy camera early, but not a super-limited one. Get a Braun RL-515 flash even earlier. Take more pictures of where I live and where I work, especially early computers I worked with.

Oh; and buy Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon in the IPOs.

Alles Lockenspeepers!

The IBM 1620 computer at Northfield Highschool, where I first learned to program, had a version of a classic warning to not break the machine, written in humorous pseudo-German.

There are multiple documented versions online, and I don’t have a legible photo of the exact version of the one on ours; I’m trying to come reasonably close to reconstructing it between those references and my memory.

This is about how I remember it:

Achtung! Alles Lockenspeepers!

Das Computenmachine is nicht fűr gefingerpoken und mittengrabben. Ist easy schnappen der Springenwerk, blowenfusen, und poppencorken mit Spitzensparken. Ist nicht fűr gewerken by das Dumbkopfen. Da rubberneckin Sightseeren keepen hands in das Pockets; relaxen und watchen das Blinkenlights.

Anybody from then and there want to contribute to my memory? Even if you don’t have a photo, if you remember it differently I’d be interested in knowing. (There are lots of well-documented versions, all a bit different, from around the globe, but I’m asking about that specific version, not others.)

Why German? Well, perhaps because the Germans were a big deal in science around WWII (which, remember, was closer in time to when I was in highschool than that time is to today). Perhaps because German as formally deployed is ponderous enough that this kind of fractured German is inherently funny. Perhaps because of the humorously incompetent German’s in Hogan’s Heroes on TV.

Names for the Rolling Stone

In Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones, there’s discussion of what to name the ship the family is purchasing, and a list of suggested names is assembled.

I realized some time ago that Susan B. Anthony being the only real name of a historical person might mean something; specifically, that the feminist content (Hazel’s rant about the glass ceiling for example) is not an accident.

This also lead me to thinking about the other names more, eventually. (At least two others are definite references to historic people, but not their actual names).

So, here are the names, and what I’ve found out about them.

Dauntless

A common naval ship name (Royal Navy and American), and also in Doc Smith’s Lensman universe.

Jabberwock

The Jabberwock is a fearsome and fictional beast from Lewis Carroll. It was in Through the Looking Glass.

H. M. S. Pinafore

Title of (and ship in) one of the “big three” Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.

The Clunker

I don’t know any particular history for this name. It obviously suggests they don’t have high expectations of their ship.

Star Wagon

Again, I know no particular history for this. This seems much more optimistic than The Clunker.

Go-Devil

Again, I don’t know the reference. There’s a piece of oil pipeline equipment, a logging sled, an infantry regiment (60th Infantry Regiment starting in 1942), and a brand of outdoor equipment, none of which look especially relevant. It does suggest aggressive forward movement, which fits.

Onward

Another name suggesting aggressive forward movement; Out far, and onward yet!” (from Rhysling / Heinlein’s poem The Green Hills of Earth).

Icarus

Reference to early human flight, but with a tragic outcome. But they’re heading away from the sun, so maybe they’ll be safe.

Susan B. Anthony

Important feminist and suffragist.

Iron Duke

A nickname for Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (probably most famous for winning the battle of Waterloo, which was the turning point in the Napoleonic wars).

Morning Star

Nickname for the planet Venus, and also for Lucifer.

Tumbleweed

Blows around at random in the wide open spaces, I guess.

Oom Paul

Nickname for Stephanus Johannes Paulus “Paul” Kruger, a 19th century South African politician. Seems strange that anybody in the family would want to name their ship after him, all things considered.

(This one I had to have pointed out to me, in a private Facebook group).

Viking

Yet more wanderers, though these often returned home (though they did sometimes colonize).

The Same Hazel?

People have wondered, and debated, for decades whether the Hazel in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress could be the same as the Hazel Meade Stone who is the grandmother in The Rolling Stones.

Later on, Heinlein has said that they are, both in his later World As Myth works (which I personally don’t consider a definitive answer; when he brings back old characters they never feel like themselves, which leaves me doubting everything else he says about the older works also), and in private letters to people (no, not me; I never wrote to him).

TRS was published about 15 years before TMiaHM. So, if they are the same character, Heinlein decided when he wrote TMiaHM to build things so that Hazel Meade could become Hazel Meade Stone.

I’ll refer to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as ‘TMiaHM’, and The Rolling Stones as ‘TRS’, for brevity.

I have just happened to read those two books, at the same time, this last week, so I have opinions. (I should probably say that I think TMiaHM is Heinlein’s best book, and that TRS is probably the book of his that I’ve re-read the most times, which means dozens.)

In TMiaHM, the character Hazel Meade is a young girl, 13 at the start, living at Cradle Roll Crêche. She was transported as an infant, and then lost her father and mother on Luna. Manny first notices her at the meeting where he meets Wyoming Knott; she’s rolled in a ball, on a ballistic trajectory to hit the knees of one of the Warden’s police at the door to the hall when the raid happens. Her parents may both have been under sentence for subversion, but it’s not certain.

She turns up throughout the book, sometimes a bit gratuitously (Manny notices her in the crowd after their mission to Earth, for example). She does play an important role as captain of the Baker Street Irregulars, and she is adopted into Manny’s family.

It’s noted in TMiaHM that Slim Lemke Stone is courting her, prepared to “opt” her when she’s willing. Later Manny reports “Slim got Hazel to change name to Stone, two kids and she studied engineering.” So her becoming Hazel Meade Stone by name and by profession is pretty clear. (That paragraph goes on to say “All those new free-fall drugs and nowadays earthworms stay three or four years and go home unchanged. And those other drugs that do almost as much for us; some kids go Earthside to school now.”)

She does sign their declaration of independence; Manny signs right below her (and she hadn’t been able to write when his family adopted her). She claims to have written free speech into the Lunar charter herself, and that’s not contradicted by anything I’ve noticed in TMiaHM.

So, what’s the problem? Seems clear-cut pretty much.

The problem is that Hazel Meade Stone’s story as told in TRS isn’t fully compatible with this. Now, she’s definitely a bit of a tall-tale teller; early on there’s this bit:

“Don’t try to bring me up, Roger. At ninety-five my habits are fairly well set.”

“Ninety-five indeed! Last week you were eighty-five.”

“It’s been a hard week.”

So, maybe it’s entirely a matter of her being an unreliable narrator in the book where she speaks directly to us a lot. (Right near the end, she says to Roger “I finished with you when you were in short pants. You’ve been bringing me up ever since.”)

At the end of TMiaHM Manny says she and Slim had two kids (so Roger has a sibling; never mentioned in TRS) and she studied engineering. Manny doesn’t say she went to Earth to study, and he does discuss the drugs to help with gravity changes in that very paragraph; that’s quite a bit like saying she didn’t go to earth to study, to my mind. It does at least set a rough limit on the length of one trip to Earth, no more than 3 or 4 years (the drugs for high gravity work less well than the ones for low gravity, and earthworms visit Luna for 3-4 years without harm).

There are problems, though. In TRS, when Roger is discussing baseball with the twins, Castor says

“But you grew up in a one-g field; you’ve got a distorted notion of physics.”

Which seems to say Roger Stone grew up on Earth, was old enough to play baseball there. That’s clearly more than 3 years.

This seems to suggest that Hazel Meade Stone spent more time on earth than the drugs would have allowed, at least in one trip. (Yes, they could have been apart some of his childhood; but there is no slightest suggestion in either book that they were.) And if Roger spent his childhood bouncing back and forth from Luna to Earth and back, it doesn’t really make sense to say he grew up in a one-g field.

At another point, Hazel claims to have been a lawyer in Idaho at one point.

“Who’s not a lawyer?”

“You aren’t.”

“Of course I am!”

“When and where? Be specific.”

“Years and years ago, back in Idahobefore you were born. I just never got around to mentioning it.”

Her son looked her over. “Hazel, it occurs to me that the records in Idaho are conveniently far away.”

“None of your sass, boy. Anyway, the courthouse burned down.”

“I thought as much.”

Roger doesn’t claim this is obviously impossible, only that he thinks it’s unlikely. So maybe she did spend an extended period on Earth.

But to study engineering, and law, to professional levels (she’s worked as both, she claims, and Roger confirms the engineering), while raising two kids, on a planet where you weigh 6 times what you’re used to, is getting on towards super-human. Particularly if you have to do it in 3-year stints.

More likely that she’s never actually been a lawyer. But why Idaho? Well, hard to check for one thing. But if she hadn’t spent a lot of time on Earth, it would be an obvious lie, and Roger’s reaction feels more like “possible tall tale” than “obvious lie”.

Another possibility is that Manny understates the power of the drugs. But…why would Heinlein have him do that?

TMiaHM starts in 2075, the revolution succeeds in 2076. The framing story around that, though, is not dated. Manny says he isn’t 100 yet (discussing going out to Asteroids, right at the end). We know his birthday is Bastille Day, but what year? Best I and others have managed as of this instant is we all think he’s 40 plus or minus quite a few years, i.e. not very certain. So, “not 100 yet” means fewer than 60 years later. Up to 60 years is a wide window, doesn’t really constrain Hazel’s story much.

I’m finding the “grew up in a one-g field” moment the bit that’s hard to get past. That’s clearly the story as known to his family, and it seems unlikely that it’s a lie (and with his mother living with them, she’d know).

They might well be intended to be the same; perhaps Heinlein forgot or couldn’t find a way around that one bit. I do think it’s that one bit that made it completely clear to me that they weren’t actually the same character, not from the same universe anyway. Heinlein does that a lot; tripedal martians with similar characteristics occur in Double Star, Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, and Stranger in a Strange Land. He recycles aspects of his world-building a lot in stories that clearly aren’t actually part of the same universe.

Words Over Windows

Words Over Windows icon

The photo project that has eaten my life since June has reached completion! Or at least, has reached the point where I’m launching it publicly.

This is the same project that I was previously showing a proof gallery of in this blog.

In the final form, I’ve got 150 photos of what was written, drawn, and painted on the plywood (and OSB) panels used to protect windows in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd on 25-May-2020, and of the memorials at 38th and Chicago.

The project name has settled down to being “Words Over Windows”, and the images can be seen on the project’s web site, purchased as a book (through Amazon), or bought as individual prints (through the web site).

First time I’ve tried anything like this—turning a project around this fast, doing my own photo book, offering prints publicly via the web.

Of course I’d appreciate anything readers could do to spread the word about this!