It's In the Bag

Just back from the Parade, where I had the chance to talk with a number of fellow PCA members about photography, I’m a bit bemused by how many questions and comments revolved around specific equipment. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you already know my feeling that good photography isn’t a slave to any specific camera, lens, or other machinery. That having been said, the choice of what you carry on a photo shoot can influence your success/failure ratio and make your life a lot easier and more fun. So, for whatever it’s worth, here’s what went to the Parade with me and why.

The basis of my outfit is a Nikon D2X, a big and heavy digital that can pump out 12 plus megapixel raw files all day long, and do it at a high rate of speed when needed. Extremely durable and sealed against extremes of weather, it has never failed me even though it has taken some significant hits. It has the ability to use all of the lenses I carry and make the most of their individual strengths.

My backup—and it is much more than that—is a Nikon D40X (which Nikon has now replaced with the D60); compact, lightweight, and, in spite of lacking the speed, power and durability of the D2X still capable of producing 10 high quality megapixels. It was almost the least expensive body made by Nikon when I bought it, but can also handle all of the lenses (though not to the extent of its larger sibling). It sees a lot of duty with my 12-24mm wide angle zoom while the larger camera carries a longer standard lens; this makes a wider range of focal lengths quickly available, and swapping lenses less often protects the cameras’ sensors from the dirt invariably blowing around concours and autocross sites. 

The lightweight D40X, held high on a monopod, makes good use of the 12mm wide angle to get an overview of many of the cars in the historic display.

 

The tiny Nikon full frame fish-eye lens (10.5mm) is a real secret weapon, perfect for giving an alternative view of reality, especially appropriate for wonky events like the Zone Challenge at the Parade. Too much of any technique or lens—especially something as distinctive as a fisheye—can quickly devolve into cliché, but full-frame fish images can often be made into a more rectilinear (normal-looking) file in post processing, and with judicious editing, the result can be a good substitute for a regular ultra-wide lens. Depth of field goes on forever, and outdoors, super-dramatic skies are the norm; just be sure that you have something of interest in the foreground.

 

The full frame fisheye lens gives immense depth of field, even in relatively low indoor light. Careful positioning and post processing can produce a reasonably undistorted image.

 

The most versatile player in the bag is the Nikon 18-200 wide range zoom, covering the equivalent of 27 to 300 mm in a 35 mm film camera. Many would consider this a compromise lens, not as fast or perhaps as sharp as single focal length lenses or more modest range zooms of the same manufacturer, but I would submit that everything is a compromise. Think of it this way: Would more of your daily driving needs be served by a Carrera GT or a Cayman? In my book being able to go from a wide-angle survey shot to a tight head shot instantly with a very good lens beats being limited to (probably) the wrong focal length, and maybe missing a shot, with an excellent lens. I own a big, heavy, single focal length lens sharp enough to shave a mosquito’s moustache, and it didn’t even go to the Parade with me. The right tool for the right job.

The ultra wide angle, here at 18mm, can give a dramatic superimposition with good depth of field to tell the story.

 

What did make the cut in the Parade bag was my 80-200mm f2.8; a superb but heavy fast optic, it can get the shot in limited light and is wonderful wide open or at f4 for limiting depth of field thus emphasizing the area of sharpness, usually an individual. Now replaced by the 70-200 Nikon that offers image stabilization in addition to its other good qualities, these lenses have been racing and autocross standards for years, although their preeminence has been somewhat eclipsed by the 18-200.

The versatility of the 18-200mm zoom allows a reasonably tight head shot.

 

The same 18-200mm can immediately fall back and do a wide angle photo when the situation requires without having to change lenses or reach for another camera.

 

The real specialist in the bag is the 300mm 2.8. Short enough for the occasional isolation shot by opening up the lens, it is long enough for a great deal of racing or, in this case, autocross action. About half as expensive and much lighter and more compact than the 400mm 2.8, it mates well with Nikon’s 1.7 tele-extender, making it a bit over 500mm total (around 750mm in film camera terms). This formidable magnification let me get four distinctly different shots of the same car from one position at the Parade autocross. Too heavy to hand-hold for long, this rig calls for support; my choice here is a Manfrotto carbon-fiber monopod; light and easy to carry but rigid and versatile.

With a busy background, good isolation of the subject is possible with either the 80-200 f2.8 or the 300 f2.8.

 

The super-specialist of the group is the 300 f2.8 with or without tele-extender to produce dynamic tight shots of cars on track.

 

Versatility with the monopod means that in addition to holding up the big D2X and the 300, it can be pressed into service to get the little D40 and a wide angle high into the air for a look different from the usual eye level view. Since the smaller camera came with a remote infrared shutter release, it’s easy enough to fire even when well above your head, haul it down for a check of the shot just made, and send it up again. This was a valuable trick for the heritage and historic display that John Meeks put together for the Parade; the higher angle gave a much better idea of the impressive scope of the display than the eye level shots.

Nothing works without power, so there were two batteries for each camera, with chargers standing by in the room. The two SB-800 strobes used for the speaker and awards shots were powered by NiMh Powerex batteries, which are also rechargeable and cycle the strobes even faster than the lithiums I previously favored (although not as fast as the too bulky, too heavy, too expensive external 500 volt battery I used to carry). The handfuls of Lexar cards were downloaded frequently into a Dell laptop which was then backed up into a Western Digital portable hard drive before erasing and reusing the cards. 

But caution (or paranoia) reigns; even with my pictures living on two different hard drives, I always felt a little iffy when I reformatted the cards. And yes, although I’m happy I didn’t need it, I carried my little point and shoot, in case all else failed. 

More next month; meantime, keep shooting and let me hear from you at leonardt@pca.org.