Illustration courtesy camerasize.com
About that crack I made about selling all my cameras: I'd better 'splain.
It's very tempting to keep this quiet, but, to paraphrase David Vestal, I'm "in the disclosure business," so I might as well take a deep breath and blurt it out. The truth is: my old colleague Harold Merklinger has been writing about the state of the art in digital B&W (Harold, former Chief Scientist of the Canadian Defence Research Establishment Atlantic, who retired as that agency's Director-General, wrote one of the original articles about bokeh that I published in Photo Techniques in 1997) and he feels that the D800E is a breakthrough for digital B&W. I've been relentlessly researching everything I can about the D800E's B&W capability online, and I think I've quickly arrived at the point where I just need to try it for myself in order to find out more.
When I published the "poll question" the other day, I got lots of relatively legalistic responses to what I thought was a very straightforward question. Few people intuited that it simply described an issue I happen to be wrestling with myself! The Nikon D800E is very much not my kind of camera—not what I want to shoot with, not what I want to carry, not what I want to pay for. But on the other hand, while I've seen some decent digital B&W here and there (often, curiously, from the original Canon 5D), I've never been happy with what I've been able to produce myself. And what else am I going to spend my money on? Unless you count coffee, I have no other vices. (Well, maybe a touch of gluttony, according to the needle on the bathroom scale. Burp.)
It seems fair to conclude from the evidence that I'm the victim of some persistent delusions when it comes to my own photography. For instance, every time I buy a new camera, I truly believe that I'm going to use it for the rest of my life and will never have to re-sell it. This flies in the face of all of a huge body of evidence to the contrary (somewhere in Vegas, Josh Hawkins is ROTFLHAO—Josh is a photojournalist who used to be the manager of Oak Park Camera, around the corner and down the street from my loft condo in Illinois). Another of these persistent delusions is the idea that I'm going to return to my first love, B&W film photography. Any day now. As Bill Cosby (as Noah) would say, riiiight. I've sunk a fair amount of money and effort into that phantasm: I've bought too many film cameras, and even built a darkroom, which, with everything else that's going on in my life, gets used only sparingly, despite my excitement about it when I built it and despite my fond intentions. More's the pity; but it's like walking when you own a car—you do it a few times when the weather's nice, but mostly you're in a hurry and you just want to get the errands done.
I've been very excited so far by what I've seen of the D800E's B&W output. Unlike most D800/E shooters, I wouldn't buy a D800 for resolution; 16 megapixels in Micro 4/3 is already plenty of resolution for me. But something about Nikon's new sensor really seems to do B&W in a way that I imagine (or that I fantasize, as Scott Adams would say) could satisfy my standards.
I don't know that it can; note that most film photography doesn't meet my standards, and film is much more gifted with monochrome than digital. You can only learn so much online, from others. Photography is a "see for yourself" pursuit, and I accept that there are just some things you need to try for yourself, so that you can "demystify" them for yourself on your own terms. (My friend Oren Grad was the one who turned on that particular lightbulb for me.) That's really why I'm not sorry for having bought the Chamonix: I felt I needed to try it for myself. That justifies it in my mind.
I really don't know that I'll do this. I had zero interest in the D800 until I saw what it can do. Really, the D800E is not my cup of tea as a camera at all. Consider that the three digital cameras I like best on the market right now are the OM-D, the NEX-7, and the Fuji X-Pro1, not necessarily in that order—and I imagine I'll like the NEX-6 and the Fuji E-X1 just as well—and, despite having never seen one, I love the Panasonic GX1, since it's the successor to my GF1, which is the camera I've used by far the most since 2009. (In the last three years I've probably used the GF1 more than all other cameras, film and digital both, combined.)
My brother Scott, a wise and thoughtful guy, once observed that I'm far better at giving other people advice than I am at figuring out what to do for myself. He was talking about stereo equipment, but I think the same thing holds true for photographic equipment as well. It's possible that I simply lack the crucial ingredient of objectivity when it comes to myself.
Someone in the comments to the previous post made the snarky, verging-on-nasty comment, "I give him six months before he's on to the next shiny object." That does bring up what's always been a significant complication for me, which is that I move on to the next shiny object for a living. Or as part of my living. To do a better job as the majordomo of TOP, I should really use far more digital cameras than I do, not fewer, and I should probably stop dithering around with film cameras altogether. I'm sure MR at L-L or any of the guys at, say, Imaging-Resource have hands-on experience with far more cameras than I do. The obligation to stay current with many different camera models is not conducive to settling down with the one thing that's best for your work and ignoring everything else. That's a luxury many amateurs take for granted that I haven't had for many years now. I've been reviewing cameras professionally since 1988, and this is a perpetual conflict. Really, I ought to be more like Ken Rockwell, and I know it.
Perhaps that gives better context to the "poll question" from the other day: to get the results you want, would you use a camera you don't like? The D800E is not my style, and I haven't owned Nikons since Reagan was President. But to do really nice B&W...that particular seductive siren is screaming in my ears.
That snarky commenter should come back in six months. Maybe he'll find he can buy a D800E cheap. That's okay, I guess. I suspect I'll have learned something in the interim.
And if I struggle with a D800E for a while, you'll probably get a few entertaining posts out of it to boot, don't you think?
ADDENDUM: But on the other hand...(read mouseover text):
Hat tip again to the very useful Camera Size.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
A product of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Josh Hawkins (partial comment): "Mike, I'm still amazed you have owned a camera, the same camera, for six months straight, at least once. The times are a changin'. (In all the years I dealt cameras to Mike I don't think I ever saw him own a camera for more than 6 weeks.)"
Mike replies: C'mon, Josh, it wasn't that bad. You knew me in my OM-4T period, and I used that camera exclusively for four and a half years, admittedly a modern record. And I used Nick's M4 for a whole year, maybe even 14 months, albeit with two different 50mm lenses. Granted, I didn't keep that Leitz Focomat IIc enlarger more than a few weeks, although that was entirely because I didn't like the results I got, not due to fickleness. Those Konicas didn't last long, and I was conflicted about the R4...and about the CLE, and...okay, I'd better shut up now.
Nicolas Woollaston: "Could it be that the kind of people who take the trouble buy and carry D800s are also the kind of people who take the trouble to own and use the very best B&W conversion software and take the trouble to really learn how to use all that technology and are the kind of people who don't stop striving until they are achieving the very best of results? Maybe some of that other stuff is actually more important than the initial image capture device. Hey, maybe even a Leica M Monochrom would be just about as good ;-)"
Mike replies: Many people have made one of two points: 1) that technique might be as important as the camera or more so, and 2) your point, which is that I might be being misled by the fact that the people who own D800E's are people whose technique is very good, and that's what I'm responding to. Both are excellent points. Both might be true. But I also think both just support what I said when I said "I've arrived at the point where I just need to try it for myself in order to find out more."
dogman: "Years ago, I bought a new XXX camera when they were first released and I hated it almost immediately. It did not feel right to me at all. Compared to other model cameras of the same brand, it felt like a toy. It was also unreliable. When it worked, I got results as good as what I was getting from the other models of that brand that I already owned. One infuriating day, following an assignment in which the XXX malfunctioned for the umpteenth time, I walked to an unoccupied area of the street and smashed that damn camera to pieces. It was an act most people would later regret. Instead I felt nothing but relief to be rid of it and I've never had any regrets.
"Since then, I've been a little more reserved when I came across a camera that I didn't like to use and/or one that just wouldn't work properly. I've sold them. Mike, your situation appears to be unique because, in your view, there is only the one camera available that will give you the results you want. But it also appears you really don't particularly like this camera to begin with. Sounds like a marriage forged in Hell. Requires more thought. Don't be impulsive."
MHMG: "Mike, I've now owned my D800E for just about 3 months. Here's my take. 1) I hate this camera. 2) I love this camera. 3) I really hate this camera. 4) I really love this camera. 5) I really hate to say it but I love this camera! Get the idea?...'cause that's what you're in for if you buy one!
"P.S. It eats good lenses for lunch. It demands exceptional glass and very careful technique, and when you finally nail a great image technically and artistically with the D800E, then you'll be wanting a 44" printer!"
Steven House: "I'm tempted by a D800 or E as well. I'm using a D700 at the mo' and I'm happy with that, but I'm already looking forward to your wranglings. That's what the site is about I thought. I don't come here for incessant camera reviews I come here for an insight into photography. Changing cameras once in a while is part of that. Whether as a result of changing technology or changing focus [sic] is neither here nor there."
mcomfort: "I think the secret sauce is pretty simple; Incredible resolution + incredible DR = fantastic B&W potential. The textures, detail, and the ability to push and pull those tones like Atlantic City taffy is a real treat. I've been shooting more B&W with my D800 than all my previous cameras combined."