Moving to the Larger Side - Part 1 - Phil Corley

Moving to the Larger Side: Part 1

Category: Equipment
December 14, 2013

Ever since I moved to the Nikon D800e from my old D3x, I have had a feeling that something wasn't right. Now there was nothing wrong with the image quality especially with my set of Zeiss lenses; the images were excellent, crisp with edge-to-edge sharpness. Admittedly sometimes I found the images could be a little "plastic" and a bit too digital, but that could just have been the result of my processing and nothing to do with the camera/lenses.

But something wasn't right

In the end I realised what it was; I simply didn't like the camera. Not on a technical level, but on an emotional level. There was no joy in using it. Strangely in this world of ever shrinking technology, I think I found it too small, too clunky and nothing seemed smooth. I did try to like it, but over the months we didn't become friends, as much as I tried, using it in the field just wasn't working. I would go out, struggle with it, get home and be really pleased with the results, but next time out it was the same.

You may say, "So what, you are getting the results you want aren't you?" Well yes, but to me landscape photography is an art, and to produce beautiful work you need to (excuse the corny saying) be "at one" with the landscape, yourself and your tools. When I am out in the landscape and struggling with an emotionally impacting camera, being "at one" feels miles away, regardless of the capability and quality of the images produced. This disconnect, I feel, impacted my willingness to go out and restricted my vision when I was out. I had to enjoy the experience in the field, not just put up with it. Something had to change.

Before continuing, I must offer a possible alternative theory; maybe I had reached an emotional block with my work and was blaming it on the tools. It could be, and subconsciously I was blaming the camera and not the owner. Maybe, but still something had to change.

But what was to change? To me, my original theory still stood, it was the tools that were wrong for me and I needed to change the tools. If the alternative theory was true, then the challenges of a change and the different approach that would bring, should give the emotional block a solid shove out of the way.

So sounding like a strap-line from a bad Hollywood movie, "the camera must go!"

That was the easy bit, but what to replace it with? Given I was currently using what I felt was the top dog 35mm Digital SLR, there was no sense in moving to another 35mm DSLR. This would have to be a radical move, not just moving away from a Nikon D800e and not just away from Nikon, but away from the 35mm DSLR format totally; may as well leap instead of just jumping!

Getting very popular these days are the smaller, lighter micro two-thirds cameras and compact camera systems. But if I felt one of my problems with the Nikon was it was too small, this wouldn't help at all. It had to be the other way, to something larger; bigger just feels better.

Large format would be the obvious solution for landscape photography, but I did a day's introduction to Large Format with Tim Parkin and Dav Thomas, and to tell the truth, it just didn't do it for me. Great results can be had, but I couldn't see myself working in the way required. I know I need to slow down my approach, but for me that would be too slow - maybe later but not now. So that is too large, which leaves medium format - the format somewhere between Large format and 35mm.

Two photographers who I admire the work of are users of medium format film, Bruce Percy and Ian Cameron. Whilst both have different styles, they deliver brilliant images using medium format film. So, very tempting was to move to a 6x7 medium format film camera. Certainly a leap backwards in time and technology from the state of the art Nikon D800e, but it is the results that matter, not the technology.

As tempting as it was, once I started working out how you eventually “digitalise” your images, I started to see that this was not without its problems. These days, even film users end up turning the analogue images into digital images, for display on websites and to print them; rarely (I think) do film users still use darkrooms and enlargers to print. To get your film slide or negative into your computer you need to scan it, or send it off to have it scanned. These days, good high quality scanners are not readily available for the home user, with Nikon withdrawing their much-praised scanners a few years ago. Weighing this up, whilst I was sorely tempted with the film route, I could see too many hours of relearning and practicing; not just in capturing an analogue image but also scanning it into the computer.

Not easy leaping from the D800e is it; or at least I wasn’t making it easy!

So, I was left with looking at medium format digital. Everyone praises and raves about the Phase One IQ digital backs, it seems these are the pinnacle of medium format photography and the best thing since sliced bread is an IQ 280; however I don’t think my budget would ever reach the heights able to afford one of these delicious backs – but I can dream of that lottery win! Also, I am not sure I would be too comfortable dragging one of these out in the pouring rain or next to a stormy sea in case something happened to it, even if it was insured!

So, I wanted something bigger than 35mm, something that was suitable for use in the outdoors where I do 100% of my work, was digital and was affordable. Hmm.

Now about 3 years ago, I had a quick play with a Pentax 645D which was very positive (and was very tempting) but in the end went for a Nikon D3x instead, mainly due to the Pentax costing £10,000.

This was too much for me and I thought about it no more. However, whilst considering how I was going to make that leap from the Nikon, I noticed that they now have come down considerably in price and are not that much more than a top end 35mm DSLR.

But was this going to be right for me. The Pentax has won many awards, it has rave reviews, the reports on its image quality are excellent, but it has a number of cons. Below, I have extracted the most common flaws quoted in reviews, along with my thoughts:-

  • Produces 70MB RAW files: So, you want large high quality images don’t you? Storage is cheap today and 32Gb cards for the camera and large disk drives are common. Also, it isn’t that much bigger than the D800e’s file sizes.
  • Processing speed: Landscape photography doesn’t need speed, so 1 frame per second is fine for a mountain.
  • Only 98% Viewfinder coverage: I must admit 100% would be preferred.
  • No Live View: Would be nice, but to be honest I only use live view today when lining up my grad filters.
  • Meter often underexposes: Just have to compensate; but I always check the histogram and never rely on the meter getting it right.
  • Slow continuous autofocus: Luckily landscapes don’t move very fast; and I generally use manual focusing with hyper-focal focusing anyway. In fact I am not sure I have ever used continuous focusing!
  • 1/125 flash sync speed: I have never use flash for my landscapes
  • No CompactFlash support: Not a problem; I always thought Nikon’s D800e was strange having a slot for CompactFlash and a slot for SD. Two of the same type is a real bonus.
  • Slow to write files to memory card: Again, landscape photography isn’t about speed and to wait a few seconds for it to write to the card and display on the LCD is actually an advantage in helping slow me down.
  • Poor low light / high ISO performance: Well I can count on one hand the number of times I have changed the ISO on my Nikons from base ISO and then only to ISO 400, so this is not a problem to me.
  • Lens selection is limited: This is a weakness with the Pentax. Today, I carry a 18mm, 21mm, 50mm and 70-200mm, but I am starting to move away from the very wide angle shots and starting to miss 28 or 35mm lens in my current selection. To me, I feel fewer lenses are better, so an ideal set-up would be just three; 24-28mm, 50mm and 100mm. The Pentax has a new 55mm lens (43mm in 35mm speak) and the old 35mm lens (28mm) and 120mm macro (90mm) are both supposedly very good and well priced second hand. So I think, this isn’t so much of a problem as I can cover what I feel I need. There is also a new 25mm (19.5mm) lens, but this costs more arms and legs than I can afford and luckily is too wide for what I want or need; phew!

Basically the conclusion I reached after reading all the reviews and comments on the Pentax 645D, is that it is a landscape photographer's camera. It is not aimed at sports, reportage or street photographers, but with its weather sealing makes this firmly one for the outdoors. Given the recent prices drops I thought this might just be worth looking at.

The problem is when you start looking; things have a habit of developing their own pace. Enter a shop demo, Pentax 645D with 55mm lens for a knock down price. With only 90 shutter activations and totally mint, how could I refuse.

So I now have a medium format DSLR, with a new 55mm (43mm) lens and a used 35mm (28mm) lens sitting next to my Nikon gear. Finding a good 120mm (90mm) macro lens is proving more difficult, but if pushed I can always get one from Japan which seems to have ample supply.

But what do I do about my D800e and its set of lenses?

My plan is to take the safe route. Over the next couple of months I will use the Pentax and see if this does truly fill my emotional gap and reignite the joy of being in the field with a camera. Also, I need to see if I get the results that I require. Then I will sit back and decide if I keep the Pentax and sell the Nikon, or sell the Pentax and return to the Nikon. Or start looking all over again!

Time will tell.

My aim for Part Two is look at how I find using the Pentax in the field, what I like about it and what niggles I find; but for now I need to get out and use the Pentax for real!


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