New Toy Thursday, Mar 28 2013 

For a little while now, I had the desire to own a music instrument again. I used to have a saxophone, but it was a bit loud and just complicated enough for me to lose the desire to really take lessons and learn to play it. I enjoyed making sounds on it, and sometimes those sounds would combine into phrases, even melodies. I sold the sax a few years ago in an effort to get out of some debt I had accumulated.

Bongo Drums

New Toy

Now, I wanted to get something new, but not very expensive, and above all, simple. So, I started looking into bongo drums. They are a simple, but satisfying instrument, and there are many techniques and rhythms to be learned. I did some research online and visited my local “big box” instrument store, which is where I picked up this set from Meinl. Surprisingly, the price was a little lower than at the big online retailer, just under a hundred bucks.

I brought them home and tuned them – the big drum (“hembra”) is around a B note, while the smaller (“macho”) is in the neighborhood of E. After that, of course, I played a couple of Carlos Santana songs and banged along with them.

Leave a comment if you play an instrument. Especially if you took pictures of it.

Double White Line, Lewisville, TX Monday, Oct 15 2012 

Double White Line

Double White Line

The story behind this image might be my favorite photography story so far.

It begins with my purchase of the 70-200mm f/4L USM lens – I wanted to play around with the telephoto zoom, and this was one of the best bargains in Canon’s lineup. Fantastic image quality and great utility for a few hundred dollars. It was irresistible, and I loved it.

To test it out, I took it to a highway overpass to take some shots in the late afternoon light. I set up my tripod and had fun looking for a perfect long exposure shot, first on one side of the overpass, then on the other. A few people honked and I got a few looks, but I took it all in stride.

That is, until the police car pulled up next to me.

Canon Rebel XT with a 70-200mm f/4L USM lens

Canon Rebel XT with a 70-200mm f/4L USM lens

The officer couldn’t have been nicer. He said that there were a few 911 calls talking about a sniper on the highway overpass, so he came to check it out. I showed him that my Canon Rebel XT with the 70-200mm lens doesn’t look anything like a rifle, except for the fact that I “aim” it like a rifle and “shoot” with it.

We talked for a bit about photography, he laughed it off and left. I shot this shot a few minutes later.

Mamiya 645 1000S Monday, Oct 15 2012 

Once I started shooting 35mm film, I found that I was really enjoying the process and the result. Film makes you slow down, think about your shots, and as a result, you usually end up with better photos.

Mamiya 645 1000S

Mamiya 645 1000S

I got greedy, though, and I knew I wanted to get into medium format film. I stumbled upon a great deal on Craigslist and bought this Mamiya 645 1000S camera, with the 80mm lens, for $250. I even got an extra body, along with some knicknacks.

It was heavy and clumsy, and it took some getting used to, especially since there were some minor bugs that I had to learn the hard way. But I enjoyed the simplicity of it – manual focus, manual exposure, split level focus point, and a gigantic viewfinder. Most of all, I liked the huge image area – when the developed slides would come from the lab, it was just beautiful to look at.

Mamiya 645 1000S with the 25mm fisheye lens

Mamiya 645 1000S with the 25mm fisheye lens

I bought two other lenses for it; one was a slightly wider 45mm, which worked brilliantly, and the other was Mamiya-Sekor 24mm f/4 Fisheye ULD C, which was a mouthful to say, and a beast of a lens. It works out to be about 15mm on a regular film format (35mm), which is extremely wide.

I eventually sold all my 645 gear and traded up for the Mamiya 7 that I have now. I wrote a blog post when that camera was only a shy little wish list entry. Mamiya 7 is a 6×7 format, so it is slightly larger than the 6×4.5 format. The camera is also a rangefinder, so it’s more compact and easier to carry around. I’m still enjoying the medium format film, and I think I have a great camera; I may start getting some more lenses for it soon.

The Indestructible Fifty Friday, Dec 3 2010 

I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that I had to start rebuilding my Canon gear from scratch. After I decided to purchase the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens, my needs dictated to get a “walkaround” lens, something that I can keep on my camera about 80% of the time. That ended up being the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens, which is truly spectacular, and served me well in many occasions.

Lovrijenac Fortress

Nifty Fifty at its best

And yet, with two Canon cameras (one digital and one film), I was not done collecting gear. My friend Scott was selling his EF 50mm f/1.8 II, otherwise known as “the nifty fifty”, so I was happy to take it off his hands. The Fifty proved to be a wonderful addition to my arsenal almost immediately, as I made some really nice portraits with it, although it was also occasionally useful for landscapes. It’s very light, and I once mistakenly took it off the camera thinking I’m only twisting off the lens cap.

Lenses of that focal length aren’t difficult to manufacture, so they are of very simple design and very good optically. Its large maximum aperture opened up a lot of possibilities for photos with narrow depth of field. I was able to use it in a wide variety of ways, and the image of the Lovrijenac Fortress pictured above is one of my favorite photos, a print of which is awaiting matting and framing. I loved using it on my film camera (Canon Elan 7), because there was something basic about the combination.

Indestructible Fifty

A photo of the old lens, taken with the new lens

Alas, in the last year or so, it had it rough. The Fifty had to share the backpack with several other pieces of kit, many of which were more sturdily built. At some point, it lost the battle against the Mamiya 645 1000S, and its autofocus function was no longer available. The innards were spilling out, and at one point along the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park, I even dropped it and barely saved it from a fall of many hundreds of feet. The Indestructible Fifty kept on clicking, but it clearly needed to be replaced.

This past Thanksgiving Week, I spent a few days in New York City, and on my list of places to visit was the B&H Photo Video store, the largest camera store in the world. They are the best in the business, and I’ve purchased items from their website many times before, anything from a roll of film to my Canon 7D. The store is insanely efficient, which it has to be, because the amount of shoppers rivals any department store I’ve ever been to. The staff was extremely knowledgeable, and through an amazing system of belts and elevators, they provided me with a brand new copy of the nifty fifty. I used it to snap the picture of the old lens falling apart, but I hope to find many happier subjects for it in the future.

My Favorite Lens Thursday, Aug 26 2010 

When I finally decided to enter the world of digital SLR cameras, I purchased a modest Canon Rebel XT, and for the most part, made the best of the EF-S 17-85mm IS lens. I later even added an EF 70-200mm f/4L lens that I coveted for months. Alas, my whole kit was stolen one day, and I had to start rebuilding it again.

Before I even purchased my next camera (which will end up being a used Canon 20D), I decided on the lens. It was going to be the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens, mainly because I could not find a bad review of the lens. Everything about it was appealing – the huge maximum aperture, the focal length, relatively small size and light weight… It’s not a zoom, but if I could have only one lens, I knew it would be that one. Since then, my 85 is always with me, it has become my go-to lens for portraits and closeups, and it especially shined on my Yosemite trip last June (see this, this and this).

Sword in Sheath

Yet, I wanted to find a non-portrait photo to illustrate this post, so I decided to go with one of the first shots I made with the lens. The next day after it came to my doorstep, I brought the lens to the Dallas Museum of Art, and took a photo of this really cool piece. It’s a sheath ornament, made of leather, animal tusks, pearls and imagination. The picture is weird as hell, but I liked it so much I used it for a set of my “moo cards”.

I heard that Nikon just released a 85mm f/1.4 lens. Although it costs a four digit amount, I’m sure it’s spectacular. Canon’s next step up from my f/1.8 is the EF 85mm f/1.2L, which is very expensive, very heavy, and not easy to use well wide open. So, 1.4 would be a great compromise, but until Canon comes up with something like that, I’ll hold on to the one I have. It’s been good to me.

A Shy Little Wish List Entry Friday, Aug 6 2010 

My photography brothers-in-arms Tyler and John and I used to have a disease that often affects fledgling photographers, which we called “upgradeitis”. Both of them are Nikon D90 shooters, but only after they owned a D40 and D50, respectively. I started off with a Canon Rebel XT, and later moved on to a used Canon 20D. We all have multiple lenses, filters and assorted knick-knacks.

Since I bought my Canon 7D almost a year ago, I had no desire to move forward with my digital gear. But I also shoot film, and I’ve consistently been getting better results with film than with digital. Therefore, the one area where I’d like to improve my gear is my medium format setup. If you’re wondering, that’s the type of film where an image area is at least three times larger than on a standard 35mm frame, offering higher resolution and a potential for greater image quality.

My current Mamiya 645 1000S

A Hasselblad would be great, but it’s not a significant improvement over my Mamiya 645 1000S. However, if I could get my dirty hands on a Mamiya 6 (square format, slightly larger) or Mamiya 7 (6x7cm, larger still), that would be the jackpot. These cameras are easy to carry and still have superb image quality. That’s a way away still, as the body itself is many hundreds of dollars, and lenses aren’t cheap either.

The main difference wouldn’t be so much the format as much as the weight. The Mamiyas 6 and 7 are rangefinders, so they’re lighter, and even their lenses are more compact. My 645 is an SLR and it’s pretty heavy and the ergonomics of it are atrocious. It would be so much easier to have a camera over my neck all day instead of tugging on my backpack straps.

Wish List Entry

In part, this wish list entry is somewhat driven by some improvements I could do to my current 645 setup – metered prism finder and a better grip/winder are the first that come to mind. I could also re-sell my whole current kit for about what I paid for it. Even so, it’s still a future goal, and I’m at least happy knowing medium format is something I want to continue to pursue. With the 7D, my digital kit is set for at least a few years, but honestly, ideally, on a future photo trip like the recent one to Yosemite, I could see myself leaving the digital rig behind if I had a reliable and lightweight medium format alternative.

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