Until the late summer of 2002, most of the photographs on this site were taken with a 35mm Canon EOS Rebel, usually with a 100-300mm zoom lens. In most cases, the negatives were scanned by the developing lab when the film was developed. I've used several labs in the past, switching around as more companies started to offer scanning with different options.
The film and scanning process was fairly reliable, and produced acceptable results. But like any geek, I got the digital urge. For a few years, I looked at digital cameras, trying to find one that I thought would work for equestrian event photography. The biggest drawback was the availability of long zoom lenses. From my film work, I had decided that, in many cases, 300mm was barely enough, and I wanted close to the equivalent of that in a digital camera. Most of the digital cameras don't provide more than a 3x optical zoom, which is usually equivalent to about 35-105 mm on a 35 mm camera. (The actual focal lengths on digital cameras are much shorter, because the sensor is smaller than a 35 mm (actually 24x36mm) film frame.)
In 2001, some interesting cameras started to hit the market, and I actually ordered a couple of different ones that I never received because of my intolerance for dishonest retailers. Finally, in July, I ended up with a Nikon Coolpix 5700. Among other features, this camera boasts resolution of 5 megapixels (2560 x 1920), and an 8x optical zoom. As explained above, the actual focal length is 8.9-71.2mm. Because of the sensor size, this is equivalent to 35-280mm on a 35 mm camera, which is pretty close to what I wanted. Nikon also sells a 1.5x teleconverter lens for this camera, which could get me up to 420mm equivalent. Since I could buy a lot of beer for the price of the extra lens, I decided to wait and see what I could do with the standard lens before buying the extra one.
For the first couple of weeks, I just farted around with the camera at home. I took a bunch of pictures of the dogs. Some of them were pretty good, but they came out of the camera with a file size of about 1.8 megabytes, and since I was just playing, I was too lazy to shrink them to a size more suitable for the web. The camera has an LCD monitor which swivels forward to make self-portraits easy. All I have to say about that is after seeing a 5 megapixel rendition of my face from arms length, I think I know why I'm still single.
The camera's first field test was the Sayre School 2002 Combined Test at Masterson Station Park. It was a fairly small event, and I didn't know anybody riding in it, so it wouldn't have been worth wasting film on. But with a digital camera, all I was wasting was time, and since I have no life, that was not a problem. In fact, it seemed like a great opportunity to get used to the camera in a situation where mistakes wouldn't matter.
One of the neat features of a digital camera is the ability to see the shot immediately after taking it, to see how well it turned out. I intended to use this feature as I experimented with the camera's many options to try to find how to use it most effectively. What I quickly learned is that the small size of the monitor makes it difficult to get any reasonable appraisal of a shot's clarity, exposure, or focus. It does help judge errors in composition (cutting off the rider's head) or timing (I seem to have a problem with shooting prematurely). The camera also records the exposure information with the picture, so it's possible to see what went wrong when viewing the picture on a full-size monitor.
After looking at the end results, I think the biggest human error was shutter speed. Many shots have a nice sharp background with a slightly blurred horse. The camera has selectable ISO sensitivity, equivalent to ASA film speeds of 100, 200, 400 or 800. The manual recommends 100, and warns that speeds above that may produce "noise" in the picture. Since it was a cloudy, rainy day, I realized there was no way I could shoot action shots at 100. So I opted for 200, and selected the program mode to let the camera pick shutter speed and aperture. It ended up choosing shutter speeds around 1/200 of a second much of the time, which I thought would be good enough. But after seeing the results, I realize that's not fast enough for a jumping horse (unless you're going for an artsy/blurry look). Some of the shots that were taken at a speed of 1/500 look better. I think the lesson is to make sure I keep the shutter speed at 1/500 or faster, which might require bumping the speed up to 400 on cloudy days. The nice thing about the digital camera is being able to make that adjustment on the fly, instead of being stuck with whatever film I loaded based on a crummy weather forecast.
My biggest complaint about the camera is there is a delay after taking a picture before it's ready to take another one. This delay is long enough to make it difficult or impossible to get the sequence of a combination jump. The camera does have an option to shoot 3 frames in one second, but it's push the button and there they are. It would be nicer if I could shoot 3 frames in 2-3 seconds, and choose when they got shot. I intend to play around a little more and see if there's a way to beat that delay, maybe by shooting at a lower resolution.
Since shooting individual frames of a combination wasn't possible, I decided to play with the camera's video mode for some of those. It's a nice toy, but the low resolution (320 x240) makes it not very useful. I also had a problem getting used to the way it works. My instinct was to hold the button down for the duration I wanted to record, and the correct procedure is to press/release to start recording, and press/release again to stop. That's why some of the .MOV files look a little strange.
I did reach the conclusion that, for most web work, the 5 megapixel resolution makes the standard lens length more than adequate. I read somewhere that most web pages are viewed on a 17" monitor with a resolution of 1024x768. My own monitors, at home and work, are 17" LCDs with 1280x1024 resolution. But I want to try to provide pictures that will display nicely for most people without scrolling. So I strive for dimensions no greater than 1000x700. So when the lens gets me close enough to fill the frame with the subject, I have to scale the picture way down for display. And when I'm disappointed because I couldn't get as close as I wanted and my subject is a teeny little piece of the picture, I can very often crop a very nice 1000x700 out of the middle of it and throw away the rest of the 2560 x 1920 frame. For pictures that I want nice prints of, I'll probably still need to get close enough to fill most of the frame, because printing requires a higher resolution for good results.
The latest photographic expedition was the Mass Ensemble's Earth Harp performance. That was fun, and I got a chance to make good use of the camera's video capability. The zoom was very adequate for the job. It got me close enough that none of the pictures need cropping. Without cropping, they really do need to be downsized to fit a browser window and speed download time, although I hate to sacrifice all that detail I paid for. The autofocus lag was a little more noticeable with this kind of photography. At horse events, I'm usually pre-focused on a jump long before the horse gets there, ready to snap the shutter when he enters the frame. In this kind of work, when I'm shooting more randomly, I need to remember to be more aware of the focus lag. It's really not much worse than with a film camera; I'm just shooting in ways that I usually didn't before.
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