Saturday, June 28, 2008

My digital eyes (Pt 1)

In 2001, I paid RM 2300 (USD 600) for one of my first lessons on digital cameras and photography.

That lesson came in the form of the Minolta DiMAGE 304 (D304) digital camera. Again, as with my Olympus iS-100 (see previous post), this hasty purchase was also prompted by an urgent need for a camera. And what was the lesson I learnt?

Read the reviews, do your research first, before plonking your hard-earned cash into anything, dummy!

See, being a techfan and all, I was into specifications. If it says so in the brochures, it ought to be alright... right? Sadly, no.

Don't get me wrong. In its own right, the D304 is a very decent camera. A very capable lens, 3 megapixels, 4x optical zoom, solidly built aluminum body, surprising number of controls for both manual and automatic modes, and, for that price, images that leave one little to complain about. It also had a nice girth in the hands, lending you good stability.

So with so many nice things about the camera, exactly what is it that I'm moaning about then, you ask? Lets put it this way -- where its if battery consumption were likened to petrol efficiency in a car, this guy would put the Hummer to shame!

The camera came with a complementary set of 4 AA alkalines. Out of the box, the fresh AAs lasted me a good NINE (count 'em: 9) shots!!

Fortunately, I had also bought a set of rechargeable 1600mAh NiMH batteries. These guys took a painful 16 hours to charge. And they lasted how long in the camera? 30 - 40 shots (about 1hr plus)! I promptly ran out to buy an 1800 mAh, and eventually, a 2000 mAh set.

Not long after, I was happily on my way to Beijing, armed with these 3 fully-charged sets of batteries -- and with no charger. These 3 sets got me through 2 days! By the time I got back from the 5d-4n trip, I had used up 8 additional sets of hastily-bought alkalines, and had still lost too many opportunities to snap more pix. Bloody hell!

Much of the rest of the 4-year life of the camera was pretty much this routine: Charge plenty early. Bring the bag of batteries. Snap quickly, minimise preview. Hope the batteries last the outing. It mattered little that I had practically employed all known tricks for maximising the battery life. Sigh.

Oh yeah, and speaking of batteries -- have a thought about how you should be disposing them, ok? Help take care of Mother Earth, thanks!

Anyway, I finally had enough!

So I set out to get myself a new camera, with the following wish list:
  • 5 or 6 megapixels (yep, am embarrassed to admit that I too was then caught up in the megapixel hype without understanding the physics behind it)
  • Slim to the point its pocketable (remember the girth I'd mentioned above? It was getting to me)
  • MUST have decent battery life (CIPA equivalent of 200 or more shots)
  • Fast and responsive (reliable auto-focus especially in low-light conditions, and short lag)
  • Image stabilization, focus assist, a nice clear LCD, and a nice price to boot

After much research and indecision, I finally settled on the Panasonic DMC-FX9. Boy, was I really happy! At RM 1500 (USD 400), the FX9 was quite a bargain that largely met the above criteria, plus, had the added bonus of spotting a Leica-branded lens for extra bragging rights.

Gone were my battery problems. I could just leave the camera in the drawer (I know, I know, its not a good idea to leave the battery in the camera!!) and whip it out for a quick shoot, knowing with much confidence that there would always be enough juice for a few shots even at its weakest!

This is what I loved about the FX9:
  • The pictures are really something -- nice resolution, lively colours, crisp and clear shots
  • It is jacketed in a really smart combo of brushed and polished metal. Lovely, lovely!
  • It shoots fast! Switch it on and you're almost instantly (1-2 secs or so, at most) ready to go
  • 3 words - Mega OIS lens. Gives you a 2-stop advantage that really is helpful in low-light conditions.
  • Simple, responsive and non-fussy interface.
I had rediscovered the fun of just taking snaps with the FX9. Having it so small meant I could bring it with me wherever I went. Perhaps the only complaint in this respect was that its so... dinky... that some times, I missed the nice, reassuring steady weight of an SLR!

Now, almost 3 years and nearly 12,000 pictures later, the FX9 is still very much alive and well. It still takes good pictures, although some dust has managed to get into the lens -- and is now occasionally interfering with the pictures. Its time I sent it to Panasonic for some much-deserved TLC and got it back to a pristine condition.

As happy as I had been with the FX9, the limitations of the 3x optical zoom were starting to be more than just a bother. I was begining to miss the good old days of being able to reach 300mm with my SLR for those tight shots.

Think: shooting from too far away at school concerts and sports days; losing the spontaneity of the subject because you had walked too near; having your subject of interest as a mere spec in the photo.... and you'll understand what I mean.

So that started me looking for something with a couple hundred more MMs of reach in the lens. And that search was a really fun one!

Ps. New to digital photography? Want to catch up on some tech-speak and impress some geeks? Check out this excellent glossary from my favourite camera review site, DP Review.

My other eyes

The first camera I played with was a tank.

And quite literally so too. Dad had this old 127 format Kodak which was gathering dust somewhere. It had a nice bulk, with black and grey plastic housing, and the usual protrusion for the lens.

For the 7-year old that I was then, that qualified as a tank. And it joined my green plastic infantry in all the key campaigns -- never lost a battle, I might add.

I was hoping to be able to find a picture of the camera so you'd have an idea what camera this is. But after an exhaustive search (all 6.5 minutes of it) in Google, I finally gave up for it being lost in the darkest recesses of my lo-res memory! But it might have looked something like this.

Fast-forward to an 11-year old boy who saved up enough of his angpow and weekly allowances to get himself a RM48 Fujica, fixed focus, 35mm point and shoot. That, in my mind then, was the coolest adult think I had ever gotten for myself!!

I'd have liked to say that I had a grand time with this precious little possession. I said I'd like to, but unfortunately what I had really ended up with were lots of under-exposed or whitewashed shots. Expensive photographic lessons that I hadn't quite learnt still.

Next hop -- a Samsung autofucus point and shoot in 1988. Had 4 good years of school shots with that. Was also able to somehow coax the camera into allowing me to make multiple-exposure shots. Good times!

But all of that ended when one day (and after a few accidental knocks), the camera decided it wanted to just fast-forward right to the end of every new roll of film I loaded -- before I even got to take the one shot!.

The next one was a major step forward. My first and and only 35mm SLR. That was a momentous event... holding up my Minolta Dinax 600si classic! Hmmm, I should probably dedicate a proper post on this camera one fine day. Had burnt through hundreds of rolls of film, experimenting with all sorts of stuff. Those among you who fell in love with photography would know how it felt during the early years -- going around shooting at just about anything that looked special to you!

But until I eventually get to writing that post, here's a really comprehensive review by Shubroto Bhattacharjee.

School ended and it was time to punch the card and earn my keep. So the SLR got mothballed in favour of something less demanding. I loved the feel of the SLR in the hand -- but just needed something with the simplicity of a point and shoot.

In a moment of desperation (a trip to Japan was around the corner), I found an uneasy compromise in the form of the Olympus iS-100. For want of a proper classification, I call it a fixed-lens, compact SLR.

Come to think of it, it was actually a pleasant camera to use -- lots of features (1.7 lens converter, infrared shutter release). It was a lot less bulky, but still had a decent, usable zoom range. The only bicker was the massive drain on the batteries. Yeah, the pair of 3V lithium batteries (CR 123A or DL 123A) it needed to run on was good for only about 3 - 5 rolls of film.

Another short time warp and Junior arrived via Mr. Stork. As this was *the event* of my life, I took out the SLR, gave it a fresh set of batteries, a spit polish and it was back in commission.

By then, we were already firmly in the digital age. The 3r prints still looked great, but I needed to preserve them so I could always go back and look at them. So at the next PC fair, I went and bought a Microtek digital and negative scanner.

I load up the scanner with pictures, click scan, and viola, instant digital copies, right?

BIG MISTAKE. After hunching over the darn thing for days, I only managed to scan a handfull of prints. Ouch, the back really hurt! The reality was that given the scanner technology back then, trying to get decent scans took lots of patience!

Come to think of it, it was probably a silly idea. Shoot on film, process the prints. Choose the ones I liked... scanned them... and admire them from the PC. Huh!?

So I dumped that idea, and started to seriously look for a digital camera...

<Next up: My digital eyes>

There... finally!!

Hellllloooo there!!!!!

So here I am... with some hesitation and not much fanfare... typed rather sleepily in the middle of the night (1:41am to be exact)... I have finally started my first blog!

Woo hoo... big deal, I have but joined in the line of another bazillion other bloggers just ahead of me! No Columbus award here but hey, one has to start somewhere, methinks!

Okaaay, just 2 paragraphs into this game and I can't already be suffering from bloggers' block, can I? What was it the beginners' tips said...? Write what you know... be yourself.... have a think first what you want to do with your blog... keep it alive... don't be self nice...

Right, with all these tips stuffed into my brain, its no wonder I'm having trouble getting beyond to the next paragraph.

So I'm going to keep this first post short.

Firstly, many thanks to MG, T, V, AiHua and my blogging mentor, Alex, for giving me your honest and open feedback and suggestions when I asked you what you thought about me starting this blog.

Secondly -- what will this blog be about?
The current thinking is that I'd go into writing about BBTs (big boy toys -- you know, tech-stuff, cars, cameras, watches, games, movies .... just about anything cool and fun in my books).

I am consistently amazed at how those brilliant marketing folks are able to churn out item after item of really neat stuff -- nicely packaged with a healthy dose of oh-now-I-really-have-to-have-one-of-these aura about it. And since I neither have the inclination nor the financial resources to just about buy every one of those cursed things... probably the next best thing is to write about them.

Occasionally perhaps, I may give in to an oddball rant about food ... or the state of this world, if I happen to peek beyond my immediate surroundings. :)

I don't know -- that's the plan for today anyway. Will see how things go. And, hopefully it will be a fun journey for you, me, everybody.

Till then... cheers and take care!