Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Camera angst

For about ten years when I was in my twenties, I carried at least one camera every day, usually a Pentax MX SLR with a - to me - interesting backstory. Backstory aside, it was a simple camera with a fast prime lens and all manual controls. Even if the battery went flat it would go on taking pictures at whatever settings you'd dialled in. If you knew how to estimate an exposure, you didn't need the meter. And although I had, and have, the visual sensibility of a tree stump, I did have the ability to estimate exposure settings and the kind of rock steady wrists which let you work without a flash. The results were never great art, but I liked getting the shot in circumstances where most people would have had to use more camera and much more flash.

When I lived in Greece, I somehow stopped carrying a camera. It was too much trouble and over the space of a year or so what had been a hobby just passed out of my life.

For more than a decade, I dug out a camera for family events and pretty much didn't think of them apart from that. Then my sisters started having children and this seemed to respark the interest; I started carrying a camera when I would head over on a visit. I'd bought a digital camera by this stage, without ever getting much real use out of it. Canon Digital Ixus. It was a really well made camera, but it was never any real use to me. Like all modern compact cameras, it had a motorised lens which popped out when you switched on the camera. Makes for a nice compact package, but it means that it takes about ten or fifteen seconds for the camera to be ready to use, and so it wasn't much use when you caught a glimpse of something fleeting. And if you carried it ready against the chance of a shot, you hit the next bump, which was an autofocus mechanism that operated in geological time. Push the shutter button all the way through and wait for the camera to decide it was ready - frustrating, and when you're taking pictures of children, a guarantee of disappointment.

I traded up. I bought a Sony 828, the best thing I could afford at the time. Digital SLRS still cost ridiculous amounts of money in 2003. It's a very good camera. The lens is sharp and bright. The camera is ready to shoot as soon as you switch it on. The autofocus is fast and if you insist on taking the picture before the focus is ready, that's your decision. The on-camera flash is like any on-camera flash, pretty much useless. I bought a real flash to get around that, and when I have to use flash, I've got good results from it. There's just a couple of niggles. The viewfinder is terrible. In bright light it washes out. In dim light, it shows you what it thinks the picture will look like if you shoot without flash, which effectively means that it shows you a murky reddish blurred mess. There's probably an override for this, but I haven't found it yet. And it has that manual mode that so many manufacturers include on high end cameras - whizz a dial around for shutter speed, hold down a button and whizz the same dial for aperture. You can't independently control both at the same time, which is actually the key to doing manaul exposure properly.

The two things got more and more frustrating. I missed the bright clear view of an SLR viewfinder. The fact that I could use the LCD display on the 828 to set up shots unobtrusively or from better angles was great, but not enough of a compensation. And not being able to use manual control just annoyed me. So I began to think about SLRs again.

What I wanted was a Pentax. But Pentax weren't making a digital SLR. And I didn't like Canon - the control wheel's in the wrong place for my hand. And I couldn't afford anything serious from Nikon and I didn't see the less serious Nikon machines doing what I wanted. And so on.

This summer I started thinking seriously about it. I had the money to buy something useful, and the limitations of the Sony were starting to get to me. About the time that I was thinking seriously about the Nikon d70 (having weighed up and decided against the Pentax *ist series on the grounds that a) they couldn't be found in Ireland and b) the viewfinders were poor) Sony announced an SLR with chip based image stabilisation. Basically a re-engineered Minolta 5D, but interesting. i put the plans on hold till I could see one.

In the autumn, I finally got my hands on one. It was all right, but not quite right. Apart from anything else, the manual control had exactly the same weakness that the 828 had. And the lenses were going to be dear - if they could be found at all - and I'd need to buy a new flash (because Sony had unaccountably decided to stick with Minolta's completely non standard flash mount). Mmmm. There were rumours of a D80 from Nikon which would have the same resolution as the Sony Alpha and better build quality and imaging. i decided to wait to see one of those.

While I was waiting, Pentax finally announced a camera I could respect - the K10D. Chip based stabilisation. Proper manual controls. Good weather seals. I could use my old lenses with it - sort of. Same resolution as the Nikon d80 and the Sony Alpha. All in all, the camera I wanted, allegedly to be available in November.

And here it is, early December and there's no sign of one to be had. For the first time I can remember, it's not a matter of wanting something and knowing that if I waited the price would come down and I could get it for less. I'm sitting there with the money burning a hole in my pocket and there's no way to get the machine even if I paid top dollar. Signs on, the first sightings of either the K10D or the Samsung knock-off, the GX10 will be in January, when whoever is selling them will be having to price them to attract people away from discounted Nikon D80s and even more discounted Canon 400s - at which point I will have to buy a bargain whether I like it or not.

Of course, by the time I've waited that long, I may well have lost interest in the idea. But for the moment, it's something to brood on.

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