How I started with photography

Barnard Stage Express Office, Barkerville
Barnard Stage Express Office, Barkerville

When I was a kid, my parents and I took a bus tour through British Columbia. We ended up at the construction site of the Bennett hydro-electric dam in Northern BC. I had a Grace 126 snapshot camera with me, and took a couple of dozen slide photos. The photography bug bit, and as of today, I have well over 4,000 slides and negatives and over 80,000 digital photos.

My film-based camera gear (which I no longer use) includes two Minolta XD-11 35mm SLR camera bodies, various lenses from wide angle to zoom, a Vivitar 285 electronic flash, various filters and special effects devices, and a tripod. I used to shoot mostly colour slide film (Fuji 100 ASA), so I also have a good quality projection screen, as well as a Zeiss Pradolux RT-300 slide projector. This combo projected superb slideshows due to the precise Zeiss optics in the projector and the matte finish on the screen.

Conventional Darkroom

In the 1970’s and 1980’s I equipped myself with a decent darkroom, including enlarger and Cibachrome positive-to-positive chemicals and papers for colour work. In the ensuing years, I did many colour enlargements of my slides using this setup, as well as some black and white work. In many ways, the black and white was much more enjoyable, since you can see what you are doing while the print develops in the trays before your eyes.

Cibachrome (and the other colour processes) all require more of a cookbook approach to print development – consistency is the key. In any case, I became quite proficient in darkroom work, and took good advantage of my formal darkroom training that I received from BCIT in the Photogrammetry lab. Today, I have many enlargements hanging on my walls and in my files which are the result of this darkroom work, however I eventually lost interest in conventional darkroom, sold my gear, and moved on…

Digital Photography – the start

I purchased a Microtek ScanMaker 35t Plus slide scanner in late 1996. My first choice was to purchase a digital camera, however the market (at the time) was still developing new technology for these devices. I therefore decided to continue to use my 35mm film camera setup, and scan slides and negatives where needed. A digital camera which delivered equivalent quality to my slide scanner cost tens of thousands of dollars at the time, so I waited for the market to catch up to my demands. In the interim, I developed my skills in working with (scanned) digital photos on my computer system using this setup.

Early digital cameras

Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera
Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera

I finally decided to take the plunge and purchased a first generation digital camera in October of 1998 – a Sound Vision SVmini-209. I had so much fun with this (fairly limited) digital camera, that in July of 1999 I purchased a much more capable digital camera – the Nikon Coolpix 950. My 950 became my workhorse camera, traveling with me everywhere. I ended up taking over 3,000 photos with this camera between 1999 and 2002. In 2002 I decided to upgrade to another digital camera from Nikon, the Coolpix 4500. The 4500’s systems were completely redesigned by Nikon, and offered me some features I could make use of for my interest in Astronomy and astrophotography.

The Nikon 950 was a best-rated 2 mega-pixel digital camera with a 3x optical zoom, and the Nikon 4500 was a best-rated 4 megapixel digital camera with a 4x optical zoom.

JoeTourist: Vancouver &emdash; The Marine Bldg - two reflectionsOn a trip to Vancouver in 1999 I took some dramatic shots of the cityscape using the Nikon Coolpix 950. I used a Tiffen Circular Polarizer filter. The deep blue skies, luxuriant green foliage, and lack of spectral reflections off the glass and metal enhances the look of the images by increasing the colour saturation.

At the time I purchased the Coolpix 950, I thought it was time to retire my two Minolta XD-11 35mm SLR film-based cameras. Virtually all the photos I took since getting the two Nikon Coolpix cameras have been digital photos, so it appeared the trend was set. The Nikon Coolpix cameras opened up my creative side, since they were such capable digital camera systems. It was so liberating to not have to worry about film. Images load directly onto my computer’s hard drives from the digital camera. This feature become very attractive to me, and being able to post images to my website the very same day that they were taken was an intangible benefit of digital photography I hadn’t fully appreciated previously.

Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera built on my experience with the older 950. I found several features in the 4500 that lent themselves to astrophotography:

  • noise reduction (aka dark frame). This was one of the first consumer digital cameras with this feature.
  • CCD sensitivity can be set to a choice of ISO 100, 200, 400 or 800.
  • long exposures of up to 5 minutes.

After performing some Dark Frame Tests using the 4500, I realized this camera was indeed very useful for astrophotography. Of course, it is was also a very capable camera for normal photography as well. The Nikon Coolpix 5400 was a very nice point-and-shoot digital camera, with many improvements over the design of its predecessors, the 950 and 4500. I took this camera with me when small size was required, or when I just wanted to take some snapshots. This camera’s design didn’t lend itself to astrophotography, however by this time I had that covered with my other Imaging Hardware.

Canon digital SLRs

Canon 6D digital SLR with Canon 24-105 f/4L zoom lens
Canon 6D digital SLR with Canon 24-105 f/4L zoom lens

The Canon EOS 300D Digital Rebel digital camera was my first Canon camera, purchased in late 2003. It came highly recommended by astrophotographers around the world, since Canon used the best low noise CMOS sensor available for this camera and its bigger brother the 10D. I also used this camera for normal terrestrial use. Having used point-and-shoot digital cameras for the previous few years, I hadn’t realized how much I missed using an SLR. They have fewer limitations and design compromises as compared with point-and-shoot cameras, providing the photographer with so much more flexibility and ease of use.

I ultimately sold my Digital Rebel, but I have purchased a series of Canon digital SLRs over the ensuing years. They have been, and continue to be amazing workhorses for producing both conventional and astronomy photography. I take literally thousands of frames using these cameras. My current dSLR is a Canon 6D, which is my first full-frame digital SLR. I usually have a Canon 24-105mm f/4L zoom on my 6D, but also have a Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6L telephoto zoom, a Canon 8-15mm f/4L fisheye zoom and a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens to fill out the complement of lenses in my camera bag.

Examples of my photography can be found on my JoeTourist photo galleries.

Canon digital SLRs for astrophotography

In 2007, I purchased a Canon XTi which was specially modified by Hutech Corporation in California to be more sensitive to the infrared spectrum, which enhances emission nebulae with my work in astrophotography. After a few years, I replaced this camera with another modified Canon from Hutech: the T2i. This camera has some significant improvements for taking astronomy photos, including much lower noise from the sensor, and a live view screen on the back of the camera (critical for achieving good focus on stars).

Canon dSLRs are one of my main imaging sources for my Astrophotographs. Please refer to Imaging Hardware for details about how I acquire my astronomy images.

Despite being firmly in the digital imaging camp, I still have thousands of slides and negatives I want to digitize. I originally used the ScanMaker 35t+ film scanner, but it had a rather limited resolution and dynamic range, so I replaced it with the Nikon Super Coolscan 4000ED transparency scanner, and quickly found new uses for my existing archive of film images.

  • Dynamic Range of 4.2 – means this scanner “sees” more of the subtle detail to be found in the film emulsion. This is especially apparent in deep shadows and highlights. The 14-bit A/D conversion input and 16-bit output is a primary reason for this achievement, although obviously the lenses used, the LED lighting, and other scanner subsystems all contribute to a superb result.
  • 4,000 dpi maximum resolution – I make use of this resolution for astronomical photos, but really don’t need this high resolution for photos of regular subject matter. I purchased the scanner based on its Dynamic Range more than the high resolution.
  • Digital ICE3™ (cubed) – software technology (developed by Applied Science Fiction Inc.), which improves the final results of film scans in three ways:
    • Digital ICE™ (Image Correction & Enhancement) – this feature is simply awesome, and is almost worth the premium price for this scanner all by itself. Using an infrared scan built into the scanner hardware, this software detects any “dirt” (dust, scratches, fingerprints, etc.) in the film being scanned, then masks them out of the final image scan. This feature saves hours and hours of hand spotting scanned images, or running complicated filters over images that are not always successful.
    • Digital ROC™ (Reconstruction of Colour) – again, quite amazing what this technology can do to restore faded colours from old film, or correcting strange hues caused by underwater photography or processing chemical stains.
    • Digital GEM™ (Grain Equalization & Management) – I haven’t made use of this technology very much, but at high resolution scans, Digital GEM will “smooth” the results, since individual grains of film are apparent at high resolutions.
  • SCANNER NIKKOR ED high-resolution/high-performance lens – Nikon has a well-deserved reputation for producing some of the best lenses for their cameras as well as their scanners. This 7 element lens is specially-optimized for high resolution scanning, and is key to the success of this scanner in dealing with images other scanners simply give up on.
  • Scanning speed throughput – when scanning at these high resolutions, it can take some scanners five minutes or more to deliver an image to the computer. Nikon’s claim that this scanner will scan a full frame 35mm film in 38 seconds is very close to what I am achieving.
  • Firewire Interface – this interface to the computer is the fastest technology around, and is considerably faster than either SCSI or USB, both of which are used by other scanner manufacturers. The 4000ED even comes with a Firewire (IEEE1394) adapter and cable right in the box.

Digital Darkroom

So, now we’re back to the darkroom…but a digital version this time. No fumes, nasty chemicals, or working in the dark!

Image & Video Acquisition

  • Canon EOS 6D dSLR camera & 32Gb high speed SDHC card – main day-to-day digital camera
  • Hutech-modified Canon EOS Rebel T2i dSLR & 16Gb high speed SDHC card – astronomical photography
  • Apple iPhone 6S Plus – point-and-shoot photos and videos, up to 4k video
  • Fuji FinePix XP20 ruggedized point-and-shoot digital camera – mainly for underwater or on-the-water photos
  • Nikon Super Coolscan 4000ED slide/transparency scanner – slide and film high resolution scans up to 4,000 pixels wide with high dynamic range
  • Brother MFC-9120CN multi-function flatbed scanner & colour laser printer- documents and photographic prints
  • Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 scanner – double sided, auto feed – documents and photographic prints
  • DJI Mavic Pro drone & 16Gb, 32Gb and 64Gb high speed microSDXC cards – HD, 2k and 4k aerial video

Image Processing & Storage

  • Apple Mac Pro with 3.7 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon E5 processor, 16 Gb 1866 MHz DDR3 ECC memory, AMD FirePro D300 graphics processor with 2048 Mb memory, 1 Tb SSD internal drive
  • Apple MacBook Pro notebook computer with 3.1 GHz Intel Core i7, 16 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 memory, 13.3-inch Retina display (2560 x 1800), Intel Iris Graphics 6000 1536 MB graphics co-processor, 500Gb SSD
  • Dell P2715Q 4k 27″ monitor – main working display for Mac Pro
  • Dell 2405 FPW HD+ 24″ monitor – second display for Mac Pro, mainly for video editing
  • Western Digital MyPassport Pro 4 Tb external hard drive with Thunderbolt interface
  • Multiple external USB 2/3 drives
  • 8Gb DVD read/write Mac Superdrive
  • Software
    • Adobe Lightroom – media management and light photo editing
    • Adobe Photoshop Elements – photo editing
    • FinalCut Pro X – video editing
    • VueScan – scanning software for Brother MFC-9120CN multi-function flatbed scanner
    • ImagesPlus – processing astronomy photos
    • TimeMachine – Apple backup/restore

Aerial panoramic photos – taken with the DJI Mavic Pro drone and stitched and processed in Lightroom.

Cattle Point shoreline panoramic
Cattle Point shoreline panoramic

100mm Macro lens test

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