Getting Muddy - Off-Roading at AOAA

Ever since we purchased our 2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon “Lola”, we’ve been itching to take her offroad and into the wild…. but we wanted to also do so safely and confidently. Enter Kyle from Offroad Consulting, who led us through the trails of Anthracite Offroad Adventure Area (AOAA) while teaching us about proper 4x4 technique. We learned how to handle off camber situations, airing our tires down, using traction control, disconnecting the sway bar, and navigating challenging obstacles like steep climbs, descents, and rocky terrain.

We escaped the day with a few bumps, a lot of mud, and a bunch of video!

Mounting a Rooftop Tent on a Rhino Rack Pioneer Platform

Welcome back readers!

We run a Maximus-3 Rhino Rack Pioneer Platform on our 2019 Jeep Wrangler, which is a fantastic rack setup…. cannot recommend it enough!

For a quick background, the Pioneer Platform is a heavy duty rack that mounts onto the fiberglass roof of a Jeep by drilling through the roof, and then attaching supports that mount to the body frame of the Wrangler. While it’s a bit of work to install, the result is an incredibly versatile roof rack that can hold up to 900lbs static weight! It’s also incredibly low profile…..

…. which is a problem if you want to mount a rooftop tent!

“Lola” the Jeep waiting for the tent to be installed onto the roof rack. As you can see, the rack sits very flush to the roof.

“Lola” the Jeep waiting for the tent to be installed onto the roof rack. As you can see, the rack sits very flush to the roof.

Most rooftop tents are designed to mount to a traditional roof rack consisting of two bars that run in parallel. But the Pioneer Platform doesn’t have this sort of arrangement.

After some initial struggles, we identified a mounting solution that allows us to mount our rooftop tent to the top of the Pioneer Platform. It’s very low profile, easy to install, and requires roughly $20 worth of hardware from Home Depot.

The basic idea is that we installed new hardware on the tent in place of the rails that came on the tent. Our inspiration for the design came from this YouTube video; we took his design and tweaked it for our specific tent.

Just like he did, we drilled new holes in the bottom of the tent that were 36.5” apart (corresponding to the width of the bars on the platform) and installed some new hardware. One difference in our setup is that our particular tent — a CVT Mt. Shasta — has little plastic pieces on the bottom that protrude down slightly, so we needed the tent to sit 1/4” off the top of the rack. The solution was to stack 13x metal washers until we had the proper raise.

The finished hardware setup used the following:

  • 3/8 in. x 2 in. Zinc Hex Bolt (x4)

  • 1/2 in. x 2 in. Metallic Stainless Steel Fender Washer (x64)

  • 3/8 in. Strut Channel Spring Nut (x4)

  • 3/8 in lock washers (x4)

  • 3/8 in neoprene washers (x4)

The new hardware threaded through the bottom of the tent.

The new hardware threaded through the bottom of the tent.

Notice how little space is left — this provides enough room for the channel nut to fit into the tracks on the roof rack and tighten down. The tolerance here is tight, and we had to use extra washers to close this gap.

Notice how little space is left — this provides enough room for the channel nut to fit into the tracks on the roof rack and tighten down. The tolerance here is tight, and we had to use extra washers to close this gap.

Installation Instructions:

  1. Remove the rooftop tent from the vehicle and place on the ground or a safe work surface

  2. Remove any pre-installed rails or hardware from the bottom of the tent. Also remove the bolts that hold the ladder. You want the tent to have nothing on the bottom of it.

  3. Decide what direction you want the tent to open, and if you want the tent to be perfectly centered on the rack, or slightly off center. We opted for a slight off-centering, but it’s not terribly noticeable. These decisions will depend on your vehicle and personal preference, so give some consideration to them before you start drilling.

  4. Once you have identified the desired location for the tent, mark two holes 36.5” apart on one end of the tent. Take care to make sure the center of the hole is exactly 36.5” apart. This spacing corresponds to the width of the rails on the Rhino Rack platform. We used blue painters tape to mark the holes on the bottom of the tent.

  5. Measure holes to match on the opposite side of the tent. You should have four holes that will line up to where you want the tent to mount on the rack. Measure twice!

  6. Drill through the tent to make the four bolt holes. Be sure to have help! You don’t want to drill into the tent fabric or mattress, so you might need to prop the tent up while you drill. We recommend starting with a pilot hole and then using a bigger bit to drill the final hole.

  7. Slide the hardware into the holes. Inside the tent, you will have one large spacer washer and a lock washer, along with the bolt head. As the bolt comes through the tent, mount one neoprene washer, 13x flat washers, and the channel nut. (see above pics).

  8. Re-attach the tent ladder, and (optional) fill any old holes with clear silicone. This will help keep bugs from entering the tent floor.

  9. With help, lift the tent onto the roof rack. Once all four channel nuts are in the tent, you can open the tent back up and crawl into the inside. From the inside, use a socket wrench to tighten down the hardware.

Tightening the hardware inside the tent…. You can see Kristen’s legs sticking out the bottom of the tent as she makes final adjustments to the hardware inside the tent.

Tightening the hardware inside the tent…. You can see Kristen’s legs sticking out the bottom of the tent as she makes final adjustments to the hardware inside the tent.

We installed the tent onto the roof exactly the same way as shown in the video posted by Sketchy Jeep. Our setup differs slightly because our tents are different, but the concept is the same.

We’ve loved this setup, and it’s extremely secure. We had no issues using it in the field, and are very happy with how the whole thing came together.

Good luck in mounting your tent!

A look at the hardware sandwiched between the bottom of the tent and the top of the rack. You can see how we used a stack of washers to raise the tent slightly off the platform to account for some straps that are permanently attached to the bottom of our tent.

A look at the hardware sandwiched between the bottom of the tent and the top of the rack. You can see how we used a stack of washers to raise the tent slightly off the platform to account for some straps that are permanently attached to the bottom of our tent.

All mounted up and ready to go!

All mounted up and ready to go!

A Personal Moment from Kristen

Hello Readers,

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated, and I need to tell you why…. This is going to be an incredibly personal post, so buckle up!

Me (right) and my girlfriend (left)

Me (right) and my girlfriend (left)

In November 2018, I did the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do — I came out to my husband and family as gay. 

I have always been gay, but the problem was that I didn’t realize it. Why? Well, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be gay. The only people I knew as a kid that were gay were very different from me - the most prominent of them was a man who was interested in fashion and shopping. What I knew of gay people didn’t match who I was. 

When I was a teenager and entering college, my life dream was to join the military. At the time, “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell” was a policy still in place, and being gay generally carried a very negative connotation. I never gave the notion that I could be gay any space to breathe; I never considered that as an option on the menu. 

Fast forward many years: I found myself dating men because that’s what society said was normal. I met a man that I got along with extremely well - he became my best friend - but our relationship was always best described as friendship. We got married, and he became my husband, though again, the moniker “best friend” would always better describe our relationship.

As societies views on homosexuality changed, I started to become more aware of my own sexuality. I met women that I found myself attracted to - and not just physically, but in an emotional way that I’d never experienced before. 

Of course, I was already married, and now I felt stuck. I was never willing to consider cheating on my husband to figure out if I was actually gay or if these were fleeting feelings. So I internalized the whole struggle — and for the last few years, I privately wrestled with myself. 

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Most people come out in phases. They start with “I think I might be gay” and eventually evolve into “I am gay.” I needed to be sure before I came out, and the only way to be sure was to spend years in deep contemplation.

Finally, last fall, I decided it was time. I sat my husband down and told him.

Kudos to him - he took it like a champ. He gave me a hug, and held no ill-will. He was the best ally anyone could ever hope for. My parents also responded warmly.

Since then, I’ve been going through the motions to change my lifestyle - moving out, getting divorced, and starting my new life as the gay woman I really am.

It didn’t take long after I came out for me to meet a woman, who I have since fallen madly in love with. I’ll introduce you to her in future posts!

Thanks for sticking by me while I’ve been away…. Much love!


-Kristen

A Walk Through Aviation History

In celebration of Veteran’s Day this year, I went to Virginia Beach to visit the Military Aviation Museum. It is one of the largest private collections of military aircraft on the east coast, and reminds me of places like the Shuttleworth Collection, which I loved to visit while I was in the UK.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the museum put on a special ceremony, and then displayed a number of aircraft from that era.

I really enjoy black and white images of aircraft, and particularly like the challenge of shooting them on the ground in a way that captures their spirit for flight. So with each of these photographs, I tried to use the surrounding hangers and structures to remind you how much these machines love to fly.

If you want to learn more about the Military Aviation Museum, you can visit their website.

All photographs taken with the Nikon Z7 and Zeiss Milvus lenses.

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Pumpkin Spiced Fall

After getting the new Nikon Z7, I was excited to experience fall colors in Virginia. This area has a lot of diversity to the landscapes, and I wanted to put the camera through its paces while exploring some of Virginia’s best offerings.

In total, I drove several hundred miles to each end of the state - from Southwest Virginia and the New River Valley, to the coastline of Virginia Beach - to capture these fall photographs. I promise they are also scratch and sniff… should smell like pumpkin spice!

We’re now entering the long winter months, where the photography can be a little more challenging, but there’s another Scenic Traverse Photography adventure on the horizon. Stay tuned for more great explorations soon.

Which is your favorite?

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10 Books Every Photographer Should Read

Grab a cup of coffee, put on your slippers, and curl up in your favorite arm chair with one of these texts and learn something new about the art of photography! I have a rather large and ecclectic collection of photography texts, and this list represents my 10 favorites - texts I would recommend to anyone wanting to improve their photography.

What have I missed on the list? Leave me a comment and let me know what you'd add!

  1. "The Camera" & "The Negative" & "The Print" - Ansel Adams
    The author needs no introduction, and this is really three texts in one, but they are the definitive texts for all technical things film photography. So you're a digital photographer? Read anyway. Seriously, these books are #1.0, 1.1 and 1.2 on my list for a reason. The fundamentals of photography are the same no matter the medium, and I promise you'll learn something. Plus, its awesome seeing how Ansel thought about his work.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  2. "Black and White Photography Workshop" - John Blakemore
    This is without question one of the best all-in-one books on using the Zone System to create incredible black and white film images. Like with the texts from Ansel Adams, this is a great material for any digital photographer who wants to build their foundational knowledge.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  3. "Vivian Maier: Street Photographer" - John Maloof
    Vivian Maier was a nanny in the mid-1900s who travelled around Europe and the United States taking photographs with her Rolleiflex 120mm film camera. She was a very private woman and never shared her work - it was only discovered and she became famous after her death. There is a documentary (currently on Netflix) about her story, but the book is fantastic as a resource to study the work of another photographer. What I find so inspiring about Vivian is that she took photographs for personal joy and satisfaction - not to share them. That's opposite of most of us (myself included) who have blogs, Facebook, etc where we share our images. There is something particularly special about her work because of the private nature of her images.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  4. "From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black and White Conversion Technique Known to Man" - Vincent Versace
    Vincent is a Nikon Ambassador, and an exceptional black and white digital photography artist. His text differs from the above black and white books in that he spends more time on the details of the digital workflow, and how to create masterpieces in the digital era. A must-own for any black and white photographer. Seriously.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  5. “Chasing Light: An Exploration of the American Landscape” - Frank Lee Ruggles

    Frank is a friend of mine. He was my first mentor in photography and sold me some of my very first lenses (I’m embarrassed to say it was a Tokina). Needless to say, after years of studying his work, I have found him to be one of my greatest inspirations. This isn’t a how-to book, it’s a fine art photography book, and it will inspire you. A good photographer is always looking at the work of others — I have spent hours reverse engineering Frank’s images and learning from them, and suggest this book to any landscape photographer. Plus, Frank’s an all-around awesome guy, so it’s no wonder this book is so high on my list of must-reads!

    Buy on Amazon.com

  6. "Eyes Wide Open - 100 Years of Leica Photography"
    Some of the best books for photography aren't instructional - they are collections of work from which I can draw new inspiration or ideas. I love to deconstruct other photographer's images, and this book is full of inspiration. And if you ever need a paperweight or door stop, it'll cover those bases too!

    Buy on Amazon.com

  7. "Captured: Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer" - Moose Peterson
    So you have an interest in wildlife photography? Moose wrote the definitive guide on all things wildlife and bird photography - its a fun read complete with great images and some amusing stories of his time spent shooting in the field.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  8. "Surreal Photography: Creating the Impossible" - Daniela Bowker
    This is a fun and entertaining text - a great way to see how some photographers express creativity by creating surrealist images. While I rarely (if ever) will use the techniques taught in this book, it's another great resource to draw new inspiration and pull new techniques from. Certainly one of the more bizarre and fun books on my shelf.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  9. "Black and White Magazine" - Subscription
    I am not a fan of most photography magazines - they push you to buy crap and gadgets you don't need. And just like the exercise magazines that routinely re-run the same articles with the "best weight loss tips," most photography magazines don't offer new content, or content that will make you a better artist. Black and White is the exception. There is a great showcase of various artists (real artists) and inspiring pieces. I would recommend the paper subscription over e-version - the printed quality is exceptionally good.

    Subscribe Online

  10. “Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash” - Joe McNally

    This addition to my list might surprise you, considering how little I use flash in my photography. I only ever use a flash for macro images, so it should speak volumes that I recommend a book about something I don’t use. Why? Because photography is all about light, and Joe McNally is arguably the master of light. The things he can do with a flash boggle the mind, and I think it’s important to study light as a photographer. So might as well learn from the master. Besides, my flash is the sun, and if you can control a AA-battery powered flash, you’re that much closer to making the sun work for you,


    Buy on Amazon.com

The (in progress) Nikon Z7 Review

Last Updated: 23 October

Last summer (2017), the President of Nikon confirmed what the world was dying to know.  Nikon was in development of a mirrorless full frame camera that would be released “soon.”  Almost instantly, additional specifications and details started to leak out across the Internet.  People eagerly waited for the announcement of what was going to be, without question, the modernization and one of the greatest revelations in digital photography since the design and mass production of cell phone cameras.

After much anticipation, on August 23, 2018, Nikon unveiled the new Z7 and Z6 full frame mirrorless digital cameras.  The wait was finally over.

The Nikon Z7 started shipping worldwide on 27 September — a month after the announcement.  Demand for this camera has been unprecedented, and many consumers will likely be waiting months before they get a chance to own their own model. It has been estimated that Nikon had 40,000 Z7 cameras available at the end of September, with nearly a quarter of those shipping to dealers in the United States.

Over the coming months, I will document my experience with the Z7 in an effort to provide as much information about the camera, shooting experience, and — most importantly — image output. This is not a “one and done” review; I will add to it regularly as I have new experiences with the camera. I truly believe a real review cannot be completed in just a few days — it takes months of continuous shooting — and so this review will reflect that philosophy. I can promise that I’ll cover as many topics as I can, barre one: video. I don’t shoot video, know little about video, and am woefully unequipped to discus video. As far as I’m concerned, the video features in this camera are merely in the way.

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A Quick Introduction: The Nikon Z7 and Z6

The primary difference between the Z7 and Z6 cameras is the resolution and shooting specs; the Z7 features a 45.7 megapixel sensor, while the Z6 features a 24.5 megapixel digital sensor.  Other differences include the number of autofocus points — which is almost twice as many on the Z7 (at 493 focus points) as on the Z6 (only 273 focus points).  There are also differences in the ISO.  The Z7’s ISO ranges from 64 to 25,612 while the Z6 ISO ranges from 100 to 51,200.  Finally, the Z6 can fire a few more frames per second than the Z7. The difference in frame rate is probably a factor of the image size and write speed to memory cards, vice a mechanical difference.

The Nikon Z7 and Z6 represent a turning point, and will definitely become historical milestone in the evolution of digital photography.  Other companies may have released full frame mirrorless first, like Sony, Fuji, and Leica, but Nikon represents the largest company to yet produce a full frame mirrorless camera.  No matter what other companies have done before, the release of the Nikon Z7 and Z6 will go down in the history books as an important milestone in photography.  It will go down alongside inventions like instant film and, of course, the cell phone camera.

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Getting a Nikon Z: Pay Early

I pre-ordered my Nikon Z7 before it even had a name.  When I pre-ordered it with my local camera shop it was just called “the Nikon mirrorless camera that was coming soon.”  Weeks before was announced, I put my name down on the pre-order list, guaranteeing that I will get one of the first units to be delivered in the United States.  The day it was announced and the dealers had pricing information, I paid in full, cementing my place as one of the first to get my hands on the new release.

Because I pre-paid, I got one the day it was released in the United States. By my math, it is also one of the first 1,000 bodies delivered in the USA (more on that later).

The Nikon Z6 will start shipping soon, and I would encourage anyone waiting for that model to pre-pay in order to ensure they get one of the first ones.


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Why Mirrorless: The Future of Photography

As photographers, it’s easy to get high on tech specs.  So before we get wrapped up in the specifications of this particular camera, let’s generically discuss why mirrorless is important.  

Why this mirrorless camera thing is a big deal.  Why this camera, over all other cameras, is a huge turning point in the market. 

The first time I used a full frame mirrorless camera was when I shot the Leica SL in London.  Bringing that full frame electronic newsletter to my face instantly changed my perception on what I thought at the time was a trend — a photography fad.  But when I looked through that electronic viewfinder, I immediately understood the value of a mirrorless full frame camera, and simultaneously understood that I was holding the future. 

One of the problems with DSLR's is that you don't see exactly what you're shooting as you shoot.  There's a mirror that sits in front of the sensor and reflects light from the lens into a prism that you're looking into via the viewfinder.  The limitation here is that the camera can only display a limited amount of information to the photographer through a small heads up display built into that prism.  Furthermore, you are seeing a reflection of light through a mirror, not what the sensor will see. As a result, you are, in some regards, guessing what the sensor will capture based on your experience with that particular camera and the limited information available in the heads up display.

With mirrorless, you get the benefit of seeing exactly what you're photographing at the instant the camera takes the image.  You spend less time having to look at the rear LCD screen to review the exposure and the quality of your image, and spend more time actually composing and creating photographs. 

In other words, if your image is going to be underexposed, you can see that through the viewfinder before you take the image.  You no longer have to remove your face to look at the rear LCD screen or browse a menu — you just see it.

The other noteworthy advantage of a mirrorless full frame camera is that the flange distance between the lens and the sensor is significantly reduced. This sounds highly technical, but it’s worth understanding why a shortened flange distance is so valuable to a photographer.

Flange distance is the distance between the sensor and the front bayonet coupling, where the lens and camera body meet.  In most DSLR’s, the flange distance is somewhere in the range of 50-60mm; however, on a mirrorless full frame camera, that flange distance can be somewhere between 10-20mm.  The result of this greatly reduced flange distance is that light enters the camera with less reduction.

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If you have a longer flange distance, than the engineer that designs your camera lens has to bring in more light for the sensor by making larger optical elements, which translates into larger lenses with more weight and ultimately greater cost.  With a thinner flange distance, more light naturally comes into the camera sensor, allowing the same engineer to design a lens that is smaller, weighs less, and is (hopefully) less expensive. 

This also allows engineers to design lenses that would be pretty impractical on a full frame DSLR; for instance Nikon has already announced the development of lenses with an aperture of f/0.95.  The same lens on a DSLR would likely be so unwieldy and expensive that it will be impractical for a company like Nikon to even entertain building and designing it.

Of course mirrorless is not perfect.  The greatest drawback these days for a mirrorless camera is the battery life.  Because the viewfinder is electronic, the batteries are constantly having to provide electricity for the small LCD screen that you're looking at in the eyepiece. This drains batteries faster than they would in a comparable DSLR camera.  The good news; however, is that battery technology these days is very good.  Even if your mirrorless camera gets a fraction of the battery life that a DSLR might get, batteries are so affordable, they almost can be treated as a consumable.  Buying and carrying four or five batteries to have lots of spares and no fear of running out is really not a big deal.

So why is Nikon's release of the Z7 such a big deal? Why is the Internet and every blogger on YouTube suddenly going crazy when other companies have already released similar cameras?  Because Nikon represents the largest manufacturer to enter this market.  Companies like Sony, Fuji, and Leica — who all got into the market with a full frame mirrorless camera first — don’t have quite the following the company like Nikon or Canon has.


The FTZ Adapter: Keep Your Lenses & Go Mirrorless

If you are a current Nikon shooter and wanted to transition into a mirrorless camera you might have to sell more than you were willing to sell. You probably have a collection of lenses from Nikon that you would have to sell in order to buy another brand’s model.  But now Nikon can hope to sell a mirrorless camera to existing customers by allowing them to use the lenses they already have for their existing Nikon system.

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In order to offer this backward compatibility, Nikon developed an adapter (the FTZ adapter) that allows you to mount almost any existing F-mount lens to the Z7 or Z6 while still maintaining autofocus.  That means if you already own some unique lenses or lenses you really enjoy the character of, you don't need to part with those lenses as part of the admission into the mirrorless club.  This is incredibly well thought out by Nikon because they will be able to corner a large portion of their current DSLR owners and convince them to buy into this new digital technology.

Although Nikon is offering an adapter to make existing F-mount lenses compatible, they are also releasing a new series of lenses designed to maximize the advantages of the new lens mount. The new lens lineup, dubbed the “S-line” contains many of the benefits of previous Nikon lenses, such as nano crystal coated glass. 

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The S-Line of Lenses: A New Dawn

With the announcement of the Z7 and Z6, Nikon also announced the release of three new S-lenses and the development of several more coming soon. The current Nikon S lens lineup is as follows:

    • Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 24-70 f/4 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 24-70 f/2.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 58mm f/0.95 Nocti (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 70-200 f/2.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 14-30 f/4 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 50mm f/2.8 (expected 2020)

    • Nikon Z 24mm f/1.8 (expected 2020)

    • Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 (expected 2020)

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The announcement of twelve lenses for this system within the first two years is very remarkable. By comparison, Leica has only released a quarter as many lenses for their mirrorless full frame Leica SL camera, yet it has been on the market several years longer. The difference in lens releases is one of the main reasons this camera’s release will be such a big deal; outside of maybe Canon, no other manufacturer can compete with Nikon’s ability to develop and get new glass to market as quickly. 

Nikon was also teased that they will be developing additional Z camera bodies to meet the needs of other photographers — such as sports photographers — who may require a longer battery life, multiple memory card slots, and high frames per second shooting speed before transitioning from their DSLR bodies to mirrorless.

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Options: Expanding into Zeiss Lenses

I don’t want this to sound like I’m a hater, because I am not. But I don’t think Nikon makes the best lenses. They make fine lenses, but not the best. Fine. Acceptable.

Acceptable, for most. However, I am one of the few who really values good glass.

A good lens is more important than a good camera. The camera can only gather and process the light that the sensor receives. If the sensor gets imperfect light, then you get an imperfect image, and there is nothing the camera can do about it. In other words, the Nikon Z7 is as only as good as the glass you put in front of it.

Ever since I became a Leica shooter, I’ve been a very discerning photographer when it comes to lenses. I now prefer manual focus primes to zooms, and would rather not have to click buttons in Lightroom to “correct” an image by removing chromatic aberrations, distortions, etc. Remember, good light in = good image out.

For dSLRs, Zeiss makes some of the best lenses on the planet. So I have spent quite a bit of time shooting the Z7 with my Zeiss Milvus lenses in order to evaluate the results when I put the best possible glass in front of the Z7. Here are some of my results….

Bridge to Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Urban landscape in Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Exploring an old factory that once made components for World War II tanks. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Inside the old factory. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Abandoned control room of a former water pumping station on the river. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Urban decay. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.


Ergonomics: A Pleasantly Small and Comfortable Experience

Nikon engineers reportedly put great emphasis on the ergonomics and shooting experience they designed the Z7 and Z6.  The right hand grip hearkens back to other Nikon DSLR’s, but unique to this camera are new buttons, wheels, and joysticks enabling you to control camera menus while looking through the electronic viewfinder. The smaller size of this camera compared to most of the DSLRs is currently on the market is extremely advantageous. It will fit into smaller bags, be more discreet, and less intimidating looking than a DSLR body. 

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The Memory Card: The Future is XQD

One of the compromises that had to be made in order to accommodate the smaller body size of the Z7 is that Nikon included only one memory card slot. This fact caused many Internet bloggers to freak out at the announcement, and in many ways distracted reviewers from the camera and the benefits of the camera itself. Rather than talking about the benefits of an electronic viewfinder and the wonderful image quality this sensor will produce, people latched onto the single memory card, and the Internet has been on overdrive discussing this revelation ever sense. Therefore it is only logical that I too jump into the mix with my thoughts on the single memory card decision.

The Nikon Z7 and Z6 both utilize a memory card format called XQD. The XQD memory card is not new, although it's certainly not a mainstream formats (like SD) yet. In fact, when the Nikon D850 was released, it was very difficult to find XQD cards for sale. Thankfully additional manufacturers, including Nikon themselves, have entered the market and it is now possible to find XQD cards from a variety of manufacturers and a whole host of sizes. XQD cards cost quite a bit of money compared to cards like SD, but they are significantly more reliable. SD cards are prone to failure and routinely do fail. XQD cards, by comparison, have a very low failure rate. XQD cards also have a very high data transfer rate, and can read and write in excess of 400 Mb per second. When you're discussing a 45 megapixel sensor that read/write speed is absolutely critical.

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Personally, I think the hubbub surrounding the single memory card issue is being wildly overblown. People have become used to having two memory cards because manufacturers were compensating for the lack of reliability in SD formats by adding backup slots. As a result, consumers got trained on the idea that we need a backup. But you only need a backup if the primary is prone to failure. 

If we think back just a few years ago, when cameras all shot film, we were used to taking the risk that you could have a catastrophic failure and lose all of your images. The difference between film and a single memory card is that film can never be recovered.  No amount of money and no lab can bring film back once it's been destroyed. But if an XQD card did fail, for a reasonable fee, you could pay to have your images recovered. In my mind, the benefits of the faster read/write speed and the reliability that XQD memory cards have negates the “drawback” of having only one memory card slot. And anyone who feels so passionately that they require a backup better be carrying multiple camera bodies and redundant systems anyway.

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Image Quality: Unrivaled Dominance

Some users have dubbed the Z7 as the mirrorless D850, which is a compliment and nod to the exceptional image quality. Nikon raised the bar for dynamic range and sensor performance with the D850, and the Z7 has at least met, if not exceeded, the bar set by the D850.

I don’t shoot in a lab. I don’t own a white jacket or a clipboard. I am completely and utterly unqualified to tell you anything scientific about the performance of the sensor. What I can tell you, though, is how it responds to my real-world shooting.

The first day I owned the Z7, I went for a hike in a local National Park. It had been raining all week, but was finally a pleasant and sunny fall day. The heavy rain in the proceeding days meant that much of the trail was damp, which is actually great for pulling out color. Logs, trees, bark, and mosses are all more vibrant when they are just barely damp. Knowing this, I aimed the camera at a variety of naturally colorful subjects in an effort to explore the native color rendition and dynamic range of the camera.

To say I was impressed was an understatement, and I am editing these images with a version of Lightroom that doesn’t fully support the Z7 yet! Presumably, there may be incremental improvements to be had in the image quality when Adobe releases an update to Adobe Camera Raw to support the Z7 files.

Anyway, I barely touched the vibrance slider to get the results you see here. Most of the images were under exposed by -1/3 stop (using exposure compensation). Underexposing by a smidge can help preserve shadow detail for post production, so I almost always have the file slightly darker.

The photograph of the waterfall here demonstrates how much dynamic range is captured by the Z7 (be sure to click on it for a full-sized preview). There is still detail in the highlights where the sky and tree leaves meet, as well as great detail in the shadows of the rocks and tree bark. The whole thing is rather remarkable given how complex this scene is — normally I would use graduated neutral density filters to help the camera out, but this was shot without any assistance.

I have not explored much by way of high ISO shooting, and I doubt I’ll ever have much to say there. I really try very hard to avoid shooting above ISO 1600. I would rather use a tripod and take a longer exposure than raise my ISO. I’m sure it’ll happen at some point, but thus far I have no observations on the ISO performance.

Once again, I am reminded how much I appreciate the high resolution of the Z7’s sensor. I used a 200mm macro lens to photograph some bugs and flowers and was pleased to see how far I could crop and still preserve incredible detail in the file. Granted, some of this is attributed to the lens, but the high resolution sensor provides great opportunity to get the most out of uber sharp glass.

Thus far, I have found the metering, auto white balance, and auto focus to be very accurate, but will follow up with more information about those topics in a future update….


Color Rendition: Holy Vibrance Slider

The Nikon Z7 produces beautiful colors. Maybe even too beautiful.

I am used to playing with the vibrance slider in Lightroom in order to put some “pop” in the colors of an image taken with another camera, but the Z7 doesn’t need that. Straight from the camera, the images are bursting with color. They almost look Photoshopped in their RAW format.

I have actually found myself desaturating a few images because the colors were more vibrant than what I wanted. But that isn’t very common, and for landscape photographers, I can attest that the Z7 will preserve your shadow details while still giving you a nice rich blue sky.

Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Look closely at the above photograph. I took this photograph on an overcast afternoon in mid-October. The leaves were just starting to change, and the sun was getting lower on the horizon. This is what I got out of the camera. I cropped the photograph and sharpened it slightly, but that’s it. The rest is au natural. The detail and color preserved in the tree leaves and also in the clouds is absolutely unreal.

Here’s some more examples:

I actually desaturated the corners of the above photograph slightly. I had to, because I thought it otherwise could look “over processed” out of the camera!


Electronic Viewfinder: A Window To the World

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is arguably the heart and soul of a mirrorless camera. A bad EVF ruins the experience of shooting with a mirrorless camera, so it was critical that Nikon get this new component correct.

My previous experience shooting a mirrorless Leica SL taught me how important the EVF is for composition and previewing the image at the moment of capture. My “keeper rate” of images was much higher with the EVF than with a prism viewfinder, and I had high expectations from Nikon.

As far as I’m concerned, there are a few features that make or break a good EVF:

  • High resolution (so that you don’t see the pixelation of your image)

  • 100% frame coverage (so that you know exactly what you are getting when you click the shutter)

  • Dimmable (most EVFs are aggressively bright, so it’s important that I can dim it)

  • Comfortable (looking at a digital screen can cause eye strain, so it needs to be clear and comfortable)

  • Adjustable heads up display (where you can modify what information is available to you in the display while you shoot)

The Nikon Z7 checks all of these boxes. The viewfinder is responsive, sharp, and pleasant to use. There is minimal lag and only an aggressive shake will create any noticeable shuttering. It is fast to refresh after taking an image, and it seems to be pretty accurate in providing real-time feedback on the exposure.

Thus far, I have only positive things to say about the EVF; it works exactly as I have come to expect, and there has been no disappointment in the rendering of information on the display. I’ll update this section with more comprehensive feedback on the EVF after I’ve used it in more extreme conditions, but so far, so good!

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The Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL vs Nikon D850

I had the same question as — based on the number of emails I’ve received on this topic would indicate — many others have about the Z7: “Can Nikon’s first mirrorless digital camera keep pace with the juggernaut D850”? And how does the Z7 hold up when compared to the established dominance of the Leica SL?

These head-to-head comparisons assume a lot about the definition of ‘better.’ Everyone wants to know which is better, camera X or Y. But the reality is that what is better for me may be worse for you, and I encourage you to read on with a grain of salt. A feature that I like and view as a pro might be a con in your shooting, so keep an open mind. And leave me a comment with your thoughts.

Now to my comparisons….know that I have owned all three of these cameras within the last year. I don’t review things I have only tried out in a demo. I am pulling this comparison from my personal use of cameras I purchased with my own cash.

Nikon Z7 vs Nikon D850

I sold the Leica SL in favor of the D850 because I was motivated by two things that the D850 had over the Leica SL. I quickly regretted that swap. While the D850 is a phenomenal camera, I missed the electronic viewfinder almost immediately. If you want to dig more into the comparison and pros and cons of the D850 vs Leica SL, check out my post where I compare those kings. Anyway, I never fell deeply in love with the D850, and I’m not infatuated with it (unlike so many other internet bloggers). It’s a good camera, don’t mistake me, but it’s just not a camera that speaks to me.

  • Image Quality: A wash.

    • Both produce spectacular results. Seriously. There’s a reason the labs are so in love with these sensors. I don’t test in a lab, but I have been nothing but impressed with the quality of the images both produce. The Z7 is reported to have marginally better dynamic range, but I don’t think it’s an appreciable difference.

  • Versatility: Nikon D850

    • The fact that the DSLR line has been on the market longer means there is more stuff available. More lenses. More after-market battery grips and do-hickeys. The Z7, while able to adapt to most F-mount lenses, looses some functionality with certain lenses. For instance, my macro lens doesn’t autofocus on the Z, but does on the D850. This isn’t a big deal to me, and the Z7 will quickly catch up in the market for availability of after market goodies. But, for now, we wait.

  • Shooting Experience: Nikon Z7

    • The Z7 has an electronic viewfinder. And I’m sorry to all you prism lovers, but electronic viewfinders are far superior. I also think the ergonomics and grip on the Z7 is better. Finally, the button placement on the Z7 and controls I think are a little better arranged. The D850 is very familiar — particularly for anyone who has experience with Nikon DSLRs — but the Z7 is refreshing in it’s modernity and form factor.

  • Size: Nikon Z7

    • No contest here. The Z7 is smaller in every dimension, and it’s lighter and easier to carry while traveling.

  • Autofocus: A wash.

    • Depending on which lens I am using, it waffles between the two cameras as to which is faster to focus. There are some lenses that are certainly faster on the D850, but the converse is also true. I would over an overall edge in focusing to the Z7 just because of the electronic viewfinder, and the versatility that affords in real-time evaluation of precise focus.

Overall, I give the Nikon Z7 a solid “better” over the D850, which mostly has to do with my shooting style. I am a landscape photographer….the trees and mountains aren’t moving. I can take my time to compose, focus, and create the image. For me, the benefits of a small, lightweight mirrorless camera far outweigh any cons this camera has, and the Z7 easily tops the D850 in my mind.

The D850 may be a more versatile camera today, but that will change in time. The Z system is brand new, and Nikon was pretty tight-lipped about the development, so it’s not surprising that there’s a lack of after-market accessories and 3rd party lens options. But that will change with time, and I imagine any benefit the D850 has in this regard today will be neutralized in a year or less.

Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL

This is where things get more complicated for me….I’ve established for myself that a mirrorless camera is far better than a prism DSLR. But when I compare two wonderful mirrorless cameras side-by-side, the evaluation get’s complicated.

The main reason I ever sold my Leica SL was because Leica was behind on the development of new lenses for the system, and I wanted a system where I could mount a 500mm super telephoto and then a 20mm wide angle. But I have always known the Leica glass is optically superior to that of Nikon, and now comparing two similar systems is very challenging.

  • Image Quality: Not sure yet!

    • I used the Leica SL for nearly two years. I published a book with it. I got to know that camera extremely well, and I knew what to expect from every image. I understood the limitations and strengths of the sensor, and when I needed to employ some creativity to capture the image I saw in my mind’s eye. Conversely, I have had the Nikon Z7 for a few weeks. The number of images I’ve taken with it number in the hundreds, compared to the tens of thousands. So I cannot definitively say that the Z7 is better than the SL (yet). However, the results I’ve seen thus far are very promising. The Z7 preserves fantastic shadow detail, has great tolerance for highlights, and has some of the most naturally vibrant colors I have seen in a camera. But until I’ve really pushed this camera to the edge, I can’t declare one of the cameras as better than the other in the image output.

  • Versatility: Nikon Z7

    • Ironically, the Z7 at it’s release was already more versatile than the Leica SL. Both companies released an adapter that allows for mounting of other system lenses on the mirrorless bodies, but Nikon has more lenses available, and therefore more versatility. Leica doesn’t offer long telephotos for nature photographers, nor do they have much selection in macro lenses. Nikon does; and their adapter permits more freedom of application for the Z7 on release day than the Leica SL has achieved in years of development.

  • Shooting Experience: Leica SL, by a hair

    • The Leica SL wasn’t perfect, and one of the most glaring flaws on that camera — the lack of ergonomics and harsh metal build — is actually one of the highlights of the Z7. However, the SL had much more customization, and the controls were a little better laid out and designed than those of the Z7. Nikon has opportunity to narrow that margin by offering firmware updates that permit different customization of the button controls, but until that happens, the SL has the edge in terms of experience. The SL had so many opportunities to customize the controls, that the camera became a natural extension of your brain, eyes, and hand. The Z7 has the potential to achieve that as well, with future software updates.

If I have to pick between the Z7 and SL today, it’s a tough call, but I probably pick the Z7. I’d make that choice based on the availability of lenses, cost, and that the image quality and shooting experience meet or have the potential to exceed that of the SL. Honestly, my attraction to the SL is probably driven more by emotion than anything else; I had a great run with that camera. It travelled around the world with me, and the artwork I made with the SL carries great emotional value. I haven’t had the Z7 long enough to bond with it in the same way.

You’re probably thinking that I talk and write about cameras as though they have feelings. Like that camera is more than just some metal and plastic and wires and circuits. To me, they are.

An effective camera is one that I bond with at a deeper level. Not that I have some sort of weird physical connection — but the connection like a painter has with his brushes and studio. When a camera has effectively become an extension of my eyes and brain, I can use it to capture the most beautiful sights on our planet. I think I’ll get there with the Z7. I think we’ll fall deeply in love, and that camera and I will forge a new bond. But it takes time, and I’m not there yet.

Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL vs Nikon D850

Now I know you want resolution. You read this far…. you don’t want to hear some soppy love story about a camera. You want the unvarnished truth about which is better. And I don’t want to disappoint you. So I’ll give you my personal rankings of these three cameras.

If you handed me a blank check and told me to purchase any of the three today, I would NOT pick the D850. Personally, I don’t see the benefits anymore. I’m all in on mirrorless.

I would buy the Z7. I see a ton of potential in this lineup. The lenses Nikon will release in the future; the promise of what is to come. It’s not a perfect camera yet, and the SL rivals it today. But the head room for the Z7 is much higher. Nikon is a bigger company with more money for R&D. There will be more strides and more innovation in the Z7. There will be more lenses for the Z7. The image quality probably matches or exceeds that of the Leica SL. Objectively, the Z7 today is a better place, and will almost certainly be the better choice in the long term.


Shooting Low and Slow: Hold Still

One of the often under appreciated benefits of a mirrorless camera is that you can effectively hand hold and get sharp images at slower shutter speeds than you can with a comparable DSLR.

In other words, I struggle to hand hold a sharp image at anything slower than 1/60th with the D850, but have no trouble hand holding at 1/20th on the Z7. I have pushed that a little further and - depending on the situation, my posture, and the scene, I’ve been known to sneak sharp images at 1/5th or slower.

What this means in practice is that you can use a lower ISO with the Z7 and achieve a better result. As good as sensors have become at shooting at higher ISOs, it’s still an indisputable fact that the best image will always come from a lower ISO. So if I can hand hold at night at ISO 400 vs ISO 1600, that’s a considerable improvement in image quality.


Adapting Beyond Nikon: Expand the Versatility

Nikon released the Z7 with the FTZ adapter, which allows Nikon F-mount lenses to me used on the Z7 and preserves full functionality on most modern lenses.

Almost immediately, the question became: “What else can we mount”?

The answer is almost anything. Sigma, Zeiss, Tamaron, etc all have made lenses for the Nikon F mount that can be adapted with the FTZ adapter with varying degrees of functionality. Likewise, 3rd party companies are developing adapters for mounting Canon, Hasselblad, Leica, Sony, and other lenses. In due time, there probably won’t be many lenses that can’t be attached to the Z7 in some way shape or form.

Personally, I’ll be investing in an adapter that will allow me to mount my Leica M-mount lenses from my Leica M10 onto the front of my Z7. I love manual focus lenses, and am excited by the prospect of using them on my Z7. There is already one adapter with a plastic mount on the market, but I’ll be waiting for the metal mounts….


Nikon Serial Numbers: Identify Yourself

Nikon seems to have stuck to their traditional serial numbering system for the Z-lineup of cameras.

The first digit of the serial number indicates the region the camera was for sale in, with the number 3 being for USA market cameras. Therefore, a serial number for a Z7 sold in the USA will have a serial number formatted as 3XXXXXX.

In my case, the serial number is 30009XX, representing a late-900’s serial number. It is my understanding that this means I have one of the first one thousand units delivered to the United States.

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Desired Upgrades and Improvements: Dear Nikon

There is no question that Nikon will be releasing several iterations of firmware for the Z7 in the coming months; such is the nature of a new product. There are inevitably bugs that weren’t found prior to the production software being released. These firmware updates also provide an opportunity for Nikon to upgrade a few features in the system, and so I will begin a list of “Dear Nikon” requests for future firmware updates:

  1. EVF Zoom Via Joystick: The joystick (located below the AF-ON button) has some user-customizable features, but there is one customization not included; the ability to zoom into the center of the EVF for precision focusing. As far as I can tell, the only way to zoom in on the viewfinder to check focus is via the + magnification glass button, which is toward the bottom of the body. Unfortunately, to reach that button, I have to contort my hand away from shooting position, so it’s very awkward to use. The Leica SL joystick allowed this feature, and I LOVED it — particularly for macro or telephoto shots. Nikon, please allow me to program the joystick click button as an alternate zoom button.

  2. Faster Joystick Tracking of AF Points: This will sound really stupid…. The joystick on the Leica SL was very responsive to movements of the AF points around the viewfinder. The Nikon Z7 joystick does not move the AF points with the same briskness, and I’d like to be able to speed it up. Please let it take less time for the focus cursor to move across the screen when I hold the joystick.

  3. More Friendly App Integration: Again, I am basing this on my experience with the Leica SL. The SL’s app and wifi integration was much cleaner, and there are too many cumbersome menus that aren’t well explained built into the Z7. Simplify this!

  4. Virtual Horizon Without the Whole Compass: I don’t understand why Nikon feels compelled to put this big compass thing (I know it’s not actually a compass, but I don’t know what else to call it) in the center of the frame with the virtual horizon line. Let me just have the line sans the extra stuff.

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Of course, I’ll also wish for some upgrades that are hardware, and that would have to wait for the next iteration of the camera before they could come to fruition. But it’s never too soon to ask! So here goes my initial list of requested future hardware upgrades:

  1. Built in GPS: Seriously, this technology has been super miniaturized, and it’s fun (and helpful) to see a map of all the photographs I’ve taken based on their geolocation metadata. No extra dongles, just put the GPS in body.

  2. A Slightly Taller Body: Nikon, I appreciate what you did to make this camera smaller and lighter than the D850; my camera bag appreciates it. However, the bottom of my pinky is just barely on the body, and it’d be nice to have a few extra millimeters to feel like my whole hand has a complete grip on the body.

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Must-Have Accessories: Pimp Your Z7

The dealer that sold you the camera would now love to convince you that you need to spend hundreds more in accessories to really get the most out of your camera. BS! But there are a few accessories I recommend for the Z7 to improve the experience:

  • Spare XQD cards

    • At the time of writing, the XQD format of card is still shockingly expensive, but that will change as more companies come to market. In the mean time, have one or two backup cards handy.

  • Spare batteries

    • You can use the EN-EL15A, EN-EL15B, or any of a number of 3rd party lenses. I think it’s worth paying a little more for the EN-EL15B battery, which allows for in-camera charging via USB.

  • Really Right Stuff L-Plate

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This is a living review; I will be updating it continuously in the coming weeks and months as I use the Z7 and can provide first-hand account and testimony of its performance. Until I have put the camera through its paces, I won’t be so irresponsible as to comment on every feature.

The Fantasy of Flight

There are many things I miss about living in the United Kingdom; high on that list would be the access to historical aircraft to photograph. Europe is flush with World War I and World War II aircraft that were impractical to be returned to the United States after the war. One of the best collections of these machines is the Shuttleworth Collection, north of London.

I was having a nostalgic moment recently looking back through some images I took at Shuttleworth, and found these prints that I hadn’t shared before. Enjoy!

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Mountain Ridge Sunset

I'll admit that my luck with spectacular sunsets seems to have run dry after my memorable sunset at Horseshoe Bend in December 2016. I have gone out in search of more sunsets than I care to remember since that incredible day, but nothing has come close to the wondrous pink and orange sky I saw that night.

A few weeks ago, we went to West Virginia, and again I searched for a sunset, though I didn't expect to rival the Horseshoe Bend experience. I have just been in such a long sunset drought that I was willing to take nearly anything! We hiked out to a rocky cliff that overlooks the mountain ridge and setup for the (hopeful) show. 

The sunset that night didn't come close to threatening the supremacy of Horseshoe Bend, but it had a characteristic that I found I loved. Instead of vibrant and exhilarating colors, this sunset was a soft glow that created a warm blue light throughout the mountain ridge. It was inviting...the sort of sunset that I could imagine watching from a rocking chair on the front porch of a country home. Looking out over this West Virginia landscape, I found myself humming the lyrics to the famous song "take me home, country roads, to the place, I call home....West Virginia."

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(Not) a Beautiful Photograph...

Look carefully at this photograph, because it is not beautiful.

I know of only two places in the United States where you can find rocks that are that brilliantly orange surrounded by pools of baby blue, turquoise, and teal water. One of them is Havasu Falls, which is part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon. The other is Douglas Falls outside the small town of Thomas, West Virginia. 

The vivid orange rocks and rainbow colored waters entice a swim.

Surely a landscape this beautiful carries some sort of mythical healing powers. Certainly this has to be one of the most tranquil places east of the Mississippi River?

There are few places on earth where these sorts of colors are "natural" -- I used a polarizing filter, some neutral density filters, and my Nikon D850 to capture the turquoise water and orange rocks.

Certainly not.

Douglas falls is beautiful, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Unlike Havasu Falls, where the beauty is natural, the beauty of Douglas Falls is not... the brilliant colors and tranquil scene are the result of pollution from coal mining. 

In the late 1890s, Thomas, West Virginia was home to the Davis Coal & Coke Company. In those days, there were over 500 beehive coke ovens burning in the town, which was setup entirely to support the mining operations. By the turn of the 20th century, the coal mines in the surrounding area produced over 4,000 tons of coal daily. The explosion of mining in Thomas was short-lived; by the outbreak of the first World War, advancements in refining methods meant that coke production in the beehive ovens had ceased, and by the 1950s, underground mining in the area ceased all together. The population of Thomas diminished, and the city today is a shell of it's former mining glory. 

Douglas Falls, as seen from the side. The rocks radiated a yellowish-orange that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Old beehive coke ovens line the roadway leading to Douglas Falls. At one time, there were over 500 of these ovens polluting the surrounding habitats.

Old beehive coke ovens line the roadway leading to Douglas Falls. At one time, there were over 500 of these ovens polluting the surrounding habitats.

In just a few decades, the landscape was permanently altered. The harsh acid from the coke ovens has turned the rocks orange. A hundred years after much of the mining ceased, the waters of the river are still plagued by harsh acid. In the 1990s, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection established a reclamation effort to clean up exposed mining waste. The project created new drainage systems, restored destroyed wetlands, reseeded grasses, and re-countoured the hillsides around the river.  They hope this project will eventually return this habitat to it's natural state... but nearly thirty years after the cleanup project, the acids continue to wreck havoc on the landscape. 

The contrast of the brilliant orange with the turquoise blue and green waters was a spectacular sight to behold...for all the wrong reasons.

Some ferns grow out of the ground around the falls, where acids from the coal mining that occurred nearly a century ago has stained these rocks. Acids continue to leech into the landscape, despite a cleanup project in the 1990s.

As much as I love photographing beautiful scenes like this one, I would much prefer to photograph a landscape for it's natural beauty. While I love these photographs, there will always be a cringe associated with seeing them because I know their beauty came at a great cost.

Welcome Spring

I can't believe we're a week away from flipping the calendar to May, and here I am finally posting about spring. The fickle weather in Washington, DC has limited my photographic opportunities, but with two nice days in a row, I grabbed the camera and headed out to see the first signs of spring.

My destination this week was an old favorite - a site I haven't visited in years - Huntley Meadows. Located in the middle of the bustling suburbs outside Washington, DC, this is an unlikely location to find some of the best wetlands.... but unlikely can be good!

I started my day shooting 4x5 large format film (more to come on that in a future post). In other words, I was carrying the one camera that is basically useless for all types of wildlife photography! My goal was to focus on black and white abstracts, and every bird and mammal in the sanctuary must have gotten the memo. Never have there been so many wonderful photographic opportunities... clearly the wildlife knew I was without the right camera for the job. 

Frustrated that the wildlife was practically posing in mockery of my camera predicament, I went back and got my Nikon D850 and Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens (modified to Nikon mount) and returned to see if I could get the last laugh. Indeed, I found many of the same subjects remained very cooperative. 

I may have taken 200 photographs of this blue heron through the course of the morning. He was incredibly friendly and got close enough that I had to start backing up!

I may have taken 200 photographs of this blue heron through the course of the morning. He was incredibly friendly and got close enough that I had to start backing up!

The natural camouflage is very well done; a number of folks walked past and never noticed the bird hiding in the bushes. Of course it helps to spot these guys when you have a 400mm lens....

The natural camouflage is very well done; a number of folks walked past and never noticed the bird hiding in the bushes. Of course it helps to spot these guys when you have a 400mm lens....

These guys have this funny jerky movement, so I had to shoot fast to get lucky and catch them mid-movement.

These guys have this funny jerky movement, so I had to shoot fast to get lucky and catch them mid-movement.

So focused. So attentive.

So focused. So attentive.

One of these sticks is not a stick.

One of these sticks is not a stick.

I wasn't the only one who looked outside and noticed spring had finally arrived.

I wasn't the only one who looked outside and noticed spring had finally arrived.

Cherry Blossoms in DC

I have lived in the Washington, DC area for nearly ten years, yet I had never gone out to photograph the annual Cherry Blossom bloom. The crowds intimidated me, and I don't like getting the same photograph as everyone else...

But I also knew it'd be criminal to live in the district this long and not photograph the blossoms! So I woke early this weekend and headed out in hopes of getting an image that was a little different.

My original goal was to get a nice sunrise, but heavy clouds dashed that hope immediately. Instead, I walked the perimeter of the tidal basin around the Jefferson Memorial in quest of some blossoms that would offer an interesting frame for the monument. Away from the crowds, I finally found this cluster of blossoms that framed the monument nicely.

To put my own unique spin on this quintessential DC image, I cropped the photograph to an extreme dimension. This allows the blossoms to dominate the frame and tell the story of this annual bloom.

If the weather cooperates, I'll hope to go out for one more stab at a good sunrise before the flowers drop....cross your fingers for some nice weather.

Washington's Moonrise

Sometimes it all comes together. Today was one of those days.

I had planned a very different photoshoot. But when side effects from the recent Nor'easter hampered my plans, I scrapped them. As luck would have it, tonight was a perfectly clear night, the moon was at 90%, and it was going to rise at 9pm over the National Mall in Washington, DC.

So I bundled up and headed out with the Nikon D850 in tow. Using my favorite app for photo planning - the Photographers Ephemeris - I planned my image of the Washington Monument to line up with the moon as it would ascend.

Some Photoshop magic was required to make this photograph. The moon's full size means it's extremely bright -- too bright. To make both the monument and moon visible, I captured them in separate exposures and combined them into the final product seen here.

Sometimes it all comes together.

Moonrise over the Washington Monument, March 2018

Moonrise over the Washington Monument, March 2018

Black & White Flower Silhouettes

Macro flower photography is one of my favorite disciplines to practice during the winter; cold temperatures, dreary weather, and naked trees make the landscapes less palatable for my normal ventures. With macro photography, I can often work indoors and with bright and vibrant flowers that make the frigid days feel a little brighter.

Longwood Gardens is one of the best places on the East Coast for enjoying flowers and plants, and their annual orchid festival is probably my favorite event of the year. It has been several years since I spent a day focused solely on macro flower photography, so I was excited to spend some time there recently.

Using my Nikon D850, a 200mm macro lens, external flash and diffuser, I created the following images. I purposefully used the flash to remove the background because I knew the final image would be printed in black and white. I wanted the prints to be borderline harsh, with strong contrast; I thought there would be some romance to having delicate and soft flowers reproduced with such strong effect.

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The Return of the M: The Leica M10 Review

When it comes to reviews of the Leica M10 rangefinder camera, I am a little behind the curve. The M10 was released in February 2017, and here I am - reviewing the camera 10 months later. I was late to the Leica M10 bandwagon; when it was released, I dismissed the improvements and stubbornly stuck next to my Leica M 240. A lack of availability with my local Leica store also discouraged any impulse buys.

Despite my attempts to stick it out with the M240, the lure of the M10 bit hard, and I have now been shooting this camera full time, wondering why it took so long for me to make the switch.

Size Matters

If you have been using the M240 for some time, then the first thing you’ll notice when you pick up the M10’s body is the thinner body. Much has been said on the internet about this new body thickness, which is comparable to the old M film bodies. I was skeptical that the few millimeters of difference in body width would manifest itself in a meaningful way, but I was certainly wrong.

I recently spent a day walking 14 miles through New York City shooting hundreds of images with the M10. My feet were raw, my legs screamed with every step, and my bones ached, but my wrist and shooting hand was totally fresh. By comparison, I used a variety of thumb grips and strap wrapping techniques to try and alleviate some pain that would plague my hand shooting the M240. As a woman, I almost certainly have hands smaller than the average Leica shooter, and a little hand discomfort was part of the price I had to pay for admission into the Leica rangefinder club.

No more. 

The ergonomics of the M10 far surpass those of the other digital M bodies, and the build in thumb rest near the back scroll wheel really is a pleasant design feature.

Simplistic and Elegant

On the topic of ergonomic improvements.... Leica simplified the entire camera system by removing extra buttons and compressing two different menu systems into a single, easy-to-use system. 

With the M240, you had two menus. One found under the “Menu” button, and one found under the “Set” button.  This vexed me when I first purchased the M240. I was walking around London and excited to use my new camera, but I couldn’t get the ISO or RAW file settings set. I searched over and over in the menu with no luck. Frustrated, I finally took up refuge in a restaurant and downloaded the Leica M240 manual onto my phone. Only then did I understand how the menus worked.

I don’t read instruction manuals. I could be flying a rocket ship, and I’d prefer to figure it out through trial-and-error than open the NASA provided booklet. While this probably isn’t the best strategy for rocket ship flying, it has generally worked for me in my terrestrial life. So when a camera menu is so wonky that I have to use the manual, that bodes poorly.

Thankfully Leica realized the menu system was a disaster and redesigned it in the M10 to mirror the menu system employed by the Leica SL and Leica Q.  Since I am already well versed in that menu structure, the M10 was a natural pick-up, with no learning curve.  And Leica introduced the favorites menu, so that I can have quick access to those features I need most often.

Simplification of the menus also included a reduction in buttons. The M10 features only three buttons on the left of the LCD screen. A benefit of this layout is that it is easy to memorize which buttons have what functionality, and to be able to jump straight to a particular button without having to read them all. I shot the M240 for longer than I’ve used the M10, but I would fail a test to list the rear menu buttons in the correct order. Too much clutter.

Finally, no conversation about ergonomics is complete without talking about that spiffy ISO wheel on the top of the body.

Holy cow, that thing is fantastic. Walking through New York, I would dip into a building like Grand Central Station, crank the ISO up, then walk back into the sunshine and crank it back down, all without having to even look down at the camera. 

Some folks have complained the wheel is a little too stiff, but I think it’s pretty close to perfect. The control is very deliberate, but it can be done with one finger. Anything easier than that would probably accidentally spin when exposed to real world shooting environments. 

Oh, Say, Can You See?

While adjustments to the ergonomics of the camera make it more enjoyable and easier to use, the menus and buttons don’t directly impact the process of composing and creating - which is the point of the camera.  To address those elements, Leica revisited the viewfinder.

A diagram depicting the inside components of historical Leica rangefinders. The basic mechanics are the same today as they were nearly 100 years ago.

The rangefinder found within a Leica M body is an extremely sophisticated device. It comprises dozens of small glass lenses provide the focusing system for the camera. 

Unlike most digital cameras, a rangefinder does not see “through the lens”. In other words the view you see looking through the eyepiece won’t change, irrespective of the lens that was mounted or if you left the lens cap in place. With a rangefinder, the display seen through the eyepiece includes a small patch that is moved left-right as the user focuses, and when the image is properly aligned in the viewfinder, the photograph will be in focus.

These mechanics sound difficult, and for someone who has not used a rangefinder before, the process can take some practice to get accustomed to using. 

Leica has been producing rangefinder systems for a century, so they have really mastered the art of delivering an elegant system for composing and creating images. However, the M10 greatly improved the rangefinder through a few modifications.

The entire field of view seen by the M10 was enlarged on the camera by nearly 30% and the camera’s magnification factor was slightly increased. Leica also increased the eye-relief distance (bet you didn’t know that was a thing!) by nearly 50%. 

That all sounds fine and good, but also sounds very abstract. It’s hard to visualize what a 30% increase in magnification factor will do to the viewfinder without seeing it. And that’s the problem…. The rangefinder on the M10 is so wonderful, you have to see it to believe it.

If you wear glasses - even sunglasses - the M10 is a huge improvement. As someone who always wears sunglasses (though I have had LASIK surgery to correct my vision), the M240 viewfinder was sometimes restrictive. If I was shooting a 28mm or 35mm lens, I could not always see the frame lines fully, so there was a little bit of wild-ass-guessing involved in composition. 

The M10 has drastically improved that. In fact, I could hardly believe how easy it was to see the entire viewfinder window even while wearing sunglasses. This viewfinder is so incredibly clear and expansive, you won’t be able to go back to the M240 once you use the M10. 

A New, Sexy Sensor

 

Ninja Shooter

When I got my Leica SL, I dubbed it a sniper camera. The near silent shutter of the SL allowed me to discretely capture my subjects with ninja-like stealth. When hiking with my husband (the Photo Sherpa), it was not uncommon for him to ask if I was even taking any pictures, as he couldn’t hear the shutter fire.

By comparison, the M240 sounded like a dump truck. It had a distinctive electronic click that was noticeable to anyone within earshot. The problem with that is that I like to be a discrete photographer when taking street images, so the loud shutter sometimes would “give me away.” It’s okay if someone sees me taking their photograph, but I like to have a chance to get two or three images before they notice me. With the loud(er) shutter of the M240, I rarely could get more than one shot before the subject had their attention drawn.

The M10 sounds very similar to the shutter of the Leica SL, though it uses different mechanics.

This is a welcome improvement to the Leica M10, and it makes a considerable difference when using the camera in street photography settings.

Juice - A Minor Trade-Off

One of the trade-offs with thinning the M10 was that the battery had to slim down in order to fit into the thinner body. Of course, when you make a battery smaller, the performance declines. 

That said, I am still fairly pleased with the battery performance of the M10, though it won’t set any records or win any awards. In a full day of shooting with the M10 in New York City, I was able to take several hundred shots on one battery - it lasted me about 6 hours of full-time shooting. Two fully charged batteries would be enough for one day. 

It is unfortunate that I have to carry a backup battery with the M10, but the reality is that I’m battery paranoid anyway, so even if the battery performance was wonderful, I’d still have a spare. In that case, it doesn’t really matter - I am carrying two batteries every day anyway.

Weather Performance

There is a saying about bad weather making for great photographs, and it’s true. For that reason, I often shoot in bitter cold, scorching heat, or an extreme downpour.  I need my camera to keep up with the challenges.

With the Leica M240, I was always a little skeptical of the rain. I never had any issues, but the open “wound” on the back of the camera where the electronic viewfinder connection would mount and the exposed top microphone holes were a point of concern when it came to rain. 

The M10 has resolved all those issues, and I can first-hand attest to the fact that this camera is not the least bit intimidated by the rain. I did a full day of shooting in New York where there was constant precipitation falling on the camera and experienced only the slightest of issues.

The Leica M10 is technically not weather sealed, but it is pretty hardy. Unfortunately the temperature outside on this particular New York day was just warm enough that the snow melted almost instantly when it made contact with my body and the camera, making my hands and the camera very wet. After several hours, this caused the viewfinder to fog completely.

During periodic breaks indoors, I wrapped the camera in a dry shirt with the hopes that it would help dry out the camera's viewfinder. That worked to an extent, but the remaining moisture would condense anytime I subjected it to a temperature change stepping between the outdoors and indoors. I was able to dry out the viewfinder quickly once I was done shooting for the day, and there were no lasting effects of the condensation. In fact, I suspect I will rarely encounter this problem, as it is an artifact of the temperature hovering right around freezing.

Staying Connected

With the Leica SL, I occasionally use the iPhone app to connect wirelessly to the camera. Normally I utilize this feature whenever I want to remote trigger the camera, but I have also levied this functionality when wishing to spot-check a particular image by downloading it to a mobile device. 

The Leica M10 incorporates the same wireless connectivity to a mobile device, and the operation is just as smooth and easy as it is with the Leica SL. In fact, my unofficial users guide to the Leica SL app applies equally to the Leica M app.

I suspect I will have less utility for the app with the M10 then I do with the SL, just because there won’t be as many occasions to find myself shooting wirelessly, but I do appreciate having the option to use that functionality should I need it. 

Farewell Video

Leica created a little bit of controversy when they released the M240 with video functionality, and I am happy to see that feature set removed completely from the M10. A Leica rangefinder was never designed as video tool, and I can only imagine that Oskar Biernak rolled over in his grave at the idea that his camera’s now included video.

I never took a video with the M240. As far as I am concerned, the video functions were in the way. Good riddance!

To Upgrade or Not: That is the Question!

I resisted upgrading for 10 months, electing to take the wait-and-see approach toward the M10. But in the end, the improved sensor, better ISO performance, revised ergonomics, and clearer viewfinder had me sold on the M10. On paper, none of the upgrades from the M240 seem all that impressive - or at least not impressive enough to justify the price. But the reality is that Leica has produced an incredible flagship camera, where the net effect of these improvements more than justifies the upgrade.

I was doomed to buy an M10 the first time I held it and looked through that improved viewfinder. Having now used the camera to create several thousand images, I am very glad I made the upgrade. 

Leica managed to capture something special in the M10 - it feels less like a camera than it does an extension of my eyes - and that is what photography is really about.