A Day Off & A New Camera
by Steve Wood
October 27, 2008
I took a day off last week to take some pictures with a new camera I bought recently. The new camera certainly isn't the camera of my dreams, but one necessitated when my old digital camera made a swift descent down our stairs.
I'd set my old Nikon Coolpix 4300 and a tea glass on the newel post upstairs to remind me to take them downstairs. Unfortunately, when I started to go downstairs a bit later, I forgot the items on the post and also didn't turn on the hall and stairway lights. It sorta reminded me of Clark Griswald in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. The Griswalds had a wobbly newel post that annoyed them all. In a fit of rage about something else, Clark Griswald was descending the stairs with a chainsaw. When he noticed the wobbly post, he simply cut off the top of it, saying "Fixed it."
Boy, did they go down in a hurry when I bumped them!
My Coolpix 4300 had all sorts of problems before its quick trip down the stairs. The battery door wouldn't close properly, causing the camera to frequently shut down without warning. Early in its "life," but of course, just out of warranty, it had to go into the shop for an expensive repair due to a "system error" that appears to be a design flaw in some Nikon digital cameras. And like many autofocus digital cameras of its time, the 4300 has a nasty delay between the time one depresses the shutter button and when it actually takes the photo that has helped me create hundreds of shots of people just after they've smiled or done something notable.
So when the Coolpix 4300 landed at the bottom of the stairs, I almost felt like saying, "Fixed it." The funny thing is that the camera fared far better than the tea glass. My respect for the 4300's ruggedness rose considerably as neither its lens nor its display were cracked by the fall. With a bit of work I was able to get the lens, jammed in place from the fall, to extend again fairly regularly.
Even though the Coolpix has taken lots of great sunsets, landscapes, garden shots, and still images like the one at left of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis, its trip down the stairs was all the excuse I needed to move into full camera buying overdrive. Thirty years ago I worked for a time as a wedding photographer and became a high end camera junkie. While I've controlled that addiction for a long time, like any addiction, it never goes away.
I went a bit nuts looking for cameras. At first, I tried to find Nikon models compatible with my existing Nikon accessories. The Nikon Coolpix P5100 fit the bill, and I even had one in my "shopping cart" before reason set in and the price ($280) put me off. In another wave of insanity, I drooled over the Canon Digital Rebel SLR of my dreams. I really could have done the $655 for it, but knew I'd then be on the hunt for Canon's super Speedlite
($370), a longer zoom lens
($650), and a sturdy, new tripod. So...
I backed off all the crazy high-end stuff and found a dandy, plastic Nikon Coolpix P60 for $135 on Amazon. It definitely won't survive a fall down the stairs, but the controls are similar to my old Coolpix, it has double the megapixels (8.1), and it has a spot metering option which I really love.
After taking a few of the usual shots of the garden, pets, the kids and grandkids, I waited for a sunny day to give the new camera a workout. I wanted to grab a few file shots of farmers combining soybeans and corn and got a fairly sunny day on Wednesday. I packed extra rechargeable batteries for my phototour and even took the Coolpix 4300 along with its 3X teleconverter lens mounted.
I started off at Merom Bluff, a natural formation near us where the land on the Indiana side of the Wabash river is a hundred or so feet higher than in Illinois. It's a scenic spot for sightseers (and lovers:-), and the site of the annual Merom Bluff Chautauqua in June.
I used this opportunity to check out the P60's zooming capabilities. Marathon Oil has a refinery about ten miles away as the crow flies in Robinson, Illinois, which is visible from the bluff. I did a partial zoom (about 3.5x) and then cropped the photo for the shot at right. The refinery provides a lot of good jobs for this area, and is probably at least partially responsible for some of our gorgeous sunsets!
I headed north from Merom on Indiana 63 in search of farmers combining their fields. I didn't have much luck on the way to Terre Haute, Indiana, other than one guy who was just finishing a field of corn.
As I made a return trip home via US 41, Indiana 246 and 48, it appeared that a lot of folks were just getting done with a field. It reminded me of the strange feeling that overtakes you when you're finishing the last field of the season. You can hear every rattle of the combine, feel every bump, smell something burning, and your mind tells you that you'll never get done before something breaks!
It also reminded me of just how dusty and dirty a job combining soybeans is. I took the shot below with the old Coolpix 4300.
My barber just this week was complaining about farm subsidies. While he was carrying on, I was thinking of how dangerous farming can be. My mind went to a December night when I found myself lying under the bean head of a running combine trying to clean the head. Stupid mistakes like that are how farmers get killed. I realized that late night what I was doing, got out from under the bean head (which can drop with a hydraulic failure), and called it a night.
I'm not sure I really got the shot I wanted, but it was a nice fall trip. I'm sure a few farmers wondered what I was doing.
I also learned a lot about my new camera, which was really a lot of what the day was about. The Nikon Coolpix P60 uses two AA batteries, whereas the 4300 uses a Nikon proprietary battery and sucks the life from them incredibly quickly. I still haven't changed the original batteries that came with the P60!
I also like to use the P60's electronic viewfinder instead of the LCD screen, which may account for getting such good battery life. Compared to the Coolpix 4300's viewfinder that didn't show any information, the P60's electronic viewfinder has all the essential information you need. It's a critical tool for outdoor shots on sunny days, as the LCD screen, while fairly bright, isn't bright enough for really sunny days. And you can turn off all the indicators in either the LCD or the electronic viewfinder, allowing full concentration on image compostion.
The P60 feels a little small for my aging, somewhat arthritic hands. Some of the controls are located on the lower right back of the camera body. Several times I've had a start when the shutter didn't work, only to find that I was inadvertently pressing one of the controls with my grip.
The P60 also doesn't meter quite as well as the old 4300 in low light situations.
The fall foliage shot above and the oil well shot (below left in "Sign of the Times") required a good bit of lightening in Photoshop to get usable images. Both were taken on a cloudy afternoon.
Under low light flash conditions, I found the camera's image sharpness to be less than I'd like. Our cat, Molly, alerted me to a garter snake that had gotten into the basement. While Molly's image holds up pretty well at maximum size, the snake is not clearly focused. I guess that could just be narrow depth of field, but I wasn't thrilled with the results in any case. Of course, maybe my hand was a bit shaky because of the snake.
For everyday flash situations, I found the P60 to do a fairly respectable job. It does recharge the flash very slowly, limiting rapid fire multiple flash shots. It also has a red eye reduction setting that I should have used in the shot at left of one of my grandsons, Brady, and my wife, Anne. Fortuantely, iPhoto's redeye correction tool took care of Brady's redeye in the automatic mode. I usually have to revert to the manual redeye correction setting in iPhoto.
I'm really not sure yet about the P60's color sensitivity and saturation. In the sunset below, the sky was actually a bit more red than the yellow-orange recorded in the photo. Again, this was obviously a low light situation, but I was shooting in the "night landscape" mode. There's also a "dusk/dawn" mode I'll need to try.
I'm definitely not going to rush to judgment on the color issue, however, as the shot below of our fall lettuce and kale in partial shade rendered the colors properly with excellent saturation.
Sign of the Times
The oil well shown at left is on our neighbors' property, just a half a mile down the road. It has sat unused for years, but when gas topped $4 per gallon, a work crew appeared and started it up. With prices settling down a bit, the well is inactive once again. Of course, maybe it didn't produce, but it would appear it was shut off until the price goes back up.
I've noticed several other old well heads in our area being serviced, apparently for a return to service. Farmers have harvested around the well heads well before taking in the rest of the field to allow access to them.
It would appear that the oil folks expect prices to increase from the current $2.50 per gallon range back up to previous levels.
Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the Nikon Coolpix P60. I like it, but I don't love it!
As I wrote earlier, mine ran $135 from Amazon, but their price varies day to day. Over the few days I've worked on this column, I've watched the price descend from $134.99 to $129.99, and at this writing is at $124.99! While it's a bit unfair, I find myself comparing the P60 to my Nikon Coolpix 4300 (2003 price - $399) and various professional grade cameras I've used over the years (Mamiya RB-67, Mamiya Sekor Auto XTL, Canon Digital Rebel). I'm still shaking it out, of course, and had I paid the $200-299 other vendors are asking, I'd be a bit disappointed.
What I didn't do here was compare it to comparably priced Canon, Olympus, and other brand cameras. My need to have a usable camera quickly without a whole new learning curve pretty well limited me to the Nikon brand.
But for now, I give the Nikon a qualified thumbs-up. If you want stars or such, maybe three and a half out of five. Of course, if I drop it or knock it down the stairway...oh, my.
After two months of using my new Nikon Coolpix P60, I've found a couple of real problems and a whole lot of joys with it. I was just going to add a quick note here, but ended up writing a whole column about it.
Here are some links to reviews of the Nikon Coolpix P60. Possibly more revealing, though, are the buyer reviews on Amazon. Most of the reviews are positive, although several users have experienced early (1 week - 2 months) lens errors. Others aren't satisfied with the durability of the camera.
Odd Thoughts While Shaving Between Paragraphs
I wrote in a previous Busman's Holiday column that Annie and I weren't quite sure whether I was really retired this time or just taking a break before doing something else. It appears that something else will be running this and one other web site for the time being.
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©2008 Steven L. Wood