There’s a Sherlock Holmes story that turns on something that didn’t happen. Hold that thought.
Last night, at the request of the celebrating priest, I photographed a Christmas Eve service. Not wanting to be intrusive, I left the big lenses at home and packed light: D4, 14mm f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8, tripod, cube head. I thought about slinging the a7R over one shoulder but nixed the idea because of the loud shutter, and the fact that the very dim light would slow down the autofocus. I set the D4’s drive mode to Q, which gave me a fairly quiet shutter, and allowed me to pick the moment when it recocked. This is a nice mode of operation that I understand Canon shooters have enjoyed since the beginning of digital time, but it’s a recent addition to the Nikonian world.
I used the 14 handheld. I set the ISO to 1250, which is about twice the unity gain ISO, and put the camera in manual exposure mode, with a shutter speed of 1/80 and an aperture of f/5.6. With a lens as wide as the 14, the minimum acceptable shutter speed is determined not only by the photographer’s ability to hold the camera steady (I use 1/(4 * focal length)), but also by subject motion. In the extremely contrasty church lighting, the manual exposure settings I chose gave me images with a few scattered highlights on the right of the histogram, but average exposures about two or three stops underexposed. I figured I’d push the images in Lightroom and let the program add a “shoulder” to the highlight transitions which I wouldn’t get if cranked up the ISO in the camera.
After about 20 minutes of working with the 14, I had an uncomfortable feeling. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. I thought for a minute, and it occurred to me that the autofocus hadn’t hunted once, even when I pointed it at some really dark and low-contrast areas. I looked on the lens barrel. Sure enough, it was set to M. How did that happen? I never use that lens in manual focusing mode; it’s way too hard to focus a lens that short on the D4. Oh, that’s right, I’d used the 14 on the a7R to make the images for this blog post, and manual focus was the only option. Between how dark it was, my aging eyes, and the depth of field of the 14, I couldn’t see any blurriness in the finder.
I tried to see what distance the lens had been set for, but it was too dark. Chagrined, I twisted the ring back to A, and started to reshoot what I could of the images I’d made with the lens set for manual focusing.
I’ve been making photographs for publication by others for close to 60 years, and, over that time, I’ve become quite confident – probably too confident – of my ability to find myself in any situation and come back with the shots. This is different from making art, in which case I usually have only moderate confidence that what I’m doing is working; and that’s the way I think it should be.
Over the time I’ve been photographing on assignment, I’ve watched the equipment become more and more bulletproof. Forty years ago I wouldn’t have thought of not having a backup body, and yesterday I didn’t give it a thought. With the exception of the Leica M240, which is prone to intermittent and seemingly-random lockups, I trust my cameras not to let me down in a pinch. Traveling is a different situation, but when I’m home I usually only take two bodies when I want the convenience of not having to change lenses.
So, given my experience and the reliability of current gear, it was a surprise to me – and a good lesson — that I almost blew an assignment.
On this Christmas Day, I’d like to wish all my readers a happy and safe holiday season. It’s been a pleasure writing this blog for all of you (and it looks like there could be 50,000 page views this month, thanks to the popularity of the a7R material), and I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading it.