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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Drive By Shooting
by Jim McGee

We've all had the experience of stumbling across that perfect moment. The light is just right. A wonderful vista lies before us or that perfect human moment is unfolding - and we find ourselves without a camera!

For a while I always traveled with a spare camera and a couple of lenses in my car. The camera was one of my old manual Nikons, the lenses covered 35-70mm and 80-200mm respectively and an old beat up tripod was thrown in the trunk. Neither the body or lenses were state of the art, but I reasoned I could cover most photo situations with this rig, and if it were always in the car it would always be there when I needed it.

In practice there were a couple of problems with this approach. The worst being film. Great photos don't always occur in perfect light and sometimes they occur at night. Worse those "grab shots" generally only use up a couple of frames at a time. A 36 frame roll was typically in the camera for a long time. Load 100 speed for a great daylight shot and you won't get fast moving hand held shots or evening shots. Load 800 speed and you find you can't get shutter speeds fast enough to get the shot in bright light. A neutral density filter soon found it's way into the camera bag. 

A lunchtime stroll along the Delaware River
on a warm September day found this fellow
enjoying a quiet river view under the shade
of a spreading oak tree. 

The shot was under exposed by a stop
to hold detail in the water, letting the tree
fall into silhouette.

But even as recently as five years ago that was not a great compromise. Back then 800 speed film was incredibly grainy by today's standards. 

Another consideration was the accumulated effect of heat on the film. It gets hot inside a car in the summer. Since the film might be loaded in a camera stored in that heat for several weeks at a time I worried about losing any shots I'd already taken. 

Those long waits before you had enough shots to get the roll developed also took away a lot of the "instant" gratification that comes from shooting a roll and seeing the results the next day.

Then there were worries about theft. A camera bag sitting on the front seat is an obvious invitation to thieves. But keeping the camera bag in the trunk meant it wouldn't be handy for those sudden impulse shots. Move the camera into and out of the trunk every time you park? When your mind is on other things you tend to forget. Somehow it seemed the camera bag was always in the wrong place.

In the end I was less than thrilled with the results of using fast film and with the hassle of constantly moving gear in and out of the trunk; so I found myself carrying the camera less and less. In the end I only really took it along when I thought I'd be driving through a scenic area and I missed a lot of potential shots.

What kind of shot can you get at night on a bouncing ferry?

Reach into your pocket and fire
away to find out.

A pop of fill flash freezes the foreground while light trails and 
the slightly blurred rail provide
a sense of motion.

That was Before Digital 
That was before digital arrived on the scene. I'm not talking about Canon 10D's or Nikon D2's. I'm talking about little point and shoot digitals that still offer you real shooting control, a tripod socket and fill flash. Every manufacturer sells one for a couple of hundred dollars these days. They have a variety of features, resolutions over 3.0 megapixels and they all offer two important features - small size and instant gratification.

I've become a fan of the Dimage Xt because I have one, but any small camera will fit the bill. I keep the camera in my glove box along with a little desktop tripod so it's always handy and it drops nicely into a pocket when I'm out walking around.

A huge advantage of digital is the ability to change ISO at will so my camera is always "loaded with the right film" no matter what the light. And I can shoot color or black and white at will. Best of all I find myself carrying a camera more often and capturing more images because I can. Best of all the images are basically free. To be honest I don't print many of them either on my photo printer or at a photo lab so all this is basically cheap entertainment. Every so often I upload the images onto my hard drive where, some day, I'll actually sort through them all.

Not Gallery Ready 
Those of you who've read my columns for a while know that I'm a stickler for image quality. So you might be wondering how I could be so fascinated by a class of cameras whose image quality is significantly less than either film or digital SLRs.

The answer is that I'm capturing these images for the fun of it. I can get 5x7 prints for my office and with a little massaging 8x10s but I doubt I'd go much larger.

If I'm honest with myself I'm not going to tote around an SLR everywhere I go so these are images I'd have normally "lost" anyway. The ease and low cost of digital (after buying the camera) means I'm free to play and experiment with new ideas - ideas that will eventually find their way into my more serious photography.

Sometimes a pattern of light and color catches your eye. A heavy rain left the colors of the leaves and tree trunks unusually saturated. 

This image was underexposed by 2/3rds of a stop and flash was disabled.

The structural patterns and contrast of light and dark stopped me in my tracks in the entrance hall of New York's Javits Center. I stepped my exposures down from the meter reading to a full stop under where I was able to hold 
detail in the lighted kiosk but lost it
in the structure which I later masked off and brought up to correct exposure using Paint Shop Pro.

Flash was disabled to ensure 
correct exposure.

Staying Sharp 
The final and perhaps most important detail is that the little digital helps me to stay sharp. Your eye improves noticeably when you're shooting every day; something that my responsibilities at the office keep me from doing. Always having access to a camera helps me keep my eye to the viewfinder and that keeps me a bit sharper for those days when I'm getting out to do more serious shooting.

So if you've got access to a little digital try dropping it in your glove box for a week or two. You might be surprised at what you find out there.

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