My Gear – Chapter 13
Nikon D40

Nikon D40The two Panasonics were very capable cameras. They and cameras like them were sometimes referred to as “super zooms” and sometimes as “bridge” cameras. That second name comes from the view that they “bridge the gap” between simple point-and-shoot cameras and more versatile SLRs with interchangeable lenses and such.  I guess that’s a pretty good view because that’s exactly what the FZ8 did for me. It led me straight down the road and right across the bridge to SLR land.

I had been in SLR land before. Back in the ’70s and ’80s I owned a couple of Olympus OM-1s. The second one had sat idle for awhile when it, like the first one, was stolen. I didn’t replace it. I remained camera-less for several years then decided that I needed to take some pictures while traveling in Florida. That’s when I bought the little Nikon zoom film camera that I mentioned using for “real” pictures along side my first digital.

Previous My Gear installments have told the tale of my climb (or descent) from the barely usable 0.35MP Agfa to the very usable 5.0 then 7.2MP Panasonics. Using the Panasonics reminded me a little of those OM-1 days and I started thinking about digital SLRs. One friend had recently bought a Nikon D50, another a Nikon D40x, and both had brought out a little camera envy in me. The D40 was Nikon’s entry level SLR. It came out near the beginning of 2007 and something called the D40x arrived just a few months later. I believe I even considered these cameras when I bought the FZ8 Panasonic in July of of that year but the price difference was still a bit much for me.

The D40x was a premium 10MP version of the 6MP D40 whose introduction pushed down on the price of the D40 and my visions of detachable lenses were further fueled by some of the deals being offered. Although I figured it was still a year or two in the future, I decided that my next camera would likely be an SLR. That’s about when I dropped the FZ8.

It’s for certain that I didn’t drop it on purpose but there could be some doubt about the purity of the thoughts that followed. It didn’t immediately occur to me that the damage might be covered  by warranty. Then, once it did, I had to get authorization and send the camera off to possibly be repaired. I am, of course, scanning camera ads the whole time. I had a road trip approaching and I convinced myself that I absolutely had to have a good camera for it and that the Panasonic would probably not be returned in time. I was wrong about the Panasonic. It arrived in good working order the day before I left on the trip. But I was right on the other thing. I am totally convinced that I needed the Nikon D40 that I purchased.

For $791.40, I got the D40 body, 18-55mm & 55-200mm zoom lenses, and a small flash. The Nikon was bigger and heavier than the Panasonic but not horribly so. Though I was at the very bottom of Nikon’s tall line of SLRs, I was once again in SLR land.

The little flash, a Nikon Speedlight SB-400, was also at the bottom of the Nikon line. It wasn’t as powerful as its pricier siblings but it was a bit more powerful than the D40’s popup flash (GN 21 vs. 17), sat a little further above the lens, and offered bounce capabilities. It was also small enough to fit in a pocket or into a belt bag along with an extra lens.

Today’s Digital SLR land is quite a bit different from the film SLR land I remember. In the 1980s, automatic exposure was kind of costly and not always satisfactory. Auto focus was an exotic blip on the leading edge of photography. Today these features and a lot more automatic wizardry are present in virtually every camera and cell phone made. The vast majority of situations are handled quite well by a modern camera running on full auto pilot and that includes SLRs. The manual controls are nice when you need them. You don’t need them much.

My Gear – Chapter 12 — Lumix DMC-FZ8

 

My Gear – Chapter 12
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8

Panasonic DMC-FZ8In the year and a half between my buying the DMC-FZ5 and banging it against the ground in Missouri, Panasonic had been improving the line and dropping the price. In June of 2007, I was able to buy the latest model, the FZ8, for $340 or roughly fifty dollars less than I’d paid for the FZ5. Resolution was up from 5.0 MP to 7.2 MP and manual focus was added. Overall, the changes were more evolutionary than revolutionary, the size was up just a smidgen, and the weight was still under eleven ounces. I had an even more capable camera and I didn’t have to be completely retrained.

The FZ8 has something called “extended optical zoom” that moves the upper end from 12X to 18X when a smaller picture size is used. I’ve always shot at the highest resolution so have never used this extended mode. Maybe I should try it. That’s a whopping 648mm (35mm equivalent) at maximum zoom.

I use past tense to talk about acquiring the FZ8 but present tense to talk about using it. This five year old camera still sees a lot of action although its service hasn’t been entirely uninterrupted. About six months into its life, it got dropped onto the concrete floor of the garage. The distance was only a few inches but the concrete didn’t give at all. The result was an FZ8 whose functionality matched my FZ5. The lens was jammed and powering on the camera was futile. There was one big difference between the two, however. The FZ8 was still in warranty.

I believe I had to pay for shipping to the repair center and there was no guarantee that repair would be covered or even possible. The camera was gone for several weeks and. for a variety of marginally valid reasons, I bought a replacement while it was in the shop. But it did come back with a note about something with a big name being replaced and it has worked flawlessly ever since.

The premature “replacement” was an SLR which will appear in the next My Gear installment. It was a relatively small SLR but it was still considerably heavier and bulkier than the Panasonic. The FZ8 is small and light enough to use easily with one hand and its image stabilization may even help a little with those one-handed driving-down-the-road shots. That is also one of the few situations where being able to switch from the viewfinder to the 2.5 inch LCD is useful. Like the FZ5, the FZ8 fits into a belt bag and it often goes with me, quite unobtrusively, into restaurants and such. Many of the food filled plates that appear in the trip journals were captured with the Panasonic. A few were even captured on the built in memory. It’s only about 27 MB but that’s enough to record a few pictures and save me a walk to the car when I’ve forgotten to check that a memory card is in place.

My Gear – Chapter 11 — Garmin Quest

 

My Gear – Chapter 11
Garmin Quest

My relationship with GPS receivers took a whole new direction when I got my a Garmin Quest. Some may recall that Garmin described my previous unit, the GPS III Plus, as having “cartographic capabilities”. It did not do routing of any sort. Before buying the Quest in June of 2006, I “test drove” a friend’s GPS V which Garmin called a “versatile navigator”. I believe it was. It did routing and may have served my purpose but it had been discontinued in January and getting current maps for it was already a bit of a problem. That could only get worse. At the end of the day, I opted to spend $345 for a new Quest.

The Quest had appeared in late 2004 and there was already a Quest 2 model when I made my purchase. The difference was memory. The Quest 2 had enough of it to hold the detail map for the whole USA. In fact, that detail map, City Select North America, was preloaded onto the Quest 2. The Quest came with a CD and enough memory to hold something on the order of Ohio or Indiana, or a strip crossing two or three states. The Quest was noticeably cheaper and I wanted the CD for off-GPS routing anyway. It seemed the obvious choice.

The Quest did require feeding when on a long trip and it was possible to overdrive whatever maps were loaded but it was otherwise ideal. It had a small color screen and a speaker. Its push-button controls were very similar to the familiar ones of the GPS III Plus. I could “Find” something with it then request that it “Route to” what I’d found. It would then guide me to my destination with visual and spoken directions. It did not speak street names, as some units were doing at the time, but street names were displayed. The voice (female and always calm no matter how many times I ignored her) might say “Turn right in 500 feet” and a glance at the screen would show the street name along with the zoomed in map. Even better than the Quest telling me how to get somewhere was me telling it how I wanted to get somewhere and it telling me how to do that in real-time.

I typically don’t merely want to get somewhere. I want to get there along a specific, perhaps historic, route. I don’t want the “quickest” or “shortest” route. I want “my” route. The one I carefully plotted on my PC. In this, the Quest was a willing and capable partner. There were some issues in getting my chosen path to the unit in a form that matched its maps but the complications came from the way I chose to do things and not from any Quest shortcomings. Once a route was properly tweaked and downloaded, the Quest would visually and verbally guide me along. As a more-often-than-not solo traveler. I appreciate this deeply.

Popping the Quest from its cradle was extremely easy and sliding it into a pocket just as easy. Its twenty hours of battery meant you really could do a serious walkabout and not lose your car. Even though I eventually bought an external antenna to boost reception on rainy days, the built in one was generally more than enough. In short, the Garmin Quest was as close to perfection as any GPS receiver I’ve had contact with.

It was maps that prompted me to replace it. In 2008 I bought a factory refurbished Quest because it came bundled with the latest detail map and was priced below buying just the map from Garmin. As it turned out, not only was this the latest City Select Map; It was the last. Current model Garmin GPS receivers use a map product called City Navigator. To an outside and somewhat casual observer, Garmin appears to abandon one line of development for another more often than seems necessary or wise. Since the Quest was so close to perfect, I assumed that newer models would be evolutionary and even closer. I was shocked and a little angered to discover that current models seem to be totally new developments that in some areas are much less capable than the 2004 model Quest. In my heart I know it’s doomed to fail but if anyone wants to start a “Bring Back the Quest” petition, I’ll sign.

My Gear — Chapter 10 — Toshiba Satellite A105

 

My Gear – Chapter 10
Toshiba Satellite A105

Toshiba Satellite My HP Pavilion was misbehaving by September of 2005 but I somehow put off buying a replacement until April of 2006. The problem was a motherboard crack that affected the power. I could minimize its surprise shut-downs by keeping it stationary so I nursed it through the winter by doing just that and using the aged but trusty Toshiba Portege from time to time. Because both the Portege and the Libretto had served me well, when I finally I went shopping it was specifically for a Toshiba. For $850 I got a Satellite A105 with an 80 GB hard drive and a 1.7 GHz Intel Celeron processor running Windows XP. I believe it might have come home with 512 MB RAM but I soon brought that up to the maximum 2 GB. This was a pretty nice machine.

I suspect this was about the time laptops were really hitting their stride in terms of popularity. In the world of consumer electronics, popularity often leads to economies of scale (once the leading edge gouging is over) and competition also drives prices down. Just two years before, I’d paid close to $1400 for a comparable laptop and that wasn’t particularly expensive. Nor was the $850 price of the Satellite particularly cheap. By 2006, laptops were well on their way to becoming a commodity just as desktop computers had before them.

I believe my faith in Toshiba was justified. Although the HP Pavilion was a little more than two years old when I replaced it, it was really limping for the final six months. The Satellite was still working when I retired it after nearly three years. It made me nervous though. It had taken to overheating unless given lots of open space. The teeth or bars had long since broken out of the cooling vent on the side and there were a couple of real cracks elsewhere in the plastic case. Wiggling the power cable could interrupt the flow of electricity and I feared this indicated a broken connection at the computer end. The Portege had once shown similar symptoms. That problem had clearly originated with cracks in the case and had required some bartered for expert repair.

I’m quite happy with the Satellite’s successor but I may have, in hindsight, retired the Satellite prematurely. I imagine the cooling issues could have been solved with a good cleaning and I’ve become convinced that the power problems came from a break in the cable and not a break inside the computer. The case continued to disintegrate making it likely that continued living on the road would have eventually broke something of importance but it still boots up and could possibly still perform in a pinch.

My Gear – Chapter 9 — Nikon Coolpix 3200

My Gear – Chapter 9
Nikon Coolpix 3200

Nikon Coolpix 3200Unlike most of my camera purchases, the Panasonic DMC-FZ5 was not a replacement but an addition. The Canon A75 was still functioning and I intended it to be my “pocket camera”. That didn’t last long. After the cap popped off of the shutter button, taking a picture required pushing something into the small hole that had been below the cap. Although the camera otherwise functioned quite well, digging up and inserting a paper clip for every picture was a serious impediment to spontaneity. In March of 2006, I gave the A75 away and, still believing I needed a true pocket camera, bought a slightly used Nikon Coolpix 3200 for $70. The model had been on the market for a couple of years with an initial list price around $300. It runs on good old AA batteries, uses SD memory, and even has some built-in memory to store several images if necessary. It has 3.2 megapixel resolution and a a 3X zoom. Particularly endearing to me is the fact that it has something becoming quite rare in small digital cameras: a viewfinder.

I still have the 3200 and it still works. I still carry it in my computer bag but it has been a long time since I slipped it into a pocket. One reason is that the FZ5 and its immediate successor fit comfortably in a belt bag that I wear a lot. A second is that cell phone cameras have long been capable of meeting my “I’d rather have a crappy picture than no picture” requirements. I have a vague recollection of actually using a cell phone photo in a trip report but I can’t remember what it was so maybe I really didn’t.

I have used quite a few pictures from the 3200. In the days before I realized how easy it was to carry the FZ5 in the belt bag, the 3200 was in my pocket a lot and got used a little. Then, on a trip in Missouri, it got a field promotion to Number One Image Recording Device.

It was the third day of a four day outing on Boone’s Lick Road. The FZ5 came with a fairly nice neck strap but that seemed unnecessarily awkward to me so I fitted the lightweight Panasonic with a wrist strap. The strap was around my right wrist and the camera in my hand as I headed down the path to the spring at Boone’s Lick. The path was basically dirt and gravel but there were a few wood fronted steps at the steeper parts. It had been raining, the wood was wet, and I slipped on one of the steps. No prizes will be awarded for guessing which hand I used to catch myself or what I banged against the ground. The lens had been extended and that’s the way it has stayed to this very day. Cycling power on the camera triggers a soft whir as it attempts to retract the lens but it soon gives up and shuts down.

The little 3200 answered the call and performed admirably through the remainder of the trip. Among the images it captured are the only pictures I have of the Missouri Madonna of the Trail Monument in Lexington.

My Gear – Chapter 8 — Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5


Flippdaddy's MugI acquired some new gear today by joining the Mug Club at the Flipdaddy’s down the street; The one with 36 taps. There’s no price break but member’s mugs are several ounces larger than the standard glasses which means I can now get drunker and fatter at no extra cost.

My Gear – Chapter 8
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5This was my 2005 Christmas present to myself. It was clearly a step up in many regards but it was also a step away from some characteristics I’d cherished in my previous digital cameras. The change in form is significant. Although the Lumix DMC-FZ5’s height and width were each but a fraction of an inch larger than the Canon A75, its depth was well over double that of the Canon; 3.3 inches vs. 1.26 inches. This was not a camera to slip into a jeans pocket as was my habit. Another big difference bordered on sacrilege. This new acquisition used box shaped proprietary batteries. No more gas station plastic-wrapped alkaline safety net.

I did not give up these things lightly. Even though my insistence on AA battery powered gadgetry had rarely paid off it did provide peace of mind. Claims that the proprietary batteries were good for 300 pictures on a charge were reassuring and I bought peace of mind by immediately adding two spare batteries and an AC/DC charger.

The size thing, however, meant real compromise. I had found myself wanting a longer lens more and more often. The fairly new class of cameras called compact super zooms tugged at that want. Canon, Nikon, Sony, and others all had them. When a co-worker brought in his Sony DSC-H1 to “show & tell” I was impressed and started shopping. The DMC-FZ5 got my attention right away. With the exception of the one dimension, it was barely larger than my Canon A75 and less than a half ounce heavier. Any one who has seen my trip reports knows that I like to shoot pictures of the road ahead. One handed over the windshield when I can; Through it when I can’t. The lightweight Panasonic was a good fit for that sort of thing and the fact that it had image stabilization was a definite plus.

There was also a change in recording media but it was hardly traumatic. The Agfa 780c had used something called Smart Media. The two Canons used Compact Flash. The Panasonic required SD (Secure Digital). None of these devices are terribly expensive. Buying a couple new cards when you buy a new camera won’t bump the bill significantly and you will probably want to buy a card or two even if your old ones are compatible with the new camera. Why? Because they’ve probably shrunk. They still contain the same number of megabytes or gigabytes but the new camera likely produces larger picture files so that those megabytes and gigabytes fill up faster. Files from the 5 megapixel Panasonic  were considerably larger than those from the 3.2 megapixel Canon so I had no qualms about buying different — and higher capacity — media cards.

A longer lens was the reason I first started thinking about this sort of camera. The 12X zoom on the FZ5 was the 35mm equivalent of 36-432mm. It was made by Leica and that probably sold me as much as anything. A digital camera is made of electronics and optics. Panasonic makes some good electronics. Leica makes some great optics. This could be a decent camera.

It was. I was very pleased with my Christmas present even though it had a price tag right at $400. My faith in digital photography had grown significantly. Like much of the world, I was starting to believe that it might really have a shot at replacing film. I still didn’t have a camera that could do magazine covers but this one could do the stuff between them just fine.

My Gear – Chapter 7 — Canon Powershot A75


The need for spare batteries coupled with my bargain seeking tendencies led me to an independent vendor with whom I continue doing business to this day. He is an eBay merchant named OrphanBiker. The name comes, not from the seller being an orphan himself, but from his being attracted to unusual motorcycles that some call orphans.
“…the more obscure the better” is how he describes his taste in bikes.

My first order, placed the same day I bought the FZ5, was for those two batteries and charger I mentioned. Admittedly, a charge on these batteries did not last quite as long as with the genuine Panasonic version but they otherwise worked just as well and cost considerably less. The charger I liked much more than the one that came with the camera. It was a small cube with a foldaway AC plug and a detached cable for DC operation. I have since gone to OrphanBiker for batteries and chargers for other cameras and chargers for cell phones. The only problems I’ve ever experienced have been internal breaks in a couple of the cables after a year or two of use. People who don’t twist, pull, kink, and pinch their cables like I do probably won’t see even that.

My Gear – Chapter 7
Canon Powershot A75

Canon Powershot A75Late in the spring of 2004, the lens on my A20 zoomed its last. As I recall, it was stuck somewhere in the middle of its range. It still took pictures but the lack of zoom was irritating and the permanently protruding lens made it awkward to pocket. Besides, there had been three years of progress since my last camera purchase and I was ready to take advantage of it.

I had been quite happy with the A20 so I went for what was essentially the current model equivalent. But those three years had not only added about a million pixels, available manual controls, and video recording to the camera, they also shaved more than a hundred bucks off the price. The A20 had cost $384 in 2001. The A75, in June of 2004, was $276.

The lens was the same 35mm-105mm zoom and the recording media was still Compact Flash. More importantly, power still came from standard AA batteries. I owned several gadgets — GPS, voice recorder, FRS radios — that used AAs and I owned a couple fist fulls of rechargeables along with an AC/DC charger. Plus, in my mind, it was crucial to use standard batteries so I could grab fresh ones at any gas station if necessary. In my five years with the Powershots and seven years with an AA powered Garmin, I think I did that maybe twice with the cameras and once with the GPS. Of course, the GPS was usually powered directly from the car so one set of batteries was almost always being charged.

I guess it was this camera that got me to thinking that digital photography might actually have a future. Until now, I figured digital cameras were great for pictures to post on a website or email to friends and relatives but film was still needed for any kind of printing. The A75 couldn’t produce magazine cover images but a 3×5 or 4×6 print looked just fine.

My Gear — Chapter 6 — HP Pavilion ze4000

 

My Gear – Chapter 6
HP Pavilion ze4000

HP PavilionDespite this seeming to be the most expensive computer I’ve ever owned, I remember very little about it. Oh, I definitely remember owning it and its painful demise. I just don’t remember any technical details about it. I do remember that its purchase was triggered by the need to replace a desktop PC.

Prior to buying this for what is now an unbelievable $1369 dollars in February of 2004, I did all my heavy lifting on some sort of relatively bulky desktop unit. I recall a Compaq and an Acer and there were other forgotten workhorses on my desk over the years. (The first was a Radio Shack IBM XT clone but that’s a whole different story.) The small size and low power consumption required for portability come at a price and a big crude tower offered a lot more compute power than a laptop at a lot less cost. Though the old Portege remained adequate and would still see action after the HP arrived, it was straining. When the current desktop developed some major problems, I decided to invest in a machine capable of handling everything.

I know that model number in the title isn’t exactly right. ze4000 was the designation for a family of computers with many members. I think mine might have been a 41xx but I’m not even sure of that. I’m relatively certain that it had a Pentium 4-M running Windows XP but at what speed I don’t know and I have no idea on the hard disk or memory size, either. Whatever the numbers were, they were big enough to handle all of my needs. Since the purchase of the HP, no desktop computer has entered my home.

Saying that I did all of my heavy lifting at home isn’t entirely true. I did do some of my day job at home and used my own computer for some serious word processing and software development. I also did all of the route plotting and as much photo editing as possible at home. But, of course, the bulk of the photo editing had to take place in motels as I traveled. Resizing a photo is pretty processor intensive. So is rotating one. Compared to the Portege, which was OK at both jobs, the HP was lightening fast. Lugging around the relatively heavy HP seemed justified by the difference in time spent prepping pictures for upload.

But all that lugging took its toll on the HP. In the fall of 2005, it began shutting down at inopportune times. In what was a sort of last hurrah for the Portege and a definite testament to its portability, I took both computers along on a west coast fly-and-drive trip in case the HP became unusable. After determining that it was motion that killed the HP, it became a tabletop rather than laptop computer. The Portege did see some use on that trip but most of the photo work was handled by the HP on a hard surface using light keystrokes.

Back home, I babied the HP through a few more months but finally went for some professional help. Even the pros were initially stumped but a second visit turned up a crack in the motherboard. Curing it would require replacing the board at a price approaching that of a new machine. The HP ze something-or-other was done.

My Gear – Chapter 5 — Toshiba Portege 300CT

My Gear – Chapter 5
Toshiba Portege 300CT

Toshiba Portege 300CTHaving blown nearly 400 bucks on a camera, I returned to the used market for a laptop and picked up a Toshiba Portege 300CT for $251 in June of 2001. A 1.5 GB hard disk was standard for this model but this unit had been upgraded to 4.1 GB. It also contained the maximum 64 MB of memory. The processor was a 133 MHz Intel Pentium. It was running Linux when I got it but I installed Windows 98 almost immediately.

The 12 VDC power supply I had purchased for the Libretto worked just fine with the Portege. I had plotted my version of my great-grandparents’ trip using Microsoft Streets & Trips and planned to actually use the Portege in the car to follow the plotted route. In theory, the Garmin III Plus GPS I owned could be used to drive Streets & Trips (CORRECTION: My recollection was wrong. While Streets & Trips was used in some of the planning, it was almost certainly DeLorme’s Street Atlas that was used with the GPS in the car.) and I had the cables to make all the power and data connections but the result was a tangle of wire that was truly scary in the small cockpit of the Corvette. So, for $167, I bought a Hyperdata GPS unit specifically to connect to the computer. This was a brand new model that was powered through its USB connection thus simplifying cabling just a bit.

The 2001 Florida trip is the only one that really made use of this setup. My girl friend, Chris, navigated the entire trip with the Portege on her lap with a pillow for insulation from the heat of the computer. Chris never complained and even stayed with me for another four years before moving on so the trip didn’t really end our relationship. I’ve a strong suspicion, however, that stunts like that are part of the reason I no longer have a girl friend.

My Gear – Chapter 4 — Canon PowerShot A20

My Gear – Chapter 4
Canon PowerShot A20

Canon A20As I looked back over my travel gadget purchases, it was immediately obvious that many preceded a major trip. The idea of a long lived website, rather than a one trip experiment, started to form as I got serious about retracing a 1920 Florida trip my great-grandparents had made. Purchases were made during the summer of 2001 in anticipation of making the trip in late August. The first was a real upgrade in the camera department.

Some of the improvement over the Agfa came from a significant increase in price but a lot more came from two years of progress. Even with more than a hundred dollars off the $500 MSRP, the Canon PowerShot A20 cost over twice what I’d paid for the Agfa — $384 vs. $186 — but I now had a real camera. It had auto focus, 3X zoom, and 1.92 effective mega-pixels plus, apparently, 0.18 ineffective ones. This was good enough to convince me that I didn’t have to carry my film camera everywhere but not good enough to make me want to get rid of it. Digital was clearly the only way to feed a website but film was still the way to go for good sharp prints.

I believe it was about this time that a friend asked me to recommend a good digital camera and I answered that I couldn’t. There were some very good digital cameras being made but they cost thousands not hundreds of dollars. Nikon’s first digital SLR, the D1, came out in 1999. The 2.6 mega-pixel wonder retailed for $5580 — body only. The D1X came on the market in early 2001 at about the same time as the A20. With what is now a familiar characteristic of electronics, resolution, 5.4 megapixels, was up and price, $5350, was down. These were professional quality cameras with prices that could only be justified by professionals needing instant product. For an amatuer convinced he needed instant product to feed a website, even the few hundred dollar price of the little Canon wasn’t easy to justify. Of course, if financial justification was a real factor in any of this, there wouldn’t even be a website to feed.

My Gear – Chapter 3 — Garmin GPS III Plus