NPC Newsletter (2nd New Series) No. 53 - March 2001

Snowboarding, Digital Cameras, GPS and MP3

Tim asked for articles for the February newsletter. I explained that as I haven't yet been born again, I don't have much relevant to contribute. All I know about these days is snowboarding, digital cameras, GPS and MP3 players. He said that would do fine, and suggested I pulled my finger out and got the copy to him within the week.

I bought a digital camera about a year ago when I felt that the quality had become acceptable. It was a pretty small machine so I went snowboarding with it and took some reasonable photographs. I really liked the immediacy of digital, but ultimately I found the quality of the images disappointing. Nothing was particularly sharp; the colour balance was dodgy; and it was just impossible to take sensible photographs of people actually 'boarding with such a tiny wide lens. I'd end up with huge but slightly fuzzy panoramas with small dark blobs representing the skiers somewhere in the middle distance. In conditions less than perfect blue sky and sunshine, the camera couldn't cope.

In 2000 the technology moved on, and the first digital SLRs started to become available. I finally cracked and bought one of the things, a Canon D30. The courier who delivered the camera couldn't believe that such a heavy parcel could be a digital camera. The machine's a brick, weighing in at about 1.5 kilos all up. Actually the D30 is "the world's smallest, lightest and cheapest Digital SLR", but that's like saying that the New Inn's Clapham's hottest night- spot. There just isn't that much competition. It's not easy to be discrete with a 1.5 kilo lump on your chest. This makes the camera the perfect tool for me now fluorescent pink powder suits are out of fashion.

Of course no camera worth its salt comes with a case... that costs extra. I bought a chest harness, which is pretty much essential for snowboarding. You're not going to have time to mess about with a backpack, and conventional camera bags aren't stable enough. A chest harness puts the camera in a fairly safe place where you can get at it quickly. The only other piece of kit you need for rapid action is some string to tie your mitts to your jacket with. This lets you take 'em off and forget 'em whilst concentrating on sorting out the camera. You have to remember to be careful when relieving yourself of course: Gore-Tex holds liquid in just as well as it keeps it out.

I used the remainder of what the Equitable Life didn't steal from me to buy a Canadian skiing holiday for me.

My new camera arrived a few hours before I left for the airport. I had a lot of fun in Heathrow fiddling with the various switches and settings, but in practice I was going to have to figure it all out on the fly, in the snow.

The thing about skiing and boarding in fresh snow is that irrespective of how much time you actually have, no one wants to hang around above untracked slopes whilst some dick with a camera "sets up". It's always pretty much a race for first tracks. This tends to dictate the way you can take pictures, at least until the people you're 'boarding with decide that they like being photographed. Either you take only "butt shots" (which sounds best when pronounced with an American accent), or you have to move quickly and take what you can whenever you can.

When I managed to get ahead of the group, the camera's start up sequence was pretty rapid, allowing me to get the whole thing out and firing in three or four seconds. It was then fairly easy to point the image-stabilized telephoto zoom at the people, letting the camera track focus and compute exposure. The release allows the machine to take in the action at three frames per second. I'd never felt decadent enough to burn film that fast, but with digital there's zero marginal cost. Typically I'd get two or three usable frames from a pass of a skier or 'boarder before having to move across or down to fresh snow. I'd generally get one opportunity like that per run without delaying anybody; definitely no one wants to wait for anyone on a powder day.

On the first day most of my group didn't take too much notice of the camera beyond asking the obvious "what's that on yer front?" They didn't go out of their way to help me get good pictures of them, but as I didn't keep anybody waiting there were no complaints either. That changed after the first evening in the bar, when I got my portable out and showed off the day's "take". Many of the images were stunning. The immediacy of the process is a factor here; looking at pictures on the same day they are taken definitely increases their impact. The Americans I was boarding with described this as "the American way...instant gratification". As I'd had to wait two months for the camera to be delivered I'm not sure I'd agree with that. The ability to see the results of your efforts and to examine the exposure information for each shot does make for rapid improvement in technique.

I didn't buy much beer that night, or any day after that. I haven't figured out how to live off the profits of photography, but I can certainly drink off them. On subsequent days the group became much better subjects. They were happy to let me take the first tracks, and even insisted that I went first down the best pitches. They even smiled as they crashed. I briefly felt the power that real photographers and journalists wield.

I crashed a few times myself, including one "rag-doll" at fair speed. I still have the bruises from that, but the brick seemed to survive the deep snow dunking. The biggest problem was that a split second after any aggressive jump I'd be reminded of Newton's first law as the camera bag's closed cell foam gently gave me a fat lip. The camera didn't seem to notice condensation or cold: the batteries never even looked tired.

A couple of weeks of back-country snowboarding produced a few hundred usable pictures. I spent the best part of my two-day journey home messing about with Photoshop and FrontPage so that once I was home I could post the images on the web. The people I was 'boarding with are from all around the world, but they can easily view and download their pictures, then bore all their friends with them. Magic technology. I even managed to rescue a few photographs from crass composition errors with a little Photoshop manipulation. I'm not sure that's ethical, but it's definitely cheaper than going back to take the shot again.

This camera just takes good pictures. I can't figure out a double-blind test, but I tried taking similar pictures using my previous digital camera with mediocre results; and I tried handing this camera to someone else, which produced excellent results. Conclusion: big expensive cameras take good pictures even when used by crude and insensitive people (eg. snowboarders). I've printed up to 10 by 8 with no obvious digital artefacts. I fear I'm never going to be able to buy a cheap, lightweight, or film camera again. I think it's time to sell your Kodak stock.

If my memory serves me correctly then the challenges of cave photography are somewhat different from those of taking blue-sky shots of brightly clad people in deep snow. I'm sure my "brick" camera would survive underground, but I'm not sure you'd have much use for an image-stabilised telephoto lens at minus 500 metres. No, on balance I don't think I'll be lending it to the Pennine.

Phil Wigglesworth

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