Magazine Article


Double Whammies
Digital gear goes through the wringer in the Big Easy

Robert Socha  holding newspaper
Bollinger Shipyards' VP Robert Socha at his New Orleans home on September 21, as the newspaper describes the latest evacuation. The picture was made with the same Dimage A1, taking over when Socha's own imager quit.
© Don Sutherland

ship operator
What DZLRs can do that DSLRs can't is squeeze down among the controls, while the hinged LCD gives the photographer a clear and exact view of how the frame is composed. March 2005, at the start of a two-week cruise down the coast. It can get very humid in Wilmington, N.C.
© Don Sutherland

ships in winterstorm
The salvage job from hell, photographed with the Minolta Dimage A1 in December 2003. There's nothing dry about it, and can you say c-c-c-cold? Yet with its Sony CCD, that A1's still taking pictures.
© Don Sutherland

New Orleans had Katrina and Rita. Sony had the copy-protection software maelstrom, and a flood of failing digicam imagers. Aside from the fact that New Orleans and Sony each took two big ones, there'd seem to be little connection between them. But I blundered into one in pursuit of the other, becoming a fly on the wall while the photo industry dealt with a mess of its own.

It started the day Robert Socha's Minolta Dimage 7Hi stopped working. That was in New Orleans, two weeks after Katrina, and two days before Rita.

Socha is the VP of marketing for Bollinger Shipyards, one of the largest shipbuilding and repair companies in the country, with 14 locations in the Gulf region. Socha would be someone to contact if you were covering the maritime recovery from Katrina, which I was doing in mid-September for a maritime magazine.

It was past noon when we met in Socha's office in Lockport, an hour southwest of New Orleans, and agreed we should tour the Bollinger locations in New Orleans proper the next day. Since there were no hotels in the city, Socha had to put me up at his house on the West Bank. There had been plenty of damage in the neighborhood—almost completely evacuated, but no flooding, and the lights were on. So was the TV, which announced that Rita was due the day after next.

The humidity the next morning was oppressive. If you walked from the air-conditioned house to the car and back twice, your shirt was soaked. Before leaving for the shipyard tour, whereafter he would push on to Houston, Socha intended to take a few snaps of the damage Katrina had wrought upon his house. He reached for his trusty 7Hi, booted it up, framed it up, fired, and got nothing. Everything worked except whatever it was that actually made the picture.

By a happy coincidence, Socha had a photojournalist as a guest. And this photojournalist had five cameras with him, three of them Minoltas, one of them the immediate successor to the fried 7Hi.

Which Cameras Do You Take To a Hurricane?

When the publisher proposed the Katrina assignment, nobody knew what we'd find in Louisiana. That was the assignment—to find out what shipyards and ship owners and skippers and tugboats and fishermen had been through, and how they were getting along now. How do you pack for that, when you're going to New Orleans and the bayous for a week (turned out to be three) amid floods and ruination, and hurricane season doesn't end for a month-and-a-half? There are numerous considerations for the contents of your bag.

For starters, with the possibility that anything on the expedition might not return, you want more than one camera, more than one lens, more than one battery, more than one everything. It would be nice to equip one of the cameras for wide-angle work and one for telephoto. It would also be nice to have a third camera so you'll still have backup, in case one of the first two doesn't return.

Yup. You gotta back up your backup.

Secondly, since lenses besides wide angles and telephotos as such might come in handy—especially fast ones in case it gets dark while you're shooting, for instance—you might want to have three or four along, to pass around your cameras as developments warrant. That is, all interchangeable-lens bodies should have the same lens mount. And since it could get dark while you're shooting, it would be nice if your equipment had compensating features, such as image-stabilization or high ISO settings.

Third, although you obviously want DSLRs for their interchangeable lenses, there are things to be said for DZLRs as well—the prosumer models with high-performance lenses permanently built-in, and electronic viewfinders. For one thing, they're compact and might squeeze into unexpectedly tight quarters on, say, a salvage barge somewhere. For another, many EVF-equipped cameras have pivoting monitor screens that contribute to holding the camera successfully at odd and unusual angles.

More than one collection of cameras could answer these requirements, but the group that fell out of my locker were Konica Minoltas. The Maxxums 5D and 7D were the SLRs, both of which work well at ISO 800 (sometimes higher). For them I brought three lenses: the 17-35mm f/2.8 for wide-angle work; the f/4.5-6.7 100-400mm for extra-telephoto work; and the f/2.8 70-200mm for telephoto work in low light. Since both bodies are image-stabilized, they were well-suited for telephoto work at slow shutters.

The ZLR that tumbled out was the Dimage A1, a 5MP camera whose picture I find better than its successor's, the 8MP A2. Its 7X zoom covers a 28-200mm equivalent, making it a workable backup for either the wide-angle or telephoto SLR in a pinch. Its f/2.8 aperture is good for low light, and it is image-stabilized. Both its eyelevel viewfinder and the monitor screen are hinged for use at various angles.

The A1 and the two Maxxums all use the same batteries, meaning they could all share the recharger. Limiting the amount of bulk you must carry is important on any trek. On this one I had to assume a life aboard tugboats and barges, working out of the back of my car, cramped and maybe on the run.

The A1 is the next model after Socha's Dimage 7Hi, but they share much of the same platform, including lens and most of the control layout. Of course, they use the same memory card. So when the visiting photojournalist put an A1 into Socha's hands, he would need no coaching in procedures.

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