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A monthly column by Mike Johnston

September 12, 2004 (special edition)

Extra, Extra, Read All About It!

Newsletter News & Sundry Business, the Nifty Nikon D70, and Photokina 2004

Good morning! As I originally promised there would be from time to time, this is an unscheduled "extra" edition of the now-monthly SMP column. I'm amazed to report that last Sunday's September SMP column drew more than 50 new newsletter subscriptions, and more than 150 e-mail responses (and counting). Honestly, I thought that a description of my hospital experiences, however humorous, would basically just serve to explain why there was no there there this month. I misunderestimated my abilities as a humorist, evidently, or else the description of my travails in the hospital struck a deep sympathetic chord in others. Maybe both.

Based on the e-mails I've been getting, though, it's obvious that I left out of last month's column some crucial information that people are looking for from me. To wit:

  • I'm fine. I had appendix and gall bladder problems, and they left the gall bladder in (so people can still say "What gall!") and took the appendix out. The operation went fine, I'm mending entirely as expected, I have zero complaints with any of it, and, quite sincerely, I send my thanks to all those who wrote to me with good wishes and inquiries. I feel totally undeserving of your concern and manifest kindnesses, but also grateful and flattered.

  • Yes, I know the website has some out of date information in it. Updating it is definitely on my to-do list, and gradually clawing its way up towards the top of that list. For the record, though, the newsletter is no longer being published in a print version. It's now a standard .pdf file delivered via e-mail. I have provided generous terms for "fair use," and I do not mind if people print copies to let friends read; you are welcome to do so. After all, you can do this with a print magazine, so why not with a .pdf version? All I ask is that you kindly not disseminate the file in electronic form, as I sell the newsletter to make a little extra money and feel I already provide a generous amount of free content for the web. As long as you're willing to make them a hardcopy printout, however, I don't mind if you share a copy with a few of your friends. Not a problem.

  • The book (The Empirical Photographer) is stalled. Mired, perhaps I should say. I am attempting to get my money back from the original printer, and I have another printer researched, willing, and waiting. I have recently enlisted the services of an old friend, CFO of a graphics firm, who has kindly offered to help me extract my pre-payment back from the original publisher. He is known for being able to move mountains by telephone, whereas I can hardly make a long-distance call from a pay phone without help. (Hey, we all have our aptitudes and weaknesses. I am a creature of the written word.) I hope very soon to be able to offer the book as a .pdf, either delivered via e-mail or on a 3" CD, for those who are tired of waiting, but for some reason the already much-massaged files are balking at the conversion attempt. There is almost no chance that I won't eventually prevail and actually come up with a printed book, so if you're willing to hang in there yet still longer, I honestly think you're safe.

  • By the time I ship Issue #7 of The 37th Frame,\ at least one attempt will have been made to contact every current subscriber (this seems only fair). Responses to these attempts are running about 50%, and those who I can't reach easily by e-mail I will have to mail letters to. That I won't be able to do, at least entirely, before Issue #7 mails. It does seem galling (hey, I've still got it) that new subscribers are getting better service, temporarily at least, than old friends, but once I get the new system entirely in place, nobody will get any better service than anybody else, and everybody's service will be lickety-split. At least I can report, to my relief and delight, that 99.3% of all subscribers who've received it so far are very pleased with the new format, a larger percentage than I had dared to hope for. All in all, it does seem the way to go.

  • Yes, overseas subscribers are receiving credit for postage, in the form of subscription extensions.

  • Finally, politics. A number of people have written urging me to include political ramblings in the next newsletter, and I have received several dozen concerned e-mails from overseas subscribers who either want me to know how worried they are, or who have requested me to answer questions for them. However, I am not an expert on politics, and newsletter subscribers who happen to be the staunchest of Bush supporters are still my friends and countrymen, and I do not want to either offend or alienate anybody. The subject is photography.

    What I've decided to do, therefore, is to leave non-photographic political topics out of the newsletter, but to send to all subscribers a separate .pdf with political thoughts in it. It will be clearly labeled, and anyone who chooses not to read it can simply discard it, without fear of missing anything I have to tell them related to photography. Feelings in the U.S. are running very high, and nobody needs extra aggravation if it can be avoided. I am consistently impressed by the level of intelligence of my newsletter readers, and the wide range and great depth of their expertise, and none of them need to be told how to vote by the likes of me. We are all friends in the context of our interest in photography. Would that it remain thus.

The Nifty Nikon

I had a chance to use the Nikon D70 last week, and wanted to convey some of my impressions. Understand that two of the sites that publish this column in English (The Luminous Landscape and Steve's Digicams) are digital sites, and the third,, has reviewed the D70 and offers good participant content about it. Michael of L-L, Steve of Steve's, and Bob and his authors at have more and better things to say about digital equipment than I do, so I don't typically strive to cover DSLRs in any detail.

Despite this, one of the things I find really striking about debate and discussion in the U.S. right now is a lack of reasoned, two-steps-back-and-take-a-deep-breath perspective. (Nowhere is this more true than it is of the back-and-forth regarding the two presidential candidates' military service, but, as I say, we're not going there.) Even on good digital sites, this remains true of participants' comments and disputes, by and large. My comments about the Nikon D70 and Canon Digital Rebel have mainly to do with perspective. It's true that on the one hand, we can look at any cameras with the "shopper's mentality" or with critical nitpicking uppermost in mind, and no camera is perfect. Pick up a Nikon D2h or Canon 1D Mk. II and the shortcomings of the consumer DSLRs are obvious. However, what can't be denied from a more holistic viewpoint is what an exciting and vibrant time this is to be a fan of color photography. It was barely more than a handful of years ago that the best digital SLRs cost $25,000 and were purchased only by newsrooms (and only the larger newsrooms at that). Regularly, a reason given by veteran photographers for not going digital back then was the perceived need for a pixel count that seemed almost absurdly out of reach for anything approaching a reasonable price. Certain pundits had crunched some numbers and determined that the number of millions of pixels necessary for digital to equal the quality of 35mm film was a then-awe-inspiring six.

The film-vs.-digital debate has largely ended, and several more new uber-cameras will arrive on the scene later this month that will further nail the coffin shut on it. But for whatever reason, I think it's useful to remember how recently it was that "six megapixels" was widely and routinely touted as a sort of holy grail.

Nikon D70 SLR

The future is here in that respect. Handling the truly nifty Nikon D70, I was struck hard by the extent to which it offers almost exactly what we all were saying we wanted six or eight years ago. That's a short time for those of us of a certain age (I had weekends in college that seemed longer than whole seasons do now). Not being one to find any delight in lists of features and specifications, I would say that my overriding, if simplistic, conclusion about the D70 is this: it's a good camera. It's ergonomically a pleasing thing, with a size, weight, shape, and "density" that seem, in Phil Askey's apt phrase, "perfectly sorted." The cost-quality compromise has somehow been tilted towards quality; the camera feels, balances, and looks like a real camera (that 's a "shot" the significantly less expensive Digital Rebel doesn't really deserve, however). I was surprised, especially, how nice the kit lens feels on the camera. As a card-carrying "zoom-hater," I was not expecting anything nearly so nice in terms of a feeling of balance.

The D70's AF doesn't approach that of an F5, but my feeling is that it's at least as good as that of an N80, and most likely better. Ditto shutter lag response time. This is a perfectly usable camera for most purposes in terms of responsiveness. In fact, if the D70 were a film camera, it would fall pretty comfortably between the N80 and F100. Considering that more or less the same can be said for its price, it is a holy grail found.

Nikon D70 sample (c) 2004 Steve's Digicams

Click to see our D70 sample pictures.

Naturally, it has a few weaknesses (there is no such thing as a perfect camera, and you can quote me. If you think a Leica M6 is it, I should point out that the M6's dust sealing is so poor that an earwig once crawled into my M6 and expired with its body hanging inconveniently halfway into the film gate. You don't want to see the group family portraits I took with the horror-movie black bug silhouette attacking my smiling relatives. You really don't). The viewfinder is like a medium-sized window at the end of a long corridor. It's not quite the mite-sized keyhole effect of the D-Rebel, but both viewfinders have a sort of prison-cell feel about them. Any weaknesses are more than made up for in one very, very important aspect, however: image quality. D70 pictures, even made with nothing more than the kit lens, look fantastic. The color is clean and pure (I tend to like Nikon's characteristic color balance to me it seems very realistic, just right), the detail up to native sizes is fantastic, and with moderate care it easily handles ordinary luminance ranges.

Now, the traditional "ultimate kicker" in a print-magazine camera review is when the reviewer says, "I like it so much, I bought the review sample." And it's true I personally haven't bitten on a DSLR yet. But you just shouldn't let that stop you. You need to remember, I like stick shifts, hardback books, tube amps, Spotmatics, sailboats (especially wooden ones), and '50s jazz; I don't own a cell phone and I do own a turntable (that was a device for your home stereo, er, home entertainment system, you youngsters, that played albums, or rather, recordings, which were big black round things made of...oh, never mind). I've read the Constitution a dozen times if I've read it once, and I'd rather go to Scotland than lie on the beach at Cancun. You've heard the expression "take it with a grain of salt"? Well, ever seen a salt lick?

A Rilly, Rilly Big Shew

It's worthwhile mentioning, I think, since fresh new converts are coming into the fold all the time thanks to digital, that the end of this month is when Photokina comes around. Held every two years in vast and numerous convention halls in Cologne, Germany, Photokina is the World's largest imaging show, open to the profession, the press, and the public. A number of new products are traditionally introduced in that week, or just before. Although I'm a "journalist without portfolio" now, unattached, unfettered, and free, and thus not bound by non-disclosure agreements, I choose to abide by them anyway.

This is not October's column. That will be along on the first Sunday in October.

And please, if you haven't yet, SUBSCRIBE to the newsletter! It's just been dawning on me that I can use the e-mail database to send extras along to subscribers, and you'll want to be on board for everything that's in the pipeline there's a lot.

With best regards,

Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame ( He has a B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe Cameron.

He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.

His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the English magazine Darkroom User.

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