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About three weeks ago I received as an early birthday gift a new camera. I had been thinking for a while now that I should get a "real" grown-up camera with interchangeable lenses; you know, a DSLR. My little Olympus point-and-shoot camera is a fantastic field camera--it takes amazing macro shots and I can dunk it in a tidepool or operate it with wet hands, plus it fits into a pocket--but it's not the best tool for photographing birds from far away. In the past couple of months I rented first a Nikon D7200 and then a Canon 80D and took them up to Lake Tahoe to give them a test-drive. After all was said and done I decided that the Nikon both took better pictures and was easier for me to figure out, and that's the camera I decided to get. It came as a kit with an 18-140mm zoom lens and I also got a 35mm fixed focal length lens.

Cameras these days are complicated affairs. And me with a concussion, trying to figure out all of the bells and whistles was a daunting thing. So I decided to set myself a challenge, to take photos every day and post one to my Instagram feed. This 30-day endeavor has proven to be more challenging than I had anticipated: I knew that I wouldn't always feel inspired to take pictures, but hadn't thought that the real difficulty would be in choosing a single photo to share. For this challenge I wanted to see what this camera and I can achieve together, with no post processing other than cropping and straightening.

Day 1: Lucie, taken with the 35mm lens. This was my first day of experimenting with the 35mm lens. A sleepy Lucie was too lazy not to cooperate.

Lucie 21 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Lucie
21 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 2: Evening lights. When some friends invited us to meet them for dinner at the harbor, I brought the camera along. It has a few settings for nighttime photography. I took this shot with the Night Landscape setting, and the camera was spot-on with the exposure. Unfortunately I took it from a floating dock, and the slight movement was picked up by the long shutter speed.

Evening lights at the Harbor Beach Cafe 22 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Evening lights at the Harbor Beach Cafe
22 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 3: Fire at night. The same evening that I took the above photo, we were sitting around our friends' fire pit. I learned from this that it isn't easy taking still shots of fire. Fortunately for me, the camera is smarter than I am. I cranked up the ISO to its highest setting and let the camera do the rest.

Fire pit at night 22 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Fire pit at night
22 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 4: Pelicans in flight. I was experimenting with the sequential exposure setting on the camera and was happily surprised by this squadron of pelicans. This shot was my favorite, as it captures several of the postures of pelicans in the air. When they're not flying in formation, they get unsynchronized and sort of goofy.

Pelicans in flight over Monterey Bay 24 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pelicans in flight over Monterey Bay
24 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 5: Sunrise. When I got up this morning and saw the high clouds with interesting texture I grabbed the camera and went outside to wait for the sunrise. Patience rewarded! The camera has a setting for sunsets, and it works for sunrises as well. Once again, I am very pleased at how well the camera captures what I see with the naked eye. These colors are exactly true.

Sunrise in Santa Cruz 25 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Sunrise in Santa Cruz
25 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 6: Natural Bridges. On a sunny clear day between storms went out to Natural Bridges. I've not had much experience with fixed focal length lenses so making myself practice with the 35mm lens. Using this lens forces me to look at things differently, which I am finding very fulfilling. So far I find this lens to be bright and clear: check out this depth of field! The pelicans and cormorants at Natural Bridges seemed to be enjoying the sun.

View across Natural Bridges towards Terrace Point 26 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
View across Natural Bridges towards Terrace Point
26 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 7: Yarn indoors. What to do when it's raining? Seemed like a good day to find out how well the camera captures colors indoors under artificial light. I just started another lace knitting project and am trying to achieve a gradient effect with these three skeins of yarn. The camera has a "Food" setting but that washed out everything (all three yarns and the aqua blue background). I tried the "Blossom" setting and voila! Perfect color representation of both the cool aqua of the background and the warmer colors of the yarns. Another win!

Three skeins of Malabrigo Silkpaca yarn, all in the colorway Archangel 27 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Three skeins of Malabrigo Silkpaca yarn, all in the colorway Archangel
27 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 8: Pitcher plant. This day had me experimenting with depth of field again. Finally, I captured what I wanted. The subject is a pitcher from a carnivorous plant. I live how the pitcher is in crisp focus, while the background is blurred.

Pitcher plant 28 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pitcher plant
28 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 9: Maggie. Maggie likes to stick her head out between the slats of the deck railing so she can spy on the kitty downstairs. I've been trying for years to catch this moment. The camera has a "Pet portrait" setting. I am not quite sure what it does, but it worked! Take that, iPhone camera!

Maggie 28 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Maggie
28 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 10: Morning sky. Day 10 brought me another fascinating morning sky. I've decided that it must be the constantly changing textures of clouds that make them such a favorite subject of mine.

Morning sky 28 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Morning sky
29 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 11: Waves. A big wave day lured me out to West Cliff Drive to see if I could capture an action shot. The exposure was wrong but I was trying to capture a specific moment. Can anyone guess what that moment was?

One of many large waves 31 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
One of many large waves
31 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 12: Protea. Today I took a tour of Gondwanaland without leaving Santa Cruz! How, you ask? By visiting the UCSC Arboretum and walking through their Australian and South African gardens. Got buzzed by lots of Anna's hummingbirds, and took pictures of plants, including this Protea in the South African garden.

Protea blossom in the South African garden of the UCSC Arboretum 1 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Protea blossom in the South African garden of the UCSC Arboretum
1 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 13: Coot on pond. I went to Antonelli Pond to see what birds were there. There were cormorants, mallards, and a great egret, but it was the coots that caught my attention. When I was little we called these birds mud hens; seems to me now that they deserve a more flattering name. So I go with coots. For this photo I was experimenting with f-stop and manual focus, and succeeded in achieving what I hoped for. The blurred vegetation in the foreground makes me feel like I'm spying on a maiden bathing in a pond.

American coot (Fulica americana) at Antonelli Pond 2 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
American coot (Fulica americana) at Antonelli Pond
2 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 14: Lace shawl. Photographing my knitting has always been a challenge because the colors are difficult to capture. What a test for this new camera, right? I took lots of shots with the 35mm lens, draping the shawl in various ways over my dress form, and this is the shot I like best. The colors are true, including the gradient from light to dark.

Knitted lace shawl 3 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Knitted lace shawl
3 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 15: Lucie in a box. I had grandiose plans to find some spectacular outdoor scenery to photograph for today's entry, but then Lucie hopped into the apple box and I can never resist a kitty in a box. I caught her in the middle of a meowyawn, which is what I call it when she yawns in the middle of a meow. It's her signature noise. Once again the camera gets an 'A' for the Pet portrait setting.

Lucie in a box 4 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Lucie in a box
4 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

In looking over these photos again, I'm pleased at how many different types of pictures I've taken. The cats have been surprisingly cooperative, too. I'm excited to see what inspires me in the next two weeks!

For the past several years now I've been using various iterations of an Olympus point-and-shoot camera, mostly for field and lab work. My current version, which I've had for over a year now, is the TG-4, in which the 'T' stands for Tough. This camera really stands up to its name. I routinely clamber over slippery rocks in the intertidal with the camera dangling from my wrist, and it is pretty banged up already. Not a problem! It is also completely waterproof so in addition to knowing that it will take fantastic photos underwater, I don't have to dry my hands before using it! Plus, it fits easily into a side pocket of my daypack for hiking, although I usually just leave it looped around my wrist. This little camera also has a microscope setting that takes great macro shots, which I love. The one thing it doesn't do very well is line up with either of my real microscopes, but I have a gadget that aligns the camera on my phone with the microscope objective lenses so even that contingency is covered.

Lately I've been thinking that it's time to graduate up to a real grown-up camera, one that has interchangeable lenses for more versatility. I particularly want a camera that will take photos of the birds and other wildlife that my TG-4 doesn't allow me to get close enough for, as well as one for general use, travel, etc. I asked my Facebook friends for DSLR recommendations and the consensus is that Canon and Nikon have the best selection for photo quality, build quality, and lens options. I started digging through online reviews and quickly became overwhelmed with technical specs and jargon. Given that image quality is comparable for cameras in the same price range I decided that the most useful bits of information are (1) whether or not I can figure out how to make the dang thing do what I want it to do; and (2) will I want to carry it around so I can use it.

In early August I was up at Lake Tahoe for an extended weekend with family. A friend had suggested renting a camera at lensrentals.com, which was a great idea. I rented a Nikon D7200, the new addition to their advanced hobbyist line, and an 18-140mm lens for the weekend. I took a lot of pictures, trying the camera in different outdoor lighting conditions. I gotta say, the images coming out of this camera are really nice. I didn't alter anything about them, except to decrease the overall file size so the photos load more quickly.

First test: Photos of outdoor scenery. The atmosphere was hazy due to smoke from various wildfires in the greater area, so I had to go up to Carson Pass to get some blue sky.

View from area near Carson Pass. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
View from area near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Red Lake, near Carson Summit. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Red Lake, near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Tree with scars from chains used to pull wagons up the slope, at Red Lake near Carson Pass. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Tree with scars from chains used to pull wagons up the slope, at Red Lake near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Pile of rocks near Carson Pass. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pile of rocks near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Meadow at Taylor Creek. 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Meadow at Taylor Creek.
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Aspen trees at Taylor Creek. 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Aspen trees at Taylor Creek.
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Mt. Tallac 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Mt. Tallac
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Taylor Creek 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Taylor Creek
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Taylor Creek 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Taylor Creek
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Second test: Macro. I borrowed a macro lens from a friend who owns the Nikon D7100, just to fool around and see what happens. I took some macro shots of tree bark. Of course, any time you shoot macro you lose depth of field, which can look sort of cool in itself.

DSC_1057 DSC_1054

Test 3: Wildlife photography. I learned that for wildlife photography, the quality of the camera and lens has a HUGE effect on how the pictures look. I found that this Nikon was pretty responsive, which is important when the subject of the photo is active.

I have no idea if these rodents are squirrels or chipmunks.

DSC_1208 DSC_1202

At Taylor Creek I took pictures of birds!

Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek. 8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek.
8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And using the digital zoom that the image quality allows, I get this:

Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek. 8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek.
8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) at Taylor Creek. 8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) at Taylor Creek.
8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

But the best wildlife photo was taken at nightfall. We had gone out to Taylor Creek one evening to look for birds. It was almost full dark and we were about to leave when we saw a large grayish blob in a tree. Looking through binoculars we could see that it was clearly a creature of some kind, but we couldn't tell what. A large owl, getting ready to go out hunting? A roosting raptor?

Surprise! It was a mother porcupine nursing a baby.

Common porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) nursing her baby in a tree at Taylor Creek. 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Common porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) nursing her baby in a tree at Taylor Creek.
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This photo was the most impressive shot I got from this camera. Its performance in low light conditions was phenomenal. It was almost completely dark when I took this shot, but the exposure looks like it was taken during the day. Color me very impressed!

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