Simple Does It, Too
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, January 2001

People often ask how I can write a monthly column and spend up to half the year in the field. The AlphaSmart 3000 into which I’m typing these words is little known because it’s just a word processor. It sports a full-size keyboard, weighs a pound and a half, boots up instantly, downloads to Mac or PC, runs 200 to 500 hours on AA batteries, and cost me $199 (888-274-0680). Though it lacks the gimmicks of pocket organizers that grab the media attention, just try writing a 1200-word essay on your Palm Pilot.

Similarly, I don’t carry a full-size SLR for much of my time in the outdoors. I’ve been testing out some tantalizing new SLR equivalents of an AlphaSmart of late. Point-and-shoots are too much like Palm Pilots: great for visual note-taking, but how many published nature images have you seen credited to them? A tiny Contax or Leica may produce objective image quality that betters a zoom-equipped Canon or Nikon SLR, but recording your subjective response to nature becomes elusive without through-the-lens viewing to carefully compose wide-angle foregrounds on a tripod or to accurately place graduated filters to balance lighting.

The outdoor SLR counterpart of an AlphaSmart should lend itself to shooting both casual snapshots and landscapes worthy of coffee-table books. It doesn’t need 1000 meter segments, 45 autofocus sensors, an 8-fps motordrive, or a set of bulky f2.8 zoom lenses. Those features do wonders for sports or photojournalism, while at the other end of the 35mm spectrum, Leica rangefinders are hard to beat for unobtrusive street photography. For self-propelled outdoor adventures, the ideal camera should weigh no more than 1.5 pounds with a basic lens, have auto-exposure, auto-focusing, and auto-bracketing capabilities, plus depth-of-field preview to simulate the darkened graphic appearance of shadows on film and to place ND grads precisely.

When the late Anatoli Boukreev called me for advice about what camera to take to Everest in 1996 before the infamous Into Thin Air tragedy, I was at a loss. He simply wanted a reliable light SLR that he could operate with gloves in extreme cold. Nikon did not have such a camera in their stable. Canon did, but the 13-ounce Rebel X I had used for a few fast and light summer adventures had failed me twice in California winter conditions less severe than the top of Everest in spring. At that time, Nikon’s ace in the hole for a basic SLR that functioned in cold and rugged conditions was their classic manual FM-2 from the 1970s. It weighs half again as much as a Rebel, is twice as slow to use and needs an external battery pack to keep the meter going below zero. I advised Anatoli that the far heavier N90s or F4 would be my choice of a dependable Everest SLR. He didn’t buy one.

The last time I packed my FM-2 was for months of shooting in Antarctica in 1992, including -45” (dm;F at the South Pole. I never used it. My N90s and F4 kept working with Lithium AA batteries. Since then, my back-up bodies have been electronic. With fewer moving parts, I find them more dependable in the cold.

After Anatoli returned amidst controversy over the amazing rescues he did high on Everest, I declined his invitation to climb Annapurna in winter. He died there in an avalanche. The following summer the two of us had planned to climb a pair of 8000-meter peaks in Pakistan. If I had a major magazine assignment, I planned to carry my trusty Nikon F4 to the top, despite it being twice the weight of an FM2. No other Nikon shares its combination of auto-focus, auto or manual rewind, auto shut-off without battery drain, 100 percent viewfinder accuracy, plus Matrix Metering with manual lenses, such as the light 20mm f4 and 55mm f2.8 macro I so often use.

I went to Pakistan that summer on a different expedition and brought along a new entry-level Nikon FM-10, five ounces lighter than an FM-2, that I had purchased overseas (now available in the U.S.) Though I wasn’t happy futzing with its fully manual controls to focus, bracket, and thread film, the majority of my photos that ran in National Geographic Adventure magazine were spontaneous shots with that camera, not the F4 I used for shooting close to camps.

Nikon’s first true AlphaSmart counterpart was introduced last summer. The N80 packs all the features I need and then some into an 18-ounce body with rugged CR123 lithium batteries. Though it has metering incompatibility with the older non-AF lenses I often favor for landscape photography, I’ve had surprisingly good results with Nikon’s newer lightweight zooms. I shot test rolls well before several predawn jaunts into the High Sierra to catch sunrise at timberline lakes with the 7.8-ounce 2880mm f3.55.6 zoom. The tests confirmed consistent metering, as well as mediocre edge sharpness at 28mm until I stopped down to ƒ8, where it cleaned up to double-page spread resolution–not a problem for landscapes I always shoot at ƒ11 or higher to hold depth of field or for people shots where edge sharpness is rarely a factor.

Just as I was falling in love with the N80, Nikon announced an even lighter SLR with fewer features. At 13.9 ounces, the N65 cuts corners with smaller batteries, no manual ISO setting (except by exposure compensation), 1/90 vs. 1/125 flash synch, 89% vs. 92% viewfinder coverage, none of the N80’s 18 custom functions, no LCD panel light, but yes, depth-of-field preview. Going by the specs, there’s no way I would buy an N65 for professional work, but I decided to borrow one and put it through its paces.

One morning, I set off to scout a familiar Bay Area trail to avoid any surprises for a series of workshop field sessions . Since the entire region was blanketed in fog, I planned to simply run it for exercise without a camera. At the trailhead I grabbed a jacket from the back seat; beneath it was my N65 in a well-packed chest pouch I had used on a previous sunset run. Not wanting to leave the two-pound outfit exposed in the car, I strapped it on.

Without a camera in the twenty-foot visibility, I would have followed my normal trail. With it, I became intrigued by brighter mist at ground level near the crest of a hill. I dropped 200 feet off the back side to a splendid intersection of fog and sunrise over a fire trail. From the pouch’s top flap I took out a four-inch plastic tripod and an “A” series 2-stop Singh-Ray ND grad. With the N65 and tiny 2880mm zoom perched on a rock, I used the self-timer and auto-bracketing at f16 to make my best image out of three weekends of workshop shooting in the same area with bigger cameras and tripods.

Like my AlphaSmart, the N80 and N65 perform simple tasks very well at times when I wouldn’t be burdened with sophisticated gear that has its rightful place for more organized shooting. While they aren’t my primary tools, these tiny wonders extend my creative reach further into the outdoor realm where I have chosen to spend as much of my life as possible.

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