I never could relate to that song by The Carpenters. While I’ll willfully agree that Mondays usually do seem to suck chalk, what’s so bad about the rain? Why did it take a combination of both rainy days and Mondays to get Karen Carpenter down? Wasn’t the fact that it was Monday justification enough for her melancholia?
Personally, I love the rain. It’s refreshing, cleansing and invigorating, and it puts a nice thick veil between me and that nasty old sun. As a rain lover, I live in the perfect place: Vancouver Canada. Winters here could send any Carpenters fan scurrying for a lithium prescription — even on a Thursday. But as much as I enjoy being out in the rain, there is one minor snafu: I’m a photographer. And modern digital cameras aren’t nearly as receptive to precipitation as I am.
In the past, I’ve taken several approaches to the problem of photographing Vancouver in the winter. For many years, I simply ignored the challenge completely and defined “winter photography” as “time to practice my studio lighting techniques.” But as the years passed and my photographic obsessions grew more vernacular, the winter rains became aggravating. I wanted to be outside, not holed up in the studio with a rickety assemblage of artificial lights and contrived tableaux. I needed to feel the drops sting my face, and witness the frantic scurrying of passersby dodge and weave their way through an umbrella labyrinth.
In short, I needed a weather-sealed camera. So every autumn I’d look at the camera industry’s latest offerings, and every autumn I’d reject them — or rather they’d reject me. Weatherproof cameras were built for one of two “camps,” but I resided in a third. These cameras were either 1) small point-and-shoots with limited ergonomics and dubious optical quality designed for summer beach and pool amusement, or 2) large, full-bodied dSLRs designed for shooting professional sports, tracking elusive Connecticut Warblers, or impressing young ladies on Model Mayhem. My camp desired a camera right smack in the middle of these two extremes — a location bypassed annually by modern camera developers.
So for the last few years, I’ve circumvented the winter camera problem by employing decidedly non-modern cameras — mechanical film cameras, to be precise. They’re inexpensive, durable and readily available. With no electronic components, there’s nothing to “short out” should a little rain or snow invade their bodies. With no batteries, there’s no power source to rapidly deplete in cold weather. Plus, I just like inventing good excuses to shoot film.
Still, as much as I enjoy working with mechanical film cameras, I’m neither rich enough nor famous enough to shoot 100% of my winter photos on Tri-X. So this autumn, I did what I do every autumn — peruse the digital weatherproof camera landscape. From my usual campsite, I gazed toward the western horizon at the little Fuji Finepix XP’s, Olympus Tough’s and Panasonic TS’s. I looked to the eastern horizon at the Canon 1D’s and the Nikon D3’s. And as I turned to walk back toward my collection of beloved film cameras, I tripped over a newfangled digital weather-resistant camera sitting right here in my own camp — the Pentax K-5.
I saw several advantages to the Pentax. To start with, it was the first weather-sealed camera that delivered a higher than expected image quality for a lower than expected price. Second, it was small (for an SLR). I need a camera that enables me to carry it all day in one hand, while dancing betwixt and pirouetting around my scurrying subjects. Third, there exists a wealth of inexpensive old legacy lenses for the Pentax mount; really inexpensive lenses. I mean, there are old Pentax lenses out there that I can purchase for less than I’d spend shooting and developing a day’s worth of Tri-X.
Recently flush with the proceeds of several equipment sales, I had just enough cash for the now heavily-discounted K-5 body with its 18-55 weather-sealed kit lens. For a few pennies more, I also added an old manual focus Pentax-M 120mm f/2.8.
I now had my inclement weather camera — the one I could use in a monsoon, in a hale storm, a sandstorm or a blizzard. I couldn’t wait to go get drenched. And as fate would have it, for three days subsequent to the purchase, Vancouver basked in absolutely glorious weather.
Monday arrived and brought along its friend, the rain. I was still not fully-certified on the intricacies of the K-5, so I avoided the downtown throngs and wandered along the shores of English Bay. Its plethora of static subjects afforded me the time to experiment with various settings, and to learn the system’s quirks — paramount among them the irksome way Pentax lenses focus in the opposite direction of Leica’s. The few times I did try to photograph people, I spent so long wrapping my head around the ‘backward’ focusing, metering stratagems and numerous modes and buttons, that my subjects had often passed me by.
Although I’m still a couple weeks away from having complete instinctual control over the K-5, the very fact I could fumble about with it while standing in the driving rain was most liberating. Never before could I (or would I) risk spending hours walking in a deluge while shooting with a digital camera.
Of course I was always mindful that the K-5 is marketed as “weather resistant” and not “waterproof.” The camera is obviously not meant for submersion or merciless abuse. Unfortunately, Pentax (nor any other camera manufacturer) makes any effort to quantify exactly what they mean by “weather resistant.” There exists a perfectly good international standard (called an “IP rating”) that specifies exactly how impervious a particular device is to dust and water. But camera manufacturers are reticent to publish these IP numbers — preferring to forgo something meaningful like: “this camera features an IP64 rating,” in favor of something meaningless like: “this camera features 77 weather seals.”
Suffice to say, in spite of the weather resistant claims, I don’t do anything too stupid with the K-5. I wipe it down frequently with a small rag and, should I be standing for an extended period with the camera exposed to the elements, I’ll drape the rag over its top. Why tempt fate? If Pentax doesn’t feel comfortable giving the K-5 a meaningful water-resistance rating, why should I rely solely on marketing puffery and trade show parlor tricks?
Still, I’m (mostly) human. And so I have, on occasion, yielded to the temptation to stick this camera in places I’d never consider sticking any of my other digital cameras, just to see what sort of photo I might get…
Speaking of temptation, I feel a strong urge to address a few additional K-5 curiosities. But I’ll stop here before this article deteriorates into another tedious camera review (though it’s likely I’ll foist such tedium on you in the future). The only real point of this article is to share the joy and liberation I feel being able to shoot on some of Vancouver’s more heinous winter days; and to remind my fellow photographers that, thanks to the Pentax K-5, neither rainy days nor Mondays ever need get you down.
©2011 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: In spite of appearances, the Pentax K-5 (with which I took all these photos) does not create an image with a 2.5 x 1 aspect ratio. That’s merely the result of my futzing around with cropping. “Winter. Monday. Vancouver. #1”, “Winter. Monday. Vancouver. #3” and “The Day Before” were all shot using a Pentax-M 120mm f/2.8 lens. “Winter. Monday. Vancouver. #2” was shot with a Pentax-DA SMC 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL WR, and “Splash” saw the K-5 mounted with a super-cheap Takumar-A 28mm f/2.8 lens while sitting only a few centimeters away from the crashing surf.
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