A brand new dance

I've had nothing but Nikons in my camera bag for most of the 49 years that I’ve fancied myself a photographer. In the Seventies, I traded a pair of Minolta SRT100s for a Nikon F2 and Nikkormat FT3 and never looked back. Generations of Nikons and Nikkor lenses have served me well, enduring considerable abuse in doing so. I’m not purposely tough on equipment, shit happens. It comes with the territory.

Indeed, it was rugged durability and reliability that convinced me to purchase my first Nikons. And God knows I’ve put that durability to the test — right from the January 1977 afternoon that I walked out of Joe’s Cameras in Kitchener, Ont., with a brand-new F2 under my arm, and into a raging blizzard in pursuit of a CP snowplow working the Teeswater Sub.

Just outside Kenilworth, I framed the plow — approaching in a fury of flying snow — in the viewfinder of the Nikon and hand-bombed a rapid-fire sequence. A fraction of a second after exposing its first frames, the barely-out-of-the-box F2 was slammed by a tidal wave of snow in the wake of the fast-moving plow. I brushed the snow from the camera as best I could and carried on. The F2 performed as if nothing had happened.

No. 91 Snowplow near Kenilworth, Ont., January 29, 1977. 

In the course of the next four decades, the F2, FT3, and various Nikon successors (FM2 through F5) took anything and everything thrown at them. They were bounced from the cab seats of rough-riding locomotives and soaked in driving rain; buried in snow and subjected to thirty-below temperatures for days on end. They were covered in the grit of desert sandstorms and caked in choking dust of ancient wooden grain elevators; spattered with oil, tumbled down banks (with, or without their owner), soaked in the spray of waves pounding lake boats and Hudson River car ferries, and coated in the toxic soot of Ground Zero at the World Trade Center. All with nary a complaint or mechanical failure.

I went digital — cold turkey — in 2005. And I stuck with Nikon. The new-generation cameras, I was warned, were delicate instruments that should be kept away from moisture and dust and dirt at all cost. Or so they said. One of my earliest outings with the brand-new D2X found me in the dank recesses of the hold of the Great Lakes steamship S.S. Saginaw. Within minutes, camera and photographer were soaked in condensation and sweat, and covered in coal dust as the crew struggled with a coal-jammed unloading conveyor.

The camera fared better than I did and the resulting images convinced me to abandon every rule and perceived limitation of photography I’d ever learned. So much for the delicate instrument theory.

First mate on the S.S Saginaw helps dig coal from a jammed conveyor. Tossing out every rule and perceived limitation of photography I'd ever known.

Condensation, coal dust, and sweat in the dank hold of S.S. Saginaw; so much for the delicate instrument theory.

In the course of an unforgettable week in 2007, my faithful D2X was cold enough to contribute to frostbitten fingertips as I photographed an FP9-powered snowplow on a rural Ontario branch line, and just days later, hot-to-the touch on a Hawai’i an lava field as I endured the searing heat of Pele’s fiery magma pushing its way from Pu'u 'O'o to the Pacific.

Goderich-Exeter plow churns through Mustard Cut near Hensall, Ont. Frost-bitten fingers and a frozen D2X.

Just days later on Hawaii, that same D2X is hot to the touch in the searing heat of Pele’s fiery magma pushing its way from Pu'u 'O'o to the Pacific.

Pu'u 'O'o meets the Pacific.

Given my experience, I had every reason to expect that I’d never waiver from the Nikon standard.

And yet, that’s just what I did last winter after my long-in-the-tooth D2X began misbehaving on Cajon on a March afternoon. I’d already planned to replace the D2X (my original digital camera from 2005) and a couple aging lenses, the unexpected failure merely accelerated the process. Torn between the outrageous price of its D4 successor and the lackluster specs of the next-in-line D800, I surprised myself and looked to the Canon lineup.

The Canon 5D Mk III seemed to fit the bill. I consulted with 5D owners David Styffe and Misko Kranjec; considered the positive experiences of Canon-packing friends whose opinions and work I respect: Brown, Busse, Bradley, Danneman, Mast, and Valentine to name but a few; read up on some specs, and then placed an over-the-phone order for a camera and lens I'd never held in my hands ... or even seen. A few days earlier, I wasn't even sure what a 5D was.

Impulsive? Me?

Four decades of brand loyalty went out the window when the FedEx girl knocked on the door of our Laguna rental with a shipment from Vistek in Toronto: an 11.5-pound box containing a new Canon 5D Mk III, a spare battery, and a 70-200mm f 2.8 lens.

A wiser man might have spent some time with the 5D manual, but I've never been much for such madness. I know of no better way to get acquainted with a new camera than putting it to work. So after trying a few test frames on the beach, I headed straight back to Cajon Pass.

Testing the water. Putting a new camera and a new brand through the paces as a Pelican cruises the surf at Laguna Beach, Calif.

I made Verdemont by first light on the appointed morning, and ran the 5D through one 16GB card and well into another (not to mention 1s and 0s collected by the still-active D700 being used with Nikkor glass ranging from 17mm to 300mm) before heading back to Laguna at sunset. Cajon was its usual self, serving up the standard fare of nonstop action on one of the most spectacular stages in railroading.

No better way to get acquainted with new equipment: a new Canon meets new BNSF GEs on Cajon Pass.

I became accustomed to reverse-thread lens mounts, backwards focus action and other Canonisms and we got along rather well the 5D and me. A few weeks later, I even traded-in some older Nikon gear on new Canon glass, but I couldn’t shake nagging doubts about durability.

By summer, I’d decided to take a loss on the Canons and return to the Nikon fold. But a hectic schedule delayed the transaction just long enough to persuade me to reassess the situation. When I finally found time to get back to Vistek, I came home with a second Mk III and no need for the NPS card I’d been carrying long enough that my membership traced back to a three-digit number issued by what was then Nikon Professional Technical services.

I was past the point of no return. And yet, recurring concerns over the durability issue left me wondering if I’d made the right decision. Hell, I’d once watched in the rearview mirror of a rented pickup truck as my D700 and 300mm 4.5 tipped lazily over the side of the box and crashed head-long to the desert floor at Siberia, Calif. (Yeah, I knew better, but it worked the first time I relocated the truck.) I picked the sorry victims out of the dirt, brushed them off, and got the shot. A checkup later at the Nikon hospital confirmed that the camera and lens were no worse for the fall. I had no wish or intention to repeat the experiment, but wondered if my Canon gear was equally tough.

Bulletproof. Seconds after being unceremoniously dumped from the back of a moving pickup, a dusty but otherwise unscathed D700 and 300mm f4.5 capture warbonnet-led ethanol empties on the curve at Siberia, Calif., in March 2011. I'm not purposely tough on equipment; it simply comes with the territory. I had no desire to repeat the experiment, but would the Canons uphold the standard?

The verdict was issued on a bitterly cold February 2014 morning in a snowdrift near Salford Ont. Riding an Ontario Southland plow extra; I detrained from the 1927-vintage CP wedge plow to photograph a couple passes through the drifted cut at mileage 4. I attempted to move up the bank while the train reversed to take a run at the cut, but there wasn’t enough time. I had a choice: keep moving and give up the shot, or stand fast and take my chances. I made the only logical decision, knowing full well what I was in for.

The plow came careening around the curve at full speed, stirring up a massive eruption of snow. I fought the urge to flee and held my ground. The 5D rattled off a rapid-fire sequence. I turned and ducked as the snow hit hard and the world went white. When my sight returned, I was buried to the waist and covered with snow. My efforts to shield the cameras slung around my neck were fruitless. The Canons were packed with snow.

Southbound OSR plow rounds the curve at Salford at full speed in a fury of flying snow. I knew full well what I was in for.

One more frame, then turn, duck, and cover.

A throwback to 1977 and the moment of truth.

In a throwback to the 1977 Nikon initiation on the Teeswater Sub, I brushed the snow from the cameras, climbed back aboard the plow and carried on. As we rocked and rolled and bashed through drifts along the Port Burwell and St. Thomas Subs, the Canons performed as if nothing had happened. When the train arrived back at Salford, I climbed down with some of the most satisfying photographs I’ve ever made.

Subjective to be sure, but for my money, the day produced some of the most satisfying photographs I've ever made: riding the wave on the Port Burwell Sub.

Looking back at Beachville.

Looking back at Beachville.

Shooting blind; held out the window at arm's length, the 5D does all the work.

Cleaning up at mileage 2 west of Woodstock.

Homeward bound.

Trust is a vital and hard-earned element of any relationship, even if it’s with a machine. I’ve got nothing but Canons in my camera bag, trusted Canons. It’s a brand new dance.