It was one picture out of the thousands of my kids I had seen over the years, but this one was different. It was taken by a friend while our families were on a day trip to Carver to ride Thomas the Tank Engine. With the profile angle and the tight crop on his face in the afternoon light she had captured Benjamin, 3, just as the train started to move, with all of a young boy’s innocence and excitement, in one perfectly timed click.
That picture became my screensaver. It ended up in a frame on my desk at home, and it cemented in my mind something I had known for years: If I wanted pictures like that, especially on family vacations, I needed more than the camera on my phone.
After three years of procrastinating, this past spring, I arrived at a hotel swimming pool at Disney World armed with my new Nikon 1 J1. As my daughter, Julia, 7, climbed the steps to a winding slide that would zip her down to the pool in five seconds of screaming ecstasy, I positioned myself by the side of the pool, prepared to find out if my $600 investment was worth it.
. . .
I grew up in a picture-happy household. My father had two cameras, an old Bell and Howell and a newer Canon. This was long before the digital age, when we can hold devices up and away from our faces, looking at a big screen, clicking and seeing results instantly. He was framing his shots through an eyepiece. The rolls of black and white film that we didn’t drop off at the local photo shop we developed in our basement darkroom.
The pictures I shot in my 20s and 30s were on a point-and-shoot Olympus or, later, on my iPhone. Trips to Italy, Spain, driving the Pacific Coast Highway, vacations on the Vineyard and Lake Winnipesaukee were all captured in fine photos. But as I flipped through my pictures one day, I saw there was a sameness to them, as if they were all shot from the same distance, everybody framed identically. It was as if the only way I could take a picture was to stand behind some imaginary line.
The zoom feature on my point-and-shoot never zoomed enough to make a big difference. The flash always caused brutal red eyes. And that delay between pushing the button and the picture actually taking always resulted in missed shots, and getting the shot after the shot. On the other hand, using my iPhone camera, as we all know, meant that I could share pictures instantly.
Then my friend took that shot of Ben with her Nikon D40. None of my pictures looked like that, with such a tight crop. That picture said that she cared about these moments, that they were more than iPhone-worthy.
Booking our trip to Florida was the push I needed. I did not want to rely on my iPhone 4, its constantly fading battery, and its less than ideal zoom. Plus, my kids were reaching their sports-playing, piano-recital days. Pictures of children running 100 yards away or playing the piano at the far end of a dark room were not going to happen without a better camera.
. . .
On a Saturday afternoon, I drove to Newtonville Camera. For two hours, I toyed with a Canon Rebel T3 and a Nikon D3100. They were your typical sturdy, black, single-lens reflex cameras — bulky, not too advanced for beginners, and capable of shooting fast, sharp, high-quality video. I went with the Nikon. As I headed for the door, I saw a guy checking out a much smaller camera.
“What’s that,” I asked the salesman who had been helping me.
“Nikon J1,” he said.
“What’s the difference between that and what I just bought?”
He explained that the biggest difference was the Nikon J1 did not have a viewfinder. As with my iPhone, you took pictures by looking at a screen on the back, something I was already comfortable doing. He said the J1 shot auto-focus, high-definition video, better than the Nikon I’d just purchased, but the picture quality might not be as good. I was struck by its size, barely bigger than a point-and-shoot. Plus, it came with a separate zoom lens that was the equivalent of a 300mm telephoto. The camera bag made the whole package very portable.
Twenty minutes after buying the first camera, I traded it in for a red Nikon J1. And three weeks after that I was waiting at the side of the pool at Disney World.
. . .
As Julia came flying down the slide, arms and legs flailing in all directions, I aimed at the corner where she would emerge from behind a fake boulder. With my iPhone I would have no chance of a decent picture. With my old Olympus point-and-shoot, I might have gotten lucky. With my new camera I fired off 10 pictures in two seconds. As she popped up out of the water, I quickly scanned my results. There she was, in one photo after the next, a series of images that I would otherwise never have captured.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t share the photos instantly, because one drawback of my new camera (a question I should have asked when shopping) is that it’s not Wi-Fi compatible like some similar ones. But sharing pictures was never my motivation for upgrading. I have my iPhone for that.
These images were for us, for our albums, memories, and mantel. And that’s where three of them now sit, in a single frame, a girl in a pink bathing suit zooming down a water slide.
Instead of getting the shot after the shot, I got the shot.Doug Most can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Globedougmost.