The modification bug bites

If a piece of equipment is to work better, you have to modify it. But once you start modifying, it’s difficult to stop, writes Abré J Steyn.

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When I was young, cars were cheap and basic – especially if you drove an entry-level Mini. All you needed were four wheels, an engine, seats, a steering wheel and a gearshift, clutch, brake and accelerating pedal. It had no chassis and its suspension was four pieces of rubber. It had no safety-belts, wing mirrors or wind-down windows. Your ventilation system was two pieces of sliding glass, which leaked in the rain. Instrumentation was limited to a speedometer and a fuel gauge. If you wanted it to look or go better, you had to modify it.

Most people modified their cars in some way or another. It was like a bug that bit and wouldn’t let go. Aftermarket accessory shops were almost as numerous as petrol pumps and shelves were loaded with everything your heart could desire or your pocket could afford. Some items were mainly cosmetic, but others, like big-bore carburetors, high-lift cams and free-flow exhaust systems, improved the car’s performance, while wheel spacers and special tyres improved its road-holding. To this day I’m not cured of the bug. But apart from my Land Cruiser, I don’t modify cars anymore – they now leave the factory with every bell and whistle. But I still modify other things to improve their performance, and that includes my cameras.

Modified cameras
I bought my first serious camera in the mid-1960s. It was a very basic Nikon F Single Lens Reflex (SLR). For decades Nikon offered accessories that allowed you to upgrade your camera to keep up-to-date with the newest models. Apart from numerous lenses, you could have special view-finders, through-the-lens light meters, flashes, filters, tripods, motor-drives and bellows attachments for close-up photography.

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Eventually you needed a special cabinet to house all the equipment.The arrival of digital photography changed everything. Digital cameras were like modern cars – the bolt-on gadgets of yesteryear were now all built-in. So, when I switched to digital photography, I decided not to step into the SLR trap again, because SLR cameras never stayed that way. Despite the name, you always ended up with multiple lenses.

As I do mostly game, bird and insect photography, I bought two Panasonic Lumix fixed-lens “super-zooms”, both with 12x zoom capability (equivalent to 430mm telephoto in 35mm). The FZ5 was a smallish, compact camera to take everywhere, and the somewhat larger FZ50 was so versatile that it could do almost everything. It was equipped with the company’s patented “Extra-Optical Zoom” (EZ) facility, which has the unique ability to increase the optical zoom to 21,4x (750mm) when you decrease the megapixel-setting.

Although both have smaller sensors than the big SLRs have, I was happy with their image quality as both had excellent Leica lenses. The EZ facility has no influence on the camera’s wide-angle operation and to improve on that, I obtained a screw-on 0,66x wide-angle converter for landscapes. I now had a camera capable of going from 23mm to 750mm, without ever changing its standard lens. Now that’s what I call a “SINGLE LENS REFLEX”! But soon I wasn’t satisfied anymore. The telephoto-zoom was still insufficient for me.

The bug kept biting
To photograph a small bird and fill the frame at 20m to 30m, I needed more than a 21,4x zoom. So, I invested in a 1,7x Tele-converter, which also screwed onto the front of the lens, almost doubling its long-distance performance. The converter was perfect, increasing my optical telephoto-zoom to a staggering 36,4x, equivalent to a 1 273mm lens. Of course, to achieve this you have to go down to three megapixels, but I rarely use more than five megapixels anyway, as it makes the pictures far too large for my purposes.

However, working with such high telephoto capability presented its own problems. Just to find a high-flying eagle in a clear sky or a small bird in the “everything-looks-alike-tangle” of the underbrush before it’s gone, is virtually impossible. To rectify this, I fabricated a high-visibility front sight, mounted it on the top of the lens and used the auxiliary-flash mounting-bracket on the viewfinder as rear sight.

I could now lock onto any target in seconds. I simply can’t understand why manufactures don’t equip all telephoto lenses this way. Another small problem was that because I seldom use a tripod, but rather a bean-bag or small sandbag to steady the camera, the zoom and focus-adjustment rings kept catching on the sandbag. So I modified an old flash bracket into a snatch-free rail for the camera to rest on.

Where I live, nocturnal animals frequently come to drink at my bird-pond at night and although an auxiliary flash will enable me to photograph them, aiming the camera in the right direction, without being able to see your subject, is literally a shot in the dark. If the animal will tolerate it, using a constant light is far easier than a flash. Having an amazing Led-Lenser M16 torch at my disposal gave me an idea. For its size, this torch is the most powerful I’ve ever seen. Attaching the torch by two Mag-lite clamps under my improvised focusing-rail beneath the lens, I now had a camera/light combination that could take photos 20m far in the darkest night.

I still wished to photograph hyenas and leopards, which prowl the area, but they are far too skittish to get to within 20m. I just had to find a way to sharpen the torch’s brilliant light by concentrating it into a smaller spot. Turning again to the lens-cabinet, I located an old 135mm lens, which I disassembled and modified the front part to fit onto the torch. I could now take night photographs up to 70m away, but the bug wasn’t finished with me yet.

Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail at [email protected].