In the chill predawn of the Andean morning the packed shuttle bus rumbled slowly up the steep switchback curves high above the Urubamba River. Dense green jungle lined the road on one one side, dropping away to the mists beneath and the receding junction town of Aguas Calientes. Ahead lay Machu Pichu, lost city of the Incas, photographic highlight of the Central Andes and our final destination after a week on the road.
Eager to catch the first rays of sunlight as dawn rose over the ruins, I crowded through the entrance gate with other photographers, tourists and tagalongs and started towards the top of the ruins for a good angle on the rising sun. First I stopped to adjust camera settings and took a sample shot of a finely crafted Inca stone wall. Blurred. Stop, readjust focus, check exposure and AF. Blurred. Quick, the other camera, different lens, same scene. Blurred at all focal lengths. A total loss.
My mind raced back to the night before. After a long day hiking and a train ride with several delays from Ollantaytambo, we’d checked into our “ecolodge” perched atop a steep stairway. Tired, sick, hungry, and facing a short, sleep-deprived night, I was in a hurry. My Photoflex camera bag tightly packed with two Nikon D700 bodies, all my lenses, flashes etc. lay on the counter. As I fumbled with passport and money the bag had slowly rolled over and fell on the floor. I had quickly picked it up and gone up to our room, not thinking to check everything out thoroughly. Now in the early morning chill it all came back to me.
I can come back. I have the miles. I’ll fly down for a week. How could this happen?
My mind raced. Puzzling how I could to rescue the situation I realized the autofocus kept indicating sharp focus. What did the images look like? Thankfully the D700 has a large bright 3″ color preview. As I zoomed in on my totally blurred image, it looked perfectly sharp. Could that be? I took more shots, catching vertical lines, fine detail, with both cameras, and the previews still looked sharp. It must be the diopters, I realized. Not having glasses I depend on the diopter adjustment to see clearly. The fall had knocked both cameras’ diopters out of adjustment; luckily the lenses still worked OK.
For the rest of the day, and the rest of the trip I shot half-blind. Setting the rough outlines of composition, picking a focal point and guessing depth-of-field from experience, I trusted my images to the autofocus-gods. Only at the hotel that night did I know for sure the shots were really OK.
Back in California I shipped both cameras to Nikon Professional Services. They’d never seen anything like it, but no complaints, they repaired them under warranty. Two lenses didn’t fare so well and ended up being replaced.
The moral of the story: Even when thinks look bleak, or blurry, all isn’t necessarily lost.
… and don’t drop your bag.