Tag Archives: nikon

Nikon Df Initial Impressions

Last Monday I managed to quickly test the very new Nikon Df in one of the retail stores here in Brisbane. At that time I also happen to have my old Nikon FM3A with 50/1.4 AiS with me and still loaded with an unfinished roll of the discontinued Kodak Ektachrome slide film. The good thing is I actually got to test my fully manual lens with the Df to check if I can at least nail the focus without the help of a split prism finder. 

The salesperson was very kind and very helpful and he was there to teach me how this camera works. The Df is not your typical digital SLR. It has way more physical dials than my FM3A and each one of them behave differently. 

My initial impression was “wow this is lighter than I thought!”. Being a D700 owner, the Df is definitely light. It probably weighs closer to my much smaller Pentax K5. I have mixed feelings about this. Light is good but then you can’t help but think if the Df has more plastic than metal in it compared to the tank that is the D700. I wonder…

My second impression was that the Df is thicker and taller than my FM3A. It’s bulkier. The size matches the new 50/1.8G that was attached to it quite nicely. The grip though does not feel right. There is no “catch” for your middle finger that would help you grip the camera when you are fiddling the multiple dials with your index finger. 

I couldn’t help but to start taking shots inside the shop. Since this is a display unit, naturally it won’t have any strap. I had to be very careful not to drop it. Like I said, the grip isn’t quite right so I made sure that both my hands were always holding on to the camera. I am a very tactile person. Touch is very very important for me. This is why I’m still using a very old IBM Model M keyboard for my iMac. That is why I suck at any ballgame that I do not have direct contact with the ball (tennis, baseball, etc…). Unfortunately the Df is one of those cameras that doesn’t feel right for me unlike the Olympus E-M1 that fits like a glove. In practice, this may not be much of a problem because you will be using a neck strap so the chances of it dropping while shooting is almost nil. It will be a problem though when you are setting it up on a tripod or when you attach the heavy 70-200/2.8 and have to rely on your weaker left hand to carry the whole weight of the camera and lens. Basically, your right hand is just there to work on the dials and buttons and not much else. I have a theory on why they made the grip this way which I will discuss later.

Dials. I love physical dials. I have never felt this way since I bought my Canon G10. Dials for ISO, aperture, shutter speed, shooting mode, exposure compensation. What’s not to like? If only they behave the same way. What I mean is, to turn the shutter dial for example you have to push a button on top of the dial. To turn the shooting mode dial, you have to pull it up first. To turn the ISO dial you push a very tiny button outside of the dial. And so on… The most annoying is the awkward aperture dial which is situated in front of the body and quite small for what it does. Hello! Aperture adjustment is probably one of the most important dials for adjusting exposure. People who are used to shooting with film cameras for example usually peg the shutter speed to the film’s rated speed and adjust the aperture accordingly as the light changes. That small aperture dial doesn’t cut it. And if you have short fingers like I do, adjusting it without taking your right hand away from the grip is not good. And what the hell is with that tiny PASM dial?! It only adds to the confusion. For example, if the mode is set to A but the shutter dial is set to 125, which one is the source of truth? You are forced to double-check that you are indeed in A mode and check in the viewfinder if the shutter speed does automatically change as you change the aperture with that clumsy dial. If you feel macho and set it to M mode but the shutter dial is set to the weird 1/3 speed, where is the source of truth? That PASM dial is totally unnecessary. My FM3A doesn’t have it. The FM2 doesn’t have it. Nobody shoots in S mode anyway (those who do are those who do not understand exposure). 

I can probably live with the dial annoyances (except for that aperture dial) but for me the biggest annoyance is the grip. For a camera as bulky as the Df, it deserves a better grip. My theory is that the grip has to be made that way so that they can position that awkward aperture dial in that location. That’s two really annoying “features” put side by side. It’s no use complaining when you can’t offer a suggestion so here’s mine: the aperture dial should have been positioned on the left hand side of the body near the lens mount so you can operate it with your left thumb. That way it would feel more natural for us film shooters because that is how we adjust the aperture wheel in our lenses. Or better yet, make the aperture dial big and concentric with the lens mount so that it will feel exactly like how real lenses with aperture adjustments work. By doing this, you can now have a grip that has a catch for your middle finger so you can hold the camera with just your right hand without fear of dropping it. Both problems solved!  You’re welcome.

The sensor would have been nice. At 16Mp, it’s really not bigger than my 12Mp D700 in terms of image size but a significant increase in terms of file size. I have not compared a D4 image with a D700 so I can’t comment on the quality. What I can say though is that I really love the film-like noise profile of my D700.

My verdict? I’ll pass until they redesign the aperture and PASM dials and improved the grip.   



Megapixel Wars Resurrected

Back when digital photography was in its infancy, people were after the camera that had the most megapixel. Resolution was king. And rightly so. Digital photos looked crap when printed large especially when compared to the enlargements made from film. It wasn’t until sensors hit the 6Mp mark that digital photography became a viable alternative to 35mm film photography.

But it didn’t stop there. Megapixels kept climbing. Even point-and-shoot cameras with their tiny sensors reached a whooping 14Mp and that trend continued until the present. Megapixels were the easiest way to trick customers into buying the latest model. People upgraded their 8Mp camera to 10Mp!!!

Now photographers have learned that megapixel isn’t everything. Even some camera manufacturers have learned their lesson. The Canon G10 with 14Mp was upgraded (or downgraded) to 10Mp with the release of the G11 and G12. The megapixel wars are slowly dying…up to a certain point (the latest Nikon D800 has 36Mp!!!).

You’d think that would silence the gear whores. Unfortunately, there’s a new kind of war that’s raging in the “photography” forums and it goes with the initials of “I.Q.”. I’m not talking about intelligence quotient but in fact, it’s actually a dumb war. IQ stands for “Image Quality”.

Image Quality. What exactly are they looking for? Let’s have a look at the “requirements”:

1) High ISO performance. If your new camera can’t produce clean images at ISO 6400 then it’s not good enough.

2) Sharpness. If it looks blurry at 200% zoom then it isn’t sharp enough.

3) Bokeh. Anything slower than f2.8 for zoom lenses or f1.4 for primes isn’t good enough.

4) Add more stupid requirements here.

The war has become uncontrollable and has grown n times!

Seriously, WTF people?!

Let’s tackle those 3 items one by one.

High ISO performance. This is my favorite. Back when real photographers shot with film, people didn’t complain about grain the size of boulders. Grain actually added character to the photograph. Weddings were at times shot with ISO 1600 film when the light dropped considerably. The unfortunate ones who brought only ISO 400 film had to push them during development which made the photos look more “interesting”.

Sharpness. I went to an exhibit of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs and let me tell you that a lot of his photos were really blurry. But they were so awesome that you would never even pick on the picture quality. I was there dragging my jaw on the floor.

Bokeh. People buy these outrageously expensive, fast, heavy lenses. For what?! So you can shoot wide open at f1.4 and complain that you can’t get your focus right? They say it’s for shooting in low light. Yeah, that’s why you want that ISO 6400 as well right? Let me see, where can I find a place that “requires” f1.4 at ISO 6400? Hmmmm…. Uh, none?! Of course somebody out there will always manage to trap himself in a dark cave…everyday…and that makes the purchase fully and truly justifiable. If you really need to shoot in very dim light then use a tripod. You know, that cheap thing with three legs. But I’m sure a tripod isn’t good enough for them so let’s stop right there.

Measurebators will always find a reason to justify their purchase. Go find a pulitzer photograph and see if there’s any that meets the IQ requirements. I actually proposed this challenge to a measurebator and he gave me the photograph of the Afghan Girl that was captured by Steve McCurry. I had to stop myself from laughing inside the train. This guy probably thought that the photograph was captured by a digital Hassy or a Nikon D3s 🙂 I had to explain to him about 135 Kodachrome and told him to go get himself a 6Mp point-and-shoot camera if that was his reference for image quality.

Just for laughs, somebody posted HCB’s photo of the cyclist and winding stairs in a critique forum in Flickr and people started bashing the photograph like it was captured by a n00b who can’t even take a sharp image.

I have to be honest and I am not afraid to tell you that I have been there. How do you think I ended up with a Nikon D700?! I thought that my photographs will become so much better if I upgraded my Canon 40D to a Nikon D700 that was three times more expensive. To my disappointment, the D700 produced exactly the same photographs. My photos still looked like they were captured by me. Actually, I have grown a hatred for my D700 because it sucks big time in landscape photography. I’m not talking about IQ. This darn camera gets in the way of how I work (please refer to my comparison of the D700 and K5).

Been there, to some degree, and done that. Image quality has very little to do with capturing a jaw-dropping photograph.Take it from me, your camera is not to blame if your photos are crap. I own two cameras that others dream of having. My D700 and K5 still have not saved me from taking crap photographs.

Choosing the Dark Side

Canon vs Nikon. They never end. Lucky Sony, Olympus, Pentax and other underdogs for not having to deal with the stupid arguments. But this post isn’t about brand wars.

Expose to the right (ETTR) is a common advice in digital photography. It simply means, try to make sure that you expose your shot with bias towards the right end of the histogram. Make it as bright as practically possible without blowing out the highlights. If you understand how digital photos are stored, this makes sense. You want to maximize every bit of those 12-14 bits.

There is danger in blindly following this advice since the linear profile of digital camera sensors is not very forgiving. Once you clip past a certain limit, no data is stored in the photograph. This is characterized by blown highlights. Unfortunately, it is a lot easier to blow the highlights than lose the shadows.
There is something I discovered just a few months ago that I would like to share with you: It is better to underexpose than expose to the right. Not just underexpose but severely underexpose especially if the dynamic range of the scene is too wide.
Have a look at this photo because I quite pushed the camera beyond its limits when I took the shot:

Very dark isn’t it? The exposure was ISO 400, f8, 30 seconds after +2.5 stops of exposure compensation from the metered reading. That’s pushing the sensor a bit too much. I could have opened up to f5.6 but my cheap lens is very soft at that aperture. Going ISO 800, on the other hand, will only introduce more noise.
Now have a look at the same photo after post processing:

That’s a world of difference! I just pushed the exposure by +1.35 stops and then pulled some of the shadows with fill light. I have managed to extract details in the shadows while preserving the highlights. There’s more: peep all you want but there is barely a trace of luminance or chroma noise even after brightening the shadows. Amazing!!!

The photo was captured with a Pentax K5. It’s really amazing how modern sensors have improved. I would expect the same performance in the Nikon D7000 and Sony A55 because all of them use the same Sony sensor (surprise?!!!).

This is not the only instance where I managed to salvage a seemingly hopeless exposure. I do a lot of HDR work when the scene is too contrasty and I normally bracket at -2,0,+2. Many times, I was able to scrap the HDR because I was able to extract enough information from the -2 frame. Single exposure shots are still way cleaner than HDR so I always try to pull the shadows if I can.

Experiment with your own camera and see how much you can extract from a severely underexposed image. Make sure you shoot RAW.

So who’s coming with me to the dark side?

My new iPad blogging software ruined the original post. Lesson for me: sticking to one buggy software is sometimes better than switching software.

Nikon D700 vs Pentax K5

That’s not a typo. I’m not referring to Nikon’s crop sensor camera the D7000 but it’s professional full frame D700. Yes, I’m comparing a very good, very capable camera from Nikon vs Pentax’s crop sensor K5.

First things first. Both cameras are very good. If you decide to buy either of them, you can be assured of professional image quality output. If your photos are still junk then there’s no one else to blame but yourself.

I bought the D700 because it was on sale at an outrageous 40% off brand new from a legit (not grey) shop. Who could possibly resist that?! And besides, I have already invested in Nikon film cameras so it makes perfect sense to get a digital full frame that can share my existing lenses. Shifting from Canon to Nikon was a necessary evil I had to do but it wasn’t that bad since I haven’t invested in Canon lenses. All I had was the 17-85mm kit lens glued to my 40D. To be honest, I miss that camera. It was very capable, easy to use and infinitely customizable. Which brings us to my major gripes about this Nikon D700:

No memory for custom settings!!! What other modern DSLR camera can’t store your favorite settings aside from Nikon? You expect a camera as expensive as the D700 to be capable of storing user settings in dedicated memory banks. I shoot mostly landscape but I carry only very basic equipment: one camera, one lens and tripod. I never used filters (until recently) except for the default UV to protect my lens from salt spray and dust. If the scene is too contrasty, I bracket and use HDR technique. If you shoot at the proper lighting conditions, you don’t need filters because you could always do that in post. Which means, I expect my camera to do (reasonably) everything I ask it to do. Like bracketing 3 different exposures at 4EV wide, shooting at high speed using the built in timer to avoid camera shake. Unfortunately, the D700 can’t do that!!! To bracket at 4EV wide you need to shoot 5 frames, not 3. If you want high speed shooting, you can’t use the timer. How stupid is that?! And careful if you enabled bracketing mode because to shoot normally you will have to wrestle the darn camera like this: press that small button near the lens mount, turn the thumb wheel twice to cancel the bracket. If you want to bracket again, repeat the same procedure. Now if you are dead serious with HDR, you want at least 8EV wide brackets. That means 9 frames on the D700. As if Nikon RAW files are small. As if your shutter lives forever. Did you just shoot that cat at ISO 1600 in broad daylight? Ooops!!! It would be nice if you could easily reset your camera to your favorite settings to avoid the bloopers, yeah? And please don’t mind the exposure scale because going left is positive and going right is negative (yes, Nikon failed high school algebra). But there is a setting to invert that hidden somewhere deep in the stupid menu. You can read the very thick manual if you are unsure. But careful because that only changes the exposure scale. Everything else will still be in reverse. Seriously, WTF?!

Here comes Pentax K5. Fully weathersealed, built like a tank, in-body stabilization (which means all lenses including manual focus from the 80’s are image stabilized), lighter and way cheaper. And dig this: FIVE, as in five, custom settings memory banks!!! You can couple bracketing with timer. You can bracket 8EV wide with just 5 frames. There’s more: automatic mirror lockup in timer mode! How cool is that! The camera does not get in the way of shooting. It does what I want it to do. It’s the landscape photographer’s dream camera! Enough said. Anything I add here would only make the D700 look like it was crafted by amateurs.

Having said those harsh words against the D700, it still has a special spot in my photography. In controlled environments (e.g. portraiture) it’s still my camera of choice. And the fact that I have invested in quite a few Nikon mount lenses, it makes sense to keep it until it dies.

And that’s why my D700 is gathering dust while my K5 goes wherever I go.