Nikon ‘D400’ Dream Specs

It’s that time of year again, folks! There is a bit of a lull in new camera announcements, which gives us the chance to focus on what it is we’d really like to have. In my case, here are my ‘Dream specs’ for a D400. I think it is all very feasible and desirable for those interested in such a camera, though I do admit that many serious users and probably most pros have already moved to FX. One day, I may too, but for the moment, I think DX can offer some unique advantages and be a lot more portable to boot. Also, with pro spec lenses like the new Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 being released, there is no reason why the ‘crop formats’ shouldn’t have an equally serious future.

 

Here they are-

  1. New 24mp sensor with faster readout, better dynamic range and no AA filter. A step up from the D7100, in other words, to justify getting a better camera. Too many cameras these days seem to outperform their sensors, or occasionally visa-versa. A balance would get this right, though I’ll add I’d be pretty happy just with the advances of the D7100, though I’d consider it a bit short-sighted to release it like that. This should be a camera that lasts and impresses, like the D800 big brother.
  2. Better video (1080p at 60fps and higher bit-rates), and video AF, perhaps with on-sensor phase-detect. This would improve live-view, even if it falls short of that on the mirrorless cameras. With focus-peaking, we’d finally have an accessible way to MF on a DX DSLR. We’d have it now, not when Nikon’s mirrorless APS-C range finally comes out and scales to this type of body, which in mirrorless terms I’d compare to the Panasonic GH3.
  3. I’d also like a tilting screen, which would be especially good if the live view is improved. I use the one on my D5100 a lot and in my view the ‘serious’ DSLRs suffer for its omission. It’s great not only for video, but especially for tripod work, or unusual, creative angles. Plus AF is not always so reliable at smaller apertures on high-density sensors. Why not help us MF like in the good old days, with a wonderful big screen?
  4. A new processor might be needed for all this, especially since we are dealing with 24mp of data, so perhaps Expeed 4?
  5. Since this is a generational camera, it may be time to really move on from the D300 AF and even that in the D800/D7100. Why not move to the next generation, perhaps in a manner linked with on-sensor PDAF? More focus points means better tracking and also, hopefully, more sophisticated face-detection, which comes in very handy on the smaller formats.
  6. Of course, this camera should have a large buffer, whatever a reasonable price can bear, but certainly offering at least D300S performance.
  7. Along with this, we should have around 8-9fps shooting speed. This should be a sports/wildlife compatible camera like the D4, an amateurs’ D4, if you will, but a semi-pro camera in it’s own right, just as the D300 was a poor man’s D3. Perhaps a grip will push it up a notch. The fear for FX sales may be unfounded now that so may pro sports photographers have already gone that route. They can be offered a D4S/X.
  8. The body should be like the D300S/D800, with a choice of CF or SD cards (or perhaps even the new XQD cards). As long as one slot caters for CF many pros will be happy, even if SD has moved very far, it’s all about legacy support for something that is incidentally still very much alive and with great room to grow. It should have all the pro controls and ergonomics, there isn’t much that really needs changing there. If they can find a way to make it a little lighter too, the way the D800 is vs. the D700, that would be nice progress, but I realise I can’t really hold my cake and eat it (or something like that)
  9. There should be an option for film and a built-in scanner for the ultimate in image versatility and backwards compatibility. (Just kidding!!)
  10. Do we really need a ‘10’? Well, hopefully with the new processor, there will be even better in-camera lens correction, with the option to have this effect the Raw file. I’m talking even compensating for lens sharpness issues, which will of course be more of an issue on the new sensors than ever before. It will be interesting to see what can be done on the software side, even on-camera, which could help the project of giving us lighter lenses with better abilities, their aberrations corrected digitally as well as optically where possible.
  11. I know I’m dreaming, but I’d love in-camera shake-reduction, which would bring such benefits to primes and even video use. Now I know many will chime in and say on-lens is better and I’m not denying that, when it exits. Or they’ll say it’s no substitute for cleaner high ISO to freeze the action, which is also true, though to my mind they can compliment each other. But in many cases a lens has no VR and you want to conserve dynamic range by shooting at native ISO, which will always be best, even if it takes a few years to look back and realise the noise reduction wasn’t do good after all. *1
  12. I’d ideally like more processing to be available on the camera. The current presets are either boring (landscape/vivid, etc), or too extreme (‘colour painting’ etc), giving a toy-like quality. Why not have some film simulation modes onboard, to reduce the need to process off-camera, after the event? Also, far better and configurable HDR, even giving a 32bit HDR file (or a I’d settle for a raw file, or 16bit Tiff). I love HDR but am getting pretty tired of bracketing, filling my hard drive with the files and then sitting down to do it later. I’d like some way to ‘compress’ the unnecessary data and the camera is a great place to start.
  13. While we are in the realm of exotic possibilities, why not have in-camera panorama and even multi-capture modes that shift the sensor slightly for extreme resolutions? Or in-camera focus-stacking, for macros? Something like that found on medium format backs. Again, you can do that after the event, but it means more time, more data and less fun. Such features, which suit today’s fast digital cameras to a tee (especially in good light, where we are talking of small fractions of a second for each shot). It may be exotic, but if it is the next level of processing, why not?
  14. It’s taken a while to come to DSLRs and arguably is only really covered by the 6D and a few other Canon cameras, but how about built-in Wi-fi, GPS and a capacitive touch screen to do your editing, AF points and get to all those settings? Doesn’t sound pro? Neither did colour film or autofocus at one point, but now no pro can live without them!
  15. Finally, how about a silent, electronic shutter, preferably with super-fast flash synch? Perhaps it might only work at lower frame-rates, or with reduced AF features, but it would be a very neat feature to have and I’m sure invaluable for many pros.

I could go on, but I think all this is more than enough to justify an upgrade, the ‘d400’ 8, or D9000 designation and to make a keeper camera for the next 5 years. It goes without saying that new lenses would be nice, but if Nikon doesn’t step up to the plate, we can already see Sigma, Tamron and Tokina making efforts, though of course I’d like Nikon to do so. I’m just not sure they will get around to it, what with their FX and 1-Series commitments. One thing they should definitely do is offer a fixed f/4 update to the 16-85mm VR and one, or some new wide DX primes, even if they’re big but light (due to the registration distance). Relying on other companies to make your lenses for you doesn’t sound like a particularly good strategy.

Having a removable IR blocking filter like the Sigma SD1 has would be wonderful, but I concede it’s a feature only a minority of people would even understand the use for. If you could have a removable Bayer filter to convert it to a black and white camera at will, that really would be amazing, but that would perhaps even be impossible with today’s technologies. Beyond that, multilayered sensors like Sigma’s Foveon-Merril would be a great advance, but here we are talking many years, perhaps even a decade.

Some will still say, well, with the full frame for pros and the already excellently specced D7100, isn’t it a bit unrealistic to want more from DX? Well, maybe so, but there are still pro DX lenses being made, of especial interest being the newer Sigmas- the 18-35mm f/1.8 zoom, which is unprecedented and also their 30mm f/1.4, which if it is anything like their incredible full-frame 35mm edition, could be an absolutely stellar lens.

Don’t forget also the potential offered by the ‘speed-booster’ technology, which promises to make full-frame lenses brighter, sharper and wider on a smaller sensor. Without AF, I’m not sure it will be all that useful for a lot of people, but if they can get that together, it will solve a lot of the problems that brought people ‘back’ to full-frame In the first place. I say ‘back’, as it’s still the heavier, less convenient and most expensive format. This may be something pros may be more willing to deal with than others not being paid to carry the gear around. Call me a light-weight, but I’m not sure it’s something I really miss!

*1 I really believe we should be free to shoot handheld and an intelligent on-sensor VR could help make the micro-adjustments possible to make these new high-density sensors more usable. Being stuck on a tripod for good results just isn’t a future that makes any sense. On-lens VR can also compromise lens design. People can always switch it off and use VR on the longer lenses where it works so well. Financially speaking, I’m pretty sure such lenses will still sell, if that’s the real concern holding up development.

Upgradeitis

It is now a pretty tough time to be upgrading cameras. Of course, I really want the benefits of a better body and especially a more advanced sensor, even if (as I say in my last article on Clarity), I’m starting to think the newer sensors give up some definition in search of more flexibility. Perhaps removing the AA filter and using newer software designed for them will help, certainly I would like the lower-light abilities for street shooting and anything handheld, not to mention that wonderful dynamic range boost.

In Nikon-land, as many rue, things are pretty tough. I am still a D300 user and remember when that first came out and I pretty much rushed out to buy it, it being a no-brainer to upgrade from my trusty, but 6mp D70. I ended up loving the image quality and colours, but not so much the increased weight and (my choice entirely) new tendency it gave me to machine-gun shoot on my larger CF card. The incredible and even now hardly surpassed AF meant it got just about every shot and the larger viewfinder and dramatically improved LCD helped here. In short, it gave me a much greater tool, but as with so many things, I’m not so sure it made me a better photographer in the slightest!

At the time, it was released alongside the massive but wonderful D3, which I obviously couldn’t afford. If the later-announced D700 had come sooner, perhaps I would have been tempted by that, even with the higher price-tag, it would allow me to do something I have long missed- shooting with my lens collection at native lengths, rather than cobbling together a collection of almost-right primes (28/35mm being the range I’m talking of, in the search for normal, which in fact 35mm is a little long for, truth be told). I also found myself needing to invest in DX zooms to get back wide-angles, though never liking them as much as a prime. In this, I’ve gone through, (and in fact still have, hoarder that I am), the Tamron 17-50mm, Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8, 18-55mm VR, 18-105mm VR and Tokina 12-24mm, though of course that’s also an ultra-wide.

Of all these, the 17-55mm f/2.8 is undoubtedly the best and I bought it for wedding photography. It has much lower distortion, excellent image quality and extremely fast autofocus in decent light. Yet as it’s massively heavy and doesn’t really offer much control over DOF on my DX camera, which is what you’d really want for such a struggle of man and machine, it doesn’t come out so much and certainly not on a longer trips where weight is a concern. It also has the problem of not being so good at landscape photography, optimised more for events, meaning other lenses actually are sharper for this.

Generally, though a little short, I find the image quality from my affordable Tamron is excellent, very sharp closed down and even good wide-open, where it does pretty well for portraits on the long end if need be. With lens profiles in Lightroom I can fix that distortion at the press of a button and as the colours and sharpness are pretty much excellent for this range, I’m a happy camper- but one without much to compare it to. With the 18mm… range, the kit lens is excellent for IR or travelling light, and is a very good performer. The 18-105mm is good when I can only take one lens, but I do find it a bit soft and not really all that exciting. Still, as a replacement of sorts for my FX Tamron 24-135mm lens I used a lot on film and even on my D70 as an all-in-one (putting up with 36mm as a wide-angle equivalent), it does the job.

Anyway, I digress, though I expect my story is familiar to many users caught in the ‘upgrade loop’ Nikon has created with its current line-up. My only pro camera is a 5-year old D300, with none of the sensor advances I see around me made since. Yet Nikon’s current releases, at anything less than the D800 level (forgetting completely about the mythical and not for me D4), are massive downgrades. The D7100 offers the sensor advances I’d like, though to be honest, I wouldn’t mind an even better one as it seems to be getting a little long in the tooth now and is pretty much the same as the budget D5200 model’s one. Yet I have to sacrifice the pro build, AF On button and the massive D300 buffer. But I do get a much more advanced sensor and even better AF, without breaking the bank too much, especially if I wait a bit for the inevitable reductions and deals.

If I do wish to step up to FX, then I get totally confused. Nikon is essentially pushing me to invest in the D800, or even the superior D800E, just to get rid of the by now pretty much redundant AA filter, moiré not being much of an issue at such stratospheric (for our times, not for the near future) resolutions. Invest! Yet in a couple of years there will be a better one and then, in not too long a future one so much better the D800 will lose at least half it’s value. So really, it is only an investment for successful pros, who will easily make up the difference on their day job, them and serious amateurs who can afford it. Not only that, but I need to get new lenses to make use of the sensor, plus a new computer that hasn’t even been made yet to have easy access to the files. And in all this, I am put off by the snail-like frame-rate, even my D5100 can manage more than 4 frames a second, what is this, 1995? I realise it would need a better processor, but surely they could make one.. oh what’s that… it’ll be in the soon to be released D800S?

Then we have the most tempting, but most sacrificing D600. I can use the same lenses and computer without too much problem. Well, I can use computers that currently exist, anyway. Sure, I may want some more FX glass, but the decent film-stuff will suffice alongside some modern primes. But I don’t get much resolution if I use a DX lens, though it’s better than the 6mp with the D700, and I won’t be able to zoom in as much as I can now either (which I can by cropping the D800). So birding is out. Plus you get a crappy (sorry for my French) AF unit that went out with the dinosaurs, not even designed for FX use. Also, crappy build and controls, considering the $2000 cost of the camera before you get the kit lens. Stick in a proper AF unit, some more buffer and you have a decent camera, but, From Nikon’s point of view, less reason to buy a D7100.

So here you have it. Nikon’s own models fighting with one another for ascendance, with the not so obvious message to either make do, buy a D4, or get more than one of them to make up for their foibles. I know Nikon is a business and needs to make money, though at the same time they can’t afford to annoy their customers too much. I, like many others have moved to other brands for compacts and mirrorless solutions as, to my mind, Nikon gives us no choice, their sensors being too small (other than the new and more interesting Nikon A). At the same time I don’t really believe camera designers are such a cynical bunch. If they could, I am sure they would love to design a perfect, balanced camera like the D300/D200 was for their time, or; earlier, the F90 and F100. I am sure once the processors and so on are ready, the successors to the D600/D800 will be a lot better and more efficient. Yet how long am I expected to wait? This brings me to the obvious short-term solution, if FX is just too hard to manage for many of us; a D400, (or perhaps D9000, in Nikon’s new numbering system).

In my next post, I’ll go into what I’d hope to see in it, as I think it would be the right camera for me. Indeed, I believe Nikon should announce it sooner, rather than later for anyone serious about DX. Otherwise I might just pour my funds into m4/3 equipment that will be lighter to carry around and give me much better manual focus options on the fly. As Nikon have neither kept developing DX the way I’d hoped or offered a balanced full-frame alternative for the semi-pro user.

Prime Lenses on DX- Finding the Right Match

There are still a lot of DX users out there, perhaps millions, many of whom are looking for a good prime for their camera.

I wrote this post about using prime lenses about 2 years ago and it seems to get searched for more than anything else here. There are still a lot of DX users out there, perhaps millions, many of whom are looking for a good prime for their camera.

I think just about everything on it still rings true, especially the advice to try using prime lenses more. When you take photos, you don’t really need to capture everything. The other approach is to see it more like painting, where you only really need a few representative and deeply intended images.

The only thing to add here is that Sigma has remade their 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM lens, which looks to be a slightly wide normal on DX. If it’s anything like as good as their much loved, recently released 35mm f/1.4 HSM, it may well make the grade. Whilst the poort quality control they used to have put me off in the past, especially in the case of this lens, which had many soft copies, I may well take one for a spin… and if it does make for that (nearly) perfect DX lens, all the better!

Perfect Futures

Why Go Prime?

Like a lot of SLR users, after using zooms for a while I decided to go for better photo quality and try out some primes. Zooms make you lazy, they encourage you to let the camera take the picture by zooming in rather than walking over to take a closer look, as you would do normally. They are great for their convenience and indispensable for travel photography, much pro work and just for not needing to change lenses. Yet they aren’t always the best thing for your walkabout, or for focussing on the perfect composition a great photo can have. What follows below is one man’s odyssey in search of the perfect prime lens on DX. Have I found it? I’ll cut to the chase and say not yet, but in the shape of the 24mm on DX, I have found something close enough for me to make…

View original post 3,128 more words

Prime Lenses for DX- Finding the Right Match Part II

A while ago, I made an article about finding the best prime for DX and in the process lamenting the lack of choices here, at least in comparison with FX. I still think it’s true that they are sorely lacking, but decided to take a step back and look at what choices there are and be a bit more positive about them; which means, not so much denying their flaws, so much as appreciating their good points. Even with the progress made in mirrorless formats and the advances in full-frame cameras, I am still on the opinion that a cropped DSLR is the most convenient compromise for picture-taking around now, at least for most people. Full frame and medium format digital both offer far better image quality, yet in a larger, more expensive package. Even people who have such systems may still want a cropped one for travel or convenient back-up.

So here, I’ll take a look at various lenses I’ve used on DX and say what I think of them, though your mileage may vary. I’ll go into them one by one, in order of focal length. Note, this is all on a budget, so there is no mention of the 24mm f/1.4G or 35mm f/1.4G, which are large lenses, essentially designed for working pros.You’ll also notice I opted for the 50mm f/1.8G rather than f/1.4, partly because I already have so many 50mm I can’t justify the cost, but also many reports said the f.1,8 is better. All I know for sure is it’s probably better value. I’ve put a couple of samples after each description, as there’s not much point in a lens that isn’t used, but try to see for yourself not just the subjects, but if you like the way the lens renders them.

Nikon 24mm f/2.8D

Here we have my current fave, giving me a very comfortable 35mm equivalent. Just right. It’s a nice, sharp lens, giving me a pleasingly 3D appearance to the photos. No, I haven’t pixel-peeped, but it seems fine wide open and it’s nice and small, to boot. People see you with this and they think, “here’s a photographer, he loves taking photos, I want to be a part of it”. Well, I hope they think something like that, anyway. This is one lens that could really do with an AF-S update, as it is such a wonderful focal length, it’s a real shame there is no AF on the smaller bodies, though you can use the rangefinder focus-assist, for what it’s worth. I did say this wouldn’t be a complaining post, so I’ll try my best and just add that on a camera with a focusing motor, like the D300/D7000 or soon to emerge D7100, this is no problem at all. Remember, though that as the mega-pixels go up, made-for-film lenses like this will probably look increasingly soft and need more stopping-down to compensate, another reason for an update, methinks.

Ueno Town-8931Ueno Town-8935

Nikon 28mm f/2.8D

The lens above renders this a little redundant right now, but it has produced some very nice images for me. On the lower megapixel bodies, like the D70, to a lesser extent D90/D300, it’s pretty sharp, especially stopped down and has a pleasing bokeh. It also has pretty nice construction, in fact, looking at them side by side I can’t see much difference between this and the 28mm. Only in a crazy world like the one we live in would anyone get both, but that’s how it works with primes- they are collectible. These are my jewels, I don’t really care if there’s some plastic in the construction, as this keeps it light and portable, which is the whole point of a lens you are going to use a lot. A caveman would be much more impressed by our achievements in plastics than metals anyway (probably!)

This lens gets a bad rep because it isn’t really up to the standard of todays 16mp/24mp sensors and there are apparently better MF versions lying around and especially the earlier ‘s’ version (not AF-S, but before the ‘D’) left out a lot of elements, which made for a cheaper, but much worse lens. Since they were mostly reinstalled in the ‘D’ version, it’s a pretty good lens. A bit like the 24mm, it gives a nicely ‘wide normal’ view on DX. Plus, being an FX lens, you can use it on full-frame, too, though probably the image suffers even more.

Koshikawa Korakoen 11-05 - 070 Local Life

Nikon 35mm f/1.8DX

One of a mere handful of Nikon DX lenses, this one is of very modern construction and feather-light. I actually like this light build, as it makes for such a compact package, and I love the AF-S silent focussing. Impressively, it is sharp wide-open, a testament to the technological advances lenses have made (which you’ll find on a lot of new lenses these days). The colours are vivid and pleasing, it is a great ‘digital’ lens. What’s not to like? The rendering lacks some of the quality of its more expensive f/2 sibling. Bokeh can be rough if you aren’t careful, which impedes it as a portrait lens. Also, as with an 35mm on DX, it is a little long, certainly over normal, so your usage will end up reflecting this. Still, a great companion to the smaller DX models that can AF with this and it suits their diminutive size. It is the first sign of Nikon competing with the rise of m4/3. It will be interesting to see how upcoming DX primes (like the upcoming 40mm macro) shape up. If they can have a better bokeh, a more stylish render, they may well knock this off its perch… for the discerning customer, that is, as most will prefer this for its brightness.

Overall, this is my most-used DX prime, I bring it along on trips and take it out when the light drops, or if I have another camera with a zoom handy. Although I’d like something a bit wider, I do get used to it and just zoom with my feet. It is pretty good for close portraits, child photos, food, details, festivals or markets at night. Combined with the high-ISO capabilities of a modern DSLR you have a great combination. Certainly, it’s very sharp and on the whole the bokeh is pleasing. I’m not crazy about it’s overtly ‘made of digital’ rendering, but it certainly does the job and make for some memorable images.

Suwa Jinja Shibuya-8834

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A D400 Soon to Come?

Some more thoughts on DX. Seeing the rumour and then soon after, news of the D7100 got me thinking, positioned as it is above the ‘mid-level’ D5200 and below true semi-pro cameras like the D800. I’m not too sure whether or not I can expect, right now at least, a D400 with such a build. The problem for Nikon would be selling it. Not only is the market for higher-end DX dwindling, it would also mean supporting such a venture, meant originally surely as a stop-gap until FX became affordable. To an extent, with the advent of the D600, this has come to pass. I say to an extent, as that is a mid-range camera with a pretty-much high-end sensor. By having a smaller sensor, you can still make all the por-level features a lot more affordable, due to cost savings. Hence all the mirrorless crop cameras, some of them quite serious machines in their own right.

In the DX world, there have been new lenses periodically released, most of them very good and here I speak of the 40mm f/2.8 macro, 35mm f/1.8 and more recent 10-24mm zoom., but no pro-level models. Even if most people are happy with DX consumer models and a potential D400 with updated sensor, AF etc would be a fantastic camera, the benefits of affordable FX are too much to ignore by enthusiasts. I’m still a DX user but can see why Nikon can only realistically offer FX pro glass right now, which of course works fine on DX despite the huge size of it. To make new pro-level DX glass would divert precious resources and they would certainly like pros to go the FX route after all.

The only problem with this line of thought is the idea that the D600 is equivalent to a D400, as in AF, build and ergonomics it is nowhere close. If I wanted to have those, I’d have to go to the D800, with its slow shooting speed, just as the D700 was the only other option earlier. I’d admit, the D800 is a much more comprehensive camera for our time, with competitive resolution and video with what Canon has been producing all these years. Still, I can’t really afford a D800 right now and I’m not taken with the build of the D600 (or either camera’s prevalent bugs!), Nikon’s taking a huge gamble in effectively raising the price of its semi-pro line to the $3000 mark, plus lenses. Alongside the D7100, with more capability than the D600, I wonder if we may still see a D400 as well. There may even be a new kit lens for it, with constant f/4 aperture. Why? Because even if DX is dying, there is still some life in it, especially for event or sports shooters who don’t need so much resolution. Enthusiast-aimed, f/4 or f/1.8 lenses are aimed at the mass market, whilst f/2.8 zooms and f/1.4 primes are targeted at uncompromising pros.

I’ve always thought the D800’s Achilles heel is its slow speed and I don’t think that would be tolerable in a leading DX camera. Whilst a lot of pros are moving to FX, many enthusiasts can’t afford to, so the gap between D7100 and D800 is massive, only partially filled by the D600, which of course has poor AF for sports or events, not even covering much of the sensor! There is lots of room for a D400, even though the distinct lack of any pro DX lenses speaks against that. People with lots of DX glass may well want a better body to use it on and from Nikon’s point of view, they may also be buyers of expensive FX gear in the future.

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Preview of the D7100

Well, the wait is (almost) over for the D7100. As someone who skipped the D7000, but went for the D5100 for the more advanced sensor, which I can say now I’m very happy with, it is intriguing to see what is available. I have been watching Nikon’s models keenly ever since I originally got my D300, around 5 years ago. Aside from a slight update in the form of the D300S, which certainly modernised the camera for newcomers, all Nikon’s subsequent pro models have been FX and with the semi-pro D600 it seems to many that there may never be a pro DX again. For reasons I’ll go into below, I disagree, but first of all lets see what makes the D7100 such a great upgrade, which I believe it is.

New Features-

  • 24mp sensor, with AA filter removed. This in itself, used with the right lenses, offers a far more detailed and potentially subtly sharper photo. Whilst we are quite used to getting slightly soft photos from DSLRs due to this filter and then digitally sharpening them, it seems to me much more natural to capture the native sharpness being offered. Removing one more item from the imaging chain gets closer to the native performance and for me, despite the risk of moire (which presumably can be fixed digitally when it occurs, if not so well now, more so in the future.) we have a step in the right direction. 24mp also offers similar detail to the D600 and if not nearly the same high-ISO or dynamic range, apparently more than the 16mp sensors gave.
  • D4/D800 level autofocus, using an ‘advanced multi-cam DX3500 module’. I have a similar 51-point DX module being used in my D300, where it is excellent and apparently way better than the unreliable one in the D7000/D600. With the D4 algorithms, this should now have the best AF in any DX camera. Not only that, but the central AF point is usable up to f/8, making teleconverters with lenses like the 70-200mm f/4 useable with a 2X teleconveter and perhaps even the 70-300mm or upcoming 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 with a 1.4x. As someone looking for a lot more reach, this combination is very attractive!
  • The fact that the AF is better than the D600’s should raise eyebrows. AF is more important than you might think, especially with higher MP sensors and bright lenses. It will still suffer from the DSLR problems of back/front focus meaning each lens should be optimised, but at least it will make for an effective action camera, (though see below for the proviso with this.)
  • There’s a new crop mode, bringing a 1.3x crop (making for a 2x crop from the 35mm perspective), facilitating faster shooting and even better use of all those autofocus points. This will make for more reach, whilst retaining about a 16mp capture. Even with shorter lenses, it does make for varied crops as you take the photo and interestingly enough, these will offer the same crop as m4/3 cameras do. Now a 24mm lens will give you 36mm and a 47mm in one. The effect, combined with the usable teleconverter, may be most dramatic with the 80-400mm VR, assuming it is as good as the price suggests. Out of the camera, you’ll have a 120-600mm lens. Use the 1.3 crop and you get a 156-780mm at 5.6. Ramp it up with a 1.4x teleconverter, which we hope works as advertised and you have a massive 220-1090mm lens. If the AF and VR are effective enough, you now have something quite special for birding or safaris. Or even zoos!
  • Better weatherproofing also brings it up to the D300 level. Only the ergonomics are not nearly as good, which means it is still seen as an enthusiast, but not a professional body, something that the relatively low price reflects.
  • It brings better video options, with 1080P at 30fps, at a much increased bitrate, also offering stereo mikes, headphone out and uncompressed HDMI out. For anyone into video, this is a step up to the D5200 level and good news indeed.

On the Downside

Almost everything is an improvement, except for the disappointingly smaller, or at least less effective buffer. Presumably, they simply kept the buffer the same size, but raised the file size, but it all means that it can only shoot constantly at it’s full 7fps for 1 second with raw files. 1 second! Anyone getting this for sports or much wildlife shooting suddenly finds themselves with a handicapped camera in their hands. This little ‘gotcha’ is a dealbreaker for many D300(S) users, which presumably is intentional, so we pony up the cash for a ‘true’ D400 in the summer, or whenever. I find it pretty frustrating in itself and it means that, for now at least, the only other Nikon DSLR suitable for fast sports/wildlife shooting is the monstrously-sized and priced D4.

I’m personally on the fence about this being a true dealbreaker (for me). Of course, it is a massive limitation and I can’t stand it when my D300 freezes up from this, though it takes a lot longer to get there. There are some workarounds, though. First of all a fast SDHC card combined with the presumably faster throughput will help clear it a bit faster, though those seconds of pausing even with the fastest cards will seem like an eternity. Then you could always shoot in jpeg and with the crop mode, neither of which is always desirable, but it would raise the available buffer quite a lot, jumping (in fine jpeg) to 33 or 73, respectively, which is a big advance from the paltry 7 or 12 for Raws. This is one of the benefits of the crop mode itself and something we may see more of in high megapixel cameras to come.

Another potential issue is the lack of total modernisation. It seems the sensor is the same as in the D5200, so if the only issue is IQ, people may well just settle for that model. The LCD, though refined with white pixels for brightness, won’t swing down or out, a great convenience I use a lot on my own D5100, especially on a tripod. There is no touchscreen and the reliance on CDAF in live view means it won’t be able to AF very well in that mode, or be used as an LCD-based camera. Something we are used to in DSLRs, perhaps, but a weakness compared to mirrorless systems.

There is the persistent lack of in-body stablisation and of course this is also absent from almost all of Nikon’s prime lenses. This doesn’t just limit the usable shutter-speed, it also necessitates a tripod for video. Having used VR lenses for video hand-held, I know how well they work. It’s true though that sensor-based VR is seldom active for video, but at a time when video is becoming central, it is a bit of a handicap.

Other potential modernisations are buit-in Wi-Fi and GPS, both requiring bulky adaptors which I can’t see too many people buying into and reduce the camer’s vaunted weatherproofing when used, though more carefully designed, smaller door-flaps help a bit here.

Aside from this, there just isn’t all that much that’s new here. It’s a D300 in a smaller body with a better sensor. The sensor, weathrproofing and AF have simply migrated from other models. Yet in a sense, this is always what the D90/D7000 level of camera is all about. A price-sensitive, comprehensive and upper-mid level camera that can be used for a wide variety of photographic tasks. Aside from the crippled buffer, there isn’t much missing from this and it creates an exciting impression. It just doesn’t scream ‘future proof’ the way some of Nikon’s former DSLRs did. Most users will be more than happy with this model, yet I hope the ‘D400’ innovates more, showing us what the future is made of, with features that have us full on anticipation to try them out for the very first time.

Overall

This camera shows that DX is not only far from dead, but capable of being very exciting. Even without having any new lenses announced with it, the vast collection of on and off brand ones and the use of FX lenses make for a compelling system. The handicap of a small buffer and cramped ergonomics point to a potential D400 (D9000?) to come in the near future, hopefully with an even better sensor and video capabilities. The D7100 is so comprehensive that it is hard to imagine how the two could be differentiated, but the addition of typically pro features could make the difference.

The elephant in the room is of course the rise of mirrorless. So far Nikon has done little to take it seriously. The 1 series has too small a sensor for many users and this interferes with backwards compatibility. I think in the new Nikon A, with it’s 16mp DX sensor and 28mm equivalent lens, we have Nikon’s first foray in that direction, yet it seems to offer nothing unique other than size. It seems that any serious mirrorless camera from Nikon is years off and that even the early generations of a DX sensor-based mirrorless system will be simplistic. Still, as these will mature into primary systems, Nikon has continued it’s policy of making no new serious lenses for DX. It would be nice if the seemingly inevitable D400 brings any new kit lenses with it, but it seems Nikon still wants such users to invest in an FX system, despite the relatively huge sizes involved.

If this is music to the ears of Sony, Olympus and Panasonic, it should be tempered with the realisation that they still have some way to go to satisfy the needs of the typical pro user, especially when it comes to bright (in terms of bokeh abilities) zooms and also longer lenses. The mirrorless systems strength is still to be found in bright primes and good, convenient zooms.  Only when consumers are more willing to consider larger mirrorless lenses that forgo that size advantage, will that change. Which means that DSLRs, love them or loath them, are still the most flexible system cameras around.

DX Futures- the View From 2013

Looking at my stats, as I find myself obsessively doing, I saw that one of my most often hit on pages is “DX Futures”, whilst others relate to Thom Hogan’s speculations, (which are now nearer lamentations) on Nikon’s plans for DX. Ever since the announcement of the Sony NEX 7, there has been some expectation of a D400 with a similar 24mp sensor. In actual fact, what came were better sensors, or perhaps uses of that sensor, in the more budget priced D3200 and more recent D5200. Those entry-level models, whilst capable of astonishing results in the right hands, are no-where near well-specified enough to be the main camera of a serious enthusiast. For this, you need at least the features of a D7000, in terms of speed and build, or preferably the ‘semi-pro’ standard of the D300(S). In fact, only the later makes the semi-pro grade and is currently the nearest a DX user can get to the ergonomics and security of a D800. So, for some time and perhaps still, a 24mp D400 has been expected, yet the future of DX definitely is cloudier now. I can tell you why in two words; ‘D600’ (if that counts as a word!) and ‘mirrorless’.

Whilst we probably will see a D7100 with such a sensor, if not better, it is far from certain that a D400 will make it to the living breathing world of reality. The D600, whist itself a little under-specced, is being offered as the D800 ‘lite’. Now a D400 may well make the cut, with presumably better video (1080p at 60fps) and HDMI out, the D800 AF unit and 7-8fps, which will be a very attractive camera for a lot of people, but if the price is high, it may be a hard choice between that and a D800 or even D600, for those who can’t get both and have actually been waiting for full frame. Plus, the D800 does offer 15mp DX shooting, with fantastic dynamic range, which for many purposes would be more than enough. Okay, but lets say the D600 is really treated the way it should be, as the second rung of full-frame, the D7000/D90 etc choice below the pro (D4) and semi-pro (D800) and above whatever lower-specced one Nikon might make yet. Suppose the D400 comes out and suppose it sells at least okay… which is a worry for Nikon, no doubt. What then, does that mean that there will be a new generation of serious DX lenses to go with it? I have to say, probably not. Yet the answer for that is the second magic word, ‘mirrorless’.

Sooner or later and preferably sooner, to be honest, Nikon needs to have DX mirrorless, or something like it. N1 is an interesting and even fascinating addition, but it’s inability to capture sufficient dynamic range or use existing lenses as anything other than near-telescopes (okay, I exaggerate, as telephotos one and all, though), not to speak of the impossibility of bokeh shots with today’s technology, all says that if Nikon is going to have a serious mirrorless, it will have some aspects of the Canon M. Yet I fully expect it will have much better build, EVF and the fast AF of the 1-series. Such a mount will be able to easily use DX or any AF-S lenses with an adapter, with full AF functions. even better, if the phase-detect is as good as the positively revolutionary Nikon 1. Yet they will be large and ungainly on the small body, they will negate the miniaturisation  slight as it may be compared to smaller sensors, but with pancakes and foldable optics very significant nonetheless. All they will do is entice current users to stay in the system… but a new system with new lenses, which undoubtedly are being planned and designed as we speak.

Which all means that I don’t expect many, or even any DX primes, but rather for Nikon’s main efforts to go into DX-sensor compatible mirrorless lenses, which may well be sharper and better than DX ones, anyway, if the m4/3 system is anything to go by. I have no information about this, by the way, but it does make perfect sense. The process will indeed take years and yes, it is wrong of Nikon to keep DX users ‘hanging on’ for new lenses, but I think most of us know by now that it is an unrealistic expectation both technically and (for Nikon) economically, as their pros and serious users migrate to full-frame, only a minority of serious ones staying solely with DX and those same users would be better-served by a Nikon V2 with DX sensor, light adapter and grips to help use longer lenses. That, anyway is the way I see things going. Which is why I went into m4/3 for my primes, but keep using DX for other uses, as I currently have no need for Full-frame.

Would I get a D400, if it cost more than a D600? It’s a good question. It would certainly have much better performance in many areas. But it wouldn’t offer the wide-angle bokeh and supreme image quality of FX, so it is a toughie. I couldn’t promise either way. Would I go for a serious, competitively priced mirrorless DX, that effectively used my existing lenses and offered great video and high frame-rates? Now that is much more likely, even if it didn’t have a focus motor. It’s a price I’d be willing to pay. Assuming many others think like me, despite the potential for ever-greater sensors in DX as in other sizes, it seems likely that we will only have a turbo-charged D7100/D9000 which will attempt to amalgamate the D300S and D7000 into one body, but whether it will have the build quality of a true ‘D400’ isn’t clear.

Finally, despite their attempts, I don’t think Nikon will be able to tempt enough people into FX with their compromised bodies, or massive FX lenses as they would like. This means there will remain serious, lens-buying DX users who want newer technology than their aging cameras can provide, so Nikon will simply have to offer higher-end DX bodies, or else risk losing users. They also can’t ignore the fact that people leaving DX if they think it’s abandoned, may just as well go the route of Canon, or even m4/3, since they need to get new lenses anyway. Sony especially hopes to cash in here, though as ever their lens selection holds them back. So even if it means them using third-party lenses from Sigma or Tokina, who are making some very interesting options, Nikon would rather keep such users on board and perhaps at some point migrate them to DX-sized mirrorless, or get them over to the FX camp the next time round, when presumably the AF issues and low frame-rates are fully worked out.

Moonography

I’ve spent a fair amount of time documenting beautiful sunrise and sunsets, but only occasionally have taken time out to capture the moon. Yet with the long lens of the P510, things have changed a bit and it is quite possible to get a clear capture of this celestial marvel even handheld at night. Yet, just as the fully risen sun is somewhat predictable and familiar, so too is the moon, to an extent. Zooming in fully, more details become apparent and significant features emerge on a surface which we habitually see illuminated by the reflected sun. You realise that it is in fact a barren rock, yet one with landmarks that we don’t usually see. Perhaps more beautiful, though, is the various colours of the ‘moon rise’ and her relationship with things closer to home. Welcome to my Moonography.

Note- as with other recent posts, these were all taken with my Nikon P510, which is about as good as it gets in a fixed-lens camera for this. I used manual exposure settings, as otherwise the moon is too bright and often used manual zoom set on infinity.

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A Trip to the Zoo With the P510

Zoos are actually a great place for photography- providing, that is, you have a long lens. I thought I’d take out my P510 to Ueno again and take her for a trip to the zoo. One thing I’ve found with zoos, as with birding and any wildlife photography, really- is you can’t have too long a lens. Especially if it’s a zoom and you can shrink it at will. I found a remarkable connection with the animals through this. Whilst I may have looked absurd to some, through the lens I could get closer than my merely human eyes are capable of. Of course, another option would have been to jump in the cage and get even closer that way. But not wanting to be anyone’s lunch course, I opted for the safer option.

Certainly, I found the same joys and limitations as when birding. I could get in astonishingly close, even being able to find abstract patterns of the animal’s skin and isolate them as I took them. I can’t overemphasise too much how meaningful it is to be composing such photos as you take them. Simply to crop afterwards may get the same effect, but (a) it won’t usually have enough resolution for a decent print anymore, as only slight cropping allows this, however high megapixel numbers might seem. Also, (b) it’s far more effective and fun to be seeing what you’ll create. So that’s the positive. The negative is the impossibility of tracking any movement unless it be that of a snail and also the lack of fine detail at the pixel level, something that limiting ISO can help, but you are a far cry from DSLR, or even M4/3 land. So, knowing this, I just got out there and took some images I found remarkable as with less reach they simply wouldn’t be.

See what you think- is an ultrazoom for you?

Birding With the P510

As part of my user report with this remarkable camera, I can share some observations about how it handles for my primary intended use- birding. Firstly, let’s get out of the way that you won’t get the same quality with this camera as with a DSLR, let alone a M4/3 or even Nikon 1 camera. It just isn’t possible, due to the sensor size, even if it is better than such sensors used to be. For serious uses, I’d rather have a DSLR setup. Yet, so often that isn’t possible and even if it were, I currently have no DSLR lens even nearly in this range.

Yet for what it is, it is remarkable. I have been able to get up close and personal with a variety of birds, large and small. I can see them feed, rest, interact, as never before. There is something very inspiring about seeing these creatures, free to fly about, so graceful and beautiful, as if I was right next to them. Leaving aside the photographs for a minute, it can be exhilarating to see them defy gravity in a way we can only do with machines. Even as a spotting scope with added camera features, it is well worth the price of admission. The beautifully hi-res, tilting LCD is a joy to use and whilst the resolution is truly pitiful, just having the EVF helps no end for framing and holding the camera steady.

I have started to capture evocative images that previously would have eluded me. The feeling is of entering an exotic world, one which humans are usually denied entry. To be able to get a reasonably high quality capture (especially at ISO 100, which I try to lock it to) is such a reward. Now follows a few of my captures- see for yourself if they stand out or the quality just isn’t there… something I used to worry about, but no longer consider a deal-breaker. The only thing I would add here, however, is that the AF is no-where near adequate for BIF (birds in flight) photography. It just can’t track the focus fast enough, though it does have a tracking mode that might be useful in some situations. We are talking still birds here, which still (pardon the pun) makes a lot of evocative nature shots possible.

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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