Why Zeiss Lenses for Nikon or Canon have no AF

In case anyone is wondering (I know I was) why Zeiss don’t make AF lenses for Nikon or Canon, here’s the real reason.

Due to international licences, it is not possible at the moment for companies outside Japan to offer AF lenses with EF- or F – mount. So we will concentrate on high-end manual focus lenses with those mounts within the next future.

Best regards

Carl Zeiss Lenses Team

 

I’d been thinking it was a technical difficulty, or (more darkly) because of some secret exclusivity agreement with Sony, but it turns out it’s a protective trade issue for the lens makers in Japan- well, at least that’s how I read it. A real shame, as I’d like more usable Zeiss lenses, MF being really hard on a conventional DSLR unless you add a special focusing screen and even then it’s probably hard to be as accurate. That’s not to say there isn’t a joy and beauty in manual focus photography, where you get that more involved in taking a photo, or that MF lenses aren’t (duh) much better for this. I’d just like the option to throw on a Zeiss prime and have some fun shooting with it.

I am thinking of getting a Zeiss 35mm f/2 for my Nikon usage, and just doing my best to MF it. The colour and contrast I see from these lenses is really out of this world and quite different from Nikon’s own output. I don’t say better, but different and the unique and high quality rendering would be worth having. Of course, many would simply say better, but I will have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, we do have this good news. Alongside their high end MF announcements, there are some Zeiss lenses planned for mirrorless systems, which I presume means NEX and M4/3. Even if they aren’t nearly in the same league as their full-frame cousins, they may retain enough characteristics to give that special, Zeiss touch. Certainly, my experience of my 25mm f/1.4 ‘Pana-Leica’ has shown me a scaled down version of a great maker’s lens can give impressive results, in many ways better than the usual. Let’s hope something good comes of this and it’s more than just name branding.

The Future of DX?

Note-the following is culled from my reply to a comment on the post The Future of DX- Some Predictions From Thom Hogan, an issue that I feel is even more relevant now, with mirrorless cameras gaining abilities so quickly, one wonders about the long-term future of the smaller DSLRS. I got so involved in writing it, I thought it best to make a full post, lest it be lost in digital obscurity.

Essentially, it maintains that the DX format is far from dead, nor is it really ‘killable’, whether at the lower end by M4/3, or the higher with full-frame, as it offers a great and times even high-end compromise with the virtues of FX. Digital allows for miniaturisation of resolution as never before and newer lens designs make for bright primes of incredible quality, even at lower prices, designed with the help of computers and mass-produced to exacting standards with modern processes. If phone cameras can make so much progress, can something as relatively large as APS-C really be too small for most uses? More likely too big!

Does DX have a future despite the advent of FX (full-frame) digital systems and their advances? Yes, I think so, absolutely. DX sensor size was and is a compromise format. Looking at it’s history, it was first an attempt to modernise film, though the ill-fated ‘APS’ Advanced Photo System films, which were certainly enough of an advance in convenience for most users, if film had survived as the mainstream media long enough to continue in the face of rising digital. Yet even 35mm film was originally a compromise, with medium format being the choice of pros, 35mm meanwhile offering either acceptable or in the case of specialised films and lenses, stunning quality in a portable package.

Things have moved on and people’s expectations have changed. Ultrawide and telephoto lenses are seen less as exotic and more as integral parts of any real system that wants to be taken seriously. DX quite simply can offer smaller versions of these, with acceptable or astounding (relative to the films that went before) resolution and dynamic range. It captures a lot of information and with the rise of 24mp sensors and presumably lenses to go with them, it could well evolve further.

Compromises tend to do very well. DVD was originally a compromise, limiting resolution for lower processor needs for display and to satisfy Hollywood’s desire to control digital distribution. Then a more convenient distribution system came along (not always legally…), in the form of direct digital downloads. These evolved into HD and full-HD varieties and Blu Ray was unveiled, offering sumptuous quality and gorgeous sound… I know, as I enjoy using it. Yet since digital downloads are so perceptibly close for most users and also offer a decent enough advance over DVD for larger screen (a video equivalent to larger print sizes?), Blu Ray is having trouble gaining faction. Perfection has always had trouble competing with a combination of convenience and decent, if not absolute quality.

DX offers Nikon’s and a lot of company’s best chance of competing with the ‘engineered’ compromise of M4/3. DX will always offer a stop or two of advantage and has the benefit of many legacy lenses of all sizes, especially if we include the altered angles on FX lenses. It can be shrunk and even shrunk further, as we see on Fuji’s new Pro-1 system and the success of NEX (which at least shrink the bodies…) The idea of making FX mainstream is, in my view, doomed and not just for price. The lenses and gear generally are just too big and heavy for our digital age. Telephotos, especially, will have to be longer and with the popularity of capturing amateur sports and birding, etc, this is a clear disadvantage, which continues into the bulky ultra-wides. It’s only real advantage is the easy usage of legacy lenses, which with their lack of built-in motors or stablisation isn’t such an advantage after all, at least in the long run.

Nikon are evidently trying to push FX and will soon offer the D600; a smaller, lighter and well-equipped body, yet one that will need relatively humongous lenses in many cases. Legacy lenses often won’t have much in the way of IQ on high-resolution FX, with light falloff and soft corners. This wasn’t so bad on the D700 perhaps, but with 24mp sensors and up, it will increasingly show. I’m not sure how long people will put up with that in the face of the incredible quality being offered in smaller formats. In fact, my guess is they often won’t, especially as resolution rises, and newer and even larger lenses will need to be offered. My M4/3 25mm Pana-Leica is perhaps the best lens I own and had the format been any larger, the cost of perfection would have been prohibitive.

This isn’t to say that FX doesn’t have a great future- I think it does and may well buy into the D600, partly for all the lenses I already have. Yet Nikon should be careful to remember that due to technological progress, this is most probably the medium format of our day, medium format replacing large format and large format becoming increasingly obscure.

Canon has worked this out and made a foray into DX-sized mirrorless, even after their M4/3-sized (or so) sensor in the G1 X. Nikon should and I believe will do the same, yet in the meantime both companies have lost a lot of sales to the mirrorless makers, customers that it may be hard to win back in many cases. The reason for the neglect, to ‘push people’ to FX, a format they may really neither want nor need (except for specialised applications), a format that the D800 has shown needs the very best lenses to function well at higher pixel densities, is a very risky proposition. Other brands are making the DX primes and even wonderful zooms to go with them.

I have friends who say they don’t mind about weight, but then their actions speak louder than words, when they tend to use lighter lenses, or a smaller camera, given the chance. People with D700s and a 24-70 f/2.8 are picking up an Olympus OM5 (or Panasonic G1X) and saying, “Hey, this does everything I need to and without the chiropractor!” I think the D600 will be a wonderful camera and open up FX, with it’s fantastic control over depth of field, to a lot more people, yet it will never be as mainstream as, say, the D7000, or even more so, the D3100, or D3XXX. Beautiful, sharp, small primes are the future for enthusiasts. People who salivate over Leica will flock to Fujifilm or others offering something similar. In refusing to offer them and making ever-larger lenses instead, Nikon is looking to the past, to mediums format’s mantra of ‘quality at any size’ for inspiration, ignoring a huge and growing market segment as it does so.

And no, in case anyone is wondering, the Nikon 1 as it stands now is in no position to rectify this! Perhaps some time in the misty future when ultra-bright lenses are easily made and it can achieve depth of field control. I’m sure it can offer more than adequate resolution and even dynamic range (just look at the warm response to Sony’s recent RX100). Yet to offer the control over depth of field a larger format has on, say, an f/1.4 lens is talking f/0.8, or even less. Sorry if my maths are out, but whatever the exact figure, it’s science fiction with today’s technology and for me, at least, some control over depth of field and the resulting ‘bokeh’ is essential.

Looking forward to the far future and yes, of course the Nikon 1 system could reign supreme, with unimaginably good sensors and the lenses o take advantage of them. If Leica can make small yet immaculate primes for generations, it must be possible! But so far, no-one has been able to do so affordably. If a format lives or dies with its lenses, we will be waiting years for the 1 system to mature and for this user, at least, it makes more sense to use other systems like NEX or M4/3 in the meantime, alongside my trusty, yet also evolving, DSLRs.

Impressions of The Canon M… A Bridge to the Future

Canon EOS M: hands-on preview of Canon’s first mirrorless EOS: Digital Photography Review.

Canon has, as expected, announced the EOS M – its first mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. Based around the same 18MP APS-C sensor as the recent EOS 650D/T4i, the EOS M is the first model to use a new, smaller ‘EF-M’ lens mount. It is launched alongside two EF-M lenses that use STM stepper motors optimized for use with the camera’s hybrid AF system. As we’ve seen before in the mirrorless sector, the EOS M is predominantly aimed at the point-and-shoot upgrader market looking for DSLR quality and makes greater use of a 650D-style touch-screen interface. We’ve been using the EOS M for a little while and have prepared a preview, looking in more detail at Canon’s first mirrorless EOS camera and how it handles.

It may not be all there yet, but there are a lot of promising signs with Cann’s new mirrorless camera. Its actually the route I hope Nikon goes soon, too. Being based around an APS-C sensor that can autofocus with the EOS range of lenses with a simple, passive adapter fitted, there should be a lot of compatibility and no loss in image quality compared to their DSLR range. Yet such a design does bring compromises compared to smaller-sensor digital ranges.

Lets get those ‘dislikes’ out of the way first. An initial body with few manual controls and what looks like poor ergonomics. Reputedly slow autofocus, especially with most existing EOS lenses. No viewfinder, whether opticlal or electronic. EOS lenses will be comparatively large on such a small body and it’s questionable whether people will really want to use them this way, which will mean people need to buy new ones, anyway. With all this, the sensor is probably a generation or two behind the best ones from Fuji or Sony, as used to such great affect in other APS-C cameras. Lastly, the price is high for what looks loke a scooped up compact, even if it isn’t one.

Now let’s see those positives! First of all, there is nothing to stop Canon from fixing practically all these problems in a better body, perhaps one coming out as soon as this Autumn. An attachable EVF, or even a built-in one as in the Sony Nex-7 or Olympus EM-5 could be added and a newer sensor for better quality. The AF, which already has traces of on-sensor PD-AF, which is suitable for legacy lenses and movement-tracking, could be vastly improved. In the form of the G-series of cameras, especially the newest G1X, Canon has a great range with multiple manual controls and great ergonomics to upgrade to this mount with. In fact, many are surprised they didn’t do so already, though perhaps they are ‘testing the waters’ with a simpler model first. If the body is a tad bigger this way, perhaps like the Panasonic G, or GH models, that’s no problem as far as using existing lenses goes, which is surely the biggest advantage of this design choice.

Now it’s true that Sony and others have adapters that can do this, but they arenall flawed in ne way or another, especially by not offering fast autofocus. The Sony one that does is huge and expensive, making me wonder if a DSLR wouldn’t be better for this. The M4/3 ones have really slow AF, due to no PDAF on their sensors. The best AF is probably on the Nikon 1 series… But who wants a 2-7x multiplier in normal use? The inability to control depth of field here is also pretty limited, it’s no wonder most of the cameras targeted at serious users or pros are based around APS-C or larger sensors. Not everyone is looking for a ‘large compact’, leaving aside some of the exotically bright f/0.95 lenses for M4/3 for the moment.

So although this particular model is limited to the point of uselessness for the likes of me, it bodes very, very well for the future. Even the touch screen interface seems to do a lot right, being capitative and multi-touch (like a smart phone), rather than needing hard presses like the Panasonic models I’ve tried. Although I’d like many more manual controls, for the tactile feeling they bring, a good touch screen would certainly beat laborious menus for the increasingly complex features that digital cameras have these days.

Until a better implementation comes along, I’ll stop short of awarding this a Perfect Future award. This does in the longer term seem like the perfect bridge between DSLRs and mirrorless, especially for those with a large investment in glass. Wether it is successful and pans out to more sophisticated models remains to be seen, but with Canon’s success rate, I can hardly imagine it being a failure. And as a great copier of their ideas in so many fields, I’m hoping for a Nikon alternative, one which gets more right from the start, too (anyone for an APSC V1 with more controls… count me in!

Then sooner or later, though probably a bit later, we’ll have the full-frame mirrorless cameras, the first real competition to the stratospherically pricy Leica M9 range. My own view is that if enough fine, bright primes are made for APS-C sensors, this won’t be as necessary as it now seems, as Fujifilm seems to be demonstrating with their new range. We’ll have to see, though, as the is always room for more quality if there’s a market for it that is.

iPhone 4S Arrives (in my hands!)

I just upgraded to the 4S and have to admit, as usual, Apple did a fantastic job at improving an already good product, not only it’s specs, but in general usability. As a user of the vanilla 4, I didn’t see much point in paying much for the incremental improvements, the same way that I skipped the 3GS. Yet luckily for me, there was a special deal from Softbank which, if I understood it correctly, allowed me to switch with all my former contract annulled, which unbelievably made it cheaper to upgrade than to stay with the 4! Hopefully such deals are the way ahead, as 2-year contracts are way too long for anyone who wants to keep up with the fast-paced advances in the mobile device space.

So, what’s changed? Well, it is a lot faster, web-browsing and the general user interface are probably twice as fast, which makes it smoother to use, a similar feeling I got going from iPhone 3G to 4, or from 4 to my iPad 2 (which has pretty much the same internals as the 4S). The camera is also far faster and from what I’ve seen and heard, ‘takes better pictures’. For me this is great, as it will give me a very nice file to work with, straight from my most convenient device. I’ve already found that the iPhone 4 has much better processing than any compact camera I’ve used, so hopefully this should increase the quality it can capture, certainly in terms of detail (8MP) and dynamic range, with its superior filters. I’ll also have 1080p video, which just in terms of detail is generally much better than 720p, which looks comparatively murky on today’s high-resolution displays.

Once I got my iPad 2, I realised that the bigger screen makes a lot of apps more fun and manageable than on a little iPhone, but there are still a lot of things that suit a phone-like device better. One is Hipstamatic, a retro-camera app that makes for some very creative results and is a lot of fun to use. It’s the fun that makes the difference, the wealth of features and focus on realism making for a lot of samey results and too much attention being paid to technological advances, forgetting that photography is an art as much as a science.

So whilst I have a new smart phone, I see it as just as much a new camera and I intend to retro the photos from it as much as I can (sometimes, anyway!), which funnily enough is the possibility I’m most excited about. You, know, maybe I’ll fire up the ZX Spectrum emulator in it, too, it should be a lot smoother than on my old phone!

Here are a few recent snaps from my ‘4’…

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The D800 Arrives

It’s been a long wait, for some of us a very long wait (and I suppose until it’s in our twitching hands, the wait will continue), but the successor to the legendary D700 has finally been unveiled. For those of us who didn’t want to make the investment in the D700 in this day and age due to it’s perceived ‘lacks’; super-high resolution over 12mp, video capability, the ability to give us a great image with our existing DX lenses, our requests have been met. In spades. With 36.5mp FX resolution and around 15.5mp in DX crop, we have a lot of detail however we shoot. Then, with high bit-rate 1080p video, available uncompressed straight from the HDMI port, we have just about whatever video we might want in this day and age.Before we go further, though, lets have a little recap of how we got to this point, from my own perspective, of course.

Film Days

For a long time, the likes of me were using film SLRs. Sure, they improved with each iteration, but they never really were rendered redundant, at least as far as image quality was concerned. Sure, you could try newer films, or have models with better ergonomics or autofocus capabilities, but whatever you bought into was a ‘full frame’ camera, whose image quality was defined by lens and film, both being interchangeable, though due to the design, not exactly flexible. I personally moved from an  F70 to an F90X, getting a much nicer body with a pro feel. In fact, despite using the same lenses and films, the later blew away the former and offered a much better viewfinder and autofocus, not to mention the sexy body. Yet this was more a case of moving from amateur to pro cameras than an obsession with new technology itself. What really made the difference was lenses and I could comfortably be sure that any investment in them would be lasting, including older ‘legends’.

Digital Nights

Then came along digital, first in high end bodies with tiny megapixel counts, then drifting down-market to materialise in the D100, Nikon’s first semi-affordable DSLR. At 6mp, with a body much like the F100 film camera it was based on, DSLRs were finally in the public’s hands in a big way. Then that same sensor came into the miniaturised and more simply-built D70, my first DSLR and my exit from film. Yet little did I know the true scale of iteration possible with the move to digital. I held out despite a very desirable D200, with pro body and a 10mp sensor to boot, upgrading to a D300 pretty much on the day it arrived. With a much better sensor, capturing not only 12.3mp, but richer dynamic range and the ability to store a 14-bit RAW file, I was suddenly able to capture something much more detailed than I was getting from 35mm film. I started to get more new lenses to make the most of it, most of all to make up for my missing wide-angles, thanks to the 1.5x APS-C crop.

Little did I suspect, but not too long after came the D700, a scaled down D3 and Nikon’s first ‘affordable’, though still very expensive full-frame DSLR. With the same 12mp, it offered far better dynamic range and unheard of high-ISO capture capabilities. But, as a D300 user, I found it a tough sell to buy again so soon, especially when I would only have 12mp capture from a much larger use of the lens. When the D90 came out, it brought with it the potential for HD video capture and Canon turbocharged this with their 5D MkII, a full frame camera that captures video so lush even film studios are using it, along with a massive 22mp resolution, offering cropping and large printing potential I wondered if the D700 could match. Nikon struck back with the D3X, an absurdly expensive (for the likes of me) full-frame camera with a 24mp sensor and no video capabilities and being so heavy, like Nikon’s other pro segment (D)SLRS, it requires a strong man to heft around. So again, still pretty happy with the D300, wait I did, for…

The Latest Generation

Fast forward to the D7000, a camera with a much better sensor, thanks to Sony’s intense development efforts and 1080P video, a new feature for DSLRs that had started to catch on. Though not not quite as good with AF, build or ergonomics as the D*00 series, it is  excellent in it’s own right, bringing great usability and weather-sealing into a smaller body. The new 16mp sensor brought not just third more pixels, but far, far better dynamic range and at least a stop better high ISO. Looking at DXO Mark’s controversial ranking, we can see that the cameras with this very sensor are among the best in the world. In fact, I liked the results from it so much, I bought it’s baby brother, my much-loved D5100. Obsessive HDR machine-gun like clanking is a lot less necessary when you have such a rich image to begin with.

Then, just recently (or so it seems) came the surprise announcement of the D4. Matching the D7000 sensor’s pixel count, only in full-frame goodness, with a sensor reputedly at least as good as the D3S in terms of image quality, though bringing this extra detail and the incredible video capabilities I mentioned before. Yet, there was still only the D700 in the ‘affordable’ category, with all it’s enthusiast-baiting MIA features, just screaming, ‘use me for pictures, not videos or bragging rights, be a better photographer darn it!’ Yet, with many other enthusiasts, I was not to be moved, especially when the rumours were flying thick and fast that something better was in the making…

So here we have it and it is here, the D800. The camera we have dreamed of. I would say in my case, if my detour into DX is not to be permanent, the DSLR I’ve been waiting for for all these years. But hang on a moment, is it really the right one for me, for the likes of me, even? Let’s see and take an impartial look at what this offers. I can hardly call it a review, but it is indeed an outline of the D800, from what we know (or can suspect) so far.

Pros

1* Incredible, mind-blowing detail, for a DSLR at least, bringing 50% more pixel count than even the D3X , which was basically the camera many of us were waiting to be downsized and videoized (not needing the D3S fidelity that much). With this much resolution, we could have something like medium format in our hands, using existing lenses. If not stretching up to the 80mp and beyond heights of true MF digital, at least it would give us something better than we would get from scanned film. Probably.

2* With the large sensor comes DX ability in a full-frame camera, at 15.5mp, much more of a detailed photo than the D3/D3s/D700’s mere 5mp or so, which of course could also be used as a handy ‘digital zoom’ on FX lenses, as after all, anything more than 10mp is enough for most purposes and I’ve actually made incredible prints from 4-6mp, as well all needed to do for years.

3* The new AF and other technical goodies of the D4, with fast face-detect, better low-light abilities and superior 3D tracking. The face-detect, being fast, could well revolutionise many types of shooting.There is even an ability to focus on the face and then meter from it, helping immensely with backlit subjects, which are generally a pain in the you-know-where. A lot of this comes from having Expeed III and the new 91k-pixel metering sensor. It could make it a lot easier to get the picture you want, rather than  the one you don’t want.

4* Amazing dynamic range is promised, perhaps matching the D700 (whose sensor is after all 5 years old), though we will soon know for sure. Since this is an area where film and MF (film or otherwise) have a distinct edge and in fact make DSLRS output look like ugly ducklings, it’s a very important development.

5* Whilst the D3X is super pricy and super-heavy, this is a bit smaller and lighter than a D700, so perhaps coming into D300 territory, which for a lot of enthusiasts is about as large as we’d like to go.

6* The option of a low-pass filter neutralizer, in the form of the D800E, making for pixel-level super-sharp images straight from the camera, something like M9 users now enjoy. It could bring moire effects, though presumably ways to remove it will improve and they high resolution will make it less prevalent than on the M9 (where apparently it crops up).

7* The wonderful viewfinder, inherited and improved from the D700 will blow away anything DX could dream of. Whilst the D700 had only 95% coverage, this will go up to the D3’s 100%, just another ‘luxury feature’ becoming available to the common Joe in this camera.

Cons?

Blasphemy, can I already be listing these now, when the poor little thing is only 1 day old, announcement wise!? Of course, as whatever happens, these may turn out to be issues.

1* There is still no word on the quality of high-ISO shots. Certainly, it won’t be as good as the way higher-priced D4, or D3S, but how about it’s predecessor, the D700? Will it be at least as good as the D7000, seeing as it shares a similar pixel density?  I’ll be very happy if it’s as good as the D700 (very good ISO 3200), at least with good Raw conversion software.

2* Massive files sizes for Raw images. Uncompressed, we are talking 75mb, which will unload into Adobe Lightroom into immense amounts of data, slowing down previews and editing, not to mention the extra storage space needed if we are to keep shooting at the rate we are used to with DSLRs, let alone feel free to use Raw. In fact, I suspect that just as in the early days of using the D70 and then D300 after it, it was quite a while before I could justify using Raw except for difficult or special photos. It’s a camera that cries out for a new computer, screen and storage space, the likes of which have yet to appear in the consumer (cheapskate) realm.

3* A poor frame-rate and probably slow buffer clearance. Whilst the D300 and D700 both give a useful 5/6 fps, with a battery pack an even healthier 8 and the D4 promises an incredible 11, here we drop down to just 4. 4fps! That’s like an old compact and just a little more than my D70’s 3fps. In fact, it’s a bit like the D3X’s paltry 5fps. Sure, for the landscape photographer or most other uses, even 3 is fine, but once you have some movement or sports, more can be merrier. Of course, this is all due to the massive data being shunted around, but as with point 1, it shows how hard it is to use such detail smoothly for the moment.

4* Despite the high resolution and promise of a small medium format camera, it isn’t the later. Not only can MF have a lot more resolution, coming up at 80mp already, but it offers supremely rich 16-bit files, handled as TIFFS reaching even 480mb in size. Of course it may move enough into the territory of the Pentax 645D, or even the Leica S2 to make an impact and it is far, far more affordable and easier to use. Still, the larger lenses of MF can more comfortably cover that huge frame, without needing to be as finely tuned as 35mm-sized ones, with their smaller image circle, which brings us to the next potential drawback…

5* The law of diminishing returns. 24mp was a lot, but 36mp may well be too much resolution for this format, at least with most lenses available today. We will have to see, but perhaps only the best pro zooms and primes will be able to make perfect use of this sensor, or even ‘out resolve’ it. For the enthusiast hoping for such sharp detail in their pictures, it may be necessary to buy new, heavy, expensive lenses and lug them around as well. I’m just guessing, but I suspect the 28-300mm zoom just won’t cut it and even the better-suited 24-120mm will struggle as well. I have already sold on lenses that didn’t bring me sharp results on my D300 and up (megapixel-wise) cameras. They had worked admirably on my 6 mp D70, but I just kept getting one soft image after another on the finer sensors.

6* Even with VR and fast shutter speeds, tripods may be increasingly necessary at this resolution .Camera shake will eat into image sharpness like never before. Presumably smart people will downsize and call it quits, getting sharpness that way. People wanting their full resolution, all the time are bound to be disappointed. In fact, it might be time for a Nikon version of S-Raw (small Raw files), as used by Canon, as people may want the lossless benefits of post-processing raw files without the huge size, unless they actually need it.

7* Of course, despite the smaller size, it is still a big, heavy, expensive camera. All the resources used to buy it could go film-days style, into lenses or even a body of smaller format. The D700, though lighter than a D3/D4 is still a hefty chunk of metal, as are the full-frame lenses. The M9 is full-frame and small and light. So was my otherwise lacking film-using F70D. Heck, film compacts were all ‘full frame’ and many would fit in your pocket. Why can’t Nikon give us a D5100-sized full-frame camera, or even smaller?

The current culture of pro equating to big and hefty has to change. Of course, the D800 is going some way to doing that in itself, at least compared to the D3X, but more progress needs to be made, especially for users of light, small, wide primes who want the image quality but don’t need the whole kit and caboodle. In many cases, it could just slow people down and end up getting left at home, especially in these days of weight restricted air travel. Still, on camera-oriented trips it will be very manageable, it just may be more camera than people really need, even if it sounds so very… sexy!

Summary (for now)

The D800/D800E are groundbreaking cameras, offering unprecedented detail and usability in the DSLR world. They will no doubt sell loads and bring a lot of users, many with full-frame lenses already, into the full-frame world. Yet, this ability comes at a price and FX is not the ‘convenient compromise’ format for the digital realm the way 35mm was for film, at least not yet. Dealing with the files and making the most of the resolution could be very challenging, calling for new equipment and possibly even purchases, to keep that processing chain optimised.

What it does offer is access to the whole world of lenses optimised for the format, if not so much in resolution, though many primes may well be more than up to the task, in wide-angle ability. 20, 24 or 28mm will be just that in a way DX depends on zooms. With the huge viewfinder, manual focusing will be a breeze and this is just about the only format I can say this for, as a DX viewfinder is small and dark by comparison and the compact systems, with their low-resolution EVFs make it cumbersome to MF, though they are getting better at it.

This is a next-generation camera and we are lucky to be seeing it today. We are even more fortunate regarding the price. Yet for all the potential involved, excellent image quality is already available from smaller formats, including Nikon’s own D7000, Sony’s NEX series and Fuji’s efforts. I’m not convinced that APS-C is insufficient for me. Yet the whole range of potential this brings to use with my FX lenses, along with usable manual focus and the deep, intentional DX backwards/forwards compatibility is just mouth-watering!

Shooting with the Nikon D5100

Well, it’s been a while writing for Perfect Futures and I apologise for the delay. There was a time when I’d be saying it was all due to photo-taking and the urge to put them up on Flickr, but right now that wouldn’t be so accurate, as my time seems to be more divided between ‘real life’, photography and checking Facebook, where the cause celebre is writing a couple of lines to encapsulate everything… which of course is what Twitter was trying to be and text messages always were. Are we living in the age of the text, the soundbite, the photo-snap? Perhaps, but I am going to give some more blogging a go regardless, in the hopes that some, somewhere will find it interesting, or even be of like mind.

One thing you definitively learn from photography is the gear only counts for what you can use it for. That massive camera only makes sense if you actually take it out and get good images from it, good images that would make the most of it’s superior IQ. On the smaller scale, the Leica only has a meaning if it is coming out with you and you can still afford the rent and bills after paying for it and of course you got the wife’s approval before you bought it, not having her storm out and leave you with nothing but TV dinners as consolation. You get the picture. Which is why when I gradually found that my seductively portable compacts just don’t take good enough photos to rely on them inspiring me to do my best, I started to look elsewhere. Likewise, I often found the D300 and large lenses just too much camera to take along with my on active outings. I just don’t have the energy to hike with massive slabs of metal around my neck, so something had to give.

In my case, there was a gradual migration of bodies; first the D3000, which was mainly as backup and I couldn’t really accept it as more than that, with it’s minimal controls and D200-era sensor (which is more or less capped at a fairly noisy ISO 800), then the seemingly better D3100, which I have gradually decided just doesn’t capture the rich images I really want to have and now the D5100. Here, despite it not being the most lusted after body ever, I have a kind of camera Nirvana. So, what are it’s good points?

* Fantastic 16mp Sony sensor, from the D7000, the best yet in the DX world.

* Great exposures, perhaps due to the features Expeed 2, also from the D7000.

* A hi-res, swing-out LCD. I’d really been hoping for the high res, as the lower-res screens aren’t much good for reviewing focus, nor for live view. Now, with the tilt-as-you-like action, using a tripod with live-view is a dream (though it be a battery-sapping dream). Live view AF, while improved, is unfortunately still way too slow to realise the other dream of NEX-style waist-level street shooting, but with some creative pre-focusing and a wide lens, that might well be possible. It has already lead to some shots that I quite simply wouldn’t otherwise have managed; eye-level photos of children and dogs, close-ups of ornaments I’m no-where near elastic enough to get otherwise. Some day, all LCDs may well swivel… or even be removable and wireless, leading to some new problems “Hey guys, did you see where I left my LCD??”

* Of course the DX cropped sensor and depth of field potential here. A bit of good and bad with this, as I’d really like full-frame, but I don’t want a gargantuan monster just to get me there (why no small full-frame, Dear Nikon??) and of course, we still await a D800 or so. So the good? Better DOF control than M4/3, much better than CX and light years better than compacts like my LX5. The M9 is quite simply well out of my reach, so I ust compare to what I otherwise might be likely to be using. The bad? The usual DX moaning of having primes that either don’t yet exist or come off with bizarrely different focal lengths than advertised on the tin (well, barrel).

* Good AF, whether it be still or moving thanks to phase-detect. This is of course, the same Nikon Multi-Cam 1000 module as in the D3000 and D3100 and even the D200 in which it debuted

* Fantastic low-light performance (the first time I can realistically use 3200, let alone the occasional 6400 bar-shot).

* Thanks to the sensor, the best yet dynamic range for DX. Making a tonemapped HDR image from one file is a more realistic prospect than ever before… and yes, the camera does have a bracketing feature, so you can do it ‘properly’ too, though with only 3 shots unfortunately.

* 1080p video at.. wait for it… 30fps. Wow, now at last we can get smooth full HD footage. The D5100 also has the fastest live-view AF and the least jello effect yet in DX (I know, the new D4 will go beyond this, though not in these hands). I have already taken the best videos, in terms of picture quality, I’ve ever taken.  Beautiful, memorable and thanks to the new LR4 beta also editable. Simple thing like lightening exposure or fixing white balance can now be done in post, well, by me for once at any rate. The possibilities are endless, especially with the tilting LCD and newer VR lenses making them realistic. You can plug in a microphone if you like, too.

* Small and light, for a DSLR anyway. With battery it weighs 560g.  A mid-level D7000 is 780g, whilst a semi-pro D300s is 840g. Add in a 200-400g lens on top of that, along with your goodies in the backpack for the day out and you can end up with a lot of bulk, which the D5100 minimises (for me), as now my camera and lens weighs about the same as my D300 alone. It also makes it a suitable backup, as I am adding weight and not doubling it. Just what I was looking for in the D3000 series, but without the (to my mind) crippled IQ.

What’s not to like?

* A fairly plasticy feel to what is ultimately a plastic body. Not nearly as sturdy as it’s larger cousins, not weather-sealed. DX is crying out for a mirrorless solution, phase-detect AF from Nikon, but take their time they will, as sales are still brisk and after all, they’ve just launched their CX mini-system.

* A crummy viewfinder and no EVF, but an optical viewfinder at all is in some ways superior, as it’s not limited by resolution or colour-space. Still, you wander how much longer they will keep this up. Truly we have a compromise for the moment, a moment that might well be a few years.

* Slower AF than the D300/D700 et all and a bit slower than the D7000. WAY slower than the J1/V1 which, as I may have said before, is the direction DXis inevitably, if gradually, heading. But having said that, it’s still fast and accurate enough and can track movement okay, unlike most compacts.

* Relative to the new 24mp sensor, lower resolution. I’m not sure how much resolution we really need, but surely more is always better, all other things being equal

* Ugly (some say). Pragmatically designed and actually kind of cute (I say). The fact this isn’t seen as ‘retro’ now doesn’t mean it won’t be viewed as an artistic period piece a few decades from now. Unlikely, though and at best it’s a plain Jane. I actually think Nikon slipped up a bit here, as looks do play a part and for a lot of people this is about as much as they can see themselves spending on a camera, though I can see their ‘we have the D7000, you know?’ thinking here.

* Big and chunky compared to it’s mirrorless competition. Yes, I said that. Entry/lower-end DSLR’s aren’t just competing against each other anymore, though their versatility is hard to beat. In fact to my mind all DSLR’s are too big, unless they actually have a big lens mounted. Remember what happened to the dinosaurs, Canikon? Too big for their own good..

* Only mono microphone. Whist you can plug in a stereo mic, not many people are going to. Even my little TZ7 has a stereo mic and very good it is too, quite remarkable even. Seeing as this is a camera being marketed as video-friendly and with the swinging LCD it certainly is, you’t think they’d make more of this.

* Poor battery life in live view mode. I was surprised how quickly this sucked the life out of it.

So overall, I find the minus points to be mere niggles with this class of camera. I find it to be a great compromise body for when I don’t want to D3oo it. With the superior sensor and video, it also makes for a more versatile creature, when I see myself using those functions. I’ll admit, the D7000 would be even better and just a bit heavier, just a bit more expensive. But as a D300 user, that leaves a few boxes unchecked and doesn’t really match it in AF or build or sheer sexiness. If I’m going to step forwards and down, I may as well get some more versitility, with the improved video and flexi-screen. It’s also quite a bit cheaper…

So how do I find myself using this in the real world? Well, I’ll chuck it in my backpack as I go to parties or events. I’ll lake a walk around town, with a prime like the 35mm f/1.8, or Sigma’s gorgeous 50mm f/1.4, which thanks to HSM works fine on it and both make for a remarkable low-light combination. I took it to Thailand, with the 18-105mm more or less permanently attached, at times the 35mm. Not a perfect lens for IQ, but great for travel, where I need wide and often want long, for candids, amongst others (I often struggled with this on my 17-50mm f/2.8, much lighter, but not long enough really for a good portrait).  I bring it along as a second body with my D300, or even with the D3100 if I want to keep it light. A great little team, great IQ and great files at the end of it. Believe it or not, I’d been waiting a long time for a smaller, large-sensor camera that has the quality I desire and uses my lens collection. It even uses my card, battery and case collection from the D3100!

Above all, this is the camera that kept me in the Nikon system (as the D3100 ultimately didn’t quite do it for me), in an increasingly mirrorless world, sensitive-sensor world in which the D300 is so often overkill. I’ll bring it along on short camera trips, it’s fantastic and a true joy to use, but it’s way too much to carry, with everything else I need, on a long and active trip. Roll on the affordable, auto-focussing, large-sensor digital range-finders. I think the Fuji X-Pro 1 may well be the first of many. Until then, let’s enjoy all the wonderful compromises that keep us out there shooting, as in the end, the only camera that matters is the one in your hand.

The 4S Arrives

Some thoughts on the iPhone 4S. Is it an attractive phone? Yes, for sure, it has dual core, possibly 1GB Ram, the retina and dual cameras of the iPhone 4, not to mention a heavily revised camera module with stabilized 1080p video and of course ‘Siri’, the potentially useful digital assistant. Probably, with a smooth-running iOS5, it’ll be one of the best phones in the world.

Will I get one? Well, much as I love Apple products, this one’s not really for me. Why so? Because, as the name implies, its not really a ‘5’ and I already have a regular 4, which I am in fact still paying off the absurdly long 26 month contract for (with around 11 months to go). Break it early and there’s quite a penalty, involving paying back the rest of the phone at the ‘real’, inflated price rather than the subsidized one that made it so affordable, whilst at the same time of course, paying for my new one, not to mention the data fees that continue regardless. I’m pretty sure Apple knows this and spaces out the upgrades, so doing so every 2 generations will be enough for most people, in fact it is a testament to the 4’s success that it’s taken this long (15 months) to need revising.I might get my girlfriend one to replace her aging 3G, though:)

Ultimately, there aren’t really all that many changes from the 4, it’s basically just been turbo-charged to the iPad 2’s specs. In fact compared with the 4S, the APU is the same, or perhaps faster in my iPad, which since I’ve gotten, is where I use most of the powerful apps anyway. The iPhone screen is too darned small for a lot of them, so Im definitely glad to have it and enjoy the ‘true’ app ecosystem that Steve envisioned. Games or complex photo editing just doesn’t go well on the iPhone, whereas on a Pad I have something that in many ways beats a workstation for usability. It’s reached a point, for me at least, where my smart phone just has to be good enough and it’s camera likewise. The iPhone 4 still manages that, thank goodness!

What would I need from a 5? First of all a bigger screen, perhaps through slight extensions and removal of the bezel, at least around 4 inches. Just for watching HD videos this would make a huge difference, not to mention all the apps. Next would be another jump in APU, perhaps to quad-core, if it exists then, though I suppose that could take till the 5S or whatever. I’d want more Ram as I’ll be doing a lot more with it at this point, some of it plugged into a larger monitor and keyboard no doubt, making for a truly portable machine.

Other than that, some wonderful, exotic surprises that would make it irresistible. In fact it’s this sense of newness that makes it attractive at all. One thing I can be sure of- it’ll be better than anything I can imagine sitting here now.

The Panasonic Lumix LX5 Review

Notesee below for comments on the changes from the September 2011 2.0 firmware release.

The Panasonic Lumix LX5 is a very capable camera, especially for it’s size, offering unusual speed and low-light capability  as compacts go. Having such a bright lens, even reasonably so at the long end (f/2-3.3) and decent high ISO up to 400, in a pinch maybe 640, raw files and an excellent 18mm wide adapter makes for a sophisticated little machine. You can get some excellent photo quality from the sharp lens and even if the length is restricted, at 90 vs 60, it’s a bit better here than the LX3 and the wide angle is more than usual on such cameras, starting at 24mm. Having features like the step zoom, auto memory of zoom and great bracketing help a lot with creative uses of it. On paper, it’s the perfect little camera.

In use it doesn’t quite live up to the expectations, for me at least. I personally find the small, plasticy controls a bit fiddly to use, often needing to delve into the menus for other commands. I also don’t find it as intuitive to use as my DSLRs, or a simple point and shoot, even after a year or so on having it, which suggests there is still a gap in the market for anyone who can make a better alternative for photographers. The ability to customize the function button helps a bit here, as does the dedicated ISO control and others. Coming from a DSLR, using the same control wheel for aperture and exposure compensation is annoying; a second control dial would be helpful. Also, the LCD screen is subpar, as is the low resolution EVF available, though some users find this very handy anyway, which means you won’t really know what you’ve shot until you have a computer in front of you. Another issue is the depth of field- even on low settings, due to the small sensor, just about everything is in focus unless you go really, really close to things, which makes it less interesting for portraits than I’d like.

It is great to have such a sensitive machine, virtually being pocketable. Yet the ergonomics make me think a small M4/3 camera would be preferable. Until they make an attractive one with built in evf, this helps me sit on the fence reasonably comfortably. get used to the quirks and you have a fine little photo-taking machine.

As a side-note, I use this along with the TZ7 when I want to travel light and not miss a shot. This comes out whenever the light dims, or for wide-angle, as the quality is so much better and then when I want to I can zoom into 300mm with the TZ7.

I think overall this is a nice little machine, but I wonder how long it can keep it’s head above water with mirror-less developing and increasing competition from similar cameras from Olympus for one. It’s unique features of having 24mm on the wide end and switchable aspect ratios don’t really make up for the lack of a second control dial and the fiddly nature of the one it has. Panasonic seems to have a habit of packing in features and forgetting how real photographers might want to access them comfortably. This makes this a less than perfect camera, but at it’s price point and size, certainly one of the best ones out there right now.

One more thing- Panasonic is issuing a firmware update in September which should improve the AF speed (which in some modes is already very good), make the LCD image more contrasty and also improve the interface. I for one am pleased they take the camera seriously enough to do this, which should help keep up with the Joneses for another year or so.

Pros

* Very sharp, bright lens, especially at wide angles (ranging 2.0-3.3)
24mm start
* Fast operation and AF thanks to Venus Engine Full HD (which perhaps will even improve in firmware 2.0)
* Fully-featured enthusiast model, including hotshoe, bracketing, various controls.
* Excellent wide angle adapter giving a rare (in the world of compacts) 18mm equivalent
* Rubber grip makes handholding easy
* Power OIS works well
* Very good 720p video even in low light
* Step zoom makes it easy to fix an angle of view and stick with it, like using a prime lens
* Small and light, yet fully featured controls (though see below for caveat), make for a great backup for anyone who wants a small, bright, wide portable lens.
* Decently fast writing of Raw files

Cons

* Poor high ISO above 400, which itself is pushing things
* Short lens compared to the competition (90mm vs 112mm and beyond)
* No small external flash available makes the hot-shoe somewhat redundant
* No EVF and the available one very low resolution
* Poor LCD display (though perhaps the firmware update will help here)
* Fiddly controls
* Only one control dial (and a small one at that)
* No 1080p video
* Mono audio and no provision for external mics
* Dated, unattractive interface operated by button rather than scroll wheel makes finding the settings you want a chore more than a pleasure
* Not looking so good with competing cameras offering brighter lenses and more photographic controls.
* Sometimes gives unnatural colours, especially for skies, which seems to be a Panasonic issue generally
* Jpeg engine gives worse results than competition, this is essentially a Raw camera for many.

Note- A new firmware.

Rather than prematurely update the camera, which like the LX3 before it presumably has a 2 year life cycle, Panasonic released a remarkable firmware update that addresses some of the issues the camera had. One change is the monitor becoming more vivid and more contrasty, as well as providing settings to colour-correct it. I personally do fid it more vivid now, which shows that the dullness I experienced before was not just a hardware issue. Presumably, the former was more ‘natural’, yet a corrected and more appealing preview is welcome.

Another change is to the AF, which does seem to be faster, giving the camera a more ‘zippy’ feeling. I never found it all that slow before, but having it sped up shows me that it was actually a bit sluggish- and still is compared to my DSLRs and presumably the mirrorless generation.

The third notable addition is the ‘miniature affect’ setting, that allows for one part of the image to be in focus and the rest heavily blurred, as if it was a small toy. It takes quite a while to process this, around 3-5 seconds, so it is not for fast shooting, but it is a very classy and configurable option.What this does, for me at least, is make up for the huge depth of field the photos often have, allowing for more artistic effects, while still in the camera. They don’t show up in the Raw file, so either change to Jpeg, or do Jpeg+Raw to get it. You can change the size of the in focus area and it’s location anywhere on the frame, which is very handy and effective, though of course nothing like as good as you could achieve with intense post-processing, for playful snaps, I’ma  fan of it. Also, if you shoot movies with this on, it’ll make for a slow-motion video by a factor of 10, which could well be interesting. Also, videos are now actively stablised, which may well make a difference to them, I’ll have to see.

All in all a very interesting update, which makes the camera a fresher item or me, but doesn’t and perhaps couldn’t help a lot of the cons of the machine. The short lens, the sometimes unappealing colours, the poor high or even middling ISO are all here to stay. Yet, there is still nothing around to beat it to my mind, at least until the smaller mirrorless solutions arrive. I can see myself replacing this with a M 4/3 camera with one of Panasonic’s coming ‘x’ pancake zooms. The price will be a lot more, but so will the quality and of course if I want, I can change the lenses altogether. In the meantime, for it’s small size and price, I can still recommend the LX5.

Farewell to Steve Jobs

Today it is almost as if the technological world I follow so closely has come full circle. The man with the vision that practically started it all and certainly helped keep on its self-perfecting course has passed away, leaving a rich legacy of devices that have not only changed the way we interact, but what we expect from that amorphous concept ‘technology’. Whilst for many years there has been an esoteric air around Apple products, which seemed so stylish but could do so little for the uninitiated, they have risen to prominence by either adopting common standards or creating them anew. For me, Apple’s greatest breakthrough was the iPod- as it brought their love of simplified interfaces and artistic design to ‘the masses’, saving them financially and giving them the very platform that expanded into the iPhone and iPads. There are many dreamers, inventors and daydreamers, but it takes a true poet to bring all these concepts together and make a household name out of them. Steve Jobs was that man.

Just think that only ten years ago, the first iPod emerged. Being expensive, I of course bought into the competition, in this case Creative’s Zen, but if it hadn’t been for Jobs, the entire idea wouldn’t have come to life. Now, there were digital music players, but they were clunky and undesirable by comparison, just as the early smart-phones or tablet computers failed to catch on. I personally love Apple for all they have achieved, but as with any company, there are things to resent as well as love (in fact there was the time they dissed Jobs, for one), so I’ll leave that aside for now, but the fact that they could become the world’s number one tech company under Jobs says a lot about him. Jobs embodied the technological boom we are living through, the great liberal ideas and progressive grasp of the realities of our world and through this made it possible to literally have some of the greatest technologies man can make in the palm of our hands.

Steve is known as an expert in the fields of design, technology and business leadership, but to my mind the depths of his inspiration lie in something deeper. In fact, it is all an expression of his genius, his tapping into something far greater than himself, to share it with the world as a whole. Apple, devices, presentations are all just ‘devices’ or ‘apps’ in them-self. The vision behind them comes from his appreciation that there is more to this life than we casually see. In short, Steve must be remembered as a master- a master who like other masters spent time travelling in India and immersing himself in the great mysteries of the East, emerging from this in his own particular way adapted for his own particular generation. In our time and for our purposes it was the birth of personal communication devices to help create an international, networked culture in which there would be a measure of digital equality such as the world has never experienced in other fields- a natural and instantaneous technology that would be more fun to use than cumbersome. To my mind, to this point, it has culminated in the ever-evolving iPad. Sure, there will be similar devices by others, even better ones in certain respects. But they will be iPads more than ‘tablets’ if they are to succeed. They will be personal, cosy, usable and attractive . For Jobs wasn’t dreaming of consumer devices. He was dreaming of devices to help the average consumer, even to do things they had never thought of doing before. It was an expression of great wisdom and compassion, of a dedication far beyond the norm.

For this, he will be timeless and is, from the Perfect Futures perspective, undoubtedly continuing his existence on other spheres as we speak, his work here done to perfection. Just think of the success, not, I may add the success in the face of competition, as in many ways he helped to create the very field in which the competition took place! People have personal computers, laptops, iPods, smart phones, iPads. In many of these areas, right now, the most attractive options to many people are in Apple’s stable, as evinced by sales. Even when seemingly cheaper options exist. Now, in the world of the PC this is more complex, as I really can’t say that Apple’s options are always the best value and in the world of the smartphone there are already a lot of other attractive options. but Apple, through Jobs, managed to be number one. That’s saying something, that’s saying a lot. Not so much about Steve Jobs himself, but more about whatever it is he tapped into, the great universal energy, or the spirit of liberal progress in humanity. I’m not sure exactly. But we shouldn’t turn this occasion into ego-worship of a man who had clearly to a great extent left his personal ego behind. We should celebrate the wonder of creation and our incredible capacity to co-create within it. We are no longer cavemen and to a great extent, this is thanks to what Steve Jobs showed us we can do. Any of us… if we just put our mind to it.

RIP, Steve Jobs, though I am sure you are, or will be, creating ever greater things, wherever you find yourself. If anyone helped to bring about a Perfect Future in their lifetime, it was you.

Hands on With the Nikon 1

People following this blog may notice a recent obsession with mirrorless cameras, excited by their new features, in the search for something small yet high quality to carry around. Well, expect this theme to continue, as I go hands on with the new Nikon 1, their sudden but not entirely unexpected entry into the mirrrorless field. I will add one thing here straight off the bat- it would be foolish in my view for anyone to discount this camera out of hand for those wishing to upgrade from a compact. Likewise, it is far from certain that this is Nikon’s last word on the mirrorless scene. Although they have effectively discounted anything quite the same as Micro 4/3 by going smaller than it, I’d be very surprised if they weren’t prepping a NEX-like APS-C version that would (probably with an adapter) work well with F-mount lenses, offering fast AF at least with the AF-S ones. So bearing this all in mind and remembering the target market- upgraders from a compact, lets see how she handles!

J1 Red

The J1- Competition for compacts?

First of all, this is one small camera, about the size of a compact. In the case of the J1, it is also pretty light, though I found the magnesium-alloy V1 to be a bit heavy. Well, magnesium is there to give more strength to the body and for some people it will feel more substantial, more like an old-school rangefinder, despite the modern, minimalist, almost industrial styling. The V1 is the enthusiast model, a bit strange seeing as the camera is purportedly being aimed at compact users, but I suppose we are lucky to have it, as with its built-in EVF yet small size, it is one of the very few mirrorless cameras ready for semi-serious photography right out of the box, without needing a bulky add-on as do the Olympus and smaller Panasonic models. Now, some will say, seeing the size and weight of these, ‘what is the point of the smaller sensor’? Well, I think in terms of the size of lenses, in this realm, less (bulk) is more. Yet, with a body you have to hand-hold and operate effectively, there is a point where the controls would get so small and the feel so insubstantial that you reach the point of diminishing returns. In short, there would be no point in making the body even smaller, though I would hope for smaller and brighter lenses.

It feels decent to hold and the capabilities of the electronics within it really shine. Hearing the uzi-like whirr as it shoots in 60fps and then offers you a perfectly sharp choice make this a great snapshot camera whoever is using it and even on a longer lens, the autofocus dances around the screen as you move the position in a way I’ve never encountered before, including my DSLR. The D300 with its ‘good’ AF hunts with my 70-300 VR2 in less than perfect light, especially when not using the central bank of cross sensors and then it often refuses to even pick up anything. Even a short lens takes time to get in position, wasting valuable microseconds of the moment I was looking at. Here, this process still noticeably takes time, but much less of it. I should add that, like any AF system, it required something contrasty to lock onto. It still is no substitute for prearranged MF, though for most people and many situations AF is, of course, necessary.

Then we have the lenses. Much has been made about how dark they are, how big and heavy the longer ones are, too. What is the point of a sensor half the size of Micro 4/3, if you end up with in many cases actually bigger lenses? Well, first of all, we have to address a certain myth here. This being that a larger sensor and smaller lens will necessarily end up with a better final image. Now, I know no-one is saying a smaller lens will take a better photo, but in asking for this compromise for convenience, it has to be remembered that it is just that, a compromise and one not so different from accepting a smaller sensor. Smaller sensors are inherently cheaper to make and in this case, allow for the deployment of much higher technology in the processing and AF departments, with less area to cater for. Oversized for their format though they may seem, we will have to see from image testing if the Nikon lenses are better, for their cost, than those from other companies. I know, for a start, that the kit lenses for the Sony NEX and Olympus Pens get terrible reviews. By contrast, the larger and more expensive (especially now it has to be ordered separately) Panasonic 14-45mm gets very good reports. Could it be that the search for smaller lenses is turning up underperforming ones? None of this is for free. If the Nikon lenses are the same size, darker, but still optically much better, it may be worth it, at least for the moment. This system is crying out for smaller, brighter lenses, no doubt about it. Yet if the ones it has are very good, and Nikon’s track record with kit lenses make this entirely feasible, then at least we will be seeing some good images right from the get go without any need for users to research, mix and match to get even a decent normal zoom , as on the other systems. This issue is clearest with the absurdly large and heavy 10-100mm, which is as big, yet darker than it’s DX 18-200 counterpart, or the Sony NEX equivalent! So, while I’m not all that happy with the lenses’ size or brightness, making a light wide zoom isn’t all that easy and for the moment this camera shares the mirrorless problem of lenses that are too big for their bodies. Hopefully and if it takes off, others will come.

V1 LCD

V1 LCD- hard to see here, but very sharp and vibrant.

The next thing is the on-camera operation. Now here we are definitely in compact territory. It is a clean, simple menu, but even to switch between A/S/P/Auto modes, you have to use a camera menu. More many photographers, simply not good enough. But here, again, we should pause for thought. The aperture setting originated with film cameras, where there would be an enormous difference between, say, f/2.8 and f/8 (about as high as you should go on such a small sensor without risking diffraction, anyway). Yet, on the Nikon 1, unless you are really close to something, I doubt it will really make all that much discernible difference. There simply isn’t all that much control over DOF, especially with the dark lenses available now. Add to this the fact that a lot of compact users, who are the intended market, wouldn’t even know what this is, and you have a good reason to delegate it to other functions. Usually, there are the obligatory ‘scene modes’ in this place and more recently, ‘Art’ modes, offering B&W, toy camera and a host of others, some of them very interesting. Yet Nikon here goes further, offering both high quality 1080P video at 60i, though there are compacts offering this too, and a kind of moving picture mixing a second of slow-motion footage with a photo. I’m not sure this will catch on, or just be a novelty, but it is interesting to see a blending of Full HD video and a photo in one. It reminds us that digital cameras are becoming more and more electronic imaging devices, constructing the final result from captured data, and less optical mechanical devices, in the traditional vein. I’m not sure about it in this instance, but this kind of thing, especially with photos being shared through the internet more than being printed, may be the ‘photo’ of the future, capturing the mood of the occasion in a way a still photo would find harder. Anyway, as with so much else about this camera, interesting and innovative, even if not photographically essential.

Along with the fast AF, made possible by phase-detect modules being on the sensor itself working along with the usual contrast detect (reliance on the latter alone making for slower AF on most mirrorless systems, though of course it’s gradually getting better), we have a new form of electronic shutter. It can take photos as fast as 1/16000 second, and up to 60fps. Applying this to larger formats with their bright lenses and large sensors, this could be a real game- changer, but even in the realm of upgrades from compacts, it can bring a new types of convenience. This seems to me to be the trump card of this camera, what with its current inability to have significantly smaller dimensions than the competition (if indeed, that could desirably be done at this phase, considering ergonomics and quality lens design). Which brings us conveniently to the marketing question- is it worth paying so much for this? People will vote with their wallets, but I’d say a very clear ‘no’! The price will have to come down a lot, even by as much as half to make it attractive to the likes of me. Consumers who generally buy compacts also probably won’t pay so much for what comes across as so little, however hard Nikon tries to make it attractive. I’m not saying such fast AF and processing isn’t worth what they are asking, just that it’s not something I see many people, consumer or enthusiast, being willing to splash out on, especially seeing as it is a new system with a weak selection of lenses. Having said that, this may be part of Nikon’s plan, lowering the price after a time after they’ve increase the perceived value of the product. Even if they become class leaders, their features of 1080p capture and relatively fast AF are becoming ubiquitous, so I don’t see people spending a high premium just for that. In fact, for the moment the pricing is attracting a lot of internet hostility, much as the PS3’s launch did, so whilst Nikon may see all publicity as a good thing, I think they should be wary of consumer backlashes, tempting people to buy something as a lifestyle accessory and then making it unaffordable. Either way, I expect the price to fall in a pretty dramatic fashion in the coming months.

J1 in white. Just another fashion accessory for girls?

So now we have to ask, who exactly is this being aimed at? As Nikon says, people wanting something better than a conventional compact and prosumers, or even perhaps pros, wanting something significantly smaller and lighter. This is of course the conventional wisdom of mirrorless solutions, but I see Nikon going far beyond this, at least with their advertising campaign and ability to garner so much attention to the device, despite it’s seeming limitations. Even more so than any before it, it is positioned as a consumer electronics device even more than as a camera, appealing to a broader market than photo enthusiasts and perhaps aiming to create new ones, just as the iPod found new MP3 listeners, or the Nintendo DS found new gamers. It is not being marketed as a ‘camera’, but more as a fusion electronic imaging device emphasising video as much as photography, even having the two mixed together. Not only is there the ‘motion snapshot’ mode, but also the ability to take a full-resolution photo while taking a video. The 60fps capture mode is also video-like, automatically taking picks from a video stream in full resolution. I see Nikon as trying to do with this format what Apple did with the iPod, or more recently iPhone and to a lesser extent, iPad, positioning their device as a non-geek lifestyle accessory that will enhance their visual communications. Now this could be BS or a very profound statement of the position of digital cameras in our culture right now. Time will tell if this is a big hit for Nikon, or just a resounding flop.

My bet? Until they can bring down the price and get a small, light wide-ranging zoom on the thing (27-150 equivalent, or so), this just won’t be much of a better option than a compact for much of their target audience. Relatively high prices for what you get vs a DSLR and an unrealistic expectation that people will change lenses (a PITA even for pros, who often gravitate towards Nikon’s 24-120mm on full frame despite the better IQ of their 24-70mm) are really holding back mirrorless cameras, despite their advantages. A more realistic target, especially with the V1, would be the LX5/G12 scene by offering size and convenience and much better quality. As an LX5 user, I’m actually very interested in how it shapes up and the availability of more lenses for it, small wide zooms and even exotic primes in the f/0.9 range. Marketing can do amazing things, though and I’m sure the IQ will be more than enough for the target audience, so their benefit from flexible usage will more than make up for any relative deficit there. I’m pretty sure it will be successful, as actually are all the mirrorless lines, just maybe not quite as much as Nikon hopes.

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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