On The Future of Photography

This was a letter written to a friend of mine who almost exclusively uses slide film, despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of digital. Recently (as you can see on my blog), I have started again myself, though for reasons of convenience have not completely ‘gone back to film’. Being able to compare has already convinced me that there despite all the advances of digital so far, there are ways in which film is a much better medium for the creative photographer. In this, even some of its limitations (such as rolls of 24-36 exposures) can be an advantage, as it’s unpredictability. Yet there is another area of contention, surrounding which is actually technically superior. The marketers will quickly say digital, but then again they have hardly any film cameras left to sell… though meanwhile film use has recently surged up again, despite digital making it’s usual constant progress. In fact I think film and especially slide film does have certain advantages, though there are ways I can see digital evolving to overcome these.

I suppose my position here is that whilst digital has so many advantages to film you need to be a bit of a nonconformist to stay with film, film still has some very significant advantages to commonplace digital now. Especially when we are comparing cropped digital with 35mm (or even larger) slide film. For digital to truly displace film in terms of all qualities, if indeed it ever does, it will need to morph into something quite different to what we have now, necessitating a lot more data and processing to have a full, rich photo rather than the shallow approximations we are making do with today. Which isn’t to say at all that great photos aren’t being created. Just that there is far further to go on this route than most merchandising would have you believe.

As I write this note, I note with some regret that certain Fuji films have just been taken out of production (including the intriguing Provia 400X chrome film) and Kodak has stopped their acetate base production, the plastic layer which is treated to then be used for film. Now I am still a fan of film and, more so, of what people can and do produce with film, but these timely reminders go to show that the writing on the wall is probably speaking of something all the more imminent. As photographers, whether enthusiasts or pros, we really should articulate what it is we want digital to be and not simply passively accept mass-market developments such as increased mega-pixels or be seduced by incremental improvements. Digital should strive to achieve what analogue so long ago attained to- warmth, naturalness and intimacy. As you’ll see below, the answer to my mind is partly increased data capture, but also processing methods that abolish brick wall limits. We need a digital SACD (Super Audio CD) that can at least feel limitless simply because the data is so freely optimised to the reality.

So here it is- a letter to a film user, on where photography will head from here…

The Beauty of Slides

To the extent I understand the factors involved, not having used film (or any cameras for that matter) nearly as long as you, I really know what you mean regarding film cameras and positive film. Seeing slide film again was a revelation and one which digital has never given me. I do get the sense that, despite it’s limitations in dynamic range and relative inflexibility, with a slide I am getting a snapshot of the reality itself. Not a processed and digitally estimated version, nor the relatively inconsequential feeling I get from my negative film, though they also seem to have much more depth than digital has (so far, at least). There is a satisfaction in using it.

The colours feel real, the contrast much like I see things, or at least how I ‘feelingly see things’, as a human interpreting the importance of things around me. So, despite the price and unless I find a negative film that can substitute, (Kodak’s recent Ektar 100 is supposed to be a candidate for this, but many say it still isn’t the same), it is worth shooting some slides, just to have a convincing record of what I saw.

It’s not just the specifications, or utility of a camera. It is the sense I get from it as being a copy of the reality I experience. The sense I get from the medium of slide film is of something complete, more or less finished, which is very satisfying. I know what you mean regarding the endless possibilities of digital making the photo itself hard to estimate and of course, this could well extend to a film scan if you let it., but probably not a scanned slide so much I generally keep my editing to a minimum for that reason, depending on the occasion (sharing on the internet vs. printing large).  In some ways, with digital you make many decisions after taking the photos, like editing a film, whereas with film, it all takes place before you shoot.

So with digital, you can take as many photos as you like, but it’s hard to know which is the definitive one. The flexibility of digital is here in some ways it’s downfall. It is easy to sloppily take photos and know you can touch them up later. This sense can also intrudes on the excitement of a trip, I feel. I sense a magic in exposing slides, of truly capturing the moment, a moment that will never, ever, so far as we know, return. I always felt that with slide film and the very act of using it makes my travels feel more magical, too. Sure, some of this is psychological, but isn’t everything? Whereas with digital, the amount of significant moment stretches out into ‘possible opportunities’ and the temptation is to try to capture everything and then choose later.

Also, I’d agree that slides are tangible in a way digital just isn’t. Just like a final print, the slide is a hard copy. Now this is partly a cultural thing, in which data, or anything with a virtual, or computer-based existence is increasingly significant culturally, economically, socially, but it’s only recently that this ‘digital layer’ has gotten so prominent. For a lot of kids, playing on iPads instead of with toys, it is already second-nature. Even if we don’t feel that mere data is tangible, yet it is increasingly omnipresent, from the terabytes flowing around the Internet, to the very sequencing of the human genome. Reducing, or should we say expressing things through a data substrate is spreading everywhere as the digital world grows. What we seem to lack are the tools to access it, to feel it as part of our daily world. In the world of computing, it seems touch-screens and gesture commands are a step forwards. It all still remains to be humanised.

I am pretty sure that with metadata and histories kept of file changes, people will sense the same ‘tangible existence’ with a digital file, even if it is the existence of something still malleable. Though I have to admit that for me too, it is hard with digital to distinguish whether I am dealing with clay or the final sculpture. Much as I love and cherish this malleability (which is wonderful for saving images exposed badly, or taken in difficult circumstances), it is hard to find a closure to the image-making process. With a slide- there it is, success or failure.



Full Frame with an F… Film!

I’ve finally gone full frame… but to FILM! Yes, I decided to reassess where my creativity is going and bring some film into the mix. To do this, I acquired an excellent Nikon F100 for a very reasonable price, which, being one of the most modern Nikon SLR’s available, will allow me to use my newer ‘G’ and ‘VR’ lenses just fine, as well as featuring an advanced (for it’s time) AF and exposure metre. It has a wonderful viewfinder, so can be used in MF modes as well and whilst not quite as good as that in the F6 or the newer FX DSLR’s, is a world apart from even the reasonable one in my D300 which, being crop-sensor, at the end of the day it just isn’t good enough for manual focusing by a mere human like myself.

Now you may be wondering why someone like me, full of praise for the quality and convenience of digital, even happily using filters and HDR processing, might want to ‘go back’ to film? Well, let’s put it simply, they are at the very heart different mediums and whilst there are things that digital does a whole lot better than film, especially I might add the relatively small 35mm variety that I’ll be using for now, there are other things that are much better on film. I’ll go into the positives for film for now.

One is smoothness and a sense of depth. Film conveys feeling a lot better. It’s rich, subtle and natural looking. Sure, it isn’t as sharp or contrastier, but if you are looking at conveying an impression, a feeling, a sense of atmosphere, that really isn’t the top priority. Digital is sharp and exact and whatever you do, somewhat harsh, some might even say unnaturally so. Neither is fully what we ‘see with our eyes’, nor need they be. They are very different.

Another thing is the smooth transitions of colour that film offers. Digital compresses colour and even as they expand this from 8 to 10, 12 and 14 bits… even if they expand it to 16 bit (as medium format backs have had for some time), you still have the obscene limitation of the Bayer filters that try to average out colour. Sure, there are the Fuji ones that aren’t much better, just trying to randomise this and the truly superior Sigma Foveon Merrill attempts, but the last is restricted to a small subset of very inconvenient cameras which also cost a lot despite only having APS-C cropped sensors. Colour like that in film is still the province of the elite in digital, whatever the vast industry will have you believe.

Then there is the feeling of capture… as you pay for each frame; you have to make it count. This is generally more negative than positive, in terms of cost at least, but it is a fine, artistic and meaningful discipline, that whilst you could follow it with digital it makes little point. Just as a sketch is less convenient than a photograph, so is film less ‘convenient’ than digital… by far. Yet is one really worse overall for this?

Then we come to the main advantage, for me at least the heart of the matter. Film is very highly developed, as are the film cameras to take advantage of it. Even recently, although it may be way less popular, newer developments have made higher film speeds more usable (just as happens to a much more dramatic extent with digital), yet this is just fine-tuning to a more or less fully evolved medium. A great film camera is the end of it’s line. Yet with digital this is far from the case! Next year, or to be fair in terms of full-frame cameras, in 2-4 more years, a radically better iteration will emerge, also unbelievably highly-priced and even if you are happy with what you have, the resale value will have plummeted by perhaps half. Digital cameras are a poor investment and are basically computers, yet unlike computers they are something you use with your hands almost as if they were an extension of your body (with computers you can always get a nicer keyboard or mouse if you really need to).

The ergonomics of digital cameras are only really good with the higher-end ones, like (in terms of state of the art models), the D800, EP-5, or NEX-7. When you go to more reasonably priced ones like the D600, EPL-5 or NEX-6, they collapse, partly to keep costs down, partly, I think, to upsell you to the top-of the range models. The kicker is, unlike a good film camera you could use for a decade, probably not really needing anything else, in fact can even use now, a digital camera is unattractive as the sensors and features are radically better. The high price of progress, lessened massively by having the use of something where progress is more or less complete.

A few specific things happened recently that made realise that it might be good to diversify and explore film again, despite the cost of developing (though I will use it very sparingly, as if it was large-format film, alongside a lot of digital). One was the problem of oil in D600’s, forming splodges on multiple sensors. This put me off buying one, as well as the poor ergonomics and mediocre AF unit it has. A D800 is a better bet, but out of my reach, plus that camera has a very slow 4fps frame-rate, slow at least compared to my aging D300, which can go up to 8 with a battery grip. No doubt a D800 successor will improve this and I’d rather at least wait for that.

Another thing is that these newer FX cameras are very demanding for lenses. I’d probably need to get some new ones, despite my collection of old film-based lenses that work great on film or the D700. So why not get a D700? Well that is indeed an option, but it doesn’t match the dynamic range of film as well as the newer bodies do and if I’m going to upgrade, I may as well go for something newer. Also, I have lots of good DX lenses, it may be better for me to get a D400 and stay in DX… except one as yet doesn’t exist! So, in short, I feel my upgrade paths are uncertain right now.

Another thing is looking back at my old photos, some of my best have been taken with film and this even with all the advances that digital has made in terms of sharpness and perhaps colour accuracy. Also, with all my own technical advances, which were probably accelerated by the instant feedback of digital, along with the passage of time. Yet digital has not made me a better photographer, just a clumsier one! A digital capture lacks feeling for me, it seems to be more a search for absolute perfection than capture of a moment, though I know this may be at least partly sentimental as there are many wonderful photos around taken with digital. Yet they all, even with the latest models, lack a certain richness and feeling that my old film juvenilia exhibits. In fact it even seems to be going backwards, with complex post-processing and editing overtaking and the sheer clarity of the older CCD sensors dying out to these very elastic CMOS ones, that lend themselves to changes after the event and an open-ended interpretation of what the photo actually is.

With film, it is very clear what the photo is- it’s what’s embedded on the negative (or positive). Still, with scanning I can use software to optimise it further, still having that richness and immediacy of a moment captured in time.

Now for all this, I’m not entirely going back to film and certainly not returning to any stage in digital’s long development (though there may be movements to return to CCD cameras, which offer sharper capture, or cameras with simpler features just to keep things uncluttered). I’m using film alongside digital, partly to keep costs down and convenience up. I do intend to scan the film, which is positively laborious, though I may find better ways even to do this. Digital also has certain clear advantages.

It’s sharper and contrastier. It has much, much more resolution in a smaller size. If you want to crop or print (both necessities for photographers), it gives you much greater ability to do so than 35mm film. Having a digital file (whether from film or sensor) lets you change things to your heart’s content, including altering white balance for fluorescent lights, enhancing sunsets or foliage, or even making more radical changes, such as black and white conversions or toy camera emulation a la Instagram. Of course, all this tends to go against the purist ‘the photo I took is the photo’ sense of film. In fact, so much so that a lot of photographers would rather be freed from it and see in the very simplicity of film liberation. Fair enough.

I personally like the freedom to experiment after the fact and would never develop (pardon the pun) the skills to do so with film, regarding all the equipment and chemicals needed for that, but I do also see the necessity for a pure point of capture to start from. Let’s not forget on this context the disdain that medium/large format photographers often had for the more convenient 35mm ‘toy format’. Populism may well be the enemy of artists seeking to express themselves uniquely, often with professional equipment that at least when new, is so much state of the art that consumer prices are out of the question. Certainly, a full-frame camera like the D800, whilst a lot cheaper than its forbears, is also out of most hobbyists’ reach for the moment.

The cost of digital, leaving aside the tendency to upgrade cameras, lenses and even computers to process them on (again, the D800 raises it’s head as a fine example of this, with it’s huge, 36mp raw files straining even the fastest home computers today) can be brought into check in a way film can’t. Endless photos on a ‘roll of film’ known as a memory card, rechargeable Li-Ion batteries that last for hundreds, or even thousands of shots. The rising costs of increasingly ‘niche’ films and their development make prolific film use even more expensive than before and then there is also the waiting time in a world of near-instant Wi-Fi uploads.

Yet for all this, film has its place. It has its magic and richness. It is full of life and in a digital world, which breathes a ray of hope into an increasingly commercialised pursuit. Let humans be humans and nature be natural. At least until digital is perfected and perhaps still even then, there is a need for the already near-perfection of film.


Photographing South-East Asia, 2011

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As some of you may know, I’ve been fortunate enough to go on a few longish trips to SE Asia in the past few years. I love this part of the world and it is a great place for photography. My biggest and most travel-oriented trip was Summer 2011, when I practically brought the kitchen sink along. Tired of being stuck with the perspective of one lens (generally my Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8), I brought a variety of cameras and primes. I actually got good use out of a lot of them, but the heat and weight made it at times very tiring. So for the next trip I had a rethink.

So to save my back and increase my sanity, less came with me in the second trip. I was partly helped by having a new and smaller DSLR (the D5100) that had a better sensor than my D300 and also decent features. So here is what I took and, more importantly why I took it. The fact you want to use something you own is a poor excuse for bringing it ‘on the road’ and bringing something ‘just in case’ may make sense for a band-aid, but not in the world of camera gear. I’ll also add, with the benefit of hindsight whether I found it all that useful.

(I actually wrote this two years ago and have been slow to get it polished for publishing, but never mind, here it is!) For the gear in Summer 2012, please see here. I’ll make a post about 2013’s trip, too, but want to get this out the proverbial door first.

The Summer 2011 Trip



To have a weather-sealed body, as sometimes out in the rainy season. on beaches or boats. Also, to have autofocus with my new ‘street-shooter’, Nikon’s venerable 24mm f/2.8 AFD. Right, that’s AFD, no autofocus motor and pretty much useless in any kind of hurry on a smaller body, which I generally prefer to have in my backpack. I also hadn’t always been happy with my D3100 in Europe, not being sure exactly why, but perhaps it’s relatively flimsy feeling, tendency to overexpose and the smaller viewfinder ended up with me wondering if it alone would do this trip justice, though I definitely prefer it’s weight.

* In hindsight… now I have it, I prefer to use the D5100, as it reduces a lot of weight and I can make do with its small viewfinder.

Nikon D3100

Originally intended as my backup, it got used most days and especially when doing a lot. It is light, reasonably fast and good at focusing. It is for me a world away from a compact and can mount some serious glass, like the Tamron 17-50mm I brought along for it. Probably I should have gotten the better D5100 for this trip, but it had just come out and was really expensive, plus I’d only just gotten the D3100 in February.

* This camera is inadequate as a main tool for me, mostly because of the poor dynamic range, but also the lack of bracketing for HDR and poor video abilities. Yet it does score highly for lowish weight and low light abilities. Newer models are a lot more satisfactory.

Panasonic Lumix LX5

Sometimes you are just heading out for dinner, going for a stroll. you don’t necessarily want a backpack even and this will fit in the pouch around my neck. Also, it’s no slouch, with its 1.1/7″ sensor, it has pretty good dynamic range and low-light ability, for a compact at least.

* A handy little camera, rendered somewhat obsolete by my m43 bodies, which have much better sensors and are still pretty small.

Panasonic Lumix TZ7

This was my pocket superzoom. At 25-300mm, it could compliment whatever else I brought along, especially the LX5 or a D300 restricted to a prime lens, as well as taking decent 720p video. The image quality is way below what I would really want, especially as you zoom in, but it can be nice as a memory-catcher. Having such a range is a lot of fun to have, especially compared to the fast-and-wides I started off with. It really does need good light, even with its VR, due to the dark lens and poor high ISO (more than 200 is pushing it, but I did use it up to 400, just to get the shot).

* Another handy camera, yet the low IQ means I got few keepers, especially above ISO 100. I find the P510 does much better here and without adding too much weight.


Thailand in Summer

I recently got back from another trip to Thailand and just think, wow, what an amazing place! The food, the people, the colours, the scenery, all add up to an amazing, phantasmagoric adventure in a land where everything is done so differently than elsewhere. Thanks to low-cost carriers, this time we flew from one place to another at not too much additional cost from our usual night trains/buses, which take so much time out of the trip. We might wake up one day by misty mountains and the next by crystal-clear, emerald seas.

Of course, I took a retinue of photo gear along for the trip, with the emphasis being on finding the right balance between image quality and weight/bulk. Usually this would have meant a combination of DSLRs and compacts, never really being able to rely on the latter, but getting something ‘better than nothing’ from them. Thanks to Micro 4/3, though and also to the new crop of smaller DX DSLRs, I was able to have a much tighter ‘daily kit’ with some very flexible lenses. My setup was basically my Nikon D5100, with a couple of primes and my trusty 18-105mm. For back-up I had a Panasonic GF1 I picked up the day before we left, with its excellent 14-45mm kit lens and the stunning 25mm f/1.4 Pana-Leica I already had. I’ll say a bit more about my choices in my next post, to spare non camera-geeks from it all, but suffice to say, I was very happy with both the variety and lightness this setup gave me.

A Tuk-Tuk ‘motor-tricycle’ taxi driver takes a break by a busy Bangkok street.

So, back to my trip, where did we go? We started off in Bangkok, hot dusty and Cosmopolitan, though more recently graced with beautiful shopping malls that are more like theme parks and a fast sky-train to navigate the city. Overall, my favourite moments are strolling through night markets to see all the goods on offer, from jewelry and Angry Birds t-shirts to fresh fruit and riding boat-buses through the city to riverside temples, like Wat Pho, with its enormous, graceful reclining Buddha. Seeing the astonished looks on people’s faces as they encounter it for the first time is worth a million and it probably is one of the wonders of the modern world, which I don’t think anyone should miss.

Golden Arhats (disciples on the way to full enlightenment), in Wat Pho Temple, Bangkok.

From there, we went to Chiang Mai for a short trip, where we explored the temples, including an incredible golden one in the mountains overlooking the city, from where you look down to clouds billowing like candy-floss along the green valley. There was some elephant trekking, white-water rafting and a Thai cooking course thrown in. I love the fact in Thailand everything is so accessible, we signed up for these things the night before and had a fantastic time with all of them.

Green hills overlooking Chiang Mai.

Then came the most ‘paradisiacal’ phase of our trip, with about a week in Phuket, including a few days spent on Phi Phi island, said to be one of the most beautiful islands in the world and definitely the most beautiful I’ve even seen, though based on my travels, it has to share that honour with Japan’s Matsushima. We were pretty careful about accommodation here, as after reading reviews we found a lot of it is very sub-par, but can definitely recommend s sea-view room in Phi Phi hotel as an affordable and unforgettable experience. If there are other places like that, I’ve yet to find them.

Approaching the beautiful islands of Phi Phi.

Lastly there were a few days in Bangkok, for shopping, massage and more dining, including a great variety of delicious foods and fruity drinks. Whilst I’m happy with kai yang (roast chicken, usually barbecued on the street) and papaya salad (a spicy,sweet and crunchy salad made with unripe, green papaya fruits), it was a treat to have Tai-suki (the Thai version of sukiyaki) and all kinds of exotic desserts as well.

A singing store-keeper. Bangkok, for all it’s noise and bustle, is a city full of life.

For me, Thailand is still simply the most exotic country I’ve been to. Whilst there are other places that are probably better to travel in simply because they are less touristy and hence less touched by development and commercialism, for fun and adventure Thailand still stands out for me as a place I’ll probably always want to go back to.

Dawn breaks over Phi Phi Island.

Now I have around 7,000 photos (!) and some video clips to sort through, taken on sea, sky and land and pretty soon I hope to post up some of my best shots, including some HDRs and panoramas that need processing. It’s kind of a shame with digital photography that you end up with so many redundant images (especially, I find, when a zoom is involved and you ‘experiment’ with different focal lengths), but I am glad to have the freedom to capture what and how I want. We now have easy access to some excellent gear, that whilst not being perfect, can make for very memorable images without making traveling around too burdensome in terms of lugging things around. I was glad to actively enjoy where I was and capture it, even on the fly at times!

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Prime Lenses on DX- Finding the Right Match

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 me very satisfied with what I have and enjoy casual digital photography in a new way. It’s also a lesson that a wistful desire for something better can sometimes best be satisfied with something that’s been around for a long time.

After enjoying primes on film, the first one I tried on digital was the 50mm f/1.4, Yet I was disappointed to find out with my first DSLR, the D70, it was just a bit too long for walkabout. I soon realised that from being a normal, it had became a nice short portrait lens, though one with good but not amazing bokeh. Liking the function, I then upgraded to Sigma’s massive version,which has been called the ’85mm f/1.4 for DX’. But I still wanted something with a ‘normal’ point of view, so I tried out my 28mm f/2.8. Of course, it was no longer as wide as I’d remembered it, but with the change it became a good, slightly wide ‘normal’ lens for me. In fact, I found myself taking some of my best photos with it, thinking in a way that zooms discouraged, walking up to things and seeing them from their own perspective, which brought out the photographer in me.

One of my most favourite photos. I doubt I'd have composed the same way with a zoom.

When I switched to the D300, I was startled by the increased image quality I was seeing from it’s revolutionary 12MP sensor.I started looking at online lens reviews and saw that reaction to the 28mm I was using was decidedly lukewarm, so I wanted a taste of what I was missing out on. After seeing a lot of positive responses, I tried out the 35mm f/2D. The photo quality was nice, though not quite as exciting as I had hoped for and the bokeh wasn’t so great. I found the images quite soft wide-open and never really all that contrasty, yet there is something about the rendering I like, a sense of quality to it. Also, it’s bigger than the 28 and though not huge, this did eat away at the ‘compact package’ argument and made me think twice about bringing it along.

Looking back on it now, I realise that those extra mm meant it just wasn’t quite the same as the 28. Going out on my walks with it, I found myself painting details, not telling the whole story. Funnily enough, it’s angle of view, 57mm equivalent, is closer to my old 60mm macro than a normal angle, which is actually around 45mm (a classic lens length still occasionally made now, aimed at in Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4 DX). Still, I liked the angle enough to replace it with a smaller, faster 35mm f/1.8DX when it came out. This, especially for it’s price, is a real gem of a lens, very sharp, even wide open and with vivid colours. The bokeh leaves something to be desired, being probably worse than it’s cousin, being quite busy at times, but if you try not to challenge it with complex backgrounds, you can get some great images with it.

I find the 35mm DX good for close portraits, or details.

The Sigma 50mm f/1.4's incredibly creamy bokeh.

So after trying two 35mm I can affirm that both are good, they do differ. The newer DX model is a lot sharper, but with so-so bokeh and the other having better build but producing a slightly dull image, that may be good on low-contrast negative film but looks a bit dated on digital. It’s fine if that’s what you want, but I’m not so sure that’s what I always want. Digital is crisp and detailed, you can always tame that with filters if you want to soften that and I think an optimal digital lens should make use of this, unless you are looking for a special effect, of course. So, basically, I’d give a shout out to the DX version for digital shooters, as it’s not such a big investment, even if you do need to sell it on if you change to full-frame and you have the convenience of AF-S. It’d say the f/2 suits film more, or nostalgic shooters in search of a softer, more analogue look. As far as an affordable f/1.8 G full-frame version goes, Nikon is probably thinking if people can afford FX, they can pony up the dough for their new 35mm f/1.4G, but I think this is more for uber-pros and the super rich than us mere mortals, though I can dream. At that price level, it might be worth it to try out MF with the Carl Zeiss version, which apparently has sublime rendering, giving the feeling of an lens devised more for artists than computer testing.

In Search of Wider Angles (but not wide-angle)

I really wanted a wider angle to shoot with, without necessarily getting that unnatural ‘wide angle look’ that you get at 17 or 18mm on DX. Having lost my confidence in the 28mm, I decided to chose what length I like best. Having shot a lot with Tamron’s 24-135mm lens, I found I was getting some of my best photos at it’s 24mm setting. The same thing was happening with my 12-24mm Tokina. I even found my iPhone 4′, also 35mm equivalent, was giving me great shots and a classic, naturally expressive angle. I found people responded immediately to it’s shots, getting the sense of where i was through them. Had I found a ‘magic length’? Asking around, I found out that 35mm had been a classic for journalists and others for many years, offering a near perfectly balanced viewpoint. A friend had told me he could do 90% of a wedding with one, just moving around to recompose. It wasn’t just me. So I decided that it was time to treat myself. Seeing one sitting around the local Softmap at half the new price, I decided to get Nikon’s f/2.8 24mm.

The iPhone has a great angle of view for street-level photography.

I'm finding the same thing with my 24mm Nikkor

I had some teething difficulties with this, The first held me up for some time, being the relatively poor reviews. Unlike newer lenses, including Nikon’s 24mm or 35mm f/1.4D, or their DX 35mm f/1.8, it isn’t optimized for digital, resulting in relatively poor sharpness wide open, vignetting and people generally people saying their newer zooms do better. Was it really worth spending a lot on a decades-old lens? This had me hung up for months and in fact a couple of times I passed over copies I saw in camera shops, but in the end my question ‘when will Nikon make a cheaper 24mm for DX, like their 35mm f/1.8?’ was answered with a silent ‘perhaps never’ and I realised that a great, lens on the camera now is worth two on the roadmap! Once I did have it i hit another snag, as it back-focused really badly on my D300, so much so that  I took it into Nikon’s service center to have fixed. They did a great job, just by dialing in the right autofocus compensation on the fine-tuning option. The third is the fact that, being an older lens with no built in motor, it can’t autofocus with my smaller D3000 or D3100. This is an annoying problem, as their tiny viewfinders make focusing too hard and despite the D3100 live-view, it is too slow and the screen too low-resolution to use that way. Having the 35mm f/1.8 on that thing is a fantastic little package, fun and light and flexible, so it would be great to have some wider options. Are you listening, Nikon? As far as I know, Nikon has millions of shooters using those models, which brings me too…

A slice of life in the park.

Please Nikon, more Dx Primes, DX primes, DX PRIMES!

The switch from DX from film has in many ways been a great thing for a lot of people, bringing unheard of sharpness, versatility and of course the convenience of unlimited shooting ability, yet the blessing has brought it’s own curse, namely resolution-based shooting that challenges older lenses and a sheer dearth of wide angle prime. There has been great progress in the zooms, with lots of choice of lenses starting at 16-18mm, but for some bizarre reason I can’t fathom, no similar progress with primes. Part of this may well be the difficulty of making a quality wide angle cheaply, even just for DX. To have the quality good enough to rival the zooms it would have to be very good indeed- so perhaps they are avoiding poor reviews by not even trying. Also, many users have already stepped up to FX, especially the pros. In the past, this wasn’t a problem for users, as everyone could use the same lenses in the same way, be it on an F70 or an F5, but with cropped sensors we have a more complex situation, which is still in need of resolution. Will there ever be a full selection of usable lenses for DX, or should those wanting it either get a D700 or leave for another brand, perhaps to use alongside it? Or are the 16mm, 20mm, 24mm AF-S DX lenses ‘on their way’?

With more such primes, the DX format could really be a complete set, even with the smaller bodies like the D3100 or D5100, which despite their limitations, show how convenient this format can get, whilst keeping the same excellent photo quality. Sure, users can mount the older ‘D’ lenses in manual focus, but their viewfinders are too small and dark to do this well, especially on bright lenses with a short depth of field. Live view could help, the same way the LCDs on M 4/3 cameras are a enough for many people, but they are kind of hard to use this way. Now I know they aren’t designed to be pro cameras, but they are enthusiast cameras and Nikon could sell a tonne of wider DX primes to such enthusiasts if they made them. I should note in this context that there is a popular Sigma 30mm f/1.4 HSM DX avaliable, which I avoided because of their infamous quality control problems, but it does show there’s a market for it, only partially satisfied by the 35 f/1.8 DX.  If nothing else, people want a compact walk-around with quality, which makes this a golden opportunity. Nikon really need to do something about this, or else lose people to M 4/3, who are making much more of an effort to supply affordable high quality primes. People buying the camera might get zooms, but it’s the primes that make them attractive, keeping them so small. I understand that they need to focus on their essential lineup first, the D3100 and D5100 being great advances and the 35mm being a great DX lens, but we really do need more primes, as unless a cheap way to get into full-frame comes along soon, which it probably won’t, there is a very valuable segment for Nikon who aren’t satisfied with beer-bottle 18mm-xxx zooms and want the quality without breaking the bank. It may not be the biggest market, but it is a large and growing one that I think Nikon would be foolish to ignore (which in fact I think they are coming to realise).

What does little ‘ol me know about the market? Well, I do know that M 4/3 is making some of the most attractive, progressive and even best-selling cameras in some regions, being the fastest growing segment in Japan and Europe. What started out as a novelty has become a force to contend with. As I speak their third generation of cameras are coming out, boasting better than DSLR autofocus, which many thought impossible, and a new range of beautiful, exciting primes. this is all with their easy use of legacy lenses through adaptors. For now, their small sensor and lack of built-in viewfinders or EVFs still put me off, but who knows, if we can come to some sort of arrangement, could it be that M 4/3 is shaping itself into my second system, one more suitable for walkabout, with the size and features I desire for that? As I prepare to pack for another long trip, I think again of how I’d like to both travel light and have supreme photo quality. Time will tell, but they certainly need a built in EVF like that in the miraculous Fuji X100 before I jump on board their ship. Nikon, are you listening? It can’t just be me feeling this way.

Unless they are going to make their own version of mirror-less, with DX not going away any time soon, Nikon really needs to get their finger out and make those DX wide primes. Their D3100 and D5100 are capable of such great image quality, that they are really crying out for them. Maybe they are looking at a M4/3 or Sony NEX-like player of their own to indulge these on? I really don’t know, but I do know one thing- if you want to play with primes on Nikon in a serious way, you are going to be very limited by their entry-level models and need to step up to a D90 or D7000 at least. It will be a case of legacy lenses. I really like the DX quality image quality compared to compacts or M4/3, so I hope they can do more to make the most of them, so I don’t have to keep sticking on a zoom I shouldn’t really need. I should add, there is some progress in Nikon-Land. They recently released a new 50mm f/1.8, which despite it’s poor bokeh, at least offers an entry level 50mm, for portraits and candids. Then there is the announced 40mm f/2.8 macro, which looks like having some really nice image quality, especially in terms of both sharpness and bokeh and offers a ‘normal’ a little longer than the 35mm, but at the expense of a stop and a bit, offers you much better bokeh, which seems to be a major flaw of the f/1.8, despite it being an otherwise tremendous lens. I love macro and a beautiful bokeh, but my 90mm Tamron is too long on DX for walkabout use (though great for flowers or bugs), so this may well be my next lens purchase. It may even replace my 35mm f/1.8, which funnily enough I was just starting to feel dissatisfied with, primarily due to it’s poor bokeh with complex backgrounds, but also due to it doing close-up but not Macro. Despite being twice as dark, problems I was only starting to notice have suddenly been solved.

Even this cat wants more DX primes!

Buying Advice, for the Prime-lover

So my advice to Nikon buyers? The most obvious route is full-frame, where of course all primes work as advertised, but like many I am still waiting for the D700 to be updated with more resolution and video before I go that route, to get something like the Canon 5D MkII. Even so, it’s a chunky monkey and I would still prefer something smaller for everyday use. People I know with a D700 often leave it at home due to the bulk; a casual camera it ain’t. Some say full-frame is the medium format of our day and it does seem to hold true for the moment in Nikon-Land, though I expect sooner or later they’ll release a smaller alternative; the new 28-300mm ‘kit lens’ suggests one may come.Whatever camera you use (it really isn’t that important), if you want to know which focal length suits you best and would be worth getting a prime in, take a look at the shots you’ve been taking and see which ones you are happiest with.

I find with my 24, 28, or 35mm, I have great lenses to wander around with, all close to ‘normal’. They focus fast and efficiently, their small size makes me unimposing for street photos and I can portray the same simple world I see it through my eyes. A good prime, blurring the background, can give your photo a 3D effect that you’d rarely get from a zoom. Sure, I’d like AF-S motors and more critical sharpness, which I could get from a lens redesign, but I find it isn’t essential for what I do. The reason I use these lenses is not so much for better image quality, as for their simple, efficient approach, which is something you notice more when taking a photo in the real world than in theory (hence the popularity of rangefinders, which leave out gadgets and get straight to the photo). As far as lengths go, that 24mm is all I need. I might sometimes like to go wider, but for now 24mm does it for me. It may well in many cases be all I need, just moving around to capture different angles. It is my ‘starting point’, a chance to get really great photos rather than just good ones, whether or not the world understands them. You, dear reader, may have another favourite length- if you are lucky, it will be 35 or 50mm, which will give you a world of choices, whatever the format, but I personally like my world a little wider. And you know what, after talking to other photographers, including some pros, I’ve found others saying the dame thing. Which all means, after sitting inside whilst I took out my D3xxx series, my D300 will be coming out to play a bit more.

Note– Edited on 24/07 to improve readability and correct some small mistakes.

Lenses in the slideshow-

1) The first prime lens I enjoyed on DX- Nikkon’s AF 28mm f/2.8D. It gets generally poor reviews for various issues, like CA but I find it can produce magical images for me anyway, just for being so usable. I may well have a good copy. Reputedly, it’s a lot better stopped down.

2) My current favourite, the 24mm AF f/2.8D Nikkor, a classic lens, that really makes the images ‘pop’.

3) The handy AF-S 35mm f/1.8DX Nikkor, one of the best deals in Nikon’s current lineup, in many ways a DX version of their famous AF 50mm f1.8D

4) An oldie but quite goodie, the AF 35mm f/2D Nikkor, a bit soft on digital, unless you stop it down a bit

5) The aging AF 50mm f/1.4 AFD Nikkor, replaced by a slower-focusing G version, which apparently has better bokeh. For this reason, I prefer to use my cream-machine Sigma 50mm, though it is heavy as can be.

Then a few lenses I don’t have…

6) The Sigma AF 28mm f/1.8, an older version as bought by Ken in Ueno, the newer one being a lot larger but having HSM focussing

7) Nikon’s expensive and out of production AF 18mmD, which in it’s poor internet reviews illustrates just why I think Nikon needs to make some new wide, affordable primes to keep up and

8) Nikon’s soon to be released 40mm f/2.8 DX Macro, which I predict will be a more useful lens than many people currently realise. It is apparently very sharp with a creamy bokeh, making it potentially a great and handy lens for portraits.

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