Prime Lenses on DX- Finding the Right Match

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

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

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

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

Perfect Futures

Why Go Prime?

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

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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

Cameras

D300

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.

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A D400 Soon to Come?

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

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

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

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

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Preview of the D7100

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

New Features-

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

On the Downside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall

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

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

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

DX Futures- the View From 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

DX D400 Futures?

Sorry all wanting something lighter, this will be another long one and without any photos; as I’d rather just write the piece than spend time illustrating it. Photo-blog type pieces will come, too, but I’d rather just focus on the ideas here and maybe, maybe illustrate it later…

As anyone reading here recently may know, I’m both a DX and M4/3 system user, though in terms of equipment owned/investments made, am certainly more in the DX camp. As much as like M4/3 it is by no means as complete a system as the major DSLR offerings, including DX. Which makes me wonder what is afoot in Nikonland with what is, for many like myself, their major system. As Thom Hogan so rightly says, DX is a distinct system from FX. Sure, you can use FX lenses on DX, but they will probably be both larger and more expensive and although there are some very good, even remarkable FX lenses, there is nothing about the format that makes them inherently better. In fact, with the larger image circle, it is harder to make a good FX lens. Still, it seems pretty clear that Nikon would like their more serious users to pony up the cash and ‘move on up’ to FX, but the problem with this strategy is that it makes their DX lenses redundant. Despite the message that FX is the upgrade, might  a serious DX upgrade path, a.k.a. ‘D400’, emerge after all?

Right now, depending on your tastes and needs, there isn’t really one ‘almighty’ FX DSLR to get. The D800 may have great resolution, but that brings with it the problem of storage and processing power to handle the huge files, files that have more resolution than many would realistically need anyway. It’s also, at 4fps, it’s an unusually slow camera for general usage, matching the D3100/D5100 in this department, not to mention heavy and prone to showing the shortcomings of everyday lenses and techniques. The ‘fix’ for this may well be the D600, but at $2000 it is certainly expensive, yet despite this, lacks a pro build and comes with handicapped features. Bracketing is artificially limited to 3 shots, the AF points are clustered in a tiny space in the middle, as it has a modified D7000 DX AF unit, rather than the newer one of the D4 and D800. In short, you pay a premium for FX whichever way you see it and with all the advances made in DX, it makes little sense.

The situation is quite different from when I (and thousands of others) bought our D300 so many moons ago. This camera revolutionised our DX usage with far better dynamic range, high ISO and AF than anything before it. Most couldn’t afford a D3, anyway. Soon after came the D700, which was more expensive, but a natural upgrade for those who’d been looking for a body to use their 35mm film lenses on and have the usual usage of them. D200/D300 to D700 made some sense. Those who stayed with DX probably kept filling out their lens line with DX lenses, especially wide-angle zooms and perhaps the 35mm f/1.8 DX, too. They might have a mixture of older FX lenses (and some new ones) and DX ones. Here though is the cracker… if one wants to go for one of the newer FX cameras, you sacrifice resolution if you keep using DX lenses on the D600 and probably hardly any of the older film lenses will be any good on the, even the ones that are half-decent on DX. Which means a new body and new lenses and not so much sense in keeping many of the DX ones.

So, with all this in mind, it is natural that many, if not most people who want to stay with DSLRs will be quite happy with the economy and excellent image quality possible with APS-C sensors. Even some of the mirrorless formats are using APS-C, such as Fuji or NEX. It isn’t dead, it isn’t redundant, it hasn’t been superseded by the expensive, unwieldy world of FX, which remains very hard to design suitable lenses for (even more so, as the resolution rises, with such a comparatively large sensor area to cover). The best FX lenses are very expensive, out of  reach of the average consumer. So where is the DX love, Nikon?

DX Needs

What we need are a few things, which are mostly overdue (and I’m willing to believe that the flooding in Thailand and time set aside to update the FX line is more responsible for this than a lack of will on Nikon’s part)…

1) A D400 with the pro AF from the D4/D800, advanced metering and pro build. It should have between 7-11 FPS, making it a great choice for sports. It could be anything from 16-24MP and still be an upgrade from the D300S, but I expect it also needs to be seen as an upgrade for D7000 users (or D7100 users, when they exist). If this involves more resolution, it puts Nikon in a rather difficult position, as well-performing 24MP DX sensors and compatible lenses are thin on the ground, so it might stay at the ‘more sensible’ 16MP and have other innovations, such as better dynamic range, or on-sensor PDAF for filming videos. Since the D4 is 16MP, I can’t imagine too many complaints, though super-high resolution might be interesting! Either way, such a camera could be cheaper and a lot better than the D600, being a DX D800 to match the D600’s ‘FX D7000’ placement.

2)  More AF-S primes, preferably some DX specific ones, but at any rate updates to ‘D’ models that won’t autofocus on the smaller DX bodies, which many have as their main, or perhaps backup, camera. Of these, a 16mm, 24mm and hopefully a 60-70mm ‘portrait’ prime are needed. I say needed as here we are talking of an independent DX format, not a limited one that lacks such essential lenses of relies on clunky zooms. A 58mm f/0.95- F/1.2 DX might be expensive, but it would sort this out quite quickly. In a world without pro DX it will of course never come.

3) While we’re at it, some updated DX zooms would also be nice, a 16-85mm F/4 and an 80-400mm (which would probably be FX, but could probably be more cheaply be made if optimised for DX  as there’s less worry about corners). For the format to be serious, a new, 16-55mm f/2.8 VR (or so) would be needed and possibly even a 50-150mm f/2.8 VR. If there is a move to 24MP, this may be even more important, as the 17-55mm F/2.8 won’t be enough… and sooner or later I can’t really see such a move being avoided, as even compacts have 20+ MP. What would be really interesting would be some F/2 zooms, which would in a sense give FX levels of DOF control, but then there is the price (see #2).

4) If there is to be a DX mirrorless line, sooner rather than later would be a good time to announce it, or at least drop some serious hints. If new wide primes are being ‘saved’ for such a camera, that would make some sense as many say DX s it is is poorly suited to such lenses, but without any announcement and the sparse primes offered for Nikon 1, it’s really unclear what is planned. This means that more people looking for such lenses may jump ship to get them. For many enthusiasts, after all, such lenses are the very core of their photography and suggesting they use outdated (and still expensive) AF-D primes, or MF lenses carries less weight now that there are so many alternatives out there. Nikon seems not to care about this issue, but taking a look at market trends, I think they must notice.

A lot of Nikon users love the brand and want to stay with it and many others have already invested to the point at which they are wedded to it anyway. There is certainly not much advantage to switching APS-C DSLR lines (other than to Pentax perhaps). People like me who are sick of waiting and have decided they might well be waiting for ever have started a system in a mirrorless line, in my case M4/3 and for others NEX. This already eats into Nikon’s sales and also means that if I am extending my line, I might well do so in the M4/3 system, which gets more capable every generation, whilst DX for the last few years (leaving aside consumer zoom updates), seems to be stagnating a bit, or is even in a confused position as it confronts the space-saving, live-view friendly nature of competing systems.

Whilst FX offers a way out, I can’t see myself completely switching to an FX system… ever! I think APS-C was a necessary stage in the evolution and miniaturisation of the SLR and now the DSLR, which produces more than fine results for most uses. Advances in sensor design, such as Fuji’s, or Foveon’s improvements, not to mention Sony’s excellent innovations in greater dynamic range and lower noise, offer great possibilities for the future. People have said that Foveon can equal D800 resolution and the PRO-1 can match full-frame high-ISO, so the advantages of FX are hardly exclusive anymore, the way they were when smaller sensors performed relatively poorly. Even if I do get an FX body, It will be for specific uses and I’ll use my DX bodies/lenses alongside it. The short DOF of the format is very attractive, as are the viewfinders and traditional lens lengths. Yet the bodies Nikon offers now are so slow and lack reach (unless DX lenses are used on them, at lower pixel counts), so it does seem like a mixed blessing and not a straightforward ‘upgrade’, as is made out. My main concern is size as I can’t see myself travelling with a full FX kit, though DX is more manageable for this. Certainly, for certain things like birding or sports from a distance, DX makes more sense with its shorter lenses.

As for myself, I’d probably rather have a great D400 than settle for a D600 (or, for that matter, a D7100). A pro camera with pro features need not be out of reach and of course  I’d want one for the lenses I already have, many of which are excellent on my DX D300 and will be worse on FX (yes, including some FX ones). Some see the D7000 line as the new apex of DX, but I’m not so sure it’ll happen. People tend to read too much into delays or announcement of other products and mirrorless cameras won’t supplant DSLRs just yet and maybe not for a long time to come, if ever. The D800/D600 releases don’t preclude high-end DX, any more than the D3200 meant that there would be no serious high-resolution camera (the D800). Horses for courses will continue to emerge.

The D400

In truth, I think the D400 will probably arrive some time next year and face the Canon 7D MkII for competition. I expect it will have on-sensor AF, 18-24MP, pro-build and very high FPS, perhaps even 12 in some modes. It will be as much a game-changer as the D200/D300 were before it and not just more of the same, as it will have to also show how superior DX is to the mirrorless cameras in its element. On the whole, I expect a faster, DX D800 with a few new features. It’ll be a very attractive camera, even if by not being FX it won’t  have the DOF control that format offers, I still think that brighter or longer lenses are a better way of achieving that for most people than switching to a new format all-together. DOF is a relationship between sensor/film size, lens length/distance from subject and aperture. Equivalents are often possible (although they may be less convenient in certain usages, hence the appeal of larger formats for certain usages).

On a personal note, I’m not really all that bothered it took so long to update the D300 properly. Having a radically new sensor and better AF will make for a much better upgrade than just an incremental one and also one that will last for longer. I’m pretty happy with my D300/D5100 combo and look forward for something even better yet. Attractive though M4/3 is, I still like the advantages of DX and the access to my range of lenses. I’ve tried EVFs and to my mind, they are all still pretty horrible compared to a good OVF, despite their massive advantages. That alone is reason to keep using DSLRs, as it’s the camera in the present that counts, not what might be in the future.

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.

Revisiting the Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8

Here’s an update from using this lens since my original review, over a year ago, based around the autofocus issues. It may be getting older by the day, but I think this is still is a relevant lens for anyone using DX, for which the 17-55mm is Nikon’s first (and perhaps last attempt?) at a standard pro zoom. I still love the image quality from this lens, the smooth bokeh (considering the focal lengths) and the general handling, though it is very tank-like. One of it’s selling points is it’s fast autofocus, though on closer examination, I think something (on my copy at least) is getting lost in the speed.

From thinking it was straightforward, I’m now seeing that the 17-55 is basically a tricky lens to use, if you want the best results. It gets very long for a non-VR lens (further than the 24-70mm does on FX) and is quite bulky, so hard to really stablise on a body. Maybe the D3 is the optimal match- the D300 being good, but not perfect. Also, I think my informal AF tests were sound- it focuses very quickly, which is great, but it would ratherfocus on something else than hunt when it isn’t sure. I’d say this isn’t just my camera’s settings, it’s the way the lens AF is communicating with the body. At telephoto, this problem is exacerbated, especially in low light and I get a lot of backfocus.
I remember the new 50mm f/1.4 G coming in for a lot of criticism for it’s AF-S being slower than the ‘D’ version’s, though also being praised for it’s accuracy, which at f1.4 is all the more important for it. Being an event-oriented lens, it seems Nikon went to the other extreme for the 17-55 and I can’t trust it to get it right without babying it along. It seems even at it’s high price, there are no free lunches as to it’s capabilities. After all the tests and repairs mine has been through, I’m going to trust Nikon that this is as good a copy as exists. The only solution seems to me to be to focus on high-contrast details in the same or a similar plane of focus.

Personally, I think Nikon will update it with a VR version, like everyone else has and also that the optics will suffer a bit, as in-lens VR doesn’t work to well or wider lens designs. Now that VR is more commonplace, this is just too long a lens to be left without it. I’m not so sure they’ll bother with the nano-coating, as they probably don’t want DX to be pro, just enthusiast-level. I’m also not so sure many people will care, so long as the results are good enough. This is a lens more similar in it’s abilities and actual DOF to the 24-120mm f/4 than to the state of the art 24-70. Of course, if Nikon might not make it, but I tend to think they will see the market, even for prosumers, for a fast normal zoom that’s competitive. Sitting back while people buy Tamrons or Sigmas, hoping they ‘level up’ to FX doesn’t seem to me to be the best business policy and I think Nikon are catching on (though making a very affordable FX camera could work just as well, let’s see).

Until then, would I recommend the 17-55? Well… it’s still worth using for those who will put the effort into getting the best from it. I’ll  be using this whenever I have an event job, as it has to my mind very good (if not stellar like the 24-70mm samples I’ve seen), image quality and is great at short distances. Having the fast AF and the useful range is a necessity for me here, which nothing else gives me, so I’ll work around it’s limitations with techniques. In other situations, like travel, I’ll keep using my Tamron; which is an excellent lens and so much lighter. I’m even thinking of getting the 16-85mm, which despite being a bit dark on the long end, gets so much praise.

Overall, I’m a bit disappointed about the AF issues, but then again my expectations are now that much more realistic. I’m also wondering if DX is a bit more limited in this respect than FX, as less light reaches the sensor. I certainly find it hard to accurately manual focus. Having a smaller sensor makes DX much more technology-dependant than FX; it’s harder to get a bright lens and to have wide-angles that don’t distort. The small image makes it harder to do accurate MF, which means we have to trust AF. By making such a serious attempt to get this right, the 17-55mm is an interesting lens and a very versatile one. Moving up from a 35-70mm f/2.8 this has given me wide-angles, normal and a short telephoto to boost. For millions of DX users out there, it is still the only pro-grade Nikon in this range that exists- and although it doesn’t offer terrific value for money, it still holds it own against the competitors I’ve come across, which are all compromised in some way or other by comparison.

The Best of DX?- Nikon’s AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 Lens

Nikon’s Pro DX Zoom

                                                             Summer Colours and Green
                                                           
Nikon’s elaborately named AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 DXG IF-ED DX (phew!) is probably the best zoom lens ever made for an APS-C sensor (where it functions as a 26-83mm lens), designed especially for the demands of professionals using it on older generations of pro bodies. Now that the prices of full-frame sensors have come down and pros are gravitating towards them them, anything but consumer-level designs for APS-C are unlikely, so this lens is probably the last of it’s kind. This fact though makes them much more avaliable second-hand though, with a newly affordable price.

What makes it stand out as a pro-grade lens is the build and fact that it gives a sharp, contrasty picture at any setting or length, with a certain richness to the images that you otherwise need a prime lens or another pro-level zoom to achieve. The high-grade AF-S focusing is also uncannily fast and near-silent.

                                                             Moth by Day

It produces amazing images, images that really ‘pop’ and stand out with a kind of 3D quality only great lenses have. I have some other really great lenses- the Sigma 50mm f1.4 HSM, the older (but amazingly still produced) Nikon AF 35-70mm f/2.8D, the Tamron 90mm Di f2.8 macro, which can all take great photos, but the range and usability makes this the most versatile by far. It’s like it’s part of the camera and just doesn’t want to get off! I’m glad because I know that it’s about as good an image as a lens could give me, with a wedding you kind of feel bad if you know you could have used something better (even if no-one will notice the difference). For me, it means I can shoot the entire wedding without changing lenses. I used it just the other day and it worked out great! It also looks pro, which helps the general impression.

It cost me about $900 second-hand, but a new one would be more like $1,600. Another other cost is the size and weight, due to all the metal and glass, though for me this makes it steadier to hold or balance. Maybe after many hours of carrying it around it would weigh me down and this alone would put a lot of people off it. It should be added that the full-frame equivalents are much heavier and more expensive, without having quite as much reach, (usually being 24-70mm). This shows the convenience of the cropped format for many users. The fact that the images generated are ‘good enough’ means it will probably live on for many years. Also, the sensor on the D3X is so high resolution it can crop DX at 10MP, ample for most uses and even equal to the D200, which is still in wide use. Whilst the D700 only gives you a tight 5MP, a potential D700X or D800 might give you a lot more, making the use of this on FX cameras quite feasible.

Here’s a review that was just recently published in, of all places, Poland. The fact that reviews are still being professionally made for this lens just goes to sho it’s enduring value. In fact, I would hazard to say that it now has a new lease of life as a much more affordable lens on DX.

Let’s look at some pros and cons, now as who knows, maybe someone will actually think about buying one based on the strength of this review!? These are all based on my real-world usage, no measurebating or any exact accessment claimed, yet it’s quite possible such research would come to the same conclusions through it’s own route. Lens quality really does vary, no matter what anyone says and you usually get what you pay for, or in this case what you would have paid for if newer models hadn’t emerged (in this case the D700 and the siren cry of full-frame).

Pros

-Beautiful rendering of colours, contrast, skin-textures backgrounds
-A very pleasing bokeh considering the relatively short focal length
-Sharp and with little noticable distortion, even at 17mm
-Semi-macros are possible with excellent close-up performance and minimum focusing distance (14.2 inches)
-A good choice for portraits on DX (though I’d say Nikon’s 35-70mm f/2.8D is even better, for a number of reasons)
-The perfect event lens on DX- one lens and you’re done!
-The zoom is very well-damped, making settings at particular lengths (ie 24mm, 35mm) quite convenient
-Makes up for the lack of quality wide-angles on DX and covers significant prime lengths- some of which don’t even exist in -Nikon’s lineup, such as 19mm, which is about 28mm in FX (one of my favourite lengths and a fact not lost on Pentax)
-A pro implementation of AF-S, offering very fast, smooth and near-silent focusing
-Good prices on the second-hand market
-A true pro zoom- in terms of both performance and looks, ensuring people will realise you are, or mistake you for, a pro!

Cons

-Very heavy, like most true pro-zooms
-Still very expensive despite $900 ‘bargains’ being so avaliable
-Performance gains compared to buget alternatives may seem subtle to many users, especially when both are stopped down (though I’d say for me they are very significant)
-Optomised for wide open, close-up usage, making it unsuitable for landscapes in many people’s eyes
-Short reach, even on DX, where around 70mm is needed for the ‘optimum’ portrait length of 105mm (this gives around 83mm being ‘uncomfortably close’ for many)
-Could be redundant if you move to FX and aren’t happy with using it cropped there

Notice that some of the cons aren’t real cons, they just go with the territory. This is for sure an excellent lens (have I already said this?) and one you just will not regret buying!


What Does it all Mean for DX?

Even though full-frame ‘FX’ has finally come to Nikon’s DSLR’s, the options for serious amateurs on DX have never been better. The D200/300 are cheaper than ever and offer fantastic picture quality and ergonomics. Also, along with the price drop of the 17-55 is the emergence of other lenses especially designed with DX bodies and their frequent lack of an in-body motor (in the case of the D40, D60, D5000, all very affordable and even competetive with compact pricing). I speak of the 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX, the 50mm f/1.4 G and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM- two of which I have actually aquired for both wedding and home use (though I’ll leave you to guess exactly which two for now!) In short, excellent lenses are now widely avaliable for DX use, compromises and beer-bottle zooms are less neccessary for the average user. Of course, the whole format is oversized in a sense, leaving the way open for minaturised ‘rangefinderesque’ versions like micro-4/3 and potentially a micro-APS… but that’s another story…

For more samples, please see my 17-55mm Pbase gallery.

Some Samples

Kashiwa Noha

Feeding the Pigeons


Hydrangeas and Snail-Shell

Silent Rush Hour

Straight, No Chaser.

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