A Trip to the Zoo With the P510

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

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

See what you think- is an ultrazoom for you?

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Nikon P510 User Report- The Camera Compared

So why did I chose the P510? Of course, there is the V1 option, with it’s adapters allowing AF with long Nikon lenses, offering a massive, stabilised 200-800mm with my 70-300 (or so, actually for nitpickers, 189-810mm). I tried it out in a shop and both the usability and detail was surprisingly good. Yet it feels unwieldy, delicate to have that long lens on a small body, like a NEX on steroids. Also, having only recently gotten into m4/3, for now I don’t really want to invest in yet another system, especially one that is in its infancy as far as native lenses go and I’m not so convinced Nikon’s DSLR lenses can all hold up so well to its massive 2.7 crop either. I can see myself getting into that in the future, though, perhaps when their uniquely attractive (in abilities if not so much in the looks department), V2 plummets in price. The V2 fixed a lot of the problems of the V1, despite losing the smooth styling, but is at least twice as expensive as it ought to be considering its small sensor and doesn’t really develop the IQ much from what I’ve seen. If I’m going to make a big purchase, I’d rather invest in DSLR lenses or m4/3, where you can already get such great images. So I went even smaller, sensor-wise.

Memory Lane-1972

I live far from Mt. Fuji, yet on a clear day and on a high point, you can make her out in the distance.

Memory Lane-1970

With the ultrazoom at 1,000mm I can clearly see the crest. Almost unbelievable, considering the distance.

So far, there’s a lot to like. It has incredible software, which can quickly take and process HDR images, or construct panoramas as you pan the camera. The zoom is accompanied by a tremendous VRII system, which works right to the end of the zoom. Even the mode choices are good, choosing the clearest shot automatically, or adapting to the environment well (snow mode much more appropriate than automatic for today’s purposes). I’ll admit I’ve previously turned my nose up at such ‘bridge’ camera due to their tiny sensors and often low IQ, but as sensors advance and their lenses get so exotically long it is hard to ignore them. There is simply no other way to get small lenses that reach so far and whilst my interest is birding, there are other applications where it may work wonders- flower-fields, candids in the street way out of sight, temple details on a trip. It opens up new avenues, even if, with that small sensor, the dynamic range and high-ISO qualities are so limited… something that blending photos with the special modes may help with, the same way that HDR helps with my iPhone, which with newer apps and faster processors has become my standard usage now for it.

(more…)

Snowy Day- First Shots with the Nikon P510 Bridge Camera

Great- it’s snowing! Or terrible, I’m not sure which, as I have the day off and my Nikon P510 just arrived and I’m itching to take it out for a spin. So I settled for throwing on my coat and taking some shots from the balcony. After all, I don’t really want to risk any damage to it on its first day.

 

I’ll cut to the chase and put some samples right here- I think you can see the rich creative potential of having such a tremendous zoom in such a small and handy body, as well as modern processing abilities that make it a fast and effective camera to use. Meanwhile, I’m working on a review/user report, which I’ll be posting in installments shortly.

 

Wow that zoom is tremendous! You can see how, from a safe distance, I could zoom right into the scene and catch what was going on. You get an intimacy with events that you otherwise would just distantly notice. It is, in fact, the digital camera equivalent of a telescope.

I got it to help out with my birding, where the maximum reach of anything I have is a relatively short 450mm equivalent, offered by my trusty 70-300mm VR on a Nikon D300, which offers excellent autofocusing even on birds in flight (BIF). This is fine for big birds or those silly or brave enough to stick around when I’m approaching, but the little ones get away. Even the photos I do get, when they are snacking on fruit in trees, as heavily cropped, so I really need more image. This seems to be a very convenient way to get that and in portable form. As a companion to my DSLRs or even m4/3, I can see it transforming my photography. It can produce some wonderful candids, as well, without the obvious issues of pointing a long lens in someone’s direction- it looks so small and inconspicuous.

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 Future of DX?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of DX- Some Predictions From Thom Hogan

2011 Nikon News and Comments by Thom Hogan

More on the strange lack of DX lenses (not just primes, which is my concern), from Nikon-watcher Thom Hogan, who he puts it better than i could ever have done. Here is a quote-

But look at that big gap in DX: no wide angle prime. Why is m4/3 catering to that group when DX isn’t? Because of size. A m4/3 body (especially the latest E-PM1 or GF3) with a prime wide is a small little devil, and quite capable. Of course, a D5100 with a 16mm f/2.8 would be a pretty small package, too. But apparently Nikon wants to concede the “small package” market to the mirrorless companies. Note this: Nikon has had 12 years to come up with one wide angle DX prime. The m4/3 makers have come up with two in two years.

A more likely explanation is that Nikon thinks that their upcoming mirrorless “solves” the small package problem and will hold off all those m4/3, NEX, NX, and whatever comes next bodies. If so, that logic is severely flawed, and again because of the lens issue: Nikon isn’t likely to have nearly enough lenses on launch to satisfy the market. Meanwhile, the m4/3 consortium seems well on the way to replicate the basic lens set enthusiasts want covered. Three well chosen primes and a couple of high-end zooms will finish their task. So where does that leave the serious DX user? Well, they move to m4/3 or FX, I guess. Nikon is one good m4/3 sensor away from having DX suddenly look like a bad choice.

Two-thirds of Nikon’s business is cameras and lenses. Unfortunately, they are now in a really tough place. They need to sell 20+ million cameras and lenses this year just to stay in place. The 40mm Micro-Nikkor, at the low price it’s being offered at, will sell a nice chunk of units, I have no doubt. But to what end? Nikon’s brand reputation is built on high-quality, high-performance, pro and prosumer products. It’s the serious shooter and enthusiast that has made their brand reputation. If some of those customers start feeling like they’re not being catered to, they’ll migrate to other mounts. What happens when you don’t have any serious shooters telling their friends about how great Nikon is but instead how much they love their Panny, or Oly, or Sony, or heaven forbid, Samsung?

It doesn’t take a lot of love, Nikon: a 16mm f/2.8 or faster wide prime, a 60mm f/2 or faster portrait lens, a 50-150mm f/2.8, and a rework of the 17-55mm would keep your faithful DX users happy, I think. Until then, the love is fading.

It seems that right now, Nikon is either trying to push users to FX, has or is just not seeing how important an issue this is. The reality is that Micro 4/3 is literally breathing down their necks. Non-pros (and even some pros) may well like having much lighter gear, but still getting good results and the virtues of DX- an extensive range of compatible lenses, bigger sensors and optical viewfinders may not be enough if there aren’t enough optimised lenses to use. As Thom says, it would only take a few lenses to cement their position, but on the other hand even this may not be enough for casual users in the longer term.

I personally think Nikon is saving their energy for a M 4/3 type format of their own. It will take them a while to catch up, but so long as at least their AF-S lenses work well with adapters they can very quickly have a viable system which itself will be increasingly optimised, much like the early days of DX, when just a few crucial lenses got the ball rolling, the rest being FX. Rumours point to this being a little smaller than M 4/3, at a 2.5x crop, rather than going with a Sony-NEX APS-C approach. I’m a little disappointed with this, but  I’ll wait and see what really emerges before I pass any judgements, as with the right lenses it could well be very usable.

Another issue is the coming D400 Thom speaks of. Some may think that the D7000 was all we’ll get, but I very much doubt it. That is, for all it’s features, a mid-range camera through and through. Pros and a lot of prosumers will never be satisfied with it, if only because of the inferior ergonomics to the D30(S), which is still on sale and higher-priced than it for good reason.

…So timing, pricing, and competition say a D400 is due soon, and August is Nikon’s traditional next launch window.

When I wrote earlier that the D400 would be 24mp, I got a lot of emails asking if I had written the number wrong (or if I was just plain crazy). Neither. First, we know that a 24mp DX sensor exists (or is about to exist in production form, from Sony). Second, back in 2003 I pointed out that the math said we’d get to about 24mp on DX before we exhausted the easy-to-see gains and started outshooting the best existing lenses. Third, at 16mp the Nikon would be trailing its two primary competitors in that market. Fourth, there’s the “it’s a mini D3x” notion that many will have when they see the D400. So, yes, we’ll go there. 24mp is a done deal at some day in the future, so if that Sony sensor is good, the future is just about here. (Beyond 24mp I think things get much more fuzzy, and that’s not just a pun on diffraction impacts.)

So Thom says that the D400 will probably be 24MP, a kind of small D3X, which when you look at the resolutions and usability of compacts these days, makes a lot of sense. It will also push into an area where M 4/3 (or even their hypothetical version of that), will find it very hard to follow. I think it will be a very exciting camera, pushing the boundaries of the DX format just as much as the D100,200 or 300 before it.

DX is an interesting format, as it was developed as a kind of stop-gap until the introduction of FX digital, but ended up becoming wildly successful in it’s own right. The huge quality advances of digital in the areas of convenience and clarity enable it to be something like the 35mm of our time, whilst FX is the medium format. Medium format, but this definition, would be replacing a large format that will possibly never be needed again, though I suppose even this could be resurrected for ultra-large uses, like space photography and so on. Seen this way, it makes no sense to talk of ‘upgrading’ to FX, as it is a larger, finer genre all of it’s own. As technology progresses, we tend to find ways to have enough power and quality in a smaller, more portable package. Hense the commonality of laptops over desktops these days and very probably in the future tablets doing the same. My prediction  is that DX will be here for a while (including Sony Nex and the like, as here we are talking of the sensor size more than anything) and eventually something smaller will have such miraculous lenses and sensors available that it will take over in turn.

If there really is a D400, which I think there will be, we may well start getting some more lenses. Aside from FX ones, which I think with their size defeat the advantage of DX, I think we may see an updated version of the 17-55, perhaps as a 16-50 (or more) f/2.8 VR II. I’d also like to see some more of those delicious, elusive DX primes. With 24MP to play with, I think we well may. Perhaps a 16mm f/4 and a 24mm f/2 primes, both reasonably priced and very sharp, but offering a digital-optimised render that won’t win over the old school, but then again they won’t be trying too hard to. This will keep a lot of DX users in Nikon’s hands, even ones they might hope would go to their mirror-less camera, but won’t want to until the lenses are fleshed out and the sensors improve enough.

With DX there is always the possibility of exotic-sounding lenses like the 12-24mm, which are actually just scaled down full-frame models being suddenly made affordable (in this case a constant f/4 18-35mm), or in some cases made possible, like the remarkable 18-200m zoom, which as far as I know is still unmatched in it’s realm. So, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a 14-85mm f/3.3-5.6, or the like emerge, making for zooms wider than ever before thought possible, because of the difficulty of filling a full-frame sensor without wildly vignetting. If that would be a development of the 16-85mm, then I could see the 18-200mm stretch into longer telephoto areas, say an 18-300mm f/3.3-6.3, internally zooming to save space. With in-camera digital correction, aberations can quickly be fixed before people even know they’re there- a trick perfected on M 4/3, but now universally applied. Nikon’s bottom line are cameras like the D3100 or D5100 and zoom lenses to match them, so if they can keep developing these into ever-greater ranges, whilst still keeping up the quality, they could be very interesting photographic tools, even if their lower absolute quality compared to full-frame editions  makes them a little gimmicky.

 

Note on September 8, 2012

Since writing this, there has indeed been a 24mp DX camera, albeit in nikon’s case so far only the consumer-level D3200. Also, an 18-300mm lens has emerged, though a far bigger and perhaps higher quality one (?) than I could have imagined. Yet with the continued lack of a D400 or any ‘pro glass’ for DX from Nikon, we have to wonder about their plans for the format. My best guess is that they will try and migrate it to a mirrorless equivalent as soon as they can, for the cost and size savings. Since a two-zoom lens kit and perhaps a bright prime is all most users need, this won’t be as hard as it sounds, at least for the lower end. At the higher end, though, ‘moving people up’ to FX will be a hard sell, except of course for the pros, who can make their living off of it, or very serious prosumers who are pro-wannabes to an extent anyway.

I think, though, if DX mirrorless grows it will be a fine future for mainstream Nikonites and the plan overall makes sense. Yet in the meantime, there should be more DX development to keep users onboard. They may not be willing to wait as long as Nikon would like them to and, so far as I’m seeing, they aren’t. Mirrorless is quite a challenge for the main DSLR makers, yet I believe the sooner they make a smooth transition the better and by ‘smooth transition’, I mean one that makes it easy to use current lens collections (i.e. slim adapters with fast, on-sensor phase-detection AF).

Big Day Out in the City

Today I decided to keep things simple. Looking forward to a day out in the city taking photos with Ken, I wondered what to take, not wanting it to be a kitchen sink-type operation, where I’d take things just in case I’d want them. I don’t really like using zoom lenses, as despite the convenience and in some cases their great quality, there are just too many options. So I left my trusty Tamron at home. I’m not even sure, when it’s uncalled for, if I really need colour. Getting the colours to match just introduces too much complexity and distracts me from the essence of the scene. Since it would be a day of photography, I wanted to capture people’s expressions, the meaning of their lives in the vast city and experience the phenomena of life myself. I didn’t want to water the experience down with gimmicky lenses or digital trickery. Back to basics, photo-style.

After starting out being (severely) disappointed with the camera on my 3G iPhone, which had about the resolution of a melted blob and a similar inability to autofocus, I ended up loving it despite the limitations, or even because of them. The haziness gave the photos a toy camera effect and being freed from the tension of ‘perfect capture’ helped me to focus on the essence of the scene rather than on the camera capturing it. I loved the ability to take a photo and upload it straight to Facebook and often get a response from my friends within minutes. I liked the angle of view.

Fast forward to the iPhone 4 and now I have the same connectivity, but a sharp, 5mp image, that you can keep for editing later, print, or blog knowing it will look good, or even play around with it on various apps, but still with the delicious limitation of no zoom. Who needs zoom when you have legs? I also found that the angle it offers me, at 35mm in full frame terms, suits me just fine. So, I stepped out into the world with it’s DX equivalent, a little gem known as Nikon’s 24mm f/2.8 prime (see the article for how I hit on that strange length) and boy did I love it!

We decided that Ueno would be a good spot, not too far, not too near. So we headed out into the park, for some park life and the shade of trees. Seeing as Ken was shooting some B&W film, I decided to switch over to monochrome digital, with a simulated yellow filter for a bit more contrast. But I’m a cheat, as it was all going on in RAW, so I could also view the photos in colour if I so desired. Still, just composing in B&W is refreshing and relaxing, freeing me from the complexity of an unnecessarily complex world.

Now for the photos…

It’s a Cat’s Life- We found this incredible, tiger-like cat there, along with his host of admirers.
Buskers

Morning Jazz- Buskers, getting into their thing under the shade of some trees.

Next stop, Ameyayokocho Street.

I ate my sashimi, but I saved some wasabi for you!

Ameyayokocho Street's timeless market sellers.

Fish without supermarkets and imported goodies like tea or nuts without inflated prices.

Some alternative culture. Tokyo now as well as then, (notice the subtle pun on a particular photoblog?)

I was sweltering, it was probably one of the hottest days of the year and even with hat and thermos was glad to make it to the camera shop we were looking for.

Back to the future with this stereoscopic model from the early days of film, something they are still trying to get going in these early days of digital.

A very cute girl who comes from Tohoku and volunteers there. We gave a donation after seeing her photos of helping out there. She is also a musician and it was a delight to meet such a sweet, pure person.

Having had our camera fix for the day, we chilled in Starbucks.

Luckily for us, there was a festival in Ueno that same day! One of the market sellers was good enough to tell us about it. It featured various groups and troupes from Tohoku. I was impressed and moved to see them celebrate the summer months and the wonder of life despite all the hardships up there. I hope things get better there and was happy to support even in this small way.

A Summer Festival

Taiko drums kept the summer rhythm going.

Many generations come out for the festival.

Something more interesting here.

A huge float approaching...

Into the dream…

It wouldn't be much of a summer festival without cheerleaders!

Then dinner- yakitori, salads and drinks out in the open. We met a nice guy and his friend, who is a Leica enthusiast. One day I have to get a lens for mine, hopefully without taking out a small mortgage first! It was good to connect and it all reminded me of my main theme for the day- keep it human, keep it simple and the beauty will reveal itself every day.

 Thanks for viewing!

Photography, Art or Craft?

As many who know me will be aware, I love to make HDR photographs. this is a technology for blending various exposures and obtaining a much richer image. In my next post, I’ll reproduce an article I wrote for a university magazine about the process. It’s a long one, but I hope you think it’s worth it. I hope to write more articles about photography here. People I know are often coming to me for advice on how to take better photos. Ultimately, you need to use your eyes more- all you can do with a camera is take photos of something you can see. Yet photography is also a very technical art, in that it is closely tied in with the equipment and techniques being used to obtain images.

It is certainly the case that better techniques and equipment can get ‘better’ results, at least results closer to your expectations when using them. In some ways this is a disappointing thing about photography- the very best lenses are priced way above our budgets. Yet there is a silver lining to this crowd- DSLRs have been gradually coming down in price to the point at which very good, or even excellent image quality from the camera itself is very affordable. Of course, in the quest for the perfect image some will disagree with this assessment, preferring to use either very high-end DSLRs, or even stay with the tried and tested realm of film. Those who can afford to and can handle the manual focus, might gravitate to a Leica M9, or digital medium format, such as is used for architecture or fashion photography. Lower down the scale, many are going for full-frame digital, despite the weight and for them, this is ‘good enough’ and incredible enough. Still, even an average DSLR from today’s selection of APS-C cropped sensors can produce incredible, award-winning images, much better than attainable from the compacts that are being upgraded from.

The affordability of DSLRs has also produced a new range of pro or semi-pro lenses that are also very good, meaning that the equipment is as good as needed. New primes like the Nikon 35mm f/1.8, or their 50mm lenses are not too expensive, and then you have bright zooms like the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 series. People don’t have to stick with the compromised kit lenses, unless they really want the convenience of their small size and range. So the next area of concern is proper technique holding the camera steady, use of VR lenses (if available) or a tripod, to minimise picture-quality-destroying camera shake. Learning good composition, pleasing to the eye when seen afterwards is a great art, in fact something that will make for unique photos. So, in terms of the equipment and techniques, there is a lot we can do to get the best results possible.

Yet at this point, the point of digital photography where we can get astounding results even with moderately-priced equipment, we start to wonder- what happened to the individuality of images? The mottled colours, the weird experiments that went wrong, the accidental misty lens, or the blurry yet satisfying fringes of a Holga photo? Where are the rich and moving colours of Velvia film, not quite the same as reality, yet more entrancing than just sliding up the saturation slider? For this, there is not such an easy answer for digital, which is generally aiming at an android-like sense of perfection in which there is total reproduction of the scene with minimal inconvenience at obtaining it. So the answer is to fight back against digital, to rage against the machine, with a plethora of filters and digital techniques to restore the ‘feeling’ to the mere ‘recording’ of digital equipment. One of the most powerful of these and one that is steadily becoming mainstream as an ‘option’ on some digital cameras, is that of HDR and Tone-mapping. In the next article, I’ll be saying something about this.

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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