Nikon ‘D400’ Dream Specs

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

 

Here they are-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full Frame with an F… Film!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photographing South-East Asia, 2011

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

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

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

The Summer 2011 Trip

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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Local Walks

I wrote quite a post here, but accidentally wrote over it. Well, I saved it, then began another one with a different title as I didn’t think it ready for publishing and it looks like that was interpreted by the WordPress software as ‘overwriting’ it. Not too sure I am good at using that quick post tool after all! One of the reasons I started this blog, even more than  various other, often half-hearted web projects, was to find my own voice. I assume everyone has their own, unique voice as after all, whilst it may be convenient to see people statistically, we are individuals. I am actually from a family with not 3.25 people, living in an apartment with 2.5 rooms. Well, I’m not the 0.25 if that’s what you’re thinking, sleeping in 0.5 of a room, anyway (though some might beg to differ)!

Anyone who knows me will know that as well as loving to take photos, I take many of them (probably too many) and in fact do so almost every day. Digital has allowed me to be prolific in a way film would never have permitted and as cameras get faster and easier to use and get good results from, the temptation is to take even more! Of course, what’s more important is quality over quantity, so such a machine-gunning approach has severe limitations, which might only be apparent after the fact, when you see a friend’s collection from the day and envy their 15 good ones as opposed to your 800 mediocre ones, but that’s the way it goes. In some cases, it does help, for example getting the composition or focus just right, or being free to experiment with angles. I’m not sure it’s really better than a slow and meditative style, with less shutter-clicks and more looking, though. Large, ‘endless’ memory cards are as much curse as blessing in this sense.

I often head out for a walk in my local area, a ‘walkabout’ in the hours of best sunlight. Best sunlight for photography, that is, which means the early morning, though this can be as late as 7:30 in winter, or around and including the ‘golden hour’ before sunset, when that luminous golden aura surrounds everything from the setting sun. I truly enjoy these walks and the bonus is that not going to far means I can get back and do other things at home more easily. Once I start messing with trains, a necessity for a lot of interesting places to be sure, the whole thing takes up much of the day. So what do I photograph? There is a beautiful shrine near me, called ‘Suwa Jinja’ that is a favourite place. The shadows and streams of light between trees are evocative. The only thing is, it’s pretty small and being a shrine has hardly any flowers and the trees don’t change much outside of Autumn. Another favourite is a small stretch of water, connected to a larger river, where reeds have been planted and small fish and turtles swim. Yet what I go there for, despite it’s (hideously) concreted-over banks, a seeming favourite reducer of unemployment figures here in Japan, are the migrating wild birds that cluster there. Alongside ducks are cormorants, blue or white herons and egrets. I try to catch them in beautiful take-off, which necessitates a fast camera, either that or zoom in very far on their faces with my ultrazoom.

Then there is the area I jokingly call ‘beautiful countryside’. It has some nice paths, rice fields, old farmhouses and some small half-forgotten shrines here and there. Some of the local farmers are very friendly, offering me a drink and none has really been hostile, though I don’t like hearing the yappy, barking dogs much. Wild birds are to be found here and there and depending on the month, autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, various insects and at times even snow, though that is only once or twice a year. These local walks are something I truly enjoy, getting lost in the mystery of my surroundings. Each time I can find some new minutiae of detail to obsess over and sometimes whole new places. It’s a kind of adventure for me, a smaller scale camera trip with the advantage of no time limit and knowledge that I can always come back and photograph later.

So what gear do I use? Currently, pretty much all of my collection. These expeditions are also a good way to find out more about them and realise which ones I enjoy using most and why. I suppose ultimately, I’m learning more about myself this way.

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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.

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?

Street Candids in Ueno

One of my favourite types of photography is the street type. Capturing the lives of people, with brief snapshots of their lives. Each photo in this field should tell a story, preserving for posterity those fleeting moments that make up so much of the human experience. Generally, for intimacy and inconspicuousness, short, relatively wide lenses are often used for this and also small, range-finder style cameras are prefered.

Yet there is certainly a place for the candid taken from a distance. The intimacy can be just as real, with the space bridged by the lens. I took my Nikon P510 out for a stroll in Ueno. I found the range of images I could capture quite miraculous, all without scaring anyone or feeling like an intruder.

A little note here might be appropriate- I intend to turn this more into a photo-blog, or at least a blog with more photography as an art-based features.

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.

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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