Category Archives: What I Use

Why I Preordered a Nikon D810 (D800 vs. D810)

I really like that full-frame look and have two main FX cameras: Nikon Df and Nikon D800.

My use case for the Df is every-day shooting, low-light and street.
The D800 is for uncompromising image quality.

So why upgrade? What do these two cameras not offer?

I have the following issues with my gear:

  • I lack trust in the D800 focus
  • I sometimes shoot sports
D800 Focus Confidence

I didn’t suffer from the dreaded left-focusing-issue, but many did. I did experience generally poor focusing accuracy.  All of my lenses needed dramatic back-focus adjustment.  Sharp-ears instead of eyes back focus. I do not have the issue with my Df.  The same lenses focus better, and much more accurately on my Df. Generally, I just focus fine-tuned and mostly forgot about it.  Still, the confidence wasn’t there.

Also, I have often had the case where I know where my focusing point was, but my D800 decided that something else should be in focus.  I know I’ll have critics who comment that it’s my fault, but again, my Df with an “inferior” focusing system doesn’t have the issue.

Speed

Besides that, the D800 image quality is absolutely stunning at low ISO.  Shockingly good!
But it’s slow at only 4 FPS in FX mode.  The Df has a different focus: excellent image quality at high ISO.

The problem is that probably half of my shots are sports.  Not more than about 10-20% of all of my keepers are sports, but you shoot a lot during sports photography and cull out the bad ones and duplicates.

Ironically, my fastest camera at 6 FPS – the sweet spot for my shooting – is the D7000, which I’ve recently called the best camera for amateurs on a budget and the last camera that I would ever sell.  I get a lot more keepers on my D7000 than on my D800.

Here are two examples.

D800: Beautiful, but peak action was missed.

The first is my D800 that has beautiful colours and sharpness, but the action – not so much.  I missed lots of great images on this day.  From this angle, on the back side of a ramp, you have less than a second to get the shot.  You can’t anticipate because you don’t see the rider until he’s already crested the hill.  If he’s going to do something cool, you need three or four shots to pick the peak action.

The second is with my three-year-old, and rarely used D7000.  I had several images to choose from, even as the rider was flying by my head!  I liked this one for peak action.  The image quality is very good, but I would have liked to have a bit more dynamic range in this high-contrast situation.

D7000: Peak action!
More peak action (D7000)

Yes, I’m aware of the fact that with a grip and AA batteries, you can also shoot 6 FPS in DX crop mode, and I use this, but the image quality isn’t any better than the D800 in this mode.  I may as well use my D7000 and avoid changing lenses.

Not changing lenses in this! (D7000)

 

D810 Benefits

For me, the D810 benefits boil down to:

  • Much larger buffer according to Thom Hogan
  • 6 FPS (my personal sweet spot) in 1.2 crop mode
  • Quieter shutter
  • More confident focus

Even without a grip, you still get 5 FPS in normal FX mode, which should be familiar to Df owners like me.

The quieter shutter is also a big deal.  The D800 is CLACK! loud.  When I’m shooting wildlife, it’s important.  Take a look at this patient little guy:

In the wild, not in a zoo. I’m amazed the D800 didn’t scare him away.

Why didn’t I take the D610?  Focusing coverage.

In my very first image, this is on a monopod with focusing Auto Area AF.  I didn’t know, and couldn’t predict where the rider would pop up, so I needed a rather large area for the camera to choose from.

I’m also rather concerned with the weather sealing.  This is my setup for a typical winter day out:

Typical winter day out. (iPhone)
Conclusion

While it is an incremental upgrade, there certainly is a buzz around this camera – and rightly so!  It’s upgrading arguably the most famous DSLR of the last few years.  But the D800 was just a little short in a few areas.  The D810 makes up for this, in my opinion.

Check out this specs comparison if you want to know more.

 

 

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED (FX) vs. Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art – The Definitive Comparison

I, like many photographers, have been going back and forth trying to decide which of these are better.  I had seen some things that just made me wonder.  In my earlier test, it was shown that the bokeh from the Sigma was dramatically different.  The Sigma also just had that “wow” factor that I couldn’t seem to get from the Nikkor, even though the Nikkor was seen to be sharper in some cases, the Sigma in other cases.  I liked the weight from the Nikon, but the “pop” of the Sigma.

I was confused.

I even spent some time on the Leica forums asking what made a lens “pop”.  What makes the rendering of a certain lens special?

So this weekend, I set out to find out once and for all, what’s the best fast 35mm autofocus prime in the world on a D800.  The results may surprise you.

First off, I started out in my darkened apartment to test for both sharpness and bokeh.  Allow me to introduce Green, my willing subject.

Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G FX
Nikkor at f/1.8
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art
Sigma at f/1.8

While you can click through to examine to your hearts’ content, I’ll save you some pixel peeping: in the center, they are effectively identical.  But something is going on at the edges of the frame.  The Nikkor spanks the Sigma!

Even at f/2.8, the Nikkor is showing a dramatic, visible difference over the Sigma.

Comparison
Comparison at f/2.8 (Nikon is on the left)

Then there’s the bokeh.  Neither of them are going to win an award.  Onion vs. Donut.

Nikon vs. Sigma (Nikon on the left)

This is not at all uncommon for highly corrected lenses like these.

So, why is the Nikkor so much sharper?  I thought it must be field curvature.  Ok, no problem. Field curvature isn’t always bad unless you shoot brick walls for a living.  It may even be an advantage if you focus-and-recompose. So I focused with live view (like almost all of the samples here) and placed a new focus target towards the edges.

Sigma gets spanked at f/1.8.

Things aren’t looking good for Sigma at this point, it must be said.

So what did I do then?  Drank a beer and went to bed.

Then, the next morning, I woke up bright and early to a poring rainstorm like just about every day in April in Switzerland.
Then suddenly, there was a break in the weather.  Out I go!  You can’t shoot just charts and boxes I thought.  You gotta get out there!

So, using a stable tripod on my nearly-trusty D800, I a couple of landscapes as I’m wandering around the area.

Nikon wins
Nikon wins again

I’ll save you the effort of clicking through, but even at f/11, Nikon wins in an obvious way at near distances and at the edges of the frame.

Nikon left, Sigma right

Ok, I thought, I didn’t buy these primes to shoot landscapes, so let’s go find some more interesting subjects where I can shoot with a narrower depth-of-field.

Nikon at f/1.8
Sigma at f/1.8
Nicer rendering from the Sigma

Don’t ask me what is it about Swiss people and stacking stones, but I quite like the look of this mini cairn against the wet foliage.

Nikon at f/1.8
Sigma at f/1.8
Nikkor sharper, but Sigma more pleasing at f/1.8

Well that’s interesting.  Even though the Nikkor is sharper, I prefer the rendering of the Sigma.  What’s going on?

Confused, I headed to one of my favourite spots.

Waterfall with the Sigma at f/8. Click to compare vs. the Nikkor

Somehow, I quite liked the Sigma image here, although the Nikkor was nearly identical.

I was only able to review the images on the back of my D800 until that point, but even then I was seeing something strange. I had a long walk home to think about the results, but I wanted to review them on the computer before jumping to any conclusion.

Then I did.  And it didn’t clarify anything.

It was obvious that the Sigma was as sharp as the Nikon in the centre of the frame at the same aperture but the Nikkor was really ruling around the edges.  But sometimes (and always at  large apertures) I still preferred the Sigma.

Then I started looking at the shutter speeds.  Now, the Sigma is a much more complicated lens, so I expected that the transmission would be lower.  (Basically, you lose a little light as it passes through multiple glass elements) But in fact, the opposite was true!  The Sigma, at the same aperture as the Nikkor had almost always a faster shutter speed.

What’s going on?

Frustrated, I reviewed the images from the previous night and I had my “AHA!” moment.  Now it was all clear.

At the beginning of this review, I showed you the difference in Bokeh between the two lenses.  See how the Sigma bokeh balls are larger?Compare the bokeh from the Nikkor at f/1.8 vs. the Sigma at f/2.8.  More than a stop difference!

Nikon at f/2.8 vs. Sigma at f/1.8

Now it’s clear why I preferred the rendering of the Sigma in some cases.  The Sigma actually has a larger aperture than the Nikon at f/1.8!  Reviewing my images, I saw evidence of that again and again:  Shallower depth of field, larger bokeh and faster shutter speeds.

That is not to say that Nikon is cheating – we’re talking about less than a stop difference.  That also can’t entirely explain the difference in sharpness at the edges of the frame where Nikon has a visible advantage. However, consider this 100% crop of the Sigma at f/8 and the Nikkor at f/5.6.  Still the Nikkor is a tiny bith sharper, but notice the shutter speeds?

Nikkor at f/5.6 (1/6 s) vs. Sigma at f/8 (1/4 s)

So what am I going to do?  I’m going to keep them both.  The Sigma shines at narrow depth-of-field photography. It’s beautiful.  It has that thing that only Leica people seem to be able to put into words.  One must also consider the huge weight difference between the two as well: 665g / 23.5oz. for the Sigma vs. only 305 g / 10.7 oz. for the Nikkor, but that the Sigma goes to f/1.4 instead of just f/1.8-ish.

What will be in my bag every day?  The Nikkor, but I’ll be wishing for the Sigma. If I go out for a day of dedicated narrow-depth-of-field shooting like portraiture or some street scenes, you can bet that the Sigma will be weighing me down.

So if I had to buy just one, and my back didn’t mind?  Sigma.

Best DSLR for an Amateur on a Budget

I get a lot of questions about a camera to really learn with, so I sat down and made a list of criteria that I thought would be good for a beginner/intermediate user who is looking for his first real DSLR, capable of advanced photography on a budget.

I came up with the following list:

  • Exceptional image quality
  • Two dials to learn shooting advanced modes
  • All the controls you need
  • A proper mirror
  • Access to a large range of accessories like lenses and flashes
  • Low price
  • The last camera I personally would ever sell

I’ve been through several iterations of buying and upgrading my cameras.  I’ve moved up to FX now, but when I think about the camera that I still shoot and love, it’s got to be the Nikon D7000.

I recommend this camera because I’ve really used it for thousands of photos, over a couple of years so, you know, I’m not talking out of my ass.  Notice that there are NO convenient links to buy any of this stuff.

Also, I’m sure that Sony, Pentax and Canon are all great, but I haven’t used them, so I can’t recommend them.  But if you take the above bullet points as a starter, you’ll be fine.

Image Quality
The D7000 is like a mini D800. Literally.

Sunrise

There are cases when I shoot both the D800 and D7000 side-by-side and to be honest, without zooming excessively, I can’t tell the difference.  When I switch my D800 to DX mode (where it only uses a smaller part of the sensor) there is NO difference – maybe even a slight advantage to the D7000.

Some users say that they even prefer the D7000 over the newer D7100.  I can’t say because I haven’t shot the D7100, but the images on sites like DPReview are razor sharp.

Dials/Controls
If you’re looking to take your photography to another level and want to learn how to shoot manual, and just basically know what you’re doing, the D7000 has both a command and subcommand dial so that you can set aperture and shutter speed independently.  It’s critical to have an actual dial for this without digging into a menu to find them.  It also has quick access to exposure compensation, ISO and its focusing system is still used by Nikon on much bigger and more expensive DSLRs.  If these aren’t so important to you, get a D5100.  It has the same, identical image quality but it’s smaller, cheaper and has a little bit less advanced focusing system.

Not Mirrorless
If you’re here, then you’ve probably also heard of mirrorless systems that are out there.  Maybe you’re even considering one of them.  I say don’t do it.

A mirror is a feature!
First off, mirrorless cameras use a lot of battery to keep the screen running instead of just reflecting the light through the lens up into the eyepiece.  You never have to turn a DSLR off to save battery.  NEVER.  As soon as you press the shutter button half way, it will wake up and take a shot in less than a fraction of a second – faster than the lens can focus!

Speaking of focus, mirrorless systems are slow to focus too.  I’ve used two mirrorless systems and neither performs the way I expect to shoot fast moving things.

These shots, made with my D7000, would have been basically impossible with a mirrorless system:

Bird in Flight
Sports and Fast Moving Subjects

 

Support for Accessories like Lenses and Flashes
I don’t necessarily recommend you get a flash right away, but you may want to. You will want to have additional lenses.  One lens does not fit all – even one of the new super zooms.

In fact, what I recommend is to find the best deal with the longest zoom lens you can find bundled to save a lot of money.

Then take it off!

Add a 35mm f/1.8G DX lens.  That lens is super cheap, awesomely sharp and lets you get those interesting effects like when you throw the background out of focus.

Save the long zoom for vacation or until you’ve learned to get great shots with the 35mm prime (non-zoom) lens.  The trick is to keep moving around to arrange things in the frame in an interesting way. If you’ve read my post on how to take better photos, you’ll understand that you have to move around to get things arranged in your viewfinder to make a great photo.

There is one other time you’ll want to use the zoom: portraits.  Step back and zoom as far as you can for portraits. Faces just look best that way. Here is another example with the D7000:

Zoom for portraits

There are a lot of accessories that you’ll want to think about getting when you start in photography like remote shutter releases, flashes and filters*.

*Don’t let the camera shop guy talk you in buying a “protective” filter.  It’s a trick to increase his margin: a scratched lens isn’t visible in the final photo and a filter does NOT protect against damage from dropping the camera.  I don’t baby my cameras; they work hard, get dirty and banged around. I rarely even use the lens cap.  You know how many scratches I have?  None.  Lenses have hard, tough, thick front elements.

Use, don’t baby your camera, and don’t buy a protective filter.

Since we’re talking about accessories, the battery grip for the D7000 series is really nice and recommended if you need that extra heft and place to put your hand when the camera is in portrait orientation.

One nice feature of the D7000 family is that it supports what Nikon calls CLS.  It means Creative Lighting System, but what it really does is allow that you to use the popup flash to control and trigger other Nikon flashes that are not on top of the camera.  This is usually the recommended way to use flash.  That’s an advanced subject, but you are looking at the D7000 to learn, right?  Check out this example below.  If you’re curious, everything you ever wanted to know on www.strobist.com.

Control flashes that are “off camera” with the D7000.

Low Price
At the time of this writing, you’ll find the D7000 with lens for around $1000 and the 35mm DX prime for under $200.  That’s all you need.

If you read this later, don’t worry, the D7x00 series is the one that you want because it’s the “lowest” in the series that has all the buttons, dials and advanced features.

Don’t feel the need to buy the latest version as you can often save a lot of cash by buying the previous generation either new or used. Basically, I say if the difference is less than $100-$200, get the newer one.

Again, if all the dials isn’t important to you because you don’t think you’ll ever want to learn shoot manual (you should!) then go with the D5x00 series.  I use A (aperture priority) mode 90% of the time but use manual and S (shutter priority) the rest of the time, but back to choosing a camera.

The Last Camera I Would Ever Sell
Yep, that’s right.  While the D7000 isn’t exactly my desert island camera (D800) if times were tough and I had to sell everything I had, it’s the camera they would pry out of my cold, dead, starved hands.

If I wasn’t dead yet, then I would have taken some of them out with me using my tripod.  Do get a tripod, you’ll need it.

The D7000 series is really something special.  I still use and love mine.

Here are some more images to attempt to convince you and because I just like showing off:

Pretty good in low light too.
Use of electronics is now allowed – but it wasn’t when I took this!
Seriously, get a good lens like the 35mm DX lens. It makes a difference. This shot was taken with the 17-55 f/2.8 (awesome, but heavy and expensive).
On the Street. The D7000 is just the right size, not too small, not too big as to be imposing.
Get close.
Mirrorless sucks
Mirrorless sucks at focusing.

More Nikon Df Images

I’ve had nearly two weeks of daily shooting on the Nikon Df to capture some images that, I hope, are worthy of your consideration.

Just remember what I always say:

  • If the images are crap, it’s the camera
  • If the images are good, it’s the photographer, not the equipment
Sunrise over the Alps and Fog (Click through any image for a larger view)
Colors in the Fog
Sunset over the Mountains Obscured by Fog
Landscape after the Fog Rolls In
Enjoying a Morning Break

Compact zoom for the Nikon Df?

One of the advantages of the Nikon Df is that it’s the smallest full frame camera with a proper mirror.

Therefore, everyone seems to think that the Nikon Df is only made for primes. I like primes too, but some occasions work better with a zoom.  Plus, I don’t own any wide angle primes because – and at f8, what lens isn’t sharp?

I’m not a grizzled Nikon veteran like some early adopters of the Df, so I’m not blessed with an extensive collection of vintage glass.  So I looked through my collection and came across the Nikkor 24-85 f3.5-4.5G.  Even though it’s just a kit lens with some recent bodies, I like even better than the 24-120 f4G.

It’s a very nice size on the Df, not too heavy, not too big – very nicely balanced.  Frankly, I enjoyed it on the Df even more than on my D800.

It’s sharp, focuses reasonably close, doesn’t “creep” or extend when hanging front-element-down in the sling.

My my most used lenses on the Dƒ:

Nikon Df Zoom-2From left to right:

  • Kit 50mm f1.8 SE
  • Nikon 85 mm f1.8G
  • Nikon 24-85 f3.4-4.5G
  • Sigma 35mm f1.4 “Art”

Here are some shots that I took while hiking this weekend.

Note: The EXIF reads D4 because I used Exifchanger (Mac app store) so that Lightroom would recognise them.  As always, you can click through to pixel peep if you’re so inclined.

So if you don’t have any compact and light classic zooms, and you’re looking for something modern that won’t cost the world and is nice to use on the Df, try it out!

I’m always on the search for the best standard zoom for all of my cameras, so if you have any recommendations, put them in the comments!

Thanks.

Nikon Df with the Sigma 35mm f1.4

Those of you who know me know that I’m a huge fan of the Sigma 35mm f1.4 “Art”.  See my long-term review here.

Of course now that I’ve taken possession of the new Nikon Dƒ, I knew that I had to try it out.

The weight wasn’t too front heavy, but it’s about the limit of what I would call comfortable on the Dƒ who’s grip isn’t very deep.  You’re going to want to have your left hand around the lens most of the time or your fingers on your right hand will get fatigued.

The size isn’t too bad actually, though the lens hood is coming off.

So how do the images look?  Of course if it’s great on the D800, this is going to be astonishing. Amazing.  Love at first pixel-peep.

Shot with the Nikon Df
Straight out of camera, unedited.  Click to pixel-peep.

The Sigma focuses positively and fast, and more accurately than on my D800. But, you know.

Overall, I’m very excited about this combo.

Update: The sigma won’t autofocus in live view.   Reported by Matt and I’ve confirmed it.

D800 – How much can you crop?

D800_24_120_front.low

People often talk about megapixels and the croppability of different sensors. Let me demonstrate with one of my images.

White Lion in Switzerland

That’s a beautiful portrait isn’t it?  Go ahead, click here and pixel peep. I won a contest with it. 

But this post isn’t about me, it’s about the D800.  If you’re like me, you enjoy your images mostly on the screen, share some of them online, print small sometimes and print large rarely.

As you see this image, it’s a bit over 2 megapixels.

This image was taken through a fence, an ugly white one, from behind another fence and I’ve made contact with a hungry alpha-male lion, so you “zoom with your feet” people please bite me.  I took it with the longest lens I own, a 300mm f2.8, which is an excellent lens, and I was being pretty careful with my shutter speed, so the shot is sharp.  I didn’t adjust much, just play with saturation and colors – because he is a white lion, not golden, although the original shot looks that way.  I also threw down a few gradients to try to mask the bars which are still visible to the trained eye at the top and bottom of this crop.

What’s the point of all this, you ask?

Step back, I’m going to reveal the man behind the curtain.

This monstrosity of thirty-six throbbing un-cropped megapixels of nasty is the same image you see above.

White Lion Orig. Crop

I knew when I took this shot that I was going to need to crop a lot. So now you know the answer to the question; the very question I was asking myself when I pressed the shutter: “how much can I crop on the D800” – lots.

Lots and lots.

X100s – Six Months Review

After six months of using the X100s intensively, I though I would write a review.

x100s_Front_ITM-1

Summary: Beautiful camera, beautiful images, a bit fiddly. The images will not fail to impress.

Pros:

  • Classic, cool design
  • High built quality (except the back buttons)
  • Amazing out-of-camera images both JPEG and RAW
  • Very compact

Cons:

  • Almost too small, especially the lens is too shallow to comfortably fit both focus and aperture rings
  • Back buttons extremely fiddly, overly sensitive and cheap feeling
  • Slow to focus, slow to start, slow to write to cards.  Slow!
  • Overstated ISO leaves one wondering where the shutter speed went

It is very compact, light and practical, but the images – oh my god, the images. Sure, not as sharp as my D800 with Sigma 35mm f1.4 what is? The colors, stunning!

Build quality is a mixed bag.  The metal exterior is very nice and has withstood my abuse well.  It has mostly a premium feel, but some plastic parts, especially the back buttons are embarrassingly fiddly.

Focusing is alright, but you’re not going to shoot sports with it. I haven’t missed any feature yet, except for maybe HDR which I never use anyway.
I love having the optical viewfinder, it’s excellent. The clever hybrid information overlay inside the optical viewfinder is fantastic.

The electronic viewfinder has its purposes but it’s slow. Contrast is so-so, sometimes too bright, sometimes too dark and flares badly when the camera is first turned on. Focus peaking is one reason to use it – great feature, but I found myself using it less and less as the months went by.

Speaking of slow, I imagined that I would be shooting run-and-gun on the street.  Not so fast there!  The X100s is slow enough that you’re going to be planning your shots carefully.

I did find myself bumping up against the shutter speed limitation with large apertures (f2 = 1/1000) so thank goodness for the built-in ND filter, which I programmed to the Fn button.

The ISO does seem almost a stop overstated. On the good side, ISO 800 (say 640ish in SLR-land) is great and uses their automatic dynamic range thing which works well. I haven’t had the need to go higher yet, really, but I’ll report back when I have.

So, some further commentary with images attached below. Only one is heavily edited. Most are almost directly out of camera with just minor exposure and color tweaks. Images are usable right out-of-camera.

The built-in ND filter is a treat:

x100s_Samples_ITM-3

I shoot JPEG + RAW and keep the best.  The JPEG  colors are amazing. Much better out-of-the-box than Nikon colors. Yes, really!

x100s_Samples_ITM-10

Fuji’s RAW format (RAF) can be pushed almost as hard as Nikon RAW, but doesn’t need as much tweaking to make it look good.

x100s_Samples_ITM-2

It’s tiny but not cheap feeling. The size is stable even on a tiny little travel tripod. The optional hood is great, but expensive and allows it to use 49mm filter.   I leave the hood on all the time.

Still it’s very discreet for street photography.

x100s_Samples_ITM-9

The film simulation modes are excellent.   This image is straight out of camera on Velvia setting.

x100s_Samples_ITM-8

There are some rumors and it does seem that the ISO overstated. This photo has plenty of blur in it even though experience with my Nikons in this light would have me a faster shutter speed. Shot in aperture priority:

x100s_Samples_ITM-1

If you’re looking for the very best in compact image quality with a retro feel, this is your camera.  For me, despite the speed increases over the original X100, Fuji needs to increase the speed another order of magnitude before it can replace my SLR.