Category Archives: equipment reviews

Review: Nikon Df

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45mm f/2.8 PC-E, ISO 100, 1/1000th

The Nikon Df is sort of a strange camera to review … or at least a strange Nikon. In the DLSR era, Nikon has succeeded by trying to make their cameras as functional and simple as possible … but no simpler. Leave it to weirdoes like Fuji to make quirky cameras with non-standard sensor arrays, or let fresh-and-hungry Sony take huge chances like releasing a $3K camera with no viewfinder and a fixed lens — Nikon would keep making solid, efficient cameras. And, in the words of Henry Ford, pros you can have any color they want, as long as it’s black.

But 2014 is a very different world for camera makers than 2004 or even 2009, and Nikon is waking up to that. Few people need decent point-and-shoot cameras any more than they need to walk around with a compass, map and pocket calculator — our phones have them all. The only way forward to profit for camera makers is to do the things that phones cannot do. The most obvious is to harness the power of a big sensor. But from a marketing perspective, there’s something else: we want to stand out. Thanks in large part to cell phones, more photos are now taken each year than in the entire history of photography before 2010, a DSLR is a conscious choice to say “There’s more to me than selfies.”

No wonder, then, that cameras have turned to a brand that these disruptive, futuristic devices cannot do at all: Retro. The Fuji X100 blew the doors off, shocking any executive that just thought about specs. Cameras like the OM-D and X-Pro1 followed, and their popularity showed that photographers wanted more than just good pictures, they wanted the act of photography to be an experience.

The Df is Nikon’s entry into this space, and everything about the release materials shows how much they are emphasizing the experience of photography over simple, numerical specs. For instance, here is the environmental picture from the Nikon press room for the Df next to the environmental shot for the similar-specced D610:

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The D610 photo shows the same sleek, modern image that Nikon tries to impart with all of its cameras, while the gorgeously styled image of the Df implies that this is a camera Indiana Jones would pack right next to his bullwhip. The Df is about how it looks and feels as much as the images that it takes.

All of this makes it something of a strange camera to review. You can look at the image above and already know if it speaks to you or not. If the retro styling and dials grafted onto a modern dSLR makes your soul sing, if it would revive your love of photography, if it would make you get out there and take pictures you weren’t taking, then this is a valuable camera for you.

But as a constantly working professional, I’m entirely unsentimental. I’ve owned two gorgeous Noct-Nikkors … and promptly sold them because they made me nervous. I need gear that does its job well, gets out of the way, and can be bashed against a rock or two and keep going. But because I carry two cameras for thousands of hours each year, I join many pros in aching (literally) for something smaller and lighter, a D700 for the new decade. And so the idea of having a sensor like the D4’s — with beautiful color, low noise, and high dynamic range even at high ISOs — in a smaller body is deeply appealing.

So, for the market, the Df is caught between two worlds: Is it a camera just for the nostalgic manual-focus users or is it something that could be a pro’s main camera? As a modern Nikon dSLR with a fantastic sensor and perfectly good specs it can serve both roles well, but it also falls a bit short in either direction.

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28mm f/1.8G, ISO 3600, 1/125th

The Good:

The Nikon Df really is nice and light and (compared to my D4’s,) quiet and small. It is very well-balanced with smaller, lighter lenses (like manual focus lenses), and I really liked pairing it with the light, awesome-for-the-price 28mm f/1.8G. Its less obtrusive profile and shutter made it just a bit easier to get closer, to capture moments of people as they really are, not how they react to having a camera around. And the fantastic sensor made it easy to freeze action in all sorts of light. The room above was not nearly as bright as the photo makes it look, and the Df is shooting at ISO 3600 with nary a spec of noise and lots of fine detail. I could have left my 28mm glued onto it and been happy, but it also works well with large lenses that don’t truly balance with any camera, like the 70-200. It’s the mid-range lenses like the 24-70, heavy but tempting for one-hand use, where the small grip causes ergonomic trouble.

Despite the styling, this has everything you expect from a modern Nikon … other than video capabilities, which were deliberately left off. It has reasonably fast operation, feeling less sluggish in basic operation and buffering than the D800 but not as effortlessly speedy as the D4. I was able to shoot large “Brenizer method” panoramas without getting into the sort of annoying buffering problems that the D800 would bring:

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105mm f/2, ISO 100, 1/2000th, 65 images

The relatively small size made it a fun camera for personal use, although the bag you’d need for this wouldn’t be much smaller than for a D4 set-up, especially once you pack the same lenses and flashes. Still, Tatiana and I had fun just messing around with it:

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Again, the sensor is as good as anything with dynamic range, color, and low-light performance. The photo on the left was taken in light you could barely see in, while the one on the right mixes full sun with shadow, and the Df can handle them both admirably:

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The Almost (For the retro-friendly user)

The image on the right above is from the manual-focus 50mm f/1.2, another lens that not only balances well with the camera, but looks darn good. Clearly one of the perceived user bases for this camera are older photographers pining for the feeling of a Nikon F, and with a closet full of manual-focus glass collecting dust. The Df exposure dials are clearly designed to work best with cameras that have aperture rings, just like the ones in the promotional image. Nikon has an long history of incredible lenses, and the Df pays homage to them, including some retooling to allow older, pre-AI Nikkors. But there are two problems, one that I don’t care about and one that I do:

1) The market base that cares most about the way cameras and lenses look and feel are the ones most offended by the existence of plastic. They remember the days when plastic in a lens or camera meant “Danger, Will Robinson!” This doesn’t bother me much, but it is noticeable when paired with older lenses.

2) More importantly, the Df makes no special effort to be the manual-focus lens user’s friend. There is no focus peaking in live view, no easily swappable viewfinder screen, just the same iffy green focus dot we’ve had for more than a decade. This is something that is conceivably improvable in firmware, though I imagine these days a firmware tweak that in-depth would just mean releasing a “Dfs.”

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The Almost (For the modern-minded photographer)

This one will be a bit nit-picky, and I apologize. For a better explanation, let us also call this section: “Hey Nikon! What we really need is a new D700 with current tech!”

First, Tatiana pointed out something ironic — with modern, aperture ring-less lenses, the control make it harder to work in old-school, complete manual mode. If I’m shooting ambient, I’m a heavy auto-ISO user, allowing me to follow the moment into whatever light it takes me, but she had more trouble with the camera simply because she embodies the sort of purism the marketing campaign plays to.

The camera only goes up to 1/4000th, but this doesn’t bother me much — I shot just fine for five years with the D3 and D3s, which may have done 1/8000th but only went down to ISO 200, amounting to pretty much the same thing. A bit worse is that it shares the AF system of the cheaper D610, instead of the high-end AF of the D800 and the D4 lines. I never had too much trouble with the AF, but it didn’t wow me either — the AF points are so tightly packed that you end up focusing and recomposing quite a bit.

But for me, all it took was one thing to rule it out for me as a backbone of a pro system in 2014: The Df only has one memory card slot.

“No problem,” you say. “I’ve shot many times and never had a memory card problem,” you say.

You’re lucky. Shoot some more. Anything that has a non-zero chance of happening WILL happen if you shoot enough, and in weddings I do everything I can to reduce to chance of image loss to as close to zero as possible. Because it does happen. Just last year I had a memory card failure so total that if I hadn’t been shooting to two cards more than a third of a wedding would have been lost to the ether. Any one-card camera I’ve used on weddings, like the Canon 6D, Olympus EM-5, or the Df, has to merely be one of many cameras on the job or my well-earned paranoia kicks in. To add insult to injury, the cheaper D610 has two card slots.

Sadly, one feature the Df does share with the D610 is the crippled live view exposure mode. Again, it is ALMOST there — the back LCD is clear and sharp, and it has far less lag than the D800, but you cannot preview exposure like you can with the D4, D800, D3s, and others. Live View exposure preview is a godsend in many situations, allowing you to work more quickly, focus in the sorts of insane low-light that the Df sensor is capable of shooting in, and in particular when using the manual-focus lenses that this camera is styled for.

This camera was a huge risk for Nikon, and I admire their willingness to make the move. But risks don’t always pay off perfectly. I imagine we’ll get a Dfs some day, but I’d be shocked if it had top-of-the-line AF. Maybe, hopefully, it will have multiple card slots. But I could easily see them making the manual focus experience even better, putting it in line with the best-in-class. Ironically, though, along the way they may realize that the people most crazy about acquiring and shooting with old lenses these days are the video shooters, so we’ll see if they give them a nod as well.

I had a great time shooting with this camera, and it is the right camera for some people out there, just not quite for me. It’s not a D700 update with modern sensor and dual-cards, but sadly nothing is.

More Photos with the Df

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Nikon D600 Review

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I’ve tried every professional camera that came out in 2012, and I’ve never had people clamor for my review as much as with the Nikon D600. It’s clear that the attractive price point, including staggering holiday sales with lens bundles, are attracting people to move up to a full-frame sensor while it becomes more affordable than ever. Great! In late September I got one of the first models, I tested it out, found some things I loved, some things that I didn’t, and I was ready to go! I used it on an engagement shoot, used it at a wedding, and was ready to really put it through the paces in my extremely busy fall schedule.

892427And then … it broke. I’d started my second engagement shoot with it, and almost immediately it just stopped autofocusing. Not good. It turns out that my model had been damaged in transit. This means a couple things for this review:

  1. The reason you are reading this in late December instead of early October is that I had to sit and wait to see if this was a persistent problem with the model. I suspected this was a one-time case of bad luck, but if I’d started reading reports that D600 autofocus was failing left and right, then this would be a very different review.
  2. I have not been able to test it nearly as thoroughly as I like to for a dSLR review, especially as it was just a backup camera at the wedding I shot. I would have skipped the review altogether if people didn’t beg me for it every single day. That said, I have some insights on it as a working camera that I believe are valuable.

I have not seen anything about this being a persistent problem with the model, so I wouldn’t take this as a point against it in the review. A single data point is not in any way valid for determining whether the camera is particularly fragile.

OK, let’s get to it:

What is this camera all about?

This, not the D800, is Nikon’s real successor for the D700 … which shows how confusing the model naming system is. The D700 was all about fitting a full-frame sensor in as compact and broadly usable a camera as possible for a more affordable price. The D600 has the same mission, and uses a few design choices and technological progress to make the camera even more compact and affordable, weighing 22 percent less than the D700. The D800’s mission is totally different — from extremely high resolution to crazy dynamic range, Nikon set out to make the best ISO 100 DSLR around, and they did so. But the trade-offs are giant files and a sluggish, un-Nikonlike response speed. (see full review here)

So one of the central questions people have is this: Is it a worthy upgrade? Absolutely. In almost every way, the D600 is a superior camera to the D700, so pay no attention to that model number. It’s been four-and-a-half years since the D700 was released, and that’s a lifetime in sensor development. Even though the D600 has twice as many megapixels, you will absolutely get better prints at the highest ISOs from it, especially in regards to color fidelity. The D700’s sensor is virtually identical to the 2007-designed Nikon D3, and the color and overall tone gets muddy at the highest ISOs. Five years ago, no one cared that a photo was a bit muddy at ISO 6400 — we were too busy saying “I can take a usable photo at ISO 6400? What strange sorcery is this?”

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The Nikon D600 at ISO 5000, good color and all

The only major potential drawback in the comparison was that the D700 used the best autofocus design available at the time, the same as the much more expensive Nikon D3, while the D600 uses a modified version designed for the “semi-professional” Nikon D7000. I expected this to have more of an effect on me, but I used it all day next to the D3s and in practice I didn’t notice any real difference in focus acquisition. Any effects were minimal compared to other factors like which lens you were using.

The diamond design of the focus points plus the large frame make the AF points feel a bit more clustered than others, especially if you’re shooting in the corners. But pretty much all full-frame cameras are pretty bad on this front, so I’ve learned to adjust for it a long time ago. Get as close as you can, then focus and recompose — it’s the full-frame way. (Live View actually lets you put the AF point wherever you want, but it’s much slower). Someone coming from, a pro DX camera like a D300s might be shocked at the difference though.

So what’s it like to use?

The sensor:

Even though its resolution pales next to the D800’s 36 megapixels, the 24 MP of the D600 is nothing to sneeze at. Let’s take a look at a picture of the New York skyline next to a 100 percent crop of the same picture, that lets us look at all of the best footholds for King Kong on the Empire State building:

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Now, I know what some of you might say. “Noise on a low ISO image?!? Get the pitchforks!” But this image was taken underexposed to keep the data in the highlights, and then sharpened so that it would look good in a smaller print. Luckily I’ve uploaded a RAW version for the techies to play with, because I care.

Nikon seems to be maximizing the resources of its sensors, whether they’ve designed them or they’re tweaking Sony’s designs, because all of their full frame cameras from the D3s on have the same general high ISO output of “very, very good.” They all look different at the 1:1 range, but if you were making an 8×12 print from each camera at high ISO, they would all fall pretty close to each other. I haven’t tested the D3x, but according to DXOMark, the D600 wins the battle of 24MP on all fronts at dramatically lower cost.

On Color: Another reason this review took a long time coming is that 3rd party software took forever to properly support this camera, and it is still very hard for me to get the results I want out of Lightroom with D600 files, particularly in skin tones. This is likely just a continuation of my frustrations with Lightroom, but I’ve got it pretty well figured out for the D3s, and it certainly treats D600 files differently. Capture One does a better job for me, and I suspect that Capture NX2 does it perfectly … but I can’t test that because I lost my serial number long ago after I realized that processing a wedding in Capture NX2 is like crawling across a field of broken glass in the hot sun, except without the sense of adventure.

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Started the processing in View NX for better color

The body:

This is not a manly camera, and that’s the best thing about it for me. It’s as small and light as Nikon has ever had a full-frame digital sensor in, and is a fantastically compact package when paired with great lenses like the 28mm f/1.8G and 50mm f/1.8G. Like most cameras without a vertical grip, I find it poorly balanced with heavy-but-not-gigantic lenses like the 24-70mm f/2.8G, since too much weight gets put onto one wrist (luckily there’s an optional vertical grip).

But there’s something even better than weight — it’s quiet, really the only full-frame Nikon DSLR that I would give that designation to. Particularly in silent mode, the shutter barely disturbs your subjects. Now, I love the giant shotgun miror-slap of a 6×7 camera and the sharp clack of my D3s, but I shoot weddings and photojournalism for a living, and I count every shutter click as an “annoyance unit.” Stand in front of someone and fire off your camera, and eventually they will think about you instead of what they’re doing, and soon thereafter be annoyed by you. The quieter the moment and the louder the camera, the quicker the annoyance. With my D3s I never press the shutter multiple times in a church ceremony, because the sound carries everywhere. But with the D600 I felt more free to capture multiple shots to get the right expression, capture a small panorama, and whatever I needed without the subjects thinking about me:

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For a Nikon wedding photographer, this is easily the best feature of this camera over others.

Also, the D600 retains that classic Nikon responsiveness that the D800 doesn’t have — generally, the camera can keep up with you, and you know that when your finger hits the button, a picture will happen. Doing multi-image panoramas with the D800 can be an exercise in patience, but the D600 kept up handily with this 47-image stitch, resulting in an image near 250 megapixels:

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The dual slots are a great feature, and I like that they’re the same kind of card. It just makes my life easier … (I’m looking at you, Nikon D4). In fact, if not for the next paragraph, I could have easily made this my next camera, as its strengths make it a good complement to a D3s or two.

But…

Here’s where my disappointment comes in. I don’t want to end a review of a great camera on a down note, but I would really like Nikon to listen to me on this. One of the things that would have made this the perfect complement to the D3s is an even better Live View. Live View is one of the few recent camera bells and whistles than can dramatically improve photography when used correctly. A good live view system can show you everything you need before the image is captured, from exposure to white balance to true depth-of-field to flare and backlight and details in light too low for your eyes to make out. Recent Nikon cameras not only have better back LCD’s than the D3s, but they also fix the D3s’s major Live View problem, which is that it only works up to a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second. So I took it out of the box and immediately played with the Live View. Nice and sharp! Good color! OK, so how do I set it up to preview my exposure?

You can’t. You can’t.

Nikon doesn’t generally play the game of intentionally crippling their cameras for purposes of market segmentation, (unlike some major camera-makers), but its hard to see this as anything but. The other professional cameras they’ve released can do this — the D800’s works great but is filled with lag, and the D4’s is a dream. There’s no reason for them not to fix this. I imagine they could fix it in firmware, but I thought the same with the Canon 5d Mark III‘s glaring “black AF point” problem and as far as I know they haven’t fixed that yet. Nikon, if you are reading this, fix this. This reason alone is why I didn’t ask for another one when this one broke.

(Of course, I then bought two Nikon D4s instead, so I’m not exactly teaching them a lesson).

I think for most users this will not be a huge issue, and certainly not worth a $4,000 premium to move to the Nikon D4, but it was for me.

Let’s consider this a race. Will Nikon fix the Live View crippling first, or will Canon fix their AF points? Who will win the firmware battle of consumer satisfaction? I’m not taking any money on this, but if this sounds like a nitpick to you, then you might want to consider putting money on the D600, because otherwise this is a great camera.

Just don’t smash it on stuff.

PS: One issue that has received a lot of press is the grease and dust spots in the upper left corner that seems to be pervasive. Yes, I saw it. Here’s the upper left of a stopped-down image:

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I can’t confirm this, but from what I’ve read this goes away after a couple thousand shots and a good cleaning, so if you buy one, go to town for a week or so and then clean it well before using it seriously.

Other D600 photos:

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Review: Nikon 28mm f/1.8G

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Specs and pricing info

It was not all that long ago that Nikon prime users had few good options. There was a slew of old manual-focus glass, but if you wanted fast, wide lenses you were either stuck with kludgy older lenses like the 35mm f/2 or the extremely expensive, and then discontinued, 28mm f/1.4. But things quickly turned themselves around with first the 24mm f/1.4 and then the 35mm f/1.4, among others. Combined with cameras like the Nikon D3s, it was literally night and day from the low-light shooting experience of Nikon gear just a few years before, as well as opening the world to depth-of-field control.

But these lenses, as well as others like the 85mm f/1.4G, were priced well out of the hands of most shooters. Luckily, once the professionals had been taken care of, Nikon started to update their more compact primes list as well, with the recent releases of the 85mm f/1.8G and 50mm f/1.8G. So what would they do with the wide-angle? Would we get a 24 f/1.8 and a 35mm f/1.8 (Nikon already has one, but it’s DX only — although it works well in the 1.2X crop of recent pro Nikons). No, they split the difference, releasing a 28mm f/1.8.

Which leads us to the most important thing to understand the 28mm:

It’s a 28mm lens.

Honestly, with computer-aided designs today, you can learn about 90 percent of what you need to know about most lenses just from the specs — what is the focal length and maximum aperture, weight, filter size, etc. It’s really rare for companies to release prime lenses that are optical duds these days, so what’s left to figure out is which are the true optical standouts — lenses like the crazy Zeiss 100mm f/2 — and general usage notes, especially autofocus performance. With Nikon especially, while I trust the optics of their lenses, some recent designs like the 50mm f/1.4G have had slower autofocus than I’d like.

I used to use the 28mm f/1.4 fairly regularly (a secret that I didn’t want to tell anyone at the time is that, while it was $3500 to buy, you could rent it for three days from Adorama for less than $20.) But most Nikon prime users probably aren’t all that used to shooting at 28mm. I’ve spoken to people who simply can’t get used to it — and indeed, if I were shooting with just one camera at a time, I’d prefer the 35mm for a more general usage. But I am almost always shooting with two cameras, one with a wide-angle and one with a telephoto lens, generally an 85. And I’ve often found myself doing a dance of “24mm or 35mm?” with that wide-angle. The 35 produces cleaner images with less worry about the nuances of the frame, but when things get really active and emotional I want a wider lens. For example, I’ve spent many weddings running to my bag to make sure I’ve had a 24mm lens on in time for the horah.

So for me, the 28mm has hit a sweet spot. Ever since I got it, it’s stayed on my camera for most of the day. It’s wide enough for great dance shots, once I adjusted my brain a little bit, but not too wide for general coverage. Again, though, this is all personal preference. If you haven’t used a 28mm much, make sure to buy from a store with a good return policy (like … hey … the store where all these links go…) You may love it or not.

I dig it.

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Usage and performance

Size and weight:

As you can see here, the 28mm is smaller than the 24mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4 (which flank it), but not precisely tiny:

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But what this doesn’t show is how light it is: It is just over half the weight of either lens. It’s really the first thing you note when you pick it up. Even on a heavy camera like the D3s, when I handed the combo to a second-shooter of mine for the first time, he said “Something feels different … did you leave the battery out?” Pair it with a camera like the D600, and you have a lightweight powerhouse. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of the morning dreaming of a lightweight wedding combo of two D600s, the 28mm, 50mm, 85mm, and Sigma 150mm.

Because here’s the deal: Weight matters. The Internet is filled with macho nostalgic types who loathe any tiny bit of plastic in any photography equipment, and want everything to be big, heavy, metallic rocks. I also love the feel of old equipment as a collector’s piece, but if I’m doing work, I want my gear to be as light and ergonomically sound as possible without causing severe structural weakness. I keep very fit — I do five or six hard workouts a week, not counting the 10 or so miles I walk every wedding day. My photo backpack tops out at more than 55 lbs, and I can do multiple dead-hang pull-ups with it on my back. So I feel I’m the one that needs to say this: Heavy cameras are a problem. Lift a five-pound camera and lens combo? No problem. Do it for 12 hours? Maybe you start to get sore. Do it for 12 hours a day, for 30 years? Now you’re talking severe problems. I’ve been in the business long enough to start looking forward in terms of decades, and whatever gets me the same quality in a lighter weight is fine by me, and I can leave the totally metal stuff on my collector’s shelf.

Would I take the extra 300 grams to make this a 28mm f/1.4G? Possibly — I do like my depth-of-field control. But I don’t miss it much, and this has gotten a lot more use than either my 24 or 35 in recent weeks.

Performance: Happily, the autofocus on this lens is nice and snappy, and locks well in low light. It works significantly better than my 24mm f/1.4 at locking focus during dancing, but of course my 24 has been around a few blocks. I find myself stopping down a couple notches to make sure everything is nice and sharp by default, but wide-open it is much sharper and more contrasty than Sigma’s 28mm f/1.8, which has a sort of veiling haze around things when shot wide-open. 28mm and f/1.8 gets you enough depth-of-field control to give things a little “pop,” but overall this is just a workmanlike lens, and it’s the moments in front of you that will make the image strong or not (and moments are important). If you want a lens that does most of the work for you, shoot with something like the 85mm f/1.4.

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Flare is pretty well-controlled with this lens, like most recent Nikon lenses it’s almost too well-designed and nano-coated to give very interesting flare, but it’s nice in the end to be able to have a flash firing back at you or the sun in the frame without losing much contrast, and you can see both below:

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Like all Nikon Nano lenses I know, color transmission is very good, slightly on the warm side, which ends up being great for skin tones:

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Overall, this is a great little gem. It might not survive being hit with a baseball bat (though I haven’t tried), but it balances extremely well on the D600. (It’s almost too light for the D3s — when I put it down, the weight of the lens doesn’t make the camera tip forward like I’m used to, and it once almost fell backward off a table because of that).

My highest recommendation is that I bought one, and I almost didn’t want to tell you about how much I liked it, because I wanted it all too myself.

More photos with the 28mm:

Buy it here!


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