Category Archives: equipment reviews

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:

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Review: Olympus OM-D E-M5

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E-M5 with Olympus 12mm f/2

120813 124559 25mm f1 4This year, with the help of some sponsorships — B&H Photo in particular — I’ve had the opportunity to test pretty much every hot camera that’s come down the pike. I’ve been amazed by all the new technology this year coming out to serve professional and advanced photographers. So which of these cameras did I decide to keep for myself (and thus pay for) at the end of the review period?

None.

Every camera had new advantages, but also trade-offs that made me happy sticking with my trusty D3s and X100 for a while. Go with what works, and nothing seemed to out-and-out transform my photographing experience in a way that made it worth the hassles of change.

Until now. Not to give away the ending of this review, but I’ve already bought the E-M5 for myself, along with the Olympus 12mm f/2 and Panasonic/Leica 25mm f/1.4. I also tested the Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95, which was a delight in its own way but which I did not keep. Why, out of all these fantastic cameras, did I make these choices?

First, let’s understand some context

The search for the perfect little camera, and the Micro 4/3rds universe

For a long time, I’ve been faced with a dilemma — I am a photographer who walks around without a camera. I have this amazing camera system that I love, but it’s way too big and cumbersome to take everywhere, and when you do, you’re always “that guy” with the giant DSLR — it feels more like you’re a photojournalist covering your own life than a person actually living it. Yes, I’ve got my iPhone, and yes, you can take compelling photos with that, but I want more versatility, a LOT more control … and, of course, I want RAW. And I wanted as big a sensor as possible in as small and unassuming a package as I can get.

Lots of great things are happening on that front. The RX100 is truly pocketable and has great image quality from its one-inch sensor. Sony’s NEX-5n looks like a point-and-shoot, but it has the same sensor size as the old big, honking D2x (and MUCH less noise.) But I was also looking for a versatile system, and that means high-quality lenses. This has been the Achilles heel of the NEX system so far, which is mostly variable aperture zooms. Meanwhile the micro 4/3rds system, led by Olympus and the Panasonic-Leica team is pumping out these beautiful little gems of fast, light lenses left and right. But none of their cameras seemed too tempting to me, largely because of the relatively high levels of noise of their sensors.

Enter the E-M5. I’ve been using it for the past few weeks in a mix of my personal life — hanging out with friends and family as I travel between jobs — and on wedding days and portrait shoots when appropriate. And even in casual snapshots it impresses me. Take this photo (with the 25mm f/1.4)…

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Not too bad … a little noisy but pretty clear, especially since it was taken in very warm light. Whaddaya think it was shot at? ISO 800 maybe? No. ISO 8000.

While this is a particularly good example, it’s clear that this sensor is a game-changer for micro 4/3ds the same way that the Nikon D3 solved Nikon’s noise problem back in 2007. Even if it was in a mediocre camera these results would be turning heads.

Luckily, the E-M5 is far from a mediocre camera. After all, the Fuji X1 Pro also has extremely good high-ISO quality and a really nice and growing lens line-up — but it’s also a bit quirky, especially in the autofocus department. The photo above was taken at EV 0.6, well below candlelight, and the AF system had no problem at all. For snapshots like this, with the increased depth-of-field of the smaller sensor, even face-detect autofocus works surprisingly well even at f/1.4. Continuous tracking isn’t nearly as good as on a phase-detect autofocus DSLR system, but otherwise this is a camera that works with you to take in-focus photos at a moment’s notice, not against you. Combine that with a body that’s smaller than it looks in photos and a very quiet shutter, and you have a camera that’s a dream for catching moments without calling attention to yourself:

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The AF is so good that I decided to send the 25mm f/0.95 back and get the 25mm f/1.4. For a camera I use mostly casually, I’d rather have the speed of photo acquisition over the stop of light.

Other things I love:

A great EVF: I am a huge fan of EVFs (electronic viewfinders). I keep my X100 in EVF mode about 98 percent of the time, and cannot wait for professional DSLRs that have a similar EVF option. Once the refresh rate is negligible it solves one of the biggest technical problems in photography — as cameras get better and better, the lagging factor is the human eye. The E-M5 can see in the dark better than I can, especially with the 25mm f/0.95 mounted. When I dial in the white balance, I can walk around the darkest of wedding receptions and through the EVF it looks like daylight. I can see the nuances of expressions better than I can just walking around. The EVF introduces a tiny bit of extra delay, just enough that it takes getting used to but not so much that you can’t get used to it.

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E-M5 with 25mm f/0.95

An EVF also allows you to see the effects of shooting at exposure settings that differ from the normal ambient reading. You can actually see a silhouette or high-key effect before you shoot it, and the position of the exposure compensation dial makes this extremely easy to do in aperture mode, making sure you have the exact exposure you want before taking the shot.

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As a not inconsiderable bonus to people like me who’d like to do this for decades to come, it also means you can shoot backlit into the sun — silhouette or not — without burning holes in your retinas.

•The unobtrusiveness: When I started mixing it in for part of the wedding day, I thought I would attract more attention than normal simply for the “Uh … why is your photographer using such a tiny camera?” factor. But given its unassuming profile and a shutter than is almost inaudible in a room with normal conversation in the background, I noticed people immediately paying less attention to me. As a photojournalist, this is invaluable, allowing me to get real emotions and unforced moments even from very close to my subject:

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•Great colors: This is actually a great JPG camera. For almost all of these shots, using the RAW was more a matter of general principle than something I felt the files desperately needed. Throw in an Eye-Fi card, and you have a camera that can output very good photos straight to the Web. There are also lots of “art filters,” but those aren’t really my scene, man.

•Perhaps the best in-camera image stabilization of any camera, anywhere. I’m so used to not having this (and shooting moving people) that I haven’t used it much, but expect me to talk about it more as I review m4/3ds telephoto lenses.

The back screen pops out for off-angle review, but still feels sturdy. So sturdy that I didn’t even realize it popped out until I read the manual. Good when you need it, and not flimsy the rest of the time.

Anything I didn’t like?

The RAW isn’t raw: Like a number of recent RAW-using point-and-shoots, Adobe seems to have partnered with the camera-maker to automatically hide some of the worse defects of the lenses. I really like the sharp, speedy, and light 12mm, but it definitely has barrel distortion, and Lightroom corrects this without even letting you know it did. Here’s the same file processed by Lightroom on the left and Capture One (which shows the original distortion) on the right. This is a worst-case scenario for barrel distortion, but for other scenes I’d like to be able to choose how much I want to correct:

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•The menus are a bit wonky: There is a very handy Info menu overlay that allows you to quickly change common settings, but the way you interact with it isn’t completely user-friendly — including having to press different buttons to do the same thing depending on which camera mode you’re in when you call up the menu. I’ve definitely spent more time accidentally turning the interface on and off than skillfully navigating it, and camera menus are basically my first language. More casual users may be stymied for a good while before they get used to it.

•Battery life is OK, but way less than my other DSLRs. This is a case of me being spoiled by big honking batteries. But especially if you like to use the Live View, stock up on extras.

•A built-in flash would have been nice: I never use it for professional stuff, but this is also a very handy personal camera in between serious work. Sure I can mount an SB-900 on it and shoot manually, but that kind of defeats the whole portability thing.

These are fairly niggling details, though, and I know I’m going to continue to love this bad boy. Expect more micro-4/3rds lens reviews to come!

Some more photos with the E-M5:

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Olympus Tough TG-1 Review

Specs and purchasing information

Pocket digital cameras are in an existential crisis these days. Their main selling point — taking up little space so that you have something you can take pictures with at all times — is being completely dominated by camera phones. No matter how small or light a camera gets, it can never add less heft than something you were carrying around anyway. And as camera phones get better and better, the advantages in visual quality become fewer. Most standout pocket cameras these days are aiming for better quality than you get with most camera phones, either by adding larger sensors like the Sony RX100, or super fast lenses like the f/1.4 aperture in the Panasonic LX7.

But there are a few other things you shouldn’t do with a camera phone — drop it on the ground, drop it underwater, freeze it, step on it, and many other things that I have actually done to destroy various iPhones. The Olympus Tough TG-1 is built to handle all of these things, so while the quality of its sensor may not be significantly better than that of the best camera phones, you can worry about it less or get photos that are actually impossible with them. The TG-1′s ruggedness is no joke — it’s rated to be waterproof to 40 feet, shockproof to 6.6 feet, freezeproof to 14°F and crushproof to a weight of 220 pounds. Adorama told me that I was free to hit it with a baseball bat to test this, but I think they might have been joking. I weigh under 220, though, so I did stand on it with my full weight, and all that managed to do was turn it on without a scratch. I also put it though some other paces, as you will see below. Olympus has paired this ruggedness with a number of new improvements, such as a 25-100mm equivalent lens that is a fast f/2 on the wide end. Although it’s a slow f/4.9 at the long end, that gives you more options in the dark, or particularly underwater, where this camera really shines. Every port on the camera is double-sealed against the elements, and the lens is covered with a strong, easy-to-clean coating. Because the lens doesn’t protrude at all, the camera is quite pocketable, but it’s also surprisingly easy to have your thumb sneak in the corner of pictures if you have big hands.

Image quality:

I don’t use point-and-shoots other than my iPhone very much, so I’m a bit nitpicky. Most shots out-of-camera have a real digital look to them, with some smeared detail even at base ISO, and lots more as you go through the range. At ISO 800 or above the smearing can seriously affect your images, but the digital look happens in uncertain ways — I have ISO 200 images that are smeared and ISO 1600 images that look pretty good:

The above image is ISO 1600 in Super Macro mode, which you can see works really well. The subject matter may be forgiving, but the image shows a surprising amount of texture in any case. The TG-1 also has an LED light which can help with some macro images (though it will give an on-camera-flash look to the photo, which is rarely the best option).

In good light, the photos look nice and snappy, even of a poor subject like me:

Fill flash works decently well — it won’t overpower full sun, but here you can see even coverage of the leaves about eight feet away in the foreground:

But things fall apart a bit in mixed light, as this ISO 800 image shows:

Controls

This is what keeps the TG-1 from being any kind of true pro camera. I bet you could fix a lot of the digital look at lower ISOs in a good RAW converting program — but we’ll never know, since the TG-1 doesn’t shoot RAW. It also doesn’t have any way to let you directly control the shutter or aperture. Even though the exposure compensation is fairly easy to ride, this is a huge blow for a control freak like me, particularly since otherwise this could be a decent professional option as an underwater camera.

It DOES have a lot of “art” effects, which are generally pretty silly, and even sometimes downright frightening, such as the mirror effect:

The controls feature set definitely seems aimed at the amateur market. But where this camera really shines is…

Underwater

Underwater housing for professional DSLRs is extremely expensive, and it becomes cumbersome enough that you need to learn to shoot all over again. Being waterproof to 40′, and with all sorts of underwater options such as Underwater Macro mode and underwater-specific white balance settings, this camera is great for swimming, snorkeling, and shallow-water scuba enthusiasts, as well as people who want to dip their toe in underwater portraiture. I did just that in a recent trip to Boise with the fantastic model Kelsie, and I liked the photo quality underwater even better than on dry land! (It probably doesn’t hurt that clear water is constantly cleaning and functioning like a lens itself). All controls were easy to use underwater and easily visible — dealing with the camera was by far the easiest part of a difficult shoot.

I started with photos from very close to water level while wading in the Boise River. You could use an unprotected DSLR for this — and I did for some — but you’re really pressing your luck when you want to dip down to get a reflection. The best photos from this session had implied nudity, so I will pixelate for those of you at work, and you can click to see the actual photo:

Then we shot in a pool, with sunlight trickling in for a great effect. For the first half of the shoot I tried the TG-1′s high-speed shooting so the ripples of light would hit Kelsie just right, which is a crazy-fast 60 frames per second at three megapixels. I’m glad I switched to full res, which still is a very speedy 10fps but with a smaller buffer, because the high-speed photos do not look very good. Clearly these are just frame-grabs from video, and they look like it, with a bit of poor-video CCTV quality to them. 3MP should be more than enough for the Web, but even here, with the very best of them, you can see the difference between the high speed photo (left) and the normal res photo (right):

I do not recommend the high-speed mode for still photography unless you really need 60fps, and don’t care about quality.

But the color, the steadiness of exposure, the handling and speed were all excellent. If I spent more time around water, I’d keep this camera in my bag. No matter how convenient your cellphone is, you probably don’t want to do this with it:

More snapshots

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Nikon D800 review



Specs and purchasing information
Most new cameras are evolutionary. They push a few specs forward, make some tweaks, and hopefully make it a little easier to take photos that are a little better. But every once in a while, a camera comes out that disrupts the natural order, that surprises you and may even allow for big changes in the way you take photos. The Nikon D3 was like this — most people expected the first Nikon full-frame camera to be a megapixel monster, but instead it focused on high-ISO quality unsurpassed at the time. Now Nikon has disrupted the market in reverse: The headline spec of the D800 is the resolution, 36.3 megapixels, which had only been the domain of medium format cameras. But what made it truly disruptive is the price — $3,000, $500 less than the Canon 5D Mark III and just over half the price of Nikon’s own D4. It seems that at first glance you’re getting a lot more camera for a lot less. But there are trade-offs, most notably shooting at only four frames-per-second. And then, of course, there are the files, which depending on your settings range from very large to incredibly massive. So how does it stack up overall?

That Darned Sensor: Resolution

How much is 36 megapixels? A lot. In the video world, we call 1080p to be true HD, the hallmark of fancy televisions and forcing movie stars to invest in better make-up. Here’s how a 1080p frame compares to the D800′s 7,360 x 4,912 pixels:

Here’s a 100 percent crop of the image next to it:

This is an old, manual-focus lens, the 105mm f/1.8, shot wide open and free-lensed. While yes, to maximize the resolution it helps to have the best lenses, shoot at the sharpest apertures, have high shutter speeds and impeccable technique, you can still see advantages of that resolution even without all that. It gives you extra detail that shows up at even more moderate sizes, since a downsized image will tend to keep the “best” data, and noise will tend to have a finer grain structure. The pictures are big, that’s no surprise. But what really made the D800 interesting to my was another trick it has up its sleeve:

That Darned Sensor: Dynamic Range

At low ISOs, particularly ISO 100, the d800 has absolutely incredible dynamic range, better even than cameras like the Fuji S5 that used an entire extra set of sensors just to extend the range. Like most recent Nikons, it keeps a lot of this range in the shadows. There is an incredible amount of ability to lift shadows, particularly compared to the Canon 5D3. You can raise ISO 100 images by as much as five f-stops and still maintain a usable image. Now, that doesn’t mean your exposures have to be off by 32x, but it does give you an incredible ability to either selectively dodge an image or simply lift shadows until it looks very similar to the dynamic range of the human eye. We’re so used to having to choose between bringing out extreme highlight or extreme shadow, even though our eyes could see both, that this — even more than resolution — is what can really change the way you do photography with the D800.

The inside of Bethesda Terrace in Central Park is completely dark. The outside is a summer day. Most cameras would force you to choose which tones you want to keep. But with a little help in post the D800 can pull it off.

Dynamic range functions more like a normal camera at higher ISOs. Of course, most forms of photography that really make the most of high resolution — landscape, studio portraiture, product photography, etc. — also tend to be shot at lower ISOs. Doubtless the folks in the sensor lab worked hard on that synchronicity.

<centerThat Darned Sensor: High ISO

The big worry when the D800 was announced was that, because of the smaller pixels on the sensor, the camera would be noisier at high ISOs. But the D800 does remarkably well, especially when images are shrunk to print or display sizes. Sure, you’ll see more noise at 100 percent pixel peeping, but there’s also a lot more pixels. Overall you get a fine grain structure, a lot of detail, and most importantly it maintains good color at high ISO, like the D3s and D4, instead of the muddiness you can get from the D3 and D700 at the highest settings.

The photos below are at ISO 4500 and 11,400. Is there noise at 100 percent? You bet. But it works:

Live View: A Mixed Bag

Even though I never do video, I absolutely love using Live View for photography. The instant response of a great viewfinder will never be totally replaced, but in so many situations it is incredibly helpful to see exactly what the final picture will look like in front of you. Viewfinders don’t accurately record depth-of-field of super fast lenses, and they definitely don’t record different white balances or the overall contrast and tonality of a scene. So much of the expertise of photography is learning to interpolate exactly how your camera sees. Live View is an end-run around all of that.

The D3s has pretty good live view with one major flaw — it only works to 1/250th of a second. Want to shoot f/1.2 in daylight? Live View should be great for that, but you can’t do it on the D3s. On the D800? No problem, it works at any shutter speed. And it’s great. I took the ring shot above using Live View — it perfectly let me see how the depth-of-field was affecting the shot, a huge issue in macro photography. It also let me put the specular highlights in exactly the right place.

But there are a couple issues. The first is that Live View is when I really notice the greenish cast of the LCD. Nikon first said this was more accurate and now says they’re working on changing it, but in any case green is not the best tone to overlay on a scene when you’re photographing people.

But worse, when using Live View you can really feel how the camera is struggling with that much data. On the D4, shooting is nearly instantaneous. On the D800, there’s a very noticeable delay after every shot, more than enough to be annoying. In fact, it’s very un-Nikon. Nikon cameras are known for being workhorses that are always ready to take a shot. Using Live View on the D800 is beautiful but quirky, like an old Fuji DSLR. Because my primary uses for the D800 are portraits and details, where Live View matters a lot, this is a real issue for me.

General use: Focusing and ergonomics

Some people have noticed quirkiness with the outer focus points on this camera; for me it’s performed like a champ. In least in theory it’s the same AF system as the almost twice as expensive D4, and it works fantastically well in low light. AF in Live View is slower but still remarkably accurate with a good lens.

I’ve also noticed that most of my lenses need less micro-focus-adjustment on the D800 than on my D3s’s, but that’s probably just that my D3s’s have been ground down nearly to a fine powder. In any case, most of my lenses were spot-on the moment they were put on the camera.

What annoyed me is that, as near as I can tell, one of the buttons on the back is missing from the button re-configuration menu. That meant that I had to reach my thumb way over to find the AE-L/AF-L button, which I use as a “fire the shutter now!” button to catch moments even if the camera isn’t quite sure it’s perfectly in focus. This also ruined a few Brenizer-method panoramas, as the camera would try to re-focus halfway through when I couldn’t keep the button held. Keep in mind I have gigantic hands, so this may be an even bigger problem for other users.

Overall the camera feels great, well-balanced and a great general workhorse. Four frames per second is almost always fast enough for me; the only time I ever ran into problems with its speed was in buffer issues while doing panoramas.

The Big But: File sizes

The tragedy of the D800 is that it has no Small RAW option like Canon cameras (which don’t even need it as badly). Heck, the smallest JPEG option is still 18 megapixels. The largest settings for a RAW file will set you back around 75MB for every shot. Optimized fully for size you can get that down to about 33. With so much data and dynamic range, I felt pretty safe compressing a tiny bit of it away.

For most professionals, 33 MB isn’t so bad. Remember, the Fuji S5 shot 25MB files to produce essentially a really sharp six-megapixel file. But I shoot a LOT — more than 250,000 photos a year. Next week I’m doing four full weddings in five days. Shooting with the D800, I’d end up with more than half a terabyte of data. And even if I compress the RAW files, I’m still ending up with abnormally giant JPGs, which means bigger hard drives sent to clients, longer upload times, etc. etc. I have a lot of budget for hard drives, and of course this data is still paltry compared to videographers, but for someone with my volume having to shoot at 36MP all the time is a huge liability.

The Final Word: It’s good for me, fantastic for most

Nikon has built an extraordinary camera. It doesn’t quite get out of my way and just do its job as much as the D3s does, but the trade off is a lot more resolution and greater dynamic range, as well as lighter weight and much less cost than the D4. For most advanced photographers and professionals, this is really going to hit a sweet spot.

If Nikon ever manages to produce a firmware update with a good SRAW option, I’d switch my entire line-up to three of these the next day.

In any case, I really hated giving this back. Here are some more pictures I’ve made with it. This camera renders images amazingly well, not just amazingly large.

There are also some more photos of Dominique on my Facebook page taken with the D800 that might be too hot for a camera review.

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Review: Nikon D4

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Specs and Purchasing Information
838794The Nikon D4 has some big shoes to fill. Nikon’s professional line of cameras has been a benchmark since 1959, and it is the next iteration in a line that has seen both revolutionary cameras like the D1 and D3, and relative missteps, like the D2H. It has to compete with Canon’s similarly specced 1D-X (slightly higher in resolution and price). It has to complement and provide unique advantages over the megapixel-monster D800.

But there’s only one real challenge it faces in my book … and it’s not easy. Can it pry my beloved D3s from my hands? I’ve taken 338,378 photos with my D3s’s. They’re worn down to the gunmetal and aren’t slowing down. The D3s is the first camera I’ve ever used that isn’t just good, but something more important … it’s not annoying in any real way. Anyone who’s worked with a lot of cameras on a wide variety of shoots know how profound this is. The things cameras can do these days is astounding, but boy can they also be annoying. The D3s just does its job and gets out of the way, even at crazy-high ISOs, so what can Nikon do to make professional users buy a pricey upgrade?

The most obvious answer is video. The D3s does video … decently. It uses the amazing night-vision chip well for video in the dark, but it’s only 720P, which is below-standard for professional usage, and most of the controls are sort of tacked on. So if you’re looking for a fast-FPS professional Nikon that does great video, you don’t really need to read the rest of the review, just buy the D4. It does 1080p, it has dedicated video controls and a much better live-view screen. Go for it.

But that’s enough of that. This is a camera review. I’ve had video-enabled DSLRs for almost three years now, and … I really don’t care. I’d rather do what I do really well then tack on something else I do decently. The question is how it performs as a photographic tool.

The answer? It is both the best workhorse camera I have ever used and one that I’m ambivalent about.

The good:
Build quality and ergonomics: Every flagship Nikon DSLR has felt incredibly solid, and with more curves and a clearly huge amount of testing, they’ve added little touches of finesse to make this the best one yet. Check out the back:

20120106 nikon d4 backjpeg

Nikon managed to add video controls and two joysticks — one for horizontal operation and one for video — without making the camera feel cluttered. There’s some additional gripping for vertical holding, a lighter but still-powerful battery — just a fantastic overall design. It’s a potential self-defense device as much as a camera.

The screen and Live View: Live View is tied to a camera’s video functioning, which means that in the D3s it works … OK. But in the D4 it’s fantastic. Sadly the D3s Live View only works up to 1/250th of a second, which can leave you hanging in bright situations. But the D4 Live View works at any shutter speed, has a fantastic refresh rate, and allows autofocus that isn’t super-speedy but is surprisingly accurate even in poor light.

You might ask why someone who doesn’t care about video is so impressed by good Live View. Sometimes you want to shoot from angles that aren’t so easy to get your eye in front of:

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Or when you don’t want to stare directly into the sun, or into a very close light bulb:

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Live View is also an incredibly helpful tool for advanced photography, particularly for someone who likes to manually focus fast lenses. Nikon’s fastest lenses, the 50mm f/1.2 and 58mm f/1.2, only come in manual focus varieties, but the problem is that the optical viewfinder doesn’t show anything like the true depth-of-field of an f/1.2 lens. Live View is almost a necessity to get good focus with these lenses wide-open:

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It also comes in tremendously handy for freelensing and even tilt-shift, since it very accurately shows the plane of focus.

But even if you use AF lenses, perfect manual focus comes in very handy for precise situations, such as being able to zoom in on someone’s eyelashes in the dark, with the LCD being much, much more light sensitive than your still-adjusting eyes. That allowed me to know I was getting this image sharp at f/1.4, since the scene was almost completely dark:

Which brings us to:

The great sensor: Like the D3s before it, the D4 is a champ at high ISO. Sadly, while the D3s was a huge step above the D3, which was a GIANT leap over the D2X, the D4 is no better than the D3s in this space. In fact, the D3s is probably very slightly better, but at a given print size it’s pretty much a wash. They’re both fantastic, but the D4 isn’t breaking any new ground.

Of course there are other advantages. Resolution is slightly higher at 16 megapixels, and now it natively goes to ISO 100 instead of the D3s’s ISO 200. In the photo below, to bring down the sky’s exposure and sharpen the foreground I had to shoot at f/14 at ISO 100. With the D3s I’d have to shoot at a less-sharp f/20 at ISO 200.

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But the big guy on the sensor block these days is the D800. And it’s true, that thing works magic at ISO 100, with unmatched resolution and dynamic range among DSLRs. But the D4 sensor is clearly designed for sports and photojournalism where ISO 100 is a rare luxury, and according to DXOMark it starts to outperform the D800 in dynamic range at higher sensitivities. As a wedding photographer in New York, I live in dark spaces, so this is worth consideration.

Unlike the 5D3, the D4 deals very well with pushed exposures or dodging.

But a light-sensitive sensor is nothing without light-sensitive…

Autofocus. Sadly the AF system doesn’t correct the one thing about the D3s that is almost annoying — the AF points are clustered too closely together on the FX frame. At first glance it looks exactly the same as the D3/D700/D3s AF system, but it’s rated to be twice as sensitive in low-light, and when you do a lot of work in poorly lit environments you can feel the improvement (even though the D3s is no slouch.) The lighting at this wedding with Sam Hurd was intensely purple, which drove the normally-great Canon 5D3 autofocus a bit bonkers, but it was hard to shake the D4 off its game:

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Overall, this and the D800 seem to be the best in class for low-light autofocus. We’ll see if the 1D-X has any tricks up its sleeve.

The Bad(ish):

Honestly, very few things are wrong with this camera (as long as you get one that isn’t locking up). But there are some niggling issues that affected me, and may affect you.

You Can’t Buy Just One: Most of the people in the market for D4s are professionals, and thus need backup gear. If you shoot with two cameras at the same time (like I do), then you’re probably going to want to buy two. The D3s looks and feels so similar that you’ll keep forgetting which is which — until your thumb reaches for a button and you remember that it’s not there. The fastest way to do things with the D4 are via the new joysticks, but that was another thing to remember when I had a D3s slung over the other shoulder. The AF mode switching, the metering selection, there are so many little changes that will frustrate you down the line. If you use a D800 as a second body, not only will your files randomly be vastly different sizes, but you’ll be dealing with three different memory card systems. Which brings me to:

Hybrid cards: Nikon had this right with the D3 and D3s, and now Canon has it right with the 1DX. The best way to implement a dual-card system is with two of the same kind of card. I am constantly switching cards in and out to back up as I go along, and with nothing but CF cards the chain is seamless — all cards are either in the camera or actively being downloaded at any time. But throw in a different sort of slot and it all becomes some sort of strange juggling act that is at best annoying (there’s that word!) and at worst can endanger valuable data by misplacing a card. Honestly, I can’t wait for the D4s where they figure out whether the XQD system was worth it or not. Go all-in or don’t.

Conclusion:
This is an amazing camera, with a few quirks that will only annoy people who are very set in their D3s-shooting ways. It combines Nikon’s excellent flash system (with upgrades like remembering flash-head zoom positions after they’ve been turned off and on) with a great overall sensor and a world-class body. Is it worth the $6K when the D800 is half the price with more resolution or the D3s is still hanging around at a discount? For most Nikon sports photographers and photojournalists who increasingly live in a multimedia world, the answer should probably be yes.

For people who are counting every dollar? Perhaps, going forward, but ponder this: if I were unethical, I could have written this review without ever touching a D4. Any of these shots could have been taken with the D3s and you’d never know the difference, even with 100 percent crops (the difference between 12 and 16 megapixels isn’t huge). Only the images where I used Live View in the day time provided a clear practical advantage.

But I have loved mine to pieces, and kept turning to it, as these sample photos will show. This is a camera that is built to work:

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(Provisional) Review: Fuji X-Pro 1

Specs and Pricing

120413 162659 35mm f1 4C35mm, f/1.4, 1/1700th, ISO 400

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Fuji releases a delightful camera that’s not quite like anything else out there, but it comes with all sorts of quirks.

A lot of you will remember that the same thing could have been said about the X100, but honestly you can say the same of all of Fuji’s professional digital camera line-up, going back more than 12 years to the “frankencameras,” S1 and S2 Pro, which had great technology at the time but also felt like welded-on digital backs for the Nikon F60 and F80, respectively. They’re weird, they’re wild, and generally I love them for it. I ground the S2 Pro into fine dust from overuse, and the S5 Pro helped see me through the dark days of Nikon bodies with terrible high-ISO quality.

So now Fuji has merged its dormant line of professional interchangeable lens cameras with the aesthetic of the X100. It brings the retro styling and — most importantly to me — the fantastic hybrid viewfinder that turns from optical to EVF with a flick of a switch, and allows you to use a variety of lenses. Fuji released three at launch, the wide-angle 18mm f/2, the “normal” 35mm f/1.4, and the telephoto macro 60mm f/2.5 (the sensor is DX-sized, so each lens is cropped 1.5x the focal length equivalent to a 35mm frame). It’s a nice high-level kit, made even more interesting with the lenses coming down the pike. f/2.8 ultrawides? f/4 constant aperture zooms with IS? This all shows a focus on making an advanced compact kit with a great deal of versatility — in contrast to, say, the Sony road map, which is dotted with variable aperture zooms. They also have an adapter for M-mount lenses, and companies are now coming out with third party adapters for all sorts of other lenses — versatility that is an advantage of any sort of interchangeable mirrorless system.

I’ve played briefly with all of the lenses, but I’ve gotten to use the X-Pro 1 with the 35mm for a while now thanks to B&H. My friend Sam Hurd had me come along with him to a wedding, which gave me the opportunity to test this camera in ways I couldn’t do as a primary shooter. I have more than enough information to write a review as it is now, but from the start I need to make two caveats:

1) Virtually no third-party software, not even Adobe, supports the X-Pro 1 RAW files yet. I don’t know why the delay is so long. I can open the files in Fuji’s recommended Silkypix, but Silkypix is, in a word, terrible. Every company needs a RAW converter that at least will open up a file that looks like the JPEG the camera took, but in Silkypix out-of-the-box the files look much, much worse than the camera’s JPGs, so most of these are edited JPG files.

Luckily, the camera takes phenomenal JPEGs.

2) Fuji is becoming known for releasing half-basked cameras and then fixing problems in firmware. I know they’re already working on solutions to the biggest problems. But given that it took a full year to make the X100′s autofocus better, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The body:

RKB 5175

As you can see, the X Pro-1 is significantly larger than the X100, but much, much smaller than my normal big, honking’ DSLRs. In fact, it’s almost exactly the same size as the Leica M9, which is full-frame (but also in a complete other price class). It’s also much larger than the camera that competes most with it on specs, the Sony NEX-7.

In practice, while you’re not sticking this in any sort of pocket, it feels quite nimble. The ergonomics are great for a square body, with a nicely modeled grip, and the exposure compensation wheel is extremely easy to nudge with your thumb without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. In aperture mode, the EVF will mimic the proper exposure, so you can very quickly and easily use the exposure compensation dial to expose your photos just the way you want to even in changing light. X100 shooters will be frustrated that they’ve flipped the OVF/EVF switch upside down, but that takes approximately 30 seconds to get used to. The shutter and aperture controls are the same retro dials as the X100, and a pleasure to use.

It’s much easier to change settings on the XPro 1 than the X100 in general, since important things like auto-ISO can be customized to not be so deeply buried in menus and a “Q” button brings up pretty much any setting change in two clicks that can’t be found on a top dial.

It’s a good looking camera, but it definitely needs some styling on the top plate. Put on a plastic red Leica dot and quadruple its cost, perhaps?

Battery life was decent as long as you don’t use the back panel or continuous focus all that much. It lasted me through a wedding and well into another shoot (though it wasn’t my only camera).

I love the viewfinder and use that about 95 percent of the time, but it’s nice to have the option to quickly switch to the LCD display live view, giving angles that are not always easy to get, like the lively legs of this father-daughter dance:

120413 201419 35mm f1 435mm, f/1.4, 1/125th, ISO 1250

And a 6 fps mode allows you to quickly capture action and the perfect moment, although after any use it throws the buffer into overdrive:

120406 155848 35mm f1 8D

Focus:

Autofocus is a mixed bag, particularly in low-light. With a fast lens it could lock on to targets even in terrible lighting, but it takes a while at all times. Operation is a little faster in continuous focus mode, but it’s annoying to hear the camera constantly whirring away, and probably not great for the battery.

It’s not as responsive as is ideal, and I often felt like I was struggling against it instead of working with it, but as you adapt it can work well in a variety of situations, including strong backlight and at distance:

120413 154114 35mm f235mm, f/2, 1/450th, ISO 800

120413 163734 35mm f1 435mm, f/1.4, 1/850th, ISO 800

The images:
Even though I can’t use a proper RAW converter yet, the images from this camera are phenomenal for a DX sensor. First of all, noise is extremely well-controlled. This is ISO 12,800 in an extremely dark restaurant:

120410 224125 35mm f1 435mm, f/1.4, 1/100th, ISO 12,800

But better yet, Fuji has always had a keen understanding of color, and skin tones in particular. That’s what makes the JPEGs out of this camera so good. Without any tweaking you can get great portrait tones right out of the camera:

120406 144623 35mm f1 635mm, f/1.6, 1/60th, ISO 2000

The best thing I can say for it? When Sam saw me looking over the photos after the shoot, it took him a while before he realized they were from X-Pro 1. He thought they were the shots I took with the $6K full-frame Nikon D4.

One Big Problem and provisional conclusion

As has been reported many other places, the XPro 1 chitters like an Ewok when you point it from dark to light or vice-versa. This is a huge problem for my usage. I want this camera to be as silent as possible, not call attention to itself, and allow me to make people comfortable more quickly than I can with a giant DSLR. I can’t do that when it’s clicking like a spider-monkey. It’s audible, and it’s annoying. Now, this won’t really affect casual usage, vacation shots, even most street photography, but it does affect what I do. I know they’re working on a fix in firmware right now, and I’m eager to see what happens with that (and with RAW support), because I love the files from this camera so much. In the meantime, my X100 is working better than ever, because despite their quirks, Fuji has shows that they do care about continually improving their existing products and customer experience. That goes a long way.

Click here to buy the Fuji X Pro-1
Click here to buy the Fuji X 35mm f/1.4

More sample photos:

120413 184403 35mm f235mm, f/2, 1/350th, ISO 400

120413 133433 35mm f1 835mm, f/1.8, 1/1100th, ISO 800

120411 173844 35mm f1 435mm, f/1.4, 1/640th, ISO 400

120411 183637 35mm f235mm, f/2, 1/480th, ISO 800

120413 195332 35mm f1 635mm, f/1.6, 1/60th, ISO 2000

120410 144634 35mm f1 835mm, f/1.8, 1/60th, ISO 200

35mm, f/1.4, 1/52nd, ISO 800

35mm, f/1.6, 1/52nd, ISO 320

35mm, f/1.4, 1/125th, ISO 1000

Click here to buy the Fuji X-Pro 1
Click here to buy the Fuji X 35mm f/1.4

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A Nikon user’s review of the Canon 5D Mark III

Specs and purchasing info

The 5D Mark III at 12,800 ISO
Note: I will keep updating this review as I get more information. I am shooting another wedding with the 5DIII tomorrow for example, and will be able to do direct comparisons with the Nikon D4 and Nikon D800 soon

I am not a brand fanatic. I have used Fuji cameras as well as the 5Ds Mark I and II at weddings, loved point-and-shoots from Canon and Panasonic, and film cameras from a huge array of companies. The only camera I get truly emotional about is my first SLR, my father’s Minolta SR-T 101b. But you’ve gotta use something, and I’ve been using Nikon dSLRs for more than 12 years, since the days of the Nikon D1. I stuck through even through the dark times of noisy ISO 800, and have been loving the Nikon system for weddings more and more since the advent of the Nikon D3, and even more with the expansion of fast primes like the 24mm f/1.4 and the 35mm f/1.4.

120323 135225 50mm f1 2So why am I so excited about the Canon 5D Mark III? On the surface, it seems like an incremental upgrade. It has essentially the same resolution as the 5D Mark II, and nothing truly revolutionary like the original 5D’s full-frame sensor in a prosumer body, or the Mark II’s professional video features.

I’m excited because for the first time at semi-affordable rates, Canon users can combine the most comprehensive DSLR lens line-up with a full-frame camera that has no major drawbacks. The 5D Mark II was a beautiful camera that has produced millions of stunning images for photographers around the globe … but at its price point it also had some major flaws, in particular an amateur-level autofocus system. I’ve used the 5DII in conjunction with the Nikon D3s at dark wedding receptions, and the Canon’s autofocus was a cruel joke in comparison. One of the great things about Canon primes like the 35mm f/1.4L and the 135mm f/2L is that they focus faster than their Nikon equivalents — but only if they are paired with a camera that can keep up.

A lot of my friends who have been turning out gorgeous work with the 5D line rely heavily or entirely on manual focus for precision with shallow depth-of-field. If you want to buy a manual focus camera in 2012, go for a Leica M9. A workhorse DSLR needs to be able to keep up, especially at a wedding.

In short, with the 5DIII what looks like incremental upgrades amounts to an incredible increase in usability, closing major gaps in a comprehensive camera system. But it’s not quite perfect…

Build Quality and Usability

The design idea of the original 5D was to but as incredible a sensor as you could get at the time into as cheap a body as possible. There was an elegance to that idea — in the end cameras are just boxes with holes in them — but it certainly lagged behind truly professional bodies. The 5D Mark II made some improvements, but the Mark III is the first 5D that truly feels right in my hands, taking ergonomic notes from the 7D. It feels rugged and balances well with mid-weight lenses like an 85mm f/1.2L. The buttons are well-placed and the rear-screen is a pleasure to use, either in review or Live-View mode. Whoever the Canon exec was that said “Wait, the pictures this camera takes are in a 3:2 ratio, maybe our rear screens should be too!” deserves a raise.

There are some niggling little details that trip me up as a Nikon user. No matter how you change the settings, most of the time the AF point is either invisible or black. That’s OK unless you’re trying to track people in a pitch-black wedding reception. Most of my AF errors weren’t because of the autofocus system, but because I had no way of remembering exactly where I put the AF point unless I kept moving it around. UPDATE: The more I use this, the more of a problem this is. I had to set the 5DIII aside at a recent dark reception because I could never see what I was supposed to focus on. Canon needs to address this in a firmware update. You should be able to make the point red all the time in dark scenes.

On the good side, moving the AF point is much easier (and more natural to a Nikon user) with the addition of a joystick. I recommend immediately changing the custom function menu so that you don’t have to press an extra button to change the AF point. The joystick is well-placed, allows you to follow the action quickly, and it’s not something you’re going to move by accident.

And although I rarely use burst mode, 6 frames per second, makes it easier to catch that perfect moment than the previous 5D cameras:

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50mm f/1.2L, f/3.2, 1/4000th, ISO 100
Autofocus

Has Canon finally fixed the autofocus in the 5D line? In a word? Abso-freaking-lutely. The autofocus is accurate, fast, and a pleasure to use — in some ways moreso than the Nikon D3s. I immediately turned off all sensors except the extra-sensitive cross-type sensors — and still had 41 left! Combined with the joystick, I never have to play the focus and recompose game very much unless I want my point of focus to be at the very edge of the frame. And even then I can get it close enough to not compromise the accuracy of my focal plane, which can matter when you’re shooting with a lens like the 50mm f/1.2L

I shot parts of two wedding receptions with the 5D, using my Nikon SB-900 as a flash. I almost always shoot manual mode, which works fine with that combination, but the Canon can’t trigger any sort of AF assist beam on the Nikon flash. A dark reception with people dancing around is a nightmare scenario, and one that often frustrated 5D and 5DII users, but even without an AF assist beam the 5DIII worked really, really well, capturing lots of great moments even at f/1.2:

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50mm f/1.2L, f/1.2, 1/200th, ISO 4000

50mm f/1.2L, f/1.2, 1/80th, ISO 1250
The focus tracking was spot on as well, and AI servo mode will be a useful tool for 5DIII photographers, especially given the complex but intuitive autofocus menu that lets you customize your autofocus preferences to the smallest degree with a fast lens like the 135L, I was able to easily capture lots of great moments quickly and accurately:

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135mm f/2L, f/2, 1/160th, ISO 1250

135mm f/2L, f/2, 1/125th, ISO 1250

135mm f/2L, f/2, 1/160th, ISO 4000
Image Quality

It’s tough to drill down too far into image quality right now, and I will update this post as RAW processors update themselves to support this camera. You can use Adobe’s DNG converter at the moment to process 5DIII profiles in most RAW converters, but I suspect there will be some differences once they have official support. For example, even with noise reduction turned off, Adobe’s processing has much less noise at high ISO than Capture One’s for the same files.

But here’s a generalization I feel safe with: The 5D Mark III has excellent results at high ISOs as long as you more or less nail the exposure.

The ISO quality and autofocus tracking saved my bacon at an extremely dark processional, where I had to use ISO 12,800, 1/125th, and f/2 to accurately and sharply capture photos with the 135L:

Unfortunately, like most Canon cameras before it including the other 5Ds, the 5D Mark III files are significantly worse at dealing with pushed exposures than the Nikon D3s, and seemingly also the D4 and D800. The Nikons keep a lot of dynamic range in their shadows, and you can raise exposures quite a bit without significantly degrading image quality. Even if you try to nail exposures, this gives you more dynamic range headway and better ability to creatively dodge and burn an image.

This quick test shot put me about 2.5 stops under where I wanted to be even for a silhouette, and even at ISO 100 raising it back up in post introduces noise and banding:

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85mm f/1.2L, f/16, 1/3200th, ISO 100
I’ve created a gallery here where you can compare the 5DIII and D3s at ISO 200, ISO 12,800, and at ISO 200 raised four stops in post-production. I’ve resized the files to 2000 pixels at the longest side, since cameras with higher resolution are otherwise penalized in noise comparisons. The light was the exact same, but the 20-year-old Nikon 50mm f/1.2 let in a bit less light than the four-day-old Canon 50mm f/1.2. In any case, though, the pushed exposure difference is clear.

(UPDATE: The light in these images is coming entirely from flash as it was shot in a dark room — the same flash at the same power setting — so the different shutter speeds shouldn’t make a difference in the exposure. I do appreciate the Nikon’s higher x-sync speed over the Canon, especially that, at least with the Nikon flash, the Canon sometimes has dark edges of the frame at 1/200th of a second)

Other Notes

I am not a videographer and have not extensively played with the video yet. I am having an accomplished cinematographer shoot with me tomorrow, and will relay some of his impressions if we get a chance.

Quiet mode is really quiet. With live view it’s really quiet. This comes in handy for ceremonies.

The rate button is a great addition. Like Nikon’s voice memos, it won’t come in handy for most users most of the time, but that small percentage of the time it’s REALLY handy.

Conclusion:
Right now, Canon is primarily competing with the Nikon D800. At $500 cheaper and with a high-resolution, high dynamic range sensor, the D800 will be a tempting option for most users. For someone like me who takes more than a quarter million photos a year, the idea of a sensor that only shoots 36MP is a non-starter.

More importantly, Canon has built a near-perfect wedding camera. Great at high ISOs, accurate and customizable autofocus, speedy and quiet operation and with versatile RAW resolution, this camera is finally a worthy companion to Canon’s huge array of lenses. On either the Nikon or Canon side, you can’t use the camera as an excuse anymore.

Buy the 5D Mark III here
More Photos

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50mm f/1.2L, f/1.4, 1/1000th, ISO 1000
120323 144641 50mm f1 2

50mm f/1.2L, f/1.2, 1/1600th, ISO 100
120324 192409 135mm f2 5

135mm f/2L, f/2.5, 1/125th, ISO 12,800
120323 145354 50mm f1 2

50mm f/1.2L, f/1.4, 1/160th, ISO 160

135mm f/2L, f/2, 1/160th, ISO 2500
120324 180235 24mm f1 8A

24mm f/1.4L II, f/1.8, 1/8000th, ISO 100

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Quick Review: SB-910

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Specs and purchasing info

As a longtime Nikonian, it still seems a bit odd that Nikon is known as the “great high ISO camera company.” Back in my day, we had noisy ISO 800, and walked uphill both ways to the photo shoot! But that was OK, because we were flashers. Our Nikons had fantastic flash control, TTL metering that worked extremely well, and we made due.

And then everything changed. Along came the Nikon D3, and our SB-800s changed into SB-900s. Not everyone was a fan of this — the SB-900 was significantly larger but didn’t have more power — but I liked them enough to buy three. Fully rotational flash heads is a big deal to my bounce-loving self, and I never quite got used to the fact that you had to physically break the SB-800 to make it work properly.

So I had the SB-900, and everything was good. The output was great, the TTL worked well in those rare cases I wasn’t being a manual-using control freak, and I especially adored the ability to zoom the flash head to a narrow beam of 200mm. Because it’s a narrow beam, I can bounce strong pulses into the ceiling and not use much power, giving me more charge and better recycling time.

There were only a few quirks, some of which bothered me and some of which didn’t. The one that everyone talked about is that out of the box, the SB-900 has an overzealous Thermal Cut-Off protection program that, after a few strong flash pulses, essentially says “No! It’s too hot in here! No flashes for you!” This, I agree, is terrible — so I turned it off and never thought about it again. As someone who’s fired hundreds of thousands of pulses through SB-900s, my experience is that unless you’re using some super-jacked batteries or third-party battery packs, you’re not going to melt anything down. If you find yourself firing your flash at 1/1 all the time, you might want to take a hard look at your gear or compositional choices.

Other things that no one talked about much bothered me a bit more. The new gel system, which used coding to automatically change white balance, was pretty cool but a bit tricky to find and slide on in the field. There was that darned menu access, which was better than the SB-800s but still took time and some slight-of-hand to get to the settings. And the one that really got me is that the infrared AF-assist beam seemed to be mis-aligned in some ways, so that if you were shooting a shallow-depth-of-field lens like the 85mm f/1.4 on a dark dance floor, and using the AF assist on any focus point other than the center point, you were almost guaranteed to have your shot be out-of-focus.

So here’s all you really need to know: The SB-910 fixes all of these quirks. They use the same sort of snap-on gels as the SB-700, which are harder to pack but work great. The Thermal Cut-off gradually slows the flash down as it gets hot instead of getting all Soup Nazi with you. (You can see an oh-so-exciting video of me firing the SB-910 at full power here.) They even fixed the AF assist, which is attention to detail surprising even for Nikon. Awesome.

RKB 2495

It also adds some things like illuminated buttons (which will nicely match the Nikon D4 buttons) and a revamped menu system to be more like the SB-700. Illuminated buttons don’t matter much to me — after two days shooting with a piece of kit the buttons are mapped in my brain, no looking required. The dedicated menu button is fantastic for working quickly, but it has a downside: If you have a bunch of SB-900s, you will probably want to sell them if you’re tempted by the 910. These two flashes are so similar in basic form that you will never remember by simple touch which is which — and they have buttons in the same places that do entirely different things. Give your brain a break and try not to limit your time mixing these two in your system.

In the photos above, I wanted to use the tungsten gel given that it’s now easy enough to put on that I won’t say “Oh, forget it.” In both, I fired through a Lumiquest LTP softbox. At left, I got the double-diffusion softness and made use of a tight spot by skipping the light off a white door to the left. At right, the light from the right, combined with a tweak of the automatically cool white balance the camera knew to give me thanks to the coded gel, gives a more complicated and moody mix of warm flash and cool ambient. Is there any real difference in the light between this and the SB-900, or even the SB-700? No. But I probably would have never fished the delicate SB-900 gels out of my bag on a freezing cold day — so the real answer is whatever works for you. And the SB-910 works really well.


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Review: Nikon J1 versus Fuji X10

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Compact camera photos aren’t what they used to be. Taken with the Nikon J1 and kit lens.

Specs and Purchase info: Nikon J1

Specs and Purchase info: Fuji X10

The compact world is in a bit of a stir right now. Heck, all you need to do is read the news today, with Canon’s release of a compact camera with a DSLR-sized sensor. After years and years of advanced amateurs and professionals saying “Wake, up guys! The compact cameras are uninspired and terrible — you need to shake it up!” the companies are finally listening. Why?

Phones.

Simply put, there is no reason for anyone to buy a bad digital compact again. They’re already carrying something around in their pocket that does the job of a bad digital camera — and some of them, like the iPhone 4s or Samsung Galaxy SII, can play the part of a pretty decent compact. The entire lower end of that market is in deep, deep trouble, and they know it. So what they’re finally starting to focus on are compacts that can do things your phones can’t. Use flash well. Shoot in lower light. Shoot RAW. And in Nikon’s case, use interchangeable lenses.

Nikon and Fuji are showing two different approaches to this market, with Nikon heavily touting their new J1 and V1 lines, with a bigger-than-compact-but-still-small sensor that allows for a smaller system overall. Fuji had a hit with the X100, and they’re hoping to replicate it on a smaller scale with the compact, zooming X10.

Now, as a professional Nikon user, my initial gut reaction to the J1 was disappointment. I know from the X100 that mirrorless options can be helpful in even the most professional systems, and I was hoping for something that would change my working environment. The J1 isn’t designed for work — it’s for fun. It’s about being a compact camera with somewhat better photos and having the versatility of interchangeable lenses. And then something got my attention — people who used it, other people who had been disappointed, started singing its praises. That little-but-not-too-little sensor seemed to be quite a workhorse. So I got my hands on one to pair with the X10 I was testing and headed out to Hong Kong.

X10

I put up some preview images yesterday, and everyone assumed I was testing the Canon 1DX versus Nikon D4. It wasn’t my intention to trick anyone — I want to really put the D4 through its paces before I write a review, but I suppose that speaks well for these cameras.

The X10 is the simpler camera to describe: it’s just a compact, but a nice one. It has a nice zoom range from medium wide-angle to short telephoto (“portrait length”), and you zoom manually by turning the ring, not from moving some wonky switch like most compacts. It zooms smoothly as you turn, more smoothly than cameras like the Canon S100 that try the same trick. Its zoom range also starts at a nice and fast f/2 and only closes down to f/2.8 at the long end. It has an optical viewfinder, but it’s of the only-for-emergencies compact camera style, not anything like its big brother the X100.

Essentially, the X10 changes nothing radical about the idea of what a compact camera is, but they bring impeccable style and functionality to the design — and that makes all the difference. It’s a pleasure to use in a way that was almost unthinkable for a compact from about 2002-2009. In true Fuji style is produces nice, colorful images with good skin tones, and a noticeable love for magenta:

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One thing to note about the X10: Like a good number of compacts these days, it cheats even with its RAW files, writing in instructions to clean up extreme barrel distortion and vignetting. Companies like Panasonic have done this a lot, and it’s dramatic to see what happens when you open the same files in a program that listens to those instructions (such as Adobe Lightroom) versus one that doesn’t (like Apple’s Aperture.) Here is the same photo from Lightroom on the left and Aperture on the right — no adjustments:

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You can see Lightroom left in a little bit of the distortion to not change the frame too radically, but especially with this sort of composition the one on the right (which reflects how the lens actually captures the scene) looks almost like it was taken with a fisheye.

But it’s a good camera overall, and great at low-light for a compact. Here’s an ISO 1600 image — a bit painterly noise reduction in places, but still sharp and with good detail:

111113 194926 16 7mm f2 5

The J1 confirmed a good number of my worst feelings when I first picked it up — this is made for consumers, not a tool for professionals to use on the side. All you need to know is that Nikon, the Kings of Strobism, didn’t put a hot shoe on it. They clearly put thought into making this just something to capture snapshots and home video better than a phone can. And so the video side is well-thought-out, with a separate button for video capture and a slow-motion mode that really works, although it has low resolution and a long aspect ratio.

On the face, it seems to not quite realize the advantages of the small sensor. The camera is small but not THAT small — the APS-C-sensored NEX-5n is smaller. The optics are still just as slow as they’d be on a bigger DSLR — the kit lens I used was f/3.5-5.6. When you compare that to the f/2 to f/2.8 lens the Fuji had, suddenly you seem to be giving up the gains that the bigger sensor gives you.

But then I started seeing the images. And they looked good. Crisp and clear and with vibrant but realistic color — better than what I’d gotten from a compact before, even a well-designed one like the X10. High ISO is surprisingly good. Good enough that although I wanted to use these cameras for their intended market of vacation snapshots, I even used it for clients — the image at top is ISO 800, which was enough to capture a night-time scene with very little noise and sharpness and detail preserved. In that case, the design came in handy, since I wanted the “infinite depth-of-field” look that I would have had to stop WAY down on my D3s to get.

Here’s a few more images showing that it’s crisp and sharp and handles contrast well:

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111204 143059 12 7mm f4 5

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Perhaps Nikon is reaping the advantage of low expectations, since the camera is more enjoyable to use than it appears on paper. I think the full promise of this system will come with the adapters, where the 2.7x crop will turn telephoto lenses into “photograph a songbird’s eyeball” lenses. But something like a 20mm f/2 would be a nice addition to the lens line-up, as even amateurs expect nice results in terrible light these days.

Since these are similar price (with the J1′s kit lens), this is going to come down to personal preference, especially given all of the other compeition for this marketplace. But it’s heartening to see how many more great choices we have now than the dark ages of compact camera design.

Specs and Purchase info: Nikon J1

Specs and Purchase info: Fuji X10


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Review: LensAlign, Spyder LensCal and the importance of AF Fine Tune

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Get your f/1.2 photos in perfect focus

Cameras come with lots and lots of bells and whistles these days, and some of them seem a lot more useful than other. Built-in selective color mode? No thank you. But every once in a while there’s a new feature that changes the game in a big way. Autofocus. Auto-exposure modes. Vibration reduction. To my mind, autofocus fine-tuning is one of these. What is this? Nikon calls it “AF Fine Tune,” and Canon calls it “Focus Micro-Adjust,” but basically it’s simple, and brilliant: It allows your camera to make sure your autofocus actually works up to its full potential.

Lens design is an incredibly complicated process, and like anything in life we can’t aim for perfection, just good enough. The problem is compounded because different cameras, even of the same model, respond to lenses slightly differently, and the lens-maker doesn’t have access to your camera when calibrating in the factory. Generally, most good companies produce results that are, to use a scientific term, good enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll. If you’re taking photos at f/8, it’s highly unlikely you’d ever notice a problem. But especially these days where it’s more and more fashionable to shoot with the razor-thin DoF of f/1.8 or wider, little problems become glaring. If a lens if off by even a couple millimeters, that can be the difference between an eye and an eyelash in focus. An inch? Then it’s the nose in focus, and you’re noticeably off.

In the old days, you were pretty stuck. All you could do is send the lens back to the factory and hope for the best, or actually travel to a lens technician and have them re-calibrate it to your camera. Message boards are filled with horror stories of people who sent a lens back five or six times and still couldn’t get it working right.

But a few years ago, dSLR makers figured out how to change the variances a little bit in-camera. Is the nose in-focus instead of the eye? You can tell the camera to move back an inch with that particular lens. Is the focus going back to the ear? Tell the lens to focus forward a bit. Suddenly, that slightly annoying fast lens you couldn’t quite get right becomes a useful tool. Batches of lenses that had wide reports of focus quality control-issues, like some of the wide, fast Sigma lenses such as the 24mm f/1.8, work just fine, thank you very much.

Perhaps because these work best with fast, professional lenses, and because it’s a bit tricky to get working properly, most camera-makers include this feature at the “advanced amateur” level and beyond. For instance, Nikon has it on the D300s but not the D90 (though they did include it on the D7000), and Canon has it on the 7D but not the D60. It’s such an incredibly useful feature that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it buried in menus with a “WARNING: Only touch if you know what you’re doing!” on even the most basic DSLR models in the future.

The basic working of it is extremely similar across camera lines. Go into the camera function menu with your problematic lens mounted, and you’ll see a chart with pluses and minuses radiating out from zero. These allow you to correct for front- or back-focus to varying degrees. Because modern lenses have CPU chips in them, the camera will even be able to tell two lenses of the same model apart. This is crucial because, to paraphrase Tolstoy: “All perfect lenses are alike; each imperfect lens is imperfect in its own way.”

But the catch is that there’s no automatic way to do this. If there was, the camera could just fix the problem without a chart. Basically you need to shoot, figure out the amount of front-focus or back-focus. And then shoot again and see if your calculations were correct. And most importantly, you want to absolutely make sure that none of the focus problems are due to user error, or just the tricky act of hitting a precise target at f/1.4

If this sounds like a complicated, frustrating process, well … it can be, especially if you have a lot of lenses … even more so if you have to test all of them with multiple cameras. And so a few companies have stepped in with products to make the process easier. I tested both the LensAlign system and Spyder LensCal with a variety of lenses on my Nikon D3s bodies, as well as the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 on the Canon 7D, since a number of people have reported back-focus on this lens with Canon bodies.

Both of these products are trying to perform a very simple task in an effective way, which is to be a good autofocus target and and effective measuring system that will let you see exactly where the plane of focus falls. There are only so many possible configurations for this, and so you can see that when set up they look very similar (LensAlign on left; LensCal on right):

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To eliminate user error, when setting up for use you should use a tripod exactly level with the target so your lens is at a perfect perpendicular. Now, a good lens should be distance-calibrated, meaning that if it focuses accurately at five feet it should focus accurately at 10 feet, but that’s not always the case so I tended to set the lens at the distance I most often shoot with it (closer for the 24mm f/1.4, farther for the 85mm f/1.4, and so on). This also made sure that the lens had a big enough target to focus on, since hitting these from 10 feet away with a 24mm lens won’t be as accurate as you want it to be.

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As you can see, in use these are extremely similar. The LensAlign chart has a lot more to it, which can make it easier to set up a perfectly accurate test. In particular the second bullseye on the right can help you make sure you’re exactly perpendicular, as you’ll want both targets to be tack sharp. But the bells and whistles come at a price. The Spyder is extremely simple to set up. It starts like this:

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You unsnap it and voila! Done. In contrast, the LensAlign comes like this:

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And here are the directions to put it together:

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If you are someone who gets thrown into a murderous rage by Ikea furniture, you might prefer the Spyder.

And of course there is the third option of doing it on your own — which at least is better than nothing. One decent trick is to put a coin on a towel or shag rug and focus on that — the threads of the towel will really show exactly where the focus plane is falling — and in all cases remember that it gets much more accurate as you zoom in on the picture, thanks to the circle of confusion.

If you have just a kit lens, you probably don’t have to worry. If you have one camera and a 50mm f/1.8, you can probably muddle through yourself. But for me, calibrating almost 20 lenses on two D3s’s and a D3, these were invaluable tools. I’ve had lenses rescued from the scrap heap because of focus micro-adjust. If you like shallow depth-of-field or think that you will in the future, this is a feature to watch out for as you buy a camera. It’s not a bad reason to pick up a D7000 over a D90, for example.

Virtually every one of my lenses was improved by this, though in many of the cases it wouldn’t be noticeable in normal usage.

Specs and purchase info:
Spyder LensCal
LensAlign

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Review: Sigma 12-24mm Mark II

Specs and Pricing info

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This summer, I looked at the gear I tended to use for weddings — never wider than 24mm, dominated by f/1.4 or f/1.2 primes — and said “Ok, let’s shake this up a bit.” So I chose the Sigma 12-24mm, which on a full-frame camera gives as wide a rectilinear frame as any lens for any system — a 122-degree frame of view. To go wider than that, you have to go fisheye. Moreover, the lens is one of the least light-sensitive professional lenses around — it starts at f/4.5 at the wide end, but if you want to zoom you should just consider it an f/5.6 lens, only letting in 1/16th the light of my 24mm f/1.4.

I’d been having a blast with it, working with new possibilities and limitations, when my pals at B&H asked me if I wanted to review the new version Sigma was releasing. Absolutely — the Mark I Sigma is extremely fun but more than a little quirky, and to get solid performance out of it you generally want to be in the f/11 range, severely limiting use as an indoor available-light lens. I figured the new lens would be more or less identical, but with some new coatings, a bit of new glass, but no major changes.

Then I opened the box. The new lens, even though it has the same basic specs, felt totally different. It’s longer, leaner, and with a wider rear element (the Mark I’s is strangely small). It felt sturdier in the hand, and I could immediately see an improvement in sharpness and vignetting wide-open. This doesn’t mean it’s optically perfect at f/4.5, but it does become more than usable — a real optical challenge at this frame of view.

I don’t often shoot blank walls, but this comparison tells the tale quite well. Below are photos taken with the old and new versions at 12mm f/4.5 with the same 1/4th power bounce flash off a white ceiling, on the left and right respectively:

111026 161108 12mm f4

Enough said. The white wall shows a far more dramatic result than most real-world applications, but when you look at the Mark I photo, the vignetting is so dramatic that you think you might have put a DX lens on your camera by mistake. Some of the vignetting on the left of the Mark II photo may be from the directionality of the flash combined with the extreme angle of view, but even then the falloff is far more gradual.

Also, the difference in color is interesting, given that these were taken with the same flash at the same intensity, in “Flash” white balance setting. The older Sigma seems to have a turquoise cast to it, especially in the vignette. Now, of course lots of photographers pay lots of money for Photoshop actions to create vignetting that looks sort of like that, so there’s no saying what’s better. But I strongly prefer the new version.

In terms of basic usage, it’s hard to tell any difference between the two, because a lens set to 12mm f/5.6 has such a deep depth-of-field already that autofocus is almost an afterthought. If you love bokeh in all of your images, this isn’t the lens for you.

But what sort of things IS this lens good for? Well, it’s wide. Really, really, really wide. So wide that anyone placed near the corners of its pictures looks like Jabba the Hutt. Like with a fisheye, shooting at 12mm is generally something you’ll want to do sparingly, but when used right it can give really dramatic accents.

For instance, it’s hard to find a better lens to show off the interior of a particularly ornate church:

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And while subjects too close to you or too close to the edges of the frame will look clownish, with the right placing you can get a great deal of a scene in the frame without looking crazy. Here you can see a lot of the scene, including the same little peninsula I’m standing on, but it doesn’t scream “Crazy wide!!”

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And the same here, because the human elements are close to the center of the frame:

111106 170456 12mm f6

The real strength of it is to see commonplace scenes in very different ways. Because it’s so wide, every parallel line instead becomes something converging toward a perspective — which might drive architects crazy, but can also make for interesting compositions:

111030 151840 12mm f14

Not to mention the sort of “reverse compression,” where your subjects can fit into any frame or arch or space that would normally be too large:

111030 205018 12mm f5 6

Sigma has done a greg job with the revamp of this lens — there are always going to be lots of challenges from shooting ultra, ultra-wide, but with the new model at least the challenges are just coming from perspective instead of lens design.

If this sounds up your alley, purchase it here.


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Review: Sony NEX-5n

For my needs, at least, dSLRs have reached a tipping point. With the release of Canon 1D-X and Nikon having the still-astonishing D3s, the major workhorse companies are both now producing cameras as good as I could possibly want them to be. Can I imagine better? Very easily, but in most ways the improvements are so far up the curve of diminishing returns to be irrelevant. Yes, one day we’ll have cameras that shoot at ISO 1,000,000 — but that doesn’t matter so much when ISO 10,000 allows me to shoot moving people at the very limits of what my own eyes can actually see.

But these systems do have one problem — they’re freaking huge. I’m writing this from airports in Aruba, Miami, and New Orleans, and the whole way I’ve been lugging a 45-pound backpack of camera gear. In one of the tiny side pockets, taking up less space than any of my autofocus lenses? Sony’s latest mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera, the NEX-5n.

Even though the NEX-5n is an update to the “lesser” of Sony’s NEX cameras, it’s been getting a lot of attention, and for good reason. First, like the NEX 5 before it, it’s small. REALLY small. “Glorified lens cap” small. Even though it has an APS-C-sized sensor, as big as the sensors in all but the highest-end DSLRs, its body is no bigger than a point and shoot, especially when paired with the 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens. But because of how close the sensor is to the mount, you can use adapters to put lenses from almost any system on it (at least if you don’t mind losing autofocus.) So it can be as small or as big as you want it to be :

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Sony made a couple of improvements over the NEX 5 that seem small at first, but make the camera a surprising joy to use. First is the addition of a touch-screen, which to smartphone addicts makes menu-diving a lot easier, especially when the camera has a small lens mounted. (The trade-off is that you have to do menu-diving for things that I’d rather have be represented by physical dials, such as changing modes, ISO, and white balance.) The second is the support of an optional electronic viewfinder. My need for a good viewfinder is one of the reasons I’d never considered a NEX 5 as an alternative to my Fuji X100, and the articulating high-resolution viewfinder is a joy to use (though it adds to the overall price).

Lastly, they changed the sensor to the same base design that has been praised in the Nikon D7000 for its great color and low noise — competing strongly against the Nikon D700 and 5D Mark II even though it has less than half the light-gathering area! Since the viewfinder allows extremely accurate focusing with wide-aperture lenses and in dark situations presents an image brighter than your eyes can easily see, when you put an f/1.4 or f/1.2 lens on this camera you have a still fairly-compact camera that can absolutely see in the dark. Here, paired with a 58mm f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor, the NEX 5n could easily photograph a street musician sitting in shadow in the dead of night (ISO 2000):

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If “workhorse dSLRs” have reached maturity, mirrorless cameras are still in their awkward teens: They have so much potential, but each one brings their own quirks. The 5n is no exception — at different times it left me jumping around excitedly and scratching my head in frustration.

This is the fundamental temptation of the system for me: Since the viewfinder makes manual-focus so easy and accurate except for tracking irregular movement, and since you can put almost ANY lens on this camera with an adapter, I can have a camera that is as simple and compact or as versatile as I need in most situations. With the 16mm pancake I have a point and shoot with great manual control and good performance at medium apertures (it’s not bad wide-open, but nothing to write home about).

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Then I can add the E-mount 55-210mm zoom lens, which is about the size and shape of a Red Bull can, and get decent telephoto in a compact kit (at least if you leave off the hood). The 55-210 is a slow lens, being only f/6.3 at the long end, so the ISO capability will help here a lot.

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I actually shot this from a fast-moving speedboat, using the “reduce motion blur” function that shoots 10 frames in a second and picks the least blurry one. Generally not my favorite gimmick, since I like to choose my favorite frame, but you never know when you’ll be shooting at 315mm-equivalent from the side of a speedboat.

THEN, of course, I can add an adapter and put on Nikon lenses. With a more pixel-dense sensor, this is a better macro camera than my D3s, paired with the 60mm f/2.8 G:

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With the 45mm f/2.8 PC-E, I can create tilt-shift images without a big camera hanging on my neck (select lenses can fit in my small shoulder bag, but my D3s sure can’t):

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And with my 58mm f/1.2, I can capture scenes in almost no light at all (and can easily see them with the EVF viewfinder). This was at ISO 3200, f/1.2, 1/8th of a second:

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So it’s all amazing, right? Well, like I said, these systems are still in their awkward teenager phase. Most glaring is the flash system. Instead of a normal hot-shoe, it has some proprietary weirdness that makes third-party flashes impossible, and if you’re using that separate viewfinder I like so much, then you can’t use any sort of flash at all! This is essentially the anti-Strobist camera. Also the viewfinder adds to the cost and keeps it from being truly pocketable, so you’ll need to decide whether it’s worth it for you (for me, it is).

The other big thing is that, compared to the competing Micro-4/3rds standard, the current lens system is deeply underwhelming. The only truly compact lens is the 16mm f/2.8, and it’s a decent but not stellar performer. Sony has committed to a lot more lenses coming soon, including a Zeiss 24mm I’m excited about. That lens alone would make this camera a strong competitor against the Fuji X100, but it won’t be cheap.

So the system will continue to grow and strengthen throughout the next year, but the mirrorless competitors aren’t being quiet. Just today, Panasonic released the GX1, which looks like a really strong camera, and Fuji is currently developing a professional mirrorless system that should have an even bigger sensor than the NEX cameras. If you don’t need professional flash, enjoy manual focus, and want a versatile system with a bigger sensor than micro-4/3rds, this camera might be for you, and it has a lot of happy new owners. But it will also be very interesting to see where we are in a year from now, and some of those awkward teenage quirks have gone away.

MORE IMAGES:

16mm f/2.8 (three-image pano)
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55-210mm:
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35mm f/1.4, 30-second exposure:
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16mm f/2.8 “sweep pano” mode:

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Review: Hasselblad 100mm f/2.2 (and thoughts on Hasselbad H2F)

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Pretty much any photographer I’ve ever met has “dream gear,” stuff they keep their eye on. When the Nikon D2X came out, I used a picture of it as my desktop background for months, just to keep me pounding the pavement. Lots of hard work has meant that my basic “work bag” has pretty much everything in it I could need, so my wandering eye turns toward luxurious items that would be fun to use, but are outside my core body of work. A Leica M9 with a 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux? Yes please.

For years, one target of my lust were wide-aperture medium format lenses. There’s generally a big size and weight jump from 35mm cameras to 645 and larger camera systems, and so most lenses have smaller apertures — in medium format, f/4 lenses can be considered fast. But the larger image field means that you can get very shallow depth-of-field at these smaller apertures … so if you put a truly wide aperture lens on it, you can combine extremely shallow depth-of-field with the clarity and resolution of medium format. There are a lot of options for this, but I’ve been curious about the Hasselblad 100mm f/2.2 ever since its release. It’s part of the Hasselblad H system, which can be as old- or new-school as you want it to be, integrating easily with digital backs and auto-focus ready. It’s also still in production and easier to rent than a lot of other systems. Finally, the Hasselblad HC lenses were controversial when they came out, since they were made by Fuji, not part of Hasselblad’s traditional partnership with Zeiss. Those are some awfully big shoes to fill.

I wanted to test this lens on film for a few reasons, so I used the Hasselblad H2F. First, film is fun. But more importantly, all medium format digital backs have a crop factor compared to 645 film, and I believe that if you really want to get to know a lens, you should see as much of its imaging circle as you can. And, of course, a crop factor limits depth-of-field control, the main reason I’d want to shoot wide aperture on medium format in the first place. The Hasselblad H4D-60 has gotten really close to the usable area of 645 film, but it also costs more than my annual rent … and I live in midtown Manhattan.

On film, the 100mm f/2.2 has a similar depth-of-field profile to what a 60mm f/1.3 would on 35mm — quite similar to my 58mm f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor, so I spent some time shooting them together on the same assignments. The image below shows the Hasselblad 100mm in between my Nikon 105mm f/1.8 (similar focal length and aperture) and the Noct (similar output on a given system). You can see that despite the big difference in the imaging circle (which makes the Hasselblad lenses very fat), and the fact that the 100mm is autofocus and the Nikon lenses are manual-focus, the 100mm isn’t unnecessarily huge or unwieldy.

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In the field: The Hasselblad H system is definitely optimized for studio and landscape. The shutter is in the lens itself, which means that you can sync your flash with it up to 1/800th of a second (very good!), but it also means that 1/800th of a second is the maximum shutter speed at all (very bad!). I had to be very careful with what film I put in at what times, especially since I wanted to shoot mostly wide-open. With the giant slapping mirror of the Hasselblad, I was loath to shoot below 1/100th of a second — which meant that at a given aperture and film speed, I only had three stops of possible light that would give me a correct exposure! Proper field use definitely required foresight and a light meter was helpful, even the Light Meter app on my iPhone.

Despite being outside of the camera’s comfort zone, it performed beautifully overall. It is so solid and ergonomically sound that even my Nikon D3s started to feel a bit toylike in comparison. It didn’t take me long to get used to the controls, which were intuitively laid out for general use. And the viewfinder … or dear lord, how I love the viewfinder. It felt like I was actually seeing the picture in front of me at all times, in the way it would finally look in print. I felt like I could crawl inside and live there. Between the size of the finder and the fact that you are getting all of this depth-of-field gorgeousness at f/2.2 instead of f/1.2, there is a HUGE difference between shooting this in practice and the D3s + the Noct. The D3s viewfinder doesn’t show anything close to the true depth-of-field of an f/1.2 lens, so you never really know what’s in focus. Live View tends to be the way to go for extended use, and that brings with it a bit of shutter delay. With the Hasselblad, I could see exactly which eyelash was in focus and which wasn’t. It never bothered me that I couldn’t look at the back of the camera to see what the picture looked like, because as long as the exposure was dead-on, I already knew.

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As I said before, the Hasselblad H system is as modern as you want it to be. It actually says in the manual that after you put it together, “the camera is now ready to use as a point-and-shoot!” No lie. And the metering system, which uses matrix, center, or spot-metering, seemed dead-on accurate with proper usage. The autofocus system was also surprisingly zippy, given the weight of the lens elements to be moved around. However, there is only ONE autofocus point, so you are stuck focusing and re-composing. More recent Hasselblads have a unique system that actually corrects for the focusing errors that focus-and-re-compose can bring about, but not the H2. But the viewfinder is so good that you can actually see the focal plane shift, and adjust for it as necessary. Because the camera made precision so easy, I ignored the modern features most of the time and used a light meter and manual focus, but I kept checking the automatic systems to see if they were giving me accurate results. They did a great job.

The look of the lens:

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As mentioned before, the basic depth-of-field profile is very similar to the Noct-Nikkor (with the Noct taking it by a hair), and it is quite adept at knocking out backgrounds. In the photo above on the left, we were extremely limited about shooting locations at the time, but the 100mm allows the eye to focus on the gorgeous bride and her great expression instead of the houses and cars on the streets behind. And closer up for the bouquet the transition from razor-sharp to out-of-focus is dramatic and pleasing.

But there are as many differences as similarities:

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We have Valerie in the photo above with the Hasselblad 100mm on the left and the Noct-Nikkor on the right. This is not the sort of shot that would show off vignetting, but even so you can still see it dramatically in the lower-left of the Noct photo. The Noct has deeply imperfect corners in terms of sharpness and vignetting (which is perfectly fine for my portraiture uses). Given that I was shooting on film (with no crop factor), I expected some of the same from the Hasselblad, but it was virtually nowhere to be found! Even wide-open the sides and corners are sharp and clear. It made me glad I was shooting film, because it could otherwise appear so perfect as to be clinical (though of course it’s easy to add vignetting in post, if you like to).

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I could see this being a perfect setup for a digital studio. The lens focuses as close as you need it to for portraiture, and the focal length is an in-between that can feel like a normal or a telephoto depending on your perspective. It gives stunning results at any aperture, and starting so wide means that if you need to stop down to resolve the 60 megapixels of an H4D-60, you might only be at f/5.6 instead of f/11. The hood is metal and sturdy and the diameter is 77mm, so professional dSLR shooters will probably have all sorts of filters they can use on it (and good ND filters will come in handy in the field when the sun comes out).

I had way too much fun with this. I am sure this will not be my last time playing with this set-up.

More photos:

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