One from today, with the Canon 5D Mark III

120322 213048 50mm f1 4

I had the Canon 5D Mark III along with my D3s’s to play at Heather and Peter’s amazing wedding today. This moment was captured at ISO 12,800. I did apply noise reduction, but just to the chromatic noise (color stuff), not the grain. A lot more to come in a review, but it feels like they’ve really adapted Nikon’s innovations and combined them with Canon’s own to make a fantastic camera.

Don’t worry, Nikon users. I have both the D4 and the D800 coming down the pike for testing.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III
Lens: Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Quick Review: SB-910

120113 144105 45mm f2 8

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.

Review: Nikon J1 versus Fuji X10

111205 091004 10mm f3 5

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:

111203 162026 28 4mm f9

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:

111126 215111 7 1mm f2 2

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:

111130 102326 30mm f5 6

111204 143059 12 7mm f4 5

111201 184830 10mm f3 5

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