Grandview Wedding: Tom and Nicole

I’d met Tom, a photographer himself, way back when he attended my very first workshop. I always love working with photographers of all stripes, since we can really just jump into a sort of creative collaboration. Doubly so when the couple is as kind and open as Tom and Nicole. It was a deeply emotional and beautiful day, the April weather bringing just the right coolness to get the Grandview dance floor moving — not that much convincing was needed. The ceremony was at their alma mater, Marist College, a gorgeous campus where all the ground is apparently at a 45-degree angle.

D800 teaser: Ariana and Eric at the Metropolitan Club

To say that Ariana and Eric are a pretty cool couple is like saying that the Metropolitan Club — pretty much what you’d expect from a place built for J.P. Morgan to hang out in — is a pretty cool place to get married.

The D800 is a very different sort of camera than the D3s or D4, but a performer in its own way. And, since this is an ISO 3200 photo in a very dark spot, it’s a surprisingly good low-light performer. Of course, the exported TIFF of this photo was 217 megagbytes, so I will never have enough hard drives from now on.

Lens: 35mm f/1.4
Camera: Nikon D800

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:

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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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Buy it here

Just … trust me.

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Sometimes photography requires a good deal of trust. The coordinator from the New York Botanical Garden stood in front of me and said “We have transportation, and you have access to all the wonders and beauty of the gardens at your disposal. Where would you like to go?”

“Well … I saw a really great patch of unmowed grass. Can we go there?”

Trust can pay off.

Lens: Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6
Camera: Nikon D4

Glen Island Harbor Club Wedding: Ketrin and Phillip

I’ve said it before: I always love weddings for fellow Fordham alumni, because they always know how to party. What I didn’t know was that Phillip is one of humanity’s nicest guys, and that Ketrin must have some sort of Red Bull-powered V8 engine in there somewhere, because she never stops moving or laughing — she beat the car back from the evening portraits because she decided it was easier to just sprint back to the wedding! Take a beautiful day at the Glen Island Harbor Club, sprinkle in some Albanian traditions, and you have a recipe for an excellent day. Sadly they weren’t allowed to light things on fire and throw them around. Funny, that.

Thanks to my buddy Zack Delaune for assisting.

Tribeca Rooftop Wedding: Kathryn and Mark

It seems like just last wedding I was at Tribeca Rooftop, but I’m showing them back-to-back to make a simple point: Venues give flavor to a wedding day, and Tribeca Rooftop is a fantastic place to have one, but what gives weddings character and structure are the people involved. You could have 50 weddings in a row in a featureless room and each one would be reflections of very different stories.

Especially with a couple like Kathryn and Mark. There’s not much I can say about their personalities that isn’t amply visible in the photos, but here’s a taste: They decided to have a dry-run for the wedding on top of a volcano in Nicaragua — and then they sledded down the obsidian slopes at literally breakneck speeds. Sadly I wasn’t there for that part.

This wedding brought a lot full-circle for me. I shot my first wedding many years ago as part of a long-term documentary I was doing with the International Center for Photography under the incredible Andre Lambertson. In January I decided to do a week-long intensive refresher to kick-start my year, and we connected on a different level. To my delight and surprise, he offered to shoot some weddings alongside me. I was honored and a little bit terrified (seriously, check out the resume), but more than anything I love a challenge, and we worked together extremely well, with further assistance from Taylor Hide. I can’t wait for future collaborations.

Congratulations, Kathryn and Mark. It was a pleasure to be at this fantastic wedding, and to relive it through making this post.

Dallas and D.C. Workshops review

I love teaching. I came back to NYC with dreams of being a teacher, filling minds with all the power that good photography and journalism can possess, the way I’d done as a student newspaper advisor in Northern New York. But I realized that one of the few things I love more than teaching was constantly getting out there and creating art, honing skills, testing and challenging myself. I still haven’t left that phase, and my blessedly full shooting calendar keeps me from teaching more than a few workshops each year. In fact, my upcoming May 19 workshop might be the last U.S. workshop I can fit in my schedule for the rest of 2012. But when I was approached by my friends and fellow photographers Lynn Michelle and Bill Millios to teach workshops in Dallas and D.C. respectively, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

My pedagogical background always comes out when planning a workshop. Lots of people will pay lots of money for workshops from well-known photographers, but I’m deeply results-oriented, and I’m always trying to thread the needle on workshops’ Catch-22: Anything that will really change your life as an artist and a businessperson forever isn’t something you can reliably be expected to learn in a single day of group instruction. Real, lasting success comes from staying energized and focused so that you can undertake a lifetime of hard work without it feeling like hard work, or to have the endurance to continue on when it does feel like hard work. What I hope to do in a day is find those things that will light a spark, tools and techniques that might open new pathways, help you see solutions to problems in new ways, and give you perspectives on what works for me in a way that will easily let you see how to adapt it to your needs.

It’s never about being more like me. It’s about you.

One big piece of the technical aspects of these workshops is learning to overcome bad situations. Of course, when you’re shooting in a gorgeous space like the Marty Leonard Chapel we have to be creative to even find bad situations, such as pulling intimate moments like these…

… out of the Men’s bathroom:

(and yes, I have run into situations where the Men’s room was the least-bad location to shoot in on a wedding day.)

Thank you guys all so much for coming, and especially to Lynn and Bill for their hard work and general awesomeness. Now onto May in NYC! We are just about sold out, but there’s always some variation around the edges, so at this stage e-mail photos@ryanbrenizer.com to check if spots are available instead of just paying the deposit first.

Once, Twice, Six Times Fearless

One of my favorite wedding photography organizations around is Huy Nguyen’s growing Foundation empire, from the hard-core Foundation Workshop I’m excited to do in January, to the Foundation Conference I’ll be at in November to the best-known aspect, the Fearless Photographer contest.

When I started out, I used to enter and do very well in a number of contests such the WPJA, but after a while I started getting more and more focused on the work that I had yet to do, instead of the work that I’d already done, and I cared less and less about contest results. As I go on as a photographer, I feel more and more deeply that the metric I care about is both simple and maddeningly difficult — to constantly keep getting better than I have been before, to continually feel that at any time I am currently turning out my best work. I’m energized and inspired by the great work my photographer friends are doing, but on a shoot I don’t give them a single thought, I just think about how I can push myself forward.

But a couple contests kept grabbing my eye, such as Junebug’s annual curated list and Fearless in particular, just because the work was so consistently great. So, (after a few rounds of missing the deadlines), I submitted some of my work, and I got six Fearless awards, which I think ties me for first this round with some really fantastic photographers. This is really exciting for me just because of how great I think the Fearless/Foundation organization is, and because of how incredibly strong the selected photos are over all. This is a club worth joining, even if they have me as a member.

Here are the six chosen photos:

Thanks!

Tribeca Rooftop Wedding: Heather and Peter

One of the reasons I love my job so much is that it’s different every day.

Really, you say? You seem to spend a lot of time hanging out with women in white dresses. True, but the people, the personalities, the nuances, everything is changing and different and new, always. It’s pretty easy to see that with a South-African/Persian wedding, like Heather and Peter’s fantastic day at Tribeca Rooftop. One second elegant and gorgeous, and the other with the groom showing that he does, indeed, have the moves like Jagger.

Always new, always exciting, and with a day like this doubly so.

Thanks to Jake Whyman for assisting; he did a fantastic job.

(Provisional) Review: Fuji X-Pro 1

Specs and Pricing

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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

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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