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Review: Nikon Df

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good:

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

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

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

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

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

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The Almost (For the retro-friendly user)

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

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

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

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The Almost (For the modern-minded photographer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Photos with the Df

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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: 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


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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.

110912 121334 58mm f1 2

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:

110912 125747 35mm f1 4

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

110802 125933 52mm f3 2

And here are the directions to put it together:

110802 130034 42mm f3 2

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

111026 160629 60mm f3

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:

111001 155329 12mm f5

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!!”

111105 181743 12mm f7

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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Quick Review: Nikon 40mm f/2.8 Micro DX

Specs and Pricing Info

110303 161306 200mm f18So much new camera gear comes out all the time that my first thought at any new release is “Could this possibly be useful to me?” If not, I tend to not pay it much attention — such as the endless string of seemingly cloned compact cameras. Since all of my DSLR work is done on full-frame cameras, I haven’t paid too much attention to Nikon’s DX lineup for a while. And it’s a shame, since they’re still doing interesting things in that area. I know I wish that in my DX days I’d had access to newer designs like the 10-24mm.

But it got my attention that Nikon had recently released not one, but two DX-specific macro lenses, the 85mm f/3.5 and the 40mm f/2.8. I’d heard enough chatter to know that people were slightly disappointed by the 85mm’s sharpness (important for a macro) and slow maximum aperture, but I thought that if Nikon had done a good job with the 40mm, they might have a hit on their hands. As I mentioned in my review of the Sigma 150mm OS Macro, my close-up work tends to be of things that are not alive and do not move, and a short focal length makes that easier in some ways. I love the heck out of my Nikon 60mm AF-S Micro, and this new lens seems to serve the same niche for DX shooters at less size and weight and half the cost.

The first thing you notice when you open the box is how small the lens is. Like the 50mm f/1.8, you can barely feel the weight in your hand. The 60mm Macro isn’t exactly a monster itself, but given that both of these lenses have the same frame of view on their respective systems, you can see the size advantage that the DX frame gives in a comparison of the two with the hood and without:

110907 194616 35mm f2 2

I’ve also noticed on both this and the 50mm that Nikon has greatly increased the size of the lens mount marker on their new lenses and cameras. It will be interesting to see if they do this on new professional bodies, because while useful it also has just a bit of a Fisher-Price feel to it:

110907 194328 60mm f3

But the really important thing is “How does it perform?” Can it stand up to the 60mm, which is an amazingly sharp macro with great rendering? To properly test it, B&H also loaned me a great DX camera, the Nikon D7000. I don’t have enough use with that camera to review it properly, but I will say that its video functions run circles around my Nikon D3s‘s, and it was alarmingly fun to use.

DX cameras also have an inherent advantage in macro work. We generally call true macros anything that renders 1:1, which means that they can take a photo of an area the same size as their sensor. The larger the sensor, though, the less tiny that is. For maximum resolution of a tiny scene, it helps to have a small sensor crammed in with pixels. For most uses, the giant pixels on the D3s will give you less noise and greater dynamic range than the smaller ones on the D7000, but the D7000 is overall a much better macro camera.

110907 192946 40mm f16

Here we have the same rings photographed by the 40mm on the D7000 and the 60mm on the D3s, both at f/16. Which is which? The great news is that it’s really hard to tell — if I didn’t have the EXIF I wouldn’t be able to. (The 40mm is on the left).

But almost any lens is limited by diffraction at f/16, not the lens qualities themselves, so let’s look at the 40mm wide-open. The shot below, from the D7000, is a bigger magnification than is possible with the 60mm + D3s combo:

110907 193641 40mm f4

Depth-of-field is extremely shallow here, but a 100 percent crop will show how sharp this lens is wide-open — perhaps TOO sharp for a ring that’s seen better days:

110907 193641 40mm f4 crop

There’s a bit of a false haze that comes from the way I lit this subject, and is similar in both lenses, so let’s look at another, cuter subject. I figure a $280 DX lens is going to see a lot of cat pictures, so I beat you to it:

110907 165041 40mm f3

This close-up of the side of a soda bottle says a lot about the lens’s character, good and bad, because the highlight-filled edges curve out of the focal plane and the high contrast shows a bit of magenta and green making an appearance:

110908 150204 40mm f4

But if you want to pixel-peep boring photos? Because I didn’t use this much on professional shoots, just this one I’m happy to oblige. For the pixel peepers, I took shots of a cereal box at f/8 and wide-open. Clicking those links will download the full-res JPG. But it’s just a cereal box (and not even my favorite cereal), so I’ll give you spoilers: It’s sharp.

This shot shows more of the DoF and contrast rendering, as well as some classy gear:

110907 191750 40mm f3 3

And there’s a little surprise as well: That is a full-frame capture from my D3s. Yes, at close-up distances the vignetting goes away even on a full-frame camera, disappearing almost completely when you stop down. I wouldn’t recommend this lens for full-frame users, but it means you can be quite sure you aren’t going to see any vignetting at all with a stopped-down image on a DX frame.

Light, small, cheap, sharp, and well-behaved across the frame? If I were a DX shooter I’d snap this up immediately.


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Review: Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS

Specs and Purchasing Info: (Nikon) (Canon) (Sony) (Pentax) (Sigma)

090401 003510 150mm f16During the season, I shoot essentially constantly — I’m in the middle of a stretch of 21 days with shoots on 20 of them, sometimes more than one a day. This means it’s worth it to me to use absolutely the best equipment for my needs, whatever the price — and so it’s telling that my bag has Sigma lenses strewn in among the Nikkors. Gone are the days where third-party lenses are just cheaper, less sturdy versions of existing lenses. Now these makers, Sigma especially, have a knack for filling the sort of niches you might not have realized you needed. Only Sigma lets me shoot at 12mm on full frame. Want a lens that goes from 50-500mm? Sigma. A standard f/1.4 lens for APS-C cameras? Sigma. In my experience, they are less sturdy than professional Nikkors, and I’ve sent plenty to the repair shop, but it’s worth it to open up new ways of seeing.

The Sigma 150mm OS Macro is subtle in its uniqueness. There’s nothing unique about a true, 1:1 macro lens, and there’s nothing unique about an f/2.8 telephoto lens. But when you put them together? Impressive. Generally true macro lenses tend to be about one stop slower than equivalent non-macro lenses, such as Nikon’s 105mm f/2.8 macro versus their 105mm f/2 non-macro. But f/2.8 is a perfectly respectable aperture for a 150mm lens — any faster and you’re getting into super-expensive exotic lens territory. Throw in Optical Stabilization and you have a lens that, on paper at least, would be tempting even for photographers who never shoot macro, especially for photographers who occasionally want telephoto reach but don’t want the weight or expense of a 70-200mm VR.

Does it live up to its role? In all important ways yes, but given the strengths of the alternative choices, the full user report should be helpful in deciding what the right choice is for you.

Optical performance:

It is almost safe to assume that any true macro lens is going to be sharp. There are just a few notable exceptions, but these lenses are designed for resolution, and the Sigma 150mm is no exception. It doesn’t have the shocking almost-too-sharp-for-general-use quality of, say, the Sigma 70mm macro but wide-open it’s more than good enough for rock n’ roll, and stopped down just a few notches it easily out resolves my D3s sensor. I used this lens all for work, not safe shots of brick walls, so the image below was taken in a mahogany room at a quite-unsafe 4000 ISO, but it still gives you an idea of the crispness and color transmission of this lens.

110807 193301 150mm f3 3

Bokeh

If you are taking close-up pictures at 150mm and f/2.8, you’re going to have a lot more out-of-focus than in-focus, so the quality of those areas (“bokeh”) might matter quite a bit. What I’ve found in general is that the background bokeh is quite pleasing but the foreground areas can be somewhat busy, especially if there are multiple areas that overlap each other. All of my sample photos will have out-of-focus areas to look over, but here are specific examples:

Background bokeh:

110807 133736 150mm f5 6

Foreground and background, with lots of overlap (worst-case scenario)

110808 195525 150mm f3

Keep in mind that a photo can have choppy bokeh and still be aesthetically pleasing, which I think is the case in the second photo, but it’s handy to be aware of as you make compositions.

Overall usage:

This is a great lens to have in your bag. My biggest worry before I used it was that many macro lenses either don’t focus very quickly or have trouble locking focus, even with a focus-limiter switch, because of the huge focus range they have to be optimized for. Happily, though, the Sigma performs admirably. It has a focus-limiter switch that can limit the range to either just-macro or no-macro for general use, but I only had to use it in the worst lighting conditions. It even worked well when a care-free bride decided to start running straight at the camera:

110813 174604 150mm f2

Because of its specs, this lens seems to have two different specializations: Macro usage and general telephoto performance. For me, the macro usage was mixed in terms of its usefulness. The lens performs admirably, and a true 1:1 macro is very handy when I have to do tiny-detail work such as capturing the inscription on the inside of a ring. But the feel of using a macro lens can change dramatically with focal length. Longer macro lenses have a longer working distance, which is very handy when you’re photographing insects, who would be spooked if you were one inch away from them with a shorter lens, or when you’re using complicated lighting set-up and need to get out of the way of your own shadow. But I tend to photograph objects like rings, and there the shallower depth-of-field usually works against me. The ring in the picture below would seem slightly sharper if shot with a 60mm at the same aperture (f/5.6), because the plane of focus would run through the whole diamond. Generally, it’s a good idea to break out the tripod when doing long-macro work, which I often don’t have time for:

110724 092315 150mm f5 6
(You can see how insanely narrow the DoF is by looking at the line of texture beneath the ring)

For general use, this is a great option for people who want the reach of a 70-200 without the weight or cost. Given the focus breathing issue of Nikon’s 70-200, at closer distances the Sigma 150 has at least as much reach as the zoom at 200mm! The Sigma comes with two hoods — one for FX users and a narrower one for DX users, but both are a little bit intimidating, taking away a bit of the relative size advantage versus the 70-200:

110831 113447 85mm f2

The only other issue is that while it’s significantly lighter than the 70-200, it’s not a light lens. Sigma unfortunately was unable to add optical stabilization without significantly increasing the weight. The new 150mm is 1150g, or 75 percent as much weight as the 70-200 VRII. But the old, OS-free 150mm was only 895g, or 58 percent the weight of the 70-200! For people like me who try to travel as light as possible, it’s a bit of a shame.

Also, general users should note that all macro lenses transmit less light as they reach close-focusing distances, and modern macro lenses report this to the camera as a smaller f-stop. The Sigma 150 will often give a light-transmission-rating of f/3 instead of f/2.8 even at normal portrait distances.

Buying recommendations:

If you want a lens that can photograph little critters and also function as a general telephoto lens in all sorts of light, this is probably the lens for you. If you don’t care about the macro functions, then you are likely finding yourself choosing between this and a 70-200. This lens is much cheaper than the Nikon or Canon versions, but only $300 cheaper than the Sigma 70-200 OS, so it comes down to personal preference. Even though I love primes, I’ve found that in that range a zoom is really handy to have, because zooming with your feet at 150mm might mean walking back or forth 10 feet to get the right composition.

In some ways the heaviest competition for this lens would be the OS-free version, which might be a better companion to a 70-200 VR, as backup and for times when weight really matters, while this is the better 70-200 replacement. But it seems that Sigma is making the choice for you by discontinuing the old model. Luckily the new one is a great performer.

Sample photos:

110720 210746 150mm f3

110813 182610 150mm f2

110731 191359 150mm f2


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Review: 200mm f/2 VR II (director’s cut)

If you have $6000 lying around, purchase the lens here

My review of the exotic, awesome, Nikon 200mm f/2 VRII is up at B&H’s Web site! Thank you so much, guys, for letting me use this fantastic tool. (My next review will be of something much more affordable, I promise).

As someone who’s extensively used both of Nikon’s 70-200s and has experience with the older model 200mm f/2, I had a fair bit of perspective on this lens, so check out the review. But here I have a bit more room for big sample images, so consider this the “director’s cut” of sample photos:

110602 144246 200mm f2 30 images pano
30-image “Brenizer method” panorama

110602 153118 200mm f2

110607 195823 200mm f2

110607 195919 200mm f2

110619 193050 200mm f2
The Amazing Wendy…

110628 204439 200mm f2

110612 140621 200mm f2
Sneak peek at the next wedding on the blog…

RKB 8413 45 images pano
45-image Brenizer-method panorama.


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Review: LitePad HO+

Specs and Ordering Info:
Daylight Balanced
Tungsten Balanced

On its face, the LitePad HO+ looks as simple as a photographic device could possibly be. Essentially, it looks like a ceiling tile that lights up:

744889

And in practice, that’s what it is — and it’s brilliant. The team at B&H was giving me a tour of all of the changes they’ve been making to the store when I saw these hanging on a wall, and I said “What is that? Can I review THAT?” Simplicity intrigues me — maybe I’m simple-minded.

Actually, though, there are some really clever things going on under this one-centimeter-thick hood. You see, a light like the LitePanel MicroPro consists of a bunch of LED lights aimed directly forward. This is power-efficient, but so far designs that require so many LED lights are really expensive — the 1′-by-1′ variant is currently $1,795. What the LitePad does is have a row of LED lights around the edges aimed inward, and the design of the interior reflects that light outward. I’d expect the middle of the LitePad to be significantly darker than the edges, but the Rosco engineers seem to have figured that out well, and it provides a nice, even output. The LitePad still isn’t cheap at all, but a 1′ square model will run you less than a third of the LitePanel. So for just a bit more than the popular MicroPro, you can have a much larger light source, which makes for softer, generally more flattering light. Here is the MicroPro lying on the LitePad for comparison:

RKB 9021

However, there is a cost to the savings — power. Here’s what happens when you turn them on (the LitePanel model I used is tungsten-balanced):

RKB 9023

Given that LED lights are already much less powerful than even small strobes, this means effective usage will be limited to spaces with dim ambient light such as indoors or after sunset.

But, to my mind, sometimes dim lighting is exactly what I need, and the dimmer the better, which leads to the second annoyingly quirky thing about the LitePad — it doesn’t ship with a dimmer, and the seperately sold dimmer switch is more than $100.

Quirky, limited usage, simplistic — I immediately fell in love with it. In fact, I didn’t want to review it because I didn’t want other photographers to use it. My job is to work very quickly to make people look good, and broad light sources tend to do that much better. Furthermore, the design makes it incredibly portable — the 1′-square model easily slides in my camera bag’s laptop pocket, and given the extreme thinness I could fit in three more if I wanted. This is for the base model without a tripod mount, though — the mountable Rosco Axiom is necessarily thicker.

What are the effects of the larger light source in practice? My long-suffering girlfriend Wendy was willing to help show this off. Here she is lit at arm’s length by the LitePanel Micropro:

RK2 1748

And here she is lit by the LitePad from the same position (white balance adjusted):

RK2 1745

Really a huge difference, and much faster to just pull this out of a laptop pocket than to set up a continuous light into a softbox. I love it. I may come back to these as a sort of secret weapon, or even buy an expensive set for times when I want to turn it to 11 and really set up cinema-style lighting.

But the more I thought about, the more I want to look at some other alternatives first, because there are a few things that make this rough around the edges:

  • The parts are delicate. The LitePad itself is very sturdy given its thinness, but the connector wiggles somewhat worryingly, and the accessories are very fragile, especially the AA battery-holder.
  • I know that in video world these things are different, but to me as a photographer, “tungsten” means green-free orangey light, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2850K. With included gels, I can get the MicroPro down to a super-warm 2500K. The LitePanel, though, is very hard to gel, so you’re going to take what you can get — and in the tungsten model, that is a pretty greenish 3800K. In other words, to my mind, florescent, not tungsten. This is apparently a problem with a lot of current video lights, as I have seen videographer after videographer spilling unflattering puke-green lights onto my clients as they film.
  • It’s much cheaper than a 1′ LitePanel, but at $600+ with the dimmer it’s expensive enough that I want to have more confidence in the build quality, as I am VERY hard on my gear. I already had one AA battery-holder come apart in my hands (though at least those ARE inexpensive).

    So I’ve reached a paradox where I loved this so much I didn’t want to tell any of you, but I will be sending it back for the time being. There’s a lot happening on the continuous lighting front, and I want to make sure I know exactly what’s right for me. This could well be it, as it has the blessings of a soft light source that I can create VERY quickly, but some experimentation is in order.

    In the meantime, here are some samples with it from the field:

    110521 192726 35mm f1 6
    It’s a GREAT light for details.

    110528 090219 45mm f2 8

    Its flat, even light even makes it the perfect thing to shoot macro on TOP of for uplighting, using other lights for balance:
    110618 112824 60mm f5 6

    But really what it’s great at is a quick, flattering light for people:

    110528 102857 45mm f2 8

    110610 212521 85mm f1 8

    110521 141451 105mm f1 8
    (this last is a composite, with the light in the frame of the originals about a foot away from each. There it is strong enough for a bit of fill even in shade).

    It’s going to hurt me to give this one back, and I may buy another copy soon, but first I will experiment with the cost-benefit ratios of similar products.


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Fuji X100 review


In-camera “motion panorama” taken with the X100

Specs and Purchasing Info

101223 175042 126mm f25The Fuji X100 has been hotly anticipated for a very long time — in fact, long before it was announced, designed, or conceived. In the film days there were countless great little cameras that paired sharp, fast lenses with nice operation … the Konica Hexar, the Olympus Pen, and on and on and on… Until recently, though, this space was widely underserved by digital camera makers, whose small cameras were either saddled with tiny sensors, giving them high noise, poor dynamic range, and no depth-of-field control, or were just smaller versions of the big, professional DSLRs, which when paired with a good lens made them not truly small at all.

Most of the market was pretty well-served — just want to take snapshots? Buy a pocket camera or use your phone. Want a versatile tool that can create great images in any situation? Go for a professional DSLR with the right lenses and lighting. But a lot of people were left scratching their heads. Why can’t we have a small camera that’s truly great in low-light? How can we recreate the fun and quality of these old film cameras? And then there were a lot of people like me — I own literally the best possible photographic equipment for my purposes. I spend a staggering amount of my waking hours doing or thinking about photography. But my cameras and lenses are heavy, conspicuous, and cumbersome, so if I’m not on the job, I walk around without a camera at all. That’s just … wrong.

Recently camera makers have tried different forays into this space, whether it’s the micro-Four-Thirds cameras of Olympus and Panasonic, Sigma’s DP2, or Leica’s X1 I tried the X1 both before and after the recent firmware upgrade, and the new firmware makes it a nice, but overpriced camera that would be a nice option in a world where the X100 didn’t exist.

But now it does, and I’ve been shooting with it constantly for the past week. I was going to do an extensive comparison to the X1, but this is, as they say, a curb-stomp. The X100 has a lens that is twice as fast as the X1, it has better operations in most aspects (although the X1’s firmware upgrade does make it’s manual-focus more usable than the X100’s), and its vintage aesthetics are, in my opinion, much nicer. I’ve already had people come up to me and jokingly tell me they wanted to steal the X100 from me even though they had no idea what camera it was, and even when I was also carrying a Nikon D3s. All that and it’s cheaper than the X1 (although not cheap, itself). The comparison is done. You can tell Fuji was gunning for the X1 just by the name of the X100, and they succeeded. Unless you have some very specialized needs or are a red-dot fetishist, I can’t imagine someone buying an X1 at market rate now.

So let’s get to the camera itself. I had very high expectations for this camera. Did it live up to them?

You bet it did.

110507 135618 23mm f2 8

The first thing you will note about using the X100 is that it’s fun right from the start. The innovative hybrid viewfinder alone will make you want to run around and take pictures with your eye glued to it. You know a camera is fun when it wants to make you take photographs even if you know the composition is garbage, just because the act of taking a photo gives you enjoyment. That’s how we all start when we pick up our first camera, but we lose that joy somewhere along the way as we start drilling down to improve our portfolio or do “serious work” with our cameras. Well, for the first night I immediately started terrorizing my cats, loving that the near-total silence of the camera could let me get right in their faces without fazing them. (The X100 has a special “silent mode” that puts the camera in maximal ninja mode with no sound or flash, but you can turn the shutter sound off in normal modes, too.

But is it suitable for professional work? It can be. Compared to a Nikon D3s with a 35mm f/1.4 lens it has much less depth-of-field control and not as insane low-light performance, but the fact that I used it as part of my arsenal for engagement shoots and a wedding this weekend speaks volumes. I will never sacrifice the quality of my client work for a review, and even though I had the Leica X1 for two weddings I wasn’t comfortable enough with it for it to ever come out of my bag. But at this weekend’s wedding, I shot hundreds of photos with the X100, and would have taken more if it didn’t run out of batteries.

Clearly I like this camera. So let’s start with what I don’t like, given that it’s a shorter list.

The bad:

  • The price: Compared to the $9,000 you’d drop for a Leica M9 with a 35mm f/2 lens, this camera seems like a steal. But it was expensive to start out with and scarcity has made it even more expensive. But the only other camera in its class right now is $2,000. Competition of later models will hopefully bring the price down in years to come, now that makers have seen how much people are hungering for this sort of camera. And honestly, when compared to the competition, the price probably belongs in the “good” section, especially when it comes back down to where it should be. But now that makers see that this isn’t just a tiny niche market, it should eventually come down more.
  • Some of the function placement, particularly ISO. You can map ISO to your function button, but that robs you of a function button, and to turn auto-ISO on and off you have to go menu-diving into the third page of the setup menu. Some sort of Nikon-like “favorite menu items” list is sorely needed in a firmware update.
  • Macro is soft wide open The X100 has a great macro functionality, but it opens itself to sometimes massive veiling flare when shot at f/2. Here’s a macro shot at f/2 and f/4 to show the difference. I selected a slightly backfocused f/2 shot because it creates a worst-case scenario (so usually it’s not this bad, but it’s noticeable). At distance, f/2 is plenty sharp.

    f/2:
    110507 134552 23mm f2

    f/4:
    110507 134619 23mm f4

  • F/2 in general has some funny properties You get the feeling that they had to make some sacrifices to get a lens this small to open this wide. Auto-functions will maximize a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second when using f/2, which can limit your outdoor usage (they have a nice built-in ND filter feature for it, but again you have to menu-dive for it). But you can use shutter speeds of 1/4000th or higher just fine if you manually select them.
  • The long throw of manual focus makes it almost useless Want to set your manual-focus, especially in macro? You have to turn and turn and turn until whatever you wanted to take a photo of is long gone. The X1 had this issue, and it was nicely fixed by a firmware upgrade, so I’m hoping Fuji can do the same.
  • The lens cap. I already lost mine. Rolled into a sewer grate. Just bought an old Leica cap and hood that can be more easily attached.

This camera is a bit quirky, so there may be a lot of other things that make you bag your head at first or until you carefully go through the manual — which I’m not used to, since all DSLRs pretty much work the same way — but in less than a week I’ve figured out pretty much everything else except these things.

Now…

The Good

  • Aesthetics. Does it matter whether or not a camera is good-looking? Well, it doesn’t hurt. The entire nature of this sort of camera has a bit of a retro feel to it from the “f/8 and be there” days of photojournalism and street photography, and the form matches the function gorgeously.
  • The viewfinder. Brilliant, and perhaps the main advantage over similar-sized systems like the Sony NEX-5 or the downtrodden X1 again. I haven’t imagined anything Nikon could make me want to upgrade my D3s to a new camera for, but a professional version of this hybrid viewfinder might do it. Sometimes an electronic viewfinder has advantages, as it can show you *exactly* the photo you’re going to get, even if you’re exposing much above or below real-life lighting, or using shallow depth-of-field. If the EVF had “retina resolution,” that alone could tempt me to buy a D4. As it is, the X100’s EVF is pretty good, and I find myself using it more than the optical finder.
  • Unobtrustiveness. I’ve learned to be pretty unobtrusive even with a big camera clicking away. But having a little camera that makes virtually no noise at all brings it to an entirely different level. I would *never* get this close to a singer performing at a wedding ceremony with a shutter-snapping camera:

    110507 150757 23mm f2

    And it was great for little moments during wedding prep when people would get into the rhythm of not even knowing when I was or wasn’t taking a picture, and be themselves:

    110507 141220 23mm f2

    110507 105104 23mm f2 8

  • Responsiveness. No, unlike the D3s or professional DSLRs you can’t just mash the shutter away and know that a picture would be taken ever time, no matter what. If you’re shooting RAW+fine JPEG it will take a second or so to write to the card. But the shutter lag is small enough that you can definitely do photojournalism with this as long as you have a good sense of timing:

    110507 132748 23mm f2

    110507 112557 23mm f2

  • Image quality. This is the best low-light sensor I’ve used in any APS-C camera (though I haven’t used recent ones like the D7000 Pentax K-5, etc.) This makes it the best low-light sensor in any current Fuji camera. Though it doesn’t have the dynamic range tricks of the Fuji S5 Pro, dynamic range is good, and it has some built-in dynamic range options that push and pull the JPEGs to maximize it. (Warning — if you use these DR options and then process the RAW files in third-party programs, you will tend toward underexposure). It also has that great Fuji color. Fuji has always had great out-of-camera JPEGs, and I still extract the built-in JPEGS because sometimes they’re better than what I can get with processing. Here’s an image first as the in-camera JPEG and then as the RAW file processed with Aperture (which you can do if you convert it to a DNG). Clicking on either of these will download the full-resolution image. The RAW file is sharper, but the colors of the original are at least as good, with warmer shadows:

    Original:
    110507 101057 23mm f2A

    Processed RAW file:
    110507 101057 23mm f2

    The colors are vibrant, the pictures are sharp, and noise is low. Here’s an ISO 3200 image in tricky light:

    110509 203653 23mm f2

    100 percent crop:

    110509 203653 23mm f2 crop

The autofocus belongs in both categories, but mostly in “good.” It hunts a lot in macro mode, but that’s to be expected. In good or decent light it is zippy and accurate. In really low-light, though … that’s where the phase detection AF system of a good DSLR comes into its own.

Recommendation:
I kind of see the X100 as being like the iPad, a fantastic accessory to a main system. Most people who are just looking for their main camera will be better served by something cheaper or by something more versatile. But for people who love that street photography and 1960s photojournalism aesthetic or, like me, have funds, have big, heavy primary cameras and can’t stand the thought of walking around all day without a way to capture the world around you with more response and quality than your cell phone can, this is a great camera for you. You will probably never see me in public again without it*

*Which means I will probably lose it quickly, since I’m used to five pound cameras, but I like it enough that I’ll buy another one.

Some more pictures from the X100.

The small size and weight made getting the right angle in a tight cab a lot easier.
110506 141639 23mm f2

Out-of-camera JPEG:
110507 125501 23mm f2

110507 102454 23mm f2

Unobtrusiveness allowed me to shoot a couple in the Apple Store unmolested. As soon as I pulled out the D3s the clerks got uneasy:
110508 112146 23mm f2

110509 192756 23mm f2

110509 200728 23mm f4

Out-of-camera JPEG. Clicking will download full-res version.
110507 111118 23mm f2

110507 133941 23mm f2

110507 113612 23mm f2


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Review: Nikon 35mm f/1.4

Lens specs and pricing information

This review was very hard to be objective about. You see, I’ve been waiting impatiently for Nikon to release this lens for more than five years. At first glance, one would think that the increasingly light-sensitive sensors of DSLRs would kill off demand for fast primes, but the reverse has been true — and the reasons are simple. Having the option for limited depth-of-field and as much light sensitivity as possible is great, and now there’s not nearly so much guesswork about “was that shot actually in focus or not?” There are a lot more choices now than “f/8 and be there.”

100915-113906 mm_f.JPGI was clearly excited about this, since my non-photographer girlfriend asked me “What’s so special about this lens?”

Nothing, in a way. 35mm is a pretty unexciting focal length, on its face. Slightly wide, it doesn’t have the warped-corner look of an ultra-wide. It doesn’t have the instant eye-candy look of an exotic telephoto lens. It’s just a workhorse focal length, that strips everything down and focuses on content, and for general coverage, it is well-paired with moderate telephoto lenses like an 85mm f/1.4 or 70-200mm f/2.8.

Which made it so deeply strange that Nikon hadn’t made a professional lens in this focal length since 1981 (and that one wasn’t regarded as one of their best lenses.

There’s a lot of anticipation here to fill, especially since the new lens, at $1800, isn’t cheap, especially when you can get a full-frame 35mm f/2 for $360, or a DX 35mm f/1.8 for under $200. Can it live up to the hype?

Let me just get this out of the way: For most users, no. If you’re using an entry-level DX camera because that’s where your budget is, buy the 35mm f/1.8 for one-ninth the price. You’ll love it, and if you get into hefty full-frame gear later, you can always sell it for almost the same price.

For me? The lens is not 100 percent perfect, but I am thrilled. And here’s why.

BUILD: Not everyone likes the hard plastic build of modern Nikon professional lenses, but to me it creates an attractive, sturdy package. The lens hood is nice and stiff and easily reversible. And it’s big — almost as big as the 24mm and 85mm f/1.4 lenses in the same family. For lots of people, this will be kind of a shame because a 35mm is a great walk-around focal length, and this is really bulky for a lens to carry on you all day every day. For me, who mostly uses these on professional shoots with giant D3s cameras, it’s not quite big enough — I strongly prefer native 77mm filters on my lenses, instead of the 67mm ring this has. But that’s what step-up rings are for.

IMAGE QUALITY: Extremely good, but likely not an absolute resolution champ like the 100mm f/2 Makro. It really seems like this lens was optimized for wide-open performance, so the difference between wide-open and middle-apertures is not as great as with most lenses — f/1.4 is really sharp, and f/8 is just a bit more sharp, but you can find sharper lenses if you look hard. It’s great for me, because if I paid for an f/1.4 lens I want to use it near-wide-open unless I have a good reason not to, but there are easier choices for landscape and studio shooters.

Here’s a comparison at f/8 and f/1.4, which also shows the good close-focus this lens features:

101217-113219 35mm_f8.JPG

The bokeh is as good as I have come to expect from recent Nikon lenses. Nice transitions, good highlights:

101220-172107-35mm_f1.4.jpg

Example of good foreground bokeh, also a lack of flare despite multiple light sources:

101217-144316 35mm_f1.4.jpg

AUTOFOCUS: Users expecting the same lighting speed of the Canon 35mm f/1.4L will be disappointed at first — like the new Nikon 24mm and 85mm f/1.4s, this is not a speed champ, being just a bit faster than the 24. But it’s very accurate, even at wide apertures — noticeably more so in difficult focusing situations than the 24mm f/1.4 (which I also love, despite its trickiness). I could see right away that it was much easier to get in-focus f/1.4 shots on a dark dance floor with this than with the 24, though not quite as easy as the ludicrously fast-and-accurate 24-70mm f/2.8. I came to trust it pretty quickly.

NOTE: My copy needed serious AF micro-adjustment, about -15. This was not true of my 24G or 85G, but has been true of other lenses like the 135mm f/2. Be sure to test your lenses thoroughly. Micro-adjustment is the best feature invented for cameras since digital sensors.

101217-201944-35mm_f1.6.jpg

Even in the near-darkness of ISO 12,800 at f/1.4, it was able to lock on well:

101217-234938 35mm_f1.4.JPG

Speaking of ISO 12,800, this next one shows why we have f/1.4 lenses in the first place. The Church of San Frediano in Lucca, Tuscany is absolutely gorgeous, but to protect the art, much of it is too dark to make out with the naked eye. This part of the ceiling, captured at 1/15th, ISO 12,800, f/1.4, was almost black to my eye. I would have needed a tripod to capture it otherwise.

110102-163259 35mm_f1.4.jpg

Final verdict: This is going to be an extremely valuable part of my bag, and it was well worth the cost. Now that this is a new year, I will be restarting the Photo of the Day archive, and keep an eye out for lots of photos taken with the 35 there.

More Photos at f/1.4:

101218-170230 35mm_f1.4.JPG
101217-164449-35mm_f1.4.jpg
Great handling of backlight
101217-203337-35mm_f1.4.jpg
101217-234547-35mm_f1.4.jpg

Lastly, here’s one for full-res download, with all the bokeh you can handle. Click for full-size:

101225-113746-35mm_f1.4.jpg


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