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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:

Buy it here!


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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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