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Q&A: Recommendation for a Full Frame Starter Kit

(This post is from an email conversation with a friend. I thought the content might be useful for others.)

Q:  I suppose I should begin to look seriously at a good digital setup and begin practicing.

What are your recommendations?  Nikon has new FX models to replace the DX models. Apparently the FX CMOS has larger surface area. What is your recommendation about a multi-purpose lens?

Any acutal user opinion would be appreciated.

A:  First of all, if I were starting to put together a kit today, I would seriously consider a mirrorless four-thirds camera.  They are easier to carry in both size and weight, and have good lens options.  What you lose is a bit of AF speed (but nothing like the point and shoots of a few years ago) and low-light performance (again, not as bad as you’d think).  Here is a site with the formats illustrated.  The main players are full frame (what we were used to shooting 35mm; Nikon calls theirs FX), APS-C (typical for early or consumer digital SLRs; Nikon calls theirs DX), and four-thirds (which is about half the full frame in both dimensions, or 1/4 the overall area).  The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 is a highly rated example.  I’ve never used a four-thirds camera, but based on what I’ve been reading I would definitely consider it if I didn’t already have such a large investment in Nikon DSLRs and lenses.

It’s really amazing how much bigger DSLRs are than the SLRs we used with film.  And you’ll feel it even more since Pentax’s SLRs were some of the smallest.

Because of the strong capabilities of the four-thirds cameras, I wouldn’t mess with DX (APS-C) cameras.  To me, they are the worst of both worlds:  the size and weight of the full-frame DSLRs with the poorer low-light capabilities of the four-thirds cameras.  (The Nikon D7200 is a good one if you want to consider one though.)

If I decided I was going with a full-frame DSLR, I would choose one of two Nikon FX bodies – either the D750 (24MP) or the D810 (36MP).  The D750 is smaller and very quick.  The D810 is an incredible camera – decently quick (5FPS), but the highest quality images you can imagine.  I wouldn’t consider the D610 or Df.  They are all pricey.  The DPReview site has a good table comparing the D610, D750, and D810.

Another thing to consider is how large the files are that these bodies produce.  My D810’s RAW images are close to 50MB each, and nearly 250MB when converted to TIFF or PSD files for editing in Photoshop or other destructive apps.  They’ll eat up your CF/SD cards and disk space, and really tax your computer’s CPU and GPU.  On the other hand, you can make 4’x6′ prints from the D810.  Everything is a tradeoff.  Unless I need RAW files, I often shoot in low res JPG formats for 9MP, which is often still much more than enough.

Finally – on the bodies – I LOVE having a battery grip on the bottom of whatever camera I’m using.  Feels better (though bigger and heavier) and gives me another set of controls for shooting vertical.  And on the D810, it can bump you up to 7fps.

For lenses, the choices are endless, and I have most of them.  🙂  There are three main sets of lenses that’ll get you from very wide to at least 200mm.  I’ll not list the option of just using primes, but here are the other two:

Lowest cost, weight, and size:

Nikkor 28-300 FX
Nikkor 20/2.8

Those are the two lenses I carried up into the Himalayas.  28mm is not wide enough for many settings, so carrying the relatively tiny 20mm gets the wide end taken care of.

Considerations:  The zoom’s maximum aperture is usually f/5.6, so you’ll be a little hard-pressed to blow the background out of focus.  The zoom is sharp enough at f/8-f/11 to be perfectly fine on my D810, which is actually pretty amazing considering the 11x range.  It’s great to be able to go to 300mm, and not to have to switch lenses as much – especially in dusty (typical) locations.

Here are a few shots with that zoom:

Street vendor - Namche Bazaar, Nepal

Street vendor – Namche Bazaar, Nepal

Himalayan peak

Himalayan peak

Waiting to die - Kathmandu, Nepal

Waiting to die – Kathmandu, Nepal

Greatest versatility, and higher quality:

Nikkor 16-35/4 FX (optional – for wider reach)
Nikkor 24-70/2.8 FX
Nikkor 70-200/2.8 FX Mk. II

This is the kit I carry most often.  They’re very sharp, fast, and durable.  Often, 24mm is enough, so you might go without the 16-35.  Not sure what kind of mission activities you’ll be doing, but looking over my trips, 95% percent of my shots were (or could have been) shot just with the 24-70.

Considerations:  Really the only downside of this kit is the cost and size / weight.

Here are a few shots with them:

16-35:

Young Kenyan girls - Marigat, Kenya

Young Kenyan girls – Marigat, Kenya

London, UK

London, UK

24-70:
Young Kenyan siblings - Marigat, Kenya

Young Kenyan siblings – Marigat, Kenya

70-200:
Young lion cub - Maasai Mara, Kenya

Young lion cub – Maasai Mara, Kenya

I wish we lived closer.  I have all of this gear plus the full set of primes and would love for you to be able to try it out and see what you like.  I think I will be driving to [your state] in either two or three weeks and could bring stuff for you to get your hands on.  BTW, I have a D700 (12MP) body (discontinued, but a fantastic camera) I don’t use.

Anyway, if you want to move quickly to get a DSLR, I’d get a D750 with either the 28-300+20/2.8, or the 24-70/2.8.  And if you don’t have a preferred camera dealer, I’d strongly endorse Brad Berger at Berger Camera up in NY.  They typically meet B&H/Adorama pricing, but with much more personalized service.  He’s gone way out of his way for me many times.

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Q&A: A Fail-proof Data Backup Plan

(This post is from an email conversation with a friend. I thought the content might be useful for others.)

Q:  I want to back up my mac and presently have the time machine doing it. I think I remembered you telling me I needed another backup in place as well. Any recommendations on what and how to do that?

A:  I will suggest a perfect world solution, and a second one that has only one flaw.  All of this is based on the statement I made to you:  “If data doesn’t exist in at least three different places, it doesn’t exist.”  Optimally, three places means three different places on the planet, with at least one place far enough from the others that there is no reasonable possibility that a natural or man-made disaster could destroy all three.

(Yes, there are cloud-based backup solutions (which implicitly address the remote backup requirements) that cost less up front and require less management, but the big problem with them all is they require either a very fast upstream internet connection (most internet connections are asymmetric, being much faster downloads than uploads) or take practically forever to do the first full backup.  And they have either a monthly or yearly subscription.  If your internet connection has a fast upstream connection (10Mbs or better) and no data cap (highly unlikely) then we can talk about solutions like CrashPlan.)

Here’s the optimal plan:
  • Requires three external hard drives that are all more than twice the capacity of your computer.  (More capacity is better.)
  • One drive (probably your current one) is always connected when you are at your desk and is used for ongoing Time Machine backups.
  • Two drives that are rotated between a secured (and preferably fire-proof) storage container at your office location and an offsite storage location like a safety deposit box or something where no local disasters (flood, fire, tornado, earthquake, civil unrest) could destroy both your office and the offsite location.
  • For the full backups, you don’t use Time Machine; instead:
    • Connect the backup drive and create a folder at the top level that will contain the backup.  I usually call it something like “141016 JB’s MBPr Full b/u” so I can easily tell when (10/16/14) and what (my MacBook Pro retina).
    • Close all your applications.
    • Find your computer’s hard drive (usually called “Macintosh HD”) and then drag that inside the folder you created above.  You may have to enter your administrator username and password.
    • If that fails (due to permissions), you can just click on the Users folder and drag your user home directory to the folder you created.  It will likely be something like johndoe.  If you do that, you will get all of your data, but will not get your applications and system-level preferences.  That’s mostly OK, since you can likely reinstall the applications from the App store or the original media.
    • I like to do this process at bed time, after I am sure it’s working; it can take a few hours.
  • Once you make your first full backup, take it to your remote site.
  • You make and rotate your two full backups at a frequency where you could live over the loss of all of your activity since the last remote backup was made.  Usually a quarterly rotation is adequate.
  • When it’s time to do a new backup rotation, you backup to a new folder on the rotation drive you have at your office (delete the oldest folder on the drive if you don’t have enough free space) and then take it to the offsite location, swap it with the older rotation drive, and bring the older one back to the office.  You can do a full backup onto that drive when you get it back to the office if you want.
  • Never NEVER bring the offsite drive to the office and do the swap there.  That compromises the value of always having a remote backup.

Example screen shot:

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 2.04.52 PM

Here’s the mostly optimal plan:  (I’ve highlighted the differences in red.)
  • Requires two external hard drives that are all more than twice the capacity of your computer.  (More capacity is better.)
  • One drive (probably your current one) is always connected when you are at your desk and is used for ongoing Time Machine backups.
  • The other drive is stored at an offsite storage location like a safety deposit box or something where no local disasters (flood, fire, tornado, earthquake, civil unrest) could destroy both your office and the offsite location.
  • For the full backups, you don’t use Time Machine; instead:
    • Connect the backup drive and create a folder at the top level that will contain the backup.  I usually call it something like “141016 JB’s MBPr Full b/u” so I can easily tell when (10/16/14) and what (my MacBook Pro retina).
    • Close all your applications.
    • Find your computer’s hard drive (usually called “Macintosh HD”) and then drag that inside the folder you created above.  You may have to enter your administrator username and password.
    • If that fails (due to permissions), you can just click on the Users folder and drag your user home directory to the folder you created.  It will likely be something like johndoe.  If you do that, you will get all of your data, but will not get your applications and system-level preferences.  That’s mostly OK, since you can likely reinstall the applications from the App store or the original media.
    • I like to do this process at bed time, after I am sure it’s working; it can take a few hours.
  • Once you make your first full backup, take it to your remote site.
  • You make a backup at a frequency where you could live over the loss of all of your activity since the last remote backup was made.  Usually a quarterly rotation is adequate.
  • When it’s time to do a new backup, you retrieve your backup drive from the remote location and backup to a new folder on the drive (delete the oldest folder on the drive if you don’t have enough free space) and then take it back to the offsite location.
  • Note that while you have your backup drive at your office, your data is at risk.

One more important note:  In either case, you should keep your Time Machine backup going on the first, always-connected drive, and also keep the older backup folders on the full backup drive(s) until you have to delete them (thus the suggestion of more capacity than just 2x the Mac’s HD size).  The reason is that one important aspect of backup plans is how they protect you (or don’t) against corrupted / accidentally modified files.  You always want to keep old versions of files around since a multiply-redundant fail-safe backup of a corrupted file is still worthless.

Posted in Conversation Tagged , |

Q&A: Thoughts about Bodies and Lenses

(This post is from an email conversation with a coworker. I thought the content might be useful for others.)

Q:  Since I have not been shooting anything for months,  a buddy of mine who still shoots sports has offered to trade D800 (used to be mine) and Nikon 105 2.8 and $3,000 for my D3, 24-70, and 70-200 VR II.  Value seems close but these lenses of mine are like new.  I probably would use D800 more, but wanted to get your thoughts if you have time.

A:  Not sure about the dollars – that’s your deal – but I think the D800 is a more flexible camera for someone not needing scary FPS.  You’ve had / used a D800, so you’ll know how it fits your shooting style.  Honestly most of what I shoot these days is with my D700, which is the same sensor as the D3.  I have gotten along very well, though, with the “enthusiast” bodies versus the pro bodies because I’ve never needed more than the 6 or 7 FPS they can give me (D700 / D300) and I can pull the battery pack off and have a more reasonable size / weight.

I do love the fact that I can I can easily switch the D800 to DX mode and have a 15+MP 1.5x crop factor body for birding, and still be able to see the view around the cropped frame in the viewfinder.  Sometimes I wish it were more than 4FPS, though, when shooting birds.

The video capabilities are good on the D800, though I have only shot maybe two clips since I’ve had it, and only then so I wouldn’t feel bad about never using a major feature.

I only have two issues with the D800.  One is the 4FPS I mentioned earlier.  The other is that for 95% of what I shoot these days, 36MP is way too much.  I’ve tried shooting it at the lowest JPG setting, but at that point I might as well use the D700, since it’s faster and a little better in low light noise-wise.  That’s why I usually end up shooting the D700 for most family stuff.  I constantly fight with the amount of space all of my pictures take, and also how slow Aperture is when messing with 36MP RAW = 42MB files, especially when I might do a 3 or 5 frame exposure bracket for HDR and then may use a plug-in or Photoshop, which will end up taking up around 220MB per frame as a TIFF file.  A single shot can end up 1.5GB.  That’s completely out of hand.

If I had time to actually shoot fun stuff like landscapes / travel / etc., then I would use the D800 every time regardless of the file size. It’s just too awesome to have that kind of file size / quality / flexibility.  But most of what I shoot these days is perfectly fine in a 12MP JPG.  You may be in the same situation.

My bigger thought about your decision would be about the lenses.  Since lenses are much more enduring than bodies, and more important for the overall image, I’d pay much more attention there.  If I were to list the most important really good lenses someone should have for Nikon full frame, the 24-70/2.8 and 70-200/2.8 II would definitely be on the list.  If I already had those, then I wouldn’t get rid of them.  And unless you’re a macro shooter or shoot stills or portraits of people with very good skin, the 105/2.8 isn’t that useful a lens, regardless of how good a lens it is.

If I were me, I would hang onto the 24-70/2.8 and 70-200/2.8 II, regardless of what I did with other lenses and the bodies.

Currently my list of best mainstream lenses for the ultimate kit is:  14-24/2.8, 24-70/2.8, 70-200/2.8 II.  I add the 16-35/4 since you can use filters with it.  If you’re into primes, then you add the 24/1.4, 35/1.4, 50/1.4, and 85/1.4 AFS lenses.  And I add the 300/2.8VR with the TC-14EII and TC-20EIII for birding.  The only question is for the 35/1.4, since the Sigma lens (amazingly) is purported to be even better.

So, I have worked toward getting all of those lenses, and once I’ve added them to the kit, I’ll keep them.  Regardless of the body I have at the time.

I know this is far more than you were looking for, but it was a chance to jot down my thoughts about body and lens choices.

Let me know what you decide to do!

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Q&A: Best Places to Buy Camera Gear

(This post is from an email conversation with a coworker. I thought the content might be useful for others.)

Q:  [Where is the best place to buy?]

A:  I’ve stopped buying from B&H because they are just too difficult to do business with.  My main gripe among others is that they won’t ship to my primary shipping address because it’s a UPS store.  (Apparently there is some potential fraud scheme with shipping there, though after many successful multi $K transactions you’d think they’d flip a switch and trust you.)  And since they require a signature, I very frequently miss deliveries because there would be no one at the house.  (That’s why I have an address at the UPS store.  Sigh.)

For the last few years my main go-to store has become Berger Brothers in NY.  Brad is the president and I have purchased a lot of stuff from him in the last few years.  Because he’s not a B&H or Adorama, he often has the stuff in stock that everyone on the planet is trying to purchase from the other two.  A number of times I have received hard to get stuff weeks earlier from him than I could have from the two other stores (e.g., TC-20e III, and D800).  And he often matches, but always at least comes very close to the pricing from B&H.  More than once he has personally taken my order down to the USPS or UPS to get it out same day if I called him after their normal pick-up time.  I won’t get a dime, but here’s the number:  1-631-264-4160.  I trust them and like them.

I like Adorama, as well, though they may have the same frustrating rules as B&H about shipping locations.  I haven’t really ever bought big ticket items from them.

Posted in Conversation Tagged |