D800 First Impressions – Part 1

I finally had a chance to shoot with my new D800 on Tuesday. (I decided to delay travel into the night so I could have some daylight.)  I was just glancing at some of the pics while on a call and found one that illustrates some characteristics of the D800.  I’ll post more next time about my general impressions of the camera, but this pic will answer a couple of important questions – at least for me.

This is a (female or juvenile) Black-Throated Green Warbler:

2012-04-03-14-44-12

The technical details are:

JPG – Fine – L, FX crop (36.2MP).  300mm/2.8 AF-S VR, TC-20E III (600mm), F11, 1/200, ISO 3200, Distance 7.25’
LE NR – Norm, Picture Control – Standard, Active D-Lighting – Auto, JPG Comp. – Optimal Quality
Processing in Aperture:  Mild sharpening, added Definition and Vibrancy, slight White Balance, Exposure +0.5

There are two important things to notice here.  First is the incredible detail possible with this body.  The Warbler was quite gregarious and often came closer to me than I could focus!  I had to keep moving away from her, and had to switch from DX (my default birding configuration) to FX to fit her in the frame.  (What a great option to have available vs. the D300!)  BTW, the DOF at that distance is about 0.2”, or less than a quarter of an inch.  Check out the area around the eye.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 9.31.01 PM

Screen grab of 100% view in Aperture.

Another note:  The 300/2.8 VR I w/TC-20E III would not be considered a super sharp combination.  After realizing how poor it is wide open (F/5.6), I’ve started shooting at F/11 to at least get acceptable sharpness.  Still it’s nothing close to the 500/4 (on my wish list) or the 600/4.  Bottom line, this is not the best you can get out of the D800!

Second, notice the noise.  This is an ISO 3200 shot, with exposure pushed another 1/2 stop in post!  There was no noise reduction except for what may have been done in camera.  (Not sure if there was any…)

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 9.31.28 PM

This is much cleaner than my D300 at 1600, and as good or better than my D700 at 3200!  Wow!  I may have found a replacement for both.  Unfortunately, that means I’ll likely end up buying another one so I can continue to have two bodies.

As I said, I’ll try to do another post ASAP to present other thoughts about the D800, including overall feel, battery life, frame rate, focusing speed, controls, and accessory costs.

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Q&A: Long Lens Recommendation

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

Q:  What’s your favorite long lens, the 300mm f/2.8?

A:  Long lens.  Hmmm.  That is SO dependent on application.  I trust Thom Hogan’s reviews a lot.  There’s also a good discussion here.

The 300/2.8 is top notch.  (I have two of them.  The AFS mk 1, and the AFS VR I.)  It’s the easiest to travel with on airplanes.  But I’ve finally had to admit that it doesn’t give the level of sharpness I want when I add a TC, especially the 2x.  And for what I need a tele for (birding), 600mm or more is often necessary.  Bottom line for me is that the 300 is too short.  Another good thing about it, though, is that it is very hand-holdable (if you have strong arms), especially the VR versions.  Available for $3-5K depending on the model.

Some like the 200-400/4.  It’s sharp until you get past 100 yds. or so.  When you’re shooting very dynamic subjects (like whales) it’s handy to be able to have a wider view to find your subject and then zoom in for the shot.  It’s often hard to initially frame your subject with a longer fixed lens.  And the 200-400 is very hand-holdable if you have the arms for it.  Can be found for $5K in great shape.

The 400/2.8 is probably the sharpest of them all, but is very hard to travel with on airplanes.  It’s too big to be hand-held.  Ever.  That means you can buy an older AFS mk I or mk II since you’ll likely never use VR.  They’re all incredibly sharp.  Decent with TCs, too, so it can be a decent 800/5.6.  Great for sports and wildlife.  Can be had for $5-7K for the older non-VR models.

The 500/4 is less difficult for travel, very sharp, and barely hand-holdable for short bursts.  Many view it as the practical sweet spot for wildlife.  I’m looking for a 500/4.  But that’ll run 6-8K for a current VRII, which is the model I want so I’ll have the best shot at hand-holdability.  I missed a mint VRII with all of the optional feet and camo covers a few months ago.  Just took me too long to decide to part with that much cash.

The 600/4 is the ultimate for wildlife.  Will always be on a pod, so the VR isn’t necessary.  With your new D4, the AF will work even with the 2x TC.  You can find decent AFS mk I or II for $5-8K.

Don’t overlook the 200/2.  You’d love that one with video, and folk say it makes a very decent 280/2.8 or 400/4 with the 1.4x or 2x.  And it’s cheap!  😉

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Q&A: Travel Tripod Recommendation

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

Q:  [I am] looking for travel tripod recommendations.  something i can toss in my suitcase or easily carry in an airplane.  i assume a 4-section leg is a must and would prefer CF, but that’s not a deal-breaker.

i plan on traveling relatively light.  probably just my d7k, 17-55, and 10-24.  my current tripod is a manfrotto and my head is a 322RC2.

that being said, would love to hear any recommendations (and traveling tips) you have.

A:  I have a Manfrotto 3001N aluminum that I used to carry.  (I think they renamed it since and may have discontinued it later.)  It fit into my 22″ roll-aboard diagonally w/o head and worked fine.  It was around $100 a few years ago.  I think it’s a three segment, and definitely wasn’t as tall as I wanted.

So a couple of years ago I added a CF Gitzo 2541 that is nearly exactly the same length folded up, but is more than tall enough for my needs when extended, even w/o center column.  (I’m 5’11”.)  Pricey but very light and rigid.  I have the large Markins ball head for it and it all works well and is pretty easy to travel with – always in my carry-on bag (domestic US).

It is definitely sturdy enough for a pro body and lens, but probably not for a 300/2.8 or above.

I have carried one or the other into six or eight countries and had just one instance where the tripod was a point of discussion with security.  When passing through Tokyo Narita’s transit security an agent removed the tripod from my carry-on and measured it, saying that it was nearly too long to be allowed to be carried onto a plane.  I’ve never heard of that before or since, even though I have gone through there a number of times since then without difficulty.

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Q&A: Nikon Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 AF

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

Q:  With new little baby running around, I wanted to snag a great low light (super fast) prime lens to grab some fun portraits etc..  Anyone have any feelings about the Nikon 85mm f/1.8D AF?

A:  I like the 85/1.8.  I don’t use it too much anymore since I have a couple of 2.8 zooms that cover the portrait range for day-to-day candids.  But whenever I know I am going to shoot some intentional portraits it is nearly always my go-to lens.  I used it on my DX cameras and loved it, and now use it on the D700 with the same great results.

Though the design is obviously pretty old, it is still tack sharp on the D700.  It’s nice and small, so it’s easy to carry and shoot.  And it’s cheap!  I got mine for $250 many years ago (used) and you can get a great example for $250-325 today.  The lens has a definite look to it, and I like the bokeh just fine, though I know that is very subjective.  Focus speed is typical for a non-AFS lens.  For portraits that’s completely adequate.  (BTW, you didn’t mention what body you have, but be aware that since it is not AFS, it will not AF with some of the newer low-end bodies that lack the focus screw like the D40 and D3x00.)

Yes, the new 85/1.4 is on my wish list, but not because I’m dissatisfied with the 85/1.8.  It’s just one of my character flaws…

I think the 85/1.8 is a very good lens, so I’d recommend it highly as a great value.  Unless you would be satisfied with a 50, I don’t think you’ll find another fast portrait lens for anywhere close to the price.  And the best part is that if you pick one up used you will nearly certainly get your money back out of it if you decide you don’t like it.

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Q&A: Third Party Macro Lenses?

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

Q:  Have you or anyone else used the Tamron 90mm f/2.8?  For $459 I’m wondering if it worth the price or if I should just stick with the known quality of Canon.  Have you compared the 100mm to the 100mm L for sharpness?

A:  I’m generally a snob about sticking with the Nikon (or Canon) lenses.  And even though the cost is sometimes double that of a 3P lens or more, there are two things that make the additional cost easier to swallow.  First, bodies come and go, but your lens investment will span decades.  I have a number of great Nikon lenses that I’ve had for 20+ years that work perfectly with my latest Nikon bodies (e.g., 300/4 AF, 180/2.8 AF, 85/1.8 AF).  Second, OEM lenses depreciate much less than 3P lenses do.  In fact, quite a few of my lenses are worth more now than I paid for them.  So a little depreciation spread over a lot of years makes for a very good overall cost proposal.

WRT 3P lenses, in nearly every case the 3P lenses produce visibly inferior images compared to their OEM counterparts.  And in most cases, the build quality and sealing is much poorer.  Finally, the resale value is much lower.

All that being said, the macro lenses, and specifically the 90-100mm range products are the one sweet spot for the 3P manufacturers.  Most of them are good, and the Tamron 90/2.8 specifically has always been an excellent lens throughout the many versions.  I’ve had two of them and at one point (back when I had time (= before kids)) I tested all of my lenses and the Tamron 90 was significantly sharper than every one of my excellent Nikon lenses.  (The Nikons did beat the Tamron for contrast, though.)

The Tamron build quality is decent, and it actually holds its value better than other 3P lenses.  One note of caution, though, is that the chips in the Tamrons sometimes are not compatible with new bodies (at least on the Nikon side), so you may not get the same life span out of them.  (That’s why I’ve had two of them instead of just one…)

And a final note on the original question, I haven’t used my 90mm Macro in probably two or three years.  First off, I don’t do that much closeup stuff.  And with many subjects you just have to get too close with a 90mm (even worse with a 50 or 60).  So when I noticed how well my 300/2.8 AFS with a 2x converter could do with small subjects from three or four feet away, I’ve been using that combo ever since.  I can take pictures of all sorts of cool bug stuff without disturbing the bugs or modifying their behavior in any way.

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Q&A: Super-wide Zooms

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

Q:  What do you guys think about [the 14-24/2.8]? I’m looking for a wide angle lens.

A:  It’s one of the sharpest ever.  Very very impressive.

It has a few things that might be called negatives, though:  It is big.  It is heavy.  It doesn’t take filters of any kind any way any how.  And it’s expensive.  And the zoom range is less than 2x.

I can’t remember if you have said you are going to move into an FX body sometime.  If not, then there’s little reason to go with the 14-24, because although it’s probably the sharpest lens you’ll see at every one of it’s focal lengths, the weight / size / expense penalty just doesn’t work out well for DX.

I have the 14-24/2.8 FX, 17-35/2.8 FX, and the 12-24/4 DX.

If I were going to just shoot DX, then I would definitely go with either the 10-24/4 Nikkor DX or find someone (like a friend / co-worker / [me]) who has the 12-24 and has moved to FX and no longer uses it and pick that up.  I understand the 12-24 is slightly sharper, but the additional range on the wide end with the 10-24 would be handy on DX.

If I were going to plan for FX, then I would look closely at the new 16-35/4 lens.  If it turns out to be a good super-sharp design (and the MTF chart makes it look like that will be true except at the very edges of the frame at the wide end) then that might be a good choice and would be pretty useful on DX and extremely useful on FX.

I am considering ditching both the 14-24 and 17-35 for that lens, but will have to wait and see what the reports are.

I love the sharpness of the 14-24, but the fact I can’t put a filter on it and its limited zoom range make it too heavy and big to carry around for the infrequent use it sees.

I got the 17-35 thinking it would solve both the filter and zoom range issues, but I’m just not in love with that lens (and am probably still mad that the great deal I thought I got on eBay was thwarted by the $400 repair the lens required).  And it squeaks.

The 16-35 has the range and takes filters.  It’s 33% lighter in weight than the 14-24, but longer than the 17-35.  I’m a little put off by the likely frame edge softness that will likely be there and am not thrilled with the slower f/4 speed, but truth be told, I doubt I’ve ever shot either the 14-24 or the 17-35 at f/2.8.

So the bottom line is I’ve not yet found the perfect super-wide zoom, but I doubt your hot buttons are the same as mine, so maybe all these random thoughts will help.

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HDR with an IR Converted D200

When I had my D200 converted to (deep) IR I nearly immediately noticed that the tonal range was significantly less than usual.  I was shooting RAW to make sure I captured all the data, but when I got it back to the computer it was totally unnecessary since the histogram showed the image was neither stressing the top nor the bottom of the possible 8-bit range, much less the 12 bits or so that the D200 could normally capture.

That didn’t make me real happy, but when I tried to tone map a single image in Photomatix, the limited data really became evident:

Single image tonemapped

Single image tonemapped

D200(IR), RAW, ISO 100, F8, 1/40

The banding in the clouds at the top is the proof of the narrow tonal range.  The range of IR is there, but just not captured in a single narrow tonal range image, as is evident when multiple bracketed images are used with similar tone mapping settings on an true HDR image:

Three stop bracket tonemapped

Three stop bracket tonemapped

D200(IR), ISO 100, F8, 1/40±1 stop, 3 frame HDR

No banding or any evidence of too narrow tonal range.

So, I’ve learned that with the D200(IR) I need to bracket at least three exposures to get an adequate tonal range for tone mapping.  Not sure why one exposure won’t capture a full range of data…

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Taking Photographs of LCD Monitors

Recently I needed to get some screen shots for a presentation. Normally I would just use the built-in screen grabber, but some of the images I needed were of startup screens during the boot process before the UI becomes available. So I figured I would just grab my camera and get on with it.

That was about the time I realized that it wasn’t quite as easy as I thought.

As far as absolute sharpness goes, my Tamron 90/2.8 Macro lens is as good as I have, so I put it on my D700 and set up for the shots. Here is what I got first at f/5.6, its sharpest aperture:

F5.6

D700, 90mm, ISO 200, F5.6, 1/50

Even after fiddling around with other lenses and different distances, I could not get around the interference pattern between the pixels on the screen and the sensor. So I started trying different things to reduce the sharpness.  First I opened the lens up:

F2.8

D700, 90mm, ISO 200, F2.8, 1/160

Plan B. Since the pattern appeared to be chromatic, I thought maybe getting rid of the color would solve the problem:

F5.6 BW

D700, 90mm, ISO 200, F5.6, 1/50

I was about to give up when I remembered two articles (here and here) I had read recently about the detrimental effects of using too small an aperture, and how that minimum aperture depended on the size of the photo sites on the sensor. It said that on a full frame sensor like the D700, the effect began to appear around f/16, but I tried the smallest aperture the lens offered, f/36.

F36

D700, 90mm, ISO 200, F36, 0.8s

Interference gone! But the image was very soft, and since I needed as much detail as possible for my presentation, I tried opening up to f/22 to regain some detail, but hopefully stay below the threshold.

F22

D700, 90mm, ISO 200, F22, 1/3

Better detail, but with noticeable moire. Next I tried f/32:

F32

D700, 90mm, ISO 200, F32, 0.6s

That gave the least detail loss without any visible interference. Finally!

So the solution was to leverage the reduction of sharpness due to diffraction. Not exactly what I expected when I began the project, but an adequate solution, nonetheless.

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Q&A: Which Body to Buy?

(This post is from an email conversation with a friend of mine who was buying his first DSLR. I thought the content might be useful for others.)

Q:  My question is whether I should rather go for the D40 and spend more $$ on lenses?

I am just not sure whether the D5000 would be a lot simpler for a novice like me.

A:  I didn’t realize that the price of the D90 had come down. It’s now at $810. So it should be in the running, too.

With respect to the D40, it’s a very good camera. The pros are that it is small, cheap, and light. It also offers 1/500 sec. flash sync, which is really useful for fill lighting in daylight. But it is a three year old camera. (I didn’t even know they were still selling new, as I was looking to pick one up six months ago and they weren’t available. There are two main down sides. Most importantly, the sensor uses older technology and will not be good in low light. Above 640 ISO or so, the pictures will be noticeably noisy, so you will need a flash indoors. And second, it will only work with AFS lenses, the lenses that have the AF motor built in. That’s OK for the 18-200 (and every lens that I regularly use), but there are lots of lenses out there (like most of the cheaper non-zoom fast lenses, e.g., all of the 50mm lenses except the new $460 AF-S version) that will not autofocus with it. So that’s a consideration.

Here are some pictures that I took with my D70, which is a 6MP camera that probably has the same or at least a similar sensor to the one in the D40:

Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple

Ta Prohm

Trenna and Ashlynne

Flower

Cambodian Girl

Green Heron Siblings

(If you get really bored sometime, here’s my photography site.)

The D5000 has the same AF-S requirement that the D40 has. But it is small and light, and uses a very good recent vintage sensor (12MP), so it will be good to at least 1600 ISO, probably negating the urgent need for a flash.

The reason I would consider the D90 is because it costs just a little more than the D5000, and it is a better camera than the D5000 in most respects. The only thing you lose is that it is bigger. But it also has a good recent sensor (12MP) and will work with all lenses.

I realize I haven’t made the decision any easier.

Overriding principles to keep in mind:  The lenses are more important than the body. The photographer is more important than the equipment.

Case in point:  We had an event a month ago up in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, where we had some photographers go out in the AM to shoot and then gave them hands-on with our pro photography application, Aperture, that afternoon. The best picture of the day was one taken by a guy using a D1H, which is an old 4MP made in 2001! It was an incredible shot, due not to the body or lens, but the photographer.

Any of the three bodies will take great pictures. If I had $1k to spend, there’s no question that I would buy a D40 and 18-200 used and know I could take great pictures in most settings. You’ll be replacing bodies from now on, but the lenses you buy now will stick with you for decades.

Hope somewhere in there is some helpful info.

Postscript:  He bought the D90 and a used 18-200. We’ll see how it turns out!

[Update, 6/30/15 – This post is moved from my old web site and thus all of the links are broken.  I’ll update them as soon as the rest of the site is finished.]

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Shoot RAW, Reduce Noise?

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Shoot RAW and you’ll have less noise.  OK, you and I both know that among RAW’s many benefits over JPEG, lower noise isn’t one of them.  Or is it?  Well, yes and no.

Technically, the level of noise you see in a JPEG can (should) be exactly the same as RAW, depending on the RAW conversion, not on JPEG’s inherent noise.  But look at the following pictures, noticing specifically the decreasing noise levels between them:  (These are screen shots pulled out of Aperture, thus the red highlighting in a few places.)

Two stop underexposed, adjusted in post

Two stop underexposed, adjusted in post

One stop underexposed, adjusted in post

One stop underexposed, adjusted in post

Correct exposure

Indicated exposure, adjusted in post

(Technical note:  All three shots are identical in camera except for exposure.  All three RAW files were adjusted identically except for exposure and recovery.  D300 @ ISO 400.  1/2500@f/5.6, 1/1250@f/5.6, 1/640@f/5.6)

Due to the Heron’s bright white feathers, the first shot is the greatest exposure I could get by with without blowing them out.  It’s actually a 2 stop underexposure compared to what the meter suggested.  Then in Aperture I gave it one stop boost and brought back the highlights with recovery.  In effect, this is the best I could have done with a JPEG.  (In fact the shadows are better due to the greater dynamic range maintained in the RAW file.  JPEG would not have had the same amount of data available.)  Note the very noticeable noise in the background.  Also, note in the pupils (and in many of the other background areas not visible in the crop) you can see a lot of dark areas that are pure black.

The second shot was given an additional stop in the camera.  This is the correct exposure for most of the scene, with the white feathers being the major exception.  So, in Aperture I left the exposure flat and just dialed in the same amount of recovery as the first one to regain detail in the white feathers.  That couldn’t have been done with a JPEG, as there would have been no data available to help out the feathers.  Note the much lower noise levels.  Also, all of the dark areas have detail in them.

Finally, the third shot was exposed as the camera meter suggested, giving a one stop overexposure to the scene.  In Aperture I pulled back the exposure by one full stop and matched the same recovery setting of the other two pictures.  As expected this gives a near exact exposure match for the other two.  The 14-bit RAW file from the D300 sensor has plenty of headroom to handle the highlights which are blown out by 1.75 stops, so I am able to bring them back to be basically the same as in the other two exposures.  The real benefit here, though, is the further reduction in noise.  It looks pretty good!

So does RAW have less noise than JPEG?  No.  But it does give you the headroom to overexpose by one, one and a half, maybe even 2 stops and then pull the exposure back in post, effectively reducing the noise levels and increasing the amount and quality of the detail in your shadow areas.

Had I thought of it at the time I would have also shot this at ISO 200 to determine if the overexposed shot (final shot above) had lower noise than I would have gotten simply by reducing the ISO.  The difference seems more dramatic than the nearly invisible difference between ISO 200 and 400, so I think this is better, but I’ll have to try it out to be sure.

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