Sunday, 31 August 2014

Airshow Aftermath

One Bee
Nikon D200, Nikkor 135/3.5 AI

I shot the Canadian International Airshow yesterday, with the D200, an old Nikkor 300/4.5 AI'd and a cheapo 70-300G non-VR. The conditions and particulars of the show were against me this year, haze was a constant issue and they pushed the performers to use the west end as entry and exit if possible rather than the east so they could limit the need to schedule around activity at the Toronto Island Airport. Unfortunately the CIAS is a difficult show to shoot, because the best view is north of the flightline and you end up with a lot of backlit aircraft, the only venue south of the flightline is Gibraltar Point on Toronto Island, which is normally pretty good, but a bit far from the centre of the flightline. If there's any haze or too much clouds it becomes an exercise in which issue causes more trouble. I think next year I may shoot from the lakeshore instead of Gibraltar Point.

Total count for the day was 1553 frames, about average for me at an airshow and 50% more than last year. As expected, both lenses delivered an adequate but not exceptional performance and showed less weakness on the low-MP D200 than they would on a newer and higher-MP body. AF on the 70-300G was actually pretty good aside from a couple cases where it lost lock and racked through the range. Overall focus hit rate was around 90%, pretty good when most shots were with the manual focus 300. Initial selects from the shoot left me with 50 images, which I'll trim down to 25 or so for final posting. A couple will end up on Flickr and the rest on Facebook.

The D200 continues to work well for me. I've now got more frames on it than on anything else I've shot this year, combined. I'm at 4155 frames for the year, 2399 of which were on the D200, which means that I've got 846 frames on the  D200 not counting the airshow, that's more than the X-A1 (805 frames in 4 months) and significantly more than the ~500 frames each on the X-E1, D7100 and D600. And yes, the math doesn't add up as the D600's framecount is split between 2013 and 2014 and the D7100's is all 2013, I'm comparing frame counts per body seperately from the year's totals.

The X-E1's been sold. It was pretty clear when I hit 500 frames on the D200 that I'd made a good decision in buying that cheap body, so the X-E1 and both lenses went and in return I picked up a Sigma 10-20 f4-5.6, a 35/1.8G DX and a 50/1.2 AI-S and a week later a 70-300G non-VR with the remainder of the Fuji proceeds. This pretty much duplicates my old setup with the D300, just with a couple slightly different primes, the 35DX replaces the CV 40/2 Ultron and the 50/1.2 replaces the CV 58/1.4 Nokton. I'm planning on sticking with this basic setup through the end of winter, and next spring I'll look at upgrading from the 16-85 and 70-300 to some more modern and better performing glass.

The downside to all this? I've got a ton of processing backlog now. I'd actually cleared out almost my entire backlog (1 set from July remained) but now I need to deal with a couple thousand shots from August. Naturally I won't be processing all of those, but they do need a pair of selection passes and then I need to process the final selections, and I need to fine-tune my processing for the D200 as the settings I was using for modern cameras will not work as well for the D200 with its stronger AA filter, more limited DR and noise at mid-ISO's.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Easiest Upgrade

Galley Food Market
Nikon D200, 16-85 VR

If you're shooting an older camera, chances are you're still using RAW conversion software from the same era. Unless it's something unusual this is not an ideal situation.

If you are in this situation, the easiest and probably the cheapest upgrade you can do to improve Image Quality is to update to a current RAW conversion package. Software has come a long way over the last 10-15 years and it shows, in speed, quality and features.

The image above is a good example. The current version of Lightroom (5) gives me IQ from the D200 which approaches what I was getting from the D300 back in 2008, and it's all in the greatly improved RAW conversion algorithms, especially in terms of Noise Control and Noise Reduction. Simply put, there's less noise in the initial RAW conversion and you can get rid of it easier and with less impact on the detail present in the image. Colour is also improved, LR and ACR have long struggled with colour from cameras that aren't Canon's, but things are a lot better than they used to be.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Mojo Rising

The Ace
Nikon D200, Nikkor 16-85mm f3.5-5.6G VR DX

I've been struggling in artistic terms for a few years now. Frankly, my will to shoot's been increasingly erratic, and the last year or two have been the worst. I normally shoot a little over 10k frames a year. Last year was under 6K, up until last week I'd shot about 1700 frames for the year.

The odd thing here is I'm not terribly unhappy with the work that resulted. Most of it has been up to my standards and some, especially from last fall, was among the best work I've shot. But I've been struggling to get out and shoot, and that's been something which has driven a lot of my gear shuffling.

In considering this, I've come to the realization that this issue dates back more than a couple years, and it had simply been masked by the amount of event work I shot from 2009-2013 while I was in school. The last year I really shot a lot of my own work was 2008, although 2012 was an OK year for my work as well.

The flip side of this? I've shot 400 frames since Saturday. Frankly, I've really got my mojo on. And 360 frames of that has been with the D200. Now some of this might be new toy syndrome, except for the fact that the D200 is the sixth camera I've bought in the last year, and only one of the other 5 saw more than 600 frames (the X-A1, with 800 frames in 3 months).

So what am I going to do about this? Keep shooting the D200 as long as it tickles my fancy. If I keep shooting like this I'm going to put something close to my 2008 kit together. That kit was a D300 and a D40 with a 10-20, 16-85VR and a selection of primes, plus an FM2n for film. Well I've got the D200, that self-same 16-85 (on loan) and an FM for film. we'll see how the rest works out.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

It Just Feels Right

Leaving On A Jet Plane
Nikon D300, Nikkor 16-85 VR

There are some cameras that just feel right in the hand. Sometimes you pick up a camera and know right away that it'll work for you.

I've owned 3 digital cameras that I could say this about, and for the most part it was accurate. Those cameras were the D300, A700 and NEX-7. Ironically the A700 was the first of those I tried, but I would not own one until several years later as I chose to buy the D300 instead due to my then-copious collection of Nikon lenses.

I've regretted selling all three to some degree, once again the A700 stands out as I regretted selling it the least, of course that would be because I was shooting with the NEX-7 at the time. Selling the D300 was a serious mistake, I had a great setup and selling it really started me off on chasing the dragon, I wouldn't end up with a really comparable setup until I put together my A700 kit. The NEX-7 on the other hand I regret selling as it was a great walkabout kit, but it really didn't cover the entirety of my needs.

There's been a couple other cameras that I didn't get that initial bond with but nonetheless quickly bonded to. The D7100 was one and the Pentax K10D another. I don't regret selling the K10D, as good as it was, switching to the D300 was a major gain for me. The D7100 on the other hand I should have kept rather than swapping it for the D600. I strongly suspect I would be shooting it today if I'd kept it then (Frankly, if I'd been smart and kept the D300, I suspect I would have kept it until the D7100 came out and then moved to the D7100).

I'm honestly having a similar reaction to the D200. Unsurprisingly in a lot of ways it's just like having the D300 back in my bag, just without the good high ISO and ridiculous AF performance. I've actually done a fair bit of shooting with it already, having done a couple separate walks over the last day and having shot around 250 frames (in comparison, the X-E1's at around 550 frames since it was acquired in May). This does point out that in some ways I like the idea of mirrorless more than the actuality. I'd probably be willing to swap my X-E1 for a D3300 if there was a solid AF replacement for the 18/2, the 35/1.8DX can easily replace the 35/1.4, the Fuji's a better lens but the Nikkor is no slouch and I quite liked it during the brief period I had it on the D7100 and once again, system performance due to the better sensor can outweigh a better lens on a lesser sensor.

This points out a MAJOR weakness of Nikon's (and also of Canon). APS-C lenses for enthusiast shooters. Nikon's come out with an overabundance of consumer zooms for APS-C, but for the enthusiast shooter you have the choice of elderly, overpriced and underperforming 'Pro' lenses, ie the 12-24/4 and 17-55/2.8, both of which are not up to the demands of the 16MP sensors, let alone the 24MP AA-less sensors that are used on all current Nikon APS-C bodies, or a pair of wider-range variable-aperture zooms (10-24, 16-85VR) that are reasonably good, but outperformed by the 3rd party lenses and slow. On the prime front it's even worse, there's the ancient 10.5 DX Fisheye, a lens so old it's screwdriver AF (the only DX lens so equipped), the 35/1.8DX, the 40DX Macro and the 85 DX Macro. Of those, only the 35 and maybe the 85 appeal to the serious enthusiast. Sure there's some FX lenses that appeal, especially on the longer side of normal, but there's a bunch of bread & butter lenses that desperately need to exist (or updating). At a minimum Nikon needs the following:

10-xx f4 or f2.8 wide zoom, weather sealed. Replace the ancient 12-24. VR would be nice
16-50/2.8 VR. Replace the old and underwhelming 17-55 with something that can hang with the competition. VR a must, flare control (the bugaboo of the 17-55) a must.
16-85/4VRII. There's a patent, release the lens. This is a go-to lens for folks looking for a landscape or walkabout zoom.

And on the prime side:

16/2 or 2.8DX: A standard wide prime. Must-have in a system.
24/1.8DX: Fastish 35 equivalent. Another must-have, even bigger miss than the 16.

Frankly, it seems Nikon has completely abandoned high-end DX, aside from iterating the D7x00 series bodies. With current DSLR sales in the tank and Mirrorless eating the D3x00 and D5x00 market I'm wondering why Nikon hasn't addressed the core of the enthusiast market. If they announced two of the lenses I list above and the long-needed D300s successor I'd think Nikon would see a very noticeable uptick in sales. Sales are dropping in a large part because people don't need to upgrade, especially with the mid-range bodies where we've seen two essentially unchanged generations. But Nikon is sitting on two major untapped markets in terms of upgrades, that being the D300(s) shooters, who want both DX and real high-speed performance in a bulletproof body with pro-grade controls and the D700 shooters, who want a performance equivalent to the D810 (ie speed instead of resolution). Nikon seems to want to drive D300 shooters in particular up to FX, but offers them no body meeting the needs of a D300 shooter below the D4s, and there remains compelling reasons to shoot DX for performance (pixels on subject without overloading the processing chain) and as great as the D7100 is, it lacks the build, controls and buffer to truly replace a D300(s) for the shooter who actually needs what that body could do.

Coming back to lenses, I'd also love to see a prime in the 10-12mm range and a 18-19mm, both DX (actually, a new 20/2.8G if priced reasonably could cover the second one). A price-drop for the overpriced but interesting 58/1.4 (a very nice length for DX portraiture) would be nice. It's a good lens, but it costs significantly more than the optically superior Sigma 50/1.4 Art or the Zeiss ZA FE 55/1.8.

Frankly, the 24/1.8 could be welded onto a D3300 for me as a replacement for my mirrorless kit. I do love my Fuji lenses, but the X-E1 is merely adequate and I'm ambivalent right now about investing further in that kit. I'm just going to keep using it for walkabout & light carry for now and see what Fuji has in store in terms of next-generation bodies.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Two Unloved Gems

Breaking Up
Nikon D300, Sigma EX 10-20 f4-5.6 HSM

Over the last couple days I've had a chance to pick up a pair of relatively unloved Nikon bodies for next to nothing. Yesterday's score was a Nikon F80 for all of $10, today's was a D200 for $100. Both of these bodies are well worth owning, but are often maligned for certain design faults.

The F80, introduced in 2000 as Nikon's high-end consumer body, under the F100 and the lingering F90x in the line. It's a very compact body (slightly larger than a D5300), offers a proper pentaprism finder, dual control wheels and full VR and AF-S support. If you are a Nikon shooter and use AF or CPU-Equipped MF lenses (including Zeiss ZF, Voigtlander SLII and Samyang AE lenses), this is your cheapest and best entry into shooting film. It's weakness is simple, no support for metering with Non-CPU lenses, and being the first body at this level to lack that feature as it's predecessor, the F70, supported AI metering. This would be a long-standing beef at this level of body, the F80's successors (D100, D70, D70s, D80, D90) would all lack it until the feature was re-introduced with the D7000 a few years ago. It's also got somewhat pedestrian AF (the same basic 5-point AF that was unloved on so many Nikon DSLR's), a really limited framerate (2.5fps). Upsides include a solid 1/4000 max shutter and 1/125 flash sync. Recall this is a film camera, so you can get shots with those limits that would require a 1/8000 max shutter or 1/250 sync on Digital, thanks to the forgotten ISO range, ISO 50 film is a wonder, and pulling it to ISO 25 nets you even more. Batteries are the expensive CR123's, which do last a while, but you can add an MB-16 for AA support, but sadly no vertical release. Since this is one of only 4 fully-featured film bodies which support modern VR lenses (the F5, F6 and F100 are the others, the F65 and F75 also support VR, but not necessarily AF-S and are crippled in other ways) it's probably your best starter option if you have a nice selection of modern AF-S and VR lenses. Do note that because of the small size, big AF-S lenses will be a little unwieldy on it, I tried out a 16-35VR and found it slightly awkward in terms of handling.

The D200 was a smash hit for Nikon when it arrived, but it would be quickly eclipsed by its successor, the D300, and then quickly forgotten outside of a legion of users who were satisfied and didn't need to upgrade. When it was introduced, it was a huge upgrade over the earlier D100 and D70(s), offering a F100-level build & ergonomics, the first truly great finder in a non-Pro Nikon digital, very good IQ, upgraded AF and a solid 5fps framerate, again the first fast non-Pro Nikon digital and non-CP/AI metering, finally reappearing in the non-Pro line. Once people got their hands on it, they quickly discovered that the upgraded AF was pretty much the old 5 point AF unit originally from the F80, just with some extra points added for additional coverage and so the promised AF upgrade really didn't exist. This was the first of several Nikon's to use Sony's 10MP CCD sensor, a brilliant sensor at low ISO's and with improved high ISO performance compared to the older 6MP sensor. Once the D300 arrived with the 12MP CMOS sensor, the 10MP sensor was widely considered to be wildly obsolete and well avoided, a pity for a sensor which delivered excellent results at lower ISO's and offered native ISO 100, which the newer CMOS sensors did not.

For me, the F80 is a toy, for playing with AF lenses on film, the FM remains my primary film body. The D200 was bought as an Airshow camera, to shoot the CIAS in concert with my Nikkor 300/4.5 AI'd, as it cost me about as much as the batteries I'd need to do that with the X-E1, and will do better anyways. I also plan to use the D200 to beta-test the idea of a split system. I've been planning on adding an X-T1, but for some of my needs a DSLR would just be better. if the D200 handles those needs well alongside the X-E1, I'll be looking at getting another D7100 as I do miss that camera (Oddly I don't miss the D600, probably sense I really just didn't get along with it). I don't expect to dump my Fuji kit, but it may stay as a light carry kit for my general shooting rather than as a true primary kit.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Holy Grail

Nikon FM2, Nikkor-P.C 105/2.5, Ilford Delta 100

I've been shooting digital now for a little less than 9 years and film seriously for 23 years. I've also gone through an awful lot of kit since digital came on the scene. And there's a simple reason for that.

A long while ago I discovered that my tastes in film cameras was simple. I prefer a simple, well built manual SLR with a bright finder and a solid set of lenses. The Nikon FM2(n) is pretty much the penultimate example of what I want in a camera. Take an FM2n, add a couple wides (17-20mm + 28-35mm), a normal, a couple tele's (85-90mm, 135-150mm) and I'm set. In a pinch I can do much the same set with a Maxxum 7, but that's about the only AF SLR that really works for me (Maybe an Elan 7N if my poor luck with Canon was to change, the F100 is close but too large & heavy).

The problem then becomes how do I match my film kit with digital. Nobody makes a digital FM2n, although the X-T1 comes closest. Nobody makes a digital Maxxum 7, although the K-3 comes closest. Finally I'd really prefer to use the same set of lenses for film and digital, so I only need to stick the bodies I want in my bag.

Sony would be the easiest, pair a Maxxum 7 with an A99 or A-7. And I tried. But the A mount lenses I want aren't there. The problem is at the wide end and normal. The only good , 28, 35 & 50's are huge & expensive (Sigma 35/1.4, 50/1.4 Art, ZA 50/1.4) or rare as hens teeth (Minolta 28/2, 35/2). I don't do large lenses and don't have time or inclination to pay too much money for those rare Minolta gems.

With Nikon it would be easy in a sense. Pair the glass I want with a D600 or Df and an FM2n (or even the FM I currently shoot). The problem becomes the D600's poor viewfinder for manual focus, and the Df's is quite similar. Plus both options are bigger than they need to be, by a lot, and the Df is way too much money for what it is. I could see the Df as a maybe with a 3rd party focusing screen and a price drop (it's already started to come down to sanity but even today it's around $700 more than a D610).

Pentax offers the K-3, but then I'd have to deal with an APS-C/FF split in the system as well as the fact I just don't get along with any Pentax film body except the LX and even the LX isn't as much too my taste as an FM2n. Oh, and again finding interesting glass gets difficult, although much better than A mount. If Pentax chose to do an LX-D I'd have to strongly consider this option, but I consider a Pentax FF body to be unlikely, Pentax only makes a handful of FF or FF-capable lenses today.

Fuji offers the X-T1. This is the closest digital to a FM2n in terms of controls and handling. You have the APS-C/FF split but that can be mostly solved with a SpeedBooster, allowing my F mount lenses to work at their designed FoV's on X mount, even better, I can also use a regular adapter and net the reach advantages of APS-C if needed. This would of course allow my film camera to be an FM body. Main downside is the attraction of Fuji's lovely lens lineup, which is a pretty nice downside.

Micro-4/3rds is out if I'm going to be shooting film as well. I do like the system but it doesn't balance well with a film system.

Sony E mount on the other hand becomes a strong option. The A7 bodies can play well with F mount via adapters, just like the Fuji's and/or a Speedbooster could be used with the APS-C bodies. I don't like the handling or native lenses as much as the Fuji's, but that could be a net benefit, since it reduces the temptation to buy native glass I can't use on film. The main downside here is the body handling (not as nice as Fuji, although adequate). Main benefit is the high-resolution full frame A7r and A7 bodies.

This becomes an interesting question, I won't be keeping the X-E1 as a primary body long-term. I simply don't gel well enough with the body. On the other hand I do love the lenses. The kicker is that an X-T1+Speedbooster costs pretty much exactly the same as an A7, and either option works well enough for me. With the Fuji I'd be tempted by native glass as it's wonderful. With the Sony the temptation is adapting other mounts, starting with M mount as I have one LTM lens with an M adapter, my beloved Nikkor-S.C 5cm f1.4. Sure I could adapt other mounts with X mount as well, but unlike E mount for which I own a selection of adapters, I'd need to buy adapters for all X mount options and I only really see that happening for F and maybe M mounts.

So where will I be next year? Dunno, but it won't be here and it will involve a modicum of shooting.