Friday, February 14, 2014

Nikon D3300 quick review

I picked up the Nikon D3300 a few days ago and we finally had nice enough weather today so I could go strolling around downtown Austin testing the D3300 out along with new 18-55 collapsible kit lens. I need another week or two to come up with a full review, but so far this camera is knocking my socks off!

Digital photography technology is starting to plateau and the new camera updates don't seem like much because a lot of the changes are starting under the hood. Nikon has realized that 24MP is about the right size for a DX sensor, the best compromise between resolution without making files sizes unmanageable.  With the D7100 Nikon started to ditch the Optical Low-Pass Filter - OLPF (aka "blur filter") because the resolution is high enough to deal with the issue of moiré. The OLPF was made to kill this effect by creating a slight blur. With the D7100, the D5300, and now the D3300 the OPLF has been done away with. This allows the sensor to resolve very fine detail with more clarity, as you can see in the photo below. In cameras with lesser resolution if there were no OLPF the image below would have rife with moiré and aliasing. As you can see, there is none.

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The difference between the D3200 with the OLPF and the D3300 without is pretty apparent. Looking in at 100%, the amount of detail is incredible. The difference in image quality between the entry-level cameras and high-end model is not a huge stretch as it used to be. D3300 and the flagship DX camera the D7100 are both nearly identical any my research as well as others like DxO Mark show that the D3300 performs in some ways better than the D7100, which costs twice what the D3300 does (of course the build quality and handling are much different).

In any case the even when shooting JPEGs (no LR5 RAW support yet), I've noticed that the image quality of the D3300 is nothing less than astounding. The photos are sharp as a razor, the color  is contrasty and vibrant even using SD Picture Control, but it's not overboard. The Auto-WB is amazingly accurate even in odd lighting situations like the one in the image shown below that has a super blue sky, warm sunlight and cool shadows all right on top of each other.

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The dynamic range of the Nikon D3300 is very good in JPEG mode and with RAW support should show a vast improvement. As you can see in this image of the 6th Street Cowboy and Mule, even though the light was very harsh, and the dynamic range was probably about 12-14 EV, the D3300 JPEGs captured the shadow and highlight details very well even without Active D-Lighting.

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The D5300 also comes with a newly designed kit lens. The lens is collapsible to make it smaller (something that Leica did since the 30's to keep the camera pocketable when not in use). When the lens is collapsed it's about 1/2" shorter than the original VR kit lens, and its also skinnier and lighter. The AF-S on this lens is so quiet I found myself aiming at something at a different distance just to make sure it was working! So the AF-S has been refined but it's still a cheaper version than the Silent-Wave motor in the more expensive lenses. The focus ring still rotates when focusing, but the front element does not. It seems a tad faster at focusing than the previous versions as well.

The lens is crazy sharp. Although the lens design supposedly didn't change from the original, I can see that it's sharper right off the bat. It's quite noticeable. It's very good wide open and at f/8-11 it's phenomenal. If sharpness is your thing this kit lens is it. If you don't need a fast lens or a tele this may be then only lens you ever need buy. This D33000 + 18-55 VR II lens combo produces highly detailed and clinically sharp images. Stopped down to f/8 this lens compares to my 50mm Zeiss Planar f/2. And that's saying something!

The real downside to this lens is the terrible distortion, I mean really bad. I'm not one that goes looking for distortion, but with this lens it's almost unacceptable. At 18mm to compensate for the distortion I have to dial in +22 on the Distortion slider in the Lens Corrections module in Lightroom 5. My Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 at 18mm needs almost no correction (+0.5 to 2mm at most). If you're shooting JPEG or using Nikon Capture NX2 you can enable the Auto distortion control, but then your frames start losing edges. Distortion is pretty easy to correct in post, so it's not a deal-breaker, but it is definitely not the lens for shooting things with lots of straight lines, such as architecture.

The D3300 is very small and light but it still feels good in your hands, even for someone like me with big ol' paws. It handles very nice. It's comfortable to hold and shoot with and the buttons are well laid out in Nikon style. If you're not attracted to the idea of mirrorless cameras and you want a DSLR with a real optical viewfinder this is Nikon's smallest and lightest offering.

The 11 point AF module is tried and true, but still kinda tough to see especially when it's very bright or very dark. I wish the AF brackets would light up instead of the little dots. The AF has a good amount of coverage (ahem, better than the D600/610 and Df...). I would be great AF brackets would stay lit in dark as it's really hard to tell where the active point is until you start focusing. The AF works pretty well in low light. Of course the center cross point is more responsive and faster to hit focus than the outer points. In daylight it nails focus no problems

The EXPEED 4 image processor pushes this camera ahead of the D3200 by allowing a faster frame rate of 5fps (which is pretty darn good), it also allows the D3300 to record full HD 1080p at 60fps, and one of the most important features to me is that the EXPEED 4 processor enables cleaner high ISO files. The D3300 is a bit better than the D5300 maybe 1/3 stop, but it's an easy 1stop better than the D7100. The D3300 actually performs at the same level or better as both the D5300 and the D7100, the only thing it's bested at is about 1 stop better in dynamic range. Considering all of these cameras have the same sensor the EXPEED 4 is doing some good things. The 5300 has EXPEED 4 as well, but somehow the D3300 still gets a slight edge.

Being entry-level camera there are a few things left out, but to be honest the menu options are sparse and there are lots of things that should have been left in and it would have been easy to do so. The default for AF-C being focus priority with no option to change is very bad. No guide lines option, t's a personal choice, but it helps me to keep things straight. For some reason I look into the VF and a weird angle and if I don't watch it my shots will be slightly crooked. Anyway, the whole CSM isn't and there are a lot of good options in the CSM in the cameras above. Also no "My Menu" option which is one of the best features on entry-level camera like the D5300 because it's allows you to set your favorite options so you don't have to menu dive.

This quick review went a little longer than I expected, so I'm gonna cut it here. I'll post a more thorough review when I get a few more shooting scenarios with it, especially in the low light. But so far I'm very impressed with this little camera and I have no reservations recommending to to anyone.

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Monday, February 3, 2014

Nikon Df Gariz leather half-case

Just for fun, I decided to try out the Gariz leather half-case for the Nikon Df (to all you Df haters out there, yes, I spent more money on my overpriced camera just to make it look even more fashionable).

So I received my case a couple of days ago. And I gave it a test run over the weekend to see what I thought of it and to give all of my lovely readers a real working photographer's perspective on this quite fancy little accessory for our pretty little Nikon Dfs.

First of all the Gariz case (model XS-CHDF1) comes in two colors, a rich brown leather and a more subdued black leather. I chose the black, because I like the understated look and I think it goes better with the black and silver model Df that I have. I also don't like brown leather at all, and I never buy anything made with it (not even boots). When I say the black "goes better", I guess what I really mean is that it's actually almost invisible. It's not something that most people are going to notice unless they look real close. I haven't seen a brown leather one on a black on black camera, but I think it would probably look a lot better, if not really sharp, on that color scheme.

When I first pulled it out of the shipping box I was really impressed with the attention to detail of the packaging. The boxing was a nice matte black and the case was in a black drawstring bag not unlike the one the Df camera comes in. After taking it out of the bag I was even more impressed. This leather half-case is very well built. I wasn't exactly sure of what to expect. I guess was thinking that it was going to be simple soft leather with a base. And at some point I was wondering if the leather would stretch out after awhile. The leather was quite rigid, thick and, form-fitted to the Df. The stitching was perfect as well, no loose ends or sloppiness at all. The bottom is a highly polished slightly brushed thin stainless steel plate with clean engraving covering a polycarbonate base. The interior portion is completely lined with the soft suede like backside of the leather, even covering the top of the bottom plate. Honestly, everything about this Gariz half-case exudes quality. And for about $130 retail I'd expect quality, and Gariz does not disappoint.

The bottom plate connects the camera via the tripod mounting socket with a screw-in lug. Don't worry if you're a tripod user, the baseplate has a threaded hole for your tripod quick-release plate. Everything is solid and fits tight. If you trust your BlackRapid strap then there's absolutely no reason to doubt this design.

The case basically covers mostly the black leatherette portion of the Df and just a small amount of the metal around the base of the camera, and to be 100% honest, this half-case isn't really doing much to protect the camera from scrapes and scratches. The thicker leather and base will give it a small measure of extra protection from light impacts that happen when the camera is hanging from a strap and bangs into a table or doorframe or something along that line. But if you're looking for a case to keep your Df nice and pristine, this really isn't going to do that (if that's what you want you can kick down $280 for Nikon's hideous "never-ready" case).

So, if the Gariz leather half-case doesn't protect the camera much, then what good is it, you may ask? Well, the leather of the case is a bit softer and more pliable than the leatherette of the Df's body. So it gives you a firmer purchase when you're gripping the camera body. At first it feels a little more slick than the leatherette because it has less texture, but I have no doubt that after using the case continuously for a month or so the leather will break in and the grip will become even more comfortable and as the leather becomes more pliable it will be more "grippy".

Another feature the Gariz half-case is the base plate. It adds about a 1/2 inch of height to the overall size of the camera making it about the same size as the D800 and for people like me that have larger hands this gives you a little more to hold on to. Initially my picky finger would dangle off the bottom a little, and now it's just perfect. Not that it was uncomfortable in the first place, but the added bit just makes it feel like my grip is just a little more secure. Now I'm sure some of the Df detractors will comment about making a "small camera" larger, but the Df isn't being marketed as a tiny camera like the Fuji mirrorless cameras,  it's a small DSLR and it's sized like a small DSLR. I like having a bit of extra height without the overkill of the vertical grip. This is actually the main reasons why I would recommend this half-case.

Nothing is perfect, so now for the drawbacks of the Gariz leather half-case. Oddly enough the few things I found I didn't like about are all equated with the one thing I like most about it; the baseplate. Since the battery and the memory card are both located at the bottom of the camera there needed to be a way to access these things through the baseplate of the camera. The solution was simple enough, the baseplate has a opening that allows you to open the battery/memory card compartment, and it works pretty well. Sometimes when I pick up the camera my finger falls into the hole and it feels awkward until I fix my grip, but that's not a huge deal.

There are pretty much only two things that are annoyances. The first is that it's a tiny bit difficult to flip up the latch that you turn to open the battery compartment. It really is just a tiny bit. If you have big hands or fingers it's a little tight in there. Having fingernails to help flip up the latch helps immensely and I imagine that could be a potential problem when needing to swap out a battery or card quickly (I have slightly long nails for fingerpicking my guitar so it's not an issue for me). Once you get the compartment door open it's not too difficult to flip the clip and slide the battery out and pop a new one in. The biggest problem is removing the SD card. The SD card  on the Df sits quite close to the edge of the camera's frame and when you open the compartment it's recessed a bit. Pressing on it springs it up just enough to let you grab it and pull it out without a case on the camera. When the case is on you have that extra 1/2" or so depth to deal with so getting the SD card out is actually pretty difficult. I can do it somewhat quickly with my guitar picking hand (the one with nails), but when using my fretting hand (which has nails that are cut short) it's nearly impossible for me to remove the card. The way the card sits you can't get a good grip on it by gripping it from the edges or from the flat side. The nails definitely help in this situation, but I'm sure most people that own this camera aren't finger-picking guitar players. If any of my readers who use this half-case please feel free to share your techniques. I suppose carrying a small pair of tweezers around could help, but that would be kind of annoying. Worst case scenario you take the case off the camera to remove the card. Inserting the card on the other hand isn't particularly difficult. Otherwise the half-case doesn't impede the functions of any of the other camera controls at all.

The SD card is pretty deep and tight in there.

So to wrap up, here's the short story. The Gariz leather half-case is a very finely crafted case. It fits perfectly, which also makes it look great (depending on your color preferences), it adds a little extra grip with the pliant thickness of the leather and especially the added height. Is it something I would say is a necessary addition to your Df kit? No, it's not an essential. I think at the end of the day the market is going to be people looking to add little extra size and a small amount of additional comfort to their Df. In my eyes it makes it more comfortable to use for longer photo-sessions.

In the end, I do recommend the Gariz leather half-case if it's something you might think you need. But I'd think hard about what your intended uses are. If you're looking for heavy protection, this isn't the best choice. If you're looking to make your camera look a little snappier, then buy yourself a brown one to help it stand out. If you have big hands or want a camera that's going to get a little grippier (with use) then definitely buy it.

As far as I can see the Gariz leather half-case for the Nikon Df is only available on eBay. Most of the sellers are overseas and from what I've been hearing shipping is taking weeks. Luckily for you, if you live in the US, I have found a seller stateside. They were excellent to deal with. They shipped it out really quickly and I had it in a few days rather than a few weeks. The seller can be found here:
*I'm in no way affiliated with this seller. Just a happy customer. 

Here are a few shots taken this weekend with the Nikon Df and Gariz leather half-case. Of course the case made little practical use for most of these shots, but I just like posting a few Df shots just to show how good the images from this camera are. These were all taken in near-darkness with a $40 Sigma 28-70mm f/2.8-4 DG.

_JDT2554 _JDT2511 One Shot

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Nikon Df style debate.

When it comes to the Nikon Df there are a lot of strong feelings. The forums are overflowing with full-on verbal assaults between people who love the camera and people that hate the camera. I try to stay away from all that mudslinging, but I can't help but to run across it from time to time especially when my name gets batted around because of my Df Real World Review, in which I tried to give an objective review. This post isn't defending my review. All I did was give my honest opinions which stemmed from my usage of the camera and my extensive familiarity with all of Nikon's DSLRs.

The first thing I want to put out there is that my review was not an attempt to justify my purchase of the Nikon Df. That's a ludicrous theory. I have no need to explain what I spend my money on to people on the internet. I can afford the Df. I'm a photographer by profession so the camera is an expense that I will easily recoup. I'll even admit that the camera is overpriced. I think the Df should have been priced lower. $2500 seems to be about right.

So if I think the Df is overpriced then why did I buy it? Because, aside from the amazing IQ, I like the way it looks. There. I said it. I bought the camera because I think it looks cool. Am I a fashion victim? Have I fallen prey to Nikon's marketing scheme? Or even worse, am I *gasp* a hipster?!? Maybe so.


I was born in the early 70's. I started out in photography at a pretty young age so therefore I obviously started out shooting with these old blocky film cameras. My first camera was a Pentax Spotmatic, to which the Nikon Df takes a resemblance. I identify with this design. So when I saw the Df it struck a chord with me.  The Df, especially the silver one, looks like the cameras I grew up using. Am I trying to fool myself into that the Df operates like an old film camera? Absolutely not. It's a DSLR and I know that. Even with the retro dials the Df still handles like a DSLR. Because it is.

The Reverend Horton Heat plays retro style music on a hot-rodded vintage-styled modern guitar. The Rev thought the Df was a slick camera. 

There's is nothing wrong with buying something because you like the way it looks. I mention this point in my review but I would like to go a little deeper on the subject because when Df haters run out of arguments it seems they attempt to end the argument by trying to shame people for actually liking the way the camera looks.

I doubt that anyone out there who makes a big deal out of the style of the Df is wearing brown dungarees, a plain brown button down shirt, and brown work boots like they are in the Communist labor party. Visual and stylistic design permeates every aspect of consumerism.

If you are a normal and somewhat functioning person in society I'll bet that you make lots of choices every day based solely on style. When you put on clothes today did you select things that matched? Probably, because that's part of what people in society do. If you didn't select things that match then you made a stylistic choice as well. What color is your car? Do you own any T-Shirts with logos on them? Do you own any jewelry? Do you wear a necktie? Do you have a collection of hats? I could go on and on in this line of questioning with no end. The point is, that everyone buys things for a reason. Your style is what you show to the world depending on how you want the people that you encounter to perceive you. Whether you like it or not, every single day you play the style game.


When I was at the camera store picking up my camera another shopper (quite rudely) asked the question, "Why would you buy a silver camera? It's just going to attract more attention to you." I'm not sure why there is this current obsession with keeping the camera hidden and being stealthy.

I don't mind people noticing my camera. Since I bought the Df I've gotten a lot of attention. Other people, especially non-photographers, like they way the Df looks too and it has started a lot of conversations. Why is this good? Do I crave attention? No, I don't need the attention to satisfy my ego. The attention I'm getting has generated work for me. The first event I shot using the Df I had a few people come up and ask me about the camera. I handed out quite a few cards and ended up booking two paid photo shoots. This is directly attributable to the positive attention that my camera received from people who were attending the event.

These folks really liked the style of the Df and were surprised to learn it was digital. Regular people love the way the Df  looks, even if some photographers don't. 

As a professional photographer, being noticed is a way to gain new clients. Attracting attention to yourself is relatively difficult to do in a positive manner as you're working. I'm not a street photographer, so I'm not trying to blend into the shadows. I also don't have the time or necessarily want to approach prospective clients as I'm working. The Df draws people in and allows prospective clients to approach me.

Another thing about the styling of the Df is that due to the diminutive size and quirky 70's retro look it's less intimidating when you're photographing people. The camera fits into a niche that even the Fuji cameras don't cover. It looks like a serious camera without appearing too professional. These are the some of the practical sides to the "style" of the Df.

At the end of the day it's just a camera. Find the camera that's right for YOU and go take some pictures. Don't worry about what everyone else is shooting. The last thing a photographer should worry about is what other photographers think of their camera.

I used an old retro 70's lens to take a photo with my retro-styled camera of my retro-styled motorcycle. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Nikon Df Real World Review

Alright, so I've had the Nikon Df for a little over a month now and I think I've had enough time to give it a proper run-through. I've been looking at many other reviews and the Nikon Df is obviously a pretty divisive piece in the camera world today. Many reviewers are calling the camera the worst piece of crap to come out since, well, ever and others are proclaiming it to be a gift from the photo-gods.

While the Df isn't the best camera I've ever owned, it's certainly not even close to being the worst.

There are lots of strange comparisons and and odd complaints mainly because I don't think people know exactly where to place this camera and they are all holding it to different standards. The retro group is trying to lump it into a category with the Fuji X series. They tend to think that it's too big and clunky. Well, it's not a mirrorless camera so it isn't comparable there. It needs some girth to house the mirror box as well as the F mount flange distance. There are also the endless comparisons to the Sony A7 cameras. The only thing these have in common is a full-frame sensor. Again these are two very different cameras. No comparisons.

Then you have the other camp. They are trying to compare it to film cameras and DSLR's. Apparently for some folks it's not enough of one or the other. Well, sorry to break it to ya, but it's a DSLR with a retro twist. This is a niche camera and it's not directly comparable to a pro DSLR. That's not where this camera's niche lies. No, it's not as comfortable as a D800, it's not that kind of camera. If you want comfort buy a D800 or a D600. Many people were hoping for a D4 in a D800 package. Well, that's not what the Df is. No amount of hating it is going to change that. The D700 was a happy accident for us camera buyers. It was essentially a convertible D3. You had the D3 in a small relatively light package and you could add a grip and have about 95% of the D3 for about 1/2 the price. Great for consumers, but as much of a success the D700 was it was a failure in Nikon's eyes. They lost a lot of D3 sales. That's something they don't want to happen again.

Lastly you have the very angry bunch that calls it a "fashion accessory" and goes of on tirades about "hipsters" buying it so they can look cool. Well guys. Sorry to tell you this, but hipsters aren't really into spending $3000 on a camera to look cool. They'd rather buy an old F for $100. Film cameras are infinitely more hip than expensive DSLRs. And as far as fashion goes, well yeah. Some people may buy this camera because it does look cool. And there's nothing wrong with that. People buy cars for the way they look. People buy shoes, hats, purses, glasses, jackets, socks, etc... because they think they look cool. What's wrong with buying a cool looking camera? Especially if it actually works really well? I admit that I bought my Gretsch White Falcon guitar because it looks astoundingly cool, it plays amazingly well, and it sounds great. I bought the Df because it looks cool, it feels good in my hand, and it can produce amazing results. Who says your camera has to be an ugly amorphous lump?

Anyway, now that I got that out of the way lets talk about this camera in practical terms. As I said the Df isn't the most amazing breakthrough camera to come down the pipe, but it does have the D4 sensor and processor which gives it that amazing low light capability. I mean the camera seems to make its own light. You can check out my preview to see the high ISO performance. This is a well documented feature so there's no need to dive into that anymore.

The Ergonomics.

First I want to focus on the handling and design. This seems to be where most people take exception to the Df. I see a lot of reviewers that are complaining that's it's both too small and too big at the same time. The Df is a short camera, but due to the inherent design of the DSLR it has to be a bit thick. There's no getting around it. I've seen a few reviewers complain that the Df was uncomfortable to hold. One in particular seemed to be alarmingly pained by this fact going on to describe at length the horrible agony that the Df put him in reducing his hand to a useless claw. Very dramatic. You'd think the Df was a Schumann-esque device forced upon his hands to rob him from his livelihood.

Nikon does have one thing perfect in their pro DSLR cameras. They are ergonomically correct. They feel right. The buttons and dials lay in the exact positions (for the most part) that they need to be. The Df, well, it's not exactly ergonomic. Yes, this is due to the styling more than anything else. When I picked up the Df I was a little taken aback because things didn't line up right. The shutter-release button was too high and the strange new front command dial didn't feel natural and it was a bit hard to adjust. After spending about 1/2 hour with the camera I had it figured out. I had to adjust the way I hold and operate the camera. I used to hold the camera with three fingers on the grip and used my forefinger for the front command dial and shutter release button. I adjusted my grip to use with the Df so that my forefinger is on the shutter-release at all times and my middle finger rests on the front command dial. This brings your hand grip up higher and makes it more comfortable and it places the strap lug between the fingers keeping it out of the way. I also find it’s much quicker to adjust settings on the fly this way. I wish I had taken up holding the camera this way sooner. 

top: hand-cramp grip
bottom: new comfy grip

While not quite ergonomics, another thing I keep seeing is that people say it feels cheap or plastic. This I can only guess it because the camera is surprisingly light. People have been touting mirrorless cameras for their lightness and Nikon gives them a camera with a 3/4 magnesium alloy frame and a magnesium alloy top and bottom plate that is super light and people complain because it's not heavy enough? I don't care if it feels cheap and plastic because I know that it's not. I love the fact that it doesn't weigh my neck down. After handling the Df for awhile and getting used to the weight and heft the cheap feeling goes away.

And then we have the battery/SD compartment. It seems like everyone is irritated by this. I like having the SD card and battery in the same slot. When Nikon switched from the rear card flap, which was GREAT to the crappy sliding door everyone complained. Now they did away with the cheap plastic sliding door and put the card in a logical place people are mad about that. I've also heard a lot of grumbling about the door being cheap. I don't think it feels cheap at all. I think it feels very sound. I think the metal locking dial is a nice touch. I don't however understand why the door comes off like the old D200, but mine hasn't fallen off and I wouldn't have known about this unless I had read it on one of the bad reviews.

And no, the tripod quick-release plate doesn't cover the door. You can easily swap out the battery or card. Yes you have to remove it from the tripod, but that's why you have a quick-release. 

The Controls.

Here's another sore spot for some people. There seems to be a lot of confusion and misinformation about how the controls work. The first thing I want to address is the shutter speed dial. There are many false reports about the locking mechanism. Let's clear this up. You don't have to press the lock release to change the shutter speed. The dial turns freely from B all the way to 4000. The dial only locks in 1/3 STEP, X, and T settings. Also you aren't stuck with 1 stop adjustments when you use the shutter speed dial. Setting CSM f11 to On allows you to adjust the shutter 2/3 of a stop in either direction from the base you set on the shutter speed dial using the command dial. I find this is extremely handy when shooting concerts. I usually want to keep my shutter speed at a set amount but I can fluctuate my speeds up or down quickly without worrying about going to far out of my comfort zone. I don't even have to look at the speed, just two clicks up or down. You can also set the dial to 4 seconds and use the command dial to go all the way down to 30 seconds. 

Secondly the Shooting mode dial seems to be giving people some problems. It's a bit small and you have to lift and turn it to change. I spend most of my time in Manual and even when I'm using another exposure mode I generally don't change modes in the middle of shooting with the camera up to my eye. I don't think it's necessary to make this a speed dial. If it didn't lock people would complain that it was always changing when being brought in or out of the bag. Which leads me to the next odd complaint...

The exposure compensation dial. Lots of complaints that the locking mechanism makes it to difficult to change. On the other hand ever since the day the Fuji X100 came out people have been complaining that the exposure compensation dial doesn't have a lock resulting in accidental over or under-exposures. Personally, I shoot Manual and RAW about 90% of the time. I don't find the EV dial necessary. If it went away I wouldn't miss it. I'd rather have it locked so it doesn't unintentionally get changed. 

Here are a few things I have minor quibbles with. Under the EV dial is the ISO setting dial. I will admit that it's not that easy to change in the midst of shooting, but it's really not that hard either. I wish it were easier, but personally I don't change ISO on the fly very much. I get the setting locked in or I set up Auto-ISO. One thing that would have been nice is to include the option of turning Auto-ISO on and off on the dial. 

The last bit on the top deck is the release mode switch. This is pretty fiddly to change no matter what. I don't really see how it could have been implemented any other way however. This is a setting I do often change on the fly. I like to switch between Single and CH when shooting sports and concerts depending on the action. Now I typically have to leave it in CH, which means I'm often firing off more frames on accident. Not a big deal, but a minor annoyance.

The next little issue I have is the front command dial (wheel?). My guess is that they designed it that way not only for the retro look, but also to keep the camera depth consistent. An internally rotating design would require more space on the inside. I don't have a problem with the way that it rotates, but it is very stiff and requires a good amount of force to change it. Luckily, I have a lot of lenses with aperture dials and I can use CSM f/7 to let me used the aperture ring, which is much quicker (although most Nikon D lenses lack 1/2 stops). I don't foresee the dial loosening up any with use. Again, this isn't a giant problem, but it's annoying. 

The last control I have a minor issue with is the BKT button. I wish it could be programmed for something else. I don't do HDR and I'm obviously not shooting slides so I don't really need bracketing. It's a good feature to have because many people do use it, but it would be nice to have an extra programmable button. 

Other controls are great. The Fn. and Pv. button lie perfectly under the ring and pinky fingers if you're holding the camera as I described earlier. The AE-L/AF-L and AF-ON buttons are right where they belong as is the multi-selector. I wish the metering mode selector switch was a few millimeters higher though, I find it just a touch awkward to switch on the fly. 

The Guts.

This is where we get down to brass tacks. If there's one thing everyone can agree on (well mostly everyone but the diehard trolls) is that the Df has excellent IQ. This is proven technology handed down from Nikon's flagship D4 (I've heard some trolls on Nikon Rumors calling it "old" technology, but let's face it, the technology is at a plateau). The Df is unrivaled in low-light even nudging out the D4 if you believe in the DxO Mark scores. No, it doesn't have the high resolution of the 36MP D800, but in reality almost nobody needs that much resolution. 16MP is more than enough for almost every photographer from the everyday amateur to the working pro. 

First let's clear up another myth that trolls have been flinging out there. The rumors that the Df is a Frankenstein camera made up of a D4 sensor and old D600 shutter mechanisms aren't true. The shutter design is obviously new and made for the Df because it is ridiculously quiet. Much quieter than the D600 and well, I ain't got no dirt or oil splats over 2000 shots in (My working theory is that the D600 shutter crud was caused by an experimental soundproofing material in the shutter box, but that's just conjecture). So just to be clear. The Df does not have discarded D600 shutter mechanisms. 

This brings me to the rub. My main problem with the Df. The Multi-CAM 4800 focusing system. I hated it on the D600 and I hate it on the Df. What I hate about it is the tight focus array. The 39-point system was taken from the DX D7000, where it excelled, and stuck into an FX camera, where it's just not enough coverage. 

The other issue with the Multi-CAM 4800 is low-light focusing. Opinions greatly differ on this. Some say it's great. Some say it's awful. In my experience it's somewhere in the middle. The center focus point works great in low-light, but the peripheral points are weak. This is relatively common, but the far points seem exceptionally weak in this camera. 

On the other hand in the daylight I find the AF is relatively quick. It locks on pretty fast and accurate. One reviewer picked up the camera walked around for 5 minutes and declared the AF worthless. It's far from worthless. It's not the best Nikon has to offer, but it does work well in the light.

Why build a camera that is so good in low-light and hobble it with a mediocre AF system? I think the 51-point AF system should have been used, especially at the price point. Apparently Nikon thinks that giving the Df the great Multi-CAM 3500FX focus system would be too much. That being said, the AF system is adequate if slightly limiting. And while I don't like it, it wasn't enough to stop me from buying the camera. 

Another issue that may people have is the lack of video. This is also another area where I find it odd that just a few years ago when the D90 was released with video the forums were erupting with outcry against video claiming it was unnecessary and nothing but a marketing scheme. Now those same folks are crying out that the Df should have video because it doesn't cost anything to put it in. I don't shoot a lot of video. Leaving it out is no big deal to me. I have a DSLR that shoots video, the D5300. And it's better because it has a movable LCD. The Df is for stills. 

While we're on the subject of leaving things out, the Df has no built-in flash. Another thing that sticks in the craw of some folks. Personally I use the built-in flash for wireless flash occasionally. It's nice to have, but it's not something I need. Not from this camera anyway. This is an available light camera. If you must do the "strobist" thing you can use an SB-700/800/900, SU-800, or any number of accessories. But really, this camera shoots in the dark. 

The Lens Question. 

The Df was specifically designed to take even the oldest F-Mount lenses. The indexing lever folds up so you can attach Pre-AI lenses. You can set your lens info and even get metering with Pre-AI lenses, something you have never been able to do on any Nikon DSLR. Many Pre-AI lenses are exceptional, and these lenses are usually cheaper because they haven't been useful on previous DSLRs. This opened up a new world of excellent but affordable MF lenses and allow photographers with this legacy glass to get back in the game. 

Ah, but there's a catch. And again we have another hot-button issue. The focusing screen. It's well known that DSLR focusing screens aren't the best for Manual focus. People wanted a split-prism or micro-prism collar focusing screen. That would have been cool. But it didn't happen. I'm not sure why Nikon didn't put one in or at least allow the focusing screen to be interchangeable. Maybe it didn't occur to the design team or engineers. Maybe there's a technological reason. I don't know. I sold off my MF lenses awhile back. As a matter of fact I only own one currently. I bought it the same day I bought my Df. Yes, it's not as easy to focus with the current DSLR screen, but it can be done. 

If you want to complain about it go check out some of the entry-level Nikon camera groups on Flickr. There are lots of newbie photographers that use 50mm f/1.8D's on cameras with no focus motors. They manually focus them. These are people that have only owned DSLRs for a few months or a year. If they can do it so can you. It's not impossible.

While we're talking about lenses, the "kit" 50mm f/1.8G has been taking a lot of crap lately too. Whereas not too long ago it was everyone's darling because it was cheap and was shown to have better IQ than the more expensive 50mm f/1.4G. It gets a makeover and paired with the Df and all the sudden nobody likes it anymore? I hear lots of grumbling about the cosmetics. I like the new design. I hate the Nikon black and gold color scheme. The 50mm f/1.8G Special Edition is a handsome lens and it's still the best deal going in lenses in regards to price and quality. 

The Wrap-Up. 

Well, that's the long and the short of it for me. As you can see the Nikon Df is far from a perfect camera. It's a camera that can't really be compared to other cameras. It occupies its own little island in the Nikon lineup and in the whole DSLR world. This camera isn't for everybody. Obviously. The camera forums and review sites are full of people spewing vitriol and condemning it as an utter failure while it continues to fly off of shelves. 

Many people claim that the Df isn't a serious camera for the serious pro. Well that's just not true. A pro can take any camera and make great photos. I've been using the Df on all of my shoots lately. I've not run into any problems. The Df will be my professional everyday working camera. If I need something speedier I always have my D700s. If I need video the D5300 will do the job. 

Yeah, the Df is a funky camera. It's stylish and kinda fashionable. It's got top-notch image quality. It's got all kinds of weird quirks. But it's a fun camera. It's fun to carry around because it's small and light. It looks cool and people seem to like it because it's not intimidating like a big DSLR, but it also looks more serious than a D3200 or a Rebel. Shooting with the Df is a breeze once you get the hang of the controls. 

As I said in the beginning the Df isn't a camera for everybody, but I think that just about anybody can make it work for them with a little effort. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

High ISO test. Nikon Dƒ vs. Nikon D700

My D700 is 5 years old. It was the first D700 in Austin TX off the truck and out the door. I've shot well over half-million images on this one D700 alone (I had the shutter replaced right around the 500,000 mark). It's time give the ol' girl a rest and bring in a new workhorse and I chose the Dƒ as my D700's successor. I've had all of the other small-body Nikon FX cameras, but I didn't think any of them bested the D700 which was why I stuck with it. Like a lot of people I was hoping that a D4 in a D800 body would come out, but that's not going to happen and the Dƒ just happens to fit in with what I'm looking for in a camera for the most part. No, it's not perfect, but it's the closest thing to a D700 that Nikon is going to release, for awhile at least, and I have no interest in lugging around a D4 (nor spending $6K on one).

Anyway, I don't want to get into a detailed review on the Dƒ just yet. I'm still working on getting familiar with it and I want to get a few more shoots under my belt with it. I had a little time on my hands tonight so I decided to do a quick and dirty high ISO shoot out between the new Nikon Dƒ and the old standby for low-light shooting the D700.

I love my D700 and it has stood the test of time. It's been my go-to camera for low-light concert photography as well as sports and just about everything else. Suffice it to say I've always been impressed with the D700's performance when the light gets low and the ISO's are cranked. But I just had to see how the Dƒ stacked up against the D700 when it came to ISO.

I shot each image at f/8 using a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 | A using a tripod and remote release. The Dƒ images are on the left and the D700 on the right. The images were shot using fine JPG with NR and sharpening off. They were imported into Lightroom 5 and the default LR5 color noise reduction and sharpening was applied. I would have preferred to use RAW, but as of yet there's no RAW support.

The images from each respective camera are pretty much equal all the way up to ISO 1600. One thing you will notice is that the Dƒ resolves fine detail better than the D700 due to the slight increase in resolution so it looks a little sharper and the Dƒ also has a much more substantial increase in dynamic range showing more detail in highlight areas where the D700 has little. The Dƒ also has a more accurate White Balance, both were set to Auto.

Alright, so here we go. Take a look at ISO 1600. Pretty much dead even here.

Once we crank it up to ISO 3200 the D700 starts to break up a little but the Dƒ holds it together a little better. 

At ISO 6400 things take a big downturn for the D700. I'll have to say that ISO 3200 was usually my limit for the D700 unless I was in a pinch. But as you see at ISO 6400 the Dƒ is still holding more fine detail and the noise is less "chunky". ISO 6400 on the Dƒ is easily usable. 

Pushing it up to ISO 12800 isn't something I'd ever really thought about doing. But the Dƒ still holds it together very well even at this high ISO. The noise in the shadow areas is extremely well controlled in the Dƒ while the shadow areas are a mess in the D700. In the highlight areas the detail is still very fine in the Dƒ while the D700 is pretty messy. To be fair, ISO 128000 is not in the D700's native ISO so I wouldn't expect it to perform that well. I mean it's not bad compared to a lot of other cameras. 

I didn't bother running the Dƒ up to it's H settings. ISO 12800 is higher than anyone really needs in my opinion and the H settings aren't really optimal so I just stopped the comparison there. 

So what are my conclusions? I think the Nikon Dƒ is nearly two stops better than the D700 in ISO performance. The Dƒ controls shadow noise better and holds quite a lot of fine detail even at ISO 128000. Let's take a look at a couple of direct comparisons. The Dƒ at ISO 12800 and the D700 at ISO 3200.

The Dƒ noise is noticeably chunkier, but the fine detail is still there. Keep in mind that these two images are two stops apart. That means you can make images with the Dƒ in 4X less light than the D700 and still have relatively comparable output. That's quite impressive indeed. 

Just for fun let's throw the D5300 into the mix as well. First here's a look at the D5300 at ISO 12800. Pretty much unusable. Noise is out of control and detail is obliterated. 

Taking a look below you can see at ISO 1600 the D5300 clearly shows finer detail, but the results are pretty similar. The Dƒ is almost THREE stops better than the D5300! Of course this isn't a fair comparison. Th Dƒ costs $2000 more than D5300, it better perform better. The D5300 is a great camera for it's price point and can do HD video whereas the Dƒ can't, so there's that. 

The Dƒ isn't a direct replacement for the D700 for many reasons. Build, battery, lack of vertical grip, inferior AF system etc... But if you need the best IQ in low-light and don't want to spring for the D4 this is the camera. 

Just remember, this is pixel peeping. In the real world the differences aren't quite as noticeable. 

Later this week I'll get to a full review on the Dƒ. It's a quirky camera, but this little test has proven to me that the Dƒ is indeed the low-light king in Nikon small-body FX cameras. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Quick hands-on with the Nikon Df

I had the chance to play around with the Nikon Df for a but this afternoon. This a just a few of my initial observations.

The first thing that happened when I picked it up was my finger instinctively went to the shutter-release button. And it wasn't there! Yep, the shutter-release is flat on the top deck. This isn't a bad thing. Just muscle memory. I thought it was kind of funny. It only took a few seconds to get acquainted with the new position. My Leicas have the same relative position so it felt "right" to me. If you have been shooting only with Nikons for a long time it may take some getting used to.

The next thing I looked at was the silver. I was afraid it was going to be "plastic sliver" like the N65 or something. Nope it's real metal. Looks to be an aluminum alloy over the magnesium shell. It looks nice, not cheap as I half-expected.

The camera felt well-balanced with the 50mm "kit" lens. It looks a lot heavier than it is. It's not going to weigh down your camera strap (at least with a small prime on it). I suspect that it may be a little unwieldy with a big pro zoom, but this camera is really designed with primes in mind.

Slipping in my SD card I opened up the battery chamber. Instead of the normal plastic clip it has a  "keyed" lock. That's nice touch. I haven't had a battery door pop open on me yet, but those small attentions to detail are a good sign in a camera of this price. Some people are complaining about the placement of the SD card inside the battery chamber, but I like it. I don't leave a tripod quick-release on my camera ever. Only studio photographers should do that and this really isn't a studio camera. It's a camera for the photographer on the move.  No card door is one less moving part on the camera body. (I would have liked to see a CF card though).

The Preview and Function buttons are place on an elevated platform and make them super-easy to access. This is nice as with a lot Nikon DSLR cameras specifically the D600/610 they can be kind of hard to find as they don't naturally lay under your fingers. The Df has them positioned just right.

The PSAM mode dial. Is weird. You have to pull it up to rotate it and it feels kind of cheap. I can see these breaking pretty easily. This setting you will have to pull the camera away from your face to change. I generally stick to one mode, but some people don't.

The shutter speed dial feels great. I love it. It feels "real" to change the shutter speed this way rather than with the dial. The ISO dial is also in a good spot, but the lock release button is in a weird spot, down and to the left. On top of the ISO dial is the exposure compensation dial and the lock release for the EV button is right on top. Every time I wanted to change the ISO my finger went instinctively to the top. This will take some getting used to.

O ne thing that I noticed, due to the manual shutter speed dial and the placing of the shutter-release button is that I felt like I had a real film camera in my hand. So I kept finding myself reaching for the aperture ring. Over and over. (As I mentioned I do use film cameras and Leicas so I am always changing apertures and it may be more hardwired into my brain than some others). That being said the scrolling aperture dial is very cool. I love the way it rotates. It feels much more natural than the horizontal dial ever felt.

Something that has been brought up in forums is the placing of the strap lugs in between the shutter-release button and the aperture dial. This is going to require a new technique for some of us. Generally I use my forefinger to press the shutter-release as well as to operate the front command dial. This new strap design will cause the strap to get in the way of moving the forefinger back and forth between the button and the dial. The ideal way is going to be to use the forefinger for the shutter-release and the middle finger for the command dial (this is probably how Nikon intended it to be done in the first place, but I never caught on. Heck, I may be the only one who does it like that for all I know. In any case the strap will go right between the two fingers. If you use a sling type strap like the Black Rapid there shouldn't be any issues. I've been using a camera holster lately (the Spider Black Widow, review coming soon) so I haven't been using straps at all.

Unfortunately the Df has the STUPID D600/610 small array 39-point AF system. I hated it on the D600 and that's the going to major issue that I'm going to be fighting with when using this camera. WHY Nikon? This camera is practically screaming for the bad-ass 51-point AF system. (Don't wanna steal the D4 sales?). Anyway, that's the big issue for me.

All in all the camera felt solid, yet light, and fit in my hand nicely. I'll admit that the current design of the D800 is by far the most comfortable Nikon camera body design this one feels pretty good. Of course many people are put off by the looks, calling it "hipster" or whatever, but I think it looks good. I like classic designs. Classic designs are classic for a reason. They work. There's no need for your camera to be sleek and aerodynamic. It's not made for flying. It's made to take photos. So, yeah. I dig the look.

I didn't get a chance to do a lot of shooting with the camera, but I managed to snap off a few test  shots which are posted below. I will post a full review when I get a few weeks in shooting with it.
Nikon Dƒ w/50mm f/1.8G Ltd. Edition | 1/100 @ ƒ/2.5, ISO 100 
Nikon Dƒ w/50mm f/1.8G Ltd. Edition | 1/50 @ ƒ/3.5, ISO 400 

Nikon Dƒ w/50mm f/1.8G Ltd. Edition | 1/100 @ ƒ/2.5,  ISO 100

Nikon Dƒ ISO 1600 at 100% with ZERO Noise Reduction

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Leica M8 vs. M9 ISO comparison

Before I bought my M9 I spent quite a bit of time researching, trying to find out how much I stood to gain in buying an M9 instead of an M8. I found plenty of talk on the forums about how the M9 was 1-stop better than the M8. I found that statement a lot, but there wasn't much in the way of empirical proof. There were images all over the place but I couldn't find a direct comparison. Trying to compare images of two different cameras at the same ISO settings of different subjects in different lighting situations really wasn't helping. So basically all I had to go on was word of mouth.

I was actually very surprised that nobody had done a side-by-side comparison of these two cameras. As more and more people are moving over to the Leica system because M8's and M9's are becoming relatively affordable I decided to do a direct side-by-side of the M8 and M9 so that people like me, who are on a relative budget can have some good data to look to when trying to decide whether the M9 is worth the price premium over the M8. Right now a used M8 is about $2000, an M9 is about $4000, and the M9-P (exactly the same guts as an M9) is about $5800.

Before I get into the test, there were some anomalies between the M8 and M9 that I noticed that had to be adjusted for. First of all, the M9 underexposed by one stop consistently. I ran the full test 3 times and finally set the M9 to +1EV to get a good exposure. Also, both the M8 and M9 were set to Tungsten WB, but the colors were vastly different. I attribute this to the stronger UV/IR that I had on the M8 lens. I shot in DNG and set the white balance on the white square on the color card in the test scene. The results are similar but not an exact match.

To keep a similar field of view I used a Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux lens on the M9 and a Voigtländer 35mm f/1.4 Nokton on the M8 (46.6 equiv.) Both cameras were set to Aperture priority and the lenses were stopped down to f/8. The images are 100% view screenshots from Lightroom 5. I used the LR5 defaults for sharpness and noise reduction of 25% sharpness and 25% color NR. (I also ran a set with no adjustments, which I can post if anyone asks).

The M9 images are on the left and the M8 on the right. Click on the images to view full size.

As you can plainly see the M9 does indeed give about a one stop advantage. At ISO 1250 the M9 is easily usable whereas the M8 is borderline. At ISO 2500 the M9 could work in a pinch, but the M8 in completely unusable. Even after trying a number of different noise reduction techniques I could not get a usable image out of the M8 at ISO 2500. 

That being said, I regularly use the M8 at ISO 1250 when shooting concerts and I've had good results. It seems that in high contrast situations like concerts where you have extremely bright and extremely dark tones that the shadows can be toned down to make the noise a little less noticeable. I haven't had much practice shooting the M9 in these conditions and I'll report back later on that. 

As far as daylight shooting goes the M8 and M9 are pretty much equal up until 640 where the M9 edges out the M8, but not by much. If you're a daylight shooter and not big into cropping get a 28mm f/2 or a 35mm f/1.4 (or both) and keep it down to ISO 640 and you'll be fine. If you shoot at night a lot that extra ISO stop of the M9 may make a difference. 

The M9 does have some advantages for the price difference. It is a full-frame camera and has more pixels to play with if you like to crop, and the menu system has many refinements, such as easier exposure compensation settings, manual entry for non-coded lenses, easier ISO setting in 1/3 steps. Full-frame also allows you to go wider since you have no 1.3X crop. 

So is the M9 worth twice price of the M8? I'd say on the whole, no. If the M9 were only $1000 more than the M8 I'd say get an M9 over the M8, but at double the price I'd have absolutely no problem buying two M8's and running with a 28/35 set up. 

If you know you have your heart set on full-frame, then don't mess around. Just get the M9. But if you can live with a slight crop or you want to get into the Leica system without spending more than a high-end DSLR kit will cost you the M8 is a really good camera. I really like the M8 paired with the Voigtländer 35mm f/1.4 Nokton. This is a great normal starter kit for less than $2500. 

Obviously, this is just my opinion. In the end I knew I wanted a full-frame camera, I had the money, and I got a great deal on a used M9-P, but, I'm also keeping my M8. It makes a good companion to my M9 with the lenses I have.

You can check out my work with the cameras on my flickr site. Obviously I've been working with the M8 longer so there are much more photos than with the M9.
Flickr Leica M8 set
Flickr Leica M9-P set