Thursday, March 31, 2011


As photographers we often have a need to share photographs easily with clients, friends and family. Whilst my Photoshelter website has features for private, password protected galleries with configurable downloads, I haven't found anything easier than Dropbox for sending proofs etc.

2GB of storage is free, more space seems reasonable at (50GB is $9.99/month) and if you use multiple computers, it's really simple to sync all of them up to your Dropbox folder. I'm particularly impressed that I can do this across Windows PCs, a Netbook running Linux and an Android phone, that's very cool. There is a Mac client as well, and, of course you can also access your files over the web without installing the Dropbox client.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

TC-14e II vs TC-17e II vs TC-20e III

Teleconvertors are often seen as stop-gaps, but today's offerings, when used with an appropriate lens, they really can deliver great results. In fact, under some circumstances, they even have advantages over a longer lens, as the closest focus distance of the original lens is retained.

I have been fortunate to be able to use all of Nikon's current offerings, so what follows is my subjective impressions, based on my experience of these with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR and 300mm f/2.8 VR (mark one versions both).

First, up the TC-14e II. This is easy: you lose one stop and gain 40% in focal length. That's it. In my experience, with the aforementioned lenses you lose nothing else - no significant drop in autofocus performance and no significant drop in image quality, even wide open. Bearing in mind that makes my 300mm a 630mm f/4 on a DX camera, that's a fantastic result. Also, the lightweight, portable, hand-holdable nature of this TC on the 70-200 on a light camera like the D7000 is a great shoot-all-day combo when lugging a bigger lens around is impractical.

So, since teleconvertors are all about adding length, what's the TC-17e II like? Well, perhaps surprisingly, it performs just as well as the TC-14e, except instead of 40%, you're getting 70% more focal length (so 300mm becomes 510mm on FX, 765mm on DX!). Yes, you lose another half-stop, but even shot wide open (f/4.8) on my 300mm, the results are stunningly good. I don't even detect much slow-down in AF performance, at least not on a D3 series body. Again, no problems on the 70-200mm, just a very portable solution that delivers great results.

In terms of adding length, the TC-20e III is obviously the daddy. This latest version of the 2x TC has an aspherical element and is supposed to deliver exceptional image quality. First of all, my disclaimer: I never use this lens on my 70-200mm. Why? Well, if I really need that extra length I just switch to the 300mm and the 1.4x. In my opinion, if you're even contemplating buying a 2x convertor to extend a zoom you are barking up the entirely wrong tree. Get the longer lens you really need or get closer to your subject (buy a hide, improve your fieldcraft, whatever), or just go with the 1.4x or 1.7x.

On the 300mm, at first, the TC-20e III delivered disappointing results. After the other two, I naively expect to click it on and go, but it's taken a while to get to grips with it and get it to deliver results near to the other TC's (note, I'm saying near, not identical to). I discovered quickly that I needed to close down 1.5 to 2 stops from wide open to avoid disappointment with the image quality.

Not a huge problem perhaps, but we're now down to f/11 on the 300mm, and that two stops has an impact on shutter speed that is perhaps related to another issue that I have found. Previously I would leave VR switched on whether the lens was mounted on a tripod or not, as per the manual, but with this TC the image quality seems noticeably better with VR off. Since discovering this, I routinely disable VR except when handholding, whether I am using a TC or not.

So, with VR off and stopped down the TC-20e III does deliver reasonably good image quality on the 300mm f/2.8 (see previous post for some examples). That loss of 2 stops is a problem when photographing small garden birds in the UK though - they move so quickly we really need to keep those shutter speeds short, so inevitably it involves raising the ISO, potentially degrading the image quality further. But, bearing in mind that these birds are so small, this compromise seems reasonable to achieve an effective 900mm lens (DX), especially when you consider the price of super telephoto lenses...

To sum it up, I could only recommend the TC-20e III if you were shooting DX (I don't see the point in adding this on a FX camera), and you really needed the longer length for specific subjects but couldn't justify the cost of a longer lens (which is fair enough as these days, new, they cost as much as a small car).

The TC-14e II & TC-17e II are harder to separate, but if you can only choose one, then the only thing that I can see to separate them is half a stop. Given that the whole point of a TC is to give you extra reach, I would wholeheartedly recommend the 1.7x, and right now it's actually marginally cheaper than the 1.4x in the UK.

Monday, March 28, 2011

More Birding

Shifted the bird feeder to a sunnier spot this morning and set up some perches, here's some of the results from this afternoon's session.

Blue Tit, Nikon D7000, 300mm f/2.8 VR plus TC-20E III (effective 900mm lens), tripod (VR off) auto-ISO 1250, 1/640 @ f/8, cropped.

Robin, same setup as above, ISO 1000, 1/800s @ f/9.

As humans, we when we think of camouflage, we would not think of painting our heads blue and white and our bodies yellow, but it sure works for this little fella.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Pancake Lenses

Judging just by the number of hits to this blog from people searching for the Fuji X100, it may well be way more popular than I estimated. I still don't get it though, at least not at the price.

Amateur Photographer magazine ran an almost gushing article in the issue published on 22nd March, but what caught my eye more in that issue was an article about 'pancake' lenses. Especially as they had a nice big picture of a D7000 with a silver 45mm pancake lens on.

For those who don't know, pancake lenses are simple fixed-focal length lenses designed in such a way so as to protrude less from the camera body. The intention is to make something light, compact and discrete for travel, reportage and candid shots. Typically, but not always, they are close to the focal length of a 'standard' lens, i.e. 50mm for 35mm/full frame digital.

The article also mentioned the Nikon 50mm E series lens, but failed to mention that there are two other lenses that may be even more suitable for the D7000, as also part of the E series were a dinky 28mm and 35mm.

The E series were produced to compliment the Nikon EM, FG and FG-20 cameras, Nikon's compact range of 35mm SLRs, launched from 1979 to 1984. The E series were cheap and did not have the robust build quality of their corresponding Nikkor counterparts. However, they are optically pretty good (but not the best), and are very compact and lightweight.

These days they can be picked up for a song, especially the 50mm which was probably sold with practically every EM (you might even have an uncle, parent or grand-parent with one of these stashed away, possibly still in it's box!). One thing to note about the 50mm lenses is that it came in two versions. The later version, which is easily identified by a silver ring around its midrift, had a little more robust feel and wider focus grips, but was actually no smaller than the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AiS, i.e. only about 8mm shorter than the AF-D version still on sale today. So, for our purposes, despite the thin focus ring, the older, more compact all-black models might be preferred.

So there you go, pick up a D7000* body and an E series 'pancake' lens for less than an X100. Ok, I know it's a lot bigger. Ok, I know it's a lot heavier. But it's still not big or heavy :-)

*I mention the D7000 as it is fully compatible with AI lenses, other DX bodies are not, so, as always, check the manual!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Once Round the Goldfish Bowl

In the quest for my holy-grail of camera gear, my photographic equipment life-cycle has followed this pattern, over some 25 years:
  1. 35mm film - consumer grade autofocus zooms from system and third-party (cheap construction, small minimum aperture, mediocre image quality).
  2. 35mm - some fixed-focal length ('prime') autofocus lenses from system and third-party (better construction, better image quality, slightly bigger minimum apertures).
  3. Medium and large format, 1 or 2 manual focus prime lenses from the system manufacturer (excellent quality, heavy, bigger minimum apertures).
  4. Digital - pro-grade autofocus zooms (fast, excellent quality but big and heavy, not very discrete).
  5. Today - a mixture of ~30-year old prime manual focus lenses at the shorter end (fast, excellent quality, compact, light, great value secondhand, superb tactile-feel), Nikon's superb tilt-shift PC-E lenses, with a pro grade autofocus zoom and super telephoto at the longer end (see comment to 4. above).
That zoom mentioned in 5., the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR was the only zoom I owned. However, the D7000 now forces me to re-evaluate things at the wide end. Whilst my 270g 20mm f/2.8 AiS does just fine for me on a D3, the equivalent 30mm on the D7000 is just not wide enough.

Trouble is, anything ultra-wide tends to be quite heavy (400-500g or more), and/or does not allow the use of filters, (which is essential to me) or gives massive amounts of distortion. The solution? Turns out to be quite simple, and with a little bonus item as well.

Enter the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 DX, effectively 16.5-24mm. OK, so it's failed already on my first point, weighing in at 560g - but, hey, you don't get a lens built like this without it packing a few grams! Seriously, this is one well-built lens for the money. It's at least as good, if not better, than any recent Nikon zoom near this price point. The focus ring has a good feel, and the simple clutch to engage/disengage autofocus by moving the focus ring back and forth works better than expected (I'll probably leave it on manual though).

It's a 'G' type lens in Nikon speak, which means there is no aperture ring, the aperture has to be set on the camera. Focus and zoom orientation is the same as Nikon's own lenses. Comes complete with a hood, and the filter thread is 77mm, just like Nikon's own pro-zooms and PC-E lenses. I've tried a Lee wide-angle adapter and 2-slot holder and it doesn't vignette even at 11mm.

How about that weight though? Well it is a bit of a lump, but lighter than a couple of ultra-wide primes and although there are lighter ultra-wide zooms out there from Sigma and Tamron, it's nearest competitor is Nikon's own 10-24mm, which is only slightly more expensive. The Nikon does weigh 100g less, but that's reflected in the build quality.

But what about that bonus item? Well, the Tokina lens also works on full-frame! Obviously this is not what it was designed for, so there is vignetting at the wider end, but at 15 or 16mm it works just fine, if stopped down. You can even go a little wider if you crop to 5:4 (thanks to Ken Rockwell for pointing this out!). This in itself was enough to persuade me to Tokina away from the Nikon 10-24mm, which only manages 18mm on full frame, according to Ken. Obviously if you never intend to shoot full-frame then you may be better served by the Nikon, but it you truly 'never-say-never', then may be the Tokina is a better long-term investment, coming as it does, with a 'free' 15/16mm full frame lens.

Back to my evolutionary journey to photographic nirvana: save yourself some money, ignore the first three in my list above: we're in the age of digital now and none of these cuts it in my opinion any more. Which leaves you with 4 or 5, pro-grade zooms or pro-grade primes, same as it's always been really.

The choice here comes down mainly to what you shoot and where you shoot it. I don't need autofocus for many things, and I don't need to switch from one focal length to another in an instant: but if you're a sports or wedding photographer, these things are probably vital to you. The important point is buy the very best glass you can afford: treat it as an investment that should span the lifetime of many digital bodies!

One more thing, if the budget is tight, then a beaten up old fast prime, as long as the optics are good (and it's so easy to test now with digital), is worth 10 slow plastic 'kit' zoom lenses, any day. Can't get the exact focal length you want or is not having a zoom the end of the world to you? Try using your legs.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

D7000 ISO 1000 Sample

Nikon D7000 with Nikkor 300mm VR f/2.8 MK1 and TC-17e (effectively a 765mm lens). ISO1000, 1/500s @ f/4.8 (wide open), handheld. Shot in RAW and post processed with NX2, Noise Ninja and Nik Sharpener Pro.

Oh, and by the way this is a 2.6 megapixel crop from the original ;-)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dear Mr Nikon

Finally got to have a play with one of your D7000's, and I must say, a very nice camera it is. Light, compact and sturdily made. Image quality looks mighty good to, right up to ISO 1600-3200.

I love that the dinky little IR remote can operate properly in mirror-up mode (first click raises mirror, second click fires shutter), and there is even an IR sensor on the back of the camera. Perfect for landscapers like me, and a lot less hassle than the 10-pin remote on your professional cameras! I stuck on a DK-21M magnifying eyepiece and even the viewfinder did not seem too 'claustrophobic', and the simple switch that takes you into Liveview is really cool.

However, nothing's perfect. Most shocking is that your PC-E lenses won't fit, and bizarrely, this is not because the control knobs foul the camera body, but it's actually the lens barrel itself that threatens to scratch the underside of the flash housing. I tried rotating the lens to all sorts of combinations before attempting to mount it... to no avail (apart from a little scratch on the flash housing).

So, here's my challenge to you: make a D7000m. It's a simple idea, a stripped-down version aimed fair and square at real enthusiasts, not just those that had megapixel-envy. Here's the recipe:
  1. Remove the flash (I'll never use it). Presumably there's a microswitch that tells the electronics that the flash is raised: hard-wire it or leave it open so the camera never thinks the flash is raised (cost: probably a net saving on parts).
  2. Make a new moulding to replace the one that surrounds the lens mount and forms the underside of the flash housing. You could make the front of the camera flush to the lens mount, or leave the vestiges of a pentaprism bulge if you must, just as long as the PC-E lenses work (cost: a fair bit for re-tooling, but it is only one part of the body moulding that has to be changed).
  3. Take out the AF systems and the motor - I don't need it - at the same time you can remove the AF/MF switch, and as it fits through the moulding you're replacing in 2., just blank it off in the new moulding (cost: net cost saving, subsidising the new tooling required for 2.).
  4. Replace the mode switch on the top left of the camera with one that has only 2 positions, 'A' and 'M'. The new switch can use exactly the same form factor as the current one, but will probably be cheaper (cost: another net saving on parts).
  5. Blank out all the now redundant menu options (AF, flash, anything to do with those awful 'scene' modes (cost: not much, probably just a few engineer days editing and testing a new firmware version).
Sell it about 10% below the D7000, but may be get a well-known photographer to endorse it and perhaps produce a 'signature' version and/or a limited production run. Make some dinky wide angle DX lenses and offer 20% off PC-E lenses when bought with the camera. Ok, may be I've gone a bit too whacky now.

Oh, and I'll have 2 please.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Backing Up Your Digital Images

One advantage of digital over film that is often overlooked is the ease with which you can make backup copies of your image files to protect against loss. I have heard people bemoaning the apparent fragility of computer hard disks, but given that storage is so cheap* these days, you have no excuse for not creating backups!

It is important to consider the other risks, apart from hard disk failure, as well. Loss due to fire or theft is probably a considerable risk to, especially given that our hard disks tend not to stay in use for too long as we upgrade for more capacity or even replace whole machines after a period of years.

The first and most important thing is to consider the risks and then devise a strategy to deal with them. For most people these are:
  1. Loss due to hard drive failure
  2. Loss due to fire or theft
  3. Loss due to accidental deletion
Next, consider how more or less likely these are. For example, most of my work is done and stored on a desktop workstation. If this was a laptop, then I would consider the risk of theft to be higher, especially if I transported that machine from place-to-place frequently.

My strategy to deal with item 1., is that my desktop workstation has 3 disks: one contains the Operating System and programs; the other two contain my image files, in a mirrored RAID configuration. Mirrored simply means that my image files are written to both disks, and should one of these drives fail, the Operating System (Windows 7 64 bit) will warn me. Once the faulty disk is replaced, the files on the 'good' disk will be 'mirrored' again automatically, thus restoring protection for my files.

To cover item 2., fire or theft, I use a pair of external hard disks, on each of which I make a backup of my image files using EMC Retrospect. I alternate the disks and never have both disks in the same location, i.e. one is always stored off site. Retrospect also takes care of item 3., accidental deletion, as it allows you to restore earlier versions of individual files quickly and easily.

I also have a laptop and a netbook which occasionally have image files on when on location, these are backed up onto a rugged portable hard drive, and are copied to the desktop machine as soon as I return to base. To back up the laptop I use Acronis True Image, and I also use this to backup the Operating System disk in my workstation. As it's name suggests, True Image creates an image of the whole disk which can be used to re-instate the machine should the laptop disk fail - the image is simply copied to a replacement disk and the machine is restored complete, as it was.

* Maplin are currently selling 2TB external hard disks for around £85!