Thursday, July 19, 2012

The 'new' focal lengths are the old focal lengths...

I spent an evening in York the other day (see previous post), and knowing that I'd be on foot, shooting hand-held in low-light, I took my current 'walk-round' outfit. Now I'm generally no fan of zooms, preferring instead fixed focal length  (prime) lenses with a decent fast maximum aperture.

On this occasion I went equipped with a Nikon D7000, an old Nikon 20mm f/2.8 Ai-S manual focus lens, a Nikon 35mm AF-S f/1.8 DX lens and a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF-D. You'll notice that these are all fast, but not the fastest available, and there's 2 good reasons for this: cost and weight.

As an example, the 35mm f/1.8 weighs some 400g less than it's f/1.4 cousin, and costs over a thousand pounds less. OK, the f/1.4 is the better lens under some circumstances, but it also serves to demonstrate what great value it's slower cousin is - but only if you are shooting DX of course!

I was really pleased with the results from this little outfit, and it made me reflect on how this harks back to the sort of gear you might have had, or hankered after, 30 or 40 years ago when 35mm SLRs came to the attention of mainstream consumers. Chances are if you had a Zenit, Praktica, or if you were really fortunate like me, a Pentax ME Super, then you would have started with a 50mm, added a 28mm wide angle, and perhaps a 135mm telephoto. Fast forward 40 years, and that's pretty much how my 'compact' outfit stacks up: the equivalents are 30mm, 52mm and 127mm.

In terms of portability, quality and value (if you purchase the 20 & 85 used), I think this trio will take a lot to beat. Provided that is, it suits the style of photography you want to practice with it.

Two other essential pieces of equipment needed for a rainy shoot - lens hoods and a clear shower cap. The shower cap goes over the camera (it's best to remove the strap), protecting it from rain but allowing you to see and access controls and LCD, but I found it best to pull it off the viewfinder to compose.

If you keep the lens pointed slightly down, lens hoods protect the front element from rain spots. The hood for the 85mm is a bit bulky, so I used a Hoya rubber one, which also happily fits the 20mm and can be extended or retracted to suit either lens. The smaller plastic hood supplied with the 35mm did the job perfectly.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Turning rain to your advantage

The current UK 'summer' weather has been extremely frustrating, the only thing to do is to try and turn it to your advantage, like some moody shots of wet cobbles perhaps?

 Nikon D7000, 85mm f/1.8 AF-D 1/100 @ f/2.2, ISO 1800

As above except ISO 1250

Nikon D7000, 35 f/1.8 AF-S DX, 1/40 @ f/2.2, ISO 1000

All the above taken in The Shambles, York

Monday, July 09, 2012

Thom Hogan D800/D800E Review

Thom Hogan has his review of the D800 up on his website, with some interesting comments about the D800E.

As usual Thom's comments are logical, sometimes counter-intuitive (at least to me), and a little controversial! Certainly he gives all potential users/choosers some things to think about, especially the 'Big Croppers', as he calls them.

On balance, after reading this I'm more inclined to stick with the D3x than I was, but keep an eye on what comes our way in terms of the rumoured D600.

Also good to see Thom recommending the D7000 at various points, I think that this is an excellent camera and still great value.

You can read the review here.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Olympic Torches

North Street, Rugby, July 2nd 2012 (Nikon D7000 with MB-D11, 70-200mm f/2.8VR, 1/250 @ f/3.2)

Friday, June 29, 2012

D800 - love it and hate it

Thoughts on the D800 from a D3x owner:

Love it
  • Resolution
  • Dynamic Range
  • Same battery as D7000 (no forking out on more batteries or chargers)
  • Sensible remote options (10 pin on D3x is major PIA to attach, especially with cold hands!)
  • Size, weight
Hate it
  • Dramatic drop in D3x used values!
Will I get one? Possibly, as the cost-to-change from the D3x is still quite low. Would like to see some authorative reviews, for example from Thom Hogan, before making a final decision, and would also like to be sure that initial production issues are cleared up.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Digital Panoramas - part two

Following on from my last post, let's have a look at two more techniques for digital panoramas, both involving using software to stitch together multiple images, for which I use ptgui.

4. Stitching - using a panoramic head

There are a few of these on the market, all of them allow for proper alignment of the shot images, by rotating the lens around it's nodal point. You have to calibrate for each lens you intend to use, but it only takes a few minutes to do.

I use the Nodal Ninja 5, which offers solid support but is correspondingly big and bulky, and you really need a levelling base on the tripod for ease of use. I generally put the camera into portrait (vertical) mode, and shoot 6 or 7 overlapping frames, depending on the lens.

This setup gives me around a 108 megapixel 3:1 image when using the 24 megapixel Nikon D3x, but I often have to crop this a little, as it's quite difficult to visualise the finished result. Still, plenty of resolution to play with.

There's a couple of options on the market for automated, motorised panoramic heads, onto which you mount the camera, programme in what you want in terms of angle-of-view, and let the electronics do the 'hard' work. Trouble is, I don't feel that the actual picture-taking is the hard work bit. Great idea I suppose if you need to repeatedly shoot the same angle of view, or need a 360 degree view for VR purposes. Gigapan sell a model suitable for use with SLRs. the Epic Pro, which is available in the UK from Red Door VR (they also sell Nodal Ninja products).


5. Stitching - using a shift lens

By mounting your camera rigidly on a tripod and taking a sequence of 3 images with a shift lens, 1 with no shift, 1 with maximum left shift and 1 with maximum right shift, you'll get either a 2:1 image when using full frame, of 3:1 if using DX format.

For my purposes, DX works best, and offers 32 megapixels when used with the Nikon D7000, enough for a print up to 30" wide at 300ppi. A 24 megapixel DX SLR would take this to nearer 40".

The advantages of this solution are that it is relatively portable, and also it's possible to use a tilt movement with Nikon's PC-E lenses, to give great front-to-back sharpness. Also, the images are nicely aligned with big overlaps so your stitching software has an easy job.

Unfortunately, tilt/shift lenses are quite expensive (although you could try the older Nikon AI shift lenses, but you need to watch compatibility as you can damage your camera depending on the model) and metering can be tricky. Also as with any stitching technique, it's difficult to pre-visualise the final result (although I find it a bit better in this regard than using a panoramic head).

(The above applies to the Nikon PC-E lenses, which offer +/-11mm of shift, but I believe Canon's equivalents are very similar)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Digital Panoramas - part one

I love the panoramic format, and when I say panoramic, I mean 3:1 aspect ratio, printed big (and by big I mean a minimum of 2 to 3 feet wide). In my opinion, anything wider than 3:1 looks contrived, and anything narrower isn't really a pano. Nope, 3:1 it has to be, and nothing works better in conveying a sweeping vista.

Let's look at the options in the digital world:

1. Film(!)

Yeah I know I said 'in the digital world', but you can't ignore the 6x17cm film format, as made popular by the likes of Colin Prior. There are a few camera options available, both new and secondhand, but the obvious choice are the Fujifilm G/GX 617's. Now out of production, but readily available second hand.

Obvious advantages are the fact it is a 'native' 3:1 format, so what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and quality is very high due to excellent lenses and that massive slab of film (it really is 5.6cm x 17cm, so does fulfil my 3:1 requirement!). Scanning at just 1200dpi would be good enough for a 27" wide print at 300ppi.

Downsides are that these cameras are expensive to buy and run: c£2000 body only and c£2 per shot for film and processing (not including scanning!). Depreciation should be pretty low though.

2. Dedicated digital panoramic camera

There's only one of these that I know of - the Seitz 6x17 Digital. First, the good news is we have native 3:1, plus a resolution of 160 megapixels! Yep, that's enough for a 70" wide print at 300ppi.

Bad news is this camera, with a couple of lenses, spare batteries and a very powerful computer is going to set you back close to £40,000! There's a 18 megapixel version which is cheaper but doesn't quite  make a 2-foot wide print at 300ppi, and as we'll see this resolution can be met by a digital SLR these days.

If you're still reading after that price tag, see what can be done with the 160 megapixel version by David Osborn of British Panoramics.

3. Cropping

Most digital SLRs have a sensor in the 3:2 aspect ratio, so by simply cropping away half the frame, we get 3:1. Good news is many SLR's have gridlines in the viewfinder, or we can use black tape on the LCD to mask the image, allowing us to visualise the final panoramic composition.

We have to be careful about exposure, as the camera is metering from the whole scene, but with care and bracketing this could work quite well. Given that a 24 or 36 megapixel DSLR will make a 20" or 24" print at 300ppi, this is quite an easy way to get into the format, but it doesn't really allow me to make the sort of print sizes I would like.

(A while ago I even asked Nikon if they could introduce a 3:1 viewfinder mask on the D3x, just as they have for DX and 5x4 formats, but I got the standard 'this is not something we're planning' email back. If they were to do this for the D800, I'd probably buy one, but they probably won't)

In part two, I'll be looking at stitching techniques.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Nikon Speedlite Training UK

Just saw this training from Nikonians, sounds like a good way to get to grips with Nikon flash and the Creative Lighting System (CLS).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Speedlites vs Studio Flash

I've been using flash a bit more these days, and was wondering whether to replace my pair of old Bowens Monolite 400D's, bought a few years ago secondhand, or whether to expand my Speedlite system.

Problem is, as excellent and (so far) reliable as the ancient Bowens are, they are big and bulky units which cannot be used on location. I already have 2 Nikon SB-800 Speedlites and theses offer considerable advantages:
  • Compact and light
  • Battery power means location use (I also have SD-8a battery packs for quicker recycling)
  • Works with Nikon Creative Light System (CLS) so exposure and power of each light can be controlled wirelessly from my D7000
Of course they are not as powerful as the Bowens, but it's incredibly difficult to judge from specs alone, and there is no real comparison I could find on the web. Trouble is, studio flash power tends to be quoted in watts, but this is really a measure of the electrical energy delivered to the tube, not the light output, which will vary depending on the efficiency of the tube and reflector. The Bowens are apparently 250W, according to this.

So I did a 'real world' test for myself, I fired the Bowens through a Westcott 43"/110cm white umbrella at my Sekonic flashmeter approximately 2 metres away, and then the same with the SB-800. I also attached the Nikon diffuser to the SB-800, as, although this reduces the output a little, it spreads the light nicely over the brolly (the flash covers 104 degrees, equivalent to a 14mm lens when the diffuser is attached). This enables the Speedlite to give a similar quality of light as the Bowens in this setup. Both flashes were set to full power.

As expected the Bowens beat the Speedlite by some margin, showing f/11, 2 stops more powerful than the Speedlite at f/5.6. So, still usable for individual portraits, especially as in practice the light could be positioned a lot closer to the subject. Of course using a second SB-800 firing through the same brolly would narrow this gap down to about 1 stop, but I'd probably need a third SB-800 to act as a fill light.

Why the SB-800, why not a more modern unit? Well, hardly used one's can be picked up easily for around £200-£220, which is about £120 less than a SB-900 or SB-910. Although it has a clunky interface compared to the more modern units, it is still the joint most powerful unit tested at and you can also pick up matching SD-8a battery packs for around £60.

Word of caution: if you're thinking of using some old studio lights with your modern DSLR, check carefully that the trigger voltage is not going to fry your camera. Or, do what I do and use a radio trigger so there is no electrical connection at all between flash and camera.

Nikon on a roll?

Nikon's latest DSLR offerings are fascinating, as they have brought the highest resolution to the DSLR market at a very attractive price, the D800 sporting 36mp for less than half the price of their 24mp flagship, the D3x.

For the first time they are also offering the camera in 2 versions, the D800E has the anti-aliasing filter removed, promising even greater sharpness at the risk of moire when shooting subjects with regular repeating patterns.

So, as the owner of a D3x and D7000, will I be getting a D800? Quite possibly, as the idea of trading my current cameras for 2 D800E's at first seems attractive. Having 2 identical cameras using the same batteries, and only losing out a little in DX resolution (15 vs 16mp for the D7000). I use DX with shift lenses a bit so this would be important to me.

But there are downsides: file sizes. Whilst my current workstation (64 bit, 2 dual-core 3GHz Xeon processors, 12GB of quad-channel RAM and solid state disk for OS and applications) is well up to scratch, even this slows noticeably with stitched images from my current cameras (32-108mp equivalents).

However, at the other end of the price scale, the forthcoming D3200 is an intriguing proposition to. From my perspective there's quite a lot not to like: RAW is only 12 bit and compressed; not 100% viewfinder; no autofocus with non AF-S lenses and clunky operation with AI lenses.

But, at the price, the D3200 seems like a great option for lugging up mountains and composing easy 48mp panoramics with a shift lens (using Liveview for the 100% view). Of course we'll just have to see how usable the PC-E lenses are on this compact body, if at all! That compact 'consumer' body saves almost 300g over the D7000, but no doubt the build will be lighter to.

Also the D3200 plus 50mm & 35mm f/1.8 AF-S, plus a Voigtlander 20mm would form a very compact outfit. Even substituting the 50 for the new 85 mm AF-S still keeps it small. But why are Nikon still not offering a compact wideangle prime for DX? Personally I would rather have seen this than the largely irrelevant 40mm DX macro. The Voigtlander is the only prime wide option that works with the exposure system but is manual focus, not that wide and comparatively expensive. I'd would love to see a prime 14mm f/4 AF-S DX (VR not required!) lens at a reasonable price (sub-£300?) and around 250-300g, and I'm sure a lot of other people would to.

I don't normally make predictions, but anyone can see the D3200 should sell extremely well, because of that headline-grabbing resolution. Unfortunately I can also foresee a lot of moaning on Internet fora, as I don't believe the 18-55mm kit lens will be up to the job, unless stopped down, and shot discipline at these resolutions needs to be very good.

There's some D3200 samples on DPReview here. The one of the glass house shows particularly good details.

Serious about Tripods

Thom Hogan is a wise man, and he's never wiser than when he writes his 'Tripod 101'.

Bottom line - if you're going to buy a tripod, don't skimp on the budget, as over time you'll end up spending more. Here's what I use:

Tripod 1 - the sturdy option

When I'm not walking too far or I am using a long lens and stability is more important than portability, I use a Gitzo 5-series tripod. This is an expensive but superb piece of kit, rated to a 25 kilo load, but I've seen a man that was at least 3.5 times that swing from one at Focus On Imaging (he worked for Gitzo). It's not that heavy (2.7 kilo) given it's strength but you wouldn't want to carry it all day!

On top I'll use a Manfrotto 410 geared head with a Hejnar Arca Swiss clamp (see my earlier post), or, for long lenses, the exceedingly simple but effective Manfrotto MN393 'gimbal' head.

The only thing I can find to criticise on the Gitzo is the way the top plate is attached - I think the design here is flawed and I fret that the plate could get wrenched out, sending my camera and expensive telephoto lens tumbling to its death! So, as I'm a little paranoid about this, I also use a Naturescapes Safety Plate which prevents this risk.

I've also wrapped the upper leg sections in Jack Pyke camouflage tape, not just to break up the shape, but also this makes the carbon fibre slightly nicer to handle, especially in cold weather.

Tripod 2 - the carry-all-day option

I have an old Manfrotto Carbon One 441 (3-section legs), with a short centre column and a small FLM ballhead with a Kirk Arca Swiss QR plate. This is a superbly light (~1.1 kilo) setup that will rigidly support a consumer-sized DSLR and tilt/shift lens, making it ideal for forays into the mountains.

If pushed, then without the legs extended I would trust it with a D3 and 300mm f/2.8 on the Manfrotto 393 head, but this is at the upper limit of what it can handle, and would definately cause some flex if the legs were extended.

On hikes I remove the head and column, placing it in one rucksack side pocket, with the legs in the other. You barely know it's there.