The tools that I use and recommend
D300 dslr (retired)
D200 dslr (retired)
D80 dslr (retired)
D70 dslr (retired)
Full-frame (FX) Lenses
Nikon 24mm f/1.4 FX
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 FX
Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D FX (retired)
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 FX
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G FX
Nikon 85mm f/1.4D FX (retired)
Nikon 85mm f/1.8 FX
Nikon 20mm f/2.8
Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 FX (retired)
Epson Stylus Pro 3800 and 3880
What Am I Currently Carrying?
- Camera: Nikon D800 digital SLR
- Lenses: Nikon 24mm f/1.4G, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D, Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G
- accessories: Gitzo 1157 tripod, Acratech Ultimate ballhead, Really Right Stuff L-plate
- Nikon D800 36 megapixel FX DSLR (April 2012)
I used to claim that each new camera was going to be the last camera I’d ever need. I’ve been proven wrong too many times. But boy, oh boy, Nikon’s D800 doesn’t leave much to desire.
NOTE: I don’t use the video capability, and I won’t consider it at all in this review.
For a few years now, Nikon has been releasing DSLRs that have just about nailed the perfect physical design. In form and controls, the D700 closely resembled the D300 before it, and the D800 closely resembles the D700. After three years of daily use with the D700, I picked up the D800, took note of a couple button changes, and was off and running. This is a body that feels good and is easy to use.
In almost every way, shooting with the D800 is just like shooting with the D700. The biggest difference I feel day to day is the D800′s slower frames-per-second shutter rate. I’ve been spoiled by the D700′s 8fps (with vertical grip). When you bracket exposures like I do, 8fps is very, very handy: three bracketed exposures in less than half a second. At 4fps, the D800 slows the frame rate by half when shooting the full 36MP frame. (Things improve only slightly to 5 fps when shooting in a special DX 16 megapixel crop mode, and that moves up to 6 fps with the $450 MB-D12 vertical grip. But for full frame, it’s 4fps.) After five weeks with the D800, I’m used to the slower frame rate, but I’ll always crave the faster fps of the D700.
Other than that, shooting with the D800 is very much like shooting with the D700 or D300. I’m appreciating some small differences. It’s nice having the BKT button handy on the left dial. And I like the Virtual Horizon — no more carrying around my little bubble level. And I do love having a 100% viewfinder again — the D700′s 95% finder left me unsure of exactly where the edges of the frame would fall.
The big, big change is, of course, the 36 megapixel image size. That’s enormous, triple the resolution of my D700. Right out of the camera, a 240dpi image will print at 20×30″, bigger than most people will ever need. I often print big prints at 180dpi (almost impossible to distinguish from higher resolution), which will create a print 40″ wide. Wow. Let’s keep going: I can easily scale an image up using Genuine Fractals (now renamed Perfect Resize) to 150% of original size and keep great quality. That means I can hang great looking images at five feet wide, with enough resolution that you can move in close and examine every little detail. I wish I’d had this camera when I shot C&H Auto Repair or Ganmar Electronics.
But until I print big, I don’t notice that difference. I printed an extremely detailed D800 image in the best possible quality at 17×22″, and I might be able to see more detail. Maybe. If I squint. Of course working with triple the resolution means I can crop the hell of an image and still have excellent quality — it’s like having a longer lens, in fact. But I seldom crop. So the enormous image size will pay off eventually, but for now it doesn’t make a difference in my day-to-day shooting.
What else? The image quality appears to be a notch above the D700 — at the same printing size, the high-ISO noise is a slight improvement over the D700, for example. The D800 body is slightly lighter, and the shape is slightly more comfortable in my hand. On the other hand, the new EN-EL15 battery doesn’t last as long as earlier batteries, and the charger is a little bigger, both of which mean more hassle when traveling. But the LCD screen is a little bit bigger, and now I finally have a camera that takes two memory cards (one compact flash card and one SD card), which partly makes up for the fact that my 16GB cards hold only 200 of these huge image files. (The SD card slot is, in fact, quite a bonus, because I can finally use an Eye-fi card to tether to my iPad when I’m on location. UPDATE: connecting to the Eye-fi card has turned out to be took flaky to count on. I’ve given up on it.)
And now I’m having a hard time coming up with other advantages. It’s really all about that resolution — that’s the bottom line. I love the D800, and I can’t wait to print really big, which promise to make my next gallery show a whole different experience. If I’d had this much resolution for the images in my 2010 show, in fact, I would have hung much bigger prints; I was limited by the 12-megapixel files from my D700. But except for that enormous resolution, I have no need for the D800 — I’d be perfectly happy to keep shooting with the D700.
Two major side effects from my switch to the D800.
First, I’ve begun carrying my tripod a lot more than I used to. It’s not that the D800 is more sensitive to camera shake. A print from the D700 will show the same effects of camera shake as a print from the D800 — at the same print size. But once you blow up that D800 print to a much bigger size, that additional detail might reveal smearing that would not have been visible in the smaller print. And now that I can shoot for very large prints, I want to preserve those details that would have been invisible in a 12-megapixel image. The other day I used my tripod to shoot a three-story building in Soho, and if you blow the image up really big and look really close, you can actually read the business’s hours posted in the first-floor window.
Second, I’m throwing away a much higher percentage of images I bring home. It’s not because I’m getting worse. I’d like to think I’m getting a little better all the time. But when an image file is as much as 45 megabytes, I’ve lost the desire to store every single shot on the off chance that someday I’ll find a use for it. (My Aperture image library is already almost two terabytes.)
- Nikon D700 12 megapixel FX DSLR (January 2009)
I’ve gone through two big leaps in my experience with digital cameras. The first was when I moved up from a point-and-shoot to a digital SLR (the Nikon D70). Using the camera suddenly became much more transparent, thanks to the through-the-lens viewfinder, the instantaneous on, the instantaneous shutter release, and the improved control. I was no longer frustrated: fidgeting, twiddling, making up for the camera’s limitations. Taking a photo became far more natural.
And the second leap occurred when I acquired the Nikon D700. Its full-frame sensor and the sensor’s new low-light capability bring a change I didn’t expect.
The D700 is so noise-free at higher ISO settings that I now routinely shoot at ISO 800, 1600, and even 3200. That means that, to my surprise, I no longer have to keep an eye on slow shutters speeds or wide apertures. Suddenly, even indoors and in the evening, I can move around freely in a wide ranger of shutter speeds and apertures, confident that the images will not be crippled by noise. Now I think about aperture and shutter speed only in creative terms. This low-noise capability, rather than adding complexity, simplifies things. The D700 is the most transparent camera I’ve ever used — and that includes the 35mm film SLRs that I’ve used since the late 1960s.
How much better is the D700′s low-light capability? I’ve done a small batch of pseudo-scientific tests, shooting the same scene with both my D300 and D700 on tripods with identical settings and the same lens, at various ISOs from below base up to to the highest, and compared the results side by side. Across the entire range, the D700 appears to be almost a 2 stop improvement over the D300. That is, an image shot at ISO 800 on my D300 has very similar luminance noise, color noise, contrast, color accuracy, and saturation to an image shot on the D700 at ISO 2200 to 3200. Wow.
One of my early projects involved typical shutter speeds of 1/20 to 1/30 sec at 70mm (with VR), and only one out of four or five images was turning out sharp. I took the D700 to that same environment (with the same lens) and shot at 1/80 sec; every image was sharp. I had to completely rethink my shooting technique; all sorts of possibilities opened up.In addition to that improvement, I’m enjoying working once again with normal, 35mm-film-size, full frame (what Nikon calls FX) lenses. It’s nice not to think in terms of equivalents. (And Nikon’s latest FX lenses are among the finest they’ve ever produced. The 24-70mm f/2.8 (review) Nikon introduced only a year ago is incredibly sharp, if large and heavy; it looks very much like a larger version of the 17-55mm DX. If you can picture a D300 with a 17-55mm, just blow everything up a little and you’ll see the D700 with the 24-70mm.)
Physically, the camera is extremely similar to my old D300, so much so that I have to look close to see which camera I’m picking up. The D700 is a bit heavier, a bit taller (not much). Only a few features have been tweaked. I’ve read that it’s got a slightly improved autofocus. The viewfinder is brighter and larger — yay — but it only shows about 95% of the final image — boo.
And there are other minor differences, but I honestly can’t remember what they are. They certainly played no part in my move up to this body. Like the D300, the D700 is comfortable, the buttons and dials are thoughtfully laid out, and the images are gorgeous. You can read my review of the D300 below for more.
In normal light, in fact, the D700 is pretty much the same as shooting with the D300, which was the finest SLR I’ve ever used. But in low light, even outdoors in the shade, this is camera is a game-changer. It’s not only the finest, but the most transparent camera I’ve ever used.
- Not only does Thom Hogan give a very complete review of the D700, but his 820-page ebook, Complete Guide to the D700, is absolutely essential. It’s head and shoulders above any other material I’ve seen on any camera. If you spend $2500 on a D700, another $40 for Thom’s guide is a no-brainer (and I don’t get a penny for that endorsement). But wait, there’s more! Thom also bundles his 145-page Intro to Nikon Software, videos, charts, settings, and Photoshop actions for your HD, and his 128-page printed portable guide to the D700. Now how much would you pay?
- Nikon 24mm f/1.4G ED FX wide-angle prime lens (September 2012)
Oh my goodness what a sweet lens. It’s everything I wished for — sharp all over, very fast, great contrast and color. On the other hand, the bokeh isn’t nearly as smooth as the gorgeous 85mm f/1.4D and G lenses (though that may be asking for too much). And it’s very expensive ($2000 street). Nonetheless, you do indeed get what you pay for.
Don’t let anyone tell you that wide angle lenses can’t be used for portraits. A wide angle just has to be used more carefully. I typically use my 85mm f/1.4G for portraits, of course, but that focal length can be very limiting; it’s great used nice and tight, but can be a hassle, or even unusable, for wider environmental portraits. Sometimes you need to give your subject a lot of breathing room.
This is the lens that got me to love wide angle all over again.
- Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED FX mid-range zoom (February 2009)
There’s not a lot to report about this terrific lens — it’s sharp, fast, great contrast and color characteristics (a bit warm, which I like). On the down side, it’s heavy at 2 pounds, 3 ounces (without caps but with hood), long (about 7 1/2 inches with the hood), and expensive (about $1430 street in 2009).
But for that price in dollars and pounds, you do get an extremely sharp lens, probably the sharpest I’ve ever owned, even wide open, with moderate but easily flattened distortion at its widest end. This is the lens that sits on my D700 most of the time (very much like my 17-55mm f/2.8 sat on the D300). It’s the lens I take when I don’t mind the weight. If I have to pack just one lens, this is it.
(Update: times change. My favorite walkaround kit is now the 14-24mm f/2.8 or 24mm f/1.4G and the 85mm f/1.4G. But if I carry a single lens, it’s still the 24-70mm.)
- Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED ultra-wide zoom for full-frame cameras (February 2009)
With the addition of this ultrawide zoom, I’ve now got a wide range of focal lengths covered for the FX D700 (17-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm). And the 17-35mm is almost a straight replacement for my 12-24mm f/4 DX lens on the D300 (the 12-24mm has a 99 to 61 degree field of view; the 17-35mm is 104 to 62 degrees), with a stop faster aperture. I have long been a major fan of wide angle shooting, and this lens takes me out to a nice ultra-wide field of view.
The lens is expensive (it just went up to $1700) and a bit heavy at a pound, 12 ounces, but fairly compact and very solidly built. Though it’s fairly soft in the corners wide open, where it also gets noticeable chromatic aberration, stop it down a bit and the thing is very sharp, almost equal to my 24-70mm and 70-200mm (which makes that trio a beautiful set). It focuses to a very close 12″ from the film plane.I can’t work without a solid ultrawide zoom in my arsenal, and this lens more than meets my needs.
[Update: As solid a performer as it is, the 17-35mm image quality doesn't compare with the 14-24mm, though they don't really serve the same purpose.]
- Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ultra-wide zoom for full-frame cameras (October 2009)
Nikon’s full-frame 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, introduced in August 2007 with the full-frame D3, seems to defy physics. Ultra-wide angle lenses are extremely hard to design without bringing along a slew of issues (and that counts double for ultra-wide zooms). As an ultra-wide fan, I’ve grown accustomed to fringing and chromatic aberration, flare, barrel distortion, vignetting, and soft corners, as if these things are the price that must be paid to go very wide. As it turns out, I was wrong.
I’ve been carrying the 14-24mm around for about a month now, and I’m seriously hooked. 14mm is so wide I feel like I’m most of the way to fisheye — I’ve accidentally gotten my feet in a couple shots! And the quality of the images is simply superb. There’s shockingly little distortion at either end of the zoom range; minor fringing and CA; and flare only when the sun is right in the frame. Autofocus, as with all recent Nikon lenses, is quick and silent. And the thing is extremely sharp, throughout the zoom range, and surprisingly sharp wide open at f/2.8, even in the corners. This thing is sharper in the corners than my 17-35mm f/2.8, my 20mm f/2.8…I think it’s sharper in the corners than any lens I’ve used. Why do I care so much? I often include details way out in the corners.
I was prepared to find the lens heavy, but because it’s shorter than my 24-70mm f/2.8, it actually feels more comfortable to carry. (With lens caps and hoods but without end caps, the 24-70 and 14-24mm weigh virtually the same at just under 2 pounds, 4 ounces; the 17-35mm weighs half a pound less at 1 pound, 12 ounces. On my D700, the 24-70 or 14-24 bring the total weight to almost 4 3/4 pounds. Ouch.)
Some people avoid this lens because it can’t take a filter. No filters at all, rear or front, ever. And while that is a serious drawback, I don’t use filters often enough to make that a deal-killer. It’s also very expensive at around $1800, so this is a purchase you make once to shoot for many years to come. Other drawbacks: the lens hood is not removable, and the glass really bows out the front, making it feel very vulnerable to accidental scratches.
The biggest flaw for my use, though, is that it’s so wide that it’s less versatile. The 17-35mm works pretty well as a walkaround lens (typically accompanied by the 85mm f/1.8), since the 35mm end is a good all-purpose focal length. But this 14-24mm range is really wide all the way through its range — 24mm is still really wide. If I carry this thing with, say, the 85mm, there’s a big hole in the middle. Do I carry a third lens, say the 50mm f/1.4, and do a lot of lens swapping? All I can say is, everyone should have such problems.
- Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor ED 70-200mm f/2.8G IF telephoto zoom lens (full-frame) (July 2006)
Set aside for a moment the question of the Vibration Reduction feature of the Nikkor 70-200 VR. Even with the VR turned off, this is, by far, the sharpest, clearest lens I’ve ever used, bar none. VR has its detractors, but I’m very happy with the feature — I could never have shot my “amnh” series without it. For that project, I was mostly shooting at the 70 to 110mm end at ISO 200 on the D70 in that dark museum. This image for example, was taken at 1/20 sec with the lens at 110mm. That’s more than two stops slower than you’d normally want to shoot at that focal length. But it’s sharp as a tack. Blown up to 13 x 19″, you can see every hair on that man’s arms.
More: The “bokeh,” the look of the out-of-focus rendering, is beautiful. The autofocus is fast, accurate and silent (though the VR makes a quiet clicking sound).
Drawbacks: expensive, heavy at 3 lbs, and it can’t focus closer than about five feet. (See also Thom Hogan’s review.)
NOTE that the lens has been replaced by a new VRII model, which I have not tested.
Update (2011): Roughly five years after I first bought the 70-200mm VR and I still find it to be one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used. I’ve been shooting it wide open lately, at f/2.8, and the images are just tack sharp — and the bokeh is beautiful. The 70-200 remains one of my all-time favorite lenses.
- Nikon 85mm f/1.4G prime lens (October 2011)
Over the past year, I’ve been shooting more of my images with an 85mm prime (the Nikkor f/1.4D) than any other single lens. It’s a terrific focal length, I can shoot with a very shallow depth of field, it’s terrific for low light, it can’t be beat for portraits, and it’s even amazing for landscapes. When Nikon introduced a newer version of its classic portrait lens, I hesitated to upgrade — could the new “G” lens possibly be an improvement over the old “D” lens? But the reviews convinced me that it was an important move up — I spend so much time with an 85mm on my D700 that small improvements would be well worth the price.
I’ve only been using the lens for a few days, but it’s already clear that it equals its classic predecessor in the beauty of the bokeh (the background blur in shallow depth of field). My sample is possibly sharper in the middle of the frame at the wide apertures I typically use, f/2.2 and 2.8. But the biggest benefit to me is the quicker focus, which also seems to hold focus better — that is, less hunting. This is apparently thanks to the “silent wave” focus motor. Though it’s a fatter and longer lens, it only weighs something like an additional 3 ounces and feels just fine on my D700 (with the battery grip).
- Nikon 85mm f/1.4D prime lens (May 2010)
The original classic “Cream Machine” (so nicknamed because of its beautiful bokeh), the 85mm f/1.4 offers an image quality that’s actually very similar to the much less expensive Nikon 85mm f/1.8. I shoot either lens routinely at f/2.2 with very sharp results, for example. So why pay the premium? Two reasons: first, the bokeh is indeed incredible. If you’re shooting shallow depth of field, then you’ll appreciate the difference with every shot (though the 1.8 is no slouch). And second, the build quality of the 1.4 is superior, though the all-metal body means it’s larger and heavier. This is a lens I’ll keep for a long, long time.
- Nikon 85mm f/1.8 prime lens (September 2009)
This fast 85mm prime lens is an incredible bargain and has become one of my all-time favorite lenses. Roughly a third the price of the 85mm f/1.4 but just one stop slower, the images it produces are, to my eye, just as sharp and the bokeh just as smooth and gorgeous. I love using this lens in all sorts of situations for shallow depth of field, even in full daylight. In fact, during a two-week trip through Italy, I was very happy with my ultra-wide 17-35mm f/2.8 and this 85mm — it served as a great portrait lens, great low-light lens, and great moderate telephoto. And at less than 15 ounces and shorter than 3″, it’s easy to carry. Of course, like all very fast glass, it loses some sharpness wide open, but I regularly shoot at f/2.2 and get very sharp details.
- Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G DX ultra-wide zoom (May 2005)
Ultra wide lenses are rarer and more expensive for digital SLRs — because the field of view is reduced by a factor of about 1.6 on the D-70, for example, a 20mm lens catches the same field of view as a 30mm lens on a 35mm camera. The Nikkor 12-24mm, designed specifically for the Nikon digital SLRs, gives an equivalent of an 18-36mm zoom, a fantastic wide angle range down at the 12mm end, and a good medium-wide at the 24. Though the 12mm end has quite a bit of barrel distortion, the 24 is relatively flat, even decent for portraits, if you subject isn’t freaked out by having the lens shoved right up in her face. Because the 24 end is so flat, and overall very sharp, the 12-24 has become my favorite walking around lens, really wonderful for street photography. It’s expensive — just shy of $1000 most places — but the quality is superb. Because it’s a DX-series lens, it’ll only work on a 35mm body only out at the medium to long end of the range. I do see quite a bit of chromatic aberration at the 12mm end, and a bit of vignetting, but nothing I can’t handle in Photoshop.
- 17-55mm f/2.8G mid-range DX zoom (2007)
I’ve got a new favorite walk-around lens.17-55mm isn’t an amazingly wide range — I like ultrawide (like my 12-24mm better) and 55mm is barely telephoto on my D200. But f/2.8 is just fast enough to make a big difference, especially since I often want the shallowest depth of field possible. And that 17-55mm range does give me a decent wide angle at one end, and good portrait focal length at the other.And it’s very sharp — in fact, in my tests, it was the sharpest of my zoom lenses, even wide open at f/2.8 (beating out my 12-24 and, not surprisingly, my 18-200mm).Drawbacks? Three. First, it’s expensive at about $1200 (I bought mine used). Second, it’s heavy, very heavy at 1 pound, 14 oz (making my D80 + 17-55mm combination a hefty 3 and a half pounds).
Finally, it’s got more distortion than I like, especially at this price and limited focal length range. It’s got some barreling at the wide end and pincushion at the long end. The good news is the distortion is not a complicated “mustache” type that’s hard to correct. I can fix it quickly in Photoshop.
One of the really annoying aspects of Nikon’s very popular 18-200mm VR lens (review) is that the end of the lens projects way out of the lens body when it’s at the 200mm end, shooting the lens and the attached hood way out there — it goes from about 4″ to about 6 1/2″. This 17-55 also extends, but only about an inch, and the hood is attached to the main body of the lens, so if you leave the hood on, you can’t even see the extension.So I deal with the slight distortion and the weight, and in return I get very sharp, very fast focusing, and fast f/2.8 throughout its range.
- Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC prime lens for DX camerasI just love shallow depth of field , and I’ve long been attracted to superfast lenses. The trouble is, Nikon hasn’t updated its f/1.4 lenses in quite a while (as of May 2007). Neither the 50mm nor the 85mm are built with the quick and quiet AF-S autofocus. In addition, on today’s digital Nikon SLR’s, they’re equivalent to focal lengths of roughly 75mm and 130mm, and I’ve always been a wide-angle guy.Which is why I’ve been eager to pick up the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (roughly equivalent to a 45mm “normal” lens on a film SLR). The Sigma has been hard to find for months, but I found one used on the Nikonians.org classifieds, and I’m very happy with it.
First things first — all the way open at f/1.4 the Sigma is fairly soft. This is a lens I won’t pull out for critical applications, but it’s great for extremely shallow depth of field, or for very low light/low noise situations.
I tested the Sigma against my best lens, the Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8, shooting fine detail from a tripod, and I was surprised to discover that, at their best aperture of f/8, the two lenses are equally sharp at the center of the image. It’s the corners that separate the good from the great, and the corners are definitely soft in the Sigma, with more chromatic aberration as well.
Open the Sigma all the way to f/1.4 and even the center is slightly soft, and the corners are worse. But the beauty of extremely shallow depth of field more than makes up for any softness, and I’ve taken to occasionally using it as my basic walk-around lens. (It’s perfect for the subway with its dim lighting and constant motion. I can shoot at 1/60 sec at ISO 200.)
It’s also a great street lens because I can open it up in aperture priority mode and let the shutter speed bump way up to freeze action. On a cloudy day I find that ISO 100, f/1.4 can give me 1/500 sec. on the open sidewalk. The downside, of course, is that wide open for shallow depth of field, it’s easy to exceed the fastest shutter speed. I just picked up a filter step-up ring for my neutral density filter that should help matters.
Now I’m no prime-lens fanatic. I love my zooms — the best of them are sharp and pretty fast. But the only way I’m gonna get that intensely shallow depth of field is at f/1.4, and the Sigma 30mm suits me just fine.
- Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 AF-D prime lens for full-frame and DX cameras (April 2008)
When I spent a week in Mexico last Spring, I took my my D200 and only the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens, because my favorite walkaround lens, the 17-55mm f/2.8 was simply too heavy and unwieldy to haul all day long through restaurants, boats, and streets. But the vacation proved to me that the 30mm’s field of view was simply too restricting for the way I shoot. On the DX-sensor D200, it had the field of view of roughly a 45mm lens, and I’m more of a wide-angle kinda guy.
So I recently picked up a used Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 AF-D, and I think this is the lens I should have taken to Mexico. Even on the DX-sensor D300, it’s a nice wide 30mm equivalent and much more suited to what I like to shoot. And at f/2.8, it’s fast enough for most low-light situations (and don’t forget, this D300 gives me about an additional stop in faster ISO over the D200) and offers a nice shallow depth of field, too.
In my quasi-scientific tests, this thing is sharp. Tested against my favorite and sharpest lens, the Nikon 17-55mm DX f/2.8, the zoom actually has a very slight edge in center sharpness when they’re both wide open. But in the corners the 20mm is way ahead, both sharper and with much less chromatic aberration.
At most other apertures, the 20mm beat the 17-55mm by a small margin, nothing that would be visible in normal prints, but sharper all the same. The 20mm also beat the 17-55mm in contrast, though only barely.
But really, I didn’t buy the 20mm for its slight edge in sharpness or contrast. When weight and size are not a consideration, or when I really need the versatility of a zoom, I’ll carry the 17-55mm. But unfortunately, weight sometimes is a factor. In addition, the 17-55mm often feels like it’s swinging way out there in traffic, especially with that enormous hood. The 20mm weighs less than 10 ounces, compared to the 17-55mm’s one pound, eleven ounces, and it only projects about 2 inches from the camera, compared to the 17-55′s 5 inches (without hoods).
So I know I’ll be popping on this little 20mm for more than vacations — I think it’ll be the lens to grab when I’m just headed out to a restaurant or going on a local errand. Fast, light, and wide.
- Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G DX VR superzoom
Nikon’s 18-200mm DX VR lens has been extremely popular ever since it was first announced in November 2005, and for good reason: as a “superzoom” it covers wide range of focal lengths, it’s light at 20 ounces and not too expensive at about $750, and it’s got Vibration Reduction to partly overcome the slow f/3.5 to 5.6 aperture range. The lens has been hard to find for most of its life, and I bought mine used, online.
But several factors make me leave this lens home more often than not. First, it suffers from zoom creep — that is, when my camera is hanging at my side, gravity draws out the lens a full 2 1/2 inches, from the 18mm end to fully zoomed. Extended, the lens is almost 6 1/2 long, and really swings around. (See Ken Rockwell’s review for a discussion and image of this.)
And that brings up my second complaint — this lens sticks way way out when you zoom it toward its telephoto end. To me, that shouts Cheap Lens.
And third, it’s nice to have VR, but that doesn’t help me achieve the nice shallow depth of field that I love and can get with an f/2.8 or faster lens.
Other annoyances: it adds a little too much distortion on either side of 20 to 24mm, a bit of wave distortion at the wide end that isn’t simple to correct in photoshop, and some pincushioning at the tele end. Also, though this lens is acceptably sharp, for really critical work, it doesn’t compare to my 17-55mm f/2.8.
So though this sounds like an ideal all-in-one lens for travel and day trips, most of the time I end up sacrificing weight and zoom and take my 17-55mm f/2.8 DX instead, reviewed above.
- Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Superzoom (February 2009)
Sometimes it’s nice to carry just a single lens on my camera body — no camera bag, no lens swapping. In fact, if I’m shooting an event, lens swapping isn’t practical (though a zoom is required). On my old DX cameras, Nikon’s 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 DX lens was just the ticket, if a tad slow aperture-wise.
Tamron’s 28-300mm full-frame lens is almost exactly the same zoom range as the Nikon superzoom, so I picked one up for $550 (street price). But though it’s acceptably sharp and the distortion isn’t terrible, I may actually be tiring of the compromises of superzooms. After taking it out for a full day recently, I missed my favorite Nikon zooms.
In my testing, at the middle focal lengths, I found the Tamron sharp enough for the Web and medium prints, except in the corners wide open; by f/8 it’s pretty sharp all over and at the center it’s as sharp as my best lenses. At 300mm, though, it’s soft, bordering on unacceptable. At wide angles, high contrast scenes bring out a lot of chromatic aberration in the corners. Physically, it’s relatively light and small, and it feels well made for a plastic lens. I’m very impressed with the Vibration Compensation (the Tamron version of Nikon’s Vibration Reduction or Canon’s Image Stabilization); it works at least as well as Nikon’s implementation. But I’m annoyed by the lens creep, where gravity pulls the lens out to its longest focal length (adding 3″ to the length) unless a lock switch is flipped.
But the last straw, the factor that may doom this lens for me — and maybe all superzooms — is the ugly bokeh. It’s chunky and choppy enough to be a major distraction, though most people probably don’t care about the issue as much as I do.So while I’ll keep the lens for times when I really can’t do a lot of swapping, it isn’t the do-it-all lens I wish it was. Maybe no such lens will ever exist.
- Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8G DX Fisheye (September 2006)
A fisheye lens is obviously not for everyone, but after finding that I was always borrowing Keith’s, I finally broke down and bought my own. The lens creates wildly distorted views that cover 180 degrees of view (!), so wide that you have to watch out or you’ll get your feet in some shots. But Nikon’s Capture NX software (about $130) includes a one-click tool that flattens out the image and straightens all those lines (at the expense of cropping wide swaths of the edges and stretching anything near the edges). The lens is plenty sharp, fast at f/2.8, and light at only 11 oz. Its only drawback is that it gets a fair amount of chromatic aberration, and, as a DX-series lens, it’s not for 35mm bodies. It’s reasonably priced at around $600. Now that I’ve got my own, I find I carry with me a lot. I don’t need it often, but every now and then, it’s exactly what I need.
- Speedlight SB-600 and SB-800 flashes
These lightweight strobes take advantage of all kinds of advanced TTL features of the Nikon digital cameras. They do a great job, and I use them off-camera all the time, triggered remotely by my on-camera flash.
- Gitzo tripod, Acratech ballhead, Kirk L-plate (January 2009)
Under the influence of Thom Hogan’s persuasive essay on tripods, I made the decision early on to invest in a high-quality tripod and ballhead.To paraphrase an old saw, you can get cheap, you can get light, you can get steady — pick any two.
I use the Gitzo Mountaineer G1157 (no longer made), not cheap at about $300 but rock-steady (made of vibration-damping carbon fiber) and light at only 2.3 pounds. All the Giztos are superbly designed: the leg sections slide out and lock with a little twist; the center column includes a ballast hook for added steadiness. And because it collapses to just 13 inches, I can hook a leg over my camera bag and carry it around town.
But the Gitzo tripods are just legs; you still need a ballhead. I used something cheap until one day I checked out a friend’s Acratech Ultimate Ballhead and saw immediately what cheaper ballheads are missing: the Acratech didn’t sag, not a millimeter. Plus it was a quick release — a spin of a knob and the camera locks into place. The Ultimate runs $290 new, but I found one used which has worked perfectly for years. It weighs a tad under a pound.
Finally, quick-release ballheads need to grab onto to a bracket attached to the camera, a simple piece of extremely light metal known as an “Arca Swiss compatible quick release plate,” roughly $130 to $150 for an L-plate, which lets you quickly switch between vertical and horizontal. Everyone buys these things from either Kirk Enterprises or Really Right Stuff, both fine, small businesses with very high quality products. I’ve owned three plates from Kirk, all beautifully made and only about three ounces. Most recently, Kirk was out of stock on a plate, so I bought the Really Right Stuff L-plate for my D700 and it’s equally well made. You can’t go wrong with either brand.
- BlackRapid R-1 R-strap (February 2009)
The R-strap has been getting a lot of press, the only camera strap I know of that offers a practical way to carry a camera hands-free while keeping the camera instantly accessible. I bought the original R-1 model, and while a couple of issues keep it from being perfect, I like it and I use it.
The strap slings bandolier style, with a comfortable padded section runing over one shoulder and the camera hanging snug at your waist on the opposite side. Because the camera hangs from a sliding fastener, you can grab the camera and bring it to your eye without any interference from the strap. When you lower the camera, the fastener slides back down again to your side, with a “stop” that pulls the whole strap back into place. Of course it’s easier to see in a video than to hear described, and it works just as well as that promotional video shows.
It takes a while to get used to a camera hanging against your hip, but it fits nice and snug with the camera body’s grip oriented where you can grab it. The padded shoulder strap is very comfortable, and it works great even when I have a camera bag slung over the opposite shoulder. I really grew to like having my camera where I could quickly grab a shot.
There are only two drawbacks to the system, both related to the angled steel fastener you screw into the tripod hole on your camera’s base. First, the fastener sticks out one and a half inches, keeping the camera from sitting flat on a surface, and risks scratching any surface you do rest it on. (Update: BlackRapid now makes a smaller, smoother fastener, which is a little less objectionable.)
And second, you have to unscrew the fastener every time you use a tripod. On days when I’m doing a lot of tripod work, I many just leave the R-strap and fastener home, but in that case, I face reattaching my old camera strap which involves a bothersome amount of threading through the camera’s little strap holders. (Also, because the camera hangs face down, I find it much harder to swap lenses on the move. But that’s probably a quirk of my lens-swapping technique.)
The strap would be less bothersome if I could connect it to a tripod hole on my lenses, but only my largest lens, the Nikon 70-200, has a tripod connector. The R-strap folks suggest using the D-ring found on some tripod plates, but neither RRS nor Kirk sell a plate with a D-ring.But aside from those caveats, the R-strap performs as advertised, and I recommend it for anyone who enjoys shooting at a moment’s notice.
- Macintosh desktop and laptopI currently run a Mac Pro 2×2.8 GHz Quad-core Intel Xeon with 10 GB RAM paired with the NEC P221W 20″ LCD display, a terrific monitor and a bargain for those who want a wide color gamut and accurate color (I bought the bundle with its own colorimeter for accuracy). I’ve used Macintoshes since 1984. Early 1984
- WordPress blogging software
I’ve recently (May 2010) switched from MovableType to WordPress, and right off the bat I find it much easier to use WordPress’s control panel. So far, so good.
Service (June 2007):
- Photo-Tech is one of the few authorized Nikon repair centers in NYC, and the folks there are friendly, smart, and fast. They’ve handled almost all of my Nikon repairs (all but the few that have to go off to the Nikon Factory) and I trust their advice and their skill.
110 East 13th Street between 3rd and 4th Ave (not far from Union Square)
- Tekserve Mac sales and service hardly needs my endorsement — the shop has long been recognized as the finest Mac and iPod repair shop around (they do NOT repair PCs). It’s also the first name you should think of when you want to buy a Mac (they’ve already got the LED MacBook Pros on display). But until you’ve visited, you may not realize what a wonderland of technology the place is — the wall of antique radios alone is worth a visit.
119 W. 23rd St. between 6th and 7th Ave
Epson Stylus Pro 3800 and 3880
Here are some of the reasons I like my Epson 3880 so much more than my old Epson 2200:
- Bigger prints. Everybody prints at 13 x 19 these days, and it no longer looks very big, especially on a gallery wall. 17 x 25 looks big, and it doesn’t scream “printed at home.”
- Better color, right out of the box, and way better black and white prints. With Black, Light Black, and Light Light Black ink cartridges, and a special B&W driver, b&w prints come out much smoother and much more neutral than on my 2200.
- Better ink. Bronzing and metamerism are almost completely a nonissue with this printer, so now I can print on glossy, semi-gloss, luster without worry.
- Cheaper ink. Though the 3800 cartridges cost about five times more than the 2200′s, they hold probably ten times more ink.
- No more cartridge swapping. The 3800 holds both the matte and photo black inks, so swapping between them is way easier. (Some ink is wasted every time you switch, but my calculations suggest it costs two to five dollars to switch, way cheaper than some of the other Epson Pro printers that flush the entire system.)
- More data. Ink levels are displayed right on the printer’s LCD, and you get early warnings about low ink. The printer will also print out a data sheet showing me every detail about the last nine prints I made, including the precise amount of ink used and exactly how long each one took. And the printer’s LCD also lets me handle things like print head alignment without touching my computer.
- Fewer ink clogs. In fact, so far, after a couple hundred prints, I haven’t had a single issue with the print heads, unlike my 2200 which needed a cleaning cycle every now and then.
- Less ink waste. If you run out of ink in the middle of a print, the printer pauses, lets you swap in a new cartridge, and then continues printing without missing a beat. And the print comes out perfect.
- Eric Chan’s 3800 FAQ. Wow, every single issue and question I had about my new printer was covered by Eric’s FAQ — plus I’ve used his custom color profiling service to get better prints from non-Epson brand paper, and the profiles work like a charm.
- As expensive as it is, Photoshop is absolutely indispensable. The latest version adds very little that’s essential, but makes tweaks throughout and runs a lot faster. I use it every day.
- I tested quite a few image cataloguing apps for the Mac, but settled on Apple’s Aperture because it offers a really smart set of features for keywording, cataloging, archiving and backing up, and searching photos. That said, I seldom use Aperture’s image manipulation tools; instead I export photos to DxO and then Photoshop for all image postproduction.
- The tools in DxO Optics Pro are specifically crafted to match individual lenses and cameras, and correct many issues with those tools. But as time goes on, I find I use the software exclusively to correct lens distortion and chromatic aberration; DxO does a better job than I can manually in Photoshop, and it does it quickly and automatically. I can do a better job fixing light, sharpness, noise, etc., in Photoshop…
Update: Photoshop CS5 adds similar tools, but I still prefer DxO. For one thing, when DxO changes the aspect ratio as it straightens out a lens’s distortion, it gives you the option of not cropping the sides that stretch. It also covers far more lenses right out of the box.
- I try to avoid high-ISO images (I wrote that before I had the Nikon D700…), but when I come across noise, I use the Noise Ninja plug-in to handle it. Works like a charm, but please study up a bit on digital noise in order to make the best use of any noise tool. (Short lesson: learn about the difference between chroma noise and luminance noise.)
Is it worth the upgrade price? For me, yes, for several reasons.The images coming out of D300 seem to my eye to have better white balance, more natural contrast, and improved noise at higher ISOs, about a one-stop improvement. I’m also pleased with the new Active D-Lighting, which keeps the highlights from blowing out. And by some weird miracle, the D300 eliminates chromatic aberration from my lenses (the kind of flaw that drives me nuts in big prints); that’s actually a huge benefit that’s getting little or no press.
But probably the most important change for my purposes is the camera’s improved auto-focus. The D300 rarely struggles to lock focus, even in dim settings with less-than-ideal subjects, a big improvement over the D200, which was frustrating at times. Don’t get me wrong — the D200 was good, and the D300 still occasionally struggles. But for the most part I can take it for granted that the D300 is going to lock onto whatever I’m shooting.
[Aside: I may have discovered a cure for my Nikon dSLRs' difficulty focusing my super-fast lenses. Both my D200 and D300 have been hit and miss correctly finding focus with both of my f/1.4 lenses (the 50mm and the 28mm), but that's been at my former default settings of Single Point AF and Single Server AF. For other reasons, I've started to use the D300's Dynamic Area Autofocus and Continuous Server AF as my walk-around default. An unexpected benefit is that the camera now does an excellent job locking onto focus with these two fast lenses.]
There are smaller refinements I appreciate, too. The little screw-on caps are now replaced by plugs that stay attached. I really love the snappy 6 frames per second — just a tad snappier than the D200, and much snappier than my D80. The 3″ LCD on the rear has very high pixel density; it’s beautiful, but I took it for granted almost immediately. I do like the info screen that can be popped up on the rear LCD, especially since the top LCD is impossible to see on a high tripod. Fifty-one focus points? I’m all over that — using a tripod, I can set the focus on a portrait subject’s face even way out of the center of the frame. Better battery life? Yes, much better.
Less interesting to me is the new Live View mode, which lets you see the scene through the lens on the rear LCD. I can’t imagine finding it useful. I’ve also had little problem with dust on the sensor (a blower bulb fixes all my dust), so the sensor shake doesn’t impress me. And I’m not expecting any major wow factor now that I’m shooting 12 megapixels rather than 10. While that sounds like a 20% jump, we’re really talking about printing 1.3 inches wider at 300 dpi. (Of course I often print at 180 dpi, so right out of the camera I’ve got an image almost 18 x 24 inches with no resampling.)
Disappointments? Nothing serious. I use the settings banks, but I still wish I could lock them, I wish there was a single settings bank rather than two, and I wish there was a button to switch banks rather than a series of menu choices. I check highlights on most of my shots, but I can no longer flip back and forth between an unobstructed image and a highlights display (update: this turns out to be a nonissue since I discovered I can display flashing highlights on the histogram screen, just a button press away). I also love those function buttons (three now, including the AE-L / AF-L button), but unfortunately, Nikon doesn’t let me assign some of my favorite functions, including D-Lighting and settings banks.
And the lack of 100 ISO is a little disconcerting. The D300 can be set to some sort of artificial 100 ISO, called L 1.0, but Nikon says little about it. Thom Hogan believes that I’ll see more highlights blowing out at ISOs below 200, and indeed, side by side, the L 1.0 image looks a little more contrasty. But meanwhile, in my first quick tests, I can clearly see reduced luminance noise in the shadows compared with ISO 200, so I’m not going to hesitate to use it in low-contrast situations.
The move from the D70 to the D200 was a huge leap, from the D100 to the D200 was a huge leap, but from the D200 to the D300? It’s basically an upgrade. A worthwhile upgrade for my needs, but an upgrade nonetheless.
As of the beginning of August 2006, I’ve been testing and using the Nikon D80 (thanks to some work I did for a certain camera manufacturer), and even though I prefer the D200, I’m finding that the D80 will make a perfect second camera: most of the time, it’ll be available for the rest of my family when we go out shooting together, but it’ll also make a good second body when I need to shoot with two lenses and I don’t have time to swap (think Mermaid Parade). Finally, it’s reassuring to have a second Nikon dSLR on hand if I ever need to ship the D200 in for tuneup or repair (though that alone is, of course, a poor reason to spend $1000).
I just dropped a lot of money on the D200, and I’m finding the D80 alarmingly similar in many respects: same 10.2 megapixel sensor, same 11 autofocus points, both take ISO down to 100, both include a function button that can be configured by the user. In fact, the D80 has some features I wouldn’t expect in anything but a fairly high-end camera, such as mirror-up shooting mode (what Nikon calls “Exposure Delay Mode”), for absolutely rock-solid shooting on a tripod. In fact, the D80 has two nice advantages: it’s much smaller and lighter (20 ounces vs. 29 for the D200), and I like the tiny, wireless ml-l3 remote shutter release (about $20) as opposed to the D200′s wired remote.
But for my use, the D200 has important advantages: the D200 is weather sealed; it shoots at 5 frames per second and — more important — its buffer will take 22 RAW shots before slowing down vs. the D80′s 6; the D200 will auto-bracket as many as 9 exposures vs. the D80′s 3; the D200 allows multiple saved banks of settings; plus lots of minor advantages that I appreciate (one example: I can set the center-press of the rocker switch to set the focus point to the center). In general, the D200 is much more configurable in small but handy ways.Coming from the other direction, the D80 — like the D200 — solves many of the frustrations I felt with the D70. I like the additional auto-focus points; I really like larger 2.5″ LCD screen and the ability to zoom in really tight to check focus; I like the higher magnification of the viewfinder; I like having 10 megapixels rather than 6, mainly because I can crop more freely. One frustration picked up from the D70 — the way I carry a camera, I accidentally bump the exposure-settings dial and find myself in Manual or a scene mode. Luckily, there’s no such dial on the D200.
One of the big changes in the D80 is the addition of a whole set of in-camera editing options: you can shoot black and white (while keeping a color version of the image), there’s red-eye correction and in-camera cropping, and lots more, as well as a built-in slideshow with smooth fade out and fade in if you want to connect your D80 to a TV. But honestly, I have no use for those features (nor do I need any of the Scene Modes, which pre-set the camera for various shooting conditions).
Images from the D80′s kit lens, the Nikon 18mm-135mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S DX (no VR), look very sharp to my eye at most focal lengths, but there is considerable barrel distortion at the wide 18mm end, and noticeable pincushioning at the telephoto end. I’m also seeing considerable chromatic aberration in high-contrast situations. The lens keeps the handy ability to manually focus even while in autofocus mode. 18-135mm is a handy range, and lens will eventually retail alone for a reasonable $400, but I recommend saving your pennies for the well-regarded 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 DX VR (review). Though not perfect, it’s far better than the 18-135.
I used the 6 megapixel Nikon D70 hard and well for almost exactly two years, and I was always very pleased with the images I’ve gotten. (In fact, 6 megapixels was plenty of resolution even for the 13″ x 19″ prints I sell.) But I gradually became more and more frustrated with the limitations of the camera’s features, even starting to envy my friends’ D2-series Nikons. But there was no way I could afford those high-end dSLRs, nor did I want to carry around a camera that heavy.
Then came the 10.2 megapixel D200, a camera that reviewers agree combines the best features of the lower-end D70 and the top-of-the-line D2-series: from the D70, the camera inherits a small, light body just about 30% heavier then the d70 (though tougher and more weather-proof), the built-in flash (which can remotely control a sb-600 or sb-800, external flash through “commander” mode), and the high-capacity en-el3-type battery design (though the D200 eats up much more power than the D70).
From the D2-series Nikons, the D200 picks up many pro-level features I’ve been craving (better 11-sensor auto-focus system, much bigger and brighter LCD, 5 frames per second shooting speed, ISO 100, and lots more). Among my favorite new features are the mirror prerelease (great for tripod shooting) and the user-assignable FUNC button (I set it to switch into spot metering). It’s wonderful to have immediate, button access to ISO, exposure modes, and continuous shooting speed. No more digging through menus.
The D200 includes 2 banks of 4 user-customizable settings, but I find the implementation to be flawed. I’ve set up a bank, for example, that I’ve named “Tripod;” with a quick couple menu selections I’ve got my preferred settings for auto-focus, ISO, mirror prerelease, etc. But the D200 doesn’t let me lock that bank. As a result, if I’m shooting in my “Tripod” bank and I alter any of those settings — say I bump the ISO up to 200 — the setting is altered in the bank. Next time I go out shooting and select “Tripod,” I’ll find the ISO at 200, not my preferred 100. The practical result is that I feel much more reluctant to touch any setting when I’m using one of the banks. Update: a couple months later and I’ve decided I was a bit too harsh on the settings banks. I don’t alter them as much as I thought I would, so they’re actually quite handy as designed — though I’d still prefer a way to lock them.
Other drawbacks: it’s a shame the D200 did away with the tiny, wireless, $20 ml-l3 remote shutter release. Instead I’ve had to buy one of the corded, ten-pin models; it’s bulkier to carry and takes more fiddling to plug in — and I’m limited by the length of the cord (though the wireless model only worked from a line-of-sight area in front of the camera). Also, while the d200 offers a more detailed and accurate estimate of remaining lief in the new en-el3e battery, the D200 sucks up power at about twice the rate of the older camera.
And some aspects of the new camera took getting used to after two years with my d70: the shutter release has less of a distinct pop when it’s halfway down (for prefocusing, for example). It can be tricky to press the center button on the directional pad — I tend to accidentally hit one direction instead. (I’ve finally learned to spread the pad of my thumb across the whole button for that press.) And all these new settings, especially all the various focus modes, is a much bigger learning curve. I find I spend a little more time checking all the settings before I go out shooting.
That said, I find that every annoying feature of the D70 has been addressed in the D200. I no longer accidentally change the exposure mode by bumping the D70′s dial; I can center the focus point with a single click; I’m using ISO 100 and seeing zero luminance noise in the shadows; I can change the direction of the exposure compensation dial; I can shoot up to nine automatically bracketed shots in a row; the LCD is not only larger, but I can now zoom in extremely tight on an image to check focus; etc. etc.
D70 6-megapixel digital SLR
As I’ve been telling my friends, it’s like coming home again. this is a real SLR, just like the ones I grew up with.
unlike other non-SLR digital cameras, the d70 responds to everything in an instant. it turns on immediately (though I leave it on all day since it barely eats up battery power), it focuses fast, it zooms like every SLR with a quick twist of the zoom ring on the lens, and the shutter responds with a barely perceptible delay.
finally I can spot a shot I want, whip the camera to my eye, zoom and frame, and snap off a picture — all in a fraction of the time it took with my coolpix 4500. in the first week of use, this camera caught dozens of shots I would have missed with the 4500. and the six megapixel “raw” format photos are simply awesome, completely blowing the coolpix out of the water. I thought I’d miss framing with the lcd screen — as with all SLR’s, the d70′s is only for reviewing shots and viewing the menus, but I don’t miss it one bit.
the bundled 18 to 70mm lens (f3.5-4.5) adds $300 to the camera’s price, and it’s a bargain. the lens is sharp and smooth, and it focuses quickly and quietly.
the d70 kit — the body bundled with the zoom lens — has gotten much cheaper over time, and you’ll probably end up finding the d70s, a slightly upgraded d70 that only adds minor improvements.
other details: the en-el3 battery lasts and lasts — I’ve heard it’s good for a thousand shots. my coolpix lcd screen was scratched within a week, but the d70 comes with a clear cover (nikon part bm-4). the bundled 18-70mm lens comes with a hood that will both reduce lens flare and protect the lens — use it. also, there seem to be a free 4-year extended warranty for the lens — don’t neglect to open the little envelope or you’ll miss the ten-day deadline
- you’ll eventually want the ml-l3 remote shutter release (about $20), and a spare lcd cover bm-4 (about $10). they remain hard to find in stock.