Never say never…

Trey's D3x was a terrific tool that captured photos like this.

Trey Ratcliff, the HDR whiz and founder of Stuck in Customs recently tempted the fates with a bold statement and is now paying the price.  Earlier this year, Trey declared DSLR’s are going the way of the floppy disk and stated he wouldn’t be buying the then-upcoming Nikon D4 or D800 (my take on that can be found here).  Of course that meant that on a recent shoot in Hawaii, his D3x got ruined.  Ouch.

Make no mistake, I’m a huge fan of Trey’s work, so I’m not implying I’m glad it happened, but I can barely utter a hopeful word about traffic without regional gridlock descending on my route to work. Trey waved a red cape at a bull named Karma, and everyone knows what happens when you do that!

But seriously, Trey put more miles and good use on that D3x than just about anyone, and I’m bummed to hear about the camera giving up the ghost.  I’m sure he looks at it pragmatically:  it is a piece of equipment.

The question is, what tool replaces his D3x?  He’s made a few possibly joking references to trying out Canon, but the additional cost of lenses and the interchangeability factor make that unlikely.

Personally, I think Trey is the perfect customer for a D800 – it is a lot closer to his D3x in terms of what he’s interested in (high megapixels, core ISO performance, etc.) and it will save him a fair bit of weight in his bag, too!  The D4 is really more of a replacement of his backup camera, the D3s – the low light performance and somewhat larger resolution probably aren’t what he’s looking for.

If I were in Trey’s shoes, I’d probably be tempted to do both – the D800 to replace the dead D3x and the D4 to replace the D3s, just to lighten his load a little further and have the improved video capabilities.  It is always easier to spend other people’s money… ;)

I’ll be interested to see what he decides!  What do you think he should do?

An open letter to Nikon: Where’s MY full-frame?

The Nikon D800, from the Nikon home page

Dear Nikon:

Congratulations for introducing two two terrific products, the Nikon D4 and D800/800e! Both products are new benchmarks of DSLR performance, and worthy members of Nikon’s pro lineup.  Given the terrible tragedies in Japan and Thailand, I commend and congratulate you for what must have been a Herculean effort by your employees to persevere and deliver.

Now, I must ask you – where the heck is the full frame camera for the Enthusiast Photographer?

In truth, I personally can’t afford a brand-new full frame camera.  I’ve got three spawn and enough demands on my income that a $3,000 camera just isn’t going to happen.  Since plenty of Enthusiast Photographers bought and loved the D700, and I greatly covet one, I figure it is worth exploring what I’d really like to see in a full-frame camera targeted at me, because today I’d take a D700 over a D800 if someone offered me a free choice between them.  What I really want is something in the middle.  The D800 seems kind of like the D700 when it came out: a baby version of the flagship, except in this case the downsized camera was the D3x.  I definitely don’t want one of those.

So what would my full-frame camera look like?  Here’s my list (which admittedly ignores the realities and technicalities of the sensor platform):

  • Full frame sensor with 16MP-18MP.  I don’t need or want to deal with the file size that 36.3MP creates (even for JPEG).  Storage is cheap, but as a guy who takes a lot of photos on family occasions, business and personal travel and my general creative photography, the downstream burden on the rest of my technology overall is too much.  I don’t want to watch my PC wheeze an more than it already does while I try to load and edit the files.  I like very much that my backup system (an old ReadyNAS Duo with two 1TB drives in it) hasn’t maxed out yet despite a fair bit of photography since I purchased it. My 16GB cards hold plenty of photos, I don’t want to buy bigger cards any time soon…
  • D3s ISO performance.  I don’t crave more megapixels, but I really do crave ISO.  I think a lot of folks are “available light” shooters like me, using a little fill flash here and there, but the lower light I can shoot in the better.  So call it ISO 100-12,800.  You can remove the LO and HI extenders.
  • Dual SD card slots.  Don’t make me collect two completely different kinds of cards.  As a pro, that would be completely infuriating – who needs the complexity of managing different kinds of storage with different performance levels?  Maybe one (probably Compact Flash) is the primary and the SD is secondary/safety (or one for RAW and the other for JPEG) on the D300s/D800 for the pros, but I want one technology.  As a non-pro, I prefer the cost and availability of SD, but I’d take Compact Flash.  Just make ‘em the same, broadly available technology.  Sheesh.
  • D700-class autofocus.  All that great ISO performance is wasted without great AF.  This isn’t a D7000, so give me the really good stuff.
  • D7000 build.  Let’s face it – lots of buyers of the D700 weren’t professionals, so the weight and size of the D700 is wasted on most of us.  I do want a rugged metal chassis with good weather-sealing, but for the most part my equipment stays cozy, warm and safe.  I’m out and about, but not in a war zone, a jungle or the Himalayas.  Give me survivability but not a tank.
  • Lighted buttons.  Please don’t tell me this is such a high-dollar design that it is affordable only on the flagship.  We’ve got the ISO to shoot in low light, give me buttons to help.
  • Same viewfinder as the D800 with virtual horizon, etc.
  • Same metering, shutter and flash of the D800.  If you must separate the products somehow, an evolution of the D700 would work.
  • U1/U2 buttons like the D7000.  In a rare moment of agreement with Ken Rockwell (who can’t seem to figure out if he thinks megapixels are useful or not), how the heck was this left out of the D800???
  • USB 3.0.  Or even better, whatever is cheaper between in-camera USB 3.0 and throwing a USB 3.0 card reader for SD/CF in the box.
  • 6-8 Frames per second is fine.  You don’t have to improve the FPS with the grip, especially to keep it to a reasonable price.  $616 list (which still translates to $449 at B&H) is a shameful price when the grip for the D7000 is $219 and the grip for the D700 is $234 (at B&H, the list prices are $297 and $334, respectively).
  • Same video and audio as the D300s.  It will give folks a reason to buy the D800, and I use my Flipcam or smartphone for most of my video.  If you really want to create some product separation, take video off (along with a couple hundred bucks…).

I’m sure there are things I’ve missed.  I’d love to see simpler menus, a touch-screen and a few other things, but that is the main baseline.  As far as price, it would have to be more than the still-hypothetical D400 (which I’m guessing will be $1999) while not cratering your D800, though I think the build and other features I’ve described here are enough to keep the hard-core pros up there.  Let’s call it $2399 – about what the D700 was selling for new just before the terrible events in Tōhoku/Sendai or $2199 for a no-video version.

Here’s another thought for my friends at Nikon:  Create a “Build Your Perfect SLR” web-app in DX and FX editions, and even “what kind of shooter are you” categories.  Build in enough logic that users have to keep it real as a user in terms of manufacturability, sales price and family structure.  In other words, you have a “budget” to spend in the app for the design and features trade off against each other.  Put an “other” box in there somewhere for suggestions.  It would be a lot of fun, and my guess is you’ll learn a lot about what people really want.  And for Enthusiast Photographers like me and a lot of others, it isn’t a D4 or a D800 for full frame…

Readers:  Comments on your dream full frame or DX?  What features are you wishing for?

Facing Vegas (off to CES)

So the Enthusiast Photographer is off for CES, the famed Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  That probably means it will be a quiet week for the blog, though I may do some quick mobile blogging – who knows?

I go for work, not fun, but I should get a chance to swing by the area that hosts the photography industry.  One obvious target is the new Nikon D4, but what would you like to see?  I’ll try to get to anything you post as a comment and take a few photos and/or post a few thoughts, though my time isn’t my own, so I can’t make any promises.  Let’s hear some ideas!

Future Cameras – Is The DSLR Bound To Go The Way Of The 8-Track Player?

Future Cameras – Is The DSLR Bound To Go The Way Of The 8-Track Player?.

I’m hoping Scott is counting me among the “SOME” – it sounds to me like we’re thinking alike.  :)

HDR

HDR Image of the Taj Mahal in India, by Trey Ratcliff

I was looking through Ken Rockwell’s Guide to the D90 and noticed a typical barb from him when it came to the section of the BKT button:

“This button is used to set the various exposure bracketing modes.  This is a hold-over from film days, and was a bad idea back then, too.  Don’t guess at exposures when you can look at your LCD and adjust from there.  HDR weirdoes might like it, but you shouldn’t need HDR if you do your lighting and use fill flash properly.

Forget this button.”

(and before you say it, yes, I use Ken’s site.  If you’ve read some of my other blogs, I do use and recommend his site as a resource for guides on settings and menus, etc.  His reviews can be a bit hyperbolic, but if you can get past all his arrogance and posturing, there is some great information there.)

Immediately, I was offended, for two reasons:  First, it is astounding to me that he’s writing a guide on how to use the D90 and he’s essentially skipping a whole button because he doesn’t like it???  Second, the comment about HDR is just uncalled for – you may not like or approve of HDR Ken, but you could be a big boy and explain how the button works.  Interestingly, he seems to have grown up just a little bit, since his D7000 review doesn’t take a swipe at HDR, giving at least a minimal explanation of the button and his coverage of the D5100 leaves it at “try it and you might love it”, noting that he doesn’t use it.

For some reason, it also make me have the thought that if you asked me who in the photography world, I’d immediately say Trey Ratcliff, the HDR guru and soul of the really cool Stuck in Customs website.

So far, I haven’t tried HDR (or High Dynamic Range photography), and I’ll admit to having slightly mixed feelings about it.  But so much of Trey’s work conveys something powerful and beautiful that I can’t condemn it.

I’m guessing you already know what HDR is, but for those who don’t know, I’ll take a swipe at explaining it from an interested outsider’s perspective:

Have you even taken a picture that shows a much different atmosphere than you were actually experiencing?  It is darker, more shadowy than reality, or maybe it seems much flatter that the scene you were looking at?  The roots of HDR are to allow an image to mimic the way the human eye and brain see the world.  Beyond that, folks engaged in HDR processing take advantage of the tools to also enhance the colors, saturation and a variety of other things that take the image beyond reality, but give it the ability to convey something in a way standard photography doesn’t always achieve.

It is typically accomplished by taking several shots at three or more levels of exposure.  If you’re guessing that having a tripod for shooting HDR is a good idea, you’re right.  It isn’t required, but it will make things a heck of a lot easier.  Anyway, you’ll have one or more dark exposures, a normal exposure and one or more bright ones.  Each image is going to have detail and parts of the image exposed in a way that the others won’t.  You use special software to merge the multiple exposures into a single image that allows you to take advantage of all the detail and information in the multiple images.  In each image, parts will be under- or over-exposed, but other parts will be perfect.  You get to use the best parts from the multiple photos to create a single HDR image, then use other tools to instill the mood or atmosphere you’re going for.

For some reason, it is one of the most divisive issues in the photography world.  I can only imagine it is similar to what the Impressionists went through in early struggles for acceptance.  There was much division.  They were mocked.  They were controversial.  Mainly, they broke the old rules.  They expressed themselves in a way that was new, just as Trey and other HDR devotees are today.  I’ve shown some examples below, but I highly recommend you view them full-size on Trey’s site – they are best experienced on a big monitor.

One of Trey's most famous works - the first HDR photo displayed in the Smithsonian Museum

One of my personal favorites from Trey

An example of the more surreal end of HDR

It is no surprise that Ken isn’t a fan of HDR – not only is it “tweaking” to a level that must make him twitch uncontrollably, but the best format to shoot for use with HDR is RAW!!

Like anything else, there are degrees of HDR.  If you look at Trey’s work on his page explaining HDR, you pretty much see the span: realistic to hyper-realistic to surreal.  At least for Trey, the goal is to covey something – a feeling, a moment, a mood, the atmosphere when the photo was taken.  Sometimes that takes him beyond what your mind believes, but virtually every one of his images is evocative of something in my head.  He doesn’t feel burdened by trying to make it look exactly has he saw it – he’s communicating the energy he saw it with.

When he talks about it, I almost hear him in a Yoda-voice describing The Force and the energy that surrounds us all.  Frankly, it is pretty cool to hear his quiet passion for photography and this method of processing, which is why he’s the guy I’d pick to hang around with: First of all, you’re likely to be somewhere interesting, and you’re absolutely not going to be bored, either.  He’s an interesting but humble cat.

His zeal is infectious, and it is clearly a liberating device for his disciples.  Shots that look very average un-processed can be very powerful through HDR.  Personally, the more surreal the shot the less likely I am to really enjoy it, but I do appreciate the form overall.  You can call it a lot of things, but you have to work hard for an HDR shot to be boring.  Not everyone does it well – sometimes it can be garish and exaggerated.  That said, I see a fair bit of HDR that isn’t my taste but is still clearly well done.

What is my opinion of HDR?  Anything that expands creativity and challenges the norm in such a positive way can only be a good thing.  I didn’t make the reference to the Impressionists lightly – I do think what HDR is offering to the world of photography is just as important as the dimension Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cassatt and so many others gave us in the world of painting.  The debate it creates can be ugly at times, but I think ultimately it broadens the world of photography and the number of people who consider themselves photographers.

So why haven’t I tried HDR?  I own a camera with a BKT function.  I’ve got some great glass (though I really want a Tokina 11-16 f/2.8). I shoot RAW (even one RAW image can be used to create an HDR image). I own Photoshop and multiple computers powerful enough to use the software.  I could even afford to get Photomatix since Trey’s site has a 15% off coupon code and his on-line class is less than a hundred bucks.  Mainly, it is a matter of time and the fact that I’m trying very hard to be good at the basic, classic photography before I start adding dimensions like HDR.  That said, I’ll probably be shooting with the idea that I’ll come back and play with HDR later.  Maybe I’ll even find a way to meet Trey!

What do you think about HDR?  How many of you have tried it?  As always, if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear your perspective!  I appreciate the time you took to read mine!

August Madness or Buck Fever

If you’re hanging around a Nikon photography forum, you’re probably seeing lots of threads about upcoming announcements in August.  A new D4, maybe a D400, possibly even a D800.  All of these are likely to be fantastic cameras, and I’m already noticing a flurry of new “For Sale” ads on the Buy/Sell area of my favorite forum for Nikon D3, D3s and D700 models.  In some cases people explicitly state they are selling in anticipation of Nikon’s August 24th announcement.

I’m anticipating the huge wave of “should I upgrade” threads on the forums.  And while it is a question virtually every Enthusiast Photographer will ask, the answer is really going to be “It depends”.

From a feature perspective, I use Snapsort.com to compare the specs of one camera to another.  It is a pretty handy way to look at what the new things offers, but it isn’t a definitive list.  For example, a key reason you might choose a Nikon D300s over a D7000 would be the much larger buffer for the D300s, allowing Birds-in-Flight (BIF) or sports shooters to shoot continuously for longer – a key spec not represented.  But for most specs it is an extremely useful site.

So as you’re looking at all the things that the new camera will do, ask yourself “Is it worth the money and hassle of switching?”

I’m no different than anyone else – I find myself in serious covet of both the D7000 (D7K) and the D700.  I’ll probably be sorely tempted by the D400 whenever it comes out.  But let’s stay in reality for now.  Of the things I care about, here’s what a D7K gives me over my D90:

  • More autofocus points (39 vs. 11)
  • More cross-type autofocus points (9 vs. 1)
  • True ISO 100 at the bottom and ISO 6400 at the top
  • 1/8000 max shutter speed (vs. 1/4000)
  • More color depth – 70% more colors
  • Will meter with manual lenses
  • An intervalometer (allows for timed pictures – e.g. a shot every minute for a certain amount of time)
  • Two SD slots – one can back up the other, or use it for overflow
  • Weather sealing

So that is a lot of features, right?  I’m not even mentioning the higher resolution (which is a post for another day…), the video features or the range of other upgrades over the D90.      I surely could have used 1/8000 on my recent trip to the beach.  More colors is always nice.  I’d always prefer better autofocus and manual lenses fascinate me for their bang-for-the-buck prowess and the challenge they represent.  A better ISO 3200 and a native ISO 100 would be good things.  But for the additional $600 it will cost me to get the D7000, I can be well on my way to some mighty fine glass, or a flash, or a better ball head, or some photography lessons, or…  well, you get the point.

Here’s the net:  Do you really NEED it, or do you just really WANT it?  I’d submit 90% of us (myself included) fall into “want” vs. “need” when it comes to the latest body.  I have to admit my affection for my D90 has grown quite a bit since the recent addition of my Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 ED and the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 non-BIM.  So boils down to a nearly universal cry in the photography world:  Invest in glass first.  Then invest a good tripod and head, or lessons, or a good book and get the most out of your current camera.  From there, a body isn’t a bad upgrade, but it won’t be too long until the next thing is out…