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?

Are DSLR’s going the way of the Dodo?

Trey Ratcliff of “Stuck in Customs” fame made a pretty bold statement today:  The DSLR is as dead as the dodo and he’s not going to invest in any more DSLR bodies or lenses.  Considering who Trey is and what he does and that we are said to be only a couple of days away from a big new announcement from Nikon (probably a D800 and maybe a D4), that is a pretty big statement.  For the record, I have tremendous respect for Trey – he is a terrific photographer, I appreciate his craft with HDR, he is clearly an extremely intelligent guy and appears to be a really nice person as well, so I’m not throwing stones.

Anyway, Trey is asserting that in as few as two years that mirrorless cameras will displace DSLRs and make them as obsolete as a horse and buggy.  I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with Trey, so I thought I’d lay out my thoughts.  Let’s start with the disagreements:

  • You shouldn’t buy a new DSLR body: I’m only sort of disagreeing here, and to be fair Trey isn’t saying you shouldn’t buy a new body, he’s saying he won’t buy another one.  Trey is a leader in our little world, though, and a throng of people will follow him just like they do on a photowalk.  Reading the comments on the article, some of those followers are genuinely wondering what they should do.  There isn’t really a wrong answer.  I think many people are tempted by the latest body well before they get all the juice out of the tool already in their hands.  I also have friends with well-worn D300’s who will upgrade to the next pro-DX camera (presumably the D400) as soon as it comes out as much because it is time to replace the beater as anything. Generally speaking, body investment seem to follow the lenses, not the other way around.  The kind of sea-change Trey envisions will necessitate that a lot of people will have to invest in a whole new set of “3rd Gen” cameras (his term for mirrorless, which I actually like a lot), and I just don’t see that happening for the bulk of the market.  Photographers buying their first serious interchangeable-lens system will consider it (and probably buy it) and high end photographers who aren’t limited by budget will do it if the quality is there.  That leaves out the big, fat middle of the market place where all the volume is – and volume is what makes the market.  I’m not trying to talk anyone into buying a new body, but I’m also not *quite* ready to declare it a bad investment, either.
  • You shouldn’t buy DSLR lenses:  One of the key things that makes a Nikon 1 attractive to me is the FT1, an adapter that would let me use my current Nikon lenses on this new class of camera.  If this adapter allows you to get high quality photographs using the existing lenses, why not own them now and get the benefit?  Lenses generally hold their value a lot better than bodies, and if the compatibility story is good on mirrorless/3rd Gen I think the impact on lenses will be minimal.  Add to it that the crop factor gives some of these lenses a really fun “reach” – the 2.7x crop factor offers a 200mm lens an effective 540mm field of view!  As a zoom guy, that sounds awfully fun!  (Have a look at the fun photo Andy from Nikonandye put up on FMForums – a Nikon 1 with an effective 6,480mm!)
  • Small size is a good thing:  Trey seems to say that lugging a big camera around and looking like a pro is a bad thing.  I know Steve Huff would agree.  I’m not saying I love a big camera or huge, heavy lenses, either.  But I don’t like how many of the smaller cameras fit in my hands, and I think some weight is a good thing when trying to steady a camera.  In fact, maybe my technique is just whack, but I think I’d have an easier time getting steady hand-held with my front-heavy 80-200 mounted on my D90 vs. the same lens on a D3s.  The heavier the load at the back from the body, the harder it is to get steady (at least it seems that way for me).  So I’m not completely sold on the super-small form factor of the Nikon 1 series, but I do think mirrorless will offer much greater freedom for camera designers to create cameras that are more natural to hold.  They might wind up looking a lot different…
  • Mirrorless will replace DSLR’s in two years:  When I’m not out being an Enthusiast Photographer, I work in the technology industry, and have watched a lot of technology fade into oblivion.  Here’s the problem:  it never fades as fast as anyone thinks.  There is so much investment on the side of the industry and their customers that it takes forever to finally kill anything.  Look how long the floppy disk lasted! For that matter, look at the computer you’re using to read this blog – does it have a CD or DVD drive in it?  When was the last time you used it?  I’ve seen lots of people say that optical is dead and is going away in the face of huge USB drives and streaming content.  But just ask the CEO of Netflix what his opinion is today verses when he made the Qwikster announcement…  Optical drives are going to die, but it is going to take a few more years.  Heck, two years ago there were experts predicting it would be gone already.  The super thin, light, more expensive PC’s have started to go without them, and it will trickle down through the industry.  But not for a while.  I’ll say two years.  :)

On top of all that, the industry has a franchise to protect.  The whole stratification of DSLR families between consumer, prosumer and pro cameras (and lots of shades of grey…) and the lenses, etc. that support a huge revenue stream and represent a massive investment from the Nikon’s and Canon’s of the world won’t change that quickly – they can’t afford it.  So my opinion is you’ll see it push from the bottom and the top and trickle.  The companies will milk their cash cow DSLR revenues while figuring out how to still make pro mirrorless platforms that produce the revenue and profits they are used to from those segments – and that won’t be easy as you get to the prosumer and pro platforms.  Who is going to pay D3X money for a mirrorless?

I’d like to introduce Trey to Andy E., who writes the Nikonandeye blog.  Andy has a massive array of Nikon lenses and I believe he owns every Nikon DSLR ever made. He’s an interesting cat.  He’s written up his experience with the Nikon 1 system on his blog, and participated in some interesting threads on Fredmiranda, including using the FT1 (his photo of the Nikon 1200mm with the tc301 and the V1 for an effective 6480mm is pretty humorous).  Some of his recent discussions have compared the Nikon 1’s to his D3X, which is Trey’s baby, so I’d bet the two of them in the same room would be fascinating, and to get them out shooting together would be a lot of fun.

At the end of the day, I don’t think Trey is wrong.  I agree that there are lots of advantages mirrorless offers – smaller bodies and lenses, sharper images, more design flexibility, less moving parts which hopefully means reliability among other benefits.  It is definitely the heir-apparent technology, indeed the “3rd Generation”.  But much like it took a while for the early automobiles to figure out how to be a mass market product (not to mention a good one…) and fully displace the horse and buggy, I’m not willing to declare the DSLR dead quite yet.  He’s a leader, and he’ll adopt early.  It will just take a while for 3rd Gen to kill the DSLR.

When it is gone, I doubt we’ll mourn it any more than we do the floppy disk or the wooden carriages of yore.

What do you think?  Does the rise of mirrorless make you think twice about buying any more DSLR equipment?  Do you crave a small camera with high quality or do you like a camera that “fills your hands”?

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!