DxO Marks Published for the Nikon D600

The team at DxO (who measure sensor performance for cameras across the industry) have published the scores for the Nikon D600, and the results look pretty darn good!  (they use the term “enthusiast photographer(s)” many times during their writeup, which I thought was kind of fun, too…  :))  Before we get to the benchmarks, you might want to see my post “Should I get a new camera?”.

The overall DxO score of the D600 was 94, just one point behind the $2999 D800 and two behind the $3299 D800e.  Pretty amazing.  Even more incredible is comparing the $2100 D600 to the former-flagship Nikon D3X that lists for $7,999.  The D3x scores only an 88 and is bested in every category.  Of course, the D3x was no low-ISO king, so what about the other flagship, the king-of-the-night D3s?  82 vs. 94.  The D600 doesn’t measure up to the D3s in terms of ISO performance, but crushes the D3s in dynamic range and color to claim the crown.  Even the much-loved, former entry-FX Nikon D700  scores an 80.  Wow.  If you’re a Canon shooter, the news is even worse.  While they don’t have a new 6D to test, the current 5DMkIII priced at $3464 scores only 81 and we have little reason to think that Canon would embarrass the fairly-new 5DMkIII with a 6D.

One Important Note: These numbers aren’t the only measure of a camera by any stretch.  In fact, I’d take the position they are very often used to place too much emphasis on the sensor when you really have to look at the entire system and make decisions based on handling, autofocus performance, lens compatibility, weather-sealing and other factors  Iif you’re a regular reader, you know I hate the technology bullies who say you must have the latest sensor.  I chose the D300s with pro handling and AF over the newer D7000 with the better sensor but prosumer AF and handling – I couldn’t be happier.  For the record, the D600 has the same handling and (essentially) AF as the D7000.  That is a good thing for a whole lot of people, just not my personal preference.  I happily shot my similar-handling D70/D90 for years, though, so I’m not saying the D600 doesn’t handle very well – it handles great.  It just doesn’t handle like the pro-handling D300s/D700/D800 – it is a tow-MAY-tow, tow-MAH-tow kind of thing.

The Bottom Line:  These numbers absolutely say that the D600 represents an amazing value.  Nikon is hitting the ball pretty hard these days.  The price of FX isn’t for everyone, but this camera sure lowers the cost of entry.  If you’re a Nikon-shooting Enthusiast Photographer, this gives you a terrific price point for an easy-shooting camera with great durability and stunning performance.

You can check out the full DxO write-up by clicking here.

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Nikon D600 – Full-Frame for the Enthusiast Photographer

The subject of swirling rumors and debates for many months, the worst-kept secret in the photography world finally saw the light of day today: Nikon finally announced the first “prosumer” (my term) full-frame DSLR, the D600.

Before we talk about the specs, lets talk about the price.  Many rumors put it as low as $1500.  I guessed it to be Euros and put it at $1899 or $1999.  All of that was wrong – the price is $2099.  That places it at the same price as the D700 did once the D800 came out, and potentially leaves enough room underneath for a D300s replacement.  On the whole, I think it is a good price but not a great price. An additional $900 gets you to a D800, which will make a lot of people think (personally, I think the D800 is under-priced).

As for specs, they are pretty much what everyone thought:

  • 24.3 Megapixel FX (full frame) sensor, producing images as large as 6,016 x 4,016
  • 5.5 Frames per second
  • ISO 100-6400
  • 39-point autofocus system with 9 cross-type sensors
  • Dual SD slots
  • Built-in screw drive for non-AFS lenses (in other words, lenses that don’t have a built-in motor)
  • U1/U2 user-definable presets like the D7000
  • 3.2″ screen, 921,000-pixel screen
  • 1/4000 maximum shutter speed
  • 1/200 flash sync

Those last two have a lot of people up in arms, and frankly I can’t see why.  This is a camera for the enthusiast.  A body for the serious amateur photographer seeking the low light performance offered by a full-frame sensor.  With ISO 100 and 1/4000, it covers a similar range as the D700 with a base ISO of 200 with a 1/8000 shutter.  Want both ISO 100 and a 1/8000 shutter?  Welcome to the D800.

Ergonomics and autofocus are virtually identical to the D7000, which is a good thing.  I’ve read some reports of the D7000 not working well with superzooms (think 600mm prime lenses as long as your arm), but I don’t see why people who own one of those lenses are going to shoot a D600.  All the lenses the target customers will want to use will work perfectly on the D600.  Ergonomics are classic Nikon, which is a good thing.  Personally, I much prefer the handling of my D300s over the D7000, but it offers a great combination for the novice and advanced shooter.

Since we don’t have comparisons, ISO performance and other figures, it is hard to compare the D600 to anything and come to a full conclusion.  But it is probably very good. Nikon hasn’t laid an egg in a long time (I don’t count the D800 focus issues, since that is a quality control escape, not a product design issue), and this is a new category for them: They’ll hit the ball pretty hard and it will be a winner.

Should you buy one?  Harder to say.  It isn’t cheap.  You only get partial function from your DX lenses if you have any (there is a DX-mode that lets you shoot DX lenses, but I’d like to see it in use before I say that is something you’d live with happily…).  If you don’t have any lenses, your bill for FX glass is generally going to be higher than DX.  At 24MP, your holding technique had better be pretty good or it is going to show up big-time in your photos.  24MP is going to mean bigger cards, more hard drive space and chew up some performance on your PC.

Low-light performance should be strong, and a well-executed image is likely to be very, very good.

If the money isn’t a big deal, I’d say you can’t go wrong.  FX at this price point is a bargain, and you’ll get plenty of help from the camera to get great images.  But like my last post, I don’t ever want to have a great camera and poor lenses.  Being glass-poor is going to make any camera look bad.  Great glass is going to give you wonderful results even from a limited camera.

You might have noticed I haven’t mentioned video.  Call me a curmudgeon, but I have no desire for video on my DSLR, and frankly I don’t know enough about it to offer perspective or opinions.  I’m sure the internet has no lack of those for the video features.

I’m sure a lot of you will be happy owners of a D600, and it is likely to be a big success for Nikon.  As for me, I’m focusing on the equipment I have, and looking at the blank spot in Nikon’s product line where the D300s used to be.  If I was going full-frame, I’d be strongly tempted to pick up a used D700, but I’m a happy DX guy at this point.

Read the official press release, information and see many photos on Nikon’s website.  Also, check out dpreview.com’s preview of the D600 here.

So what do you think about the announcement, the price and the camera?

“Should I get a new camera?”

The Nikon D800 might soon have company…

Internet forums are abuzz about what Nikon will (and possibly won’t) announce soon.  The widely-rumored announcement of the D600 in September has a lot of D700 and D7000 owners thinking about an upgrade, while many D300s owners lament Nikon’s apparent lack of intention to release a successor to that product.

As all the specs and debates swirl around, I’m reminded of the advice I got early on: Invest in better lenses first.

Why?  Lots of reasons, but here is my big three:

First, constant-aperture lenses (called “fast glass” on lots of forums) give you a lot more flexibility with ISO and shutter speeds.  When I got my old Tamron 28-75 f.2.8, it was just terrific on my D90, and it improved my ability to shoot in low-light a lot.  My Nikon 35mm f/1.8 is even better.  There are even 50mm f/1.2 lenses that can be had on the used market for under $500. These lenses give you as much as two to four times more light to work with than a kit lens.  Those additional “stops” of flexibility are hard to achieve at the sensor, and expensive, too…

Second, good lenses make any camera better.  Your view is only as good as the window you’re looking through, and average lenses are going to deliver average performance or worse.  Good lenses are going to give you better results, even if you aren’t using their low-light capabilities.  They tend to produce sharper images with better colors and contrast.

Lastly, for the most part, the nice lenses you invest in today will still be nice lenses on your next camera.  So my D70, D90 and now D300s all have been able to share and benefit from the same lenses.  I said “for the most part” because Nikon makes lenses specific to their DX  “crop sensor” platform.  Three of the lenses in my bag are DX lenses (the Tokina 11-16, the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 and the Nikon 18-200 VRII), so they won’t work if I ever decide to switch to FX.  However, unlike bodies, lenses tend to keep their value extremely well.  I could probably sell the lenses I bought used for the same money I paid, and the two I bought new are still worth 85%+ of their original purchase price.  In return, they’ve made all my photographs better, and I’ve gotten shots I would have missed with a kit lens.  That is an investment.

Contrast that to a body that is two or three years old.  Some are worth only half of their original price, and eventually become very difficult to sell.  Lenses tend to hit a price and pretty much stay there unless a new version pushes the price down, though occasionally the older models are worth more.

Great lenses don’t have to be expensive.  In Nikon’s portfolio, the 85mm f/1.8 G is astounding and sells brand-new for under $500.  I mentioned you can pick up the astounding Nikon 50mm f/1.2 for about the same money used, or get the classic “nifty fifty” 50mm f/1.8D for around a hundred bucks.  My Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 is ancient and sells for around $300, less than 1/3 of the pro-Nikon version, with 90% of the performance (in my opinion).

My point is this – there are lots of internet bullies who’ll tell you that anything but the latest sensor isn’t worth having.  Don’t buy into it (literally and figuratively).  Especially at the megapixel range we’re seeing in Nikon’s latest lineup (16MP D7000, 24MP D600, 36MP D800), focusing on lenses first is a much better idea.  These cameras are going to make average glass look pretty darn average.  They’ll make good glass sing.

Not only will you likely spend a lot less money upgrading your lenses, they’ll make a bigger difference in your photography, and they’ll last longer, too…

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UPDATE:  I wanted to add one more thing.  If you’re an Enthusiast Photographer, think beyond the body and glass. Are you doing landscape or other shooting where you’re going to need a tripod? Budget for a decent one. I’m not saying you have to go spend $1500 on ReallyRightStuff.com (though I would if I could), but get something serious if you’re a serious hobbyist.  My point is that bodies are sexy (:)), but you have to think holistically about your system to get the best results, and a good tripod and head are a big part of that for a lot of us.  If you shoot landscapes, etc. and are wondering if you should spend your money on the latest body or a good tripod setup, my vote would be tripod.

The future of Pro DX: Dark

I was reading an article today from Thom Hogan, titled “The DX Problem”. In the article he essentially states we’re getting two more DX cameras this year and that Nikon’s mentality has devolved to a sensor/form factor view as opposed to a customer/user view. Where I’d see Consumer, Prosumer and Pro with use categories underneath (e.g. family shooter, advanced consumer, serious amateur, sports, wildlife, etc.) that would slot into products that fill the need, Nikon sees Coolpix, 1, DX, and FX, at least in Thom’s view.

I think he’s right, and it makes me feel like Nikon is removing a product from their current lineup. Two more DX cameras sounds an awful lot like a D7100 and a D5200, replacing/updating two products that are a tad paler with the D3200 announcement (especially the D5100).

What is left out? A D300s replacement.

As someone who went from a “prosumer” D90 to a “pro” D300s, this is a big disappointment.

Why, you ask? Why wouldn’t a D7200 or a D600 replace a D300s? Why isn’t the latest DX sensor or a new prosumer FX enticing to me? Easy. The answer is handling.

When the PC industry went through a phase where the megahertz and megabytes, it devolved in to a morass of slapped-together, mainly disposable junk. Anything more than a couple years old was bad, and you needed a new one. Cameras are apparently heading this way too. Megapixels rule the day.

The D300s wasn’t an upgrade for me in terms of sensor or megapixels, but it is a liberating camera. The “pro” handling, where switches and knobs allow you to set most key settings instead of a bunch of buttons and menus in the camera’s software, is a terrific thing. It gives me much more instant command of my camera, allowing me to stay focused on the shot in front of me. I can switch all the important stuff without looking at the camera. Awesome.

And it has spoiled me. The D7000 is a terrific camera, and I have no doubt the D600, which appears to be an FX sensor in the D7000 body, will probably be a game changer in the prosumer area. For me, it would be a return to menus and buttons, and I’m just not going to do that. What good is a great sensor if you’re fiddling with buttons and missing the shot? I think the consumer and prosumer cameras are getting the handling just right for the people who are using them, but expecting the wildlife, sports and other folks who want a DX sensor and are used to the “pro” handing of the D200/D300/D300s (not to mention the older D1x, D2x, D2h, etc.) to move to the prosumer models is crazy.

No matter how good the sensor is, those guys and gals aren’t going to be very happy, because the handling is a core part of how they shoot. I don’t think I’m at that level yet, but I can tell you that I’ve benefited a lot from the D300s, even though I didn’t upgrade my sensor at all. Do I want ISO 100, a nice 24MP sensor with the dynamic range of the D7000? A few other things? Sure! (though I’d settle for 16MP, which of course won’t happen). But I want it in a D400 package, not the D7100 or D600. It looks like Nikon is getting out of that business.

I guess the good news is this my wallet is safe from Nikon for a long time. Outside of the blog, I can stop thinking about the next camera so much and focus more on the next shots.

…and the Saga of the D600 Continues…

If you’ve found your way here via a search engine, the Nikon D600 has now announced.  Check out my take on it here.

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The internet (at least the Nikon area of it) is abuzz again today with updated rumors of the FX camera said to be a D600.  The biggest piece of news is that the autofocus motor is now rumored to be included, contrary to previous reports. This makes the camera much more attractive to people like me who have older FX lenses like the original Tamron 28-75 and the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 ED that are manual-focus lenses on a body without a built-in motor like the consumer Nikon D3200 or D5100.

From a glass perspective, this camera still poses an issue.  I have three DX lenses in my kit – the Nikon 35mm f/1.8, the Nikon 18-200 VRII and the Tokina 11-16 f/2.8.  All of these lenses are terrific, and I don’t think I’d sell them to chase the FX-equivalents: the “nifty fifty” 50 f/1.8 and the 28-300.  Honestly, I’m not sure what I’d do for wide on FX – wide is pricey on FX!

I’m still hoping for a true DX-based D300s successor.  As I said before, the camera described at Nikonrumors sounds a lot more like a D8000 than a D400/D600.  Since I have upcoming trips to Asia and Europe looming in the next six weeks, I’ll probably be watching from the sidelines…

D700 – Dead or Alive??

Nikon’s answer to my question “Where’s My full-frame” camera is apparently the D700. Or is it?

Last week there was a lot of hoopla on the internet with rumors of the D700 list price dropping to $2199 (from $2699). As usual, chippiness on the internet ensued, with many insisting Nikon wouldn’t do that, didn’t have any D700’s to sell at that price or some other D700/D800 declaration. It amazes me how many people on the internet make statements that seem to say they have direct knowledge of volumes and industry data (e.g. “the D700 killed the volumes of the D3” or “there aren’t enough D700’s to sell to make $2199 a real market price”).

Well, I disagree with the fist-pumpers that say the D700 is gone sooner than later, for a couple key reasons. First, I think it is a smart thing to do, but secondly, they might not have a choice. Let me explain.

As I’ve mentioned before, my day-job has been in the technology industry for over twenty years, and I closely followed it for years before that. I’ve worked in product management for many years, which has given me a fair bit of insight and knowledge about how development, testing, manufacturing, marketing, etc. work when it comes to PC’s and peripherals. I can’t say my experience and understanding is directly analogous to cameras, but I’d bet things aren’t too much different.

When I say Nikon didn’t have much of a choice to keep the D700 in production, I mean exactly that. More than likely, Nikon had very long lead-time commitments and minimum volumes on a variety of expensive components on the D700. In other words, they probably owned the parts even if their production at Sendai was severely limited by the tsunami and the effects on the area. On top of that, the costs of tooling and manufacturing equipment is amortized over the expected volumes of the product. Net: They need to keep the program whole to make their money, and they probably owned a lot of the critical parts. The alternative to continued production was likely a huge financial write-down, which probably wasn’t attractive given the impacts of the Tsunami in Japan as well as the Thailand floods, which disrupted other parts of Nikon’s business.

The assembly lines for these kinds of things don’t require as much space as you might think, and are actually somewhat portable – in other words, they could pretty easily make room for the D800 production lines in the buildings where they are making the D700. Their main concern is enough power and reliable power (the power production in the area was said to be erratic, which manufacturing lines don’t tolerate well).

If Nikon can the lights on and the machines running, there isn’t any reason at all they can’t run full-scale D700 and D800 production concurrently. They’ve had enough time to prepare and get the planning done, workers in place, etc and lots of incentives to do it. Barring some kind of component shortage, I could easily see them keeping the D700 around a while, just like the D90. Why not? It gets rid of the parts they likely are committed to, pays for the tooling and manufacturing lines and essentially fulfills the financial promise the D700 team made to the company.

Then there are the reasons I think it is a smart thing for Nikon to keep the D700 in the family. It fills a price cell they don’t currently address and makes Canon a little uncomfortable as they try to compete with the D700 @ $2199 and the D800 at $2999 with the 5dMKIII @ $3499. In the days since, Canon has reduced the 5dMkII to $2199 as well. Maybe Nikon and Canon will even get an idea of whether an “entry” FX platform is truly viable without having to invest in entirely new products, not to mention creating something that is distanced enough feature-wise from the D800 that it isn’t going to drag on that product (in my opinion).

Personally, I’d love a D3s sensor in a D700 body (detailed in my Open Letter to Nikon…). I’d start selling blood and light up eBay with everything I could find lying around to get one. In the meantime, I think you’ll see D700’s available in moderate volumes. Only time will tell, and even then it will validated only by perception/word of mouth – all these chippy guys who make all these bold statements about shipping numbers never seem to produce any source for their information. I wish Nikon did release more data – it would be fascinating. In the meantime, it will also be interesting to see how long Canon keeps the 5dMkII around – I doubt they intended to do that, so who knows how well they’ve been able to source the components necessary to continue production.

If you’re judging from stock at B&H, you can get the Canon 5dMKII right now, while the Nikon D700 says “Backordered”…

What do you think?  Is the D700 going to be around for a while like the D90 has been since the D7000 has announced, or is the $2199 thing just a short-term blip?

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?

Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger Review – Part 1 (Snoop)

I’ve been waiting…patiently this time…for my custom-made bag to arrive.  After trying the Ona Union Street Bag and finding it terrific but with a single, fatal flaw (that wouldn’t bother most people, but I’m a little whack about certain things), I went in search of another messenger-style bag that would fulfill my needs.

This review is going to be long enough that I’m breaking it up into 2 parts, so let’s get an overall summary out of the way for the short-attention-span crowd who are already dying to be done:  I got the large Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger with the medium Snoop insert.  The bag is very roomy with lots of pockets, and holds literally everything I own from a photography and mobile technology standpoint.  The Snoop insert is well-padded and fairly flexible.  The bag carries well and looks terrific, especially if you get a custom-built bag like I did.  The quality appears to be fantastic.  I have a few minor quibbles – It isn’t perfect, but it is highly recommended.

Now that those folks are playing on their xBox again, let’s get to some details on the Snoop, and I’ll do a bag writeup in the next day or so.  You might want to read the Ona review, but here’s my recent list of what I’m looking for in a bag:

  • Versatile – lots of easily accessible pockets and places to put stuff.  Travel well.
  • Spacious – hold my body and 4-5 lenses.   One lens would be replaced by a flash (when I own one and decide to carry it…).  It needs to hold my laptop and various cables, notebook, pens, etc. so I can have a single bag when I travel.
  • Protective – don’t let me break my stuff.  Please.
  • Comfortable – my equipment felt more comfortable to carry in the Ona bag vs. my current LowePro 202 AW, and actually felt lighter.  Also, don’t have fiddly designs – be simple and easy.
  • Attractive – as I mentioned in my other article, I travel in the corporate world, and I want something that has some style and design.  The very serious and pro photographers roll their eyes at this, but I’ll steal my own quote: I don’t want a bag that looks like it belongs on “That 70′s Show or “Star Trek” – I want something that looks good.  Attractive design and high function aren’t mutually exclusive. They just seem to be in the world of camera bags…

After scouting around, I came upon Timbuk2.  They are famous for their messenger bags.  As it turns out, a buddy of mine has their “Commute” bag for his laptop and is a big fan.  They have just recently announced a “camera bag.”  I put that in quotes because they didn’t announce a bag so much as they announced a variant of their current messenger bag with straps for a tripod (on the bottom) and an insert for camera equipment that slips into the bag.  They call it the “Snoop” and there are two sizes: small and medium. These correspond to the same sizes of their bag or +1 size (small Snoop in medium bag, medium Snoop in large bag) if you are customizing want some extra room.  I’d recommend the +1 strategy.  You’ll see what I mean later.  Since I was looking for a laptop case and a camera case, I went with the Laptop Messenger and added the Snoop insert instead of the standard, dedicated Snoop Camera Messenger.

While I was considering my order, I e-mailed and called Timbuk2 more than once.  The people were friendly and helpful.  Their website is excellent, and the customization process is almost too fun.  If I have a criticism, it is that the build-your-own experience has taken over their website a bit, but whatever – it is a very nice website with a lot of cool products as well as a fair number of videos about the products.

I decided to go with a custom bag and stick with the waxed canvas theme I liked so much with the Ona bag.  I chose black with an olive center panel, black trim and logo and a light blue interior.  Yes, you can choose a different color for all of those things.  There are a lot of colors and fabrics, so you can end up with something uniquely yours.  There are, of course, pre-made bags in a variety of colors.  I configured away and had a merry time, also adding Compression Straps so I could cinch the bottom when I wasn’t using it as a camera bag.  They also provide a handy place to tuck my tripod in a pinch, too. Ultimately, I stuck with a conservative look, but you have lots of options to add color and texture to the bag.  The Snoop itself does not customize.

I’m not sure how their process works, but build/ship took a little longer than I expected.  I think expedited shipping might get expedited build as well.  I ordered on Dec. 5th, it shipped on Dec. 9th and the bag itself arrived on Dec. 19th (original arrival estimate from UPS was 12/16).  Poor performance on the part of UPS, holidays notwithstanding.  Especially if you live much farther east than the Rockies, upgrade the shipping.  The Snoop arrived several days earlier, so I’l make that the focus of Part 1 of this review:

Cool bag - it is a map of San Francisco, and it encourages you to cut it out and keep it.

All four lenses, my D90, my FlipCam and various other stuff in the bag. Not sweating space at all...

There is a carry/pull handle on the top of the Snoop that allows you to pull it out of the Laptop Messenger or light portability.  It is for moving it from storage to the bag and back, not for transportation.

The Snoop is gray nylon canvas on the outside.  They call the color Gunmetal, and it looks great – if I ever build a laptop-only case and go custom again, it is high on my list.  The interior is blue soft terry lining with minimal padding on the outside and nicely padded dividers.  Since the insert is inside a bigger bag and has multiple layers of protection, I’m not worried about the side padding.  Interior room is excellent.

I got the Medium Snoop, and it carries my D90, four lenses (a large one, two med/lg. and a little prime), my filter case, Black Rapid strap, FlipCam and other various stuff with room to spare.  In an insert this size, a few extra dividers would be a good thing, but you can get extras from them separately.  The top of the Snoop zips shut to make it a self-contained unit, which works great for me.  When I’m not using this as a camera bag, I can store the Snoop an make the bag my daily laptop case.

Other than additional dividers, my only criticism of the Snoop is that it has no pockets or accessory storage at all.  They could make use of the top flap for a couple memory card slots and a small pocket for a cable release, etc.  Some slide-in pockets on the side wouldn’t be a terrible idea, either.  Yes, there are plenty of pockets on the bag itself, but if the idea is to make this a modular piece of a carry-system, I’d like to see the Snoop be a little more self-contained for my photography equipment.  A minor point, though I’d love to see them update the design.

Outside of that, I can’t find much to fault with the Snoop, especially as part of the overall system in the bag.  I’ll be carrying the bag in three modes: Laptop, Camera and Laptop+Camera (travel only).  I’ll cover it more in Part II, but I think the fact that the Snoop is removable will make this bag much more flexible than anything else I’m aware of, which is fairly cool.  It isn’t without drawbacks – I’ll cover more in Part II, but I’m very happy, which is a good thing:  Custom bags can’t be returned…

I’ll get the second half of the review up as soon as I can, holiday duties and preparation call, and I’m going to try to get out and take some photos, too!

Hello Twitter

OK – Enthusiast Photographer has entered the world of Twitter.  I’ll follow people – I hope you’ll follow me.  I’m one of those people who is still a little mystified by Twitter, but I like anything that encourages communication, and honestly, that is one of the reasons I started Enthusiast Photographer.  Please follow me and help get the word out to anyone you think would be interested in the blog – thanks!

Ona Union Street Messenger Bag Review

The Ona Union Street Messenger - Available in three great-looking colors. (from the Ona website)

In my job, I travel a lot and I’m in a corporate environment.  When I’m flying, I’m often going places where I’d like the chance to take some photographs, but I’m faced with a dilemma:  I’m the Master of Complicated Travel.  The living example of Murphy’s Law with a plane ticket.  I’ve literally chased my luggage around the world (it is a long story, and in retrospect a funny one…), so if I can avoid casting my stuff into the abyss that can be the airline baggage handling system, I try to do that.  The problem?  You can only take two bags on the plane.

That means I can’t have a briefcase, a camera bag and a carry-on piece of luggage.  I could (and have) put my camera bag in the carry-on, but that limits precious space for what is often a week or more of clothes to wear, plus I live in a non-hub city, which means my “carry-on” is often gate-checked for my first and last flights on small commuter jets.  That isn’t happening with valuable and delicate camera gear inside.

So the next option is to find a bag that combines the briefcase and the camera bag.  Honestly, I thought that was going to be a non-issue.  There are lots of people like me, right?  Apparently not.

Searching around, you find lots of bags in the backpack style, which I don’t prefer.  First, I think they don’t fit well in the corporate world.  Second, they are often overkill for what I’m looking for.  Lastly and most importantly, I just don’t find wearing a backpack comfortable.  My current bag is a semi-backpack, the Lowepro Slingshot 202 AW.  It served me well enough at Disney and in the various shoots I’ve been on, but it is just a little too cramped, especially for my 80-200 f/2.8 and it feels heavy with all the gear inside.  It wants to be worn across your chest or it isn’t comfortable.

There are tons of variations on the traditional camera bag out there, too (e.g. the Domke F-2, Billingham 335, Gura Gear line, National Geographic, ThinkTank, etc.).  The problem is many of them look like they belong on “That 70’s Show” or “Star Trek” and generally they won’t accommodate a laptop.  No joy.

After some hunting around, I found a few references to a new company called Ona.  They make very stylish bags with the promise of high functionality.  Scanning their site, the bag I’m looking for is there:  The Union Street Messenger, a very nice-looking waxed canvas bag in sophisticated colors with nice leather trim.  It holds a laptop, a camera and an array of gear and posses discrete looks that don’t scream “I’M A CAMERA BAG” that fit well in a corporate environment and don’t encourage thieves any more than absolutely necessary.  So I ordered one from B&H.

The result?  I’m blown away by nearly everything about this bag.  Except the one thing that kills it for me.  I’ll explain.

I’m able to put my D90, Nikon 80-200 f/2.8, Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 (mounted), Nikon 18-200, Nikon 35 f/1.8, a blower, a couple batteries and miscellaneous cables and bits as well as my 14″ ThinkPad, iPhone, a USB hard drive and ThinkPad tablet (10″) in the Union Street. That is a lot of gear to fit in something so small-looking!  The quality seems excellent throughout, though time will always tell. All the leather, the fabric and the stitching seem very solid and well done.  This is a beautiful piece of work.  Let’s get to some photos (apologies for the poor quality):

Ona Union Street Bag

The Ona Union Street arrives in a nice dust/storage bag

Ona Union Street Bag

A first look inside the bag

Ona Union Street Bag Loaded

Gear without body. I wound up moving the small divider in the middle up to give the 80-200 more protection and allow more room for the camera to slide in with a lens mounted (typically the Tamron 28-75).

Ona Union Street Bag Completely Loaded

Fully loaded.

Ona Union Street Bag -  Carry Handle

The carrying handle

Ona Union Street Bag - All Contents

The complete contents I could fit in the bag. Really impressive!

The Ona Union Street deals with bulk reasonably well. The buckles holding the flap to the main body of the bag are high-quality. There is no cheesy and noisy velcro.  I was kind of hoping that you’d be able to press on the outside of the buckle to release/open, but it doesn’t appear to work like that easily for me. Slightly fiddly. I’m not a fan of fiddly, but it isn’t a huge deal-breaker.

The handle at the top looks like it would be unbalanced, especially when loaded. It isn’t, at least for light movement and picking it up/putting it down.

It carries very well – I’m amazed how light it feels vs. the same gear in my Lowepro on my back.  It feels very comfortable on my shoulder, and the strap is extremely strong.

The gear carries well overall. The 80-200 has plenty of depth, though the pockets are shallow enough that the foot on that lens worried me. I pulled the shallow divider out from the “body pocket” and made a full-height space for the lens. No worries. The foot does provide some dimension to think about – I kept it turned toward the compartment with the shorter lens vs. the body compartment.

With everything inside, I did need to extend the buckles on the straps to allow closure and locking the flap.  That is what they are there for, right?  The bag didn’t look like it was bursting at the seams loaded up.  All good.

The list of gripes is short, but fatal (but probably just for me).  There should be a “pull-strap” on the buckle to help pull the buckle into the snap.  As designed, you pull on the buckle and strap itself, which is not only awkward, but likely to cause wear on the holes in the leather over time.

But the biggest issue is that the front pocket is very, very tight. Even when the main compartment isn’t loaded with gear, access to the front pocket is extremely and unnecessarily tight. This is due to the fact that the zipper at the top of the compartment goes straight across the top of the two sewn sides of the pocket.  A simple, minimal flap or gusset to allow a broadening of the opening would have been all that was necessary. But as it sits, it is tremendously fiddly.  There are spaces for a cell phone, memory cards and other stuff (I threw in a USB hard drive, the iPhone, a couple extra batteries, some cleaning supplies, etc.). Net: My issues isn’t so much with the space, but the access to it.

The front pocket - aka the Achilles heel

Ultimately, I decided to return the bag.  For $279 I’m not willing to live with a key area of a bag I use that much being that inconvenient.  I’m probably more picky about that than most people. At the end of the day, it is a gorgeous and capable bag.  With a couple tweaks, it would be a real star.

Readers:  What bags are you carrying?  What do you love or hate about them?  Any of you have the Ona bag and a story to share?

Please feel free to comment, send me ideas/questions and of course read my other posts.  Thanks!