Nikon 70-200 f/4 vs. 70-200 f/2.8 VRI

Choosing lenses as an Enthusiast Photographer can be tough – there are a lot of choices, and some lenses can be real budget-busters.  This weekend I was lucky enough to have in my house the two Nikon 70-200 lenses you can get for around $1500:  A new Nikon 70-200 f/4 or a used Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRI.  Have a look:

The differences boil down to this – With the 70-200 f/2.8 you get a whole extra stop of light (which means you can double your shutter speed or cut your ISO in half in low light), but it costs you over 1.3 pounds in weight.  Maybe worth it if you’re shooting indoor sports, especially on an older body, but the f/4 is insanely sharp and less than 60% the weight.  The only downside is that there is no tripod mount, so factor in $170 for the Nikon RT-1 collar or around $200 for the RRS.  The Kirk collar wins the afforability race at $160 (“affordable” being a relative word here…)

That weight savings will keep the f/4 in my bag.  I’m a huge fan!  As always, I’m really interested to hear your thoughts!

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Updated China and Japan Summer 2012

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As summer approaches, I’m planning another trip to China and Japan. Since my switch to LightRoom 4 over the holidays, I’ve been watching the Lightroom Channel on YouTube, trying to improve my skills.

I thought it would be fun to see what last Summer’s photos could look like. Here are some my favorites. I realize that I didn’t post many photos from my trip to Europe (that started one week after this work trip), so I’ll go do the same thing for those and post them, too.

Like any photography tool, the better you know it, the more effective you can be – Lightroom is no different, though I have to say I’m getting a slow start with it. Guess I need to spend more time with Kelby! 🙂

Scrapyard Visit

I was driving home from an out-of-town work trip the other day and saw an old boneyard with a bunch of cool, rusty old American cars. I turned around and pulled in to look around, and then remembered I had my camera with me. After talking to the guy running the yard and asking if it was cool for me to take some photos, I had a nice time wandering around, looking for texture.

It was actually a lot harder than I expected. Of all the photos I took, only three came out even close to what I was going for:

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Nikon D300s – 35mm f/1.8 @ f/2.5 – 1/40th – ISO 800 – Set for – 1/3 EV

A little thinner on depth-of-field (DOF) than I wanted, but it was pretty dark. Since I was hand-holding and shooting from an awkward angle/position, I had to keep a reasonable shutter speed. Since I thought there would be too much noise if I popped the ISO higher, I went with a wider aperture. In retrospect, a bad choice.  I could have also done myself a favor and not set the exposure for -1/3 EV.  That would have helped, too.

Nikon D300s - 35mm f/1.8 @ f/2.8, 1/8000 - ISO 200

Nikon D300s – 35mm f/1.8 @ f/2.8 – 1/8000 – ISO 200 – Set for -1 EV

Shooting outside in harsh sun, this shot was actually pretty challenging. Even setting the camera for a full stop lower exposure (-1 EV), I still have some blown out spots. The DOF worked better for me here, though, and I’m happier with this shot

Nikon D300s - 35mm f/1.8 @ f/2.8 - 1/3200 - ISO 200 - Set for -1 EV

Nikon D300s – 35mm f/1.8 @ f/2.8 – 1/3200 – ISO 200 – Set for -1 EV

Another shot where I was fighting really harsh sun, I also used the exposure compensation to adjust down a whole stop.  In retrospect, I wish I’d gotten in tighter on the “Special” medallion.  You can faintly see 1957 engraved there, and it would have been a cool shot, and a lot less busy than this one.

A few lessons of the day:

  • Always have your camera with you
  • Don’t forget about the EV/exposure adjustment, but don’t forget when you’ve set it! 🙂
  • Use the screen to zoom in and see if you’re getting what you want.  I usually do it more carefully than I did that day.

Even though I didn’t get all the shots I wanted, I’m so glad I stopped.  It was really cool to see all these old cars, some of which will either be on the road again or help another car get there.  The experience is always good, no matter how the shots turn out!

What kind of problems have YOU had shooting lately?

By the way, if you enjoyed this post, feel free to follow the blog or “Like” the Enthusiast Photographer Facebook page.

Should I buy a Nikon D7100?

D7100_heroIf you’re in the Nikon world you’ve heard about the recent announcement of the new Nikon D7100 (unless you were under a rock somewhere).  Predictably enough, the Nikon sections of the various photography forums are ablaze with questions of whether a given photographer should upgrade.

If you’ve found your way here, you might be wondering the same thing.  Regular readers of Enthusiast Photographer are probably predicting my answer already:  for the vast majority of people, it is “It depends, but probably not.”

Heresy.  Crazy talk.  Doesn’t a new camera make your images better?

Usually not.

Here’s the thing – why do you want to upgrade?  What isn’t your current camera doing for you?  In what way or ways are you exceeding the capabilities of the camera? Do you know the camera inside and out?

If you can’t answer those questions in some detail, you probably don’t need to upgrade (but you want to ;))

The desire is always there for the latest thing, and certainly the D7100 is a compelling camera.  If you’re carrying a D90 or D7000 (especially the latter), my recommendation is probably to sit tight.  Yes, the autofocus system is more capable and sophisticated as you go up from the D90 to the D7000 to the D7100.  Yes, you get more megapixels at each step.  The D7000 has a pretty big jump in ability to pull details out of shadows (dynamic range) vs. the D90, and we can assume the D7100 offers even further improvement.  There is a small bump in low light (ISO) performance – likely to be less than a stop between the D90 and the D7100, which isn’t much.

As I’ve said many times here, you can generally get better and more enduring benefits from investing in high-quality lenses than buying a new body.  The lenses will usually work on your next body.  If they don’t they tend to keep their value extremely well, especially compared to a body (which is more like a car – the older it gets, the less it is worth).

Maybe you can answer the questions above, know your camera inside and out and you have a clear idea of what problems the D7100 solves for you – you’ve wrung every bit of performance out of whatever camera you own.  Maybe you’ve got a complete kit of great glass and you’re ready to take the next step with the body.  If one or more of those is true, the D7100 will be a great camera to have.

If you’re on an older body, a D70 or a D80, I think the case for replacing your body is stronger.  There are a LOT of improvements in features, usability and performance in a D7100 over those cameras.  It might be wise to save a few bucks and grab a D7000 as it begins its ride into the sunset, too…

There are a lot of sensor-bullies on the internet who will say your aren’t getting good images quality unless you have the latest sensor, which is ridiculous.  Every other camera that went before didn’t suddenly become less capable – Nikon just took another step forward.  There are lots of ways to improve your images, and the top three are, in order most to least:

  1. Improve the photographer
  2. Shoot with better lenses
  3. Shoot with the best camera you can

OK – that is a little arbitrary, but it is pretty darn true! 😀

At the end of the day, it is hard to get away from the desire to buy a new body.  My general advice is to resist and focus on the other two things.  The next body will always be there…

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the D7100, upgrading or any other topic – feel free to comment!

Nikon announces D7100

If you haven’t heard yet, this is yet another new camera from Nikon, and it is aimed squarely at Enthusiast Photographers.

Details here: http://www.nikonusa.com/en/Nikon-Products/Product/Digital-SLR-Cameras/1513/D7100.html

I’m on an airport bus in LA, so more thoughts later :).

Top 5 Pieces of Advice for an Enthusiast Photographer (100th Post!)

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I started Enthusiast Photographer because I thought it might be useful to someone to track what I learned over time about photography – tips, equipment, industry news, whatever.  This is now the 100th post on the site, so I thought it would be appropriate to boil things down a little.  Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Learn more about photography: What makes photography fun (and sometimes intimidating) is the vast amount of knowledge out there to acquire – there is always something to learn!  I’ve said many times that the best upgrade in photography is improving the person behind the camera.  Find some good books (Kelby, Peterson, et. al.), Blogs (byThom, PhotoFocus, etc.) or videos (FroKnowsPhoto) and always keep growing!
  2. Learn more about your camera (and lenses): I don’t think it is unfair to say most Enthusiast Photographers haven’t maximized the capabilities of their equipment.  I was astounded how much I didn’t know about my camera (especially the autofocus system) when I read Thom Hogan’s guide to my camera.  What I learned greatly expanded my understanding of the piece of equipment in my hand, my comfort level while shooting and ultimately my photography.  I’ve read it a couple times, and I’m getting ready to do it again – each time I walk away with more.  The same thing is true about some lenses.  Does your lens have switches or buttons?  Do you know what they do and when you should use them?  Generally we’re limited to the owner’s manual here, but read RTFM 🙂 and check reviews to make sure you’re getting the most out of your glass, too…
  3. Decide if you’re a tripod shooter or not (if so, get a good system): Kelby, Hogan and others say that you should invest in a good tripod off the bat.  I’m going to disagree with them…sorta.  If your thing is kids, street or travel photography, a tripod might not be as big a deal – modern lenses with vibration reduction give you much better hand-held results at slower shutter speeds, and your money might be better spent on glass.  If you love landscapes, portraits, macro or any other area of photography where the sharpest picture is key or you’re dealing with very low light (think dawn, dusk or inside dark buildings), then a tripod is one of the most important things you’ll buy.  If you do, spend money on a good one. That doesn’t automatically mean a super-expensive one, but don’t go cheap either.  Find a nice one used or save up for a good one.  I’ll have a post coming on buying tripods and heads later.  For the record, I love my tripod and use it constantly.  I also have a monopod that has come in extremely handy, too.
  4. Always prioritize glass over body when it comes to upgrades:   The latest “sensor” is always sexy.  More megapixels, better low-light performance (ISO), more detail in shadows (dynamic range), whatever.  But here’s the thing – A good lens is going to make any camera better.  An average lens is going to make every camera and photographer work harder.  Icing on the cake comes from the fact that your glass will probably work on your next body, too.  If it doesn’t (for example if you switch from crop-sensor to full-frame), lenses keep their value far better than bodies.
  5. Have fun!: There are so many details to remember and settings to fiddle with that you can wind up missing out on the cool stuff going on around you!  Frankly, if you’ve been diligent about #1 and #2 above, this is probably less of an issue.  One other way you miss the fun is when everything becomes a photo-walk.  During my trip to Europe last Summer, I went light in my bag and shot for fun as much as expression.  It was great – we had a ball and they camera never got in the way of my vacation.  I wound up with some shots I really love, like the one at the top of this post.

So there it is!  Honestly, there are probably more than those five, but that is what is coming off the top of this hair-thinning dome… 🙂

One last note – if you enjoy this content, please feel free to “Like” the Enthusiast Photographer FaceBook page or “Follow” @enthus_photo on Twitter

[EDIT:  It has been a day or so since I posted this, and I just happened to wander by Thom Hogan’s site – he has a very-similar 5 things on his site (called “Last Camera Syndome II)!!  All I can say is I didn’t see his until just now, but it makes me feel good that my thinking tracked pretty closely with Thom’s (though that might worry him!! 🙂 )

Lens Dilemma

I’ll start this post with an apology for the long gap since I added anything to Enthusiast Photographer.  November and January combined for nearly 30,000 miles in the air, and while December didn’t involve any travel, I was either recovering from travel, working, enjoying the holidays or getting ready for more travel!!  The good news is I’ve been keeping a running list of topics, and I’ll promise to spend more time turning that list into (hopefully useful and/or interesting) content!  So let’s get to it!

Ironically, what inspired me to write were a couple of items I’ve seen in the last day about lenses.  I’ll start with a post from the almost-always interesting Photofocus blog about advice regarding what lens to buy.  The post boils down to the fact that the answer is different for almost every photographer – your needs, skills, budget, interests and style is different than anyone else.  If you frequent photography forums, you’ll nearly always find someone asking for advice on this topic.

What is my advice?  Same as it has always been:

  • Always buy the best glass you can, and don’t be afraid of older lenses.  I have some pretty vintage lenses in my bag, but I’ve got a very workable kit.
  • Buy used at places like FredMiranda.com where enthusiasts and pros sell to each other (and there’s a good rating system in place for buyers and sellers).
  • If you can’t afford the expensive constant aperture zooms, get the inexpensive zooms and add a nice f/1.8 prime to your bag (they’re usually pretty affordable, even new).

By the way, if you aren’t sure what “fast glass” “prime lens” or “constant aperture” means, see the my post on “Fast Glass“, and of course always feel free to ask any question via the Comments section – if I don’t know the answer, I’ll try to find out!

Honestly, most Enthusiast Photographers aren’t getting as much out of their equipment as we could (myself included).  Boning up on your skills, your knowledge, your holding technique and more can be a huge benefit.  See my book recommendations on books in one of my first posts “Breaking Through the Wall.”

Enthusiast Photographer Lens? Nikon Announces the 70-200 f/4

The net: Lower-priced, fairly fast glass gives Enthusiast Photographers a compelling and (relatively)  lightweight choice, but there are lots of options in this price range. It isn’t a mistake to get one, but my advice is look at other new and used options. In this price range, it is hard to wind up with a dud…

Being an Enthusiast Photographer has a lot to do with affordability.  Most of us never make any income from our photography, so the equipment you own is mainly about enjoying the process of capturing images.  And since I’m guessing most of you are like me, the amount of money you have to spend on that equipment is limited.

There are lots of great reasons to own a long zoom.  They help you get in tight on kids at recitals or on playing fields that are a long way away or the birds or animals that run away if you’re close.  On my recent trip to Europe, I spent a lot of time taking pictures of what I called “texture” for a project my niece was doing, and having 200mm of zoom was extremely useful.

Nikon just announced a new zoom aimed directly at Enthusiast Photographers – the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR telephoto zoom lens.  It offers a constant aperture of f/4 throughout the focal  (zoom) range.  This means that you can set the camera “wide open” for the best low-light performance and/or shallowest depth of field and it won’t change at all as you zoom, as apposed to my 18-200 VRII, which will automatically change to higher apertures as I zoom out, all the way to f/5.6 at 200mm.  How big a difference is that?  One full “stop” of light.  That means at f/4 the camera has twice as much light to work with, allowing you to use a faster shutter speed or a higher ISO if you need to.  Lots of people say “only one stop”, but for me twice as much is a big deal, and often the difference between getting the shot and *not* getting the shot.  One stop of ISO performance is a lot in a body – the D7000 only has “only” 1.1 stops better ISO performance than the ancient D70 (though it has many, many other advantages!).

Anyway, I’ll let you read the Nikon page on the 70-200 f/4 for the specs and full details, and offer up my opinions.

At $1399, it is a pretty pricey lens.  Yes it has the latest generation of “VR” (Vibration Reduction) technology that will let you hand-hold at very low shutter speeds.  I have to say that walking around Europe and Asia in low light with this camera and, say a D600, would have been a magical hand-held shooting experience.  That is because for shooting stuff that isn’t moving at very low shutter speeds VR is a huge help, and you won’t need a tripod.  Add that to clean files at ISO 6400 from cameras like the D600 and D7000 and you can have a lot of fun.  One word of caution, however: it won’t help you nearly as much if what you’re shooting is moving.

Also – it doesn’t have a tripod collar!  The collar is what gives you a tripod foot for good balance and stability, plus allows you to rotate from “landscape” to “portrait” orientation (horizontal to vertical) without taking the lens off the camera).  I’m sure Nikon’s logic was that VR means a tripod isn’t necessary, but there are plenty of landscape shooters shooting panoramic photos with a long zoom, bird-in-flight shooters and others who use a tripod a fair bit.  Having this 30 oz/850g lens hanging off the body isn’t going to do much for stability on the tripod.  If you want a tripod collar, Nikon is happy to sell you one for $223.95 (who came up with that price?? For that kind of money, I’d wait and see what Really Right Stuff or Kirk come up with).  That said, this lens is a much lighter alternative to the Nikon f/2.8 “pro” zooms – 30oz. vs. over 54oz. for the current 70-200 VRII and almost 52oz. for the older 70-200 VRI (so a little less than 1.9lb vs. roughly 3.4lb and 3.2lb).  1.5 pounds is a lot when you’re running around all day with it on your shoulder or back.

New 70-200 f/4 with the collar

The optional RT-1 collar…

Even without the collar, we’re now talking about money that gets you close to the older, $2399 70-200 VRII, which is f/2.8 throughout the range and one of Nikon’s best zoom lenses ever.  Of course, that isn’t chump change, either.  (but it does have a collar 😉 )

Inside Nikon’s product line, that makes me look at the old 80-200 ED f/2.8, which is great “Pro” glass for under $1100 brand new.  It doesn’t have VR, but fast glass makes up for a lot.  Or you can find a nice used copy of the first generation 70-200 “VRI” that has stability control and is a terrific lens for about the same money as the new f/4 model (though it is slightly better for DX than FX, where the new lens is optimized for FX or DX).

If you’re looking for affordability, the 70-300 VR is still a great lens for under $600 brand new and is even lighter than the 70-200 f/4 (a bit over 1.6lb), though it isn’t capable of the low-light performance.

Outside Nikon’s product line, Tokina has announced they’ll offer a similar lens, though pricing and availability haven’t been published.

Lastly, Tamron and Sigma have f/2.8 long zooms for similar money.  These are generally well-regarded and are “faster”, though I have less confidence in Sigma’s consistency when it comes to quality (which is just a personal impression – I have no data to back that up and there are many Sigma owners thrilled with their lenses).  User reviews of both of these makers tend to complain that low-light focus performance doesn’t match the Nikon-branded lenses.

Should you buy one?  Hard to say.  If you have a D600, this lens is designed for you, and is as-good or better than anything out there for the price.  I think the Tokina lens will be a very interesting and high-quality product, probably at $1299 (though it apparently doesn’t have a collar, either).

If I had the money to buy a lens in this price range, I’d be a little flummoxed.  Especially with the collar, there are a ton of options.  The good news is any of the options will net you a really nice lens.  Personally, I’d probably go with a used 70-200 VRI, though the weight and the likely quality of this lens would make it a tough call.

If you’re debating about a new body vs. this new piece of glass, the old saying comes to mind – always invest in glass.  Good lenses make any camera better (see my posts on fast glass and “should I get a new camera” for some additional thoughts), and this lens is good for any modern Nikon DSLR whether it is DX or FX.

Please feel free to post any questions, thoughts or comments!!

The Magic Buttons of Happiness

I hang around several photography forums, and at least once a week there is a thread from a camera owner who is getting ready to pull a lot of hair out in frustration with their DSLR. SOMETHING isn’t working right, and they can’t figure out why they aren’t getting the expected results. Often the person has recently acquired a used camera and is worried that they got ripped off.  It isn’t unusual for someone who has had their camera a while and has enabled some setting and forgotten, and thinks something is broken.

In the increasingly chippy (i.e. rude) world of the internet, this often sparks firefights.  People defend the camera.  People tell the owner that their technique needs to improve.  They’ll say it must be the lens.  Sometimes they’ll poke at the autofocus or other settings, which is a start down the right road.

The problem is that modern Digital SLR cameras are incredibly complex, and there are many metering, autofocus and other settings that can make the camera behave very differently than you expect if some setting is activated and then forgotten.  If you just purchased a used camera it is even worse – you have no idea what settings the previous owner used.

Fortunately for Nikon shooters there is a really easy way to reset almost any Nikon DSLR camera to default settings:  find the two green buttons on the camera and hold them both down for two seconds.  Done.  Now virtually everything not in the “custom” menu will now be set to the factory default…

…and very possibly the problems just disappeared too!  🙂

If you don’t see two green buttons, or want more details, see Nikon’s support site for this topic.  If it doesn’t work, you have other things to think about, but this is always a good first thing to try if you just can’t figure out what else is wrong.

It doesn’t appear that Canon has something quite this easy.  It looks like you have to go into the menus to accomplish the same thing.  If you’re a Canon shooter and I’m wrong, please let me know and I’ll update this post.

Net: If you buy a used camera, the first thing you should do is a full reset, and Nikon makes it easy.  If it seems like your camera has lost its mind, reset it before you lose yours. 🙂

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.