Key Lenses

LensfamilyI own six lenses now, and a post by Richard Harrington on Photofocus made me think about lenses I’d choose I was starting over or starting out.

My first lens was my Nikon 18-200 VRII.  For some reason, this is a really controversial lens.  You’ll see lots of people on photography forums malign it, say it isn’t sharp, talk about distortion (which is an automatic two-second fix in Lightroom) and generally look down their nose at it.  Luckily, I listened to Scott Kelby, Trey Ratcliff who recommend it heartily.  Heck – even Ken Rockwell likes it!  It is really versatile, reasonably light and I’ve gotten very sharp shots from it.  As a travel and walkaround lens, it is hard to beat.  Lately prices for used copies of this lens have dropped close to $500, which is a steal.  The older “VRI” model sells for even less, which is crazy – the only difference is that the “VRII” has a switch that locks the lens so it won’t extend while you’re walking around (which is called “lens creep).  If you see a good deal on one, grab it and get this $5 solution for lens creep from B&H.  For most of us Enthusiast Photographers, this takes care of most of our zoom needs.

This brings me back to Richard’s advice – the next lens should be a prime.  Primes give you the ability to shoot in really low light, are usually sharper than zooms and give you more ability to generate “bokeh” – that pleasing blurred background that is so useful for portraits and creative photography.  Here’s the big news – they are really affordable too!  For only a few bucks more than the list price of the 18-200, you can buy the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G and 85mm f/1.8G!  Even better, the 35mm f/1.8 sells brand new for less than $200. On Nikon DX cameras and other “crop sensors” (which include pretty much all both the most expensive DSLRs out there), this gives you the “nifty fifty” field of view – a “normal” view of the world that is pretty much as your eye sees it – not zoomed out or in.  If you’re on a full-frame camera, you’ll want a 50mm lens (hence “nifty fifty) to achieve the same thing.

I started with my 35mm 1.8G and it is the lens I reach for when I want to get creative.  It is also really, really light and really sharp.  Later I added the 85mm, which is just plain outstanding for portraits.

If you’re wondering whether to invest in the more expensive, wider-aperture primes (like the f/1.4 lenses), my advice is generally “No” – there isn’t that much difference in light and they are usually significantly more expensive – from more than twice the money to as much as 8 times as much!! (from the $200 Nikon 35mm f/1.8G to the over-$1600 f/1.4G). The exception to that might be the 50mm if you’re shooting FX or full-frame Canon, etc.- you’ve already spent some serious money and the $500 f/1.4G is outstanding as are the Canon equivalents (and are less expensive than their Nikon cousins…).  If you need to save the $300, you won’t be unhappy with the f/1.8G model, either.  For 85mm lenses, the Nikon f/1.8G is actually sharper than the f/1.4G and far less expensive.

To net it out, get a flexible zoom and a 35mm or 50mm 1.8 prime to start and build from there.  The more you shoot, your needs beyond that will begin to become more obvious to you and you won’t regret having those two lenses in your bag.  (here’s my obligatory “What’s in my Bag?” post)

What lenses do you own?  Any you especially like or dislike?

More D400 Rumors

D400An article on Nasim Mansurov’s blog has freshened hopes for a D400 to replace the aging D300s.  Most interestingly, it is the first time I’ve seen something that aligns with my thoughts on why Nikon hasn’t announced it yet.  Net: It was disrupted by all the events in Asia (the tsunami in Japan and especially the floods in Thailand where the is a big DX focus for Nikon).  Plans for a release were allegedly pulled a second time to update the design – once the delay got beyond a certain point, the design was too rooted in the past.  As a guy who has worked in the tech industry in product management, these things ring true to me – time will tell.

A completely new, faster and more capable autofocus system caught my eye in the article.  Of course the camera (if announced) would also have pro-handling features like AF-ON, 10-pin connector and a deep buffer.

Announcement was rumored for September, which might or might not be true.  I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Nikon wait for 2014 CES to announce it along with the D4s also mentioned in the article (which is also just a rumor).

In the meantime, I’ve really been enjoying my D300s.  The announcement of the D7100 caused me to think about whether that camera would be worth it.  I personally love the handling of the D300s, and have no desire to go the other direction.  Presumably the D400 will closely follow the D800 handling, which prioritized some video features over still photography features in the handling.  I’ve heard mixed reviews, and ultimately I’ll have to see for myself.  I really like how the D300s handles, and I don’t use DSLR video at all.  Handling is personal – what is fine for one person isn’t fine for another, and I’m especially finicky.

I’m looking forward to seeing what gets announced!  In the meantime, I’m out shooting with the terrific camera I already have!

Really Right Stuff LC-A12 Collar Review (Nikon 70-200 f/4)

rrsf4collar-2One of my few complaints about Nikon’s new 70-200 f/4 was the lack of an integrated foot for mounting on a tripod. A lens of this length and weight is going to have best stability when mounted on a foot, and while Nikon is probably assuming most of these lenses will be in walk-around mode mounted to a D600 or D800, I really wanted a collar.

There are three main options: Nikon RT-1 ($170), Kirk ($160) and the Really Right Stuff LC-A12 ($195).  I rejected the Nikon collar because it doesn’t have the Arca-Swiss dovetail on the base.  Kirk does, of course, but the foot has to be removed with screws and has less flexibility than the RRS.  It has a lens support on the end I feel is unnecessary.  So I ordered the RRS LC-A12 package.

After a bit of a wait, I finally got it.  After having a chance to play with it a bit, here are my thoughts:     (you can also see my video review here on YouTube):

Features

  • Removable Foot Design:  Excellent for minimizing space consumed in your bag
  • Rotation Markings:  On the top and both sides (though Nikon doesn’t make good use of them – detailed below)
  • Dual-Dovetail:  The foot allows use of the very slick (but pricey) flash bracket (better explained in the video)
  • Hole in Collar Mount:  Allows mounting to a tripod or strap if you don’t have the foot
  • Slip-stop:  Helps ensure your lens doesn’t slide off your ball head when you loosen the clamp.  Handy.

Handling

Handling is very good, as you’d expect from RRS though surprisingly I did have a couple of concerns.

The Good

  • Removable foot:  Allows you to save space and weight in your bag when you don’t need the foot.  I toss the foot in a side pocket if I think I’ll need it.  Otherwise, the collar stays attached without the foot.
  • Dual Dove-tail:  Enables you to use RRS’s very cool (if pricey) line of flash brackets.  If you don’t have an RRS foot, you’ll have to attach a heavy bar on the bottom of your L-bracket, which is heavy and complicates switching between tripod and hand-held.  The spacing on the ring to the lens is less optimal, too…
  • Easy to remove:  True of both the foot and the collar itself.

The Not-so-good

  • Knob:  The big silver knob used to adjust tension is…well, big.  I really wish it could be smaller.   Mine also squeaks a bit when tightened (I’ll be calling RRS about that as their manual specifically says not to lubricate the parts)
  • Rotation:  Not as smooth as my 80-200 f/2.8 (which had an integrated, non-removable  collar).  It feels a little dry.  I’m not sure if that is the lens or the collar.
  • 90° Markings:  The RRS collar has great markings.  Unfortunately the Nikon lens only has one, so when you go to portrait mode you have to look a the side of the lens.  My 80-200 had markings that allowed me to look at the top of the lens to match up.

Build

What do you expect of RRS?  The thing is extremely solid and has all the hallmarks or RRS design. Entirely made in the USA, it matches colors of the lens perfectly.  Other than the squeaky knob, I’ve got no complaints or worries here at all.

Value

Value is subjective.  You can save $30-$40 with the Kirk or Nikon collar setups, and I have no doubts about their quality.  The extra money gets you a more flexible setup, and the removable foot in particular is a big plus for me.  Yes, you can find far, far less expensive ones on eBay, but remember the value of the lens and camera that depend on the collar to avoid a nasty fall.  A poor place to economize.  I’ve also heard reports that there is a little slop in some of those cheapie collars, which defeats the purpose.

Photos

LC-A12 Collar and LCF-10 Foot.

LC-A12 Collar and LCF-10 Foot.

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The single alignment dot offered by the f4

The single alignment dot offered by the f4

Front View

Front View

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LC-A12 foot with an RRS flash bracket mounted. Very cool.

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rrsf4collar-1

A mounting hole is available for tripods or straps even if the foot isn’t connected.

Summary

I’m a fan of RRS.  I can’t say I find the “dry” rotation or the squeaky knob were expected, but I still think this collar/foot combination is worth having.  I wish they didn’t cost as much as they do, but for $30 more than the Nikon offering, I think RRS is an easy choice.  If I didn’t care about the removable foot, I’d still but the Kirk over the Nikon collar.

What do you think?  Anyone have the Nikon, Kirk or one of the knock-offs?  Please comment with any experiences or thoughts.  Thanks for stopping by!

Waiting…for nothing? D400 thoughts

D400The search term “D400” still brings a lot of people to this site.  This puzzles me since I haven’t written a lot about it, especially recently.  I see a lot of (sometimes chippy) dialogue about it on the various forums – did Nikon intend to merge the prosumer (D7000) and semi-pro (D300s) with the D7100?  Is there a market for a D400?  How should it be priced?  What features would it have?  Would a D800 in DX mode be an acceptable substitute?  (as a note, I use the term “semi-pro” as a reference to the build of the camera – full magnesium frame, non-integrated grip, pro-style handling and controls and top-class autofocus.  I don’t mean it as a reference to whether it is used to earn money.  I’d call it a “pro” body, but folks in the industry seem to equate that to a body like the D3/D4 or Canon 1Dx, which have integrated grips)

The price point and features of the D7100 make me think there is still an unfilled slot in the product line, and one Canon hasn’t abandoned (though it will be interesting to see if there is a C7D MkII…).

Thom Hogan and Nasim Mansurov among many others have speculated a bit on the features (Mansurov’s poll was pretty interesting, too).  I think the core elements are:

  • Same 51-point autofocus as the D7100 (CAM 3500DX)
  • Big buffer for the sports and wildlife shooters that love the DX platform
  • 7-9 frames per second (also mainly for the sports/wildlife folks)
  • Same build/controls as the D800 (including the AF ON button so important to the crew above)
  • $1799 price

People who argue that the price is too close to the D600 (at $2099, $1999 street) are missing the point – the D600 has literally none of the features above, and isn’t a suitable camera for the core D300s/semi-pro DX shooters.  Whether there are enough of them out there for Nikon is open for debate.  There are lots of opinions on the internet, but precious little data about volumes.  The D800 is over $1000 more than than we’re talking about and still doesn’t match the 7 to 8 frames per second (FPS) shooting speed of the D300s (the D800 only shoots 5 FPS in DX mode or 6 FPS with a grip attached).

Personally, I think the D400 was impacted by the tsunami disaster in Japan – I believe Nikon had to make a choice about what they could get out the door with limited resources and chose the D800 and D4.  Re-slotting a product isn’t easy – technology development isn’t a flexible process.

So the question is whether they killed the entire product, merged it or it is still in the pipeline, presumably this year or early next.  Personally, I’d love to see Nikon take this opportunity to do something really next-generation and deliver it by or before CES 2014 (which is in January).

Time will tell, and in the meantime, Nikon isn’t saying much.  That might be the biggest clue something is coming…

Lightroom 5 Beta Now Available!

LRLogoAdobe announced that the beta version Lightroom 5, a major update to their photo editing and management product.  It is available for download – check out some details at the Adobe Lightroom blog page, which has a link for download.

The features I’m seeing put Lightroom way ahead of Apple’s Aperture.  It is a great tool to not only edit your photos, but keep them organized as well.  One of the really cool things about digital photography is the level of control you get in editing your own images.  The challenge is you have to edit your own images!!  If you shoot RAW (as I so often do because of how much more forgiveness and flexibility you get over JPEG), you’re nearly filling the role of developing your own negatives, though the software all gives you a lot help.

Honestly, I find all of these tools either overly simplistic (Picasa and the on-line editing features in Flickr) or really complicated (Photoshop, Aperture and Lightroom).  The good news is there are a LOT of resources out there to teach you how to use Photoshop and especially Lightroom.  A little bit of tuning can make a huge difference, and those are fairly easy to understand and use right away on virtually any of software solutions.

The new brushes and other tools I’m seeing in Lightroom 5 look like a big jump forward in capability while making some pretty powerful functions much simpler to use.  The “upright” feature looks great, too as it automates something that can be really complicated (adjusting for lens distortion when shooting buildings, etc.).

I’m going to download and play with the beta release, and I’ll probably grab the upgrade right away.  I’ll post some thoughts once I’ve had a chance to use the Lightroom 5 beta.

I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts about photo editing software!

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!

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! 🙂

If Cameras were Hammers

If you aren’t familiar with Roger Cicala, you might know his company Lensrentals.  It is a great way to get a lens you only need for a short time (wedding/special event/etc.) or want to try-before-you-buy.  Roger is a very cool and knowledgeable guy, and is a regular visitor to one of my favorite photography forums (fredmiranda.com).  Anyway, a buddy of mine sent me a post from his blog yesterday that I think is pretty funny, and also pretty darn true.

Take a quick read of his post “Hammerforum.com”

The lesson I hope you’ll take away is that there are infinite opinions on the internet, and some of them can be pretty obtuse and confusing to the novice.  As a Nikon guy, I mainly watch Thom Hogan (byThom.com), and check out reviews from Nasim Mansurov, Roger  and others.  And of course I visit the site of the inestimable Scott Kelby often.

The net is that the web can be a little overbearing.  The hardware of photography can be a little over-consuming, and most people can do just fine with the tools they have in their hand.

What sites do you find particularly helpful or useless?

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?

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Think Tank Urban Disguise 60 v2 Quick Review

ThinkTank Urban Disguise 60 v2

ThinkTank Urban Disguise 60 v2

Summary for the impatient:

Want a bag that has a clown-car-like ability to absorb your equipment and still feel manageable? Want to carry a fair bit of equipment and still have a longer lens mounted and ready on your camera? Want to do those things and not look like you’ve got a lot of expensive camera equipment? The Think Tank Urban Disguise is just the ticket.

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The demands of being an Enthusiast Photographer will probably mean you’ll need more than one bag. I think most serious photographers will really need at least two, and three isn’t a big stretch. Depending on how much you want to carry, how obvious you want to be about having a camera bag and what else you’re doing while you’re out, having multiple bags can be the difference between having a successful outing and being miserable.

Now that you’ve been able to show your spouse those words and leave the room with your credit card, let’s talk about the next target on the list of many camera-bag-junkies: the Think Tank Photo Urban Disguise.  (By the way, there aren’t enough camera bags in the world. I don’t have a camera bag problem. I really don’t!)

There are a lot of models of this bag, which are all generally the same configuration with more and more space as you go up the line. I saw a good deal on a used Urban Disguise 60 v2 and jumped on it. If you’re a regular reader, you know I also own a couple Timbuk2 bags, both built around the medium Snoop insert. I’m still a big fan of my Timbuk2 bags, but I’m finding there is a pretty hard limit to the amount of gear they absorb, and there are a couple things that nag me when I travel. And I travel a lot, especially on business when I need to have my work stuff and I want to have my camera stuff.

I’ve decided that some reviews are greatly enhanced by video, but in the meantime, here are a few thoughts on the bag:

Pros:

  • Massive capacity
  • Durable ballistic nylon and amazing zippers. Zippers are important.  The other hardware on the bag is robust, too.
  • Great flexibility – the bag comes with a ton of inserts to configure the bag like you want, and there are an astounding number of pockets and nooks.
  • All the camera stuff, and computer stuff too – I was able to put my ThinkPad X1 Carbon and my ThinkPad tablet in the bag.
  • Comfortable – you wind up with a lot of stuff without feeling like you’re hauling another whole suitcase
  • Sleeve for use with a roller bag – I’ve had a couple spills with the Timbuk2, which makes me nervous when it isn’t on my shoulder.

Cons:

  • Not as flexible as the Snoop once you get inside the plane – the camera stuff and the bag are a package deal, which means you’re going to be in the overhead compartment on smaller planes.
  • Pricey (but you pretty much get what you pay for…)
  • Not much style – they come in any color you want as long as you like black.
  • I’m finding it hard to configure it when I’m in camera-bag-only mode to hold more than the Snoop.  That is probably my own limitation.

If the “Cons” look a little weak, you’re right.  This is a really impressive bag.

The bag comes with a rain hood, and there is a strap kit that gives you the ability to carry it as a backpack, which is pretty interesting.  My bag came with that kit, so I’ll report on that later.

Here’s what I was able to put in it:

TTUD60v2Contents

Working from the back to the front, that is:

  • ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch
  • ThinkPad Tablet 2
  • Nikon D300s with L-bracket
  • Nikon MB-D10 and L-bracket
  • Nikon 70-200mm f/4
  • Nikon 85mm f/1.8
  • Nikon 35mm f/1.8
  • Nikon 18-200 VRII
  • Tokina 11-16 f/2.8
  • Tamron 28-75 f/2.8
  • Cough drops, headache powders, lip balm, a luggage tag and some napkins (I always want napkins on a plane)
  • Ear buds in a case
  • Remote for advancing PowerPoint
  • ThinkTank media wallet (comes with the bag)
  • Two microfibers (I wrap my  camera in one)
  • Cable release
  • Two LensPens and two real pens
  • A headcap for cold mornings
  • My phone (this is actually my old phone, I used my Lumia 920 for the pix)
  • My filter wallet
  • My Singh-Ray variable filter
  • SB-700 flash
  • Black Rapid strap with my Arca-Swiss hack
  • My travel AC/DC adapter
  • My bag-o-cables
  • My sunglasses
  • My car keys

Believe it or not, there is room for more that wouldn’t add volume to the bag if you’re careful packing.

Obviously, lenses are the majority of the bulk here, and it is impressive.  I use the sleeves because I’m overly anal about my stuff, but here’s a look at them all with my keys for scale:

Lensfamily

The bag is easy and comfortable to carry.  I like that the strap has swivels so I never have to take it off to “unwind” it.  I’ll try to get a video tour put together sooner than later, but hope you find this useful.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post ’em up!

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