Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Time for a new(er) lens

I'm happy to report that the work done by C.R.I.S Camera in Phoenix, AZ appears to be holding. They cleaned the camera and the AF system, and reset it to factory AF specs. This involves a very specific, computerized operation with a very expensive 50mm lens made by Nikon especially for this purpose. All of my lenses now focus on the intended point, most of the time. The camera still has occasional misses under less-than-optimal contrast conditions, and this is still something of a mystery to me, but there's little I can do about that. Nikon has not yet announced the D400 though Nikonrumors.com did report a list of expected features back in July which has me interested in it if it is based on the D3200 sensor and Sony's EXMOR-R backlit technology. The pixel sizes are truely going to be dinky so I wonder how well it will resolve in low light. I've also wondered if the camera stock destroyed in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan might have been D400 bodies. If the D3200 launched with 24mp and there's still no D400 announcement forthcoming, this is entirely out of character for Nikon, who typically demonstrates a "trickle-down" approach. Where did the D400 go? The D300/D300S is completely outclassed in today's market.

It looks like Nikon's planning a coming-out party in Dubai on September 13th, and everyone's thinking it'll be the D600. While I've argued for a "Digital FX Rebel" for years from one of the makers, I figured it would go better with a 12mp sensor. If Nikon throws a 24mp sensor in it for the $1600 ballpark, that should generate insane sales. But... it only has a 1/4000th second shutter? Not exactly something which will make pros happy. What is Nikon doing? No true D700 replacement, no D400 replacement, new DX G lenses released but no new DX pro-level body? Baffling...

Seeing as how I need to survive a bit longer with my D300 body, I went ahead and bought a 17-50mm f2.8 lens. It's only a Promaster-labeled version of the reknown Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 lens, with a screw-drive internal focus system, but it should be enough for me. I can't shoot detail shots with my kit lens, a Nikon 18-55mm AF-S. It makes the background too sharp, and when the photos are reduced in size for print, everything looks like a snapshot. I've been using my Nikon 35mm F1.8G lens quite a bit because it is so sharp and has excellent bokeh, which allows me to place the focus point of the viewer exactly where I want it. Hopefully, this new (to me) Promaster will do the same.

The longer I shoot, the more my photography comes down to controlled color, sharpness, and contrast. I find myself continually lusting for exotic f1.4 optics which will work on my APS-C sensor. Unfortunately, said optics also come with exotic prices, which is why FX shooters have all the fun. They can cozy up to f1.8 lenses and still have creamy, dreamy backgrounds, even when their photos have been reduced for print or web display. The reputation of the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 is that it can be shot at f2.8 and it is sharp there. Now I merely have to wait for delivery... and of course, the all important first few test photos!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Heh. I just saw that I had 177 page views last month. Thom Hogan's ByThom.com website probably generates more than that every ten minutes! If you need to know more about the Nikon cameras, he is da man! I have to publicly thank him for help in diagnosing my Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX DG HSM OS issues last week. It turns out my three-month-old lens lost all of its internal programming. It went from focusing on-point all of the time to requiring +5 AF Fine Tune at 85mm and 100mm, and -15 at 200mm! C.R.I.S. Camera in Chandler, Arizona is now looking at it under warranty. I expect to have an update on it today. Hopefully it doesn't require parts (AF module) from Sigma, but I fear that will be the case. When an electronic device loses its internal pre-programmed memory for some unknown reason, it is almost a sure bet that simply stuffing the programming back in will not work. My first Sigma 70-200mm lens did the same thing, and the work order from Sigma indicated they had to replace the module. I do find it interesting that the lens can be programmed to automatically correct for front/rear focus issues. This suggests to me that there is an internal group of elements which has its own small motor drive, which is used to tune the lens on a sliding scale from 70mm to 200mm. Maybe with a zero point at 105mm or something like that. I'm truthfully not sure how they do it but I find it fascinating! I also want it to work properly from now on. There's not much worse than getting home from a single day car show and finding out that some of your shots that you thought were fine were instead complete garbage. It is hard to make a living that way.
So today we get newly leaked D600 photos... Where's the D400? Where's the 24mp, 8fps, weather-sealed, magnesium body D400 with its EXMOR-R technology-enhanced sensor? I want the low chroma noise of the D800 in a DX sensor with the pixel density of a 54mp FX sensor, Nikon! Oh, and you can leave off the AA filter at that resolution for a super-crisp image. I'm waiting, Nikon! Was the D400 being stored downstairs at the Sendai factory? Were boxes and boxes of them (or their component parts) trashed by the tsunami in March 2011? I figured that this Sendai-built body would have appeared by now. Then again, the Sony A77 took a much longer time to appear after the earthquake then I thought it would. It is only just available now, and I expected it before Christmas last year, just like the D400. After seeing just how much low ISO shadow detail can be recovered from the EXMOR-R sensor in the D800, and how litle chroma noise is evident in the images, I am genuinely interested in both the D600 and the D400. C'mon Nikon! Show us your hand!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Camera purchase bullet points...

I forgot to note in my last post the issues with simply buying a new camera right now. 1. The D300S is long in the tooth and only has 12mp. It also may be plagued by the same AF sensor degradation issue I'm having now. 2. The Canon 7D is attractive, but has been on the market for a while and is due for a replacement very soon. Buying one now would simply leave me with a competent-yet-obsolete body I'd have to use for the net three or four years. Plus, I'd have to buy lenses and flashes for it. 3. The new Sony A77 is brilliant in some areas, and not so brilliant in others. Panning at the full frame rate would be difficult due to the EVF blackout. The aggressive noise reduction could be a problem too. 24 megapixels would be nice on a DX sensor, but shorter battery life would not be appreciated at all. And then there's the need to buy very good glass to make the most of the sensor's resolution. 4. New cameras are on the way from Nikon. Everyone knows this. Therefore buying a D300S or D700 now would result in a HUGE dent in resale value even as early as next year. Buying something else would lock me into having to use that camera for a few years in order to cost-justify the purchase (aside from the obvious need since my current body has this AF issue). That means when the new cameras do arrive this fall, I would be unable to purchase one of them (the D400 or D600) again leaving me behind the times in terms of resolution and other improvements. This is a very frustrating conundrum...

More AF issues...

In further testing, I have confirmed that my D300 body only shoots three or four properly-focused pictures for every ten that I attempt. This even with shooting at a high enough ISO, shutter speed, and using only the one central AF point. This issue masks itself with shorter focal length lenses because the distance between proper focus and out-of-focus areas isn't as great as it is with my Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX DG HSM OS lens. Clearly, this is an issue with the AF sensor and as such, cannot be resolved by further adjustments of the AF and main mirrors. Since the D400 and D600 have yet to be announced, prices have not dropped on used D300S or D700 models. The wonderful D800 is so far above the D700 as to be in a class all of its own; its release has not really affected the D700 prices as much as I'd hoped. The Sony A77 looks encouraging, but reports of an overly-aggressive noise reduction element in the programming scares me a little. I like to work with JPGS and not RAW files as it eases my workload and makes me more profitable, and having overly-soft JPGS would be discouraging. Also, I'd have to change lenses again, something I REALLY don't want to do. So c'mon Nikon, get your act in gear and get these new cameras out on the market soon!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Formula Drift Long Beach (Whew!)

Well, that was a fun and exciting two days at the track. I shot close to, or over, 4000 photos with my camera, and while I did get a huge number of useful photos, I wasn't as happy with my work as I have been in years past. One small focus point issue ruined some shots on the first day, while spot metering issues bit me the second day. A careful review of the settings in my camera reveal that both issues were self-inflicted. Grrrrrrrr. Oh well, solved them for the next time now.

Speaking of next times, I'm supposed to go to Global Time Attack at Buttonwillow next weekend. Long drive, and expensive for gas. I hope all of my trip planning works out. This will be a huge expense for just one story, but I really need it for Banzai Magazine.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

1st Event with Sigma 70-200mm OS HSM

Last weekend I was out at Firebird International Raceway for the NASA-AZ event. Despite scalding temps (90 degrees in the spring? Hotter over the pavement of course) the lens worked fine all day long. My D300 was having an intermittant power short problem in the connection to the lens, but removing the mount ring from the body, tightening down a few hidden screws, and reinstalling the ring seems to have corrected this issue. I couldn't make my Nikon lenses do this but they aren't nearly as long or as heavy as the big Sigma.

Nest weekend is the start of my "crazy season", with Formula Drift Long Beach kicking off the year in style. The image stabilization works for panning, somewhat, but as with all OS systems, they're designed to pan with humans, like runners, and not cars. I'll be taking my monopod and using it a LOT, as that's simply the best way to get a good photo, sharp photo.

In sunny, high contrast conditions the lens resolved details down to the carbon fiber level on passing cars. Posed shots show fantastic detail, almost to the level of my 35mm prime lens. In lower light, it was fun to shoot at f4 and f2.8 for the background bokeh. The Tamron lens was a little better for color and smooth bokeh, but there's nothing objectionable about the Sigma's output at all. It will be a fun time in Long Beach Friday and Saturday.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

New Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX DG OS HSM review

Sadly, in real-world use, the AF in the Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 lens was simply far too slow and inaccurate. Also, from the 150mm-200mm range, my particular lens was useless at f2.8 due to front-focusing softness. So I returned it to B&H Photo and Video (a retailler I recommend).

In its stead, I ordered Sigma's 70-200mm f2.8 EX DG OS HSM. The jury is still out on this one but on initial observation it appears to produce quickly-focused, sharp, blur-free photos at all focal lengths. It is a tad softer at f2.8 and 200mm, but not objectionably so. It also sharpens up nicely all the way to f8, and retains much of that clarity through f11, where the Tamron was dropping off due to diffraction. I think the color and the bokeh might have been a little better with the Tamron lens, as the backgrounds took on more of a washed-out pastel feel, but unfortunately, sometimes the subject did too. This is unforgiveable in a modern AF lens design.

This Sigma lens is double the price of the Tamron though, so this expenditure is not to be taken lightly. It is still a full thousand dollars less than Nikon's VRII. As always, I'll let everyone know what I think of it once I've had the opportunity to photograph more car-sized objects with it. I've got lots of trips planned very soon! Time to get shooting!

BOOM! AGW theory is DEAD!


That sound you just heard was Al Gore's head exploding. Here's the money quote from the paper;

"Our most recent crystals suggest a warming relative to
the LIA in the last century, possibly as part of the regional recent
rapid warming, but this climatic signature is not yet as extreme in nature
as the MWP."

To summarize, our current warmth ain't nothing compared to the Medieval Warm Period, when Vikings farmed Greenland where now there is only permafrost. Today not only is farming impossible with manual tools, there's no way to dig a grave with a shovel through that frozen earth. Vikings buried their dead there for nearly 400 years, and they didn't have the benefit of a Caterpillar-built backhoe to do it. If global warming covered the entire planet during the MWP, then the causal factor cannot, must not be CO2! It must be exterior to the planet's ecosystem. Or in other words, it's the sun.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tamron SP-AF 70-200mm f2.8 LD Di Initial Thoughts

Well, for monetary reasons, I did not buy the hella-awesome Nikon 70-200mm VRII. I don't like knowing that the 200mm focal length shrinks to 160mm up close. Instead, since I've been mostly happy with my Tamron 70-300mm VC lens, I thought I'd try their well-reviewed 70-200mm f2.8 lens. Was it everything I'd hoped a modern f2.8 "pro" lens should be? Read on and see.

I'll start with the good news; from 70mm to 140mm or so, even at f2.8, it's one of the sharpest lenses I've ever used. I think I have a pretty darn good Nikon 35mm f1.8G DX and a good Nikon 50mm f1.8D, but the Tamron does an even better job than both of those at eliminating chromatic and spherical abberations. There are no fake colored lines separating light and dark areas at all, and at f2.8 the image is crisp. I'd say the lens is resolving as much as the sensor can show at this point. Color balance is good, and the metered images appear to be no brighter or darker than any of my other Nikon lenses. By f3.5, the depth of field has started to grow, and sharpness extends to the edge of the frame on my D300's APS-C sensor. Life is good.

Now the bad news; AF can be spotty in low contrast situations, and on some objects, like a hummingbird in shadow, may not focus at all. Also, between 150mm and 200mm, the lens front focuses, making it softer and eliminating the tack-sharp focal point it has up to that point. Between 150mm and 200mm, using f4 is practically required to gain enough DOF to get your point of aim in focus. The difference is startling when you get it right though. Using my single AF center point, the Tamron also can have issues nailing the focus in just one shot. As others have said, if you're shooting objects without a lot of motion, this is a fine lens. I'd use it for a studio portrait lens ina heartbeat. For shooting race cars though, I may have to us 9 or 21-point AF modes in order to ensure that the lens locks onto some point as the car goes past. More testing will be required this week to determine how well this will work.

Overall, my impression is that this is a well-made product, with decent design and construction. It works best on my camera with an AF Fine Tune setting of +11, with every focal length up to 150mm. Beyond that, I have to set it up around +18 if I want to shoot at f2.8. This makes it an interesting compromise between image quality and price. The bokeh though, is tremendous, and it cannot be underestimated how much smooth bokeh helps out a good composition. I do like the bokeh it produces... a LOT! That may be the deciding factor which keeps this lens in my case for a long time to come.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Quandray

It is tax time again... Do I finally splurge for the awesome-but-flawed 70-200mm f2.8 G VRII, knowing that it is much shorter at long focal lengths, or the older-and-slightly-less-awesome VRI with its soft corners on FX bodies? I don't have an FX body now, but I want one. Or, do I get a third party lens and hope for the best again? I do feel the need to be shooting at long range with f2.8-f4 apertures, to get that OOF background compression, but I want excellent sharpness and pleasing bokeh all at the same time.

All of the options are making my head hurt somewhat. It just seems like there's no correct answer for this question in the Nikon system. Canon, on the other hand, has it nailed with a super-sharp 70-200mm f4L IS, which delivers the same sharpness as their much-vaunted IS II version of the f2.8 big dog. And, they do so at around $1100, making it an great choice for someone on a budget. Where Canon drops the ball is in the lack of on-camera wireless flash control (yes, the 7D has it finally). I don't care much for the image quality of the 7D straight from the camera.

There are simply no perfect choices which meet my needs, my budget, and my image quality expectations. Very frustrating!

Friday, January 27, 2012

New cameras

The big news since the last time I bothered to update this blog, has been the introductions of the Nikon D4 and the Canon 1DX. Nikon's built one heck of a flagship DSLR and they're undercutting Canon's price by about $500 or so. Now, to a pro that's not much money for a device which will last 4 years or so. About $.34 per day actually. Is that a big enough difference to make someone who has invested in the Canon lens system jump ship? No. Is it enough to sway new buyers? Certainly. That's where Nikon's hoping to gain ground on Canon's HD video lead. Make no mistake, this really is the first salvo of a price war.

The second salvo should land on February 7th, if Nikonrumors.com is correct about the launch date for the D800. With a reported 36mp, this is probably a development of the Sony EXMOR-R sensor, using Sony's "backlit sensor" architecture. I believe I read the original tech paper from Sony back in 2008, a relative eternity in sensor years, but all references to a 36mp EXMOR-R sensor have been scrubbed from Sony's website. There's plenty about the EXMOR-R, but no mention of total megapixels, leading me to believe that current in-development sensors are far beyond 36mp right now. If I were a betting man, I'd say Sony's playing around with sensors in the 48-60mp range, on a 36mm wide sensor. With the ability of the backlit sensor to gather light, cutting the pixel size in half is not as big of an issue as it once was. Why not say this now? Simple, because Nikon's about to release a 36mp D800, and since Nikon's buying the sensors, they do not want Sony talking about what could be upcoming, even in a distant future.

There's even been some talk that there will be two D800s released; one at 36mp without an anti-aliasing filter, the other at a lower resolution (possible using the D4 sensor, but slower speed processing and operation). With the D300S and D700 being listed as "discontinued" on Nikon's global corporate site, I think the D400 might become a 16mp FX body, leaving the D7000 as the hi-res APS-C sensor prosumer body. If the D7000 is selling well, why cannibalize its sales with an up-market D400? I, for one, would welcome an FX D400 as an "entry-level FX body" without some of the robustness of the D4. As long as it offers the pop-up flash and wireless flash control of the D300/D300S/D700 bodies, I could see it as a sub-$2000 FX market monster.

This would leave the D800 positioned as the FX challenger to the Canon 5D mkII and mkIII bodies, probably priced in the sub-$3000 price range, if not by much. A DX-sensor D400 would have to come in with 18-24mp to upstage the D7000, and above 18mp, might take a hit in the image quality department due to anti-aliasing filter requirements for smaller pixels; see Canon 7D image softness complaints. To an extent, this can be processed out but all things equal, prosumers would likely be happier with very sharp 16mp FX sensor output than slightly soft 18-24mp images which have to be processed more. And THAT is what an entry-level prosumer DSLR should produce; clean, sharp, colorful images straight from the body.

A D800 with 36mp will begin to challenge the limitations of lenses revealing flaws in your lenese you never thought they had. Such is the nature of technological advance. I think Canon has the advantage here with their Florite glass. Nikon, leveraging Sony's technical might and sensor-producing talent, might be poised to "upset the apple cart" with these next two cameras buy going both for a hi-res 36mp non-anti-aliasing body, and a "lower cost FX body". I've long argued privately that Canon should have produced an "Rebel FX" with their 12.8mp sensor from the original 5D. The popularity of 35mm film cameras wasn't just because they could take snapshots, it was because they could capture artistic photos with terrific out of focus backgrounds. They could use amazingly-sharp professional lenses, slapped onto a body which was less durable than a professional's unit, but which could still get the job done for intermittant family. Many of those durable film bodies are still working today. This is what the market needs. Will it be Canon, or Nikon, who delivers it first?