Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Equipment I Like the MOST

Brevity is not my strong suit,but I'll try to highlight the equipment I like and use the most often. First off, the easiest thing-flash lighting. I like three flash units: the Nikon SB800 flash with the supplied fifth battery drawer installed and fitted with 2,000 milliampere hour or higher batteries. That 5th battery is SWEET! The Nikon D2x and D70 both work great with the SB800 fitted with its supplied white plastic flash diffuser; indoors, click the flash head up one notch and shoot at up to 20 feet away at ISO 250 to 400 for the best flash+ambient exposures with acceptable noise. Outdoors, take off the diffuser and shoot with the SB800 pointed straight ahead. After several years of NOT using them, I've recently gone back to my trio of Vivitar 285HV flashes with their 1-meter pigtail power cords for the Quantum Battery 1,which can power two 285HV's,since it has two power outlets.The 285HV offers very old-school Manual and fractional manual power settings, as well as simple color-coded AUTO F-STOP automatic flash control. No TTL, no i-TTL,no stroboscopic or FP flash,none of that. The 285HV + Quantum gives FAST recyle,and simple,easy flash power settings for horizontal bounce flash or off-camera flash shooting using a Pocket Wizard. I have the Pocket Wizard, the simple 4-channel model, and cords to hook it up to 285's and to my Sunpak 622 Super, which is _the_ most-powerful handle mount (aka hammer-head, aka potato-masher) flash unit made.

The Sunpak 622 Super has a VERY high guide number, and is in fact as powerful as many cheap monolights, and is a wonderful flash for slow-shooting uses for location lighting where you want to use just ONE battery-powered flash for higher-EV type flash exposures....where a bounce exposure off a 16-foot vaulted ceiling in a large living room can be done at f/13 at ISO 100,for example. I currently power the 622 with its grip and built-in flash mounting bracket.The 622 uses four C-cell batteries. My Quantum Turbo battery is now dead, but that was "the" battery for the 622 Super.The 622's "Super" designation refers to the head with a mechanically zooming flash head with a Fresnel lens, and has wide-norm-tele settings. There are seven total different heads available for the 622 base unit. The 622 offers a boatload of AUTO- f/stop settings to choose from, with precise, 1/3 stop ISO and DIN adjustment settings covering all ISOs I'd ever wish to use. This is a flash that's only about $350 or so,and is as powerful as the Quantum Q-flash, but for 1/3 the price. When you need a LOT of flash power, this is once again, the most-powerful handle mount flash made. It's not sexy and sleek like a Metz 60-series,or the Q-flash, but has more raw Guide Number, for 1/3 the dough.

To recap,for accurate and easy and consistent daylight fill-flash, the Nikon D2x or Nikon D70+ SB800 are both great combos. The SB800 is the simplest and best-designed Nikon flash,with the best control buttons of any of the new-era Nikon flashes,and it gives good,predictable results with a fairly minimal need for +/- flash compensation. So ,for flash: SB800, Vivitar 285HV + Quantum battery 1, and Sunpak 622 Super with either 4 C-cells or the Quantum Turbo battery powering it.
Studio Lighting: Speedotron D1602 model 1600 watt-second Brown Line pack and three M-11Q heads, which use all Black Line accessories. Two 2403B model 2400 watt-second Speedotron Black Line power packs and three 102 light heads. All reflectors fit both the M11Q and the 102 light heads,which is one reason to standardize on M11 series heads in the Brown Line. I use 7 inch reflectors,11.5 inch reflectors, a 16 inch pan reflector,set of three honeycomb grids for the 11.5 inch reflectors, barn doors for the 11.5 inchers,three boom stands, (two HD,one medium duty), seven light-weight and portable Bogen light stands,one rolling reflector flat, two Liteform 4x6 panels and assorted fabrics,48 inch softboxes,a mini-softbox,ten various sizes and types of photographic umbrellas, FoamCor boards in white and black on the back,9 foot wide seamless paper rolls, Bogen/Manfrotto portable AutoPole backdrop system,Minolta AutoMeter IIIF,Paramount brand synch cords, Pocket Wizard,Wein peanut,Wein Safe Sync and Speedotron slave triggers. One home-made stainless steel/painted white reversible under-chin reflector with tripod light stand,for direct under-chin reflector placement which gives a lower-eyeball catchlight.Gaffer tape,Stanley steel tape measure,lighting situation notebook-sketchbook,homemade bellows correction and ISO correction factor cards and measuring devices, Wratten Gel holder and multiple gel correction filters,electronic calculator,photographic lighting and reference manuals,aluminum foil, putty,Play Dough,soft wire,monofilament fishing line, loads of A-clamps,black velvet. Pretty simple,basic stuff.

The newest light modifiers I have are two British-made Lastolite brand umbrella soft-boxes....these are very neat. See which is where I heard about these units. These enclosed-style Lastolite umbrellas have several advantages over the traditional types of umbrellas I have been using since the mid 1980's.The Umbrella Box looks similar to the Photek brand's enclosed umbrella,or the Larson "starfish" type of enclosed umbrella.Umbrella Boxes do a lot of light scrambling, which yields highly-diffused and very soft lighting,with fast set-up time and no heavy Fibreglas™ rods like square softboxes use. Best of all,since these are enclosed umbrellas, there is almost no stray light bouncing around the shooting area, AND you can safely shoot from the rear side of these umbrellas with the camera peeking from between two of them in either side-by-side or over/under, dual-umbrella lighting setups and have NO WORRY about blowback light coming thru the umbrellas and hitting your lens' front element. These are not cheap umbrellas, but are very good units.

Second Category:D-SLR cameras, I like the Nikon D2x and the EOS 20D the most, followed by the Fuji S2, the Nikon D1h, and the Nikon D70, in about that order. The lowly D1h is/was a pretty damned good sports camera,with good results over a wide range of situations. I have high respect for the Fuji S3's beautiful files and file depth,but loathe the idea of 25 megabyte RAW files with 6MP worth of data,and the small RAW buffer. I shoot RAW+JPEG most of the time,and like the D2x's compressed NEF mode a lot. The D2x is a poor high-ISO camera,but a FANTASTIC,INCREDIBLE low-ISO camera at 100,125,160,and 200 ISOs. Under 800 to 2400 watt-seconds of flash power, the D2x might be the only camera I'll ever need. The D2x costs a lot of money, but it shoots almost instantaneously,and makes captures at the precise moment you want captured,not before,not after. After using slower cameras, switching to the D2x found me shooting too far in advance of the moment--the D2x does not demand incredbily long and frustrating pre-release of the shutter like the slowpoke Fuji S2 and Nikon D70 do. With the D2x,one can actually watch as a sports moment develops, and can shoot JUST prior to anticipated peak action,and not 1/10th of a second prior. There's absolutely NO comparison between the D2x's responsiveness and that of the S1,S2,D70,and even the EOS 20D. The D1h was fast on the trigger, but the D2x offers substantialy faster lock time and noticeably faster mirror-return times than ANY digital slr I have ever used.

Third Category: Prime Lenses I like the MOST. Well, there are a lot of primes that are pretty good. Prime lenses like the 24mm f/2.8 AF-D, 35mm f/2 AF-D, and 50mm 1.8 AF are three small,light,good ones which fit in well with MY PERSONAL idea of how to shoot indoors using bounce flash as supplementary fill-in or with flash as main light. The 45-P Nikkor is a simply superb lens, but focusing it can be a bit tricky on faster action, but as a pictorial lens the 45-P Nikkor is among my favorites. The 85mm 1.4 AF-D, 105 AF-D DC, and the 135 D.C. Nikkors are the three medium teles I like the most, with the 105 DC and 85 being my favorites. For indoor sports or night football, the 135 f/2 is a good lens actually. I no longer like the 180 AF-D prime as much as I used to ,but it is an excellent lens, albeit one with some AF/MF issues.

The 300 f/4 AF-S Nikkor is a very nice lens,and very useful for natural world close-up scenes,as well as for scenics and general use. The 300/4 AF-S focuses rather poorly for an AF-S lens, and in open shade from stadiums, it will fail to focus many times on solid-tone uniforms, making this lens NOT the best lens for sports using the D1h or D2x. For sports/action the 300mm f/2.8 AF-S II (the pre-VR, magnesium-barreled model) is absolutely the BEST autofocuser I have ever used for fast,reliable AF on rapidly moving targets. The difference between the 300/4 and 300/2.8 in terms of focus reliability,time after time, is HUGE, with the 2.8 model being almost totally reliable,and the f/4 model being "okay" much of the time, but often times unreliable under many real-world outdoor sports situations. For macro shooting, the 60 AF-D micro is good for close-range, flat-field shooting, but I have little love for it, but it fills a niche.

The Tamron 90mm 2.8 AF-SP is a fine macro lens,and does aceptable duty as a portrait/scenic lens; overall, the Tamron 90 is one of my favorite 3rd party lenses. Rounding out my list of favorite primes is the 400mm f/3.5 ED-IF Nikkor with a CPU installed. This 1982-made manual focus Nikkor has absolutely incredible build quality and is a VERY good lens for use with a monopod; the internal focusing system of the 400/3.5 is designed for hand focusing,and is very,very close to a perfect system,and achieving accurate focus with it is surprisingly easy due to the IF system's design, the long focal length,and the shallow DOF a 400mm 3.5 lens has when wide open. It shoots fantastically well at f/3.5 to f/4.8,and it weighs around what a 300/2.8 weighs or seven pounds,and it is a very affordable lens on the used market. With the tiny DX-sized sensor in Nikon D-SLRs, it takes a 400mm focal length to get any degree of foreground/background separation,and for outdoor sports like daytime football,soccer,baseball/softball, the 400/3.5 is my favorite lens. I prefer the 400/3.5's "look" to that of the 300 AF-S II in many situations.

Except for exotic, or niche prime lenses, I have little love or favoritism for any manual focusing Nikkors these days, but there ae some good ones. The 200mm f/4 Ai and AiS are nice and small and surprisingly good lenses in the Best Buy category, as is the 50mm f/2 Ai and the 135mm f/2.8 AiS. The 85mm f/2 in Ai or AiS is as small as a 50mm 1.4 lens is,yet I have litle use for it. The 24mm 2.8 AiS is a quality lens, but focusing it precisely on a Nikon d-slr is difficult. The 50mm 1.4 Ai I own is only a so-so performer on digital. The 105 f/2.5 AiS is a beautifully made lens, and probably the BEST BUY in terms of what it produces on-sensor,and how well it works even in 2006.

The 180mm f/2.8 ED in AiS is a quality optic even today. The 300mm f/4.5 ED-IF is still an acceptable,and light tele lens with decent internal focusing on clean samples. Rounding out my list of manual focusing lenses is the Lensbaby special-effects lens. I like the Lensbaby,and often use it with a 2x Tokina or a Nikon TC-201 teleconverter. Of all these lenses in the MF category, the 105/2.5, 135mm/2.8, and 200mm f/4 and 400mm/3.5 are the four lengths/speeds which are actually worth investigating,since they offer something impossible to buy new these days in an AF lens.

For the Canon EOS 20D, I have the Canon 50mm f/1.8 EF-II, the new featherweight plastic model which is one of the WORST lenses I've EVER owned in terms of resisting flare and ghosting when shot toward the sun. Adequately sharp, this econo-50 is significantly worse than the flarey 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E of the 1980's. Shot toward the sun, this Canon has absolutely disgraceful contre jour performance,and demands careful shading of the front element in order to render good images when shot toward the sun. Indoors or out, it's adequately sharp, but has a pentagonal diaphragm opening and renders OOF highlights as big, old-style 5-sided blobs, and not the more-pleasing rounded shaped one gets with new-style rounded diaphragm openings (as found in the Nikkor 45-P, 85 1.4, the Defocus Control 105 and 135mm Nikkors, and the 70-200VR,etc). The Canon 50/1.8 EF generation II lens is a very cheap,low-priced, adequate optic under most conditions, but when shot toward the sun (and yes, the glass is immaculately clean and grease-free), this new 50mm 1.8 EF-II is the shittiest modern, multi-element,coated lens I've ever owned. It is sometimes called the "Plastic Fantastic" or "the Nifty Fifty", which are signs of internet Fanboy love for a sub-par optic. Seriously, this lens has the most pathetic contre jour perormance I can imagine being allowed to go out the door. It's worse against the light than a 30-year-old 58mm f/2 Auto Cosmogon Russian lens I own in M42 mount. This lens is neither "nifty", nor is it "fantastic".

Canon's 100mm f/2.8 USM EF Macro is quite good when shot against the light, but has a sharp-sided, 7-bladed diaphragm and correspondingly geometric OOF background highlights, but with very superb image quality at macro and portrait distances. Adequate AF speed,but nothing great, full-time manual focus override while in AF mode with no stupid switch, this 100mm Canon prime is not considered L-series, but delivers sharp and contrasty images as both a macro and as a portrait/scenic lens. A fine macro lens.

Next category: Zoom Lenses. There are a lot of zoom lenses available, but the ones I use the most are the Nikkor 70-200VR, the 24-85 AF-S G,and the Tamron 17-35mm f/2.8~4 Di, and the Sigma 100-300 f/4 EX.Occasionally I will use the Nikkor 80-400VR,which I felt was one of the best lenses on the Fuji S2 when used carefully.In good light,at smaller apertures, the D2x's super focusing motor and superbly-designed focusing algorithms drive even the slowpoke 80-400 reasonably well,and the 80-400 can be used as a manual focuser also. Its schtick is VR,which is indispensible in windy conditions OR when doing panning work. When you wanna' pan,or use 2nd curtain shutter synch, you WANT a VR Nikkor.

The Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 in AiS mount is,according to Bjorn Rorslett, a top performer on the D2x, but my sample has come up missing. I've looked for it, but damned if I can actually find it,which pisses me off, since I really did like the lens for day trip type outdoor shooting,and since it apparently is a fantastic match for the D2x's sensor and I would LOVE to try it on the x. On the Canon side, I have the Sigma 18-125 DG lens,which is small,light,and an average to merely good performer--ideally suited as a one-lens solution for casual,daylight use but not a worthy lens for serious shooting or for anything but stopped-down shooting.

I no longer see the need with a 1.5x camera for a 28-70 or 28-80 zoom,although I have a couple kicking around. Same with the 35-70 zoom lenses...not as useful on 1.5x aka DX as when on full-frame, yet still there are some good uses for a 28-70 or a 35-70 but simply not for me. I'm not a particularly wide angle type of shooter,and so for me Nikkor AF-D WA prime lenses of 20,24,and 35 are adequate for my fairly limited need or desire for wide angles of view, and a modest-speed 17-35 zoom range is all the wide angle zoom I need. I do not wish to carry around NOR to point a coffee can-sized,48-ounce Nikkor 28-70 in social photography situations--it's too large a lens first and offers a sucky range of focal lengths on DX,neither wide enough nor long enough to justify its existence on my cameras.

Accessories:Accessories are everything not detailed. I dunno....Kenko 3-ring Autofocusing extension tubes, with the 11mm being most useful, the 24mm next ,and the 36mm tube not very useful to ME. BR-2 lens reversing ring. 77 to 72mm B+W step rings for filters and large,rubber telephoto lens hoods for the 70-200 and 80-400 which are longer and smaller-dia. than the supplied Nikon hoods.Canon 500D closeup lens.Pentax microfiber lens cleaning cloths. Hurricane blower.San Disk CF cards in 1- and 2-gig sizes.

Special Considerations:I think sometimes using a physically small,diminutive lens brings better results than could be obtained when using a massive,pro-caliber Nikkor lens; in such cases the 35-70 3.3~4.5,28-80 D,50 1.8 AF,or 45-P,or 24mm 2.8 or 85mm f/2 AiS or the 135mm 2.8 AiS are what you really ought to use,paired with a small camera,like the D70. Here, the 28-200mm G series Nikkor has been my all-time favorite zoom lens for flexibility with reach in an inconspicuous package. I lament the passing of the late 70's-1980's lineup of 20-24-28-35-50-55-85-105-135-200mm prime lens lineup all with 52mm front threads,and petite,compact barrels. Special consideration is sometimes warranted when you want to shoot photos and not be obtrusive or 'creepy',and in those situations the 2.8 zooms and big,hulking prime lenses ought to be left at home.

In conclusion, I'd say that overall,I consider the D2x, the Lensbaby soft focus lens with or without a 1.4x or 2x TC unit added,the 45-P,the 105 AF-D D.C., the 70-200 VR, the 80-400 VR,the 300/2.8,the 400/3.5 and the Tamron 90 Macro as my most-liked lenses and camera equipment. There are other pieces of equipment, like the SB800, the 35/2, the 85/1.4 and the 300/4 which I also consider right up there in terms of utility and value and consistent production of good results.

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