Sunday, April 30, 2006

Let's Hope There's a Fuji S4 Pro In The Works

I just want to go on record as saying I hope,fervently, that FujiFilm releases a FinePix S4 Pro camera. I really,truly do. If it is based upon the Nikon D200 body and that camera's basic subsystems, I'll be all over it. I've heard enough similar rumors of an S4 to think that the camera is actually likely to be made and available in 2007. The specifications of the camera would not be all that critical to me, as long as it's got 6MP or more,and has a Fuji-made sensor along with a decent AF system. The S3's problem has never been image quality, but speed and write time problems. The synch speed, frame rate,and AF performance of Fuji's S2 and S3 models has been "acceptable", but none of those three features has been state of the art for a D-SLR of its era,but the S3's speed limitations have been very much below what is considered acceptable in Canon or Nikon mid-range D-SLR's,and I think Fuji will strive with its S4 to speed things up a good bit,shall we say. Still, the Fuji D-SLR's have always been much more about file _QUALITY_ than anything else. The file, the file,the file. Trouble is, it takes a camera to make and write a DSCF, or a Digital Still Capture File. Fuji needs to offer a better camera to compete with what I can get from my D2x and my S2 Pro,or from any one of a number of Canon D-SLR models.
I think with an S4 engineered with the right design priorities kept firmly in mind, Fuji will have a chance to make a D-SLR model that will really be satisfactory to the current Fuji user base, as well as to other F-mount users who want something that,so far, Nikon has not been able to put into a D-SLR. With the current Fuji S3 price blowout situattion in the UK, it seems to me like the channel is being cleared of excess inventory with fabulous deals in the UK. As I used to say, the S3 Pro was overpriced for sales at $2499, but at low,low prices of $1199 to $1240, the S3 is selling reasonably well in the USA,with a lot of new users showing up on dPreview,many clearly mentioning that the new low price had finally allowed them to use their checkbooks and Visa cards to get the camera they had wanted, but would not buy due to price constraints.
Price-wise, I expect Fuji's S4 will enter the USA market priced at $2400 or so. Why that price? Well,they did it with the S2 at $2400,and they did it with the S3 at $2500. Nikon premiered the D100 at $1699, and Nikon premiered the D200 at $1699. Sounds reasonable to me. An S4 will likely hit the market priced at $2400--or more.

The Gary Mayo Affair: Fuji S3 Pro or Nikon D200?

Body art artist extraordinaire Gary Mayo has spent the last two weeks agonizing over his decision between the FujiFilm S3 Pro and the Nikon D200. Gary wants to expand his body art studio's offerings to include photography,and therefore he is also in the market for lighting equipment and light modifiers. He initially bought the Fuji,but has spent some time now examining the D200 and multiple Nikon SB 800 flash units in a camera store,and now he's having second thoughts (dare I say buyer's remorse?) about the Fuji S3. Read about Gary's connundrum's concluding phase here and if desired, check back thru Gary's posting history and see how he has arrived at his current situation. basically, he's been documenting his work using a consumer digicam, but now recognizes the need to move to a higher level type of camera,like a D-SLR.

I am using Gary's situation merely as an example; he is actually NOT the first person who has decided he needs a D-SLR camera AND some lighting stuff to help advancce his level of photography. I think his recent in-store demo of the Nikon D200 and the i-TTL and the associated Nikon Creative Lighting System moniker has made a pretty good impression on him. What makes's Gary's situation so important is that he is also considering LIGHTING equipment. Lighting equipment is something many amateur photographers do not buy enough of, and therefore most amateur photographers do not understand much about lighting equipment. Gary's realizing that the camera is merely half of what he needs--he knows that he needs lighting equipment as well.

A couple of years ago, I had a lengthy correspondence with a custom knife maker who found himself in a similar situation; well-established in his industry, successful,and with a burning desire to do his OWN photography for his website and promotion of his products. His first serious attempts were with a Fuji S1 Pro and he tried very hard but got very poor results using the S1 Pro...I advised him to get rid of it and to get another camera, a Canon D-SLR, which had a MUCH lower ISO minimum and to invest in some "real" lighting equipment. The S1 Pro was a used model a dealer in his home area had sold him,and its ISO 320 bottom end,combined with its slow 1/90 X-synch was making flash photographhy a living hell for him with the lights he had. After four months or so, and exchanges of a lot of e-mails with lighting setups,suggestions,etc, he learned how to shoot his OWN products quite well after having gotten rid of the S1 Pro,switching to a Canon system and after having bought some decent lighting equipment. But the common thread here is a guy with 1) real desire to do his own lighting and photography and 2)ample cash to really do things right and, 3)conflicting advice coming from several directions making it hard to make a really good decision. The decision is between speeedlight flashes, like the Nikon SB 800's, and AC-powered studio flash lighting,such as monolights or the more tradional box-and-cable systems. My advice is to forego the multiple SB 800 flash units as the basis for any photography done commerically,with commercial intent,and to go totally with studio electronic flash units for all the 'serious' work. Event work and quick web-upload images can easily be handled with a single Nikon SB 800 shoe mount flash fitted with a Nikon remote cord like SC-17 or SC-28 or SC-29 and either fitted to a good flash bracket or hand-held or held by an assistant or on a light stand. For "real" photography, I've long been a believer that studio flash units offer the best control and deployment of the light you will be using to make pictures with. I've owned Speedotron box-and-cable flash units since 1987. That's been the brand I have the most experience with. I've also used Photogenic Machine Company power packs and light units in high-volume family photography for tens of thousands of exposures. Both are made in USA brands with long history and solid,reliable power,shot after shot. With virtually zero maintenance. Ze-ro. So, my preference is for the old style box-and-cable system of a power pack with four to six (yes, 6) outlets and from 1200,1600,or 2400 watt-seconds of power. You need four flash heads, minimum.

Frankly,I'm not really "sold" on the idea that three or four SB 800 flash units can give me the kind of results that I would want to get if my goal were to shoot photographs of people with tattoo art,or just people as portraiture subjects. It is vastly and easier and quicker to mount light modifiers to studio flash heads or monolights than it is to fit modifiers to shoe-mount electronic flashes like the SB-28,SB 80 DX,SB 800,or Vivitar 285 HV. I know, I've done it. I own a complete kit of umbrella adapters for shoe-mount flashes, and have used multi-umbrella,shoe-mount-powered setups for location portraiture. But the FACT is that, if you're going to use a softbox, or two umbrellas, or three light units, that it is just about as easy to plug in a power pack, set up three light stands,and then hook up three light units and set them on the stands, and then arrange the lighting.And, the resulkts can be previewed with decent modelling lamps in the flashes, which iss something that NO shoe-mount flash can do for you. I think that the benefits of i-TTL and TTL lighting control in multi-light setups are often very over-hyped in the Nikon advertising. I would rather use three studio flashes or four studio flashes, than the same number of SB 800 flashes. The i-TTL connectivity of the new Nikon flash units is not as impressive to me as modelling lamps in the flash units! If I have AC power, and I need three lights, I think Speedotron, not Nikon, for my lighting. Again, I do not see the value of using multiple SB 800 flash units for photographing people for consistent professional sales of the images.

As to the Fuji S3 versus Nikon D200 camera choice Gary finds himself mulling over...hmmm...I thought it was interesting that two weeks ago, Gary's website had maybe 25 orr more website and magazine review excerpts, with lauditory reviews for the S3 Pro from all sorts of sources. To my way of thinking, Gary would probably be best served with whichever camera he can shoot the best. On people photography,most of it can be handled with a 6 MP file,and the S3 qualifies,and the D200 qualifies. As to which camera Gary,or anybody else can shoot the best, pay close,close attention to the words: shoot the best. Amongst ome people,and some situations, the S2-and S3-class autofocus system allows too many accidentally out of focus frames to get through,or the AF system will fail to acheive an AF Lock in time to catch precious moments in the way the photographer intended. The D200's AF system is significantly better and faster than what the S3 has. It is possible to acheive a pretty good percentage of well-focuised frames using an S2- or S3-class AF system, but it is also true that the "better camera bodies" Nikon and Canon make have AF systems which tend to produce a higher percentage of well-focused frames than the S2- and S3-class bodies. Having owned a number of D-SLR's (three Fuji models,four Nikon models,one Canon model), I can honestly state that there is not ONE perfect model on the market, and that ALL models have their own strengths and weaknesses. But as far as autofocusing perfromance goes, the user and his understanding of the camera determines how well a camera fulfills its role as an AF camera. Bluntly speaking, some people can make the S2 and S3-class AF systems work for them, while for other people, the S2- and S3-class AF performance leads to too many dud frames which must be discarded. AF-assist lights can be used when speedlight flash is used,and so that can play a part too in how well a camera focuses. I've read reports from serious amateurs, snappers, and professional wedding photographers describing how the S2- and S3-class AF systems have failed them in certain types of situations, and this is something a lot of Fuji owners are kind of touchy about. While with AF-S lenses and in the best of light, the S2 usually delivered acceptable results for me,personally, there have also been many situations where the S2 could NOT deliver the type of AF performance that the D1 or D1h or now the D2x could/can deliver.

Much of my studio flash experience has been using box and cable systems with fairly subdued modelling lights in the heads, with diffusion material or umbrellas softening the light, and with flash power ample to deliver f/11 at ISO 125. That's how much flash power I like to have. The bigger the room or shooting area and the bigger the areas you're lighting, and the more flash power you need. This is one area where SB 800's cannot compare to monolights or box and cable studio flash. THe problem is that 75-to 150-watt modelling lamps in studio flash heads do not output "that much light" when umbrellas and softboxes are softening the lights, and under the modelling lights is where a camera with a better AF system will serve you better. Using two Speedotron flash heads with modifiers for main and fill,and with a 3rd for a hair or separation light and another light (or two) illuminating the background, there is STILL not enough light for easy,foolproof focusing with a camra like the S2 Pro,for example. In-studio, you usually have LESS LIGHT to focus by than when you're shooting outdoors most of the entire day. A wedding pro using a speedlight will tell you that the S3 Pro's AF system is pretty good when the SC-29 cord is the connector,and the AF assist lamp is propping up the camera's low-priced AF module. In a modern studio situation, the hotshow will be fitted with a Pocket Wizard or other electronic flash synchronizatrion device, and there will be NO AF assist from a speedlight flash unit. Bottom line, the AF system is one of the main differences between the S2 and S3 cameras from Fuji, and the "better" Nikon D-SLR models like D2x and D200. I personally have had AF irritations and problems with the S2 Pro when using MY studio flash lighting equipment; not that it's unworkably bad, but the focusing module is simply NOT as capable as what the better bodies deliver when you have 2 x150 watts of light modified by a two large light modifiers.

Cameras are very personal things,and each one can make good images. Lighting equipment centered around umbrellas, softboxes,and various honeycomb grids and snoots is best left to studio flash units, either of the box-and-cable systems like Speedotron,Norman,ProFoto,or Broncolor,or the currently more-popular monolight designs like Alien Bees, White Lightning, Elinchrome, JTL,or the excellent Calument Travelite monolights. Studio flash units with sturdy,built-in umbrella shaft holes are my favorites, and mounting softboxes with sturdy speed rings is a nice feature of studio flash units. Portable speedlights like SB 800's,while nifty and wonderfully electronically gadgety, simply do not connect to umbrellas,softboxes,reflectors,grids,and snoots in the same quick,simple,sturdy way that real studio electronic flash units do. If the choice is between spending one thousand dollars on three Sb 800 flashes, and then $80 for three cheap umbrella smounting adapters, and then $150 ffor three light stands, or in spending the same amount on studio flash likghting gear, the answer is clear--the same money spent on conventional studio flash gear will be much more well-spent money over the years. As to Gary Mayo's dilemma...I think his best course of action is to get a decent flash meter and some studio ligghting gear and forgoe the multi-SB 800 setup. As to the camera he choses, again, the one that he can shoot the best makes the most sense. It is my firm beleif that you need to LIKE your camera,and the more you like your camra the better. See, I've been forced to shoot with cameras which I did not really,really "Like",and I have owned lenses which I did not really,really "like". And there have been some cameras and lenses which I truly liked, a lot. And with those,I think I shot the best pictures most consistently. I have not always had the best cameras or lenses,and indeed these days I own stuff I do not 100 percent like.
So, if a guy "likes" tthe Fuji S3 pro, then that's a good camera for him. If however he "likes" the Nikon D200 significantly more,then that would make it a better camera for him. In terms of an objective,honest,technically-grounded reply, I would poijt out that the D200 and SB 800 and the CLS system and its associated multi-light macro system is,really, only for i-TTL Nikon cameras like,well, the D200 and the D2 series. Shooting close-range flash exposures, the added precision of a 1/3 stop Nikon body,and the i-TTL control protocol, and the metering abilities that Nikon has developed, make the D200 a more fully-versatile camera body as far as speedlight-based flash work goes. The S3 has good in-camera JPEG capabilities that can cover wide dynamic range scenes,as well as giving a couple of uniquely Fuji looks,all with the associated Fuji in-camera upsampling and its concomitant jaggies and image artifact problems, and along with that some pretty nice color of a uniquely Fuji nature. For the majority of people, the Nikon is for better handling and more control,while the Fuji is more about the file, the picture, the better highlight handling,at the expense of the body features and speed of shooting,speeed of handling that Canon and Nikon are focused on with their cameras.

Anyway, that's the way I see things in Gary's situation. He needs a decent d-slr,and some studio lights, and some light stands and light modifiers. The lighting situation is the clearest part of the dilemma. The camera is the wildcard in the equation. I personally think a Fuji D-SLR is for a really skilled,experienced,knowledgeable shooter who knows his way around the f/stops and ISO's and the technical aspects of photography,where the Nikon is designed to be,shall I say, "less dangerous" for use by the less exhaustively-trained and studied shooter. You can "rely on" the Nikons to function in the more-automated exposure modes, where with the S2 and S3, the camera is clunkier,and places more demand for skill and experience on the camera operator; the Fuji's have always been,IMO,designed for the "serious" shooter who knows how to work arround body limitations. And I mean that in the best possible way--the S2 and S3 are designed to be cameras for expert operators who truly KNOW photographic principles inside and out,and who understand the Fuji concepts and workflow ideas. Half-stop shutter and aperture control,and consumer-level AF makes an S2 or an S3 unsuitable for some assignments. The S2 and S3 cameras are not,shall we say, off-road vehicles or all-wheel drive vehicles, but are designed for more civilized driving conditions.

***neeeds to be proofed

Friday, April 07, 2006

Long Glass On A Budget: The Telephoto Dilemma

Long Glass On A Budget: The Telephoto Dilemma is about the need,persistent or occasional, for long glass. And by long I mean something over 200mm,and preferrably 300mm or perhaps even longer than 300mm, like 400mm or even 500mm or 600mm. Notice I am not saying "Big Glass", but merely long glass. Since I only know Nikon, this is about F-mount lenses,and how to get length on a budget.

So, first off, the budget-minded photographer thinks of telephoto converters, of various powers. Typical units magnify the length of the lens they are used with, with 1.4x, and 2.0x magnification telephoto converters being the most common types. Some telephoto converters( hereafter simply referred to as TC, TC's, or TC units) maintain autofocusing capability when used with AF lenses, while other TC's are strictly manual focusing devices. Some TC units will provide light metering when used with ANY Nikon AF camera, while other TC units will give light metering only with the most-sophisticated modern AF Nikon bodies, such as the F4,F5,F6,D1- and D2- and D200 series bodies, but will not allow for light metering with the consumer-level Nikon bodies and the mid-level D-SLR models like N80,D100,Fuji S2 and Fuji S3,and so on. The important thing to remember is that a particular make and model of lens must always be evaluated,physically, for potentially ruinous contact between the converter's front element and the rear element of the main lens! This is particularly true of telephoto zoom lenses, many of which have a rear element that is very close to the lens mount, and lenses of this type will often make contact with many Nikon brand converters,making mating of the lens and converter a physical impossibility. Even worse,sometimes after hooking a TC unit up to a zoom lens, the lens or converter or both can be damaged by zooming the lens! Be very cautious about mounting a converter onto a lens until you know what to look for!

With those precursory warning out of the way, let's look at TC units themselves. First off, Nikon has made relatively few TC units. Literally scores of lens designs and models have been manufactured by Nikon, but only a relative handful of TC units bear the Nikon brand. Nikon TC units are either manual focus models, or are designed for AF-i style and AF-S style telephoto prime lenses, or AF-S style zoom lenses. Nikon has not made a vanilla AF TC unit which works with screwdriver-focusing Nikkor prime or zoom lenses--you'll have to look at the Sigma,Kenko,or Tamron brand names for AF TC units which will work right out of the box with the vast,vast majority of screwdriver AF Nikkor lenses. Nikon telephoto converter units for the AF-i and AF-S lenses are the TC14e and TC20e (and their minor name variants), and the newest Nikon-made TC unit on the market, the TC17e; the basics are 1.4x, 2.0x,and 1.7x converters designed to mount ONLY TO Nikon AF-i or AF-S lenses. These Nikon-made autofocusing converter units have a small amount of metal which PREVENTS them from being mounted to any lens EXCEPT for a the small number of Nikon-made AF-i and AF-S lens models. (This protection/exclusionary design can be thwarted by milling away a small amount of metal, but keep in mind, converter/rear element bashing IS a very REAL possibility with some screwdriver focusing Nikkor lenses with the close-to-the-back rear elements and say, the TC14e. Canon,and third-part TC units do not have the front element protrusion that the Nikon TC's tend to have...)

In manual focus TC units, Nikon has made the TC-200 and TC-201 2x units in Ai and AiS dress,as well as the less-common TC-300 and TC-301 models also in Ai and AiS respectively. The TC 200 and 201 were designed for manual focus Nikkor lenses of 200mm or shorter,while the TC 300 and 301 were for 300mm and longer lenses. The TC-200 and 201 will work on a number of modern AF lenses, with varying degrees of performance quality, but ALL lenses will of course be manual focusing when using any of these older TC units,since the Nikon TC 200-201-300-301 group are all manual focus.

Back to the "budget" in budget long glass. One of the easiest ways to get budget reach is with a manual focus TC-200 Nikon converter paired with a 180mm or 200mm Nikon-made lens, such as the 180 AF or 180 AF-D or the 200mm f/4 in Ai mount. Prices on the TC-200 are significantly lower than prices on the TC-201 converter, and the 180 and 200mm Nikkor lenses are pretty affordable on the used market. The 200mm f/4 Ai and TC200 yields an effective focal length of 400mm at f/8,and is actually pretty close to the quality of the 80-400VR lens at f/5.6 at 400mm.The 200mm f/4 Ai or AiS prime lens and small Nikon TC are smaller and lighter than the 80-400 VR zoom lens is.

Another "budget" category is made up of long focus lenses, such as the 500mm f/8 Quantaray lens sold in the USA through places like Ritz Camera, Kits Camera, etc. Other sources of similar lenses are Adorama in New York City.Long focus lenses such as the 500mm f/8 Quantaray typically use a pre-set diaphragm system, which is not that big of a drawback considering the price and the use for these budget long lenses....$99 to $109 is a typical price for a 500mm f/8 manual focus lens with preset diaphragm. The quality is actually surprisingly decent,although the focusing is difficult and typically slow and rather difficult to discern accurately on modern d-slr bodies with sub-par finder systems; I own a Quantarary 500mm f/8 and have actually been QUITE surprised that such a low-tech lens performs as well as it does; but then again, consider that this slowish f/8 aperture prime lens is designed to cover only a few degrees of angular field,and is also a purpose-built design which has only one basic set of optical problems to overcome,and which needs only a few lens elements to do its work. Looked at in the right frame of mind, I think the optical performance of the 500mm f/8 Quantaray is worth many,many times its low purchase price. For "some people" a long,slow,manual focus 500mm like this is a viable alternative.

Zoom lenses which reach to 300 or 400 or 500mm at their longest setting are fairly numerous, but the best of such lenses cost upwards of $800,and several are $999 or even up to $1500 or more. Frankly, the term "budget" in terms of long glass would run up to about $999 in my book, and thus includes the most well-known tele-zooms, such as the Nikkor 80-400VR, the Sigma 80-400 OS, the Tokina 80-400, and the Sigma 50-500mm, as well as the slightly newer Tamron 200-500mm Di. In terms of reach, a 500mm lens has a lot more reach than a 400mm lens. In terms of sharp photos at long lengths hand-held, the stabilized lenses from Nikon and Sigma offer built-in stabilization which is better for panning than any tripod is, and which can extend one's shooting capability quite well when used with practice and care. I've shot the Nikon 80-400 VR very extensively,and have been rewarded with absolutely stellar slow-speed performance, all hand-held, particularly late in the afternoons as the light level drops, but also in open shade conditions. Panning is smoother and panning shots turn out extremely well when made with a VR lens. I think the stabilzation factor in a Nikkor VR lens is a worthwhile benefit,since in windy conditions, or when shooting from moving platforms (cars,boats,aircraft,etc) and when panning, having a stabilizer system can support the camera in ways that not even the best tripod can. Currently the Sigma 80-400 OS is around $999,and the Nikkor 80-400VR is available for under $999 for clean,nice used examples. The Sigma 50-500 can do pretty good work,and so can the Tamron 200-500 Di, which is perhaps the very newest of the long tele-zooms on the market today. [Addendum:I have since this writing had opportunity to use the Sigma 80-400 OS, and I can see almost NO reason to reccomend the 80-400VR Nikkor as a "new lens" purchase; used, I'd pay $750 for an 80-400VR, but would really RATHER own the Sigma 80-400 OS instead of the older,slower-focusing,clunkier Nikon 80-400!]

The "telephoto dilemma" in the title really boils down to the fact that a slow-aperture lengthy telephoto lens,like say a 500mm f/8 lens is very lightweight,and very easy to pack, but its slowish aperture requires bright light and/or a high ISO setting and pretty good camera stabilization for excellent results to be achieved. A fast-aperture 500mm telephoto like the Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX-HSM costs well over $2,500 new,and the 500 f/4 AF-S II Nikkor lens is, well, much more expensive than the Sigma,but these much more-expensive lenses allow you to make good wildlife photos or sports photos under demanding lighting conditions,and with autofocusing. The telephoto dilemma is one of lightness in weight versus focal length versus lens stabilization. Three of the single LARGEST factors in bad results when using a long lens use are 1) poor camera technique, 2) inadequate understanding of the need for speed in both shutter speed and ISO speed sensitivity and 3)poor atmospheric conditions.Long-range shooting can be literally plagued by bad atmospheric conditions in many places, with air pollution from cars, factories,home heating exhaust,airborne agricultural/forest/grassland particulate matter, high temperature air masses,etc--all these things can make taking photos with a 400mm or 500mm lens an exercise in futility at distances sometimes as short as a few hundred yards. A lot of people seem unaware that shimmering heat waves (aka mirage) and airborn particulates are very detrimental to long-distance shooting. The second problem, that of an inadequate understanding of the need for speed,is really coming up more frequently these days now that people are getting into high-resolution d-slr cameras,and the ever-so-slight smearing of rapidly moving objects is making itself seen now that we're shooting the D2x or other hi-rez cameras. Stuff you could get away with with the D1h at 1/1250 second and 2.7 MP now show clear,obvious blurring at 1/1250 second on the D2x's high-resolution captures. With a high-resolution camera small image flaws are "easily seen in common usage of the files". The Need For Speed is something I personally think about when photographing action with a small-sensor d-slr....the capture area is small, and the file must be "enlarged" many,many times its original size to make a large want to use very fast shutter speeds to minimize subject movement and to minimize the negative effects of camera/lens shake or camera/lens vibration or camera/lens movement through space (ie the "moving Shooting Platform" problem which can be stabilized with a Vibration Reduction, Image Stabilizer, or Optical Stabilizer system lens from the Nikon,Canon,or Sigma. High shutter speeds mean SHARPER images. Try shooting shutter priority at 1/500 for a few days,and see what I mean,even with short lenses like 17-85mm.

The need for speed with a budget telephoto almost ALWAYS demands that one boost one's normal or everyday ISO setting to at least double,or even triple one's normal setting. With a slow,budget glass setup having an f/4.5 to f/8 aperture maximum, you REALLY need to think about setting the ISO at 400 or 500 or 640 or 800 one heck of a lot earlier and more often than you otherwise might with a shorter focal length lens. As I said, the the need,persistent or occasional, for long glass is a factor in the telephoto dilemma. Do you need a lens which can focus very rapidly on moving targets, or is the lens for static or slow-moving targets? Manual focusing lenses are actually a good option at some focal lengths, like 400mm,and all of the 500mm f/8 and 600mm f/8 catadioptric or "mirror" lenses are manual focus only lenses; Nikon's 300mm f/4.5 ED~IF in the AiS mount has some of the fastest,best manual focusing action you can find in a really LIGHT yet SOLIDLY-built budget telephoto lens. Only f/4.5 speed, but a pretty decent image quality really, the 300mm's f/4.5 speed means it has a modest-sized 72mm filter thread size, a very short sliding lens hood,and a rather slender or "skinny" body tube design--some people think of it as a "flashlight lens" (AKA torch,hand torch,etc). The focusing ring is wide and has a very light,light touch required to focus by finger movement. On old,poorly maintained samples, the focusing ring often turns a bit stiffly,yet very smoothly. I once examined a really,really beat-to-shit and very dirty,dusty,slicked-up and worn one that had been in long use,in 2002 or 2003,and it had been owned by a long-time professional PJ shooter....they were asking $250 for it,and it was in such poor cosmetic and exterior condition that it was not worth the money I felt,yet still the focusing action and feel were both decent,and on some outdoors test frames of cars coming in to view and moving by at 25-35 MPH, the old MF lens delivered good,accurate focusing when shoot on a Fuji S2 in Continuous JPEG mode. I used the 300mm f/4.5 ED-IF a small amount in the mid-1980's,and found that its manual focusing performance was actually pretty good for outdoor sports at ranges of around 30 meters....quite,quite good results can be obtained with the precise,fast,almost effortless manual focus of this early Internal Focus lens.

In today's AF-speak world,Internal Focus means a lens does not change its barrel length during the focusing process; on the 300/4.5 and 400mm f/3.5 ED~IF Nikkor lenses of the 1970's and 80's, the use of the descriptor ED~IF means Internal Focusing that features 300mm and 400mm lenses with FEATHER touch,effortless focusing action which can be done using as little as one finger, or two fingers, and which is accomplished very,very effortlessly, with an almost shall I say, "Zero-Gravity" feeling. These 300 and 400 lenses allow you to rack focus FAST, with a silky effortlessness and with a degree of pure mechanical engineering supremacy that is,sadly, lacking from the AF Nikkor telephoto primes and zooms. The 500/4 P is similarly designed and designated as an ED~IF Nikkor lens, with the same type of Internal Focusing philosophy,engineering,and precision durable construction pured into the lenses in this class. A good,well-maintained sample of the ED~IF Nikkor manual focus lenses like the little,lightweight,skinny-barreled 300/4.5 ED~IF is worth $300-$375 easily in my book. A good sample of the much larger yet still "light" 400mm f/3.5 ED~IF is easily worth $900-$1250, with lenses from the Ai-S series being the most-desirable models...Ai-S series lenses will have ORANGE-painted minimum aperture numbering on the lens aperture ring, and hole-drilled "buckhorns" or meter coupling prongs, and of course the "S" part of Ai-S series lenses comes from the milled semi-circular Speed Notch on the lower part of the lens mount facing. Nikon's 'other' 400mm prime, the 400mm f/5.6 ED is a very slender,straight-tubed little 400mm lens, and is usually wayyyyyyyyy overpriced,sometimes with ridiculous asking prices that are clearly "Bad Buys", like $699 to as much as $899 for a 400mm f/5.6 manual focus Nikkor in AiS mount; at those prices, I think the 400/5.6 is a poor,poor lens choice simply based on aperture/age/and design and build. Far better to buy a Nikkor 80-400 VR or a Sigma OS and get an f/5.6 lens with a stabilizer and zoom flexibility.

I know a fellow,two actually,who are thinking about the Sigma 80-400 OS. One has ordered it,and should have it very shortly,and another is considering the Sigma as a baseball lens for spring baseball under daylight conditions. The first is a Nikon shooter, the second a Canon user. For the fellow who has a Canon, using ISO 800 for daytime,BRIGHT-light baseball would make a slowish 400mm f/5.6 actually practical until the light level starts to drop in the late afternoon in the spring. Daylight Savings Time and the advance of the calendar toward mid-May and June and July mean that an f/5.6 lens is absolutely NO PROBLEM AT ALL during the daylight hours in those months. The need,persistent or occasional, will determine exactly what telephoto lens,or lenses, and what extender or extenders,will get you into the long glass area at the lower dollar figures. While say $750-$999 for a 300mm f/2.8 AiS manaul focus lens, or $1,000 for a $400/3.5 ED~IF might seem like a lot of money, when one looks at the sticker price on the current 400 2.8 AF-S lenses,or the new 300mm 2.8 AF-S, AF-S II, or AF-S VR-G 300mm lens models, the price of the used "big glass" lenses from yesteryear make a bit of sense when you understand that the design and quality of these older lenses is very high,and the prices of all models ranging from $350-$1,200 for exceptionally nice samples mean a savings of several thousands of dollarrs over "new, AF-S" glass of comparable specification/type.

So, if f/5.6 or f/6.3 at say 500mm is ample f/stop for your lighting, let's say for "occasional use" in the bright-weather months, then maximum aperture and prevailing lighting can mean that some of the slow-ish but long lenses can be used,for some subjects, without too much of a penalty compared with the big,expensive lenses. In good,bright lighting, the new 300mm f/4 AF-S Nikkor would qualitfy as "budget long glass" particulalrly if bought used for a fair price. The 300/4 AF-S is a fairly "new" Nikkor design,and it works pretty well with the TC14e converter for AF-S and AF-i Nikkor lenses; a little bit of sharpness is lost at maximum aperture, and the automatic focusing becomes noticeably moe jittery and prone to focus hunting behavior when the TC 14e is added, but the results are pretty good with the lens stopped down to f/5.6 or smaller, yet still quite usable for "most" things with the TC addded. Still, for springtime sports, the 300/4 AF-S is a marginally capable lens--the autofocusing of this lens is simply NOT up to the predicatbility and surety and reliablity as the 300/2.8 AF-S or the 70-200 VR which is also an AF-S lens.

Sigma's older and discontinued 500mm f/7.2 lens has a few people who liked it for its performance and price/performance/weight nature. Sigma's new 500mm f/4.5 ED-HSM lens is selling used for $2100-$1500,depending on numerous factors,perhaps less if conditions are right.

PRICES,PRICES,PRICES: Perhaps you've heard the old joke,or seen the movie:
Seller: "How much do you wanna pay?"
Buyer? "How much do I wanna' pay? A dollar!"

Okay, back to prices. A motivated seller is one thing. A top-dollar,giant web company means another price. A fair-market camera exchange company means another price. A scam-artist WWW-based auction site's price might be the lowest you've ever heard of, but the transaction might have problems. If a deal seems too good to be true,be cautious,but don't be overly paranoid about occasional deals which are very sweet-sounding. Why? Well, there are deals to be had, and there are fair prices,and then,occasionally you'll run into super-lucky deals where a motivated seller brings in a shitload of his gear and has a reputable brick-and-morter camera store or dealership sell it all off on consignment. This type of motivated seller needs to sell his old,unwanted gear to raise cash,fast, to fund his latest desires. So....think camera exchanges, and secondary markets, and some of the smaller, independent camera sellers that are around. It's up to you to seek out the many,many deals that exist on long glass.On lower-value lenses, I think Grey Market is the way to buy new lenses,particularly from the "big retailers"of the size and nature of say B&H,Adorama,Samy's,etc.

Teleconverters or TC units: think USED. Don't be a sap. Buy them in clean,used condition from big dealers, or small retailers, but buy the lower-priced ones used,with return priviledges. Always insist on good,clean optics on TC units, but be aware that "some" TC units are carried, but not actually uncapped and used much,and so barrel wear may look bad, but optics may be pristine to very fine, depending. On TC units,barrel cosmetics are less important than optical condition and mechanical fit and mounting and flawless light meter connecting and readouts in the camera. Be aware that with 2x converters, the loss of two f/stop's worth of light means that AutoFocusing systems will often fail to AF at around f/5.6. so plopping a 2x TC onto an f/4 prime or zoom lens almost ALWAYS means that AF goes out the window.

For occasional use, the loss of AF might or might not be a concern in your teleconverter. On slow-moving or static subjects, the loss of autofocusing might not be a big deal at all. For sports use,or for action subjects of many types, the loss of AF might mean there will be focusing "issues" shall we say. Practice,practice,practice, and the familiarity that practice brings can improve one's batting average when one must resort to manual focusing with the "slow" lenses like the 80-400 VR Nikkor. It kind of depends on what,exactly, one wishes or needs to photograph when one is buying or selecting lenses that fall into the long glass category. There is a tremendous diversity of photography out there; if you want to shoot birds in flight, you know what that means; if you want to shoot high school or junior high school soccer in GOOD light, you can live with an f/5.6 aperture maximum,and any number of lenses. If you want to shoot wildlife early or late in the day,you need as much aperture speed as your finances will allow and you'll also want High-ISO settings late in the day.The Need For Speed is often highest when doing field work,and for those who want to be able to effectively cover a wide rane of picture-making potential with a long lens, one really needs to get into the f/4 or faster aperture category,and that costs money.

For static longer-range shots of flowers,birds,and zoo animals, the long,slowing lenses like the 50-500 Sigma (often referred to as "The Bigma" or simply as "Bigma") can turn in acceptable results when used on a good tripod,with good technique, and with adequate and diligent shooting and attention to the need for speed as it relates to focal length and subject motion-stopping rules. I've seen some fine aviary,zoon,and field closeup work done with the 50-500 Sigma, by skilled workers with good technique,by people like Robert Whiteman who makes the lowly Sigma 50-500 look pretty damned good. Sadly though, I have seen a lot of totally shit work with the Bigma by people firing off at ISO 100 at 500mm and f/6.3 at 1/125 second on moving subjects,etc. The Bigma lens gets mixed reviews because so many people operate it like it's a 135mm lens and not a 300,400,or 500mm lens!;for some people it's adequate,particularly if they know how to shoot (like Robert Whiteman,for example),and keep in mind the Need For Speed,which often means using ISO 400,or higher, and using something called a t-r-i-p-o-d,or a monopod, and in keeping the shutter speeds UP as focal length or subject motion go up! In sunny California a 500mm f/6.3 lens,like the Bigma, means one wintry Minneapolis-St. Paul, a 500mm f/6.3 lens means something else entirely different. Also, 200,300mm,400mm,and 500mm are vastly different focal lengths.

An overlooked combo is a Nikkor 180mm 2.8 ED lens(either manual focus or AF opr AF-D 180's will work) and a the TC-200 or TC-201 teleconverters. Focusing will be manual,and you'll have a 360mm f/5.6 equivalent,and the price is fairly "budget" if you shop carefully. As in all things, a quick buy often means payting top dollar, while if you can scout around,scrounge around, or wait for that bargain opportunity (eBay,low-cost "Nickle Ads" on "penny saver" type yellow-colored free newspapers,at yard sales,at estate sales,etc) you stand a good chance of landing a Nikon TC, or a long focal length lens,at a great savings over "normal" pricing. Motivated sellers will let equipment go for fair,reasonable prices,but it often takes a very long time to find something 'special' when you want to spend very little money, but it CAN happen,so keep your eyes open. Occasionally, a person will consign a premium bigg-glass telephoto or rare,high-performaance lens like an 85 T/S lens in order to raise enough money to buy another desirable bauble,like a fancy new lens or second body,etc. The "big glass" lenses, typically the 300/2.8 AF-S or AFS-II lenses can,on occasion, be had for $500,$600,or even $700 below "top dollar" prices when a seller has _real_ motivation to sell the lens quickly,and easily, or when a store has agreed to consign a large amount of equipment of high value for lower than normal commision with broad seller pre-authorization (ie,the seller has given the store's sales staff the ability to 'dicker' and to entertain all types of offers), you can sometimes turn a lowball yet still genuine offer into a SALE that sees you saving hundreds and hundreds of dollars! If it says $2,750 on the price tag, offer $1600,not $2,000. Seriously.

On occasion, a seller will have a decent zoom lens fitted with a crappy UV filter of bastard origins,and will think his lens is poor,and he will wish to sell it at a low price just to get rid of it. I bought a rather old lens once that was a disappointment. It came with a UV filter on it, a quality Nikon L37c filter, and when I tested the lens without the filter it came with, I found the lens's performance somewhat lacking....I had expected better. Its antireflective coating appeared very smooth and uniform on the very large front element. Well, make that it appeared kinda'clean...upon very close inspection, it looked smooth but not quite immaculately clean!! I took a brand new microfiber cloth and proceeded to clean the lens. Holy Shit Batman!!! The lens's front element was not anywhere NEAR what you'd call was in fact covered with a very thin, hazy film. My first few wipes with the brand new Pentax-branded microfiber cleaning cloth removed astonishly thick levels of built-up crap! The lens's huge 122mm filter front (hint) was coated with a thin,but pretty uniform layer of build-up which came off pretty easily with the brand new microfiber lens cleaning cloth,in radial motions away from the center and working clounter-clockwise around the huge front element. There was so muich crap on there, I felt like the microfiber cloth was used up by the time I got done cleaning this 22-year old lens. Subsequent testing was much better--the lens performed REMARKABLY better against the light after the front element was thoroughly cleaned of what I am pretty certain was at least several years' worth of crud! I've never encountered a more thin,hard,and yet very uniform film over a lens....condesnation fogging over and over and over with no cleaning,ever,is my suspicion. Or long-term,uncapped tripod mounting from a fixed camera position facing say, the surf line 400-500 yards back from the ocean once or twice or three times a year, and then never cleaning off that thin-thin-thin delicate filmy seaspray and foggy mist combo that turns a lens into a ghost-meister when shot toward the light, and which robs you of contrast almost like a diffusion filter does.Or,maybe the owner was a cigarette smoker or something. I'm not sure what caused that thin but deadly haxy film, but this old lens was sooooooo much better that I feel like the previous owners,two of them, had clearly not THOROUGHLY cleaned the lens in say, 10 years or so. When I bought it, it was kind of a flat, low-contrast looking lens and it had veiling glare too,too easily when pointed toward afternoon or evening I said,the front element pretty much LOOKED "clean", and smooth, and uniformly coated, but only an actual cleaning revealed there was extensive buildup on the front element.

Some of the worse lens damage I've ever seen has been from airborne tree sap, from maple and other deciduous trees, which can become airborne here in the springtime months. Soaring pollen rates and fine,airborne tree sap particles can spell havoc on eyeglasses, and car windshields at certain times of the year. Where rows of tall,deciduous trees like poplar or maple grow, one's front element and eyeglasses can become literally COVERED with airborne tree sap particles that are as tiny as a gnat's ass, but which actually create a rather severe pattern on the front of exposed lenses when used in and particular UNDER the shade or cover of such trees. It's only a few days of the year, but this airborne tree sap was shown to me at one time when I lived in a neaighborhood that had a lot of trees along the sidewalks and between the street curbs....walking home one day some 10 blocks, my eyeglasses were coated with a fine mist when I got home. It did not evaporate after I went indoors. I went to clean my glasses and was horrified by the tree sap and its sticky feel. This crap will FOUL your lenses when there are large numbers of deciduous trees in or near your shooting area, and if you are underneath groups of these trees, be prepared to have to remove one of the nastiest substances a lens can be exposed to, except for pehaps tree pitch or creosote off of old railroad ties in the summer months...(do not ask).

The suede-like microfiber cleaning cloths can remove crap that you don't even realize is there, provided the cloths are scrupulously clean. The performance of cleaning cloths is difficult to characterize with any degree of brevity, but suffice to say, there ARE differences in how microfiber cloths perform their cleaning duties. Try several different types. But don't be a cheapskate. Microfiber cleaning cloths are someting you buy as consumables. Always have and use a "best" one for the most ehaustive or major-major cleanings. I try and clean my lenses as little as possible, and environmental conditions dictate how frequently a lens needs what I will shorthandedly call a " "good" cleaning or the much-less-frequent "wet cleaning". on the lookout for condition on used lenses. Sometimes, what you see at first glance isn't the whole story--so look for that crappy no-name UV filter on an otherwise solid-looking lens prospect that's being sold off, and also make damned sure a lens is really as clean as you THINK it looks at first glance when evaluating a new lens.

UV filters kept in circular, screw toghether 2-part plastic filter holders with the soft,foamy styrofoam-like padding material outgass so badly that UV filters stored for long periods of time can become,well, damned near worthless. People who use UV filters often NEVER clean their lens fronts, but do occasionally remove the filter and use another filter, or no filter, and well,lens fronts often get dirty very slowly,and they get to a point where optical performance can actually go down, particularly when shooting right into the light. So....make sure that used long glass lens is CLEAN-clean.

The telephoto's really a mish-mash of issues and problems. Cost,size,weight,prime or prime + TC, or zoom?Focus type either manual or AF? If AF then must a lens be AF-S or will screwdriver-style focusing be acceptable? New or used, grey market or officially warrantied? Is there a TC unit which can be mated to the lens and still give very,very good to good results? And so on,and on. Does one need a lens which can focus moderately fast,most of the time? If so, then the longer-tele-zoom lenses like the 80-400 VR and 80-400 OS seem like logical choices for those who want to do panning and to work with motion blur effects, and temporal effects based on slow-speed shooting. If you want to be able to shoot in the wind, or from moving platorms like a boat out on open water or working from a monopod for that last little bit of hand-holding help, the VR lenses are really pretty good least the 80-400VR is,in my own experience. I await hearing how well the 80-400 OS from Sigma is reviewed by my friend.

Some random thoughts as I prepare to finish this long-winded blog entry up:
*Tamron's new 200-500mm Di lens is one of the few lightweight,portable lenses I'd like to own but do not own to fulfill my needs in the daylight,bright-weather,long tele-zoom category. I prefer the Tamron's design and engineering and materials and weight distribution over the design,weight,and balance characteristics of the Sigma 50-500 on the D1 or D2-series Nikons. On a small or half-height camera like the D70, the Tamron's weight feels better-balance to me than the Sigma. If you want the 50-200mm range as well as the 200-500mm, well, the Bigma has that range,but the Tamron starts at 200mm and gets longer. The Tamron 200-500mm Di is much more svelte and sexy-looking than the Sigma 50-500.

*The 300 f/4 AF-S is a decent lens that can serve as a field macro lens,portrait lens,and selective view landscape/scenic lens and it offers fine optics, but only average to good,not great AF capabilities on most bodies.

* The 70-200 VR with TC14e shot wide open (f/2.8 yielding f/4 equivalent light passage) is somewhat soft and has a sort of ethereal look or veiling glare 9not a good thing) ,but stopped down another stop to f/4, for f/5.6 effective, the lens + TC combo is adequately sharp for 'most' uses, but yields only 280mm at the longest setting,and performance at wide-open or "f/4" is MUCH worse than the 300/4 AF-S is at f/4, so pick accordingly. If you need sheer length, the 80-400VR is sharper than the 70-200+TC 14e combo is at full zoom or 280mm efective,so if you really NEED good optical quality, you need to be at f/5.6 equivalent,and the 80-400VR is better than the 70-200 zoom+TC14e is,and also the VR lens is significantly longer,going all the way to 400mm at f/5.6. 280mm is not as long as 300mm. And 280mm is a far cry shorter than 400 or 500mm is. Personally, I think the 70-200VR + TC14e is NOT an optimal solution unless the lighing is bright,and you WANT to be stopped down to about f/6.3 at 1/800 or in even brighter light. I'd rather have the 300/4 AF-S if I really need 300mm,and TOP-quality images at f/4 to f/5.6. The 300/4 AF-S + TC1e is the smartest single long lens decision,if you have the money for the prime and the TC unit.

*For occasional use, one can quite often overlook or forgive a smallish maximum aperture in a long lens. Under bright-season conditions the lighting is often so bright that at a moderately high ISO such as 400 will allow fast enough shutter speeds that even an f/8 maximum aperture will yield a 1/1250 to 1/2000 second exposure time, which is quite a good thing,and there will be absolutely NO problem for sports or birds or whatever in fine,bright lighting conditions. However, if the light is poor,either due to hour of day or season of the year or latitude, a slow-aperture telephoto can become almost useless when exposures drop to the 1/60 second at f/8 zone for example. There's a reason lenses that open up to f/4 or f/2.8 can cost thousands of dollars.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Canon EOS 30D Review is up at dPreview

Phil Askey has reviewed the Canon EOS 30D at his website. Stop by an check out his conclusion page at and see in bullet form why Askey gives the 30D his site's most prestigious Highly Recommended rating. I haven't read the entire review yet, but merely selected parts of it. The comparison photos from the 30D's 8.2 megapixel CMOS imager and the Nikon D200's 10.2 megapixel CCD imager are very,very interesting. As a basis for comparison, Askey also brings in the 12.8 megapixel Canon EOS 5D as a comparison camera, thus showing off the varying capabilities of three of the hottest D-SLRs on the market as of now, late winter 2006.