Sunday, February 25, 2007

My Wish For A Nikon D3h: Reasonable MP Count, FF

It seems to me,and to other people who follow the current trends in d-slr photography that the Nikon D2Hs suffers from a poor sensor design that has problems with excessive infrared and near-infrared, meaning that synthetic fabrics (like sports uniforms) are often rendered incorrectly in color, and that flash exposures (which have plenty of near-infrared) are not the strengths of the Nikon-designed, Nikon-made LBCAST sensor in the D2Hs. The D2hs camera's megapixel count and image quality is too low to compete with Canon's two 8.2MP 1D series iterations, and now Canon has announced a 10.1 MP 1D Mark III model, thus pretty much effectively neutering the D2Hs as a legitimate top contender in this category.

What I would like to see Nikon do in its D3h camera is to go to a larger sensor, like a full frame sensor, not a 1.5x sensor. That would allow Nikon to get better High ISO performance by going to larger pixels, and would also solve one real problem for the sports/news/event/generalist shooters, which is that the 1.5x sensor makes many perfectly good lenses a hell of a lot LESS useful than they were designed to be. The 28-70 AF-S, now a pretty bland 42-105 sub-normal-to-short tele lens would go from being a 40-ounce piece of crap on 1.5x, to a useful lens offering wide-angle to short telephoto views on Full Frame. The argument that the DX sensor allows for smaller and lighter lenses really has not panned out. There ARE NO DX telephoto lenses from Nikon--we're still using Full Frame image circle capable lenses that weigh as much as 7 to 14 pounds on many outdoor sports assignments,since there are *no* DX teles. The 17-55 DX lens is not really a lightweight lens. The DX argument's promise of smaller and lighter lenses is a straw man argument, a moot point, a red herring, a bunch of B.S. when applied to telephoto and telephoto zoom lenses--their image circles are already small,and there's no physical way to design or make a smaller,or lighter DX-optimized telephoto,so the "lighter" part of the DX lens advantage is,truly, a non-issue,a moot point. No weigh savings or size reduction can really be gained on any of the telephoto lenses by reducing their already very small image circles,so a DX-sized 300mm f/2.8 lens is still gonna be, well, the same size and weight as one designed to cover a 24x36mm film frame. Moving from a 1.5x sensor to a larger-sensored camera would also bring improved performance at higher ISO's,leading to higher image quality under marginal lighting conditions. Better High-ISO image quality is the area where Nikon needs to improve their camera performance in the D2 line's successor models.

Widening the angle of view of the 200mm f/2 and the 300/2.8 lenses would make them MORE-useful for sports like volleyball,basketball,baseball,softball,track and field,and American football. I do not actually buy into the argument that sports shooters always like,or want, the 1.5x factor. In my own personal experience shooting sports assignments over the last two years, I think the 1.5x GREATLY hurts the 85mm lens, the 105mm lens, and the 300mm lens lengths. The 300mm lens on 1.5x gains some depth of field per aperture value, which is a plus/minus kind of thing. The REAL,persistent problem is that using a 300mm lens means that athletes that approach too closely are reduced to a tight close-up....arms and legs are...GONE, cropped off...the opposing athletes in the competition are...GONE,and OUT OF THE PICTURE, cropped off too. The idea that PJ/sports/event people all want or like the 1.5x FOV reduction assumes that the most impotant problem to solve is being situated too FAR FROM the action, but that is not the problem,usually. The problem is that your lens is too LONG for the distances actually encountered, and you always find yourself needing shorter and shorter and shorter focal lengths to get the scene captured, to show what's going on within some type of context.

By the time one gets to fairly short focal length settings on a 1.5x camera, pretty much everything is in focus,and there's NO WAY to get subject/background isolation due to the short focal lengths. Also, the wide angle of view extends not just TO the main subject's distance, but that wide angle of view also extends BEHIND the subject, out to the farthest distance in the scene; the problem is two-fold; the subject is shown with a ton of crap in the background, and it's almost impossible to control the crap shown in the backdrop by throwing it out of focus because the inherent DOF at short focal lengths is so great.

The cropping-off of what each lens projects affects the way the actual,current lens models and focal lengths render their images. The "pictures" just don't come out the same way using a cropped-sensor camera and trying to stand farther and farther away from subjects at the 50,85,105,and 135,etc lengths; your studio is now wayyyyyy too short, and now,using the wider end of your short zooms, 9-foot wide seamles rolls and all backdrops are suddently, well, too narrow! The backdrops (paper,muslin,canvas,rooms,sets,gyms,offices,whatever) and backgrounds are now all pretty much IN-FOCUS in most all of your studio-type setups, thanks to that teeny 1.5x capture area and 33mm shooting lengths...and so on.

While birders and nature photographers may say they like and want the 1.5x factor and see it as a positive, in sports and indoor event photography,I disagree,and feel that it's actually a major drawback,given the actual pool of lenses ON THE MARKET,and what those lenses were/are designed to do; the 300/2.8 is a very,very expensive lens,and the 300/4 is not cheap either. We have reached the resolution point now where we can crop out and throw away as much as HALF of a frame to make a publishable sports shot with a good 8-12 MP capture to start with. When an athlete or a person gets too CLOSE to the camera, the longer, very costly,high-performance AF lenses like the 300/2.8 are simply too damned cropped-off on 1.5x bodies to make pictures that you can actually use in many situations, both indoors and outdoors. There are few lenses which can track focus as fast and well as the 200/2 VR and 300/2.8 Nikkor lenses; they have almost the ultimate in optical quality available,and the images they make can easily,easily stand up to terrific cropping at the computer if the file is clean and well-shot (adequate shutter speed, good focus), and when those lenses are rendered too narrow-angle because of the 1.5x factor of your body, WHICH lenses do you switch to to replace them? Well, most people have NO substitute for their 300/2.8; it is their big investment lens, the one with the best rez, the sharpest wide-open, the best flare resistance,and the best autofocus performance in all ways. Stepping down to the 70-200 2.8 VR from the 300/2.8 is a huge step down in focus performance and against the light performance.

No, for birders and outdoor photographers who can never get close enough to their subjects, 1.5x seems like a good deal. But for PJ/sports/event photography, cropping each and every lens's angle of view down seriously makes the camera a LOT LESS useful than a camera with a 1.3x or 1.0 aka Full Frame angle of view. 99 percent of the Nikkor lens line was designed for 24x36mm photography, also commonly known as Full Frame or 35 Full Frame or 135 format or 35FF. You KNOW what I mean. You know, with a big,huge viewfinder image,coming off a full-sized reflex mirror, onto a nice modern viewfinder screen,and then sent to your eye with a top-quality optical glass pentaprism that gives the best possible viewfinder image for the easiest,fastest framing and the best composing under tough conditions. Indoors,at events, the lighting is often kind of dark....a bigger,better viewfinder image is always a PLUS....a 1.5x cropped-down tunnel-like viewfinder image is not a plus.

Megapixels and resolution are overrated by many people,I think. The D3h crowd really wants to be able to have a pro Nikon body that has better High ISO performance,more so than high resolution. From my own experience with the EOS 20D, which delivers pretty doggone good and printable High ISO images, it seems that with the right image processing in-camera, the 8.2 MP CMOS sensor of the 20D actually delivers HIGHER RESOLUTION than the 12.2 megapixel CMOS sensor in the D2x when both are used at higher ISO values. Statistics can be misleading,and I feel that MOST D2x owners were a bit mislead if they happened to read certain reviews of the D2x,or looked at noise graphs of the D2x and thought that it'd be a good camera at medium and elevated ISO settings. But the painful truth is that LBCAST and CMOS-sensored Nikons have been three models in number,and all of them have been poorly-received cameras for sports/event/PJ shooters who want state of the art performance for their $3,500 or $4995. So, I'm not really interested in a sports camera that has an extremely high megapixel count--what I want is High ISO performance with good color saturation and good detail, not a bunch of shadow noise, screwed up colors on synthetic fabrics, and weird colors on things shot with flash. Oh, and I want a good in-camera JPEG engine.

The easiest way for Nikon to get its act together in the PJ/sports/event/generalist professional camera segment would be to boost sensor size away from APS-C and toward APS-H (1.3x) or all the way to 35 full frame sensor size. Nikon ought to keep the megapixel counts reasonable, like 8 to 10 MP, but stuff in as physically LARGE a sensor as they can fit in there. I'd be very,very happy if the D3h had a 10.2 MP FULL FRAME sensor that shot at 8 fps down to 1 fps, and which also offered four different down-sized image capture sizes. I can imagine that if Nikon engineers really worked at it, they could see their way clear to getting their LBCAST technology to the point where they could double the pixel count from 4.1 MP to 8.2 MP by simply scaling the sensor size all the way up to full frame size.

Right now, Nikon needs to also keep in mind that the D200 was a big success because it finally offered serious enthusiasts some of the features that had previously been offered only in the D1 and D2-series bodies. Offering customers MUCH more than they have a right to expect,feature-wise, is why the Nikon D200 is so well-regarded a camera, and why Canon's EOS 30D is viewed as basically a lukewarm re-hash of the 20D with not much new in the way of feature improvements except incremental ISO settings and a few new picture style modes. Nikon can simply NOT skate by by making a D3h that's a re-hash of the already inadequate D2Hs design. No, Nikon needs to put on its thinking cap. Nikon users want a camera that can compete on ISO performance indoors,under artifical light,and which can render colored synthetic fabrics the RIGHT colors, without the need for a 77mm Canon hot mirror filter over each lens, and Nikon users want a camera that can make flash exposures without weird off-color casts due to the excess IR and near-IR sensitivity.

I could care less who makes the sensor for the Nikon could be a JFET LBCAST sensor,or a CMOS sensor, or it could be a CCD sensor....the kind of sensor isn't important, it's the sensor performance.The D3h has simply GOT TO DELIVER EXCELLENT image quality at ISO 1600,and it had better be damned good at 3200 as well. Since I feel that the 85mm f/1.4 and 105mm DC and 300mm focal lengths are rendered much LESS useful on 1.5x than when shot natively on 35FF format cameras, my personal hope is that Nikon decides that the D3h, the PJ/sports/event/generalist camera goes Full Frame, with huge pixels, and stays right around 10 megapixels or so. If the D3h sensor is full-frame, even as little as 8.2 MP would be fine by me,since it'd give better High ISO performance. Right now, if one looks at how poor the D2x is with 12.2 megapixels at ISO 640, I think that even as few as 8.2 MP spread over a FF sensor would blow the DOORS off of the D2x resolution-wise at ISO 640,and ISO 800,and 1600,and 3200.

We'll see what Nikon does.Canon has just announced the EOS 1D Mark III,and the pre-production camera samples from the Imaging Resource web site show that the High ISO performance of the upcoming Canon makes what Nikon's "pro bodies" can do look sub-par. I do not expect that Nikon will make the D3h PJ/sports/event/generalist d-slr with a 35FF sized sensor, but I really,really hope they do go 35FF. Couldn't they also have it switch to a High Speed Crop-type mode, with smaller capture size and a narrower capture angle? Seems like they could-they've done HSC in the D2x and D2Xs models. I really think that the 1.5x sensor's advantages have been vastly,vastly overrated by all the bird photographers, and that the real way to get Nikon truly back in USE and ON THE JOB at newspapers and magazines all around the world would be to make their PJ/sports/event/generalist camera a full frame D3h with maybe only 10.2 or 11 megapixel capture size. Throw in a cropped-down capture mode or two and four sizes of captures, and put a DECENT JPEG ENGINE in there, and bingo....a huge sales hit for people who know that cropping down the angle of view on all your best Nikkor lenses really isn't an advantage.


Karch Mecklin said...

In a nutshell, I couldn't agree more. With the increase in MP and the quality of image resolution, a 1.5 crop factor isn't an advantage any longer. You can simply crop a larger image to get the picture that you want. Unless you are constantly shooting subjects that are a long way away, this is not an advantage for the majority of shooters.

Also, how many bird photo's do you really see in print? I read lots of magazines, newspapers, etc. I suspect that the ratio of birding photos is less than 1% of the total. If the 1.5 crop factor is designed to satisfy this section of the photograpy population, it's a mighty small subset.

I started out with Nikon gear and used it through the D2H. When the D2X came out I was excited. I thought the high speed crop was the best of all worlds. That is, until I tried the camera out where I use it most - indoor action sports. It was a disaster. High ISO was useless - far worse than the D2H.

I almost upgraded to the D2Hs. On a whim, I rented a Canon to try it out. After trying it out and seeing for myself the difference in exposure, noise, and color at high ISO it was an easy switch.

However, the ergonomics of the Canon were deplorable. The viewfinder was sub-par. Really, for such a highly touted camera, changing basic shooting parameters quickly was a joke compared to Nikon. And no "function" button to quickly switch from one shooting mode to another.

In addition, the Canon autofocus performance in low light was also a problem. Shots that I routinely captured on the D2H were now "work" on the Mark II N. I miss Nikon AF to this day!

Lenses were another story. I still feel that the Nikon lenses offer superior image capture - crisp, clean, detailed, contrasty. Canon, however, has MORE of the lenses that I need. For indoor, it's all about ultra-fast lenses with modern autofocus. Nikon hasn't updated one of their prime lenses in a long time. For indoor, we need 50, 85, 100, 135 lengths in 1.2 to 1.8. We need fast autofocus using the widest apertures. Mechanical worm-drive AF mechanisms are not sufficient. Yes, I still have the 70-200 IS and shorter focal length zooms, but these are not the lenses that I use indoors. However, with the quality of the 3200 and 6400 ISO performance in the Mark III (based on sample images), I suspect that 2.8 is going to be a usable aperture again!

I sold all of my Nikon gear but held onto the 28-70, 70-200 IS and my Speedlite hoping that Nikon would bring a camera to market that would be competitive with Canon. I still have that gear - I am an optimist.

Now that the Canon 1d Mark 3 has been announced . . . well, Canon has just about addressed all of my issues. I suspect that the ergonomics are still not quite up to Nikon standards, but Canon have delivered on these key areas:

(1) Autofocus to -1 EV: This should solve the low light AF issues.

(2) Redesigned menu system: This should do away with most of two-hand operations.

(3) Lots of "cross point" AF sensors (whatever the technical name is): This should solve the AF issues using vertical orientation. The 45 AF points is not that usable, but 19 cross-point user selectable sensor IS important.

(4) High ISO noise performance - honestly, the 3200 and 6400 sample images posted on the web are unbelievable: This WILL set the bar for ISO performance unless Nikon comes out with something that matches this performance. Beating it is not required, but matching it is necessary.

(5) 10 MP - plenty of room to crop and get the photo that you want: For 99% of what I shoot, 10 MP is plenty of image to work with.

(6) Lithium Ion battery: This was one of the big things that I missed from Nikon.

(7) The ability to "calibrate" AF to specific lenses. Wow!

To summarize, Canon have introduced one heck of a camera. Nikon needs to respond, and respond with something that at least matches it's performance. If they don't . . . well, more and more people will switch. Nikon may end up owning the consumer-camera market, but they will have foregone the Pro market for the foreseeable future.

Derrel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Derrel said...

Thanks you very much for your experience report,personal observations and judgements,and your analysis-your contribution was very welcomed and appreciated by me. As I write this thank-you to you Karch it is August 22,2007,and Nikon is soon expected to announce the D3h body. Let's see how close my ideal camera was to the D3h design Nikon sees fit to offer the marketplace.