Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Long Awaited and Overpriced Nikon D3x

What The Heck Is Nikon Thinking? Indeed, what _are_ they trying to do at Nikon Japan? Alienate their core user base? Attract the last handful of medium format film camera holdouts to an overpriced d-slr? Prove that their flagship high-resolution camera can carry the same price-at-introduction as a Canon 1Ds series body? Achieve marketing and production goals that were set two years ago? Mess up their entire product matrix? Piss off thousands and thousands of highly-opinionated,web-connected,vocal users on the web's most important photography community sites? I dunno, but maybe all of those things are what Nikon was trying to do by designing and pricing their D3x d-slr body at $8,000 US dollars. Because they achieved all of those "goals".

Nikon has made a huge marketing blunder with their D3x. Not long ago, Nikon USA's web site had a cryptic,dark picture of a D3-series body with the word "BIG" in the headline, as if they had something "big" they were going to bring to the table. Nikon's failed attempt to build suspense in the weeks prior to the formal announcement of the D3x was a sad,sad commentary. There were rumors Nikon would introduce an MX sized sensor, ostensibly a medium format camera with a higher-resolution sensor than their FX format D3 and D700, which are both 12 megapixel cameras. And now that the world has been informed of Nikon's intention to price their new flagship at a "Big" price of $8,000,there has been a very vocal and disappointed outpouring of complaints all over the world wide web.

A rather funny parody using footage from a movie has come to my attention, The clip is called "Hitler rants about the D3x". It's here on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnwf2RShNV0

Thom Hogan lambasted Nikon's product launch problems and the lack of focus surrounding the marketing for the D3x. Hogan's article about the D3x is well worth reading,in a sad sort of way,but not if if you are a Nikon fanboy or apologist,as many are. http://www.bythom.com/nikond3xcomments.htm

Michael Reichmann, head honcho of The Luminous Landscape announced that he thought about the price on Sunday morning and then called his photo supplier and cancelled his longstanding D3x pre-order because he did not perceive the value of an eight thousand dollar d-slr. He already owns a Nikon D3 12 MP full-frame camera and a Sony Alpha A900,which is also a 24.5 MP d-slr,just like the D3x. Uh-oh...Luminous Landscape gets over a million web hits per month. Bad press there is really BAD.

As Reichmann said of the Nikon D3x on Dec. 2,2008
"Yes, I can afford it, but I simply find it not to represent good value. After testing the 24MP Sony A900 (which I purchased for less than the equivalent of US $2,500 here in Toronto last month) the thought of paying US $8,000 for a camera that that has the same resolution, the same frame rates, a similar large and bright viewfinder, etc, just seemed to me to be a bad value proposition. The Canon 5DII at well under $3,000 is another current alternative in a full-frame 20+ MP camera.

With the value represented by the Nikon D700 as compared to the D3, and the Canon 5DII as compared to the 1Ds MKIII, I feel that the days of the mega-pro DSLR are numbered for many photographers. Yes, of course they offer superior AF, weather sealing and maybe a slight edge in image quality, but the price differential is enormous, especially now as the world enters a serious recession, if not worse." end quoted passage from Michael Reichman.

Ouch. That's gotta's sting...one of the web's most influential landscape photography website owners, the guy who said "Nikon's back in the game" just a few months ago when the D3 was hot stuff, is now telling his million monthly readers and 30,000 forum members that the $8,000 D3x is not a good value,and is saying that the uber-cams offer, "maybe a slight advantage"over lower-priced cameras like the EOS 5D Mark II and Sonly Alpha A900. Key daggers are 'maybe' and 'slight'.

So,tonight I went looking for examples of photo output from a $2,500 5D Mark II,which I found compared against an uber-Canon 1Ds Mark III 21-megapixel camera and a very costly Hasselblad body,Hassy 150mm CFi lens,and PhaseOne digital medium format back with 16-bit capture. Here's a post I made on the Nikongear.com forum,of which I am a member.

"Informative comparison photos between two 20+ MP d-slr's and a 25 MP Phase one back can be found here.

See photos from a Hasselblad 555 ELD body fitted with a Phase One P25 digital back and 150mm CFi lens and shot at ISO 50 (native ISO) compared with the EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 1Ds Mark III,each with the Canon 90mm Tilt/Shift lens,both Canons shot at their native ISO of 100. The results might surprise you. Studio flash, three heads. At the bottom of the thread,see the 5D Mark II compared with the 1DS Mark III,both cameras using the Canon 135mm f/2 L lens at f/11 under studio flash.
Bottom line: a $2,500 Canon 21 MP body produces studio flash illuminated images that are very,very,very close to those from a 25 MP Phase One back on Hassy optics,and very,very close to EOS 1DS Mark III photos,with both Canons using the same lenses. Canon cannot maintain the 1Ds III's retail price,which has fallen to $6750,or almost to dealer cost. Nikon's $8k price has infuriated _most_ of the people who bought D1-D2-D3 bodies. Nikon alienating their core customer base to chase after phantom "medium format" customers is foolish,and will backfire.

Canon cameras can use Nikkor lenses--even the G-series lenses. Landscape shooters are having a field day using F-mount lenses on EOS bodies. Nikon has already missed the studio medium format wannabe's,who almost all went to the 1Ds bodies four,three,two,or one year ago. Nikon has ticked off a huge percentage of users like me who have shelled out for D1,D1h,and D2x bodies and who have 20 to 30 Nikon F mount lenses. I got burned on the D2x at $5k...my 5D did/still does better in several ways, for less,using both Canon and Nikkor lenses. I doubt that the D3x will yield much better IQ than the two Canon FF bodies OR the A900. For many uses, yes, the D3x is very costly. Nikon's "BIG" campaign has missed the mark among Nikon shooters in the USA,Canada,UK,and Europe. Oh,and Asia and South America. I'm sure the D3x will be a good camera with the best Nikkor lenses. Thank goodness Nikkors also work on Canon bodies. Here's some 14mm-24mm AF-S Nikkor lens shots done on Canon EOS bodies,using the new G-series to EF Body lens adapter that costs about $179 US. http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/topic/660637 ---end of my quoted post on Nikongear.com

It remains to be seen if the Nikon D3x can beat the EOS 5D Mark II's image quality by much,or at all. The D3x is reportedly using the same sensel (the light-sensitive area of the sensor) used in the Sony Alpha A900. Both the D3x and A900 have 24.5 megapixel sensors, with the Nikon camera reportedly having a special optical low pass filter designed by Nikon. Nikon talks up its $8k wunderkamera in its 28-page brochure available here http://chsvimg.nikon.com/products/imaging/lineup/digitalcamera/slr/d3x/pdf/d3x_28p.pdf.

A trip to dPreview's Nikon D3-D1/D700 forum shows a LOT of disgruntled Nikon users. So what, some might say. Well, here's an article that notes that user reviews,found on the internet,are very,very influential in buying decisions. Among the article's points are that around 8 percent of users on web forum communities create about 80 percent of the content,and that the majority of readers in web communities are very,very much persuaded by the user reviews they read. On-line user reviews are second only to word of mouth recommendations in influencing product buying decisions.
http://www.marketingvox.com/online-reviews-second-only-to-wom-in-purchase-influence-042186/ Oh crap, Nikon had better pay somebody other than Moose Peterson to talk up the D3x's image making potential. Because Michael Reichman and Thom Hogan have given two very strong negative messages about this uber-camera to the serious shooters of the web community. People talk,Nikon,and you've just pissed off the majority of the people who bought D1-D2-D3 bodies. Bad move.

The D3x is scheduled to be available next month,wherever ultra-costly Nikon cameras are sold. But before you buy, consider that a Sony A900 body and three absolutely top of the line Zeiss lenses will set you back about $7,300. Zeiss 16-35,24-70,and 70-200,all f/2.8,all new,and all capable of using the built-in body stabilizing system of the A900. And also consider the Canon 5D Mark II and some nice L-glass lenses, like four of them,could be yours for the price of one D3x body. And do not worry--the D3x's introductory price is not actually $8,000,but it is $7999.95,so Nikon will give you a five cent discount,just to keep your wife or bank manager from crapping her/his pants upon hearing how much you wanna' spend on a new camera body. Unless you live in Canada,Norway,or Australia,where the camera set you back the equivalent of $10,000 US dollars. Such a deal! But do not fret-the D3x cannot maintain its introductory price. The 1Ds Mark II has fallen to $6,750 from $7999,and the D3x will also follow the same pattern of price erosion as the D3 and 1Ds Mark III. It's inevitable.

Friday, November 07, 2008

I Ordered a Fuji S5 Pro-From Scotland!

Nov. 7,2008-Yes,boys and girls, Derrel is coming home, to Fuji-land. I ordered a Fuii S5 Pro from Ffordes,which is located in Scotland. Price? Including shipping via Royal Mail,I payed $602.26,which is about three hundred fewer dollars than S5's are going for now that B&H Photo and a few other USA dealers have dropped their MAP price from $1599 down to $899. For the lowest price I've yet seen, please hit the web and go to https://secure.ffordes.com/index.htm now through November 9,2008 for a very,very low price. Be aware that for US customers there is NO VAT,and the price is lower than the 449 Pounds quoted.

Last night I perused dozens of S5 Pro sample images on the web at http://www.pixel-peeper.com/ and although I was unimpressed by the softness and jaggies found on the 12 MP S5 Pro 4256x JPEG images,I have heard from many S5 Pro shooters that the smaller, 6MP in-camera JPEG images look much better than the larger "12 MP" images the camera outputs. And,after looking through dozens of S5 Pro images on pixel-peeper.com, I came away with a very good sense of just how capable the S5 Pro is on scenes with high dynamic range.

Although the large, 12 MP JPEG images had a number of image artifacts,the overall "look" the camera produced was quite pleasant for a d-slr,especially on people pictures,which is what I am buying the S5 Pro for. The manager at Ffordes told me I ought to receive the camera in seven to ten days.

Here is a link that has multiple reviews of the S5 Pro http://www.reviewed.com/product/Fuji/FinePix-S5-Pro/external.htm

The thing I wonder is if I'm misdirecting $602 that could have gone toward the purchase of a $999 Nikon D90? Still, the thing I am anxious to see for myself is how well the S5 Pro can shoot in-camera JPEG files,and how well it can handle scenes with extreme dynamic range. Considering that the S5 Pro was introduced to the market at roughly $1900, the idea of buying a brand new one at $602 shipped was just too good for me to pass up, especially since the MAP was almost $1600 two weeks ago, and it appears as if the B&H Photo blowout prices of $899 last week and then $879 this week are about as low as the price will go before stocks of the S5 Pro are finally totally sold-out in the USA.

The Nikon D40 showed me what superb 6MP captures can look like. I'm anxious to get the S5 Pro and put it through its paces.Based on what I have read and my correspondence with S5 owners, I think the S5's AF system will actually perform _better_ than that of the EOS 5D,especially with off-center AF points. And I have also heard some good things about the seven point wide-area AF mode the S5 Pro offers. Looking at the diagrams of the AF points and how they are spread across the image area, it appears to me that the S5 covers the field more widely than the EOS 5D does,and honestly, I'm looking forward to having the AF mode selection control lever right on the back of the body,where my thumb can control the AF mode. No more goofy Canon UI problems. Speaking of which...on Halloween night I shot my EOS 20D in the dark...it really drove home the superiority of the Nikon body control ethos,where the FRONT control wheel ALWAYS controls the f/stop, and the THUMB wheel ALWAYS controls the shutter speed. While shooting in the dark, the EOS 20D was a royal pain in the butt. There were several instances where I struggled with which control would control which exposure parameter,as is the problem with Canon cameras.

Canon 20D-30D-40D-50D-5D models use a four-button control system with each button having more than one functional role,so I am not always _CERTAIN_ which button will perform _EXACTLY_ which function. My analogy-Canon uses a system where the brake,the gas,and the clutch pedals all swap function, depending on what gear you are in. Will the front control wheel change the f/stop,or will it change the shutter speed? That depends on if the camera is in Aperture Value mode or Time Value mode. The controls perform DIFFERENT functions,depending upon the Exposure mode the Canon is set to! Christ on a Cracker,what a lame idea. With Nikon, the front wheel ALWAYS controls the f/stop,and the thumb wheel ALWAYS moves the shutter speed. No guessing. It's a big,big difference from the way Canon does it. Nikon uses dedicated,single-purpose buttons,where Canon uses four buttons on the top deck, each of which has TWO function settings...not so good an idea.

I'm really looking forward to having a camera that can handle wide DR scenes with just ONE shot,and without the need for application of corrective exposures in the field,and then the application of corrective curves adjustment in Adobe Camera Raw at the computer, just to handle bright highlights and moderate low tones in my scenes. I've read all the reviews,again, and the one thing I'm enthused about is the S5 Pro's ability to handle deliberate overexposure,and then to allow me to pull back the highlights when shooting in RAW mode-- I'm pretty pumped about that. I am also really looking forward to shooting some of my better lenses on the S5 Pro,like the 200mm f/2 VR Nikkor and the 105 f/2 Defocus Control and the 300mm 2.8 AFS-II magnesium barrel model that came out right before the 300 VR was introduced. I'm also kind of enthused about shooting the Asahai Optical 135mm f/3.5 Super-Takumar on the S5 Pro,as well as the 70-200 VR Nikkor which I got back when the S2 Pro was king of the hill.

While an S5 Pro at a discount of anywhere from almost a thousand dollars to about three hundred dollars over the most recent retail prices was a BIG inducement in my purchasing decision, what really got me off the dime was a review of thousands of my own images,comparing the color and tonality of the various d-slr's I have owned. In that review of my digital image archives, I examined the bokeh of Canon and Nikkor lenses, AND the overall,total imaging characteristics of the S1 Pro, Nikon D1, Nikon D1h,Fuji S2 Pro, EOS 20D, EOS 5D, and Nikon D70 and D2x. Whew...throw in a thousand or so D40 images I shot and that makes NINE d-slr cameras that I have shot with,eight of them extensively. A couple of those cameras were kind of disappointing on several fronts. A couple were pretty good. A couple were excellent,with some reservations or limitations. But in terms of pleasing color, the S2 Pro delivered really beautiful color. The pictures the S2 Pro made had probably my favorite color. The D2x always delivered the best AF and the fastest response,but had serious,very serious ISO limitations. The EOS 5D delivered the highest resolution,but failed to focus so many times in low-contrast or indoor social situations that it was a drag and I missed a lot of shots with the 5D indoors. The D1h delivered punchy color,good AF with its 11-area AF system and powerful focusing motor,and I shot a good number of newspaper sports assignments with the D1h and had great results as long as there wasn't much need to crop,but the camera shorted out in a six hour rain/drizzle situation,and it became unreliable so I sold it off.

I'm not going to go through each camera I've used,except to say that of all nine d-slr's I've used,the S2 Pro and EOS 5D have been the best color-wise,and while I like the 5D's file quality, I do NOT like much else about it except for its ability to use Nikkor and Pentax lenses via adapter. I vastly prefer the control ethos that Nikon bodies use,with two wheels, each of which ALWAYS control the SAME function--one for aperture,one for shutter speed, and NEVER do those controls switch function depending on the exposure mode,like they do on Canon bodies. I think Canon's body controls for most camera functions are sub-par compared with the way Nikon bodies control things like AF mode,AF points,exposure mode, f/stop,shutter speed, ISO,and basically everything else. Canon's system of controls is poorly thought out and is simply not as good as Nikon's control ideas,systems,and single-purpose buttons and switches. Canon is too menu-driven,and operation in the field suffers. It's as simple as that. With the S5 Pro I KNOW I will get a better control system over AF mode and area, exposure modes,and exposure controls. I'm hoping for better color than Nikon, and better camera control ergonomics than Canon,and I'm looking for a camera that has better highlight rendition that what I am used to,and apparently the S5 Pro has the best highlight rendition and the widest dynamic range of any d-slr ever made. So, I hope to be happy with my $602 S5 Pro.

UPDATE, 19 November,2008: The S5 Pro arrived from Scotland,in undented packaging,and inside the FujiFilm box was a new S5 Pro in a sealed plastic bag with a tamper-proof FujiFilm sealing sticker. The battery charger needed a US-style power cord, which I had on hand from an old,discarded H-P printer. The camera was _immaculate_ and had version 1.09 firmware,which I updated to 1.1 firmware. I am impressed with the solid feel and the "grippy" rubber used for the body covering.

Friday, September 12, 2008

D-SLR Weaknesses By Brand

Well, here we are,all waiting for the other shoe to drop. Everybody's waiting on Canon's EOS 5D replacement or follow-up or iteration,as the case may be. Some people are wondering if Canon has a really GOOD ANSWER to the Nikon D300/D700/D3 triumvirate. The recent Beijing Olympics showed the world that Canon's former 95% "white-lens dominance" has been lost,and many,many pro sports photographers the world over have shifted to the Nikon camp. I think I saw one web post that said 38 Nikons,53 Canons in one wide-angle shot of the photo pits at one of the indoor venues. The Nikon D3 has that High-ISO thing down,and Nikon makes a sweet 200mm f/2 VR and 300 2.8 VR and has indeed now brought VR to its 60mm macro, 105mm macro, the aforementioned 200mm and 300mm lenses, as well as its 400/2.8, 500/4, and 600/4, and also the 200mm-400mm f/4 VR zoom lens. Combined with world-class lenses and three strong bodies in the D300,D3,and now the D700,Nikon has made major inroads back into sports photography (and other fields too!). Nikon's 14-24mm is a superlative wide zoom,better than almost ALL primes in its focal length range at comparable apertures. The good folks here (http://www.16-9.net/lens_tests/canon14l2_nikon1424/nikon1424_canon14l2_a.html) call the 14-24mm "Nikon's reference-grade zoom lens. Nikon's 24-70 f/2.8 AF-S is also a world-class lens that is newer and optically better than Canon's comparably-spec'd lens.

What's wrong with the competition these days? Let's go down the list.

Nikon has some great new bodies, but has a lot of prime lenses which have clunky mechanical A/M switches on the lenses,and these lenses use in-body or "screwdriver" autofocus. Some of them focus with a lot a noise. Most focus best on a "professional Nikon" body, and focus less adroitly whenever used on "lesser" Nikon bodies. Focus speed is actually quite good, but the thing is--there are a number of excellent Nikon prime lenses which must be used as AF ONLY or MF ONLY when under extreme pressure; with the 85,105,135,and 180, if you need to override the AF system, YOU the photographer, must pop the clutch and flip the A/M switch to Manual-only mode. Now, this quirky system would be fine if Nikon bodies used the thumb-actuated AF/MF switch that Minolta invented and which Sony has kept on the bodies of their new line of Alpha d-slrs. Nikon's got GREAT bodies, and a lot of absolutely great , very expensive f/2.8 zoom lenses, and some very extraordinary exotic telephoto lenses, but the short primes 20-24-28-35-50-85-105-135-180 have been left un-updated mechanically,for many years. Make no mistake-the optical quality of in particular the 85-105-135 are very high,but these lenses could definitely benefit from a mechanical re-work to allow 1) AF-S focusing speed and silence and 2) full-time manual focus override 3) removal of the A/M mechanical linkage 4) a corporate re-think on the ill-advised Nikon corporate design trend toward castrated G-series lenses,especially in the medium tele range of 85-105-135-180. Nikon lenses work great on Canon bodies,and mechanical aperture rings on portrait/landscape lenses make them more worthwhile for long-term use.

Sony's Alpha 900 has been in front of the early testers for a month now,and they have found MUCH to like about the big 24.6 Megapixel monster from Sony. My chief gripe about the A900 is the ISO scheme--100,200,400,800,1600,and even higher--Uh,Sony,what the hell happened to ISO 125, ISO 160, ISO 250, ISO 320, ISO 500, ISO 640? Oh,my goodness, I would really,really,really like to have incremental ISO settings between 100 and 320 for studio work. And for indoor bounce-flash work or extended flash, ISO 500 and ISO 640 have been very useful for me with the EOS 5D. I loathe full-stop ISO shifts in a d-slr,and think this is a serious miscalculation in engineering that Sony made. Fine-tuning exposure by adjusting the ISO in relation to electronic flash exposure, or manual exposure speeds, is one of my most commonly relied upon exposure control methods. Whole-stop ISO shifting on a high-end camera like the Alpha 900 makes very bad sense to me. Sony has no exotic lenses except a 300/2.8,but they do have a sleek,new 24-70 f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8 both with ultrasonic focusing and excellent performance,and a few nifty new Zeiss lenses,like a 135mm f/1.8 that's supposed to be the cat's pajamas,and a loud,slow-focusing 85mm 1.4 (hey,NIKON has one of those too!). Minolta's lens lineup and the new Sony lineup lacks tilt/shift optics,has a proprietary flash foot (so your Pocket Wizards need to be hooked up to the PC outlet and thus mounted on an accessory foot or bracket, OR you need a Sony flash foot to ISO flash foot adapter,plus your Pocket Wizard).

Canon's problem is perceptual I think. That is, they formerly were the PREMIER sports marque, the absolute numero uno at world-level sporting events. Every credentialed sports photographer at many events held in 2007 had a CANON camera and lens on his monopod. Nikon has re-captured a significant share of the low-light,action arena with the D3 because for press photography, a 12 MP sensor that offers NO CROPPING OFF OF YOUR LENS'S IMAGE CIRCLE means that indoors, the 135,200,300,and 400mm focal lengths all are more versatile than before. I spent about two years recently shooting prep sports basketball and track about equally much, then baseball, then soccer,some North American football,and for on-field shooting where you have real access, the crop-frame of a 1.5x Nikon was almost always more of a hassle than a plus. The 300/2.8 is a great lens for sports, but in many cases, it is too cropped-off for sports images where some context needs to be shown. It's FAR BETTER to have a full-field image captured from that same 300 mm lens by using a camera that has a bigger sensor than 1.3 or 1.6x or 1.5x. Canon's 18 month saga of serious autofocus problems with the $4.500 1D Mark III 1.3x sports/action/generalist d-slr have hurt Canon. And what has also hurt Canon is Nikon's upping the ante on semi-pro bodies, first with the D200, then the D300,with Nikon effectively introducing real,true "Semi-professional" bodies that had loads of features originally found only in Nikon's better,more costlier cameras. Nikon engineering the D200 to meter with Ai-AiS lenses was a development that I predicted,and which came true. With the D300, Nikon went one better,and gave the D300 nearly the same AF capabilities as the flagship model. In a nutshell, Canon has not done a lot of innovation with the D30,D60,10D,20D,30D,40D,50D family of semi-pro bodies,and there's a perception that Canon has failed to innovate at the semi-pro body level, and the company's "sports camera" with its chronic autofocus problems gave Canon a real black eye.

The last time Canon's semi-pro body was better than Nikon's semi-pro camera was at the 20D stage. Since that time, Nikon has been beefing up the feature set of its cameras, very,very greatly,while Canon has kept feature sets similar and just refined things a little bit with each successive iteration of its semi-pro placeholder body. In the entry-level body category, Canon has deliberately dumbed-down many entry-level cameras,and that decision has hurt them. The 1D Mark III AF problems were unfortunate for a sports camera,and it's been like 18 months of he-said-she-said with the 1D Trey's AF issues. The perception is that Nikon has made some really GREAT new cameras at several price ranges,and Canon has been caught not innovating. When Michael Reichmann of The Luminous Landscape said Canon was failing to innovate, about a zillion serious amateurs nodded in agreement. Reichmann,long a Canon fan, has recently begun to review and to BUY and SHOOT Nikon cameras simply because as he put it, Nikon is back in the game. The "game" that Canon once held a lock on...

Pentax is the roadmap to lenses company. Over the past 18 months Pentax has clearly posted,on their website, their lens roadmap,and it's been interesting to watch how Pentax has worked on its lens lineup,with its very appealing pancake primes,and its range of very carefully-considered DA* (DA Star) lenses. Pentax has a certain,devoted following,and they do have some nifty boutique items, but they are scarce on exotics,and have no tilt-shift lenses, but I think they will continue to fill out their lens lineup as it becomes feasible to do. So far, Pentax seems to be a 1.5x only company,body wise,and their new zoom lenses are mostly crop-sensor coverage models if I am not mistaken. The disappointing out of camera JPEG engines Pentax keeps putting in its d-slrs is a disturbing trend and a mistake I cannot understand being made over and over and over.

Olympus and its E3 have claimed the color accuracy crown over ALL other d-slr's Pop Photo has tested (which is most of the d-slrs,actually), but Oly's not doing so great with the 4/3 thing and its line of cameras for every budget. The PICTURES Olympus yields,especially when shooting in-camera JPEG mode,are very good,with a lot of life,vibrancy,and a fair amount of in-camera processing. Since so much of d-slr sales involves 35mm legacy users, Oly is bound to suffer,since it had a fairly small base of 35mm Oly SLR users after they abandoned the OM 1, OM-2, OM-4 line and went AF back in the mid to late 1980's. Oly's lack of support for its existing user base back in the day brought bad blood,and although Oly had one of the first "successful" digital cameras back in the D1 days, Oly has since that time developed its offerings far too slowly to keep up with the other camera companies,and has been focusing on the 4/3 mount,which has some very good, but very expensive lenses available. To me the smaller-than-APS-C format of 4/3 is not that appealing--except for its aspect ratio, which looks VERY easy to frame with. The 4/3 format uses a 2.0x FOV crop. Oly has fewer lenses than many makers, but most are of very high optical quality and ALL of their lenses are digitally optimized, which is something other makers cannot claim.

FujiFilm has,or has not,entirely abandoned the d-slr market,depending on which fortuneteller's crystal ball you've had read for you. Fuji,using the F-mount,has been an alternative camera choice for Nikon shooters in need of a d-slr dating back to 2000,and with the S1-S2-S3-S5 line, Fuji d-slrs have been very nifty cameras for portraits and weddings and for general hobbyist uses. Fuji has made some great dslrs in the past,but alas, it's hard to see Fuji continuing in the d-slr biz past the S5 Pro. The SuperCCD layout has a big file storage penalty (double the size needed per MegaPixel,compared with normally-arrayed Bayer sensors) in JPEG mode, and in RAW mode, the 6 Megapixel S5 Pro raw .RAF files are an absurd 25 megabytes each! Fuji's SuperCCD system,especially in the later two models S3 and S5 had two sets of pixels, those for highlight recording only,and all the other pixels,which allowed for a lot of leeway in overexposure error,strong daylight lighting with shaded areas,and other high-ratio lighting scenarios,etc. Sadly it appears,due to lack of product announcement that the Fuji d-slr line is coming to an end. I think it will be sad if Fuji pulls the plug now, now that Nikon has the absolutely killer D300 and D700 bodies on which FujiFilm _could_ build an S5 followup upon. Needless to say the D300 and D700 bodies would be spectacularly better than the donor N60 and N80 and D200 bodies which Fuji used in the S1-S2-S3 and S5 models.

In closing "waiting for the other shoe to drop", I think we need to be mindful that 2008 is a great year in which to be involved with photography,and we need to stop,and carefully count our blessings. Six and 10.2 MP entry level cameras are available everywhere,discounted or discontinued. Used Canon 30D and soon 40D bodies will be available shortly. The new standard in the semi-pro/enthusiast market segment is 12.3 to 15.1 high-quality megapixels. Nikon's D80 is being updated,but apparently not actually replaced,so D80 prices ought to drop lower once the D90 gets itself established. And WOW! but the D90 looks fantastic at higher ISO settings,like 3200, especially compared with the D2x.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Nikon D90: The World's First D-SLR With Video

Pre-Photokina, September 3,2008 A day after Canon announced the 50D, Nikon announced the D90,which features what Nikon officially calls the D-Movie Mode,which allows the D90 to capture beautiful 24 fame per second video at 1280x720 pixels, or 720p. Stop by Nikon's official D-Movie demonstration web page at http://imaging.nikon.com/products/imaging/lineup/d90/en/d-movie/

A few Nikon-provided specifications are as follows:12.3-megapixel DX-format CMOS imaging sensor: Nikon's EXPEED image processing technologies, breathtaking image fidelity is assured.
Continuous shooting as fast as 4.5 frames-per-second: Fast 0.15ms power-up and split-second 65ms shooting lag
D-Movie Mode—Cinematic 24fps HD with sound: Record cinematic-quality movie clips at up to 720p HD (1280 x 720 pixels) in Motion JPEG format, enhanced by NIKKOR interchangeable lens quality and versatility.
Low noise ISO sensitivity from 200 to 3200: High signal-to-noise components and design deliver exceptional performance, even at high ISO setting.
3-inch super-density 920,000-dot color LCD monitor: High resolution, 170-degree wide-angle viewing guarantees confident image review and movie playback.

Suffice it to say, the D90 is the first d-slr to offer a video capture mode,and at an estimated street price of $999 US dollars, I think the D90 will sell very,very well in the niche formerly occupied by the now two year-old Nikon D80. The D90 is said to offer D300-like image quality,even at elevated ISO settings, and has a 12.3 MP effective capture size on a DX-sized or 1.5x sensor. The D90 is said to use the same easy to understand UI as the D40/D60 Nikons, and to offer similar in-camera retouching and image editing capabilities. "I want one!"

Canon's 50D is a 15.1 MP model,and a continuation of the 20D-30D-40D line of bodies from Canon. The 50D is slated to sell for $1299,and frankly, I think the D90 will knock the socks off of the 50D in this class/price range,with the Nikon slated for fall 2008 availability at $999. The Nikon will cost less, be 12.3 MP, offer great High-ISO performance,and will shoot 720P video at 24 fps. The video shot by the Nikon D90 looks GOOD! Google the web for samples.

The 50D's claim to fame is a 15.1 MP sensor and finally, a first-class LCD screen on the back, one that's finally comparable with those on the Sony's and Nikon's of this time frame. The 50D however, appears to me to have a strong family resemblance to the 40D,with a few improvements. It's lost .2 fps off the top firing rate of the 40D which was 6.5 fps,and this camera is at 6.3 fps, which is basically still in the same league. My question however is whether the 50D's AF system is as versatile as that found in the Nikon's D200, D300,D700,and D3; from what I've read between the lines in the Pop Photo coverage of all these cameras, the 50D's still just a little bit behind the Nikon camera in terms of overall focus system capability,configurability,and control (input control advantage going to Nikon and its larger multi-controller system).

I honestly have to agree with the Popular Photography testers who,despite admittedly being Canon shooters themselves, find the clear,single-purpose controls of Nikon's User Interface a bit better than Canon's multi-function system which uses four buttons,each of which has more than one functional role. My personal gripe is shared by the magazine's editors: a four-button control system with each button having more than one functional role means that one is not always _CERTAIN_ which button will perform _EXACTLY_ which function. My analogy-Canon uses a system where the brake,the gas,and the clutch pedals all swap function, depending on how you access those controls. Will the front control wheel change the f/stop,or will it change the shutter speed? That depends on if the camera is in Aperture Value mode or Time Value mode. The controls perform DIFFERENT functions,depending upon the Exposure mode the Canon is set to. With Nikon, the front wheel always moves the f/stop,and the back dial always moves the shutter speed. No guessing. It's a big,big difference.

Pre-Photokina, September 9,2008 The official press embargo on the Sony Alpha A900 full-frame 24.6 MP d-slr was lifted,and today Luminous Landscape and dPreview both have write-ups on the new big kid on the block. I've read both field test reports,and both reviews have high,high priase for the new Sony's operation and control system,as well as its build quality and its engineering,design and execution as a CAMERA that works well in the hands. Very well. Great viewfinder. A nice,well-sorted camera to use a bit of Brit-speak. A photographer's camera. A great-handling camera with very,very good resolution and a super-duper new flash unit. And maybe the best viewfinder image on the market,bar none. And the price of this five frame per second wonder? Announced at $3,000. Just like the Nikon D700. Three grand. Note, 24.6 MP is higher than the megapixel count of the former MP champ, the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III which has 22.7 MP. I've seen one side-by-side comparison of the new FF Sony and the FF 1Ds Mark III on one of the reviews,and using first-generation RAW conversion software for the Sony A900, it appeared to me to resolve roughly the same as the big Canon. The Canon is currently priced at $7895,while the Sony is priced at $4,889 less,at only $3,000. The Sony with grip added gets high praise from the two reviewers, and another hands-on professional photographer who attended a debut event featuring several A900's and a live model reported that he found himself ga-ga over the Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 prime telephoto.

As of Sept 9,2008, Canon has not revealed the 5D's successor camera, but Canon HAS had a teaser image of a Canon body, 99 percent obscured in shadow, with the taunting words "Destined Evolution" up on its USA website since September 5. What exactly "Destined Evolution" means will be revealed very soon I would imagine. More then.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Powering Studio Flash On Location:Tronix Explorer 1200 Ws

I recently received my Tronix Explorer 1200 Ws,which is the name of a fairly lightweight,portable pure sine wave inverter, or in plain English, a portable power supply for studio electronic flash units. The price? An amazingly reasonable $279,with a shipping charge of $45. Last week,I ordered one,and got it within four business days via UPS. It was shipped in a clearly labelled outer cardboard box,with my name and address on BOTH sides of the carton,and inside the power supply was enclosed in a second cardboard box,which was protected exceptionally well by an all-encompassing coating of one inch thick,dense closed cell foam sections,some glued together to form corner brackets. Packed like it was a national treasure,this double-cardboard packaging was the most secure I have ever seen. Again, the Explorer was packaged and padded beyond belief with a well-engineered packaging SYSTEM that was better executed than any I've ever seen.

Here it is during some of its earliest functionality tests. Just a few snapshots http://www.pbase.com/derrel/tronix_explorer_battery

Made in the Phillipines by a company called Innovatronix, the Explorer 1200 is the lighter,lower-powered,lower-cost model the company's website tries to gloss over. Innovatronix also manufactures a dual-battery model that costs more, about $349,not $279, but which has doubled batteries. And doubled weight. And faster recycle times. And which can have a battery added to a piggyback outlet,should one need additional power modules during a shoot. You get the idea. I went for the base model, the original, the one that started it all for Innovatronix. http://www.innovatronix.com/prodindex.asp?offset=15

The Tronix Explorer 1200 Ws gives me fast recycling with the Brown Line D402 power pack,and the unit offers TWO 115 volt outlets,so it can power two monolight strobes, or conceivably two power supplies. There's a slight,audible hum from the unit when it is working, but it's a lot quieter than a Speedotron 102 fan-cooled head is,so... At the lower power levels,like one light at half power in asymmetrical distribution mode with the D402 in the B channel (150 watt-seconds),recycle time is about one second. At full power,asymmetrical in channel 3 or 4, or 300 watt-seconds, it seems like recycle time is about 1.5 seconds, while on 110 volt AC, recycle time at FULL power of 400 watt-seconds is listed by Speedotron as being 1.7 seconds,while the Explorer recycles one head at 400 watt-seconds in about two seconds. My timings are rough,very non-scientific estimates.


Overall, the Tronix Explorer 1200 Ws battery provides a lightweight,portable power supply for the D402. Innovatronix notes that modeling lamps draw a TON of power,and must be kept off to maximize battery charge and to keep flash shot capability up. Somebody noted that four seconds of a 250 watt modeling lamp is the equivalent of one full-power pop of 1000 watt-seconds....so....one is supposed to shoot without modeling lights on.

Luckily, Speedotron's M90 flash heads use three fairly conventional bulbs; officially M90's use three 40-watt bulbs, but I've purchased a few Brown Line M90 heads which have three 25 watt Sylvania lamps,and they work quite well. The Tronix Explorer WILL RUN the modeling lamps,but at the expense of a lot of battery life,or so I am told. I'm kind of giddy at the prospect of being able to run a 400 or 800 watt-second power supply,or two monolights, while far from electric outlets. Sure, the thing weighs 15 pounds....but I've been used to 27 pound power supplies for years. To me, the EXplorer feels pretty light when carrying it from room to room. It's not "that" heavy,really. It's a pretty simple,straightforward product. If you Google it,you can find a review or two. Frankly,I am surprised at how little press this unit has received,given its price,and the cost of competing options from Profoto,Speedotron,and Paul C. Buff Enterprises and their Zeuss line,etc.

The idea of powering the versatile three-outlet Black Line 405 and the convection-cooled Black Line 103 head set I bought for $40 to $45 per head on eBay makes me feel pretty glad to be living in an era of such amazing consumer electronics. The Profoto 600B weighs less,and also has a two-outlet,600 w-s power supply for $2,475 for the 600B and then about $700 apiece for two heads. I'm thinking that the Brown Line D402 at $59-$109 used is a pretty good value. I got a Brown Line D604 four-outlet pack for about $100 recently. And M90 heads go for as little as $33 to as much as $55 each on eBay,so I think the Tronix Explorer 1200 and any one of the five current Speedotron power supplies between 400 and 800 watt seconds in either Brown Line or Black line would make a likely candidate for pairing with the Explorer for remote shooting with affordable studio lighting equipment. As far as a small and lightweight power supply, the Black Line 405 is very small and weighs only five pounds,and three fan-free Black Line 103 heads would make a lot of sense with a 405 pack. In Brown Line, the 402,604,and 802 packs all weigh between 10 and 11 pounds,with the 604 and 402 both being smallish. Head-wise, in Brown Line M90 heads make the most sense for lightweight heads with low-draw modeling lamps,but for mounting speedrings, an M11 head makes more sense. MW3U heads are very small,but use 150 watt quartz halogen lamps...but with the modeling lamps off, MW3U heads work great in umbrellas.

The manual for the Tronix Explore states that, "with the battery fully charged most flash units will have recycling times 50% faster than what is stated in this guide", and then goes on to provide what I would call worst-case scenario specifications, which are as follows: At 150 w-s 2,000 flashes at approximately 1-2 sec recycle time. For 300 w-s flash,performance is 1,000 flashes at apprx. 3-6 sec. recyle. With 600 w-s flash, it's 500 flashes with apprx. 8-15 second recycle time. Frankly, I think this battery can do better than 8 to 15 seconds with the Speedotron D604 power supply,even at full discharge of 600 watt-seconds. It powers the Black Line 405 with one 103 light head and 400 or 200 w-s very,very well,and it also powers the D402 power pack with M11,MW3U,or M90 heads with aplomb. I am very,very impressed with how the Tronix Explorer 1200 runs both the Brown Line D402 and M90 or M11 or MW3U light heads, and the Black Line 405 pack using model 103,fan-free heads.

The "1200" part of the name comes from the design parameter of being able to power most 1200 watt second and lower-powered flash units. It is NOT intended for "digital" flash units. And thankfully, most studio flash units are not digital,so many,but not all, ProFoto,Speedo,Comet,Novatron,Dyna-Lite,Elinchrom,Bowens,JTL,Photogenic,Alien Bees, White Lightnings are candidates for use with the Tronix Explorer 1200. Speedotron Force monolights are not compatible with this,since they are digital. The Innovatronix website has a compatibility chart covering dozens and dozens of monolight and box and cable flash units made over the last 20-25 years. What the battery can NOT power are a number of "digital" monolights and one series of DynaLite packs. See http://www.innovatronix.com/compatib.asp for the full list of compatible monolights and flash systems. According to the manual while the 1200 Ws is designed for most flashes up to and including 1200 watt-seconds, "You can still use it with a 2400 Ws flash unit although at much longer charging time, i.e. 20 seconds."

After having had the unit for about a month now, I can say that I am well-satisfied for the $279 + $45 shipping that this is a very,very good battery source for Speedotron Brown or Black Line 400 Watt Second 3- and 4-outlet power packs. It will run the modeling lamps and not break circuits using two 150-watt quart modeling lights,but I have not tested it with any more draw,like 3 x150 or 4x150 watt quartz modeling lamps, but the idea is to set the lights properly,and use the modeling lamps very sparingly,and shoot with them off most all of the time. Recycle times are quite fast over shoots of 45-50 frames,which is the longest duration I've used the battery at one session so far. As per the manufacturer's suggestions, I have left the unit plugged in to an AC outlet constantly when not in actual use in order to maintain absolute battery life and performance. In terms of bang-for-dollar, and in terms of its two-outlet 115 volt AC design, I think this is one of the niftiest,lightest power supplies one could hope for. And, the best part is it will easily turn "studio lights" into "location lights".

Paul C. Buff Enterprises makes its beautiful Zeuss line of portable powerpacks and flash units, and Speedotron makes the rugged Explorer 1500 watt-second unit ,and Profoto has the 600B, but it's $2,400 for a 2-outlet pack and $700 apiece for light units,making a $3,800 Profoto 2-light head portable flash source exceedingly costly for just two heads that might be modified by umbrellas or softboxes,or used to bring up ambient levels.

I hear that Profoto lighting equipment is very good,but I've seen too much spectacular PHOTOGRAPHY done with mundane flash units made by Norman,Lumedyne,Vivitar,Speedotron,and so on to think that one absolutely MUST have the Profoto brand to get professional quality lighting results. Stick a $700 Profoto light into a 36x48 Chimera softbox with a diffusion baffle in it,and how is the quality of the light emanating from that modifier going to vary from say a Norman or Speedotron light head with a "similar" reflector (or no refl.)? Assuming similar reflector or bare-bulb use inside a softbox, I think most good circular flashtubes will perform similarly,so for softbox use, I can't see spending $700 per light head as being a good value proposition,when a $300 to $150 Speedotron light unit will,I think, provide similar lightquality coming out of the softbox's front.

If the light unit's reflector can fill an umbrella's bowl,then the fit between reflector,light head,and brolly is a good one: I cannot imagine that with a grid and diffuser on any brand's 7 inch reflector that the light output is "that much" different,or that much "better" between any number of good top-level flash systems,and the three main portable powered flash systems (Profoto,Speedotron,and Zeuss from Paul C. Buff) all require owning a particular brand of flash units,and nothing in those three systems is cross-platform-compatible, shall we say. The ability of the Tronix Explorer 1200 Ws to power any of hundreds of different monolights or dozens of power pack and head systems makes it a very good equipment investment since it easily powers studio lights into action far,far from AC outlets. Without needing to buy into any of the several proprietary systems from Speedotron,Paul C. Buff,ProFoto,JTL,Lumedyne,or Quantum.

My feeling is that in terms of bang-for-buck, the Innovatronix Explorer 1200 Ws hits a very sweet spot,and is usable with almost ANY flash unit I've personally ever heard of. It converts the studio flash units I already HAVE into portable flash gear and is brand-agnostic,while allowing me to use much higher watt-second capable gear than even Q-Flash or Lumedyne portable flash units. So,if you want to get in on the newly popular trend of overpowering daylight with flash on-location, the Explorer battery system might just be worth looking into. No matter what brand of monolights or power packs you have, the Explorer batteries do what you want: they create POWER for whatever non-digital flash units you plug in to that squat little 15 pound box and its two AC outlets.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

My 101st Blog Post: Inexpensive Lighting gear

For my 101st blog post, I figured I'd make it a potpurri, from the French word. A mixed bag of things. First off, I've got to say,I've started looking into eBay as a way to find new,different products,at lowball prices. Oh,it takes a while--the good deals are not always easy things to get. And there are a lot of listings to wade through. I've purchased some stuff very affordably,and have to pass along some of these items to people who are looking for "value" items. Here are a few things I have purchased for use with my JTL 300 monolight. These items may or may not be adaptable to all flash heads or all monolights. However,many of the following types of light modifiers have a "universal mount" which is a generic way of saying a one-size-fits-all or generic type of mount that will allow you to mount various flash units to the rear,using either two adjustable bolts, or three bolts, or four adjustable bolts, or two "arms" forming a type of V,with two adjusting screws that tension the device on--you get the idea....a universal or generic adapting system that fits reflectors within a specific range of diameters, like 5 inch to 7 inch, or 6.5 to 7.5 inches.

Here are a few things I have purchased for use with my JTL 300 monolight. These items may adapt to other brands of monolights and flash heads with DIY modification,or by bolting two speed rings together,etc. Similar items are also available from other eBay stores besides the ones referred to here,so look around on EBay.


Softbox w Beehive Eggcrate 60cm 4 Studio Flash Soft Box from OEC Camera in League City, Texas. This item actually works pretty darned well,although its metal speed ring fits my already filed-out JTIL monolight a bit tightly,and I found initial assembly of this softbox difficult. Its speedring is beautifully made, but this box uses very short,stiff support rods,and I found the speedring with its pivoting support arm receptacles overly-engineered,and this unit's rotating,lockable speedring added a LOT of weight compared with the other softbox's similar but more traditional and more-simply engineered rotating speedring design. In terms of adding directionality to the light, the eggcrate works wonders,and also cuts the light's output down quite a bit, which is a welcome thing to me. For the amount of money spent, this is a very,very good deal for a 24 inch softbox with eggcrate. It has a highly silvered interior fabric,a removable internal diffusing baffle,a velcro-on recessed front,and a velcro-in eggcrate attachment.

The first thing I shot with this was a quickie demo of how a Nikon to Canon adapter works. The eggcrate takes off a LOT of the spread of the box,and makes the light lower in output by a significant amount. http://www.pbase.com/derrel/nikon_to_canon_lens_adapter_demo

$24.95 plus about ten bucks shipping. An incredibly worthwhile twenty five buck type of product. Just an incredibly nice little softbox with a difuser inside, a recessed face, AND a well-fitted eggcrate,this is simply a must-have accessory for the JTL 300 monolight user.

This $48.75 item is a 24 inch square softbox,paired with a universal 4-door all-metal barndoor that adapts to many different brands of lights with 6.5 to 7.5 inch reflectors,and which includes a roughly 20 degree honeycomb mounted on a square,and three colored filters which are also square metal mounted,plus a frosted diffuser in a metal frame. So you get a 4-door barndoor set, with a sturdy metal honeycomb grid, a diffuser,and a red-yellow-blue gel on metal square frames, PLUS a snoot with red,green,blue,and yellow small-diameter filters for the snoot, and a small diameter honeycomb grid that fits the small end of the snoot. Shipping was around $11.50,and it came with a metal speed ring that fit my JTL monolight PERFECTLY! I took a few shots of Spencer standing on the cedar chest and siting in the brown chair wearing a new pair of blue shorts,using the JTL monolight,and the lightweight, 24-inch square softbox worked well.

The 4-way barndoors attach using a wire and dual-bolt system that alloww different brands and sizes of reflectors to be fitted to the 4-door barndoor set. On the front of the bardoor frame is a set of three steel hooks or clasps,which secure the grid,or a filter holder,or the diffuser,or all three things on the front of the barndoor's frame. This inexpensive 4-way barndoor unit fits Speedotron 7 inch reflectors very,very well,and although the grid is a bit coarser than I would like for much use, it DOES function reasonably well as a background grid. The 4-way barndoor frame unit does NOT fit the 8.5 inch M90 unit's reflector,but could be gaffer taped into place to make an emergency barn door. The honeycomb in its metal mount frame could however,easily be taped over the 8.5 inch M90's reflector,and that would work okay. In terms of affordable,adaptable stuff to spiff up two or three monolights, this kit could hardly be better. A 24 inch square softbox with a metal speed ring, a snoot with filters and a grid, and then a 4-way barndoor set with a diffuser,a honeycomb grid,and three colored filters on metal frames,for under fifty bucks? A very good value,and priced very fairly.

Another item I bought was a 16 inch beauty dish for $31.95. The most annoying thing about this product was that it did NOT FIT and WOULD NOT MOUNT to my JTL Versalight 300. The dimensions on the three mounting lugs were simply not accurate enough for it to fit,so I removed the mounting faceplace from the light unit,and filed out all three lug receiving apertures, enough so that the beauty dish would fit on-and very tightly at that. The lugs appear to be folded sheet steel rectangles,and I fear that they are hollow inside,and even though they need to have some metal filed off of their tops to get into line with the Bowens 3-lug specification, I'm a bit worried to do that. As it stands, the reflector fits on VERY snugly,and it is difficult to remove. If I were going to use the JTL 300 on a daily basis and wished to interchange light modifiers with any type of regularity, I would not be satisfied with the fit,since as I said, this reflector's 3-lug pattern is simply NOT up to specification. However, once it is on,it stays on,and this beauty dish is a very nice light modifier that could easily be left on all the time. All other accessories I own in Bowens 3-lug fit okay to great, but on this reflector each of the lugs are too wide AND the total outside diameter of the lugs is too large by maybe .0125 inches.

Performance-wise, I liked what I saw from this all-metal beauty dish + white nylon diffuser sock when I shot it to make some informal portraits of my wife and son. Its light is soft,since it is diffused first by the baffle,and NO direct light hits the subject from the flashtube,and then that light is diffused by the white nylon fabric. This means that the light is doubly diffused. Since the JTL has a heavily-frosted flashtube shroud (unlike Speedo,which has clear Pyrex shrouds over its flashtubes) and a heavily frosted,large modeling lamp, all of the light leaving the JTL is diffused a 'bit' more than on Speedotron heads and this type of baffled reflector maximizes softening. I made all tests with the supplied nylon diffuser sock. This beauty dish + diffuser creates s nice,white,perfectly round catchlight in the eye. This reflector's output produces deeper,blacker shadows than an umbrella does,and has just a small bit of specularity on human skin. Overall, I think it's a very,very valuable reflector addition to a small monolight such as the like the JTL 300,and I found it easy to aim,easy to lock,and easy to balance on the 300,which allows the photographer to slide the main body of the flash unit forward or back on its dovetailed mounting rail,to balance particularly front-heavy reflectors/modifiers. As an inexpensive beauty dish, I thought this thing was well,well worth the $31.95 price. The fact that it required me to file out all 3 holes on my JTL 300's mounting ring was disappointing,and I just have to say it--the machinist who designed this was flat out OFF, flat out WRONG,on the exact dimensions of the 3-lug Bowens-style mounting ring that is integrated onto this reflector. When you need to take a mill bastard file to your light unit, you know the ACCESSORY'S dimensions are off. And even now,it fits on VERY tightly. I am strongly considering fitting the rear of this with a wooden block and a Speedotron Universal Mounting Plate to adapt it to 102 and M11 light heads.

Despite the poor fit the beauty dish displayed in the Bowens 3 and 7/8 inch 3-lug mount, the light output this thing gives with its supplied white nylon,elastic diffusion sock is pretty good,and I could see JTL 300's being used with this dish and diffuser combo for old-fashioned portrait lighting with good results. I have no problems with the quality of the light or the design or the price point--it's simply that the mounting lugs are too wide AND too large in diameter,compared with four other 3-lug products I own so. I do think this is a candidate for adapting to Speedotron 102 light heads, by way of a $14 Speedotron universal mounting collar simply being bolted onto the reverse of this reflector,and the flashtube of a Speedo unit doing the work instead of the diminutive little JTL's tube. For the money,this is a very,very good product in terms of light quality and construction, but the fit was UN-USABLE on JTL right out of the package,and required modification to my monolight itself. The modifications I made with the file however, did not make the monolight unusable with other 3-lug accessories,so that's a good thing.

For Alien Bee users, check out the 22-inch beauty dish and diffusion sock combo here http://www.alienbees.com/22r.html
This 43-inch white umbrella has a black back,and costs only $13.95. It is a pretty good reflecting umbrella,and the design and construction is worth the money. I would say buy a pair of these,and get combined shipping. This is the type of umbrella I prefer for use with a Speedotron head-an umbrella large enough to diffuse the light quite a bit,and one which helps to control spill. I have very,very little use for shoot-thru umbrellas anymore,and this reflecting umbrella is the type that I have come to prefer. Its relatively large diameter makes it softer than a smaller umbrella,but not so HUGE that it is impossible to work with in smaller rooms.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

My 100th Blog Post: Where To Go From Here: Ruminations and Musings

June 29,2008-One rumor has it that on July 1,2008 a new d-slr from Nikon will be announced. Purportedly to be named the D700, it will be an FX or Full Frame sensor camera,priced at $2,995 in the USA ,with a half-height body with an optional control/battery grip,and the usual Nikon niceties--like Nikon's CLS flash control system,Nikon's matrix metering,Nikon's legendary ergonomics,and so on.It all sounds wonderful to me,really. http://asia.cnet.com/2008/06/19/nikon-s-mid-range-full-frame-dslr/?scid=rss_c_crv

How one assigns value to a d-slr has changed over the years. When I payed $3,000 for my used D1 in early February of 2001, it was the first used D1 available in my area,and it was then "a good deal". I recall just a few months later when Canon's EOS D30 sold for $3,000; you might remember the 3 megapixel EOS D30 as the first successful,popular Canon d-slr,made before the short-lived Canon D60, which came right before the 10D,20D,30D,40D series. At one point, my Fuji S2 Pro's $2,495 initial price tag offered real value as a Nikon F system body,and was worth every penny of its initial cost at introduction. Such were the times back in 2001, 2002,and 2003. It is now mid-2008 and the d-slr landscape has changed,and cameras and their value propositions are in a state of flux in 2008. One article I read pointed out that now, consumers are MUCH more selective about their d-slr purchases than they used to be. It has become more difficult to "wow" or to impress customers. I think what 'selective' translates to is that customers who are already invested in a lens systems are LESS inclined than ever before to simply buy the latest body as an automatic no-brainer action. I think at this stage of d-slr development and pricing,skipping a generation or even two might make sense, whereas a scant few years back ago,one could hardly afford to sit still and not upgrade bodies as soon as a new model came out--and offered really significant improvements over the body that came before it. The year 2008 promises to be a big year for upgrading cameras.

Nikon's flagship models in the D2 and D3 series have been priced at $3499 to $4999 over the past few years. Canon's professional 1.3x camera of the day has been priced around the $4k mark for a few years now if I am not mistaken,while Canon's highest-MP count d-slr model has always carried an 's' in its name,and has been priced at $7,999 since 2002,when Canon established the first truly successful and 'popular' full frame d-slr mode, the 11 MP 1Ds. Gosh,it's getting to the point where high end consumer d-slr's from Pentax have a pixel count of 14.6 MP. Prices and what a camera is "worth" might rapidly change this year; Nikon,Canon,and Sony might have some real competition for one another during 2008.

According to the article above, Photokina 2008 could see the Nikon D700, the Sony Alpha 900,and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II models all vying for attention. The Sony Alpha 900 people are widely anticipating is expected to be a rugged,solid body with an excellent viewfinder, a 24.6 megapixel full-frame imager,capable of capturing images at 6.3 frames per second. Not too shabby,eh? B&H just dropped the 1Ds Mark III to $7,849 right now,having just come down from $7999. Canon's other FF camera ,the 5D, is now three years old and has dropped to roughly $2,000 or even under,retail,while Nikon is reportedly looking at a $2995 introductory price for its mid-level FF camera. Where,price-wise, will Sony try to slot into this marketplace for full-frame d-slr bodies? Just how professionally built might a Sony Alpha 900 FF d-slr be?

I fully expect that Nikon's D700,as seen in the brochure above, will be the next mid-range Nikon FX format d-slr. I'm disappointed at the price tag of $2,995 they put forth,and hope it will cost less. I await the day when a full frame,mid-level Nikon sells for $1599,but that time is quite a few years in the future I'm afraid. What I think is interesting is how Canon's 5D will fare once there's another mid-level,half-height full frame d-slr option. Considering that the above web article says the D700 will offer the 25,600 ISO of the D3, it makes me think that the imager might be the same or very similar to that of the D3 body. I anticipate that the quality camera design of the Nikon D200 and then D300 models will be ported over to the D700,and that it will have a wonderful feature set that today's now almost 3-year-old EOS 5D does NOT possess. It is today June 29,2008 and I have heard a rumor that on July 1,2008 Nikon will announce the D700.

The EOS 5D is a fine imager in a mid-range body. It has a weak AF system,with a very high degree of center-weighted focusing. It produces VERY high quality files,even at elevated ISO levels and under low lighting conditions. It's got a great balance between sensor size--full frame 35mm size sensor--and MP count, at 12.8 MP. Very similar to the Nikon D3's size and MP counts and pixel density and pixel pitch....in other words, the 5D's balance between sensor size and MP count is a sweet spot that Nikon's D3 is also very close to. It seems to me that Canon's iteration of the 5D ought to be not an iteration,but a wholesale UPGRADE to a more feature-rich,faster body,with a broader AF area,and overall a much,much better-specified camera body than one would find in a mere iteration called 5D Mark II.

From looking at image quality comparisons of the 5D and the D3, the 5D does very well against the D3--until the ISO's get high. At the higher ISO settings, the Nikon D3 simply is unmatched. However, given how good the EOS 5D's sensor is and how good it has been for going on three years, my feeling is that Canon's follow-up camera will have significantly good enough High ISO performance that it will easily be able to equal the Nikon D3 in such metrics as resolution,noise,and color saturation and color accuracy at such ISOs as 6,400, ISO 12,800 and maybe even ISO 25,600. I really think Canon is behind Nikon in terms of focusing systems, multiple remote flash sophistication,and those types of things, but my feeling is that Canon's 5D follow-up is going to be one hell of a good camera.

What about Sony's anticipated full frame model, the 24.6 megapixel monster that many expect to be premiered in September at Photokina? What type of price point will Sony be aiming at with that type of MP count? Does Sony expect to price their flagship in the $4,000 price range to compete against Canon's 1.3x model? Surely Sony does not think its flagship can command the $4995 price of a Nikon D3, nor the $7999 price of the highest megapixel EOS model. How good will the image quality of an Alpha 900 be? Will Sony try to extract a high price for their camera,or will they strive to balance unit price with sales volume? What does Sony have to do to make their flagship a desirable model and a good sales performer for the new Sony d-slr division? Is Sony capable of delivering a totally integrated,fully-professional 24.6 MP d-slr worthy of a look by serious photographers? Or will it be a niche camera with a very high price which allows Sony to sell a lot of expensive Zeiss-branded lenses to a fairly elite set of users? So many unanswered questions ought to become clear by late September of 2008.

Part II-Well,today was July 1, and Nikon's D700 was announced to the world. As predicted,it was 12.1 MP, $2995, uses the same D3 focusing pattern/system,and uses the same motor drive/battery grip as the D300. The D700 will meter with Ai and AiS lenses,and has non-CPU lens inputs so you can get EXIF info with pre-AF lenses. Frame rate is a respectable 5 fps without grip,and 8 fps with grip added. Looks like a nice camera,but real,validated, ISO-standard-compliant ISO settings of the D700 will top out at 6,400 and all ISO values above are "expanded" which means slightly sub-par in my book, so it's not designed to compete on even footing with the D3 in the uber-lowlight,ultra-high ISO scenarios that the D3 currently rules for sports/action/PJ shooters and anybody else who likes or needs to use high ISO settings. And,since Nikon offers NO fast lenses in the wide angle range,you're gonna need those higher ISO settings in poor light or when high shutter speeds are needed. If Nikon had a 24mm f/1.4,like Canon does, can you imagine the low-light PJ potential of such a lens with the D3? Canon also offers a 50mm f/1.2 L and an 85mm f/ 1.2 L series lens. Nikon's behind on lens speed in the wideangle and normal and short tele prime areas, but I expect Nikon will soon be able to address the needs of future users as soon as their resources are a little bit less focused on cranking out as many bodies as possible.

Nikon's been busy designing lenses for the DX format for some time now,and it seems as if their latest FX format offerings the 14-24 and 24-70 and 200-400 and 200 f/2 VR and 300 f/2.8 VR are all extremely high quality optical designs,with steep price tags and unmatched performance. Concurrently, Nikon has shored up the consumer zoom category by offering a lot of small,affordable designs, as well as adding VR and better optical performance to its ED-glass 70-300,and also managing to make several kit lenses with surprisingly good performance on DX bodies. Nikon is weak in what some call the mid-range zoom,at both the consumer and enthusiast price points. Nikon _DESPERATELY_ needs a modern,quality 28-85mm or 28-105mm or 24-105mm zoom that covers the mid-range focal lengths. Nikon has abandoned this segment,and I think BADLY needs to come up with a good,modern, AF-S lens that spans 24 to 105 or 28-105. Canon's 24-105mm f/4 L series lens is one I own,and it's a pretty good lens--significantly better than my 24-85 AF-S,which is if you ask me, a disappointing lens to have to rely upon.

Canon has been working pretty hard on its professional sports/PJ cameras,overcoming the autofocus problems of the 1D Mark III in only a few months, but seriously lagging behind Nikon on feature set on its mid-level bodies 30D and 40D,yet offering similar imager performance at substantially lower prices--for admittedly less-sophisticated bodies, but bodies which nevertheless deliver comparable images to enthusiast Nikon bodies. Canon owns the highest-MP count crown with the latest 1Ds III iteration now at over 22 MP,with the 1Ds II formerly the king at 16.7 MP.

Canon seems to have stopped developing its autofocusing systems and body features like ultra-high quality LCD display units and feature-rich bodies,and things like AUTO ISO. WTF is that "PRINT" button doing on so many Canon cameras? Still,the price of the 40D makes for a lot of camera for the money,and the Rebel line is doing well. And after almost three years unchallenged on the marked, Canon's "economy" EOS 5D 12.8 MP Full Frame camera is still churning out good quality files in the hands of conscientious shooters. Great files can be made with the EOS 5D--I know, I've shot some that I like very,very much,and when shot right the camera delivers fine images. But it is still a rather pedestrian camera BODY,with a merely midllin' autofocus system, wrapped around an excellent imager. Prices for the 5D have fallen to around $2,000 or less,which represents a very good value in my opinion.

Pretty much everybody I know says Canon needs to introduce an updated 5D in 2008. But I think Canon ought to do more than merely update the 5D with say a better AF system,and maybe a better microlens array and a little bit better-optimized imager and image processing software; I think that Canon ought to take a page from Nikon's D200-D300-D700 book, and put pro-class autofocus and pro-type features in their mid-priced bodies. I really think that Canon needs to do some more body-building efforts in its line of serious enthusiast/semi-professional bodies. Comparing the sophistication of the D200 to the 30D and 40D, or the D300 to the 40D shows that Nikon charges more money for a body that offers significantly more features than what Canon is offering and selling. I think that the enthusiast/pro-sumer/hobby markets have a lot of feature-driven buying,and that many people these days are willing to pay those extra five hundred dollars for a camera that offers a number of easily-compared positive marks over the other guy's offerings. Beating the competition on specifications is important: Nikon's idea of sharing focusing modules between top- and mid-level bodies is a stroke of genius and is a very positive selling point. Pick up an EOS 5D or 30D or 40D and compare it with a Nikon D200 or D300--there's simply no comparison as to which camera brand has the better feel and the bigger,more-encompassing feature set.

I've blogged before on what the EOS 5D is like; it could use some serious updating,mostly on the autofocusing system,and also the metering system could be improved, but mostly,the body needs some more controls over autofousing,and could use a dedicated function button for better adaptability to changing situations,and the LCD is badly,badly behind the standard Nikon has established. New Nikons have INCREDIBLE LCD screens,while those on Canon's look poor by comparison,and the Nikon LCD Screens are actually better and easier to evaluate focus with.

Well, 2008 looks like a great year to be involved in d-slr photography. One advantage Canon EF mount camera bodies have
( but that not many people will care about) is their adaptability to use with lenses in other mounts,via adapter. Some of you might have seen some of my web samples of both Nikon and Pentax lenses used on EOS 20D and EOS 5D cameras. Nikon and Pentax screw thread lenses work pretty well on EOS bodies, albeit only in stopped-down mode. There is now a totally NEW and RADICAL lens adapter which allows the electronically-controlled diaphragms on Nikon's newest G-series lenses to be controlled on Canon EOS bodies. The adapter is available through 16.9.net for about $190 US dollars. There are a number of very exquisite Nikkor lenses in the G-style mount like the 200/2 VR and 70-200VR and 14-24 and 105 Macro as well as the 200-400 VR,and the new big teles in the G mount. Macro,wide-angle,and supertele manual focus and AF-D lenses made by Nikon can be easily adapted to Canon bodies using $17 adapters,but the G-series adapter is $190,but a 200/2 VR is a $4,000 lens,so a $190 adapter allowing it to be used on a Canon d-slr is a good deal in my book. Canon curently offers FF, 1.3x,and 1.6x sensor bodies,across a wide spectrum of prices. Canon has a good lens lineup,but still the BEST ultra-wide lenses in the 14-15-18mm focal length ranges carry the Zeiss brand, or are found all in one lens in the new Nikkor 14-24mm AF-S G with Canon struggling to build anything truly STELLAR for the folks who shoot down in those short FL ranges. Head to head testing results done by the folks at 16.9 shows the new Nikkor 14-24mm zoom lens is as good as or better than Canon's 24mm f/1.4L by most landscape-shooter metrics,and BETTER than the Canon prime in terms of corner resolution! PLUS, the 14-24mm Nikkor has also got the wide-wide thing covered too!

One advantage Nikon has,in my opinion, is prettier bokeh in a number of lenses. Like,take for example Canon's 100mm f/2.8 EF Macro,which I have owned since I got my 20D. What a horrible macro lens in terms of bokeh and out of focus highlight shape--it's cruddy. Contrast that with Nikon's 105 AF-S VR-G Micro-Nikkor,which has quite good bokeh. Canon has no 105 AF-D Defocus Control lens,a real bokeh champ,and a beautiful imager. Nikon's 85mm 1.4 AF-D is a bokeh champion. On crop-sensor,when you have a lot of OOF highights in the background the 70-200 Nikkor,which is a G-series lens, blows the pants off of the Canon 70-200 2.8 IS,with the Canon producing football-like OOF highlights, the Nikkor true round shapes and beautiful defocus. And, probably the prettiest imager ever built is the Nikkor 200 f/2 AF-S VR-G prime,which I bought early in its production and have been just amazed by its bokeh,sharpness,contrast,and autofocusing speed and surety. For sports use, the 200 f/2 VR and D2x is the best AF combo I have ever used; in lower light levels, the f/2 of the 200mm seems to give the camera a little bit better than the D2x and 300 f/2.8 AFS-Mark II lens,which is in itself an amazing autofocusing lens. The 200/2 has Nano Crystal coatings and is very flare and ghost-resistant,which is a big,big problem on much long,fast glass.

Canon's lens offerings are respectably good, but while Canon has been developing better sensors, Nikon has been producing new lens designs that are really quite amazing,and as these things go,affordable. Not cheap, but not Leica-expensive either. Nikon's 14-24mm has caught Canon flat-footed I think. Nikon's 24-70mm f/2.8 was past due,but now it has been created and thus it is is newer and better than Canon's 24-70mm pro lens. Nikon's 300/2.8 VR is newer and better than Canon's,and on crop-sensored bodies, Nikon's 70-200VR is better than Canon's similar pro lens and all the independent mfr. lenses too,and the Nikkor lens has better bokeh as well. I do not think Canon has introduced a "new" conventional macro lens in over a decade now,while Nikon has redone its 60mm and 105mm macros just recently. Nikon is now trying to equal Canon with 24mm,45mm,and 85mm tilt/shift lenses which I predict will all be the equal of or better than any and all Canon's now aging 24mm,45mm,and 90mm TS-E designs that have been on the market for what is it now? 10 years?

In terms of bokeh,and also exotic new designs with VR, Nikon's been doing amazing work with each new "top-quality" lens it has produced for the last four years. Nikon's been going about a lens first-bodies second kind of approach over the recent past,probably because Nikon is a much smaller company than Canon,and Nikon made a decision to design numerous lenses that can be relied upon for a good,long time. I think Nikon has finally caught up to Canon with the D3 camera and sensor combo. And in the mid-market bodies, c'mon....the EOS 5D and EOS 40D bodies are very plain Jane compared with the Nikon D200-D300-D700 lineup. Nikon's been putting the PROFESSIONAL features into the high-end amateur bodies like D200-D300-D700,while Canon has been basically micro-refining the EOS 10D to perfection with the 10D-20D-30D-40D,yet making almost no real "progress". No offense to those of you shooting the EOS 40D,but compared to the Nikon D300, it's like a 1967 Mustang compared to a 2008 Mustang...the 40D is still showing a tremendous amount of the 10D's core,and it has shown the Nikon focusing button control rip-off for the first time,as Canon tries desperately to improve the 1D and the semi-pro D-line model with slightly better control over autofocus operation by incorporating a single AF ON button, like the AF ON Nikon has had for years and years. Lens-wise,on affordable stuff I think Canon wins pretty easily. On more-exotic and simply newer lens designs,at least for crop-sensored bodies, Nikon's the clear leader bokeh-wise and in terms of filling niches, Nikon's done an amazing job of producing a FEW select,spectacular optics that are designed to be part of a six-lens complete kit,with the focal lengths of 14-24,24-70,and 70-200,60mm,105mm Macro,200mm,200-400mm zoom,and 300, all covered with super, brand-new optical designs that are state of the art. Plus the above-mentioned series of three tilt/shift Nikkor lenses. Lens advantage: NIKON. If this were a football game, I'd score it Nikon 35, Canon 27.

Final thoughts: Now that the D700 is actually OUT and in the hands of reviewers and NPS early orderers,we can see that the D700's higher range ISO performance is actually virtually identical to that of the D3,and that the boosted settings of the D700 are really quite GOOD. So,my pre-release feeling that the D3 might be a bit better than the D700 at the ultra-high ISO settings of 6,400, 12,500,and 25,600 might be in error: reviewers whom I trust have said the D700's imager is exactly the same as in the D3,and that the image quality of the D700 is the image quality of the D3. Wow. All I can say is--Canon's 5D follow-up camera had better be pretty damned good. And yet still,at the current $1,900 price, the 5D represents an amazing deal in image quality for those who can handle the rather pedestrian subsystems the 5 has. And to those of you who have never shot a 1-series or 2-series Nikon or a 1-series Canon,please stop trying to convince others how good the 5D's AF system is. No, the 5D's autofocus system is far from qualifying as a pro-caliber AF system or a pro-caliber body. The 5D is a great imager,in a mid-level body design that's 3 years old.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

My 99th Blog Post: Speedotron Overview 2008

Speedotron Studio Lighting Equipment Revisited in 2008

I recently submitted a review of a Speedotron 11.5 inch snap-on diffuser to the Adorama web page,and there's a link to that mini-review at the end of this blog entry.

I want to go over some experiences I've had using Speedotron 400,600,800,1600,and 2400 watt-second power packs in both the Brown Line and Black Line product lines. This year I bought some of Speedotron's smaller, lighter-weight power packs, as well as some used Speedotron light units in three models which I had never before tried nor owned (Brown Line M90, and Black Line models 103 and 202 VF). For many years, the only Speedotron equipment I had used was the higher-end "professional" stuff. But thanks to the low prices of eBay auctions, I was lured into trying some very inexpensive "lower-level" Speedotron lights and power supplies. In addition to my multiple pieces of e-Bay acquired equipment, I bought a brand new 3-outlet Black Line 405 power supply new from Helix Camera.com's eBay store for around $469.

I want to emphasize that some of my preconceptions about the various pieces of Speedotron equipment were wrong. I had anticipated that Brown Line M90 light units would be kind of cheesy, but they're pretty useful. And I was surprised at how great the small D402 Brown Line power supply is when paired with M90 lights. Modern d-slr's have SUCH good image quality at their base ISO settings that it's no longer necessary to have a 2400 watt-second power supply to have control. In fact the opposite is true,and I'd prefer to have a much,much smaller,lighter,and lower-powered power supply than a 2400 or 1600 for most d-slr uses.

I bought into the Speedotron system in September of 1987 with the D1602 power supply which weighs 27 pounds, one M11-Q and two M11 light heads and some grip equipment and modifiers. The power supply and all the original light heads still work flawlessly. Durability is a hallmark of Speedotron lighting equipment,even with the lower-priced Brown Line equipment.

In January of this year I decided I wanted to make a charitable contribution to a youth photography program, in the form of some studio lights and light modifiers, a background support system, and light stands. Enlisting the aid of my friendly photo equipment dealer,with whom I really like to do business face-to-face, he sold me a used Speedotron 805 Black Line power supply, "That has something wrong with it", but which was paired with two 202 VF heads, each with 7 inch umbrella reflectors, and an approximately 9"x30" umbrella-style collapsible striplight that used a heavy,solid steel shaft for mounting through the umbrella receptacle. Testing of the 805 Black Line pack caused the circuit breakers in my house to trip so frequently that I bought a brand new three-outlet Black Line 405 power pack, to use in my testing of the 202 VF heads.

I test-shot and worked with the 202 VF heads...which when fitted with 11.5 inch grid reflectors are very nice and controllable for getting a little bit more or a little bit less spread of light when using a pair of lights to evenly light backdrops. I also found the 202 VF head fitted with Speedo's "standard" 7 inch grid reflector worked pretty well for ceiling bounce lighting, and the ability to focus or widen the spread of light on longer 10-15 foot bounce throws was kind of interesting. The 202 VF light heads are completely modular: the cords come off the heads; the mounting system comes off for more compact storage, and the flashtube cover is long and slender and space-saving. The detachable power cords on 202 VF heads make it possible to store the cords separately, in a vinyl or canvas bag, and to carry flash heads in a relatively SMALL bag or case, compared with 102 or M11 heads, which have permanently attached 20-foot long cables.

Compared with the straightforward design of the M11 and 102 lights, the 202VF light unit with its rotating red focusing collar and accompanying flood/normal light coverage with 35 degrees to 90 degrees or so of light spread makes the light a bit "less-predictable" than the aforementioned heads which offer no focusing or spreading out of the light beam. The M11 and 100-series heads have more-positive lock-on of speedrings and reflectors, due to their rigid nature, but then only the 202VF's have variable beam control,so...the 202 VF's have more adjustability, which means less predictable output,since output is dependent on how wide or narrow you have the focusing collar set to with each light modifier. VF stands for Variable Focusing, with a rotating red polycarbonate plastic ring giving wider or narrower angles of coverage,and widely varying guide numbers.

What was most distressing was the top-heavy nature of the five pound 405 Black Line power supply when used with three Black Line light heads,which have very heavy,weighty power cords. The 405 power supply is SO light that when three heads are attached to it, if the cables are hanging at some point in their run,such as to the back of the set for an elevated hair light, the pack becomes quite top heavy. And it can even tip over if a cable is pulled a bit. Until I had a 405 to test, I'd never dreamed a power pack could actually be TOO lightweight!

The fan-cooled Black LIne 102 head is available widely on e-Bay,and I think I've picked up the last one I'll ever need. With used 102's selling in the $70 to $125 range, and new flash tubes retailing for roughly $104, I view a used 102 bought with either a 7 inch or 11.5 inch reflector,and with a flash tube and modelling light as being a hell of a lot better deal than a new $104 flash tube. For those unfamiliar, a few infobits: the 102 head is the "standard professional head" and it uses what Speedotron calls universal mount,which is their standard two-lug style rotating locking reflector mount. 102's have a heavy-duty push on-push off button that controls a bright 250 watt quartz modeling lamp,and use a 2400 watt-second rated vented Pyrex-covered flash tube that encircles and shields the hot modeling light from softbox or umbrella fabrics, which is nice. 95 % of all 102's ever made have a built-in heavy duty 20 foot power cord, but the very-newest models have a removable, plug-in power cord that detaches at the head itself. Sometimes the fans are squeaky. One unit I got had a loose wire or some problem in the wiring,and performs erratically. I suspect it's unsafe, and the seller made a very kind offer of compensation in the form of two nice,solid Avenger light stands:I accepted his offer of recompense,and I really really like the the taller of the two stands. The Avenger A205S is the closest current product to what he shipped me. Thanks for the kindness Pete! I recently bought a 102 head with protective cover, 7 inch and 11.5 inch reflectors for $120,and it worked perfectly in its initial test session right out of the box,using a 20 inch,deep-dish Brown Line reflector and two layers of white nylon mesh as diffusion material over 75% of the reflector's front

****************BROWN LINE POWER SUPPLIES*************************

In the 21 years I've owned my Brown Line D1602 power supply, it has always been reliable. Power levels are switchable: Full (1600 w-s), Half (800 w-s) and LOW (200 w-s) on a 3-level rocker switch. It has four light outlets divided into two power channels: channel A is made up of sockets 1 and 2, while sockets 3 and 4 make up the B channel. Power is divided either symmetrically or asymmetrically using any of the three power level choices. Shooting the D1602 at LOW power level, or 200 watt-seconds, it's a great portrait pack,able to run two or three lights with me dividing up 200 w-s and barely taxing the capabilities of the unit. It's a crying shame the small, light, affordable 600 watt-second Brown Line D604 does not possess a 200 watt-second LOW power setting, but only Full and Half power settings. The D402 power pack has Full and Half power settings of 400 and 200 w-s, and I find having 200 watt-seconds split between three or four heads is very, very useful.

A careful studying of the power distribution tables on the sides of the Brown Line D402 and D604 power supplies will show that the smaller,lower-powered D402 power supply might actually be the handier one for a person who wishes to use only one,or two,or three lights with a d-slr that shoots best at 100 to 200 ISO. My preference is to have between 200 and 400 watt-seconds of power to divide up between three,or four light heads for "most" single person,indoor portrait shoots. Main light, hair and separation light,and background light is pretty standard for me,and my 4th light might be a fill light. For quickie,simulated available light shooting where I bounce a single flash off of the ceiling,corner,or a wall, I find the D604's one-head minimum output of 225 watt-seconds to be too MUCH power. With my 1987-model D1602, I often find myself deliberately using it at LOW power,which is only 200 watt-seconds. My feeling is that the D604 power supply is designed to be used in either three- or four-light setups almost all of the time,and is in fact,optimal for three- and four-light setups,but lacks power output flexibility in 1- or 2-light configurations. The D402 can supply from 150 to 400 watt-seconds with one light,while the D604 can supply 225 to 600 watt-seconds thru one head. For me, the LOWER powered,one-light output of 150 watt-seconds is preferable in real-world locations with a camera that has a 200 ISO base,or even a camera with a 100 ISO base,like the 5D. However, if I were still shooting ISO 25,50,and 64 films or doing work that required a significant amount of lens extension, the slightly greater power of the D604 would make it the preferred power supply over the D402 most of the time.

There's almost no weight difference among the three smallest Brown Line packs: the D402,D604,and D802B power supplies weigh in at 11,11,and 12 pounds respectively, and all have two-channel,four-outlet designs. http://www.speedotron.com/products/category/brown_line

The Brown Line D402 has the old-style cosmetics in case design,and has toggle switches and not plastic switches. With three lights the D402 delivers 133 w-s per head in Symmetrical, while in Asymmetrical mode it outputs 200 w-s in A and 50 and 50 w-s in B, or alternately it delivers 140 and 140 w-s in A and 70 w-s in B. When using a 4-light setup the D402 gives 100 w-s to each head in Symmetrical mode,and in Asymmetrical mode it delivers only a single power output ratio, which is 120-120 w-s in A, and 30 and 30 w-s in B. These are full-power figures. The D402 has a half-power switch,allowing the prior outputs to be cut in half approximately. Flash durations in the 100 w-s range with M90 units is 1/1600 second, while the M11-Q will deliver 1/3000 second at 100 w-s,and even with 400 w-s pumped thru it, the M11-Q will deliver a 1/1500 flash duration.

The Brown Line D604 LV came out back when I was a young man,and has remained in the line for a long time. It weighs 11 pounds,and is low profile and compact. It follows the Speedotron Brown line pattern of four head outlets,with outlets 1 and 2 comprising the A channel, and outlets 3 and 4 being the B channel. When using two lights the D604 gives 300 w-s per head in Symmetrical mode, and it offers three output options in Asymmetrical mode: the first Asymmetrical option is 300 w-s in either outlet 1 or 2, and 150 w-s in outlet 3 or 4. The second option is 300 and 300 in 1 and 2,while the third two-light power option is 150 and 150 w-s when using outlets 3 and 4 concurrently.

When using three lights the D604 delivers 200 watt-seconds per head in Symmetrical mode,and in Asymmetrical it delivers 300 w-s in either outlet 1 or 2, while outlets 3 and 4 will each provide 75 watt-seconds,or you can plug two lights into outlets 1 and 2 and get 210 w-s out of each of those, while a head plugged into 3 or 4 will provide 105 watt-seconds. With four lights in Symmetrical mode the D604 puts out 150 w-s per head, while four lights used in Asymmetrical can deliver 180 and 180 in 1 and 2, and while outlets 3 and 4 will each output 45 watt-seconds. As with other power supplies, all of these power distribution ratings can be cut in half by switching to the Half Power setting.

If there's a problem with the D604,it is that it is SO powerful with only one light attached. Several lower-end standard version Brown Line light units are equipped with only 400 watt-second flash tubes,meaning the full power of the 604 cannot be used with those lights unless they are upgraded to the Q or Quartz-type flashtubes,with higher W-S capacity. With one light, the D604 will deliver 600,450,300,or 225 watt-seconds, and 225 w-s is often more light output than is wanted,as in this test session shot in my small office,using just one 40-inch umbrella--at its lowest ISO, I was forced to set an f/13 aperture on my Nikon D70 http://www.pbase.com/derrel/image/98144791. HOWEVER, as soon as a second light is added, the D604 can deliver very handy amounts of power, such as 150 and 150 at Full Power Assymetrical,or 75 and 75 at low power Asymmetrical,so the 604's main limitation with today's d-slr's is when ONLY ONE light is being used in rather close quarters. The D604 has an Audible Recycle feature that gives a Beep when the unit is recycled; this feature can be turned on and off by pressing the button. The D604 is compact and straightforward,and has a low voltage triggering system safe for d-slr's. This power supply does not seem to be very popular,and it often sells for very low prices on the used market.

The Brown Line D202 is a VERY small power supply, with only two light outlets, and symmetrical and asymmetrical distribution, and a built-in power cord. It uses blade-style synch,and is a very simple unit to operate. It is no longer manufactured. It weighs 6.5 pounds and measures 4.4 x 6.5 inches in footprint,and is 6.2 inches tall. The earlier D200 model had only symmetrical power distribution, but in all other was was identical to the later D202. The D202 works pretty well with the Brown Line Y-cord attachment, which allows an additional light head to be used,and which lowers the power output by splitting the total watt-seconds into two,equal-output connectors. VERY handy! It recycles to 85% in 3.25 seconds

The D202 has only one power level, which is full power. With two lights, in symmetrical mode, each light delivers 100 watt-seconds. In asymmetrical mode, outlet 1 delivers 200 watt-seconds, but outlet 2 delivers 150 watt-seconds. With two lights plugged in, in asymmetrical mode, outlet 1 delivers 150 watt-seconds, and outlet 2 delivers 50 watt-seconds. Guide Numbers are listed as 190, 135, and 95 (in feet) for 200,150,and 50 watt-second power output levels using "Standard Reflectors". At the time the D202 was made, my understanding is that the Standard Reflector was the 11.5 inch, 65 degree coverage model which will NOT accept honeycomb grids. According to Speedotron's specifications the GN of 190 at ISO 100 in feet comes from an M11-Q light head with 11.5 inch reflector and MW9QC flashtube at 10 feet on-axis. Therefore, using the newer, grid-capable 50 degree reflectors, Guide Numbers would be significantly higher than when using the older 65 degree parabolics. Here's a photo of the D202's power distribution chart

I bought a non-functional D402 and two M90 lights for $150 from eBay,and had the power pack restored to full,perfect working order by factory repair personnel at Speedotron Corp in Chicago for the modest price of $70 for parts and labor and $19.95 return shipping. I also bought a fully working D402 for $129 from eBay on a buy-it-now price. I recently saw one sell for $79.99 on eBay,as a non-tested unit without power cord. Auction prices for D402's are very reasonably low; the pack has been made for years now. Brand new, a D402 4-outlet power pack can be bought from Helix Camera for $361,with warranty.

Before I donated the D402 and three M90 lights to the nonprofit photography program, I tested it out over about a 225 frame portrait session with Jenni, using two M90 lights,one in a 40 inch Lastolite Umbrella Box and one to light a black paper seamless roll with either a yellow or a blue gel over the M90's 8.5 inch standard reflector. I found that on low power splitting up only 200 watt second between two heads, the D402 was a very useful little power pack that had just the right amount of power for close-range,quick-setup portraiture. The flashtube in the M90 delivers a VERY short duration flash when 100 watt seconds of power are sent through it; the flash duration is 1/1600 at 100 watt-seconds, which is very short,and the Lastolite Umbrella Box with the M90 head inserted inside and the diffusing face zipped tightly makes for a pretty efficient light. http://www.pbase.com/derrel/m90_light_units_first_look

I note that in 1987, 11.5 inch Brown Line reflectors were specified as 65 degree reflectors, and were NOT grid-style. And I note that on Speedotron's web site, the newest Brown Line M11 light units are listed as having 50 degree,grid-capable reflectors, just like Black Line 102 and 103 heads typically would be fitted with. My older Brown Line pack D402 pack has a factory-painted Guide Number chart on the side and it says "Standard Reflector 65 Degrees",so this appears to have been an area where Speedotron equipment has been changed over the years.

Back in 1987 when I bought into the Brown Line, the lights had thread-on connectors,which made hooking up and switching rather slow; but at some point, Speedotron switched to BLACK-colored connectors, which just snap on and lock with a firm press into the socket--and they come off with no locking collar-- just a good,firm straight-up pull! Hooray! To me the Brown Line's slow,thread-on connectors had been one of the main drawbacks that Black Line was not saddled with. So, when buying used Brown Line flash heads, realize the "new style" black connectors means faster and easier light set-up and changes.

One thing about the Speedotron brand is that the Brown Line's M11 lights use the same "universal" reflector and speedring mounting system used in Speedotron's professional Black Line light heads,so grid reflectors and many other light modifiers and devices will fit Brown Line M11 heads, as well as Black Line flash heads. The Brown Line M11 head is almost identical to the Black Line model 103 flash head, which means it is fan-free,or convection-cooled,and fairly light, and compact. I just bought four 103 heads this month for $40 to $45 each without tubes or lamps. I have not had a chance to do much more than clean them up and test them briefly with the 405 pack and brand new MW9C flashtubes, which are only 1200 w-s rated,and are really not officially recommended by Speedotron for use in 103 heads. I spoke to a tech there by phone,and he assured me that the MW9C tubes will work just fine in a 103 head as long as the flash power levels are kept below the 1200 w-s maximum,and that on the 405 power supply, the tubes would be loafing along at well below their capacity on such a small power supply,and that my off-list use of these particular flash tubes would be safe and functional. One of the things I like most about the M11 and 103 heads is the quiet,fan-free design each shares,and the same compact size. The cords are heavier duty on the 103's, and the connectors differ, but the 103 an the M11 appear to be the same, basic lights. I often do NOT need a fan-cooled light head,so 103's make sense.

The Speedotron Brown Line instruction manual notes that the M90 light unit delivers a pretty high Guide Number per watt-seconds of power used, which was something I was unaware of. As I said, I had preconceived ideas about how the M90 lights would perform compared with Brown Line M11 heads which are ostensibly "better" and "more professional", but I was unaware that the M90's are much more efficient than M11 heads in delivering Guide Number per watt-seconds used,at least with the 7 inch reflectors on the M11's in umbrella configuration. Looking carefully at my 1987 Speedotron Brown Line manual, it specifies that at 400 watt-seconds, an M90 unit will deliver a GN of 210, while the M11 will deliver a GN of 120 with the 7 inch reflector and a GN of 220 using an 11.5 inch reflector which was AT THAT TIME,spec'd as a 65 degree reflector, while the 16 inch deep pan reflector will deliver a GN of 160. So, in an umbrella type configuration, the M90 light unit's 8.5 inch reflector which is silvered all around the flashtube will deliver a pretty potent f/21 light burst at 400 watt-seconds, while an M11 light and its 7 inch reflector will deliver a less-powerful f/12 exposure. At least theoretically,in a Guide Number sense. One aspect of this information might be that when lower flash output is needed, it might be wise to use an M11 light head with a 7 inch reflector and not an M90.

Angle of coverage of the M90 is a pretty wide 55 degrees,according to the manual; the web site list the new M90 at 60 degrees and the M90-Q as being 65 degrees (the Q has a 1200-watt seond capable flashtube). The M11 head with 1980's 65 degree 11.5 inch reflectors has been a mainstay of mine for lighting up backgrounds,but I've found the M90 is actually pretty handy for lighting background paper. I'm anxious to try out the M90 head a bit more,maybe with a grid or two and with diffuser material,and also it looks like a pretty good light to use with diffusion panels aka scrims. I'd like to have a barndoor set for use with an M90,and I am sure I will buy a couple of Speedotron 8.5 inch snap-on diffusers for use with M90 heads.

There were a number of factors that lead me to donate a 3-light M90/D402 lighting kit to the nonprofit group instead of the Black Line 405 pack I had bought,ostensibly to donate along with two or three light heads. Long-term, I thought that considering ease of use, flash tube replacement costs and modeling light costs ,and the cost of a fourth light, the Brown Line wins out over the Black Line in terms of flash-per-dollar spent,either new or used. Used D402's are selling for $79 to $129 on e-Bay these days,and are available brand new for around $361. I personally think the D402 Brown Line power supply makes a LOT of sense these days. It is a bit heavier than the Black Line 405 pack,and it's a bit larger too, but it has some good qualities. I donated an e-Bay acquired D402 and three M90 light units to the photography program after my test session with Jenni showed me that the M90 head and its eight and a half inch reflector makes for a very good background light,as well as functioning well in the 40 inch Lastolite Umbrella Box enclosed umbrella. The lightweight power cords of the Brown Line are easier to coil,and smaller,lighter and less-pretentious than the heavy duty Black Line cables. On some setups that stretched and elevated the 202VF's 20-foot cables, the 405 power pack was very,very top heavy and prone to tipping over,since it only weighs five pounds,and with the very-lightest of all current Speedo packs, the heavy-duty Black Line light cables are,well,kind of overkill. Black Line 150 or 250 watt quartz lamps cost about $22 to $24, while M90's use three much lower-powered bulbs,like the Satco S4721 25-watt 130 Volt brass-base indicator bulb listed as 2,500 hours...these are the modeling lamps,and they sell for $1.99 each at lighting stores. Each M90 uses three of them. Official bulbs are about $6 each; cheap by modeling lamp standards.

Besides the M11 and M90 light units, the Brown Line has two additional small,lightweight,affordable light units, both built on the same chassis. The first type is the MW3U, which stands for Umbrella. It uses a small,affordable 400 watt-second flash tube and has a small quartz modeling lamp positioned right at the bottom front edge of the fixed,non-interchangeable five and a half inch reflector. The second similar light is the MW3R, which is designed as a backgRound or haiR light,and which has NO provision for mounting an umbrella. The MW3R uses a tall, candle-flame type incandescent bulb for a modeling lamp; the incandescent bulb generates a lot less heat than the quartz lamp of the MW3U, and accordingly, the MW3R can be fitted with a small snap-on snoot. The easiest way to differentiate between the two light heads is to look for the umbrella mounting block underneath on the MW3U. Both light heads are convection-cooled, and there is a 1200 watt-second flash tube available for both light models if one needs to use the 600 to 1600 watt-second power packs with only a single head.

Both the MW3U (umbrella-capable) and the MW3R light units have been made for many years--and there is a " very old" style in both lights; these have a rounded, knurled metal locking knob on the light tilt joint, and those must be used with the old-style SMALL mounting stud that is only 3/8 inch in diameter, so this "very old" style will not mount on modern light stands, unless a 3/8 inch diameter mounting stud is threaded on to the top of the light stand. The "newer" style lights have a brown plastic locking knob, and slip right on to today's light stands. The very-newest style MW3U and MW3R lights are fitted with the black, quick-disconnect connector plugs,and those are the most desirable lights to own for quick set-up and quick changes. The MW3U and MW3R and M90 ALL SHARE THE SAME model of flash tube in both 400- and 1200 watt-second varieties. The standard 400 watt-second flash tubes for M90-MW3U-MW3R are available in coated, and non-UV coated designs, and are priced around $26 per tube,which is a very economical price for a flash tube. 1200 watt-second tubes cost about 3x more.

****************BLACK LINE POWER SUPPLIES*************************
The Black Line 405 weighs only 5 pounds,and has two-channel three-outlet design,while the slightly larger Black Line 805 has three-channel,four-outlet design and yet still weighs in at only 7.7 pounds. http://www.speedotron.com/products/category/black_line

The Black Line 405 has a two-stop variable power reduction switch,which allows dialing down the power in 1/3 stop clicks on a rotating switch control,thus allowing the Black Line 405 to more-incrementally control output than is possible with the Brown Line D402 pack. On balance,the Brown Line D402 pack has four light outlets, while the Black Line 405 has only three outlets,so the advantage there goes to the Brown Line pack for the all-important four-light setups. The Black Line 405 power supply has 2 power channels, 6 ratio combinations, and 3 outlets,so think 400,200,133,and 100 watt seconds with nine clicks of adjustment in dial-down. The Black Line 405 is very small,very light,very simple,and has good dial-down capabilities.It can run three light heads very well,and its five pound weight still seems almost incredible to me.

The Black Line 805 pack has significantly more flexibility, with 3 power channels,19 ratio combinations, and 4 outlets. The 405 pack is ultra-small,ultra-light,and not all "that" flexible,while the 805 pack is only slightly larger,only slightly heavier,and has a significantly higher amount of flexibility. If there's a rap against the 805 Black Line,it might be that some packs develop problems tripping breakers,at least according to a cursory search of the web for user reports of problems; I cannot say from personal experience that the 805 pack has a reputation for either reliability or for unreliabilitity--but I do think many of them are used very hard,and there might be some issues due to lack of maintenance or over-use,such as in rental packs,packs from high-volume shooters,etc.

Great With Honeycomb Grids for Hairlight

By Derrel from USA on 5/31/2008


4out of 5

Pros: Attach Securely, Long-Lasting, Durable

Best Uses: Low Light, Indoors

Describe Yourself: Hobbyist/Enthusiast

Use with 100-225 W-S with 10,20,or 35 degree grid at 5-15 feet for superb hairlight effects. Grids are great but using a grid + diffuser gives softer,more easily controlled light in close-quarters portraiture. I love a 20 degree grid with this diffuser added and 2-way barndoors for beautiful,stripbank-like separation or hairlight effects with the added bonus control over spill and the flag effect of the barndoors keeping the lens free of flares.
Also used for for smoothly lighting backdrops,using 2 matched heads with 11.5's + diffusers.These are "essential" accessories for light control within the Speedo system.