Sunday, January 20, 2008

Evaluating D-SLR Features Camera by Camera

So, I was thinking, what matters in a d-slr? It's gotten to the point that the limitations of earlier generations of cameras have largely been overcome. The earliest d-slr's might have had SINGLE-area AF (like the Fuji S1 Pro had),instead of five-area,or nine-area, or 11 area, or 45-point ,or 51-point AF systems,as various Fuji,Canon,and Nikon bodies now have. Auto-exposure and shutter and aperture control mechanisms now offer 1/3 stop precision on all bodies (with user-settable 1/2 stop capability on many bodies),and exposure systems have become pretty good, although not infallible by any means. As one marketer said of household and consumer goods, "It all works now. The cleaners all clean, the shampoos all clean your hair well, you know, it all just works. Nowadays the difference is in the marketing message,more than the products themselves." I think to a great extent, that's the current state of things in the d-slr market.

The way I view things, Newer is Better. Usually. At least if it's got to do with flash units or camera sensors. Onboard or pop-up flashes now,like laundry soaps, just work. Newer pop-up flash units deliver better exposures,under a wider range of distances than older pop-up flashes did. Nikon's D40 does pretty well with its pop-up flash; the D40 gives much better exposures on the whole than the D70's pop-up flash did,based on my own experience. Canon's Xti does pretty well too. Selling millions of cameras involves making one that has a GOOD pop-up flash. Nikon's D40 is the best selling consumer d-slr for a good reason. The flash works great. The D40's onboard pop-up flash can do some amazingly subtle balancing with ambient light.

The EOS 40D versus EOS 5D versus EOS 20D comparison photos I have seen show that the new $1,300 40D does ALMOST as well as the older 5D,even though the 40D has a 1.6x APS-C sensor,and the 5D has a no-crop or full-frame sensor. See above: Newer is Better, when it comes to sensors. The Nikon D300's 1.5x APS-C or Nikon DX sensor shoots faster and with higher resolution than the Nikon D2x pro camera from 2005,and as far as I am concerned, that means that if you had wanted the D2x's imaging capabilities, the new D300 at $1899 represents a very,very good buy. The D2x's sensor was ISO-challenged,and operated best under a fairly narrow range of ISO settings,and lost color very,very badly at the extremes of its ISO range,and demanded rigorous post processing to achieve the kind of results that more versatile sensors can do without post work. But the D300's sensor is newer,and better,across a wider range of ISO settings than the D2x's sensor. Bottom line--the serious enthusiast/semi-pro camera segment has finally seen a SIGNIFICANT INCREASE in imaging potential and imaging quality that makes users of older-generation 6- and 8-MP models probably realize that _this generation_ of cameras is really worth having,and offers great value for many types of shooting. Buffer depths are now very good, frame rates are now as high or HIGHER than "pro" cameras before,and in the case of the D300, Nikon is installing the identical flagship-level focusing system in both the D3 and the D300. Hooray!

Currently, in the 1.5 and 1.6x 10.1 to 12.2 MP semi-pro serious enthusiast camera class, Nikon,Sony,and Canon all have very nice cameras. The Sony A700 has in-body stabilization and is $1,400 body only. The Canon 40D costs the same. The Nikon D300 is more, at $1899 MSRP,but is arguably a "better body"" than either the Sony or Canon offerings.

So,what matters in this class of camera? Features and suitability for your shooting style,mainly. The Sony A700 and Nikon D300 both offer high definition HDMI-out which will allow them to play images directly on high-definition TV's and the reports I've read of the Sony's output are of excellent image quality on High-Def Sony TV's. If you wish to project your work onto a large,high-definition TV set, the Nikon D300 and Sony Alpha 700 are the only game in town. Features,you say? Canon's direct print button is a feature I don't give a rat's ass about. The Nikon and Sony have the newest,state-of-the-art LCD screens,with vastly superior image review quality over other cameras. This is a big advancement,technologically, but not absolutely a critical feature--just a new technological milestone. The new 920,000-spec screens blow away all the older ones.

Some people ares still enthusiastic about the FujiFilm S5 Pro as a serious enthusiast/semi-pro body,and I can understand why. I'm currently waiting on PMA 2008 to see if Fuji announces an S5 Pro follow-up (I doubt they will,unfortunately) because I think I'd like an F-mount 6MP d-slr that can be optimized several ways for OOC JPEG shooting,and also because I think the way the S5 handles tonality and skin tone is pretty nice. The sensor's not the best,not the highest-resolving,and does not produce the type of artifact-free,high-resolution images the 5D does, but I think the Fuji has richer tonality,and more color variation,more nuance, than other cameras can output in JPEG capture mode,and I kind of LIKE the way the S5 can put an impression on its pictures with its decided Fuji color tendencies. This is a camera more about tonality and color and nuance and "feel",and less of a cold,crisp,faithful camera like the 5D. Fuji S5 Pro images often have a decided "look" that I do not see from Canon or Nikon digital images,and I can understand why somebody who has a family or child to photograph, or who likes to do portraits and people and pet pictures and general day-trip type shooting would absolutely LOVE shooting with an S5 Pro. It's not a camera for pixel-peepers, and it does have its share of small artifacting problems,especially when shot in 12 MP mode, but the "look" and the "feel" of the S5 Pro's images both make this camera viable in its class. The S5 Pro uses pretty heavy Noise Reduction at elevated ISO's,but then it's designed that way,and the pictures look acceptable without a lot of post work,so...

What has me conflicted is the D40 versus S5 Pro conundrum....I could buy three D40 kits for the price of one S5 Pro body. And the D40's a pretty good little imager, and very small and light. Both are really GOOD 6 megapixel cameras,offering roughly 3,000 pixel wide images that have pretty good file size economy in JPEG mode. The D40 is an excellent RAW camera, but offers only a very tiny, BASIC size jpeg capture (704 k. apprx.) in its RAW+JPEG mode.The S5 Pro shoots big raws;no let's call the raw's from the S5 what they are:huge,inflated 25 megabyte RAWs when in Wide-DR RAW mode and 13 Megabyte raws in Normal DR RAW mode,and it writes raw files rather slowly,and so all together the S5 Pro would probably be considered a poor raw camera by some people. Both the Nikon D40 and the Fuji S5 Pro do a good job of controlling image noise,and both allow good High ISO captures to be made. I'd like to own both cameras, but cannot justify buying both. Maybe I'll just continue to borrow my wife's D40 until she actually demands that I buy my own; she has already suggested,directly, that I might like to buy my own D40,since I like shooting hers so much. The D40 offers good in-camera image processing, and excellent file size economy in a small,light,affordable camera. The S5 Pro uses more storage space than a conventionally sensored camera,and its files can actually be seen as bloated for its resolution class, and yet the images one can obtain are prettier and more,well,Fuji-good than one gets with other systems,so what's the use worrying about a few gigs more in hard drive and DVD storage per week?

One of the things that I've found is that once I get used to a particular camera's control layout and the shutter's exact timing, I can shoot the best with that camera. Period. The one area where the Nikon D2x has been the absolute best camera I've ever used has been in its incredible speed,with the shortest shutter lag,fastest mirror return time,and all that stuff. The simply incredibly SHORT time between pressing the shutter and making and exposure makes the D2x seem to me a camera that is as quick as my thought processes. It's a camera you do not have to wait for. At all. I keep image review turned off with the D2x, to make it the absolutely fastest it can be,since turning off the image review reduces the D2x's shutter lag time. For shooting sports assignments where timing has been critical, I've always felt that the D2x's title as world's quickest camera was a big advantage in getting my timing down. On events like pole vault and high jumping, there's really only ONE best moment,and the lag time difference between a D70 and a D2x is truly significant in terms of keeper rate. The pro-class cameras offer much shorter lag time,and when timing is critical, the less time the camera takes to make the exposure, the more time you've got to sit there and be a slow,human being,with human-like reflexes. With the D70, on a field goal or place kick,you must begin the press of the shutter as the kicker's leg moves forward--you have to allow a rather lengthy period of pre-firing to get the kick contact; with the D2x, you can wait much,much longer until you need to press the button to actually GET the image. In my estimation, one of the biggest advantages the Nikon pro-d-slrs have always brought to the table is their extremely short shutter release lag times compared with consumer models. The pro-class cameras also shoot more frames more quickly, which can turn some things from one-frame opportunities to two-frame opportunities.

Seeing Through The Viewfinder Matters! To some people! This is one area where the full frame cameras,both digital and 35mm film SLR bodies, have a big advantage. Eyeglass wearers often benefit from longer eye relief specifications of full frame cameras,which have viewfinder systems that have with slightly lower magnification factors than those of crop-cameras. Nikon's F3 HP camera, with its High Eyepoint prism,was a huge success for millions of eyeglass wearing camera buffs. Seriously, it allowed better composing by giving photographers a better VIEW through the viewfinder compared to earlier cameras and compared to its contemporary competing models. Earlier-generation d-slr's often had tunnel vision finders. Squinty,cropped-down finders that made composing in poor light or following fast action more difficult than it ought to be. The newer-generation cameras, even small-bodied and ultra comapct ones like the Nikon D40 have MUCH better viewfinder systems than many prior d-slr cameras had. I find the larger capture cameras that shoot to 24x36mm, have more useful information that I can see easier,and better, than on APS-C cameras. Finder quality varies widely. The better the viewfinder, the easier it is to shoot in challenging light with that camera. Under good light, almost anything modern is workable; at twilight, the best viewfinders offer you a decided advantage.

Flash Matters in a D-SLR. At least, if you shoot flash pictures. I dunno....I'm impressed with how well the SB 600 works on the D40. I'm impressed with how well the 580 EX-II works on the 20D and the 5D. I was not that impressed with the SB 800 on the D2x--the D40 is a better flash camera,in many respects. But overall, I think the modern serious enthusiast camera class is where the benefits of high-end flashes (costing $399 to $459 or so) has become a marketing ground for claim after claim,without a lot of real user input into the engineering or even the feature sets the makers are coming up with. Wireless remote control and slave/commander flash technology has made Nikon's flash marketing the best flash marketing. Canon's E-TTL II might be where Canon finally figured out how to do TTL flash more or less right. For use with a single,on-camera or bracket-mounted speedlight, all the makers have you covered. Nikon has more-capable wireless remote flash technology than any other maker, and Canon is surprisingly NOT in second-place in wireless flash technology,but is the laggard. Not that that's all that bad, since I don't think wireless flash command capability from the body is all that needed in most situations,and I think Canon feels the same way. But,electronics being what they are, Nikon is the clear leader in wireless flash tech. But, on a one body-one flash basis, the 5D + 580 EX-II flash unit gives superb results,and the D40 + SB 600 gives good results;bottom line, in this newest generation of cameras and flashes, I think the top flash unit from every mfr will give acceptable results at least 90% of the time when used correctly. Exceeding distance limitations and flash units confounded by misguided camera setting don't count.

What matters in a d-slr varies greatly from user to user. I'm very,very impressed with the Nikon D40 in the ultra-small d-slr category,and when the SB 600 is added, it does pretty good flash work. It does surprisingly well with its pop-up flash too. The D40 has the somewhat intense,punched-up color look Nikon premiered with the D50,and for good measure, it allows flash sync to 1/500 second,and has in-camera image editing and filter effects. The Nikon D300 looks like the most feature-rich d-slr the semi-pro segment has ever seen.

Canon's EOS 40D at $1,300 and 10.1 MP looks like the latest new Canon in the 10D-20D-30D series family body,but with a really significant increase in image quality at HIGH ISO being the main area Canon has improved over the 20D and 30D models that came before. From what I have seen so far, the 40D looks like a very,very solid imager right up to ISO 1600. I know among a certain set of feature snob type hobbyist shooters, the 40D is kind of looked down upon compared with Nikon's new D300,with the Canon being perceived by these folks as "trailing" on body features and trailing in megapixel count too. But, the price difference is $500,and I think the 40D and D300 really are not competing for the same dollars. What I see in this current marketplace is Canon beginning to feel the effects of Nikon's increasing feature-packing of its cameras. The D200 and D300 certainly have a LOT more high-end features than the 20D-30D-40D EOS models that Canon has had and in this higher-end amateur segment of the market,Nikon's attracting tremendous reviews for its excellent work in R&D and camera deign too. The inclusion of the professional Nikon's focusing system in the lower cost D300 is an example; Canon's 40D has added some more cross-type sensors apparently, but I still find Canon's diamond-shaped array too tightly centrally-biased,and do not like the diamond-shaped array which leaves the left and right margins,and the top and bottom,represented too "thinly" as it were.

What surprises me the most is that Canon has not figured out how to implement an Auto ISO feature that works like the ones Nikon has had now for several years. Canon is clearly,clearly behind on the Auto ISO feature,which is something many hobbyist (and many serious shooters) can put to good use. On this one feature, Auto ISO,Canon lags behind Nikon QUITE badly. Of course,Canon has that awesome Direct Print button that three people in Illinois asked for, so...let's give props to Canon.

Nikon's broader,much higher AF point count of 51 AF points in the D300 makes me think that Canon's prosumer/semi-pro models are suffering right now from sort of a feature disadvantage on AF. At least on paper. However, from actual,practical experience, I just do NOT like Canon's diamond-shaped array in either the 20D or 5D; it's too-centrally weighted in the 5D.
Speaking of which, Nikon's new 51 Point System looks to ME to be a bit more-center weighted than the D2x's AF layout with its fewer, 11 AF points and broader grouping of AF zones. The Canon and Nikon families have become more similar now; in both brands, the same basic AF point pattern is shared,and in the 20D-30D-40D models, the diamond-shaped 9-point array covers a wider percentage of the frame than it does on the larger-framed 5D. The same hold true on the D3 and D300 Nikon's with the 51-point AF rectangle now more dispersed toward the center parts of the frame, with a less-broad area where AF brackets are located. To me, the D3's 51-point AF system looks,well, too-centrally weighted for my taste. There's been a reduction by one in the number of AF mode selections between the D2x and the D3,and that's causing me a little bit of angst. Not to mention that the D3 has the exposure meter info on the RIGHT hand SIDE of the viewscreen! Where that brain fart of an idea came from,I'm not sure. Moving the exposure info there is not to my liking,and is just inscrutable. A true "what the fuck were they thinking" kind of mental lapse from NIkon. The sides of virtually every viewfinder offer LESS visibility than the top or bottom. Nikon really screwed the pooch on the move to the right hand side of the finder for the D3 exposure info,and a VERTICAL display of the information to boot. It's not only a locational switch, but a psychological representational change of aperture ring direction and camera control representation in dial direction and display. The switch to a VERTICAL representation of exposure does not jibe with the old Nikon ethos which was basically set by the N8008. But then again, why should the direction the display moves,and the control wheels move,mimic the direction the lens's aperture ring moves when there is no longer an aperture ring on the newest G-series Nikons?

In some very interesting operational ways,like the wholesale adoption of this fucked-up G-series Nikon lens mount and the switch to centrally-located,high-point count AF systems,Nikon and Canon seem closer than ever before. With the development of E-TTL II flash and the newest EX flash units, Canon finally seems to be able to provide pretty good flash performance. With Nikon dropping the concept of aperture rings on its lenses,and getting more AF-S focusing zooms on the market, Nikon has made its lenses and cameras handle more like Canon equipment,with all aperture control being inputted on the body,and with even things like "macro" lenses losing their aperture ring (Nikon's new 105mm f/2.8 AFS VR-G Nikkor for example), Nikon is throwing away a lot of the backward compatibility and off-list use that made their original F mount lenses so versatile. The G-series is harmful to the macro lens category,and it diminishes the off-list value of many exotic lenses by limiting their use only to NIKON-made bodies,of today's current specification.

What matters in a d-slr is that it fits the need you have for it to fulfill. Right now, almost all of the choices look reasonably good to even excellent. The bargain-priced Nikon,Pentax,and Canon bodies are quite impressive. Pentax's practically giving away the farm to get people to buy its product,and is working very hard on new,exotic yet affordable lens designs that leverage their 6MP-10MP APS-C bodies.Sony's offering a lot of features and great design,plus some seriously good Zeiss lens offerings. Nikon is packing more and more and more features and goodness into each camera design. Canon's moving smoothly upward in MP count and offering good values at several price points, while adding a few high-end optics and some nice consumer and serious enthusiast lenses every 18 months or so. So, whatever matters to you in a d-slr, you can find it today.If you get the chance to go to one of the really large camera stores,you really,really owe it to yourself to look at what a fine state of affairs we're in right now!

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