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 ( 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

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.