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Monday, September 15, 2014

Nikon D750: Where does it stand?

Nikon officially announced on September 12th that they're adding the new D750 to their full frame line up. Check out their official release here.

I would firstly like you to consider the following images.

Minus the model and FX labels and the shapes of the infrared receiver, you really have to scrutinize the extremely minor details such as slight shifts in button placements and differences in rubber texture to tell them apart.

Now the back panel:

Back panel has slightly more evident differences, particularly the vari-angle LCD of the D750. But generally the layout remains almost the same.

I'm actually quite glad that Nikon has finally come to standardize its camera layouts, and focus more on what is inside the cameras. As a D7100 user, I am happy with the current layout. Also this layout is more of a matter of familiarization than an absolute good or bad; if I am handed a Canon DSLR I'd suck at figuring out how to navigate it, not because the layout sucks, but simply because I'm not used to the layout. So it's good that more and more Nikon cameras now have similar layouts - a D810 is not much different as well except for the mode dial and the AF-ON button - and now I can easily switch bodies / work with multiple bodies and still feel absolutely comfortable with all of them.

But there's another point I'm trying to drive at by comparing these models. Take a look at the following.

The D700 is known to be the serious full frame DSLR for non-action photography pros. D800 (now D810) was rarely seen as a D700 replacement, because it is way too rich in pixels to be as versatile as the D700. There has been anticipation for a true D700 replacement, if it ever will happen.

The D600 (now D610) was perceived to be Nikon's effort to bring full frame to the consumer range. It seems like a camera targeted at strong enthusiasts who would like to take a step up to full frame. But many pros use it due to its price (especially compared to D800/D810) and how outdated D700 was.

The D7000 (now D7100) was introduced as a bridge between D90, then a prosumer camera, and D300s, a professional DX. It was never a D300s replacement, and professionals await the D400 or equivalent to arrive as an upgrade from D300s. Nevertheless the D7100 is now the top DX camera in Nikon's lineup, but still targeted at the prosumer market.

So what is the D750?

D750, based on its numbering, should fall in the D700 category. But looking at its design and specs (which you can search yourself), almost every aspect of it corresponds to the D610 and D7100, which are effectively prosumer cameras. Also given the new features it has - WiFi, and vari-angle screen, it really looks more like a consumer than a professional body.

And it lacks what a true Nikon professional camera should have - a full magnesium alloy body (D750 has a monocoque body which effectively means the body is crafted in one piece, but is a mix of carbon fibre composite and magnesium alloy; is that the new pro body Nikon is trying out?), AF-ON button (which I believe is highly useful in subject tracking, and given D750's FPS rate, it is mildly suitable for some action), and Nikon's iconic professional mode dial (which makes managing settings much more centralized). All these indicate that Nikon did not intend for this to be targeted at professionals, like D700 back then, or the current D800.

Another minor detail: I suspect that the D750 has an AA filter, which, to many professionals, is a disappointment. I observed how many photographers jumped at cameras without AA filters built in for that extra sharpness, and it is also a growing trend for camera makers to take out physical AA filters and instead beef up their digital anti-aliasing technology. Honestly, for 24.3 megapixels, I believe the AA filter will not make too much a difference unless I scrutinize the photograph with a magnifying glass. But on the other hand, as a D7100 user, sometimes I do benefit from the missing AA filter, and I guess for professionals it would matter more.

Of course, I'm not trying to stereotype here, that a professional camera must certainly have a certain design or layout or contain certain features. Perhaps Nikon is trying their prosumer formula on professionals to see how it works out.

And it is also possible that Nikon is just expanding its full frame line up, to offer more tiers of cameras for buyers to choose. Because the D750 really does not fit anywhere in the original Nikon line up despite its apparent model number relationship with D700; it seems to be a new line altogether. And if this theory is in fact true, then I can actually draw some awesome parallels here to the entry level DX line up. The D600 range is like the D3000 range, while the D750 is like the higher D5000 range. Both ranges are vaguely similar, but higher range has some bonus add-ons, like a slightly faster FPS, better metering and AF, and of course our favorite vari-angle LCD screen.

I suppose with this new camera on the market which bridges the gap between D610 and D810, there seems to be a camera to suit everyone's needs in the full frame line up. On another note, full frame photographers are now more spoilt for choice. And I do feel that the D750 is a good buy, though on Nikon's side this new camera will steal quite a bit of business from the D610 and D810, but I'm sure (and hope) that's all part of Nikon's plan.

You can get a D750 at Amazon body only, or with a 24-120 f/4 lens. Shipment starts September 23rd.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Photo of the Week 2014: #5 SoDaChe

I apologize for my long long hiatus, which was thanks to yet another batch of university admissions to deal with. I realize that I am far from catching up with my Photo of the Week series, so I will just continue and post one whenever I am able to. Let's see how many POTWs I'll have at the end of this year!

Today I hope to share a photograph I took a few months ago. It is not scenery, but instead a scene that is rather personal to me.

11 mm DX, 1/3, f/13, ISO 2000.

This is a SoDaChe session at my JC, during orientation campfire. SoDaChe is short for Song, Dance, and Cheer, the three elements that defines the school spirit and culture. While not my own orientation campfire - I'm returning merely as a graduated senior - it always reminds me of the friendships forged, the hardships endured, and the precious outcomes earned. I did not think I'd enjoy my two years here for it'll be tough. Indeed it was, but I enjoyed them nevertheless.

Once again, a starburst, from a handheld exposure. I stabilized the camera against the railing, but it still takes a bit of patience. When dealing with such spotlights and trying to get starbursts, it is always a little tricky.

One thing is the camera angle: especially with my Tokina 11-16 DX II which has a rather big 77 mm front element, flare was very common. It can add some effect to the photograph, but too much will also ruin the picture (Photoshop is. of course, an option).

Then there is controlling the aperture for the starburst. The aperture cannot be too small or the starburst will look pathetic and with some bad fringing (perhaps it's the lens), and your long exposure will simply give you motion blur. Too big an aperture, and the starburst will not be possible. I took some time to figure out my balance. The starbursts were nice, I was able to stay still for the buildings to be sharp, and there was some movement in the people but they were still relatively clear. Of course, the two spotlights were probably at different angles and brightness so the starbursts came out different. That was unfortunate.

More photographs to come; I promise.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Photo of the Week 2014: #4 Phuket Boat Tour

Location: Phuket, Thailand
Today I bring you a photo from Phuket, Thailand. This shot was taken on a boat tour to James Bond island. On the way the boat anchored at an island and we were brought into a bat cave on water rafts. I found the style of the tour really unique (at one point in time, we were given time to jump into the sea to swim).

11 mm DX, 1/2000, f/2.8, ISO 100.

It's a fresh shot for me mainly because I've not used a wide angle for a very long while. This was shot on a Tokina 11-16 II, which on DX gives an equivalent of 16.5 to 24 mm. The wide-angle distortion I get here gives the shot an amazing perspective: I'm looking up from a low point to observe the magnificent surroundings (yes, I was on a water raft).

Of course, I was lucky to capture this scene with a beautiful sky, where thin streams of clouds form patterns. Phuket has wonderful skies. This I feel is the key attractive feature of this shot. Without a wide angle, you could barely capture that much of the sky, undoubtedly.

You would have noticed that the boat isn't very sharp. I was careless enough to shoot wide open at f/2.8, because just before this I was in the pitch-dark cave. Furthermore this was shot with my new D7100 which I was not very used to. In bright daylight and when shallow depth of field is not necessary (and not evident in wide-angles anyway), I've learnt to shoot at around f/8. Nevertheless, the loss in sharpness, I suspect, is not due to the focus but more of a faulty UV filter which was insecure and hence may not have been parallel to the front element. I've had a great deal of focusing and sharpness problems in Phuket, and after I obtained a change, the problems were much less prevalent.

If you like beaches and the sea, do visit Phuket. It's a pretty nice place to visit for a holiday.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Photo of the Week 2014: #3 Sunburst

Location: Singapore
I've been on a pretty long hiatus thanks to a new hard disk that I thought crashed after I attempted to back up my Mac in preparation for Mavericks. And I really thought I lost all my recent photos, until I passed the disk to my good buddy and he said there was nothing wrong. Well, probably the few stupid things about a Mac.

I'm now going to make up for this loss, so these few days I'll spam a few posts. Do bear with me!

Today's photo is taken at Sentosa. Sunburst: a starburst with the sun.

11 mm DX, 1/15, f/22, ISO 100.

As my friends were taking the sunset above the sea behind this bush, I thought I'd try something different. I noticed this little bush with two tree trunks sticking out of it, and I found the symmetry pretty interesting. The sun also produces nice star bursts when the light shines through the gaps in the bush. Hence I composed my image as seen.

One thing that's very unfortunate is that the trees behind that were slanting out towards the sea actually ruined the symmetry. Thus when I looked at this photo after nearly a month of taking it I didn't realize what I was trying to do until a short while later.

This shot was taken using a few layers of ND filters. Of course, my ND and GND filters were not strong enough to produce a nice sun. One thing to take extra care of when using such glass (referring to the filter itself and not its material), especially common plastic ones, is to blow off all the dust regularly. Rubbing it with a piece of cloth isn't a very good idea because the plastic will get easily charged with static electricity and attract even more dust. My photo was nearly ruined by the dust particles I left on it.

A very delicate procedure when editing such photos of the sun is the white balance. For this stage of sunset where there is yet to be any glow, it's tricky to get a good balance between the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the sky. A trick would be to use graduated filters in post-processing to separate the sky from the ground. However do not overdo this as it will make the photograph look very artificial.

Lastly, the starburst. The trick is to pick a lens with an odd number of aperture blades, which should be most lenses (sorry Canon users, most Canon lenses have an even number of blades). Rounded blades do not work as well, but they are still acceptable. Then stop down to the lowest possible aperture, which in my case is f/22. Starbursts occur due to a special type of diffraction against the aperture blades. I won't bore you with physics here.

Typically starbursts are made more pronounced in post-processing by boosting clarity and contrast. And a lens flare can enhance or ruin the effect, so be sure to check your shots. Unlike sun rays through clouds, starbursts should be identifiable out of the camera, and post-processing will only enhance them. If you can't see it on the camera LCD, then something is wrong.

Working with the sun is extremely tricky. We like it when the sky is cloudless so we get the full unobstructed sun. Yet, clouds dampen the rays and give you more options for a cleaner, more balanced exposure. I'd fix my shot, which has the sun too overexposed (it has to be overexposed; it's just about how much), with a big stopper, if I had one.

A final minor point: do play around with cropping; sometimes it helps concentrate the subject and remove distractions, and also adds something interesting to your photo.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Digital Fusion? Thoughts on the Nikon Df

This is the Nikon Df. Announced on 5 November 2013, this debut design took three years to develop. Its name, short for Digital Fusion, represents its fusion of "D4 image quality and lightweight mobility". Behind this, though, its true intention and appeal also lies in mimicking the design of the film camera Nikon FM2, thus achieving a fusion of old familiarity and fresh technology. It comes with a specially designed Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G lens to match the body.

The essence of what's in this body: the same 16 MP full frame sensor as the D4, the same 39-point AF system (MultiCam 4800) as the D610/D600, and an EXPEED 3 processor. And in the name of pure photography, there is no video on this camera. It is the only digital body that is compatible with non-AI lenses, due to a foldable coupling lever design.

Seeing the sudden uproar over this camera - I've seen one by Fstoppers, one by DigitalRevTV - and I thought it's a good time I share my opinions too.

Rants, rants, rants.

I was actually quite appalled to hear that Nikon took three years to develop this camera. You might have noticed that this camera is essentially just a recombination of existing camera parts encased in a new body. It's like how McDonald's decided to replace the sausage patty in the McMuffin with that from a McChicken, and launch a whole new breakfast menu item called the Chicken McMuffin. Similarly Nikon grabbed the sensor of the D4, the AF system of a D600, and threw them together into a retro-looking body. That surely wouldn't have taken three years?

Furthermore Nikon has been pretty boring recently. The last major excitement was perhaps the D7000 in 2010, and the D4 and D800 in 2012 (the D600 honestly was no excitement at all), and I highly doubt the fast rolling D3000 series and D5000 series are worth much notice to serious photographers. The Df, everyone thought, could be the next big thing for Nikon. It was, but in a wrong way, for the main attractive thing of this body was the esthetics.

I was also disappointed that Nikon removed the video mode, because even though in the name of "Pure Photography" video should be unimportant, it's always a win to have this feature at hand. Furthermore, how much space (and cost) did Nikon actually save on this body by removing a built-in microphone and a few extra ports?

Of course, I could dig into details, like the lack of a built in viewfinder cover (and how much space did that save?) or the combined card and battery slot, or the weird front wheel design, but there's really more important things to get agitated over.

But it's not so bad.

Now let's not thrash this camera flat to the ground, shall we?

Nikon marketed this camera as a lightweight camera with D4 image quality. At less than half the price of the D4, it seems like a good choice to get a pro sensor. But unless you're really seeking the identical D4 sensor, it would perhaps make more sense to throw in a few more bucks and get a D800, with a better AF system. Of course, make sure the vast 36 megapixels won't bother you.

Many reviews criticize the controls on this camera. For this, I shall compare, like all others, to another retro-style digital camera that has garnered loads of positive reviews and thumbs-ups from pros, and has also been termed unofficially the "new Leica" or the "poor man's Leica": the Fujifilm X100s. For the sake of this comparison, let's just focus on the top panel controls.

Top panel of the Fujifilm X100s.

The X100s features a shutter speed dial, an exposure compensation dial, and an aperture ring. It did away with the mode dial; how I go about using different modes is via the Auto setting on both the aperture ring and the shutter speed dial. Whichever setting I would like to have adjusted for me using metering, I will turn it to Auto. Very intuitive, yes?

Top panel of the Nikon Df.

On the Df, the same dials exist on the camera, plus an ISO dial (this is inconsequential). And there's a small mode dial retained at the corner. This I do not mind, even though it may be confusing say looking at your shutter speed dial and forgetting that you're on aperture priority. But the complaint for this is that the dial is designed such that you have to lift the dial to turn it. And that, while preventing any accidental mode changes, is exceptionally hard to use. Bad move, Nikon. You could have used Fujifilm's ingenious method (though of course on the Nikon there's no aperture ring because that depends on the lens), or use a button+dial method like on pro bodies like the D800 and D4.

Then let's bring our attention to the one-third stop option on the Df shutter speed dial. You would observe that all the shutter speeds available on the dial are, as expected, in full stops. By selecting the one-third stop option, you are essentially back to normal DSLR operations, meaning using the back wheel to change shutter speed. On the X100s, though, for every shutter speed you select on the shutter speed dial, you can fine-tune it with the back wheel (which isn't really a wheel though). For the sake of using the camera retro-style, the X100s design definitely wins, but for practicality, it would vary from person to person. I would personally prefer the Df design, as I have the convenient option to revert back to my typical DSLR controls when I feel like it.

I've touched the Df a few times, and compared to the feeling of a retro compact X100s and a typical bulky DSLR, I can't really tell where the Df stands. Its grip denies me gripping the camera the X100s or the Nikon FM2 way, because the small bulge is obstructive. Yet when I grip it the DSLR way, it doesn't feel really safe either. But no doubt this camera is heavy and really quite big, a bit too big to be disguised as a Nikon FM2 equivalent. Though that's inconsequential. And overall it's still a decent design, just one you need to get used to.

A photographer I met in a park was actually using the Df. I asked him why. He said it renders colors better than other cameras. He owns a D4 as well, so I assume this means there is a difference. It's just like how D7100 and D5300 both runs on similar sensors and processors, but I trust the D7100 would beat the D5300 in the images it produces. In other words, it won't be the same EXPEED 3 in two different models. However I've not seen anyone else mention this benefit of the Df.

The lens is as modern as ever.

It's a 50mm f/1.8G. Don't get fooled, the aperture ring is fake. I think Nikon chose the f/1.8G lens because it after all has a balance between good optical design and price. I would have expected the f/1.8D because of the aperture ring, but this camera is pretty automated that the D would just become a G. And the f/1.8G has better optical design. And why not an f/1.4 lens? Because a so-called kit lens should not get too expensive, right? And Nikon probably thinks more expensive lens are not worth giving a new design, as fewer people will choose to buy them.

But I will personally buy the body only and get a 50mm f/1.8D, just for the fun of it!


I would recommend the Df to the following people:
  1. Those who really badly want a retro-style Nikon DSLR or something cool of that sort, and have the money to burn
  2. Those who really badly want a D4 but can't afford one
  3. Those who still have a good collection of ancient non-AI lens, and really badly want to use them on digital instead of selling them off
I don't think this camera is worth consideration unless you have very specific needs like those above. My attitude isn't as sarcastic as say that of Fstoppers or DRTV, but the consensus is this: this camera does not come cheap especially for what you are getting. I do not know whether Nikon will leave this camera as a standalone or continue it as a series (Df2? Dfs? Dfx?), but if any rumors of continuation were to leak out, I would wait for the upgrades. Who doesn't love a cool retro body? But I'd want to make sure what I get inside is worth as much as the classy casing. And the current Df has not convinced me that it's worth the cash more than a D800.

Some said that perhaps if you throw in a DX sensor and market it as an entry level camera, it would have been more well received. It does makes sense, like how Canon and Nikon are both coming out with colorful cameras (some of which look quite disgusting frankly). But simply with a cheaper sensor, how much cheaper can this camera be? The X100s is priced high enough to repel entry level consumers and appeal to the pros. Furthermore, full Auto and Guide modes are popular amongst consumers; those complicated dials will be redundant and certainly will scare some away. Perhaps they can retain the rough looks, but the "pure photography" elements must go away or be disguised if this were an entry level camera.

If Nikon improves on the Df, perhaps I would consider it for my FX upgrade. Otherwise, I'd stick to X100s as my dream retro camera. Or play with an actual FM2 for one-tenth the price.