*New* What’s in my camera bag?

About half the e-mail I get is from readers who want to know what I think of a particular camera, lens, or accessory.  Most of the rest include inquiries about whether I have a book available for a particular camera.  I’m launching a new section with capsule descriptions of every current Nikon camera, my favorite lenses, plus electronic flash and other accessories.  You’ll also find an updated listing of my Nikon and general interest books.  Typical pricing for most items is shown, using Amazon as a basis for comparison.

What will Sony’s new G-Series XQD Cards do for Nikon D4s owners?

It depends on what you shoot, and your workflow. For most of us, there will be very little, if any benefits, and “upgrading” to the new cards will not be worth the extra cost. To understand why, you need to understand more than you care to about how the Nikon D4s and memory cards work together. So, I’m going to give you the bottom line first, and explain why later.


Who benefits?

* These cards may help you if you shoot incredibly long continuous sequences at high frame rates for sports, photojournalism, or events. It’s especially true when using RAW, RAW+JPEG, or possibly even TIFF (remember TIFF?)   If you’re shooting JPEG only for your high-speed shots, you should see no difference. The most useful metric to apply is how many shots can you take before the buffer fills, and shooting is stalled until the camera can offload some images to the memory card. With 12-bit lossless compressed NEF files, the new cards improve buffer capacity from around 133 shots to 200 shots (under “standard” conditions: ISO 100, etc.) At other settings, the difference is minimal: 36 versus 36 shots using 12-bit uncompressed NEF, and 200 vs 200 using JPEG Fine (Size Priority.) If you’re shooting video, the increased write speed may also be a benefit, particularly if you are simultaneously outputting to an external recorder through the HDMI port while recording H.264 video to the internal XQD memory card.

* If you typically shoot large numbers of images and need to transfer them quickly to a computer (again for photojournalism applications, or just because you are impatient), the new cards can save time by cutting transfer times by half (or better) if you use the new USB 3.0 card reader or an equivalent. I recently shot 7,300 pictures at an air show and could have used such speeds.

What’s up?

I must admit that when Lexar’s 1100X XQD cards were on sale a few months back, I snatched some up. I liked their 168 MB/s read speed and 155 MB/s write speed. The new Sony cards guarantee 400 MB/s reads and typically offer up to 350 MB/s when writing to the card from the Nikon D4s. So, what’s not to love with the Sony G series?

In practice, the memory card is already accepting images from the D4s as quickly as the camera can supply them, with either card. So, it makes little difference whether you’re using a card that can write at 155 MB per second or 350 MB per second. You can shoot all day and the buffer will rarely, if ever, stall. You’d need to be shooting high speed sequences or video, as I described earlier, to gain any benefit.

Now read speed is a different matter. A USB 3.0 card reader can typically suck off images as quickly as the card can supply them, so transfers at 400 MB per second will be noticeably faster for everyone, regardless of whether you’ve shot 100 images or 10,000. Is saving 30 seconds or five minutes important to you? Only you can judge, but only those who deal with thousands of shots daily will be moved to upgrade to the new Sony G series cards for that reason alone.

If you’re in the market for a new card, consider the new Sony XQD card to keep abreast of current technology. The rest of us can probably wait awhile.



Nikon Trap Focus Bug Fixed

The Nikon D800/D800E and D4 had the unfortunate tendency to ignore focus priority under certain circumstances. I noticed this when writing my D800/D800E book, but was told that the bug would be fixed by the time the book was published.

So, I went ahead and described the procedure for using trap focus on pages 173-175. Unfortunately, Nikon decided to call this bug a feature, instead, but finally acknowledged the error with the latest round of firmware updates. I can now say that trap focus does work as I described, and that I will never assume that Nikon is going to fix something without allowing them, say, two years to get around to it.  The bug is fixed permanently in the Nikon D810 and D4s, too. Sports photographers rejoice!

Nikon Df long term test

Jack Casady
After a month of heavy use, I’m still wild about the new Nikon Df, despite (not because of) its retro vibe. I’ve shot two concerts at ISO 6400 and ISO 12,800, as typified by this one of Hot Tuna/Jefferson Airplane immortal bassist Jack Casady on December 5. Even with compression and my croppings you can see that the Df performs almost exactly like my D4 at high ISO settings. Three days after Hot Tuna, I shot Hot Tubas, aka Tuba Christmas, in a more classical setting at Trinity Cathedral with the same outstanding results.
What *don’t* I like?

  • Autofocus was fine, but manual focus was not up to that of the D4 under very dim conditions. When doing selective focus at the cathedral, I sometimes struggled to zero in on a particular plane, even with my 85mm f/1.4’s large maximum aperture and narrow DOF. The Df manually focuses okay under brighter conditions, however.
  • Changing ISO with the dial is not that easy in the dark. I alternated between ISO 6400 and ISO 12,800, and holding down the ISO dial release button with the left thumb while spinning the dial with the left index finger, while looking through the VF to see the exact setting was clumsy. As I become more familiar with the camera I should be able to do this by counting clicks, once my brain absorbs which direction increases/decreases the ISO value.
  • Not crazy about the cheapo door on the bottom, which accesses both the battery and memory card. It pops right off! It also pops right back on. Fingers crossed that this heavily-used access door doesn’t break easily.
  • I’ve twice run into what may be a bug, and which I haven’t been able to deliberately replicate so far. On two different occasions I was doing in-camera HDR (set to Series), and the first shot came out OK. But on trying a second HDR shot, the Job indicator never turned off, even after four or five minutes. Green-reset button didn’t work, and the only way I was able to regain control of the Df was to remove the battery for a second. Surprisingly, that last-resort move didn’t corrupt an image or the memory card itself.
  • While setting the shutter speed using the retro dial on top of the camera was fun, and even convenient when I wanted whole-stop increments, the need to switch to the 1/3 Stop setting to access slower shutter speeds was not fun. Moreover, it’s possible to rotate the dial from 1/3 Stop to the other settings without pressing the release button, if you force it. That can’t be good for the camera.
  • I’m happy with my choice of the silver-accented model, mostly for old-times’ sake. However, particularly when I am in photojournalist mode I don’t relish the attention it attracts. I actually have fewer problems in this regard with my all-black D4, which also has black matte electrical tape over the logo. (That’s not because I am cool, modest, or in stealth mode — the black tape eliminates reversed-type reflections when shooting unintentional or intentional selfies in close-ups of shiny objects.)


Nikon Df not just for old fogeys!

I’ve been really enjoying using my Nikon Df, and really think its niche is much larger than a lot of people assume. Yes, it’s true that the most ecstatic of my emails about this camera have been coming from the over-50 crowd, so it’s impossible to deny that the strongest appeal of this camera is, indeed, among the old fogeys. However, after you’ve used the Nikon Df for awhile, it’s easy to see that there is much more to this camera than nostalgia. Although my Df guidebook, which should be available in February, has a retro appearance, like the Df itself it will delve much deeper.

* The Df is the true replacement for the Nikon D700, and is even priced in the same ballpark. The original D700 had the same sensor as the D3 — a useful and almost noise-free 12 megapixels. The Df and D4 up the ante to 16 megapixels, which I’ve found is enough for virtually all of my work. Because of its superior overall image quality over a broader range of ISO settings, my D4 has supplanted my D800 even for a lot of studio work, landscapes, and wildlife (which were originally what I used the D800 for.) Unless I’m making huge prints, I expect the Df will move the D800 into third place on my equipment list

* It’s a super-compact D4 that’s great for travel. I carried my D4 around Barcelona — a maritime city — for a week, and, appropriately, it felt like I was carrying a boat anchor around my neck. After that, my D7100 became my travel camera when I am slimming my kit down to one body and two lenses (plus a Powershot G16 for backup.) I’d rather stick to an FX body, because I can easily get by with a 17-35mm f/2.8 zoom and my favorite 3 x 3-inch super compact 28-200mm Nikkor G.

* The Df isn’t perfect for travel, however. It has only one memory card slot, and I like the ability to save to a pair of cards (which is possible with my D4, D800, or D7100.)

* The Df is the perfect walk-around camera. With that tiny 28-200mm G lens, I can take this camera with me even when I am not intending to take pictures.

* The Df is versatile enough to do just about everything the D4 does (which the D800 and D7100 cannot), so I don’t leave anything at home except extra megapixels that I probably won’t miss. Yes, the Df shoots at a slower frame rate, so I wouldn’t use it instead of the D4 at concerts or for sports. It’s not the most convenient camera to use for long exposures, and when I want to shoot video I’ll have to take along an additional camera. But from an exposure and dynamic range standpoint, it’s less finicky than the D800, and makes better use of my wide angle lenses than the D7100. Your mileage and needs may vary, but from my standpoint, the Df really is a mini-D4.

* Okay, the retro look/operation is fun, even if I don’t think it’s the most important aspect of this camera. I’ve enjoyed using some of the oldest lenses in my closet, including a perspective control Nikkor I hadn’t mounted in ages, and my immortal 1968-vintage 105mm f/2.5 portrait lens. And, if you want to use the worst lens Nikon ever made, you can do it, as the image accompanying this post shows. While I don’t have a yen to use my old threaded cable release, I have to admit there’s a bit of fun working with my silver-model Df. I didn’t swoon when I saw the top-panel dials and controls, but they can be gotten used to. The only thing I really miss is the ability to turn the camera on and off more easily with my index finger

*The Df isn’t really over-priced. Yeah, a nostalgia piece with no video and “only” 16 megapixels might seem pricey. But I don’t buy a dSLR based on megapixels — I look at overall dynamic range and image quality. And for a mini D4, the Df is priced quite reasonably. If I didn’t shoot so much sports and action, I’d be perfectly happy with it as my main camera. I’ve owned both the Nikon D600 and D610, and still own the D800, D7100, and the D5000/D5100, and current D5300, and can’t say the same about any of them.

Thank you, Nikon!

My favorite $50 gadgets.

I just got a batch of new gadgets in, all in the $50 (or less) price range, and all have made my life a bit easier.
* Meike Vertical Battery Grip for Nikon D810. I don’t need a vertical grip for my D810 very often. I usually use my Nikon D4s in such situations. So, why pay $400 or more for Nikon’s MB-D12? I treat this plastic version with care, and for $60 it does the job. If I were covering the Olympics or Super Bowl with a D810, I’d want the Nikon grip. But this one is fine for casual use.
* Henge Docks HD01VB11MBA Vertical Docking Station.11 In Macbook Air. Normally, my 11-inch MacBook Air is plugged into a 26 inch monitor, real mouse, and a full-size keyboard. Stored vertically in this dock, to use the Mac on the go, all I need to do is disconnect the power, lift it out, and tuck into the inside pocket of my Scottevest. With my iPhone’s WiFi hotspot turned on, I can do anything I do with my iPad — plus type!
*Panasonic XX Battery Powered by eneloop, 2500mAh High Capacity, 4 Pack AA Ni-MH Pre-Charged Rechargeable Batteries These batteries keep 80% of their power when stored a year, so I can fill my electronic flash with them and not have to worry about whether I have any juice. At $17 for a four-pack, these cost no more than regular rechargeables.
* Neewer 160 LED CN-160 Dimmable Ultra High Power Panel Digital Camera / Camcorder Video Light. This video light cost me $35, which more than compensates for the cheap plastic construction. I didn’t want to pay big bucks for an accessory I don’t use very often, and if you avoid hard knocks, this panel is big, bright, and comes with filters. Stuffed with Sanyo eneloops, it’s always ready to go, too.

The miracle Nikkor that Nikon won’t sell you.

The 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF ED IF is a full-frame zoom that Nikon dropped like a hot potato when the company introduced its inferior 18-200mm DX lens. It’s compact, about three inches long and three inches in diameter, weighs just 12 ounces, focuses down to 1.3 feet, and, at least, with my copy, is super sharp. I paid $330 for mine.

When I travel light overseas, it’s one of only two lenses I rely on (the other’s either a 10-24mm or 17-35mm Nikkor zoom.) On a modern camera with decent performance at ISO 1600 and up, the 28-200mm G lens is certainly “fast” enough at f/3.5-f/5.6 that you don’t miss a wider f/stop or VR. Mine is sharp enough at large apertures to still allow the selective focus effects I favor.

Unfortunately, it was introduced just as Nikon was phasing out full-frame *film* cameras in favor of DX *digital* cameras and, as the company had no FX digital models to sell, when the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR DX lens was introduced, this one was scrapped.

After all, the 28-200mm optic had a shorter range, no VR, and no Silent Wave motor. But, in terms of image quality and versatility, it was better than its “replacement” in every way. You may be able to find one used for roughly the original price, but they’re not as easy to find as you might expect. I wouldn’t sell mine for double what I paid for it.

The earlier D model, with an aperture ring, is not bad, but this one is better. It does take an odd-ball 62mm filter size, but I have step-up rings that let me use either 67mm or 77mm filters with it. (I have a complete set in both sizes.)

Yes, I refuse to live without my 70-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor when size and weight isn’t a factor. But when I am traveling overseas and trying to fit an entire camera kit (including Gitzo Traveler tripod) *plus* two weeks’ worth of clothing into a carry-on and personal item, this lens’s versatility can’t be beat.