Tag Archives: nikon

Why I left Nikon and went Mirrorless

This is a post in two parts, and conceptually this is Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 1, How Nikon could be the Next Kodak (if they aren’t careful).

A few years back I was feeling particularly hemmed in by the classic DSLR experience. I was happy with the images from my Nikon D300, but not happy with the “eye to the finder” mode of shooting. Among the reasons is that I am a former Rolleiflex TLR user, and waist-level viewing is very pleasurable. It is less “in your face”, it gives a more natural eyepoint on some subjects, and it doesn’t involve blocking your face with a camera body. I also shoot a lot of live music and event photos, and shooting overhead is better when you can look up and see a real-time preview.

Some DSLR’s have live-view and an articulating display. I thought I had it figured out with a D3200. It was a very affordable way to hang a newer and more friendly body off of my existing DX glass. It was also light, had decent live view, a decent LCD display, shot HD video. The other side of the coin is that I was still lugging a heavy kit (17-55DX, 70-300VR DX, and a 35mm f/1.8 normal lens). The body was a little lighter, but not enough to make a day walking around the city any easier.

As I perused the camera landscape I saw that Olympus and Panasonic were making cameras with a newly spec’d “Micro Four Thirds” standard. As well, these cameras depend entirely on the sensor to provide the preview. Some have an electronic viewfinder (EVF), and all have a nice bright display (most articulate for waist level and overhead viewing at a minimum). Good glass was available, and the cameras were well received by the finicky photographic press. I took a walk over to my local Brick and Mortar (Camera Bar in Hartford, CT) and checked out the cameras in-person.

Rant on.

I did the right thing and bought my camera, a Olympus E-M10, from Camera Bar. I have been known to browse in person and buy on-line, but not for purchases where I have picked their brains and gotten some good non-pushy advice. YMMV, but I’m happy I did that. I’ve bought other cameras and accessories there, and will continued to do so. Good folks deserve my business.

Rant off.

The point of all this is that Nikon just announced that the DL, their anticipated entry into the mirrorless game, is being scrapped (the weak-selling 1-Series is not a factor here). I think they made the right move but for the wrong reason. What they should do (IMO, selfishly) is design a mirrorless camera that accepts their DX-mount lenses, which are affordable and often excellent, and ditch the swing-up mirror. A swing-up mirror is an anachronism in a camera for anything other than a few specialized pursuits. Of course it made sense at the birth of the DSLR. These cameras were built using existing 35mm film bodies and had digitals sensors swapped in where the film plane/pressure-plate had been. It allowed the big SLR makers to leverage their investment in SLR technology. Sensor technology was in its infancy, so asking the sensor to stay on all the time, as well as provide output to multiple displays, was a bridge too far.

For all the advances in DSLR technology, and those cameras continue to be excellent performers for both stills and video, what exactly is the mirror doing in a camera like a Nikon D7000 Or a Canon 5DMKII? My feeling is that it is truly vestigial and an annoyance for most users. These cameras have sensors that are clearly capable of running full tilt all day. Why have a mechanical swing-up mirror? Or more specifically: Why have a mechanical swing-up mirror in every level and every price range? (If you think Canon has fared any better in catching up with mirrorless tech… read THIS)

One of the advantages of the mirrorless generation is that they can use a shorter focal distance (the distance from the lens flange to the film plane), allowing a shallower and smaller camera body. But there is another advantage is the lack of a mirror mechanism. Entry-level gear like the Nikon D3200 I experimented with have a mirror mech with an expected MTBF of 50-100,000 actuations. Most could probably outlast that by a bunch, but then again most entry-level cameras will never see that many shutter presses. A professional or prosumer camera might be good for 150k actuations. Still, that’s a lot. But I’m not sure it is ever anything other than a noisy inconvenience in a consumer camera.

So that is where a company like Nikon, an also-ran in the story of mirrorless cameras, could really clean up and deliver something better than they currently provide without actually developing a new camera system and without the question of “do we throw yet another freakin’ lens mount into the alphabet soup that is modern photography equipment?”. Nikon should transition to a Mirrorless DX camera to supplant/continue the already good/great 3xxx series. Hell, you could reflex the light path 90-degrees with a fixed mirror/prism and gain a shallower body while still using the DX flange distance… just sayin’….

I wish I could have thrown in on an upgrade to my D300 and gone on loving the Nikon DX experience. But now that I have a few years of mirrorless under my belt, and my Nikon gear has languished (actually being passed on to my nephew) I can say with confidence that I am not ever going back. I could end up moving to Sony or Fujifilm and their excellent mirrorless products, or I could upgrade my E-M10 when the time is right, or maybe another Micro 4/3 body like Panasonic/Lumix… But no. Not going back.

I’ll speculate in Part 1, the prequel, about how things could really go sideways for Nikon if they screw this up and decide that they can be the torchbearer for traditional SLR technology.

P

Diverting the Workflow

I have a habit, tic, recurring theme…. when it comes to equipment like cameras, musical instruments, fly rods, etc… I typically use one to the exclusion of any other options I might have. My Nikon has sat idle while I explore the E-M10. One way I use this to my advantage is to make sure that the device I am using is providing a learning or creative opportunity. With the Olympus I have the opportunity to reassess my workflow, from exposure evaluation through the shutter press and into post processing.

NEWS FLASH!!! Apple just released the Camera Raw Update to support the E-M10!!! Which is awesome because I have been importing the JPG/RAW pairs with the JPG as the master image (Apple Aperture, another post(s) for another day). Huge news for me as long as the RAW processing doesn’t suck.

The core of my evaluation of a camera comes down to things like low-light performance, focus accuracy, “handling”, and overall noise and image detail. Some of that is more a matter of feel than empirical proof. Compared to the Nikon, descendant of the mighty Nikon F, the E-M10 feels a bit like “OM-1 meets an X-Box”.  When using the very “serious” Nikon you get a lot of very serious options. It took them over a decade to include an interval timer that didn’t require a slide-rule and a night school course. Video was seen as a gimmick, or in Canon’s case a threat to their high-dollar video systems.

The Micro Four Thirds systems have no such baggage. They have in-camera processing that you would recognize from your favorite iPhone app. The Super Control Panel, touchscreen, and highly customizable controls are right out of the same milieu. You get 21st century thinking by the bucketload. Not that it is all for the better, but you get it by the bucketload. The tools are right in the camera to push the sensor into some very rarefied air. Long exposure, composite exposure, simultaneous video and stills, excellent in-camera HDR, focus bracketing…

I will cover these points in more depth as I go along, but here are the things that I have noticed immediately:

Focus By Wire – does not feel like mechanical focus, but no surprises

Focus Peaking – Not as helpful as I imagined

Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) – A good EVF, but still an EVF. Plus, the live image looks horrible compared to the preview you see after taking the photo

(All three of the above features fall apart completely in low light/night photography. Want to take advantage of the super-useful LIVECOMP mode, good luck with infinity focusing at night)

Focus Performance – shockingly fast. Even with a lens like the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, with a reputation as a slow focusing lens, it is still not brutally slow. But in comparison to the kit lens (just for instance) it is noticeable because the kit lens focuses instantly. And that is with contrast-only AF. None of that fancy phase detection like the E-M1.

Info Display – Olympus lets you decide which viewfinder info mode(s) you see in each exposure mode. Great, except it makes for a lot of twiddling to get the info you want, when you want, on the display you are using.

Menus – Yes, the Olympus menu system is byzantine. Apologists, spare ye thy breath. Basically, your settings in one mode, say Aperture Priority, are only for that mode. I *think* this is how it works, but the menu system gives you no easy way to verify this. Also, when you adjust something in the menu, like turning on HDR shooting, the menu always resets back to the top of the first menu. So you have to navigate back to the item each time you change it, try it, and want to modify the setting or turn it off. It feels like a lot of extra button presses. I know that I will have a full post, or more, on the menu system alone. It might just help me get over the last hump of the learning curve.

Here is an image from the E-M10, f/8, 1/2000sec, ISO1000, uncropped:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Back to the Future with Micro Four Thirds

A few months ago I picked up a compact camera in an effort to give myself a break from lugging my Nikon DSLR rig all the time. I have done this before with Point/Shoot camera ranging from the awful-ish Canon TX-1 to the great-ish Canon G-10, and a few other pocket cameras as well. While they were acceptable for many uses, it was never in doubt that the image quality was a big step down from an APS-C camera, never mind a full-frame model.

I had been following the progress of cameras like the Olympus Four-Thirds range, and the great compacts coming out of Panasonic, Sony, and Fujifilm. My question about why we didn’t have a serious digital rangefinder-style camera, which I have been asking for over a decade, was rarely answered. Sure. there were pricey options from Leica, and a dead-end option from Epson(?), but it wasn’t until recently that you could get anything good for under a grand.

A little background: I grew up shooting pictures with hand-me-down 35mm rangefinders, and they always had some kind of shutter problems, or sticky aperture, etc… But I loved how light, compact, and simple they were. I also yearned for a SLR because I liked the idea of viewing through the taking-lens and having interchangeable lens options. My first SLR was an Olympus OM-G, because I could afford it. Later, an OM-1 when I had the money. That camera changed everything. All-metal build, great lenses, great meter, and as durable as a rock. It was also the smallest SLR available. An SLR that a rangefinder lover could love.

My photography activity slowed down until the early digital era. I have spent over 10 years shooting Nikon DSLR cameras, and have become accustomed to their strengths and weaknesses. My current 3-lens kit is everything I could want for 90% of the situations I encounter. 35mm f/1.8 G, 10-24mm F/3.5-4.5 DX G, and 70-300mm VR DX, and a D300 body. Versatile, Yes. Light, Not Especially.

This past spring Olympus released the OM-D E-M10, a SLR-style mirrorless Micro Four thirds camera with a very good 16mpx sensor and a greal line of lenses. Priced under $700 with kit lens, it was an easy decision. I sold off some gear and paid cash at my local shop (Camera Bar). Yes, I am lucky enough to have a real camera shop in walking distance from where I work. I was able to handle it, compare it to the excellent E-M1, and bought it from them instead of “showrooming” it and getting it on line.

I’ll go over the comparison in further detail as I continue these posts, but for starters I’ll share an image from the Olympus. The top image is a crop and reprocess done on my iPad in PSExpress, and the lower image is the unretouched original. Dusk shoot, long lens, moving subject, high ISO. JPG transferred to my iPad using the camera’s built-in WiFi.

Olympus E-M10, 75-300mm @ 300mm, f/6.7, 1/1250sec, ISO1000

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Quick DSLR Screed

A friend recently asked me for some input on buying a new DSLR. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because I’ve been there (and still am) and bad because there is no correct answer. So much of it depends on the photographer, and their tolerance for the learning curve. The curve can be very steep, and despite its capabilities nobody calls a Nikon D800 “user friendly”. The menus are dense and challenging. Likewise, the digital sensor is getting better, but it is not film, so if you have any, your film experience is only slightly useful. Luckily you won’t be thinking “I wish I was shooting film again” any time soon.

I know what I would do if I was starting fresh, and why I would do it.

  • Get the current brand/body you want
  • Get one good lens (kit, or prosumer equivalent)
  • Get a good bag, and a spare battery.
  • Get to work!

In my case I would probably end up with something like the Nikon D7000 or the new D5200 and something like my 10-24mm DX Nikkor. When I first got my setup dialed in I did a lot of good work with the 18-70DX kit lens (that was OEM with the D70 kit!) but I have also owned the new 16-85DX and hated it. I also owned the excellent 17-55 Nikkor and it was great, buty weighs a freakin’ ton, and costs about as much… So YMMV/MMMV.

This decision has become muddied a bit by the variety in sensors and systems. Full Frame 35mm? APS-C? Micro Four Thirds? Advance P&S? Will you buy a Canon? Nikon? Oly? Panasonic? Sony? Leica? While you are at it, how important is video capability? Even the bottom of the DSLR lines shoot full HD video.

[Note: I like Ken Rockwell‘s reviews and writing. I have not found much to argue with except he might overrate the occasional lens. At least he does actual testing to back up his reviews]

When I got into it there was very little clutter in DSLR land. You went Nikon or Canon. Everything was APS-C. Nothing shot video. Advanced P&S gear was not competitive in comparison. Now you can grab a Canon G12 or G1x and you can get great results. A Panasonic G3 is freakishly capable. As before, the better gear really shows its value in extreme situations: Low light; Fast action; Very wide angle; Very long lens work; Architecture; Magazine covers… And even there you are probably blown away by at least one or two photos made with a good compact fixed-lens camera in any given issue of National Geographic. In terms of resolution, image quality, and dynamic range, compact sensor cameras are where mid-range DSLR sensors were five years ago, and DSLR sensors are off the charts good from where they were.

Example: On my last trip to Europe I shot almost everything with a 10-24mm zoom on my D300, plus my Canon G10, plus my iPhone. The G10 holds up to the D300 very well, but it will blow out highlights faster than you can say “255” if you aren’t fixated on the histogram and the exposure comp wheel. It also has subpar low-light performance. The iPhone takes great photos for what it is, but it has even less dynamic range than the other two, and worse low light performance than almost anything this side of the Holga. Still, the iPhone’s convenience and good daylight imaging capabilities make it invaluable. You can also text your mum! Take that, Rolleiflex!

So the advice thing got a little muddled in the details (ok, very muddled), but I still think that the cameras available today perform so well, and the “kit lens” quality is so good, that you could grab a standard Canon or Nikon kit and do pro work, or at least above average work, in almost any scenario. You will end up learning to manage the tsunami of files that you will generate, then post process and archive your images, out of sheer necessity, and that will extend the capabilities of your camera as you progress. As well, the skills you develop on the camera will translate into capturing images in a way that targets your post processing workflow. You will take images knowing that they won”t look good out of the camera, but will shine once you get them “up on the lift”. The two phases mesh very well once you get off the steep part of the curve.

I’m considering a short run of blog posts detailing some digital photography challenges. I hope I can follow through on it.

To Be Continued……….

Good v. Gooder

I have been using both my big brick of a Nikon D300 for a few years now, and I love it.  Fantastic image quality, great handling, and great glass (even my old beater of a 18-70DX). The problem is, as I said, the brick-like nature of most DSLR’s.  The price for semi-pro performance.  I refuse to hang the thing off my neck, so it lives in a ThnkTank Speed Freak bag, and is great if you don’t mind the weight toll.

But due to my low-budget upbringing I grew up using rangefinders, usually cheap rangefinders, and developed an appreciation for the smaller, lighter, faster handling gear.  After waiting for point and shoot cameras to adopt a decent sensor, I picked up a Canon G10.  I love that camera, but truth be told, the images just aren’t up to the D300.  What they are is very good by most standards.  If you shoot in RAW mode, they are really quite good, and almost DSLR quality.  The 12MP sensor was a bit too far, which Canon corrected with the G11.  That is where the G10 falls down.  The crap low light performance rears its ugly head in all kinds of situations like shadow detail, overall dynamic range, and a kind of fresnel distortion.

So while it sounds like I’m bitching about the G10, I am not.  It is a great little camera, travels easy, has a great control layout, good+ optics, and gets the job done.  Having the time to use it alongside and alternating with a big, nasty, Nikon has been very educational.