Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Lens Is The Thing

A while back I was asked by a former student about some pending equipment purchases. More specifically, he was trying to decide between buying a new body (In this case a Nikon D7000 or D90) to use with his older, non AF-S lenses, or buying a brand new lens (Nikon F2.8  17-55 AF-S) to use with is current body, a D80. His goal was to photograph indoor sports, so for me, the logical choice was the fast lens.

Fast forward to the present. As with so many things, the D80 body is getting up in years, and my former student is now looking to purchase a new body. Instead of returning to the D7000/D90 debate, he proposd gettting a D3200. He reasoned that since I had recommended the purchase of the aforementioned lens over the new body. a D3200 should be adequate for his needs.  After all, one might infer that my earlier recommendation was based on the assumption that the lens itself was the more important contributor to a quality photograph.

I can't help but feel my comments were taken out of context, since I was actually asked to choose between upgrading a body or buying another lens. I felt that given the lenses he already had, there would be no appreciable improvement in performance if a newer, more efficient camera body were used. However, the 17-55 was an AF-S lens, which meant an automatic boost in focusing speed, and a constant aperture 2.8, which meant he could potentially shoot at F 2.8 at all focal lengths, a definite plus for improved low-light performance.

Now the Nikon D3200 is the newest entry level camera from Nikon. It does have one stand-out feature: a 24 Megapixel Sensor. That's a lot of dots, perhaps too many, according to Ken Rockwell, the blogger who wrote the evaluation. I am not as "dot crazy" as many photograpers are, but my luke warm embrace of the D3200 as my student's next camera is not based on it apparent over-abundance of pixels, but rather the camera itself. Here are some reasons why I would not recommment the D3200 as a replacement for his venerable D80.

Adjustments Through Menus:
The number of features in the little D3200 is amazing. However, many of the ones I commonly use are menu driven, meaning that a signifigant amount of time could potentially be wasted trying to navigate through menus and sub-menus whenever an internal change had to be made. On the other hand, the D7000's ISO settings, White Balance Presets, and Metering Modes have their own external buttons. Focusing mode changes (Focus Mode, Auto Focus Area Mode) are also controlled from the outside. In addition, the D3200's lack of a Secondary Command Dial makes manual aperture adjustments awkward at best. And because the D3200 body requires the use of AF-S lenses, his older AF (only) lenses would only focus manually.

Small Size: I find the D40 Clan (the base body size from which all of Nikon's entry level cameras are derived) is too small. I find that when I'm in the Single AF Area Mode, I often accidentally change the active focusing brackets. This could have been solved had Nikon included a Lock Lever like the one found on the D7000. To be fair, I mounted the 17-55 on my comparibly sized D40 body and found the combination poorly balanced. Sure, it worked, but the "feel" just wasn't there.

Build Quality: I suspect, but can't prove, that most D7000 bodies will outlive most D3200 bodies. We may never know, since must buyers of entry level cameras don't rack up the exposures at the same rate as production shooters. But all in all, it would be a rare photographer who would bet his or her reputation, professional or otherwise, on the survivability of a D3200 in an environment requiring a heavy shooting schedule.

Many of the conclusions on the D3200 came from Ken Rockwell's Blog on the camera. I often recommend his blog as providing good, solid recomendations on equipment and techniques for most photographers. But as your photographic horizons grow, you'll be placing more demands on the adaptability of your equipment. The skill set you'll obtain through Ken's blog will satisfy most tastes and needs. But when the time comes when your skills go beyond merely shooting in Aperture Priority, you'll need a camera that has the features that will keep up with your skillset. You'll find a lot more growing room if you go with a full featured camera.  

Addendum: December 12, 2012: An important feature is lacking in the entry-level Nikon DSLR cameras: The Commander Mode feature for the built in-flash. This allows the user to control a comptible Nikon speedlight wirelessly from the camera. A valuable feature if you own a Nikon SB600, SB700, SB800, SB900 or SB910 speedlight.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bouncing Behind Ya'

Had an interesting evening photographing Olympic Champion Greg Louganis when he spoke at a fund-raiser in October of 2012. I employed a high ceiling bounce, complete with Black Foamie Thing, to eliminate head-on glare. I know that in these situations I've said that flash should be avoided, but there were two important factors that influenced my decision to use it. First, there was no supplementary lighting on the podium, and more importantly, I wasn't the first one to use flash. The organization's own "hired gun" had a powerful Quantum flash mounted on a light stand strategically positioned in provide lighting for the speakers. Since my light would be bouncing off the ceiling, it would be far less distracting so far as the speakers were concerned. It's not every day you get to be the good cop.

As you might recall from my earlier posts, you need to take a lot of shots to get one that will work. Here, the important things to watch out for are the placement of the hands and the "view-ability" of the face. With the microphone off to the side, we can get a clear view of his face. I might have preferred to have the hand a little closer to his face, but this was the best of the group.

One other important consideration is whether a speaker gestures with his left or right hand. I've found it easier to get an acceptable image if you photograph from the speaker's weak side. This way the arm never crosses in front of the body, making it easier to make a photo that appears to be more open.

Getting It Together: Setting up this shot did require some prompting on my part. Right after the speech, I immediately went to Mr. Louganis, introduced myself, and spoke of my good fortune in being assigned to hotograph an Olympic Medalist. Then I added, "I'm sure Paula (the event's honoree) would be thrilled to have a photo taken with you. Would you help me with this?". Presented that way, how could he refuse? Excusing myself briefly, I found Paula and told her I had arranged for her to be photographed beside Greg Louganis, which pleased her to no end. As I brought her to where Mr. Louganis was standing, I managed to to convince Michelle, the event coordinator, to join us.

Bouncing From Behind: For this small group shot, I positioned my subjects about ten feet in front of a convenient wall. I did not make a custom white balance for the shot because the beige color would not have a negative impact on the overall coloration of the shot. One nice thing about using the BFT is that it acts like a barn door to force the light to bounce from a relatively high position. This can be helpful when photographing people wearing glasses because it reduces the on-axis bounce-back. While the light is soft, it is directional due to the relatively high position.

Shadow Fill. I noticed that the "chin shadow" for Mr. Louganis is quite dark, while Paula's shadow (center) has some illumination, and Michelle's shadow, looks very well filled. I wondered about this until I realized that the fill light was provided by the clothing and skin of the two ladies, but Mr. Louganis, clothed in black up to his neck, had no fill whatsoever. This is totally beyond my control, but at least I now know why it's happening.

Something To Remember: One final note. While I did submit this shot to the paper, I didn't think to thank, then dismss, Michelle so I could get of shot just of Paula and Greg. Had I thought of this, I would have had a bit more freedom in composing the shot. Fortunately for me, I could produce a suitable 8X10 by simply cropping.

While this is still an acceptable shot, it would have been much better if I could have stepped back a little reduce the "in your face" aspect of this closeup. But this was a lesson learned, and I'll add it to my list of things to remember the next time I'm called upon to make a similar photo. I suspect my pennance will be twenty minutes of age appropriate re-touching, which could have been avoided if I had thought to isolate my two subjects and shoot from a greater distance.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Shutter Actuations and Camera Life Expectancy

 Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in  Casablanca.  Warner Brothers 1942

"Well, I guess that's the way it goes... one out and one in."

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) said it best. Ugarte has been arrested. Ilsa just walked in to the club.

One of my beloved Nikon D70s bodies just went kaput. I had nicknamed it "High Miles" because this EBay special, while pristine on the outside, had nearly 20,000 shutter actuations when I got it. It served me well, but succumbed to the twin maladies of a failed card interface and an auto focusing problem, both of which were revealed during a routine sensor cleaning. The card interface is/was a well documented problem with the earlier D70, and was supposedly fixed in the D70s. I can state that the camera's demise had nothing to do with the number of shutter actuations, the real subject of this post.

Single lens reflex cameras are complicated pieces of machinery with lots of moving parts. And like most modern things, repairs usually entail the replacement of an entire module rather than a detailed inspection and targeted repair. Typically, a shutter mechanism replacement will run around $300.00 and in some cases is more than the camera is worth. Then too, you replace the shutter and then the mirror box goes out. The aforementioned card interface replacement costs about $250.00, which I had done on another D70s body. I'm just guessing on the cost of addressing the auto focus problem, but a potential repair bill of $500.00 doesn't make sense for a camera that I only paid $250.00 for, if that.

A new, older D70 body has come into my life. Nicknamed the "Centipede", the body was purchased for the princely sum of $100.00. The firmware had been properly updated. But was my new purchase lemon or lemonade? The body cleaned up nicely, and I resisted the urge to immediately clean the sensor. Instead, I ran an Opanda check.

Opanda is a free download that allows you to view the EXIF data that accompanies your digital image. Along with exposure information, the number of shutter actuations can also be found. Some earlier DSLR cameras don't carry all of this information. The data will look like this:

For my new Nikon D70 Body, the selected image was actuation #9,822.

A serious used camera shopper might consider downloading Opanda to his or her laptop and carry it when shopping. When a likely purchase shows up, one could make a quick reference photo and save it to the SD or CF card you just happen to be carrying. Open the Opanda application and read the card using the computer's built-in SD slot or an accessory card reader. A too high shutter count could be the deal breaker. Incidentally, this won't work on older DSLRs and Point and Shoots of any vintage.

Camera Shutter Life Expectancy Database
This web site allows you to evaluate how far along your camera is, so far as expected shutter life. As I said earlier, this gives real world data from camera users who submit the shutter count when a wide variety of cameras "die".

Checking the site's data on the D70s (the closest match I could find), I found this data:

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. Mark Twain had that right. For the most part, I use this data as an indicator of when my camera is getting ready to bite the dust. Based on these figures, my little D70 has a ways to go. But as it gets further along in years, I'll be less likely to carry the camera for any serious photographic outings.

Why The Names? I started naming my D70 bodies because some of them had faults that could affect their reliability if I carried them on an assignment. Two of the bodies have non-functioning pop-up flashes, which is handy to know if I ever needed to use the built-in as a Commander. Two have a strange sensor problem that occasionally yield images with smears or odd color interptetations. These shortcomings a listed , along with their nicknames, on a stick-on label that I attach to the LCD protector. If I really need a reliable body, I'll choose either "Prestine" or "Best One Yet", knowing that they have been checked and have had no functional issues to this point.