Sunday, February 23, 2014

In The Shadow Of The Fuji: The Nikon Cool Pix A

The Nikon Coolpix A: 2014 is the lunar year of the Horse. It is also the year of the Fuji X100s. A mini exodus is occurring, as many professional photographers are leaving the tried and true digital single lens reflex cameras in favor of the new breed of interchangeable lens compact cameras. While I will continue to stay with my "old school" DSLR kit, one might surmise that its days are numbered. Cut To The Chase: Click here to read Ken Rockwell's review of the Fuji. Read David Hobby's evaluation here. Read Zack Arias' review here.
The popularity of the Fuji may be due, in part, to the overall decline in sales of the digital point-and-shoot compact camera. Cell phone cameras have essentially absorbed that market, forcing some manufacturers to completely rethink their product line. In short, a camera had better out-perform a cell phone if an average user is to justify carrying another digital gadget. To bring a measurable up-tick in performance, many manufacturers are offering compact cameras with APS sized sensors, no small feat considering the potential heat buildup of this larger chip in the small confines of a compact camera. The aforementioned Fuji X100s is the undisputed champion of the breed, and Nikon's offering, the Coolpix A, was an attempt to give the Fuji some serious competition. Retailing at almost $1,100, the purchase of this new Nikon was almost impossible to justify until I found a used one for about half the new price. I hoped the "A" would make a suitable backup camera due to its resolution edge over my P7700. I felt that the larger sensor and higher pixel count were bound to produce better images. I hoped this would allow me experience some of the Fuji's magic while staying in the Nikon family of equipment. 

Pixel Peeping: Don't look at this photo as anything more that a photo taken in the restaurant that serves as my second office. White balance: Who knows? The mixture of window light, indoor incandescent lights, and who knows what else make for a strange color combination. As for post production, I took a white balance reading on the small sign with the cow near the image center. (1/4 second, F 8.0, ISO 400, camera resting on the counter).

This image (below) was cropped to eliminate everything but the sign. I was impressed by how clean the image was. So far as image quality is concerned, I'm very pleased. Had I known this would wind up on the blog, I'd have set the white balance to "Auto" and let the camera do the heavy lifting.

Here are some of the features I consider cool.

(++) APS Sensor: Image Quality? 16.2 mega pixels on an APS-sized sensor give the A the edge over the smaller sensored P7700. So far, the images look pretty good, closer to what I would have expected from my D7000. I haven't had the courage to take it on an assignment, let alone trust it as my "one and only" when the chips are down. 

(++) Speedlight Synchronization Speed: The Coolpix A synchronizes at 1/2000 of a second, but with exposure clipping when a shoe-mounted SB-800 is set to full-power in the manual mode. When backed off to 1/4 power output, clipping isn't noticeable.

Dashboard  Composite Image
(+) The Dashboard: I will give props to the A for having ready access to frequently used adjustments. Unlike the DSLRs I usually use, these controls are arranged in a dashboard, very much like the one I first encountered on my  the Nikon D40. I didn't care for the arrangement because it replaced the more convenient (to me) Control Panel on the top plate of the camera. All the necessary controls are here, and easy to adjust now that I'm getting used to it. The large 3" monitor makes the adjustment settings easy to read.

(+) Fixed Focal Length Lens: While a 35mm equivalent seems to be the "in" lens to have, the A's 28mm equivalent lens sees the world from a slightly wider perspective. My earlier experiment with a 20mm 2.8 (30mm equivalent focal length) made me conclude that I need a little more spread, so the this lens is a little closer to what I had in mind.

(+) 1.5 Aspect Ratio: Unlike the P7700, the aspect ratio of the A is identical to that of my DSLR cameras. Since I started submitting images to the Journal, I now prefer this to the 1.25 ratio associated with the 8X10 print. This gives the picture editors a little more real estate to work with should the published image require some minor cropping.

Now for the not so cool...

(-) Auto Focus Speed: Not so fast. I knew this coming into the game, and it is slow in low light. But it does have a usable manual focus option, and I might consider using it when the AF mechanism doesn't cut it. Again, this is primarily a sunlight camera, so I give the AF system a pass.

(-) Strange Behavior With Non-Nikon Flashes: There is one modest annoyance. When set to Manual, the LCD Monitor "darkens" as soon as focus has been locked. Nikon called this "M(anual) Exposure Preview" in the P7700 manual, and in user selected option. I suspect it was meant to provide the shooter with a preview of how the final image when appear if the current manual settings were used. In the Coolpix A, it defaults to this Preview Mode whenever a non-Nikon flash is used. 

(--) No Built In Neutral Density Filter: This falls into the "Better have have it and not need it" category. If a person really wanted to have minimal depth of field while photographing in an environment with a sunlit background, you need some major shutter help if you're going to shoot with the lens wide open. Assuming for the moment the the "Sunny Sixteen Rule" is correct, at an ISO setting of 100 you would need a shutter/lens combination of 1/3200 of a second/F 2.8 just to match the sun's brightness. With a 2-stop ND filter (glass or virtual), I can drop my exposure to 1/800 of a second. Alas, it appears the  only way I can get to this exposure Valhalla is to purchase a filter holder/lens hood combination, an accessory I am very willing to buy "on the cheap". Incidentally, a built-in ND filter is accessible in my P7700, and even then I purchased a 40.5mm ND filter to screw into the lens.

(---) No CLS Provisions: Yikes! I didn't realize that the camera couldn't support wireless triggering of compatible Nikon speedlights. While early reviews pointed out that the built-in speedlight could not be used as a commander (the P7700 can do this), nobody noted that an accessory commander (SU-400, SB-800, SB-900, etc) couldn't be used to add this capability. A serious shortcoming and the key reason the A won't ride with me as a backup.

Uh Yah! I was a bit disappointed by the camera's shortcomings. I suspect that if the Cool Pix A gets some traction in the marketplace, there may be a revised release of the camera (Cool Pix A+?). I'm not overly optimistic, since it's too late and too expensive for a company like Nikon to invest in an updated version to compete against the aforementioned Fuji. I'm still impressed by how much technology has been packed into the P7700, and trust it to be an adequate backup for those times when carrying 2 DSLR bodies is no longer an option. I might carry my Coolpix A with a single Nikon speedlight when I'm not actually making photographs, but more as a challenge to my resourcefulness than anything else.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Rant: Get Real!
Rant: Garry Trudeau hit the nail right on the head. However, it is ironic that many readers won't see that this comic strip was a barb aimed directly at them. And it is not limited to photography.

I am fearful that B.D.'s daughter, Samantha, only heard part of the story. Yes, you can be anything you want to be, but wanting something is not the same as getting it. Nobody "gets" a successful career handed to them. The blood, toil, tears, and sweat that are part of every worthwhile venture are like the seeds in the watermelon. You have to deal with them if you're going to eat the fruit. Seedless melons exist, perhaps only for the impatient or those that believe life has shortcuts.

Technique Trumps Technology: Photographers should never mistake advances in technology for mastery of technique. Any photographer who sets his camera on "P" assuming that it stands for "Professional" is misguided, for he or she has essentially surrendered exposure control to the judgement of the built-in computer. Granted, modern built-in through-the-lens metering is remarkably accurate when used properly, so a camera can be counted on to render a reasonable exposure setting for most average lighting situations. But when things go a little south of normal, a photographer needs to shift his own gears and make decisions that will ultimately affect the overall appearance of the photo. The road to mastery is called "Practice", and it will be lined with hundreds of mistakes. And to quote my former student Jeremy Ehrlich's father Don, "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect". As a symphony violinist, he would know. Strive to learn something from every shot you make, and with the miracle of instant image preview, there's no excuse not to.

You Have A Gift: I hear this from time to time, mostly from people who believe that the big camera, long lenses, and auxiliary lighting equipment are what good photography is all about. If one were to go back to my roots, you'd find I learned the craft using my father's Mamiyaflex twin lens reflex camera. Manual exposure adjustment, manual focus, manual everything. Using this camera, I struggled to master available light shooting using ISO 400 speed Tri-X film and a selenium Weston light meter. The Mamiya was so basic that the film advance and shutter cocking were not integrated and both had to be done separately. And with a 12-exposure roll of film, you had to think long and hard before actually making an exposure. Next, I had to find the time to actually develop the film. And when that film was finally removed from the development reel, then, and only then, did you know if you captured a usable image. Looking back, that attention to detail served me well. Digital technology allows me to concentrate on the image itself and to trust the camera to make the more basic decisions. But was I given a "gift"? No. If there are any unique skills I bring to my photography, I earned them the traditional way. No shortcuts, just a lot of trial and error.

Practice Smart: Any photographer should consider how each personal photographic project fits into his or her ultimate career goals. Like photographing people? So photograph people - people you know, people you don't know, people you like, people you don't like, people you find attractive, people you find interesting. Once you had time to accumulate so pleasing images, compare your efforts to a photographer that you admire. When you reach a point where an unbiased observed can't tell your work from theirs, you're well on your way to completing the journey.

I heard of an aspiring photographer who believed that by playing a video game where the hero photographed Zombies, he could improve his photographic skills. I didn't believe it such a game existed. But I recently did a Google search on the word string "Video Game Zombie Photographer", and found this title, along with nearly a dozen others like it. I could be wrong, but unless the game controller looks and handles like a Nikon D4, I doubt seriously that this is a viable substitute for actually photographing actual subjects, whether they are zombies or not. True, there are some good simulations out there, but when you are actually in the field, you'll need much more control over your equipment and your environment than any controller can provide.

This is not about an old guy ragging on this new, digitally infused generation of image makers. I'm sure that their intimate association with the technology has given them access to tools I could only image when I was their age. But just because you are not required to manage the execution of your images doesn't mean that exposure control, composition, and timing are simply quaint notions to be ignored. As in all things, stuff happens, and when it does you'll need to call on your cumulative photographic experience to help you get that usable image. And the "P" setting probably won't get the job done.