Photoessay: Life in Kathmandu, part 3

The final part of my ‘life in Kathmandu’ series. Shot in mid-2011 with a Nikon D700, 24/1.4 and 85/1.4 G. I think this set really epitomizes my ‘cinematic’ style of reportage. Enjoy! MT

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Photoessay: Monochromatic life in Kathmandu

The first part of an ongoing series of the streets and people of Kathmandu, Nepal. Shot in mid-2011 with a Nikon D700, 24/1.4 G and 85/1.4 G lenses.

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Nikon D700 firmware update…

…v1.03 is now online for download here. It’s supposed to solve an extreme underexposure problem (which I’ve never, ever seen in >100,000 frames with three cameras) – but I suspect there may be some additional minor tweaks in there somewhere. Nice to see that Nikon’s still supporting it despite the age of the camera and it’s recent replacement by the D800…MT

POTD: Primary colors

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Primary colors. Nikon D700, 28-300VR.

Here’s a good example of an image that wouldn’t work at all in black and white…to be the subject of an upcoming article! MT

POTD: Flambé

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Baked Alaska. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

Flames are a funny thing – they don’t photograph well. Simply, yellow flame is bright because it contains a lot of incandescent little particles; usually, it’s too bright to photograph well relative to surroundings – you land up losing detail in the flame if you have context, or losing context if you have detail in the flame. Blue flame is almost impossible to photograph because most of its energy is heat – there isn’t much in the way of light-emitting incandescent particles. Flames are also very random in an interesting fractal kind of way; photographically that means you’ve got to do many, many takes – four Alaskas, in the case of this shot. And dozens of frames until we got just the right flame.

The problem for food photography – specifically baked Alaskas – is that the lit brandy you pour over the dessert burns blue, which isn’t so great to shoot. Sure, you could composite flames in after, but it would both look unnatural and just be dishonest. So what do we do? Simple: add a little something to the alcohol that makes it burn brighter, and a little yellower.

Interestingly, this is where the high ISO capabilities of the D700 become useful: ISO 6400 with a good amount of remaining dynamic range and very low noise. I don’t think this shot would have worked as well with the D800. MT

On assignment: Bistro food

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This set shot with a Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro and several SB900 flashes.

I’m seeing an increasing shift in my commercial work these days towards food – as a gourmet (or perhaps as a greedy person) I’m certainly not complaining. Interestingly, food photography actually shares a lot of techniques in common with watch photography – with the huge benefit of not having any reflective surfaces to worry about. But from a lighting point of view, it’s the same.

Last week, I shot what was probably my final job with the Nikon D700 – some highlights of which are presented here. The D800 studio update will probably be towards the end of next week due to job scheduling.

I wanted to use this opportunity to say a few things about both food photography, and draw some conclusions on the D700’s use as a studio camera.

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Food may not have any reflective surfaces, but it certainly presents some challenges of its own: firstly, temperature. Things don’t look optimally appetizing for that long (think ice cream) which means you’ve got to work quickly, and studio strobes are pretty much out of the question because the heat would make anything fresh wilt in less time than your fastest flash sync speed. The solution I’ve found to that is either use low-temperature LED panels or use flashes. For the most part, I use flashes because they’re more flexible in terms of light output deliverable, and have enough power to accommodate larger setups. LED panels don’t have as much throw or power, and go through batteries like crazy. And there are also color temperature issues – so far, very few panels can deliver a relatively even, neutral spectrum – and those that can are both hideously expensive and not all that bright.

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The next challenge is actually detail: most people don’t want to look too closely at what it is they’re eating. I mean, a steak looks great as a whole, but I don’t think you want to start looking at meat fibers and thinking about exactly what motor function that muscle did when it was still part of the cow; there’s a huge compositional tradeoff between detail, suggestion, and emotion.

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Bottom line: food images are about emotion: they must make you feel like you want to eat them. The ultimate litmus test for me is: would I want to order the dish if I saw this image in a menu? Lighting is your one control here: both softness and position of the light sources, and less intuitively, color temperature. (I’ll go into this more in a future article).

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I’m going to conclude with a few words about the D700 as a studio camera. It may not deliver the most resolution, but it does have a few advantages over say a D3x or medium format – providing you don’t have clients that must absolutely have that pixel count. Firstly, there’ the built in flash with commander function – that was the #1 reason why I went for a D700 instead of a D3s, and I don’t regret it one bit. Speed isn’t an issue, but putting an ENEL4a in the MB-D10 grip gives you both speed and an incredible amount of shooting time: I can easily shoot a full day assignment on one battery. This assignment (2,000 frames in total) was completed with 60% power left over on the ENEL4a, and the ENEL3e in the camera still full. Finally, base ISO of 200 gives your speed lights a boost – and even if you don’t need the extra power, it reduces cycle time as well as extending your battery life.

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Curiously, the internal flash can’t handle more than about a dozen shots or so in reasonably rapid succession before it cuts out to take a breather – unclear whether this is due to the capacitor’s limitations, or an overheat protection system of some sort to prevent your prism catching fire (which would probably be a fatal disaster considering the camera is both touching your face and made of highly inflammable magnesium.)

I’m looking forward to the quality the D800 brings, though I can’t say I’m so enthused about the amount of retouching it will require – especially for watches and other similar product. But for food, bring it on! MT

I will be attending the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore at the end of April to conduct some sessions for Leica; details to come soon. MT

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A very long term (and final) review: The Nikon D700

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Bear with me here. The Nikon D700 may be a 2008 camera, (ouch, that’s four years old? Why is he reviewing it now?) and even worse, I received it’s successor – the D800 – on 22 March. (My initial review is up, here) It’s now time to close the book on the D700 – its days as my primary workhorse are just about over; I shot my final assignment with it earlier this week. And that’s the reason why I’m reviewing it – I think I’m now qualified to pass an opinion.

Nikon’s pricing has left a gap in its FX lineup – there’s the D7000 at approximately RM3,000/US$1000; the D300s (though hardly ever bought, and arguably bettered by the D7000 in almost every way) at RM4,500/US$1500 or thereabouts; then we’re into FX territory with the D700 at RM6,300/US$2100 and the D800 at US$3000. Notice how the pricing steps up in nice increments: $500-600 gets you appreciably more camera in every increment – well, perhaps with the exception of the D300s, which is to be replaced soon.

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Kuala Lumpur dawn. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

The D700 was left in the lineup for two reasons: to clear remaining stock, and to provide an entry level option for FX upgraders. And guess what: according to every dealer I’ve spoken to, it’s still selling just as well as the day it was launched. So why does everybody think it’s obsolete? Clearly, because the successor was launched. Hell, even I’m buying one – but only because my D700 has been shot to death and is on the way out; it doesn’t make sense for me to buy another D700 when I could pay a little bit more, and offer more resolution to the clients that require it.

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Alfabeti. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

To me, the D700 was a landmark camera: the same amazing low light performance as the flagship D3, no compromises in AF or features – anywhere – at a price that was affordable to the majority of serious amateurs, whilst being robust enough to deal with professional abuse. I had two of them at one point. It was the first camera – aside from the D3 – that I felt turned me, the photographer into the limitation, rather than the camera or the lenses. If you could see it well enough to compose, you could get a useable image. If you could aim the camera fast enough, it would focus. And it would track subjects with unerring accuracy.

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LED array. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

And from a user’s point of view, that’s the all important question answered: yes, it’s good enough. The image quality is beyond reproach; you get 12 extremely clean, high-durability (more on that later) megapixels – which if used properly, is sufficient for any use. The resolution represents a sweet spot between diffraction limits – f27 is about where it starts to kick in – and depth of field. The large photo sites mean that you have a very high signal-to-noise ratio – coupled with high color accuracy and good dynamic range (that’s what I mean about high-durability pixels). In fact, exposed and processed with care, you can get around 13 useable stops out of the camera – which is right up against the limit of its 14 bit raw files. This does require judicious use of the highlight recover slider in ACR and a little deliberate overexposure (a stop is quite doable) – so you have to plan for it at the time of shooting. In any case, any more dynamic range looks unnatural and flat – remember, screens at best can only display 8 bits of tonal range, and even less for print.

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Seiko ‘Fifty Three Fathoms’. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

Much has been made of the high ISO capabilities of the D3 around the time of its launch; the same holds true for the D700. It isn’t a camera that’s particularly sensitive to color temperature with regards to noise (for example, the D2H and D200 of the previous generation were, due to IR and blue-channel sensitivity issues). Properly exposed, ISO 6400 is clean, and ISO 12800 is useable. To be honest, if you need any higher ISOs than that and you’re shooting wide open with f1.4 lenses, you probably won’t even be able to see the subject well enough to compose.

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Thaipusam. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

Bottom line: image quality remains on par with the best of the DX cameras, even the new 16MP and 24MP ones. The latter may resolve slightly more at base ISO, but they lose out on dynamic range, edge integrity, and anytime you need to exceed ISO 800. Color accuracy is always slightly better, in my opinion. It remains to be seen if the D800 has the same pixel integrity as the D700, given the benefit of four years of development. I’m not expecting miracles due to its pixel density, however.

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BMW 320d M Sport. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

Image quality is the largest factor in the success of a camera as a tool, but usability is right up there, too. Suffice to say that Nikon has been doing this for a long time, and it shows. The ergonomics of this camera are very comfortable, even for extended use, and with larger lenses. In my mind, it balances best with something large-medium – around the size of the 85/1.4, for instance. Larger is a bit front heavy, but still comfortable. If you need more weight, or speed, there’s of course the MB-D10 battery pack – with the right batteries, 8fps is possible. (Curiously, 8fps is also possible without the battery pack if you select flash bracketing, single-shot mode, and hold down the function button to select a 9-frame burst.)

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Teatime. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon

There are a lot of nice little touches here:
– The metering mode switch is still my favorite of any camera; it’s easy to flip to spot when required, though that’s seldom because the 1005 pixel RGB meter is usually spot on. One doesn’t actually appreciate just how accurate this meter is until you use something else.
– Viewfinder blind and eyepiece lock
– The built in flash. Many people question why you’d want to have this on a professional camera, but clearly those people never work with speed lights – I do all the time, and it’s invaluable to use as a remote commander.
– My Menu.
– The ability to use the multi-selector center button to instantly zoom playback images – to check for sharpness – then toggle between the same magnified point on successive images with the command dial.
– Tethered port caps, finally. Too easy to lose the little screw in plugs on the last generation, and much too expensive to replace.
– The battery grip communicates via a series of small contacts on the base of the camera, and doesn’t require you to remove the original battery and battery door: it’s functional with them still in, and much easier to store and put on/ take off.
– Weather sealing – though I wouldn’t complain if it were fully gasketed like the single-digit cameras, it can still survive a pretty serious downpour unprotected.
– Programmable buttons. Give us more, please.
– DX crop mode – useful when you need more reach in a pinch, but will be better if there was more resolution to support it.
– AF fine tune – very, very important with fast lenses.
– Rangefinder with arrows to tell you which direction to turn the lens in; helpful for manual lenses.
– The LCD is actually good enough for you to be able to judge critical sharpness, and with experience, exposure and color.

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Bride leaving. Nikon D700, 24/1.4

But there are also things that need fixing, some of which were addressed with the D800:
– Live view is far too complicated to access – rotate drive mode dial, hit shutter. Should just be a button. (fixed)
– AUTO should be an option on the ISO selection button. (fixed)
– It’s difficult to see the entire finder with eyeglasses – really needs a higher eye point.
– DX crop mode – the masking is far from obvious.
– The focus points could be spread out more; often I still have to shift and recompose even using the extreme points. Curiously, the camera can still track subjects even if they move outside the AF points – it uses the color of the subject and the metering CCD to do this.

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Girard-Perregaux F1-047. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

Let’s talk a bit about AF. Simply, it works. I use either single point mode, with 11 selectable points – when shooting static subjects, and then switch to 3D-tracking with 51 points on the back toggle switch when shooting action or photojournalism. Once you lock on to your subject with the center point, you can recompose and the camera will automatically track. With fast lenses, AF-C is imperative because of field curvature and small movements in either camera or subject – either situation will rob critical sharpness. AF obviously works better when shooting at 5fps because there’s more information reaching the AF sensor, so it’s easier for the camera to predict where your subject is going to go; it’s still good at 8fps, though. Same underlying 51-point CAM3500FX module as the D3-series.

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Chopard LUC. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

Battery life is excellent. A standard EN-EL3e cell will last me a day; easily a thousand shots or more, with moderate LCD use. With the grip and EN-EL4a cell from the D3 series, you’re looking at easily 5000 or more frames – more than enough for a day of use for even the most prolific photographers. And you can still keep your EN-EL3e in the camera if you’re worried about running out of juice. Simply put, this is the longest-lasting camera that Nikon makes, period.

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Nikon D700, 16-35/4 VR

This is actually a very different review to the one I wrote in CLICK! magazine shortly after the release of the camera; I was shooting with a D3 at the time, and didn’t feel that impressed by the camera. But I think I was missing the point: the fact that I wasn’t really missing anything, either, should have been more impressive: flagship performance for almost half the price.

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GUB Marine Chronometer movement. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

Four years later, I’ve shot nearly a hundred thousand frames between two D700s; both have performed nearly flawlessly. My primary body is throwing the occasional black frame, which suggests a sticky shutter issue. I’m loath to send it in for replacement because my camera is also quite heavily modified, which I’m afraid Nikon will undo if it appears at their workshops. At one point, I was shooting all Zeiss manual focus glass; I discovered the hard way that the viewfinder wasn’t really up to the task of focusing accurately with very fast lenses. My finder has a new screen – a Type J bright matte with micro prisms and split-prism from the F6; it doesn’t fit natively so it had to be filed down. The screen has been perfectly shimmed to be planar and perpendicular with the sensor, and the mirror zero return position and alignment adjusted for the same. Basically, as close to perfect WSYWIG as possible. I’ll probably have to go through the same process again with the D800, but I doubt I’ll bother with the focusing screen as I prefer the Nikon AFS f1.4 lenses these days.

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Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

It’s time to answer the inevitable question of D700 vs D800: it’s not as clear cut as you might think. Yes, the D800 offers higher resolution and video but at the expense of per-pixel noise and demands on lenses and technique; in that sense it’s a much less forgiving camera. You’re also giving up the potential of full resolution shooting at 8fps. Ergonomically, both are good; the D800 takes a slight edge due to refined controls, however I personally find the D700 grip more comfortable. The D700 is more of a general, do-anything, go-anywhere camera, but the D800 is a specialist tool that can produce amazing results – under the right conditions.

Although both are clearly interchangeable from a function point of view, if we examine the strengths of each camera, I think the balance splits as follows.
D700 if you:
– Do not make prints beyond 2×3 ft, or use images for digital purposes only
– Shoot a lot of sport or other things that require high frame rates
– Aren’t willing to invest in the best glass or technique

D800 if you:
– Need the resolution for large prints
– Need the increased dynamic range
– Need video capability

In the meantime, my D700 goes into retirement as my backup/ high-speed body. I think I know what kind of beast it is now: the Goldilocks camera: not too big, not too small, just right, and incredibly versatile.

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The giant lightbulb illuminates. Nikon D700, 24/1.4

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