In praise of crappy hardware

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I’ve had the privilege and frustration of working with both the best and worst hardware of a wide variety of types. I say this independent of cost, as often it isn’t a good indicator for suitability to a given task – in fact, this is increasingly true as cost increases and your tools get more specialised. It’s also not always true given reliability issues, customer support and other general electronic weirdness and histrionics. Perhaps crappy is an unfair term that probably does the hardware in this discussion a disservice. If you haven’t noticed, the industry has been changing silently but surely: the midrange has gone high end, the high end has gone stratospheric, the bottom end is gone, and the midrange has gone downmarket. We now have multiple $3000-4000 FF ‘pro’ lenses released as par for the course and nobody blinks an eyelid (compare that to just a few years ago when only the Otuses were in that territory, and the same lenses were in the $1000-2000 range). We have the ‘low’ end of medium format now below the high end of full frame – $4000 Fuji GFX50R vs $7000 Leica M10 – and we have some true bargains at the beginner level. We have entry points into full frame at sub-$1000 (albeit in older hardware, though still available to buy new). That’s a psychologically significant number; it’s the price point of the Nikon D70 and Canon 300D back in the days of the first actually affordable DSLRs in the early 2000s. What if we go lower still?

Whilst the D3500 kit is normally $400 with the 18-55 or $450 if you feel like adding the non-VR 70-300 to the bundle, it represents the current bottom of the barrel for Nikon. (Similar options are available from Canon, but unlike the D3500, they use a much older sensor – the 18MP thing in the 4000D dates back to 2012 or thereabouts, and it shows.) Depending on your luck and timing, you could probably find an earlier D3300 or D3400 for slightly less money, but they lose out to the D3500 in one important way: the grips on those cameras are far too small, and not at all comfortable to shoot with. The D3500 finally inherits the smaller body from the D5500/D5600 (the former which I liked quite a lot) and with it, a much deeper place for your fingers to rest. It shares a sensor with the D5600, which lacks PDAF points, but is otherwise state of the art. I lucked out on mine – some idle eBay clicking one night yielded a new kit for a little over $300, shipped. At that price, I figured there was nothing to lose. The weird thing is its predecessors don’t seem to be much cheaper, if at all.

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How wrong I would be. It seems that money now buys you a camera that has been through so many design iterations and minor refinements that the minor bugs have been ironed out and most importantly, the whole thing just works. There is not feature overkill, but sufficiency. It doesn’t do a lot of things, but I suspect that’s because it had to be simplified enough for the target market to be comfortable with. And that’s just fine with me. I’ve always been uncomfortable with unnecessary complexity: there is a high chance something is going to be set up in a way that you don’t want or can’t easily change precisely at the wrong time, costing you the shot. The Sony cameras have always been like this, made worse by features that can be mutually exclusive (but not explanation of why or warnings when you set one or the other). Honestly, sometimes you just miss a camera you turn on, set exposure and shoot. Yes, only the middle focus point is anything approaching reliable, but it’s good enough, and surprisingly fast with the 18-55 AF-P. I treat it as centre-focus-and-recompose and haven’t had a problem. Overall, the camera just feels snappy: instant on, very fast AF with the AF-P lenses, 5fps, good write speeds, and no waiting for menus and the like. Controls are in familiar places and muscle memory is happy to take over. Why can’t all cameras be this well sorted?*

*Actually, I know why: because simplicity doesn’t sell to gear heads, and that’s most of today’s profitable photography market.

I could go into an extended discourse on image quality, but that would somewhat defeat the point of this piece. It’s more than good enough – a clear step up on M4/3, and the JPEGs are surprisingly decent out of camera. Tonality for B&W is very good, color accuracy could be better (I find skin tones a bit too saturated) and fine detail handling is nowhere near as good as the D850/Z7 which I suspect are running much more sophisticated algorithms. Unfortunately you can’t upload custom curves, but remember again: it’s a $400 camera, including the lens. RAW file quality is of course much better – leaving little, if anything, to be desired at lower ISOs, and good quality to ISO 1600 or so. In short: more than good enough.

I don’t think too much when I use this camera. It’s cheap enough and durable enough that it usually just gets tossed into a bag naked, or into the glovebox, or something similar. It’s light enough you don’t notice it’s there if you’re already carrying a bag for something else, and feels good enough to handle and use that you don’t regret not bringing something more ‘serious’. In fact, I’d argue it’s the very lack of seriousness that is rather liberating, which in turn carries through to the way you use it. Compositions are somehow a little less rigid/ formal and more spontaneous; you experiment more; you’re okay being a little faster and a little looser – except by you, I mean me, and in that time the camera has already focused properly and you don’t have shake issues since the lens is stabilised. It actually feels much like the large format equivalent of an iPhone for photography, if that makes sense: you see something, make some adjustments on autopilot, shoot, and move on. The process is neither painful nor especially enjoyable, but the results are predictable and often surprise you for being better than you’d otherwise expect.

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Outtakes: the effects of zero gravity/ return to gravity on ageing.

Actually, I lie: it feels a bit less fiddly than the Ricoh GR I recently tried (I blame that on the loss of several physical control points in the latest generation). It’s also faster in every way (especially focus) and image quality is well, pretty much identical. It’s also about 40% of the price, at least in my part of the world. You lose pocketability and half a stop of lens speed, but gain the entire 29-85mm range, an optical finder, massively better battery life, and of course access to other lenses. Living in a hot climate, you tend not to have the pockets anyway – so whatever you carry beyond keys, wallet and phone goes in a bag. Size, up to a point, is moot. But the battery life IS a big deal – I think I’ve charged the camera perhaps once since buying it, with about 2,000 frames so far. And even then it wasn’t flat – just one of the three segments fell off. If it’s as linear as my other Nikons, I could probably have gotten away with not charging it yet at all. It’s the only camera I own one battery for (and don’t feel range anxiety with).

Most importantly though, it’s one of the few tools I’ve used of late that serves as a strong and visceral reminder that photography is about images first and foremost. The tool is effective enough but also unremarkable enough that you don’t really notice or think about it and just make the damn picture – maybe that in itself does make it remarkable. Take for instance my choice of illustration for this post – Sophie was jumping on the office sofa again, trying to cross her legs in midair and land sitting down – with the flying cushions and strong graphic themes of background image and her own stripes, it felt much like Philippe Halsman’s photograph of Dali (Atomicus). We also happened to have another piece of hardware recently acquired for a specific purpose** – a Godox AD400 – on a lightstand. I did about thirty seconds of setup: move stand, turn light on, dial in 1/16 power, set camera to manual and max sync speed, pop up flash to minimum power to trigger the AD400 – and shot off a few frames. Total shoot time, a few minutes; total hardware cost, about $1000 (excluding sofa). I should probably have thrown a polar bear in there since there were no cats handy, but I didn’t want to break the spontaneity of the moment – and with a four year old, it’s seldom recoverable once lost. She (and I) are thrilled with the results. Yes, a Hasselblad and Broncolor strobes would have been better, but we’re not printing murals with it. Know your purpose and all that – I’m pretty sure social media will survive just fine.

**Very tight background highlight control using cut gobos immediately behind diffusion material

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The point of all of this is of course that the result was what I envisioned; the hardware was capable enough to achieve it, but not fiddly enough to get in the way, and reliable enough not to halt proceedings. I could see the facial expressions well enough in the finder, AF was fast enough to track her bouncing, shutter lag low enough to allow careful timing (but 5fps available if needed), and flash durations short enough (1/4000s or so at T1 and 1/16 power on a 400WS strobe) to properly freeze motion – no blurry hair, no streakiness. In fact, I suspect the AD400 is the D3500 of studio lighting: color consistent to 75K, very short (0.9s at full power) recycle times; 400 full power shots on a charge with the option to run off the mains, built in radio and optical triggering as well as TTL capability; 9 stops of control, and a whole bunch of different interchangeable mounts. Did I mention a gridded snoot was all of $20? The last time I looked, you had to get a Profoto B1 for this, at many times the price, unable to run off mains with less battery life, and twice the volume and weight. The other Godox options were pretty bad, too: zero color consistency, inconsistent power and very long flash durations. It seems in the last few years whilst I was focusing on the shifts happening at the bleeding edge of the market, I somehow managed to miss arguably more signifiant changes happening at the other end. Never has it been easy to get results this good with this little effort or cost. MT

The Nikon D3500/18-55 kit is available here from B&H (get the two-lens kit if you’re feeling particularly flush) and Amazon
The Godox AD400 is available here from B&H and Amazon

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Comments

  1. Ming, what are your thoughts on the Nikon VS the Fuji X series cameras? I actually still have my Nikon D90, though don’t use it much due to neck injury. I was.chasing after the smaller gear (Sigma DP Merrills-sold-sick of SPP software), Sony NEX, and A6000 hated their lenses and top-heavy with anything but kit. Maybe I’ll just go back to the D90, though I do find that the files are not as good as with the newer tech. Seems like the D90 is kind of behind the times, especially when dealing with low light. I want to jump on either the Fuji X100F or Fuji X-Pro2, but the cost is prohibitive for me these days and I am sick of buying gear. I almost hopped on that Olympus Pen-F but worried it wouldn’t be enough dynamic range, (also heard Olympus micro 4/3rd is going bye-bye at some point and APS-C seemed like the sweet spot before doing FF, which I don’t need). I’ve always liked the Fujis for that, though they do not come any where near in detail as the DP Merrills, they were much more useable in all ISO ranges.

    Your opinion, Fuji X100F (X-Pro2) or Olympus Pen F? I recall you raving about the Pen-F being so much nicer. I need small, which is why I don’t go back to Nikon. (Still can’t get rid of it though. I just slap a 50mm 1.8 on it on occasion.) Thoughts about this?

    • I’m not a fan of the Fuji UI/UX – I tried to like it, bought an X100 and XT1 at one point, but still can’t get along with them. The sensor performance and lack of shadow recoverability don’t help either – you might get very good jpegs, but there’s nothing extra in the raw files. I’d take the Pen F over the Fujis, and the D3500 over both. But as usual – the hardware doesn’t matter because it’s all good enough. Down to your personal preferences…

  2. Darrell says:

    How do you feel about the output of this kit compared to the Canon G1X Mk 3 which you previously owned? I have for a long time thought that manufacturers would do well to produce a small light but highly specked camera aimed at people upgrading from mobile phones or older photogs that over the years have eventually grown tired of heavy unnecessarily overcomplicated DSLRs but still very much want to create quality output. Surely it can’t be that difficult to launch a product that ticks all the boxes can it?

    • Significantly better. The G1X3 was nowhere near as responsive and the whole camera just felt…clunky and just not very fluid. High ISOs were noticeably noisier. The JPEG engine wasn’t as sophisticated, either – and the lens was ok but not spectacular, with less effective IS. It was also expensive!

      Not difficult but when wars seem to be fought over spec sheets, who knows what people will actually buy? Common sense is…not common.

      • Darrell says:

        If you were looking for a camera with roughly the same form factor and weight of the G1X3 for general use what would you go for?

  3. Asif Iqbal says:

    My Nikon A broke recently. I was quite fond of the camera. Any suggestions on a modern pocketable 28mm of equivalent/better quality?

  4. So really, the only real reason that you’d consider the D5500 and D5600 (instead) would be for video use?

    I really like this article… It goes to show how spoiled we are for photographic equipment. (The technology has surpassed my skill level for quite some time, so it is humbling how far I have to go to improve my skills – over buying new gear…)

    I hope that you make a smartphone version of this article. Which smartphone’s camera is “good enough”? 🙂

    • Or if you do a lot of low angle stuff, or if the price difference was really negligible (on the low end stuff sometimes there are exceptional deals on a particular model if they want to clear them). I’m not sure how good the video quality of the D5500/5600 is – never used it for that. I’d probably go with a used E-M1 at that point; video on that is a known quantity and the stabiliser really opens up massive handheld flexibility.

  5. Asif Iqbal says:

    Is the D3500 kit sufficiently different from the Pen-F that you previously used in terms of weight/image quality/ergonomics?

  6. I’ve read contradictory information about whether the lower end Nikons bodies create RAWs 12 bit or 14 bit. This might be worth pursuing, both the question itself and then whether this distinction is visible in results.

    • The older ones were definitely 12 or even 10 bit. I think the newer ones are 14 bit lossy compressed or 12 lossless, as opposed to 14 bit lossless/uncompressed selectable on the higher end bodies. There is a difference in the way the older ones handled highlights, but it’s less obvious in the newer (24MP DX) bodies; whether this is related to sensor improvement or raw file headroom, I can’t honestly say.

  7. Great article Ming. I almost bought into the Nikon F system a while ago when I was looking at m4/3 and ended up with m4/3 for a few reasons: 1) I have shaky hands and I know it. It’s nice having every lens I use stabilized 2) Lens size and 3) Most recently, weather sealing for travel.

    If I could go back in time, I might’ve gone Nikon. You can get the D3500 with the 18-55 VR and two batteries for $500 CAD from Costco Canada brand new. If you want to go up market, the D7500 with the 18-140 ED VR and two batteries if $1,400 CAD. You cannot even get an EM-1 MkII body only for that up here.

  8. i love it!!!

  9. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    B&H just announced an new special on the D3500 – around $430, with the shorter zoom and a 70-300. A great buy for anyony it would suit.

    • Yes – except that 70-300 is the NON-VR version, which makes it rather limited in usability – 450mm-e at f6.7 without a stabiliser is going to be mostly blurry.

  10. schralp says:

    The D7500 is quite a bargain now and adds the front dial, a brighter viewfinder and a tilty-filppy screen for low and high angle shots. It is also a very ergonomic camera and is more than sufficient and still quite lightweight. I have just ordered one but your post is making me wonder if I should have picked up the cheapo lens combo for just $200 more.

  11. Roberto says:

    Hi Ming,

    How is focusing indoors with incandescent light? Any need for an IR cut filter?

    • Doesn’t seem to be, but hard to tell if my body needs AF fine tune as well or not. This is probably the one weakness in the system: Nikon are expecting you to use cheap slow lenses to allow DOF to mask AF errors…

  12. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Since your post appeared, Ming, I have been struck by several thoughts.
    One – that younger people in general make more use of cellphones than cams, for photography.
    Ditto – “complete amateurs”.
    Two – that there’s been a bit of a swing back from high end gear, as “serious ‘togs” seek more fun & creativity, and lose some of their earlier excitement over “more pixels” and “more features than ever before”.
    Three – that the industry is losing its sense of direction & ignoring the views of customers, in the face of declining sales – which could lead to some catastrophes.
    There are others, of course – but that’ll give you an idea.
    It’s nonsense for the industry to blame its woes on cellphones. Camera groups and clubs are thriving. Women of all ages are pulling “cameras” out of their bags, or strolling around with a camera around the neck. Some at least are dumping on digital storage and going back to prints.
    The demand is still there – but those who need it most seem to think the apple will simply fall off the tree, without them having to look for it. And having spent most of my life as a business consultant, I have to say that’s a hell of a way to run a business.

    • If anything, there’s more awareness of and appreciation for photography now than ever before. Cellphones sell on the basis of their camera features alone. The overall market size of serious photographers has expanded. But what hasn’t changed is camera company conservatism…

      Make a solid, well-thought out product from the point of the consumer that offers a different experience and it will sell. Fuji and Sony clawed huge gobs of market share off Canikon because they offered something different. Hell, even my watches sell…

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Quite. People buy things because THEY want them – not because someone in Canikon wants to sell them. Right now, for example, I want a quality zoom that covers w/angle to short tele – something of the order of 24-75, f/2.8. I shoot Nikon. What’s on offer? – an older, inadequate version (which they should have updated & replaced by now) – or the one for their Z7 mirrorless, which is no use on my Niks – or save the cash and get a Tamron instead. Leaving me wondering how to translate “are you guys nuts?” into Japanese.

        • The 24-120/4 VR. Personally, I think one of their most underrated lenses. And performs well on the D850, with less field curvature than the 24-70/4 S, too. I’m also told the 24-85 VR is good if you can find a good sample.

  13. Great post. Your kid’s jumping pics are adorable. I have very similar pics of my kid jumping on sofa in 2004. I shot that with Sony’s 3mp cybershot camera that time 😀

  14. Very nice Ming. One of my friends (and a client of my portrait photos) wanted something to shoot kids soccer and other simple events and I recommended the D3500 + 2 lenses kit. She bought it from my favorite camera shop, and she also bought the 35 mm DX for indoor use with her new baby. Now for me to help her learn how to use it.

    I’m pleased to read about your delight with something so downmarket when you’ve been the top-end guy for so long. I wonder about the D3500 + lenses as a cheap and cheerful companion for myself, but also for my son. But in a few years – 4 year old and ILCs seem like a bad idea. The Nikon tougher camera (W150) on the other hand, seems like a fine idea. And as I recall I think she’s using something like that in a recent article from you.

    • Actually, I’ve always used whatever best suits the purpose. High value client work with specific requirements means top end tools. Casually liberating photography means casually liberating, deliberately non-serious tools. This has not changed since day one, only my objectives have varied.

      Sophie is using a W100 but sometimes also an ancient 300D I found for $50 in a bargain bin in Japan…

  15. Great post – great photographs! Thanks for sharing!

  16. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Ming,
    The expressions that you caught in the first and last photos, just great!

  17. Hi Ming
    I think you are right. There are so many various reasons why we pursue photography, one is being just in the state of equilibrium shooting and feeling no need to process and look/print the images afterwards, other maybe fascination of well executed machinery, etc. They may be/are intertwined. (Nirvana = Hassy in the outback! 😉
    I want to congratulate you to your little one, seems to be a lively, charming being. Nice to see young life imaged with such great skill!

  18. Whitney Dunn says:

    Ming, do you find the mirror slap of the DSLR a little off-putting for personal/intimate work? I’ve recently picked up a D7500 and was surprised at how loud it was having used mirrorless and rangefinders the past few years. It made me feel very self-conscious and isn’t, in my view, great for more intimate work. I much prefer the subtlety of the mirrorless cameras.

    I’d have to agree with your point on sufficiency. The D7500’s an incredibly polished design. My list of firmware upgrades begins and ends with: make the info screen settings touch enabled (they’re bizarrely not); for hardware, all I’d add for a hypothetical D7600 is the D500 focus system and a thumb nubbin. There’s irritatingly little to complain about.

    • Not really – the new cameras all have a Q mode that lowers the pitch of the shutter and keeps things fairly quiet. That said, if you’re photographing in CH it probably isn’t that personal or intimate since there’s action to capture; or if it’s that personal/intimate the subject isn’t likely to mind too much. 🙂

    • GD Morris says:

      I’ll second your assessment of the D7500. I had been trying out a number of options for scanning slides. The slides are 60+ year old Kodachrome, very well preserved. First I tried a dedicated slide scanner. Average time to process a slide was nearly 15 minutes and the software sucked. Next I bought Nikon’s latest slide holder (ES2) and I tried the Z6 with a micro Nikkor lens. Terrible results. The Z6 was terrible processing the color (flat, washed out, and dead looking) and focus was hit and miss. I bought a D7500 just after the recent price drop. Whoa! Puts the Z6 to shame. Accurate focus and the Kodachrome colors are as well saturated coming out of the camera as the actual slides. Nikon has been making this line of camera bodies for about 10 years and they nailed it with the D7500.

      • Surprised to hear that about the Z6 – both on the focus and color front. Presumably RAW? I don’t think any of the default jpeg color profiles quite get slide repro right.

        • GD Morris says:

          In a modest amount of fairness to the Z6, I was still trying to get a routine down for shooting the slides. I abandoned the Z6 part way through this experimentation. When shooting the slides with the Z6, I would aim the camera towards a 5000K LED light source. I’ve found a better light source is a very white foam core board outside in direct sunlight. I aim the camera setup at the white foam core board and shoot. This produces the most accurate color reproduction.

          As for focus, I have nothing to add in defense of the Z6. It just was not that accurate. At the late stages of my Z6 trials, I resorted to manual focus. That was a bit more accurate but in the end, I’m getting much sharper images from the D7500 autofocus than either autofocus or manual focus with the Z6. To paraphrase Marie Kondo, the Z6 was not sparking joy.

          • Color transmission vs reflection is something rather important with slides – 5000K through doesn’t mean they’re best viewed projected through 5000K, so I’m not surprised about the color issues. Personally I’ve always found a slightly cooler source helps as the native color balance tends warm to begin with. No explanation for the Z6 AF issues you encountered though…

  19. This was a fun read. Memories of my old D40 and catching my own kids jumping in mid air. Good to read about “good enough for the intended purpose”. I shoot 1 inch sensors as well as full frame and often the small sensors are good enough. Perspective on life is always welcome.

  20. “It’s more than good enough – a clear step up on M4/3..”

    You really think it’s better than m43? Better images?

    • There’s definitely more latitude/DR at base ISO, and a slight resolution/microcontrast bump.

      • thanks
        what i was thinking was that “spontaneity factor” you mentioned. I used OMD EM-10 for 4 years, used daily, framing on LCD…I almost forgot how it was to hold DSLR, but I remember it was different feel…and perhaps i got different results…
        how do you see this boy compared OMD line?

        • I prefer the ergonomics and size of this, though of course the OMD line has more features and better stabilisation etc. Somehow the OMDs felt like ‘serious’ cameras but with a certain delicacy of hardware (not in a good way), but this doesn’t.

          • Olympus photos are always sharp out of the camera. Is it because of stabilization? Because when I look at pictures from entry level DSLRs shot with kit lens, they just don’t feel as sharp….

            • Lots of reasons. Optics, processing, stabilisation, focus accuracy, user error…the last one plays a big part: how many users of entry level cameras know what they’re doing, and how many who know what they’re doing use entry level cameras?

              • I wonder why experienced users would not use (in bigger extent) say D3500?
                Also, if you take phone photography, I don’t see so many unsharp photos among all type of users compared to these entry level DSLRs.

                OMD EM 10 is entry level as well and there I don’t see sharpness problem. Phone snaps and makes sharp photo most of the times….

                So, I hesitate if focus accuracy and stabilization in entry level DSLRs is so inferior to mirrorless cameras…

                • They probably do, but I suspect those enlightened enough to ignore the internet are also silent and blissfully so.

                  Phone cameras overprocess the heck out of an image to make it acceptable – perceptually at small sizes they look good, but not at 100%. Mirrorless usually has IBIS. I suspect the entry DSLR programming isn’t quite as smart as the phones and as a result magnified user mistakes – doesn’t help that you’re guessing AF point in a small finder and it isn’t always clear if it’s locked into foreground or background. Worse as most users don’t check either. Bottom line again: user error. I personally don’t see any significant compromises in IQ, if anything, IQ remains tangibly higher than small format mirrorless. But then again I do know what I’m doing…and yes, I’m using the all plastic 18-55.

                  • Look at this photo in full resolution from D3500 done by experienced photographer. In smaller preview it looks OK, but if you click to enlarhe to 100 % you see horrible unsharp details. https://www.fotoguru.cz/files/DSC_0113.jpg
                    Why is it so? Maybe I am wrong, but I didm’s see such thing on Olympus OMD photos…. (maybe i never look at them in 100 % view…).

                    • We’re going around in circles here. This only confirms what I said before: it looks like a mix of camera shake and and poor JPEG settings. Maybe there’s some sample variation in the lens at play, but I doubt it’s that bad – the all plastic automatic manufactured stuff tends to be quite consistent because the materials used are binary. Here’s a 100% crop of a SOOC JPEG from my camera, also D3500 with 18-55 AF-P VR kit lens:

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                      Doesn’t look any softer at the pixel level than my Z7 or D850…and in all fairness, I’ve seen some pretty crap images come out of MF gear by famous photographers, too.

                    • Thanks, Ming, appreciate your answers. The sharpness of the photo above is amazing. You convinced me.

  21. Interesting thoughts, Ming. On the opposite end of spectrum, re the FF arena, what do predict is coming soon? D6 with somewhere between 24mp & 36mp; D860 with a 60mp Sony sensor?

    • No idea. How would a bit more MP improve the image? At this point, we’re already seeing the beginning effects of shrinking photosites. Shrinking further might improve tonal transitions but start to impinge on dynamic range, and that’s not a good tradeoff in my book.

      • Suppose I’m optimistic in believing there may still be some albeit marginal gain in overall IQ coming with next generation FF sensors.

        • There usually is, but the margin keeps shrinking. You really have to go up a sensor size (preferably two) to see a significant difference. Sensors now are getting consistent enough technology-wise and efficient enough at gathering light that we’re back to results being proportional to area; I do realise this sounds much like film…

          • I agree. As I’m still shooting with a D800E (and in most every respect completely satisfied with the file quality), maybe next generation 60 mp FF sensor will be enough better to justify upgrading. We’ll see!

  22. raticus says:

    I feel a case of “reverse GAS” coming on. Lately, I’ve been kind longing for the simple and fun solution, this after a long journey from D40 to D5100 to D7100 to D750 (and a recently added D7500 + 16-80). I feel like I”m moving in reverse, and the D40 has great appeal through the biased lens of my memory. I’ve used the 18-55 AF-P VR on my wife’s D5300: this is a FUN combination. I’m of a mind to put a 35mm 1.8G DX on the D3500 and call it a day, and have the 18-55 in my pocket. Light as a feather. Unencumbered by too much thinking, and too much heavy gear. (But damn, I’d still shoot RAW).

    • I kinda think any sort of equipment lust is GAS, be it expensive or cheap since it’s adding more. I had a D40 too, and also remember it as being great (but probably better than it actually was). The 35DX never really did it for me somehow – probably still my whole aversion to 35mm lenses on any format because of the way that FL renders – but the 10-20 seems pretty interesting. If you like the D5300, the D5500/D5600/D3500 generation is even better as they sorted out the grip: the body may be small, but it has one of the most comfortable grips of any camera I’ve used. It’s actually even a bit taller than the Z7 so my fingers feel less pinched.

      RAW+JPEG here, but most of the time the JPEGs do the job if you’ve set it up right…there is more of a difference between JPEG and RAW here than on a Z7 or D850 running the latest EXPEED processor, though.

      • raticus says:

        Ah, you called my GAS bluff, so true. My favorite prime is the 58mm 1.4G on my D750, I really like that combo. However, the 35mm DX is an entirely different kind of shooting because of it’s minimum focus distance, you can get up really close, and with a light camera like a D3500 (or D5300 in my wife’s case) it can be a fun kind of shooting. I can’t see much difference between the 50mm 1.8G on D750 or the 35mm DX on D5300, but I’m no expert either, other than DOF pretty much.

        I end up shooting RAW because Active D-Lighting (ADL) just messes up my brain with JPEGs. What do you do with ADL? I should probably turn it off and pretend it doesn’t exist.

        • raticus says:

          I forgot to mention, we have the 10-20mm. I think Nikon has really hit home runs on the the DX AF-P VR zooms. I can’t help but think they’d all be perfect for the D3500, or any DX camera for that matter. But they’re small and light, the AF-P and VR work great, and the images are great. Not much to complain about.

        • Heh. Any time you have to buy something, there’s GAS involved…

          I actually find the default low-mids too dark without ADL on. It used to make a haloed mess, but is much better on the later generations. I just leave it on. I’m shooting R+J anyway so if I need to go back and rescue something, I still can.

          As for 35 vs 50/58 – it’s more a projection/rendering thing than DOF or sharpness.

          • raticus says:

            Thank you for your replies, you’re very gracious. One quick question on ADL: do you leave it on Auto?

            Lenses: I think over time we come to “see” in certain focal lengths better than others. I can appreciate your having particular tastes in that regard. I’m still working on that, I tend to like the 50mm-e FOV best for the most part.

            • There’s only two settings on the D3500: ‘on’ and ‘off’ 😂 I use low on the Z7 and D850 though.

              Oddly whilst I like 50mm actual (and whatever-e) on MF, FF, APSC…I can’t work with 35mm actual on any of these formats. I really think there’s a difference in the way they project… (ie translate a 3D/spherical world to a 2D one).

              • raticus says:

                D3500 ADL: Only on/off….for some reason that really cracks me up. (thank you for the tip on ADL low….I may give JPEGs another whirl).

                50mm: I won’t argue with you, I could be persuaded that a cropped 35mm that produces a 50mm-e FOV on a DX camera does not look the same as using a 50mm lens on a FX camera, and that you would be sensitive to those differences, subtle as they may be.

  23. Ha, these are too cute. I haven’t spotted that watch on your site, not yet anyway. 🙂

  24. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    You can’t imagine how much that has brightened up my day – I’ve been looking all over for something like that, to use instead of – or in conhjunction with – my D500. Sounds almost too good to be true!

    • It’s too good to be true for most people because they want to find justifications for things that they want rather than need…but of course need is both relative and contingent on skill 🙂

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I bought the D500 to pair with my D850 – and I’m happy with them. But I need a third cam, lighter, smaller & simpler – with a zoom going from w/angle to portrait range. Your description of the D3500 sounds ideal. Away from home for 2 weeks – I’ll it out when I return home.

        • The D3500 fills the point and shoot admirably well, actually. And it’s much, much smaller than the D850.

          Just curious though, why get the D500 when the D850 does about the same resolution and fps in DX crop mode already?

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            Better auto focus – more suitable for shots of pets and birding. HF means access to longer or lighter lenses for birding. And I’m using it on several projects requiring super tele (up to 1800mm!) I love them both – particularly for their compatibility & interchangeability.

  25. GD Morris says:

    Bless you! This piece is refreshing. So many web blogger/influencers seem to be obsessing over the current tech-trends such as animal shape autofocus, precision eye autofocus and my fav new trend… micro contrast dynamic range. Seriously, MICRO CONTRAST? As if we’re all printing out museum size and museum grade images at 7200 dpi. Most images are shared online; all that micro contrast will go unnoticed. And animal autofocus? Unless you’re tracking a pride of lions on safari stalking a tourist from a helicopter flying 150 miles an hour, this is the ultimate gimmick. I guess when the dynamic micro animal focus vendors are picking up the tab to fly you out to a resort to try their latest stuff, what else are you going to but gush about this stuff.

    The wife had devolved to an iPhone shooter and I have been warning her she will eventually drop her precious iPhone and then what. After several years of warning her, she did drop the iPhone into a bed of cactus. Fortunately it bounced and was easily retrieved. I have since bought her a Canon RP. The EOS lens adapter was included. I paired this camera with the Canon 40mm f2.8 pancake lens. What a terrific combo. A bit more expensive and heavy than your D3500 and lens, but full frame, terrific jpgs, nice RAW files if that’s what one needs. And total weight is 900 grams or about 2 pounds even. This should serve her well for years to come. And she likes it more than the iPhone; it has a grip.

    • Animal eye AF says a lot about the buyers and where this industry is going, and it doesn’t say good things. It says that the marketers and camera companies ave run out of ideas or are unwilling to take risks on significant design changes.

      Microcontrast IS important in hardware because you can’t put it back in afterwards, and it affects the perception of clarity and 3D-ness. But it’s useless if your light is poor or your focus is off or your handholding is shaky…

      • GD Morris says:

        Good point on the micro contrast. Thanks. When innovation is replaced by gimmicks, that is not good for any product.

        • And we’re seeing more and more of that of late. The problem is a negative cycle: nobody buys, so there’s less money for R&Ding a new product, and we see more of the same and less and less real innovation because the accountants cap spending…

  26. Michael says:

    Back to basics at a bargain price. And the “base” in basics has been elevated to a point which would have cost five or six times as much only a few years ago. Thanks for yanking my daydreaming about gear back to something resembling rational.

    • Actually. I’d have given my left kidney for something like this as little as five to seven years ago. Ten years ago, it would have been beyond state of the art and an exchange for an arm *and* a leg – it knocks the D3X out of the park, for instance…

  27. Ah, the beauty of a mature product category: even the entry level items in that category are mighty good.

    Our family’s “best” all-around camera is my wife’s Nikon D3200. It just works. I’m a 40-year film-camera collector and have some mighty nice gear stowed away here, but for everyday we-just-need-the-shot stuff we reach for the D3200 every time.

    • Agreed. Realistically, this class of camera is now in its ninth iteration now – there’s not much left thye can improve without encroaching on a higher category…

  28. Thanks Ming Thien. Not the first time you’ve touched on the subject of sufficiency, but at this point, this sanity check is a breath of fresh air.

    • *Ming Thein. Sorry for the typo.

    • Actually, I’ve been shouting it from the pulpit for some time, but reminders never hurt (and some people have trouble differentiating between sufficiency at an absolute level vs sufficiency for a specific creative purpose, which is most certainly not the same thing… 🙂 )

  29. I think the only problem here is you will need a new couch.

  30. It’s interesting isn’t it. All those years of serious RnD of the “D”line recouped through so many units of much more costly kit and at the end you
    can have a fair chunk of what was learned in this system at an amazingly low price. A couple of spare lens shades for an X1D if I may be as crass as that about it.

    Nice photos.

    570g for camera and lens combined is also pretty compelling – cost aside. Cameras cost us in money, but as we age they also cost us in necks, shoulders, hips, knees and backs! 🙂

    • Absolutely – the trickle down is something we don’t stop to appreciate of the enough, and this goes for all sorts of technology beyond cameras (GPS, for example). As for the D3500 – not quite a couple of lens shades, but certainly at least one battery or so…feels lighter than 570g too, most of the time.

  31. Nice! I was wondering which light you were using when you first posted those photos. I’ve been tempted by the latest Godoxen, but my cheap and cheerful Cacti flashes still work fine.

    • I remember you mentioning these, but had no reason to buy them at the time. However, it seems there’s been a big jump from the c2007 SB900s I’ve been using up to this point and the latest generation Chinese stuff; the earlier/cheaper Godoxes/Youngnuos etc. were terrible at power and color consistency, but that appears to have been solved at the higher end. I’m stunned that you can get a 400WS flash with +/-75K color consistency at all power levels for the price of a SB5000; even Broncolor only does +/-50K. And all this with built in wireless control and ability to adapt to pretty much any mount. Even the modifiers are cheap – $20 for a gridded snoot, $40 for a beauty dish, $100 for a parabolic reflector! It is highly likely I’ll retire the SB900s in favour of the new V1s – if the consistency of output is anything like the 900s it’s good enough, but adding in a very long-lasting and quick cycling (1s) lithium battery and wireless triggering is even nicer. But the best bonus is the round head has much more even output and the gridded snoot/ barn doors give superb specular highlight control, which is what I use most…

      • Some YouTubers have been testing the V1 roundheads, and the evenness is very impressive, even besting the Profoto A1s they were supposedly “inspired” by. I guess we’ll see if these things stand up to the rigors of a pro workload day-in and day-out year after year, and if they even come close, the big flash companies are in big trouble.

        • Agreed on the evenness. Thing is, even if they don’t last as long as the A1s: they’re one fifth of the price here, so even I have to replace them four times as often – I’m still happy…

          • We should think about the enviroment with frequency of gear replacement, though. On another note, the article, like many of your others, is very interesting.

            • I agree if you’re just throwing it away. But if it gives somebody else access at a price they couldn’t otherwise have afforded new, that seems much like recycling to me…

      • The Chinese manufacturers have come of age now – case in point, Huawei. Their phones and network kit is excellent quality and they are technically ahead of the west now. I guess that’s to be expected when you employ 20,000 people in R&D though. A friend from a western network equipment manufacturer visited their R&D campus a few years ago whilst doing inter-operability testing and said the western manufacturers may as well give up because they simply can’t compete.

Trackbacks

  1. […] you think this sounds similar to the present state some other industry, you aren’t alone. This doesn’t mean I’m about to buy a Proton anytime soon, though. […]

  2. […] build could be more robust, but I quite like the fact that it weighs 400g and together with the D3500, yields 450-equivalent and very sharp millimetres for 750g. The zoom ring is mostly smooth but has […]

  3. […] 📷 Ming Thien uses super-high-end gear all the time. But when he tried Nikon’s new entry-level D3500 DSLR, which you can buy anywhere with a lens for just $400, he found it to be a capable performer — all the camera most people need, and almost all the camera even the pros need. Read In praise of crappy hardware […]

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