POTD: Seeing stars

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The Milky Way Galaxy

I posted this image on the site’s Facebook page yesterday and received both a record number of likes, shares and responses/ questions – some doubting the authenticity of the image – so I thought it’d be a good candidate for reviving POTD.

Here’s the backstory: the image was shot out of an airplane window at 32,000 feet while returning from the USA tour; my wife was in the window seat and idly wondered if she could see stars, after the crew turned off the cabin lights for the night to encourage passengers to sleep (I suppose to theoretically help them get over jetlag). She stared for a while, acclimatising her night vision, and said there were quite a surprising number. I finished editing the batch I was working on, and joined her at the window. I could actually make out a very faint band of something running through the middle; I thought it might make an interesting photography experiment.

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Quick first thoughts – Nikon Coolpix A and Fuji Finepix X20

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I recently picked up review units of the Nikon Coolpix A and Fuji Finepix X20 at B&H – the store itself is an incredible experience for any photographer, by the way – after a few days of intense shooting during my Making Outstanding Images workshops, I’ve had a chance to put together a few quick thoughts on the two cameras. I will be doing more complete reviews once I get a chance to shoot further with them and pore through the hundreds of images. Until then, this should tide over the curious.

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Major D800/ D800E firmware update (additional: more Nikons, ACR 7.4 final)

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Just got an email from NPS: it appears that a lot of the issues with the D800/ D800E have been addressed (note: I didn’t say ‘resolved’, that remains to be determined after testing) in the latest firmware update A 1.01/ B 1.02. The list according to Nikon:

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Lens review: The Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

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In what appears to be a hideously enormous oversight on my part, I seem to have neglected to review what is ostensibly my most used lens: the Nikon AFS 60mm f2.8 G Micro-Nikkor. As you might expect, I use this lens for the majority of my commercial watch photography. I prefer it over the 85 PCE for images that require high magnification, as this lens natively reaches 1:1 magnification on its own; thus requiring fewer extension tubes to reach even smaller levels of frame coverage.

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Nitro Experiment One

Before we start talking about the lens specifically, I would like to debunk some myths about macro vs micro photography: both have to do with the reproduction ratio created by the lens on the imaging medium; it is format independent. Simply, macro refers to 1:1 or greater magnification (i.e. a 20mm wide object in reality would be 20mm or wider when projected on the sensor plane); whereas micro refers to magnification slightly less than this but more than would be encountered during normal photography – ‘close focus’ might perhaps be a more accurate term. Almost nobody seems to get this right online, even the manufacturers; ‘macro’ mode almost never yields 1:1 magnification, and there aren’t that many lenses that achieve this natively. (I suppose Carl Zeiss gets away with it by sounding German and putting a ‘k’ in Makro-Planar – these are 1:2 lenses.)

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Water on slate

The 60/2.8 G replaces its predecessor, the 60/2.8 D, both of which are 1:1 lenses; unlike its predecessor, it reaches 1:1 through internal focusing alone, and the lens doesn’t extend – the front element on the G is a lot closer to the front of the barrel, and as a result, offers greater working distance at a given magnification than the D (which has a very heavily recessed front element). The lens has been completely redesigned with a new optical formula; it’s a 12/9 design with aspherical and ED elements, as well as Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coating. It also has a silent wave motor, but no focus distance limiter (oddly, the older version did have this). Focusing is fast and silent, but occasionally the lens does get ‘lost’ – if you’re say at the near focus limit and point it a subject at infinity, then sometimes it can hunt and fail to find focus. A quick tweak of the focusing ring solves this. One thing I have noticed with all of the Nikon SWM macro lenses is that they appear to be very ‘nervous’ when focusing at close distances; they’ll chatter and hunt and rack back and forth slightly. This could be because I’ve got the camera in AF-C most of the time, but it doesn’t really make sense given that everything is static – camera on tripod, inanimate subject. Still, I haven’t noticed any focusing errors, even on the D800E; in fact, this lens is the only one I’ve got that doesn’t require AF fine tune correction on any of my cameras.

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I also owned the previous version of this lens, and the difference mechanically is night and day; optically, somewhat less so, but the newer version is clearly better. (I suspect part of the reason why the G appears sharper is simply because it can focus more accurately without any of the backlash inherent to screwdriver-focusing lenses.) The biggest difference in optics between the two version are seen in off-center performance – specifically to do with CA – and bokeh. The new lens has very little lateral chromatic aberration; you have to be shooting something very, very contrasty and bright to excite it. For most subjects and shooting conditions, you probably won’t see any lateral CA at all. Longitudinal CA is a different matter – whilst again better than the old lens (and much better than the 105/2.8 VR), longitudinal chromatic aberration is still visible, as are traces of spherochromatism. It’s not a disaster, but it does mean that some work has to be done in postprocessing to remove traces of this – especially on say, white metal watches. On the bokeh front, the new lens has a 9-bladed, perfectly round aperture diaphragm that makes for very smooth out of focus areas; amongst the best I’ve seen, actually – though at normal distances, a 60/2.8 will not yield a huge amount of separation.

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Alphabet pasta

It’s worth noting that the lens’ maximum effective aperture at 1:1 is about f4.8; this isn’t because it’s a variable-aperture lens, but rather because additional magnification always results in some light loss. The Nikon lenses and bodies are the only combination that reports this correctly – not that it matters, because the meter takes care of any necessary exposure adjustments anyway. I suppose it might be important if you were to calculate flash exposure with guide numbers, but I can’t think of anybody who still does that.

On the subject of flash, shooting into the light yields no problems at all; the Nano-coated element is clearly doing its job when it comes to suppressing flare. (I use partial backlight quite often to clean out backgrounds or help define the texture in watch dials.) Macro-and micro-contrast are both very good, improving slightly on stopping down. I feel this lens has a bit more microcontrast ‘bite’ than overall global macro-contrast; this isn’t a bad thing at all as it helps to extend dynamic range somewhat.

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Breguet La Tradition

I actually don’t have much to say about resolution and optics: what do you expect? It’s a macro lens. There’s almost zero distortion or field curvature, and nothing funny going on with the focal plane. Sharpness is already excellent at f2.8, though with the D800E you’ll probably have to go to f4 or f5.6 to hit peak resolving power across the frame. Note that diffraction softening will set in by around f13 or so with the D800E; I try not to go past f16 unless I absolutely have no choice. That said, you can get away with f22 on the 12MP FX cameras if you need to.

Something I’ve been asked in the past is why I don’t use the 105/2.8 VR instead for greater working distance; the answer is that for the kind of work I do, the 60 actually holds several advantages. Firstly, I don’t need as many extension tubes to achieve higher magnifications*; secondly, the lens itself has much lower chromatic aberration than the 105 – lateral is fairly well controlled on both, but longitudinal is ugly on the 105 – and requires a lot of work to fix afterwards. Finally, there’s the issue of depth of field: for any given aperture, you’ll get more with the shorter focal length**. And given that you’re already challenged to find enough as it is, I’ll take any advantage I can get.

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Who could resist a steak like that?

*The more mounts you put between your optics and your camera, the higher the chance of something going out of plane.

**A longer focal length does not mean that you can stop down more before diffraction sets in; that’s a property of the sensor’s pixel pitch, not the lens.

Of course, for those situations when I really need to manipulate depth of field, there’s the 85/2.8 PCE Micro – note it’s a Micro lens, because it only reaches 1:2 – and its full array of movements. That – and an accompanying piece on the Scheimpflug effect and how to properly use a tilt-shift lens – will be the subject of another article.

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Girard-Perregaux F1-047

For the work I typically do with macro lenses – watches and food – the pairing of 60/2.8 G and 85/2.8 PCE is usually more than sufficient to deal with any possible scenario. If you shoot bugs, or want the lens to do double-duty for portraits, the 105 is probably a better choice; that’s not to say that the 60 can’t do the job; it just won’t give you the working distance or depth of field control you’d like to have. (The optics remain similarly excellent at longer distances – you could quite happily use this as a long normal lens if you didn’t mind the slowish f2.8 aperture; it out resolves all of the ‘regular’ 50 1.4s and 1.8s I’ve used, especially in the corners.) Perhaps the most telling fact I can leave you with is that of all of the lenses I own, it’s the one that’s been with me the longest. MT

The Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro is available here from B&H and Amazon.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Lens review: The Voigtlander Color-Skopar 28/2.8 AI-P SLII

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The small, light Nikon D600 got me thinking about full frame as a viable alternative for a lightweight travel kit again – the D700 and f1.4 primes was smaller than a D3 and pro zooms, but certainly nowhere near as convenient as Micro Four Thirds. Of course, M4/3 doesn’t give you anywhere near the same control over depth of field, and you lose out at least a stop or more in high ISO performance. The OM-D might give you back a couple of stops of hand-holdability thanks to its excellent stabilizer, but there’s nothing you can do about depth of field control short of using the manual focus Voigtlander f0.95 lenses – they certainly fit the bill, but they’re also large, heavy and somewhat defeat the point of a small, light body.

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This is where the pancake primes and full frame come in: a D600 body and two primes make for a very light but also very competent travel kit. And if you shoot film, it makes even more sense. (And naturally, being a 28mm lens, I was curious to try it out.) The 28/2.8 has ridden shotgun in my waist pouch when I go out with the F2T and 58/1.2 Noct; sometimes you just need something wider, and it’s a handy option to have without paying too high a weight/ size penalty.

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The lens is just 24.5mm long (in Nikon F guise; it’s also available in EF mount, which is slightly larger as it has to accommodate the electronic diaphragm components) and weighs a scant 180g; it actually feels reasonably hefty as the entire lens is metal – probably anodized aluminium – and is very well constructed. It’s actually so short that it’s tricky to mount without turning the focusing or aperture rings, as the only portion of the lens that doesn’t rotate is the tiny 3mm wide section in the middle that holds the depth of field scale and index mark. It would have been great to have a locking button on the aperture ring like the ZF.2 lenses, but I suppose Cosina reserves that function for its more expensive siblings.

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Urban monk

Being an AI-P spec lens, the 28/2.8 has a chip to communicate aperture and distance information to the camera; you set the lens to f22 on a Nikon body and control the aperture using the command dials as normal. It will mount and provide full metering and electronic compatibility on any Nikon body. Focusing is manual, of course; would have been nice if there was a way to AF couple the lens – a built-in motor would probably have been impossible, but screwdriver focus might have been within feasible limits. That said, you always have the built-in rangefinder and in-focus confirmation dot (or beep on Canons) to help with determining focus, and the manual focus action is nicely damped and perfectly weighted – they certainly got the feel right with this lens. Since the lens is relatively slow and wide, it isn’t always easy to judge focus by the viewfinder alone – and Nikon’s modern focusing screens don’t help much, either. Most of the time, I could get achieve focus with the viewfinder alone, but on the edges it helps to use the dot: the lens suffers from moderate field curvature.

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The 28/2.8 is a 6-group, 7-element design; Voigtlander does not provide a block diagram or any details about the optical design, but from the way it performs and the fact that it can focus as close as 22cm from the sensor plane – yielding surprisingly high magnification – I suspect that the lens is a retrofocal but non-telecentric design to achieve this. As mentioned earlier, it displays moderate field curvature, some coma at the edges and chromatic aberration until f8 or so. (I tested the lens on the Nikon D600.) There’s also a tiny bit of purple bleeding at high contrast edges.

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Through the looking glass

Sharpness is not a problem: the center is excellent at all apertures, with the border and edges lagging until about f5.6 or so; this is partially due to field curvature, and partially due to coma. Note that if you’re going to use wide apertures with this lens, you will need to use focus assist over the subject – not center focus and recompose. Edge sharpness is not too bad, but the corners never get critically sharp due to radial coma/ smearing; you always feel that things have been ‘stretched out’ a little. No problem; just make sure your subjects are within the central portion of the image circle.

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Not having a huge number of elements, color rendition and contrast are excellent; images are rendered with a slightly warm hue, high saturation and macrocontrast. Microcontrast still isn’t as fine as the Zeiss lenses, but it’s certainly on par with Nikon’s regular AF offerings. This would be a good lens for low contrast scenes, but care must be taken if you’re shooting around noon in the tropics – you’re going to get things blocking up to black or overexposing if you don’t pay attention to your blinking highlights warning. It makes a rather good lens for black and white work, too.

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The morning after the night before

I consider myself a bit of a 28mm aficionado; perhaps fetishist is a better word. I find that it’s the widest I can go and still maintain a relatively natural look to the images without the usual wideangle geometric distortion; I feel that the focal length also matches my instinctive field of view quite well. This means that in my time I’ve owned and shot with a huge number of 28mm lenses and 28mm equivalents; the two I currently own – the Nikon AFS 28/1.8G and Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon are reviewed on their respective links, too. Aside from that, I’ve also got the Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon for my Leica M9-P, the 28/1.8 equivalent on the RX100, the iPhone 4, and an Olympus 15/8 body cap.

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So the natural question would be where does the Voigtlander 28/2.8 fit in – both in the grand hierarchy of 28mm lenses, as well as as a tool; I actually think it has a pretty well-defined niche. The Nikon 28/1.8 G is large but light, has autofocus and pretty good optics; the Zeiss 2/28 Distagon has stellar optics and a unique pictorial rendering, but is manual focus and surprisingly heavy for its size. Both have roughly the same maximum aperture and T stop. The Voigtlander is a tiny slip of a lens that’s capable of excellent results in the center, and decent results at the edges – these optical characteristics suggest it would serve as a good documentary lens (there is some distortion of straight lines which rules it out for architecture), but moreover an option where you a) need something light and small, and b) are unlikely to run out of light – though relatively low light work is still possible thanks to the high-ISO abilities of the current batch of full frame cameras. In short: this is a great lightweight travel lens, especially if paired with something a bit longer – perhaps the 40/2 or 45/2.8P. Now, if only somebody would make a decent focusing screen for the D600…MT

A big thank you to Eric Goh at Fotoman Marketing, the Malaysian distributor for Voigtlander lenses for the extended loan of the review sample.

The lens is available here from B&H in Canon and Nikon mounts.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Lens review: The Nikon AF-S 85/1.8 G

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The Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G (released at the start of this year) is a slightly odd product. Unusually for Nikon, the new version doesn’t cost a lot more ($50, give or take a bit) than the old one; doubly unusually, it isn’t a warmed-over cosmetically-modified version, either. (It’s also now made in China, which might have something to do with it. The old lens was made first in Japan, and then Thailand since 2010.) The 85/1.8 D was a simple double Gauss design with 6 elements in 6 groups; the new one uses a 9/9 optical formula. The elements in front of the iris ostensibly retain the double Gauss formula, but everything afterwards is new. As far as I can tell, the same basic optical principles apply, except every single element in the rear group has been replaced with an achromatic doublet of sorts; not a true achromatic doublet because there’s an air gap between neighbouring elements.

Images from Nikon USA. The D is on the left, the G is on the right. Note far more complex rear group; the pairs of lenses do effectively the same thing as the single lenses in the earlier design. The images are to scale, too – note increase in size. It doesn’t seem to be any heavier, though – and noticeably lighter than the 85/1.4 G.

This complex formula has two benefits: firstly, lower chromatic aberration because there’s that extra element there for correction; secondly, internal focusing is now possible (the previous design focused by moving the entire optical assembly back and forth, like all double-Gauss designs). As far as I can tell, the front and rear elements (possibly more than one) are fixed, and the rest move back and forth. At this point, it’s worth noting that unlike Nikon’s newer optical designs, it’s remarkably free of any exotic technology – whilst the bottom of most lenses now play host to entire essays in abbreviations about Nikon’s lensmaking prowess, the 85/1.8G is remarkably clean. All it has is internal focusing and the silent wave motor – that’s it. There’s no Nano-crystal coating, no ED glass (let alone Super ED glass) and no aspherical elements. Even the new 50/1.8 G employs asphericals!

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Untitled. Nikon D800E

Regular readers of my site will know that I was originally a huge fan of the 85/1.4 G, especially on the D700 for it’s sharpness, quality of bokeh and incredible ability to shoot into direct light sources with minimal to no flare. You’ll also know that despite trying multiple samples, I was never quite happy with the performance of this lens on the D800E; mainly due to lateral chromatic aberration wide open, and so-so edge performance. It’s therefore logical to assume that there are optical quality reasons as to why I’m now using the 85/1.8 G instead. You’d be right.

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Caution. Nikon D800E

In all of my A-B testing with similar subjects, several samples of both lenses – the 85/1.8 G was consistently sharper in the center at f1.8, let alone f1.4. it’s possible that real resolution was identical, however, the 85/1.4 G showed so much lateral chromatic aberration that it robbed the images of perceptual acuity. It was also sharper at the edges – markedly so, especially on the D800E. It’s worth remembering that at f1.8, the 85/1.8 G is wide open, and the 85/1.4 G is 2/3rds of a stop down. Granted, it’s easier to design a good slower lens than a faster one, but then again, the 85/1.4 G has a huge amount of technology in it – ED elements and Nano-crystal coating, for starters. Interestingly, the optical formulae for both lenses are nearly identical.

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Apprehension. Nikon D800E

Bottom line: the 85/1.8 G is sharp at every aperture, across the frame, even on the D800E – providing you nail the focus, of course. There is remarkably little falloff in sharpness from center to edge; consistency and microcontrast improve marginally to f4, but it’s already outstanding by f2.8. I only shoot this lens wide open, which should give you some indication of how I feel about the optics. Chromatic aberration under normal situations is almost non-existent; a remarkable performance. Even though this lens has 7 blades instead of the 9 of its predecessor (and 85/1.4 G), bokeh remains pleasing, neutral and smooth. I’ve yet to see any odd artefacts like double imaging or nervousness, but there is a tiny bit of spherochromatism (color fringing) in the out of focus areas. In fact, it’s one of the better-rendering lenses I’ve used in this regard. Color transmission is neutral, per the current crop of Nikon lenses; though the saturation is unsurprisingly not as high as the Nano-crystal equipped optics.

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Phonecall. Nikon D800E

You’re probably wondering what the tradeoff is, given the huge gulf in price between the 85/1.4 G and 85/1.8 G; the last line should have given you a clue. It has to do with contrast, saturation, transmission and flare. It seems that the Nano-crystal coating makes an enormous difference to all four; the 85/1.8 G takes a noticeable hit in every area compared to the 85/1.4 G (it still improves on the old lens in every way, however). The problem stems from flare; when you have extraneous light bouncing around inside the lens between elements – a good coating minimizes reverse reflections off air-glass surfaces – everything else suffers. The most obvious manifestation of this is under backlit conditions, of course – especially when there is a bright point light source in the frame. The 85/1.4 G shows almost zero flare; the 85/1.8 G gives an enormously spectacular trail of reflections off what appears to be every single element. This can be pleasingly cinematic for atmosphere or video work, except the lens has no hard infinity stop, which makes focus pulling challenging. For stage/ performance work, it’s a pain in the ass. Unfortunately, the supplied hood makes no difference simply because it can’t block light from entering the front of the lens – and it’s these rays that are causing the problem.

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Ugly flare – and this is after correction by burning and desaturation. Nikon D800E

Internal flare also lowers contrast; macrocontrast especially. Microcontrast is a bit worse, but not by much. By f2.8 both lenses are neck and neck here. The knock on effect is a reduction in overall saturation; no surprises here. Perhaps the least obvious, and most surprising side effect is a huge reduction in transmission (read my article on the difference between T stops and f stops for more detail). At any of the wide apertures, the 85/1.8 G transmits between 1/2 and 2/3 stop less light than the 85/1.4 G; this is to say that if both are set to a physical aperture f2, then you’ll find the 85/1.8 G’s required shutter speed for a given exposure to be noticeably lower than the 85/1.4 G. In other words, if you set 1/100s f2 ISO 200 on both lenses, the 85/1.8 G photo will be underexposed by 1/2-2/3 stop. The reason is because a lot of the light entering the lens isn’t making it to the sensor plane, thanks to suboptimal coatings.

That said, it’s still better than the old lens.

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Less ugly, more cinematic flare – but still flare. Nikon D800E

The new lens gains a silent wave motor and loses an aperture ring; it’s still plastic, but now the crinkle-finish variety to match the modern bodies and lenses. The plastic type appears a lot less brittle than the 85/1.8 G, though admittedly I’ve never had issues with any of the older lenses other than a propensity to pick up scratches easily. The silent wave motor isn’t any faster than the screwdriver method; it’s about the same, actually – especially on a body with a high voltage built in motor like the D3 or D4. The difference is in precision: it’s a lot easier to move a coreless linear motor in the small increments required to adjust for small changes in focusing distance than a geartrain with associated backlash. In practical terms, you’ll find the new lens a lot more precise than the old one. (It still remains useless if you use an older camera that requires an aperture ring.) The lens also gains environmental gaskets, making it a good choice for pairing with a similarly sealed body.

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Solo. Nikon D800E

I thought that it would be easy to write a conclusion to this review; it isn’t quite so straightforward. I’m going to turn it around a bit instead:

Buy the AFS 85/1.8 D if:

  • You shoot with a manual focus camera, or want to use the lens both on your Nikons and other systems via an adaptor – otherwise you’ll have no aperture control.
  • This lens is optically inferior to both of the G versions, and not much cheaper than the AFS 85/1.8 G.

Buy the AFS 85/1.8 G if:

  • Resolution at maximum aperture and CA are important, i.e. you shoot with a D800/ D800E.
  • You want lower contrast because you shoot with an older, lower dynamic range body
  • Size and weight are important; the lens is noticeably lighter and a bit smaller than the 85/1.4 G.
  • Price is important
  • You like cinematic flare.

Buy the AFS 85/1.4 G if:

  • You need as much light gathering ability as possible, or shoot frequently under very low light conditions
  • You shoot into bright point sources a lot
  • You shoot with a lower resolution body
  • Notice I haven’t mentioned bokeh yet: the 85/1.4 G is slightly better than the 85/1.8 G, but it doesn’t justify the increase in cost.

The Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G is available here from B&H and Amazon; the AFS 85/1.4 G is available here from B&H and Amazon.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Film Diaries: Revisiting film under the pretext of creative development

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Followers of my facebook page and those who joined me for the Tokyo workshop will know that I’ve recently acquired two vintage cameras, ostensibly in the name of investment, however in reality it’s simply because I enjoy using cameras of this generation; they really don’t make them like they used to.

For the curious, my acquisitions were a 1979 Nikon F2 Titan, and what is approximately a 1986 Nikon 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor Aspherical*. In my mind, these two represent pretty much what is the pinnacle of 100% completely manual technology. The camera body is 33 years old, and looks just as pristine as the day it left the factory floor. (I doubt my D800E will be functional 10 years from now, much less 33; I think the batteries will be long dead and unavailable, and the media and file formats either unsupported or unreadable. Hell, my D2H is already dead, and judging by the slow disappearance of cameras from just six years ago on the secondary markets, it’s likely that a lot of those have either died or entered a quiet retirement too.) Testing the shutter speeds using a digital stopwatch and point-and-shoot on long exposure with the film back open is proof that despite its age, the mechanicals are still functioning perfectly. This is actually fairly amazing given the condition of the camera, because either it has not been used, or was shot by exceedingly careful and paranoid photographer. It is unclear, though unlikely, that the camera has ever undergone a CLA. At the time of writing, the accompanying lens has not yet arrived from Japan so I will refrain from drawing conclusions; however, given the relatively simple nature of the mechanics inside lenses, I’m not expecting any issues.

*In case you’re wondering why I selected this combination, there are some simple reasons: firstly, because I’ve always wanted an F2T since seeing one – the paint finish and weight are much like a modern Nikon, but the rest of the camera is entirely classical. Secondly, it’s familiar to me because I shot extensively with an F2A before; thirdly, the camera distills everything down to the bare minimum – no custom functions or AF issues to worry about; you focus where you want, you adjust exposure manually, hell, it has no meter, let alone DX coding or exposure compensation. Part of what I want to do is retrain my eyes to be my meter – I have this skill, but it isn’t accurate enough for my liking – a stop plus minus isn’t good enough for slide film or digital. At the moment while I’m learning, my Sony RX100 has now become a ridiculously over-specified meter.

For a person whose photographic credo throughout the digital age has pretty much followed the pursuit of perfection through control, you probably are going to think that the use of film is a little unexpected, to say the least. My history and experience with film so far has been somewhat chequered. Not counting my use of film cameras in the days before I had any meaningful interest in photography, I had a brief affair with a Nikon FM3a in my early digital (D70) days; I couldn’t get along with it and in the end landed up trading it in (with one of the rare black 45/2.8Ps) for a 12-24. I think I shot all of four rolls with it. Then, when I got serious, I picked up another film camera (Nikon F2A); the majority of my learning of photographic techniques was accomplished in parallel on both film and digital. In fact, I even shot watches on slide film (of all things), manually calculating guide numbers, diffusion factors, magnification factors and bracketing just to make sure. I got so used to shooting film, that I was almost treating it like digital. This led me to put on the brakes once again; I simply could not afford to pay for the amount of slide film and processing that I was running through on a weekly basis, much less find time to do the scanning.

At this point, we enter a silver halide desert. The next time I even so much looked at a roll of film was in mid 2009, when I picked up a Leica M6TTL as a backup body to my M8. The two biggest things I remember about that experience were that I completely wasted the first roll because I loaded it incorrectly, and as a result landed up with precisely zero images on it; and secondly the feel of the horizontal cloth focal plane shutter of the film Leicas is completely different – much smoother and quieter – than the vertical-travel, metal-bladed units in the modern digital Leicas. I think I must’ve used it on and off for a couple of months, and then decided I wanted the 50 Summilux ASPH more – so off it went.

By this point, I was too preoccupied with both work and the seemingly newfound degree of control that I was able to obtain through digital capture. There were also things I simply could not easily do with film – such as dodging and burning – unless I developed it myself – and I definitely didn’t have time for that. Ironically, this is one of the reasons that I am choosing to revisit film at this point. I’m finding myself spending far too much time in front of the computer post processing. It isn’t because I’m slow – far from it; it’s because I’m trying to do more with each image, and I’m simply shooting a much larger number of images these days.

Of course I am not shifting my commercial work back to film; that would just be stupid. There is no way, I can achieve the same degree of control and quality as I can with digital. And I’m certainly not going to take the risk of something unforeseen happening to the film in the intermediate process between shooting and client delivery. For the mall, there is simply no way I can keep up with the volume if I have to develop and scan every single print plus don’t forget this also dust spotting, retouching and color/ density correction required. Needless to say, I don’t think any of the clients these days would be impressed if you had to bill back the film costs – especially if you shot the same number of images as you normally would with digital.

For my pistol what however, I feel that it’s time to shift gears. I’m definitely experimenting and shooting more, but the improvement seems to be incremental and diminishing. Perhaps part of the problem is that I’m simply shooting too much. I need to be more selective before I take the picture; and again after take the picture. If this sounds like a breakdown in the editing process, that’s perhaps because in some ways, it is. Even though I usually throw away 98% of what I shoot in the quest for perfection every single frame, that 2% is starting to become quantitatively a very large number. Combined that with ever increasing file sizes, and the usual photographers attachment to the images which they shoot, and you have a recipe that’s going to eventually result in either of two things: you spend all of your time processing your personal work and doing nothing else, or you eventually give up shooting for yourself altogether. Obviously, neither of these is a ideal; the first results and you not having any income; the second, creative stagnation. (I’m not sure which is worse for a photographer. I suppose we’re all somewhat accustomed to the former.)

The unstriped come up with, is that I need to find a balance. A change to my shooting process that forces me to think even harder about the image before capture; to minimize the amount of postprocessing I have to do by ensuring that the critically important elements of a strong image are already in place before I press the shutter; and moreover something that forces me to think differently from a creative point of view. I need to play mind games with myself in order to improve to the next level. I suppose I could accomplish most of the former by forcing myself to shoot cameras with relatively small files, and even then only with a very small card – say 2GB, which is probably good for about the equivalent of two rolls of film in a D800E, or even 512MB, which would get me just over a roll from a D700.

The problem is really the creative portion. Although I find changing equipment does frequently force me to think differently, I spend just as much time figuring out how to get the most out of the equipment as shooting, which of course results in more experiments, more files, and even more computer time. This would just land me back in square one, not to mention significantly worse off thanks to the depreciation costs of new equipment. I even seriously considered switching to medium format at one point. However, this would have to be as much a commercial decision as a creative one, and the market in Malaysia, plus the majority of my overseas work being macro-centric simply does not justify the increased expenditure.

It seems as though once again there are good reasons to revisit film. In some ways, it’s much like shooting with a compact; you are removing an element of creative control so that you are forced into making the most of the others. This element of course is postprocessing and post-capture control**. The other added bonus is somewhat progress; every time you press the shutter it cost you money – I calculated to be around $.40 per shot, including processing. This makes you think very carefully before you push the button. I’ve met a lot of people say, that if you get one keep up on a roll you doing well; however, I think my keeper rate is far, far higher with film the digital; simply because it forces you to do everything you can to get the image right the first time. A nice bonus is that it’s also possible to try larger formats for not that much money; possibly because nobody seems to want the equipment anymore, and partially because the gear will be second hand, and therefore not lose a lot of value when you eventually move on and resell it. (You might well even make money on some of the rarer equipment – at least, that’s part of my plan with the F2T and 58/1.2; I also see a Hasselblad 501CM in my future.)

**Granted, I will be digitizing the negatives using one of the Nikons and a slide coping adapter, which of course creates the opportunity for me to intervene digitally at this point, but that’s not the objective of the exercise – there will be far fewer images to deal with, and I’m almost certainly not going to be doing any heavy duty RAW processing.

You’re probably wondering why there are no images to accompany this post. The reason why is simple; it’s because I haven’t developed any film yet. Instead of shooting hundreds of image a day, I’m now shooting perhaps half a dozen, if that. And I’m fairly sure (providing I didn’t mess up loading the camera), that the images I do eventually show will have helped my creative development. You’ll just have to wait and see. MT


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Mid term report: The Nikon D800E

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I’d long ago intended to post a full review of the Nikon D800E, but somehow that got lost in a flurry of work, left-side AF problems, and repeatedly having to answer the question of ‘which camera should I buy?’ – note that this has now gotten even less straightforward now that the D600 is an option, too. And then there was the fact that it wasn’t really that different to the original D800, which I already reviewed here (I believe it was the first complete one up on the internet, actually). But now, I think enough time has passed, and I’ve used the camera under enough situations (and somewhere in the region of 20,000 images – almost all of them on-assignment) that I think it’s about time for a mid-term report card. This won’t follow the form of my historical reviews; rather it will take the form of a series of annotated comments. Some apply to both the D800 and D800E.

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Apples. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

One general observation is that it seems Nikon got the product mix wrong – most of the photographers I know bought the D800E over the D800, figuring that if they were going to go all out with resolution, they might as well really go for broke. I suspect this is contributing to the limited availability of the camera, despite the D800 being in stock – Nikon’s facilities were probably geared up to produce more D800s, but the demand is in favor of the D800E. I was recently told by NPS in Malaysia that while the D800 is readily available, the D800E is still back-ordered for a month or more.

I’m going to start with the bad first, to get all the negativity out of the way upfront.

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Dragonfly. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

Something still doesn’t feel right with the autofocus system.
Although my camera no longer exhibits any asymmetry with its focus points following the recalibration and fix by Nikon Malaysia, it just doesn’t seem to be as positive or accurate as the D700 was (or D600 is now). There are situations in which the camera nails everything perfectly, and situations under which it just seems to miss by a hair; far more of the latter exist than the former. And no combination of AF settings seems to work; this means that the D800 is effectively an unviable proposition to me as a documentary/ reportage camera. Bottom line: I’m not 100% confident that it’s going to focus where I tell it to.

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Up or down? D800E, 28/1.8 G

The viewfinder is nearly useless for manual focusing.
Sure, it’s big and bright and covers 100% of the frame, but the problem is that it just doesn’t have enough focusing ‘snap’; it’s very difficult to tell when things are in critical focus or not, which is made doubly critical by the extremely high resolution of the sensor. It seems that all modern focusing screens are really just optimized for brightness with slow zooms. I would have done the same thing I did to my D700 – namely, cut and fit a custom screen from one of the other cameras I like – the F6 type J and FM3A type K3 are my favourites. However, the D800’s focusing screen is so enormous that this simply isn’t an option – I think it actually has the largest focusing screen of any Nikon to date, which means there are no suitable donors. I’m trying to get hold of an original screen to see if I can make it more matte on my own, perhaps by grinding it down with 1200 grit sandpaper. (You’re probably wondering how I use the camera at all without AF and a good finder – since most of my work with this camera is tripod-based anyway, live view comes to the rescue.)

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The ZR012. D800E, 60/2.8 G Micro

Demands on lenses and technique are high.
It’s not the pixel density, but the pixel density for a given angle of view – this is the highest it’s been for any consumer/ prosumer level camera (i.e. non-medium format) to date. I think a lot of people confuse this with pixel pitch. The bottom line is that if your lens covers say 90 degrees horizontally, then the D800E puts much more resolving power per degree in the hands of the average photographer than they’re used to; this places corresponding demands on lens quality and technique (focusing, camera shake etc) than the vast majority people can manage handheld except under good light. I can’t even get a consistently sharp image unless I’m over 1/2x focal length – and I’m certain I’ve got better technique than average. This, and the size of the files (a throughput issue) make it impractical for a documentary/ travel/ journalism camera. Oh, and you’ve got to use good lenses too, which tend to be large and heavy – not ideal for walking around with.

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Eleven. D800E, 28/1.8 G

The live view exposure implementation needs work.
If you shoot manual exposure, live view mode always shows you a preview of the actual exposure. Guess what this means if you’ve got things set up for a studio strobe exposure with zero ambient: a black frame! You’ll have to toggle back and forth between P and M modes to focus, which wastes time and is unnecessary – especially since they fixed this on the D600. I hope it’s something that gets addressed in a future firmware update. Or, at least give us an option…

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Bored. D800E, 28-300VR

There are a few ergonomic fails.
The mode button is more and more annoying the more I use the camera – it’s just impossible to reach without contorting your grip, and muscle memory from using every other Nikon pro body means that you will almost inevitably try to change exposure with the video record button and back dial. The D-pad lock switch is too loose, and easy to activate, meaning that you may not be able to change focus point at a critical moment – and then be left wondering why, while your shot disappears. By a similar token, the metering mode switch is too stiff, and difficult to operate with the edge of your thumb. Aside from that, ergonomics are spot on. What I don’t understand is why Nikon seems to make minor changes between generations to both things that need fixing, and things that work fine as they are…

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Polo. D800E, 28-300VR

The shutter appears to have a vibration issue around 1/30s or so.
I’ve noticed a strange blurring/ double image that occasionally pops up in the 1/20-1/40s range; even with everything locked down on a heavy – Gitzo 5 series systematic – tripod and studio lights; the only conclusion I can come to is that somewhere in the shutter or mirror mechanism, something is vibrating at that natural frequency and creating a bit of camera shake. The solution around this has been to use live view and the self timer when required; it of course doesn’t require the mirror to cycle.

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3T MRI. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

File handling is…chunky.
This isn’t a flaw of the camera. But the increased amount of detail means even larger files than the D800; you’re looking at 40-50MB routinely for a compressed NEF. It would be a waste to shoot jpeg with this camera, of course. This is one of the reasons why I tell prospective buyers to think very, very carefully about whether they really need such large files: it has a knock-on effect on everything else from processing to storage. I usually open my raw files in batches; with the D700, my current laptop can happily handle 20; for M9, OM-D and RX100, it’s about 15; for the D800E…I think a threshold has been crossed somewhere, because it’s more like five.

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Sarpaneva Korona K0. D800E, 85/2.8 PCE

Now for the good news:

Visible diffraction is offset somewhat by the lack of an AA filter.
My work requires small apertures on a regular basis; the diffraction limit for the D800 was visibly between f8 and f11, with all other things equal. The lack of an AA filter allows you to claw back some perceptual sharpness (though remember that diffraction is a property of the pixel pitch, and still sets in at the same point for both cameras) – all other things being equal, this allows a D800E image at f16 to have the same perceptual sharpness as a D800 one at f11 or thereabouts. Handy. Needless to say, at smaller apertures, the D800E provides a noticeably crisper image – there isn’t necessarily more resolution, but the pixel acuity is definitely higher.

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All about the hair. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

Moire is a non-issue for the majority of circumstances.
I don’t shoot a lot of fabrics or repeating patterns, but on the occasions I have done, I’ve seen very, very little moire. And these tend to be studio situations anyway, which means that I’m at small apertures; I can always have the option of removing any aliasing by stopping down a little bit more and letting diffraction take care of things for me should the situation arise. Conversely, I can’t add the acuity back to the D800’s files.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Moon detail. D800E, 60/2.8 G Micro

Image quality is impeccable.
After working regularly with good D800E files, it makes me feel as though my other cameras are all lacking something; however, the knowledge that you really have to have all your ducks lined up in a row to make the D800E sing is enough for me to remain happy with the image quality from the rest. That said, the D800E is easily the best DSLR at the moment for any form of controlled lighting or tripod work; color accuracy and dynamic range are both superb; pixel acuity is beyond reproach (with the right lenses, of course) and – barring the aforementioned issues – usability is excellent.

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Spiral. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Battery life is outstanding.
Both the D800 and D800E have excellent battery life – easily 2000+ shots per charge without use of flash, or 1500+ if the built-in is used as a CLS trigger – which means that I only have one spare battery. This is a first for me: even my D3 had two spares. In fact, I think the real-world battery life of this camera is bested only by the D600.

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Omega Speedmaster 9300. D800E, 85/2.8 PCE

It doesn’t feel that heavy.
Even though the camera isn’t much lighter than the D700, you do notice the difference after a day of shooting with it – my hands just don’t feel as tired as they did when I was using the D700. Perhaps it’s also a function of grip shape. I don’t know if this has negative consequences for camera shake and stability, though – probably not, since the D600 is even lighter and seems fine (though admittedly it also has a much lower-vibration and slower shutter).

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How the other half live. D800E, 28/1.8 G

Overall, the impressions are good: very seldom is there a camera which I would consider perfect or close to it (the D700 was probably the last one) – the D800E pushes the image quality envelope forward by a significant margin, and with this necessarily comes compromises. The mistake I think most people make is in thinking that if you used the D700 with great results, you should be able to do the same with the D800E; no. Even for somebody who pays constant attention to shot discipline, you will find situations under which the demands of the sensor exceed your ability at that moment to achieve a pixel-level, critically sharp image. I know, because it’s happened to me several times.

This brings me to the final portion of this report card: I want to conclusively answer the ‘what should I buy?’ question once and for all.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Latitude. D800, 60/2.8 G Micro

Buy the D600 if:

  • Size and/or weight is a priority.
  • You are coming from a DX body that doesn’t have the same controls as the pro bodies (anything except the D2H/D2x/D300/D200)
  • You just want a general purpose FX body, and getting the large sensor ‘look’ is your priority.
  • You want resolution for large prints but can’t afford a D800E.
  • You shoot mostly handheld
  • You shoot a lot of live view work in the studio
  • You don’t print larger than 40×60″ or so

Buy a (or keep your) D700 if:

  • Budget is a priority – second hand D700s are abundant now, and cheaper than new D600s. They’re still capable of producing excellent images – I still use mine for reportage work.
  • You need speed or AF tracking ability – it has more coverage than the D600, and (I feel) higher precision than the D800E. It also runs at up to 8fps, which none of the others can.
  • You do a lot of low light or marginal shutter speed work – it’s just more forgiving for handholding.
  • You shoot in hostile environments
  • You don’t print larger than 20×30″ or so
  • Workflow throughput is a priority – events, weddings, sport etc.
  • You shoot mostly handheld
  • You don’t need video or live view

Buy the D800E if:

  • You need to have the absolute best image quality in a DSLR available now (due to lenses, or budget vs MF, or whatever)
  • You don’t mind using studio lights and/ or a tripod to maximize image quality
  • You don’t mind re-evaluating your lens lineup
  • You shoot a lot of video – it has manual exposure controls and power aperture than none of the other cameras do
  • You need to print larger than 60″ wide
  • You don’t mind (and have the hardware to) handle enormous files

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Nadiah. D800E, 45/2.8 P

And what about the D800? Well, I honestly can’t see why anybody would bother unless money is super-critical, or you shoot a lot of fabric –  the price difference to the D800E isn’t big enough to be a factor if you’re already committed to spending that much money, and it requires almost as much shot discipline and lens quality anyway. Finally, if you do a lot of long lens work – wildlife or similar – then you should probably look at a DX body instead; cropping isn’t going to up your frame rate much, or improve AF ability; the D600 and D700 probably won’t have enough resolution for demanding applications in DX crop mode, either.

I think what says the most about this camera is the fact that I only use it on assignment – it isn’t my first choice when I’m shooting personal work, or teaching (except in studio), or just going out for a while and feeling like I want to do some photography; something’s missing. And I don’t know if it’s the file sizes and processing that subconsciously puts me off, or something AF-related, or perhaps I’ve just moved on from feeling the need to carry a big camera for reassurance. Bottom line – I’m just not bonding with it in the same way I did with my D700, or even D2H for that matter – and those were even larger and heavier cameras. All of that said, I wouldn’t dream of using anything else for critical commercial work. MT

The Nikon D800E is available here from B&H and Amazon and the D600 here from B&H and Amazon.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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On Assignment: concert photojournalism

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Tompi. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

I recently played the role of official photographer for a producer friend’s concert – it was a moderately large affair featuring a good number of famous local musicians. The nice thing about this event was that it was large enough to have professional acts, decent lighting and good organization, but not so large that I didn’t have access to everything – and I mean everything, including the stage itself during the performance*.

*One thing a good concert photographer should never do is interfere with the act; so even though the stage might be open to you, one should never get between the performers and the audience unless it’s absolutely necessary, and even then only for the shortest possible period of time. Oh, and remember that the shutter sound carries quite clearly through any microphones that have been placed near equipment.

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Through the legs. Nikon D700, 28/1.8G

Although I’m not normally a huge fan of the types of music being played, I have to say this was one of the more enjoyable events I’ve attended and shot; I guess I’d be the restless type of concertgoer who’s only happy with a camera in hand and backstage pass – not so much to meet the artists, but to shoot. Although it’s the first photojournalism assignment I’ve done in quite some time – and the first concert assignment in many years. (In 2005/6 I was the house photographer at one of the jazz clubs in Kuala Lumpur, but I eventually stopped because I wasn’t getting enough sleep after gigs and before work the next day.) This job made me realize just how much I missed photojournalism.

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Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

There were a number of photographers there from other local/ national media and international agencies; the locals were mostly using midrange APS-C bodies, kit lenses and off-brand flashes; you could tell the major agencies by their standard issue pro bodies and f2.8 zooms. Interestingly, the proliferation of lower end cameras amongst media/ newsmen – at least in Malaysia – has been getting increasingly common as these organizations seek to cut cots. I can understand the bodies passing the threshold of sufficiency and being capable of producing great results in the hands of any competent photographer, but the use of slow kit zooms just hamstrings the ability to create a picture that preserves the ambient light and feel of the scene without resorting to a flash.

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In the moment. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

From experience, I know that when wearing my photojournalism hat, the lighter you can go, the better. I was carrying my D700/ MB-D10, 28/1.8 G and 85/1.8 G for close distance coverage; the OM-D and 100-300 rode shotgun for more reach. (I was also carrying the 12/2 and 45/1.8 as backup in case the D700 developed a problem, plus an SB900 for balanced fill which I didn’t land up using. My motto is go light, but not so light that you have no insurance when it comes to equipment failure.) Many of you will know that the new Nikon 28/1.8 G has proven itself to be a very capable lens even on the demanding sensor of the D800E; I’m pleased to report that both the 28 and 85 f1.8 G lenses performed flawlessly on the D700, both in terms of focusing accuracy and optical performance. The 85/1.8 G does exhibit some moderate flare with strongly backlit point sources (the hood makes almost no difference here), but I personally don’t mind it as I feel that it adds to that atmosphere and pictorial value of the image somewhat.

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Keyboards. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

The big surprise of the night was the OM-D and 100-300 combination, however. I didn’t use AF-C; most of the time careful timing, a short burst and the extended depth of field for a given FOV due to the smaller sensor was enough. It’s rather counterintuitive for DSLR shooters, but I find that with the OM-D, just depressing the shutter all the way down and trusting the camera’s AF system yields a considerably higher hit rate than using AF-C, or worse, AF-Tracking. The 100-300 delivered excellent optical performance, even out to the 300mm limit; due to the lighting conditions I was working wide open the whole time. The lens did hunt somewhat above 200mm, but so long as I was in the ballpark, focusing was reasonably fast.

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Blue note. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

So far, no surprises – I’d shot with the 100-300 in good light conditions, and been pleased with the results. The OM-D, on the other hand, seems to excel under tricky mixed-light or strong-color situations; to get a sufficiently high shutter speed – I was in the 1/45-1/60s region most of the time, at 300-400mm equivalent – I was solidly in the ISO 3200 to ISO 6400 band. In all honesty, I don’t feel the files were noticeably more noisy than the D700 for a given ISO; the only place where the smaller sensor made itself known was in dynamic range – the D700 had probably two stops extra on the OM-D. I can definitely see where the 75/1.8 would be useful though – 100mm was a bit long at times, and the extra 2 1/3 stops (probably more in transmission) would have pushed image quality even higher still.

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Strumming out. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

All in all, a very satisfying nights’ work. Come work delivery time, the litmus test is always the client; I’m happy to say that this one passed with flying colors. “I can’t stop looking at the pictures, they’re amazing!” was the text message I got a few days after delivery. So, anybody else need a concert photographer? MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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One – Ramli Sarip. Nikon D700, 85/1.8 G

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This is what rockers do. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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The loud pedal. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

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Thank you to my band. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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The hair. Nikon D700, 85/1.8 G

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Olympus OM-D, 100-300

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Backstage with the fans. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

The Nikon D600 review: full frame for the masses?

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Some cameras launch with a huge amount of anticipation and fanfare, some are surprises from far left field, and some are simply such poorly kept secrets that the manufacturer might as well just have skipped the announcement. Although the Nikon D600 falls squarely into the last category, I think photographers in the world were pleased when it finally broke official cover. The camera itself breaks almost zero new ground technically – it doesn’t push boundaries in any way. Not quite what you expected me to say in the first paragraph, I bet. This is not to say that it’s a bad camera; far, far from it.

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Smaller than the D800, but you’ve got to put them side by side to see it. Subjectively, it’s lighter but you don’t really notice in use; it feels about the same weight because the square handgrip design requires you to exert more pinky pressure, which makes the whole thing feel a bit heavier than it is…

I think two questions were on the mind of the Nikon enthusiasts and pros after the launch of the D800 (full review here) and D800E (which curiously, I’ve never actually reviewed): firstly, was this the D700 replacement, and why the enormous resolution? The D800 snuck in at the same price point as the D700 back in 2008; subsequent erosion of the D700 saw prices fall to the US$2200 level or thereabouts, at least for street prices in this part of the world. The older model continued in the lineup together with the higher spec (and higher priced) D800 pair. At this point, however, the technology inside the D700 was five years old – an age in the digital world, and possibly the oldest sensor architecture still purchasable new (with the exception of the Leica M9, whose photosite design was inherited from the 2006 M8).

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Awaiting departure. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

The D700 and D3 were turning points in Nikon’s history: first full frame, and first time in recent memory the noise advantage shifted decisively away from Canon. Even today, the D700 remains an excellent camera – mine has over 70,000 frames under its belt and hasn’t missed a beat. I still use it on reportage assignments or where the client doesn’t require 36MP and the associated enormous files. (My long term review of the D700 is here.) This review will be written from the point of view of a long-term D700 (100,000+ frames on two bodies) and D800E (20,000 frames between the D800 and D800E) user, with comparisons and references to both.

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Man in blue. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

Over the last few months, I’ve received no end of emails from prospective upgraders asking if the D800 was the camera for them; my answer is a resounding no. If you need the level of image quality this camera can deliver, you’ll know it, and you won’t need to ask me. If you don’t, and you buy it, you might be surprised that it doesn’t quite deliver the same pixel-level crispness as the D700 or D3. It’s an excellent machine, supplanting low-end medium format gear, but it also requires the rest of the support (lenses, processing workflow) to go along with it.

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Car lust. I make no secret of the fact that I’m a huge BMW fan. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

Note: this review, as with all of my other camera reviews, is written from the point of a working professional. Images are edited through my usual Photoshop workflow as this is how I’ll be using the camera normally; I don’t shoot JPEG SOOC other than for client previews. For those who think it skews results, Photoshop benefits all images equally: it can make a great shot even better, but it can’t fix something that should have been there at the time of capture. EXIF data is intact and can be viewed by clicking through the image to its Flickr hosting page.

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Rain = traffic, Kuala Lumpur. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

Enter the D600. I think it’s best described as a hybrid of the D7000 and D800; it inherits the feel, construction, AF system and controls of the former, with most of the innards of the latter. It falls between the two in size, too, but it closer to the D7000 in ergonomics and weight. It also has a similar shutter/ mirror feel to the D7000 – well damped, and much quieter than D700 or D800, but is limited to 1/4000s instead of 1/8000s. Mirror blackout feels about the same as the D7000, which is still excellent. You won’t notice shutter lag with any of these cameras, which are all in the 40-50ms range. All three share the same EN-EL15 battery. The rest of the spec falls squarely in the middle, too: 24MP, 5.5fps (no boost with the optional EN-EL14 battery grip, and no provision for taking the larger/ higher capacity battery from the D4); 1080p30 or 720p60 video, native ISO range from 100-6400 with extension to 50 or 25.6k.

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Selat Mosque, Malacca. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

It uses the same EXPEED 3 processor as the D800, which means shunting around those largish 14bit files with relative abandon; the 14-bit lossless compressed RAW buffer is 10 frames. (Despite the files being smaller, it doesn’t feel any faster, though.) You also get a 100% finder with 0.7x magnification, but not the round eyepiece or eyepiece shutter; it’ll take the DK21M magnifier, and has a reasonably high eyepoint – I can see the whole frame just fine with my glasses. Sadly, the focusing screen has become even less snappy than the D800; it’s nearly impossible to use for manual focus without the focus assist dot. Fortunately, live view works the same way as on the D800, with a button to enable it surrounded by the still/ movie mode switch. It’s also inherited the record button placed behind the shutter, and the slightly difficult to reach second button – except now it controls metering mode, with exposure modes placed on a lockable dial – together with the fully customizeable U1 and U2 memory positions from the D7000. You also get IR remote receiver ports on the front and the back in lieu of the 10-pin connector on the front, which neither the D700 nor D800 have.

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Pick’n’mix for grown ups. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

It definitely doesn’t feel as solid or dense as the D800, let alone the D700; but if you haven’t handled either, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. Nikon claims a magnesium-alloy top panel, polycarbonate bottom section and magnesium frame, although the only way you’ll really be able to tell you paid a bit less is the feel of the rubber grips – it’s definitely D7000 semi-slippery and not D800/ D700 sticky. I personally don’t find the shape that comfortable either; it’s too square around the bottom portion where you little finger rests. The body has environmental seals to about the same level as the D7000; the gaskets don’t look as robust as those on the D700 or D800, and certainly not the D4. Curiously, I don’t feel either the D600 or D800 are true replacements for the D700; neither will do 8fps, and the model that shares the same build (D800) has such a high pixel count that it isn’t really suitable for some applications such as photojournalism or low light work. The D700 line has thus bifurcated into a more serious and less serious option.

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Slurp. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

There is one huge improvement in usability that’s worth mentioning: in manual exposure mode and live view, the camera now shows a usable/ visible image rather than the actual shooting exposure, which means that you can easily manual focus with a flash setting (say 1/200s, f8, ISO 100) in ambient light rather than having to change exposure or switch between aperture priority and manual to be able to see your image. The image is also a lot sharper than the D800 and not blocky – it’s much easier to tell what is in focus, and what isn’t. Needless to say, we don’t need to talk about usability of the D700’s live view function – putting it on the drive mode dial was just clunky, and precluded the use of the self timer or mirror lockup to minimize vibration.

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The surprise joy of finding you just might be in love. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

On the other hand, the D600 lacks a few controls that I’ve come to rely on in my normal workflow with the D700 and D800E, and as a result feels a bit more amateur than I’d like, mainly due to the number of button presses required for some things. Once again, if you’ve never used either D700 or D800, you probably won’t know or won’t miss them: specifics that come to mind are single-button zoom to a desired magnification level in playback using the center multi-selector; having the metering switch around the AE-AF-L button, and a separate AF-ON button. There are also fewer custom settings, though, notably around control configurability and autofocus. It’s also worth noting that although the camera has the same levelling display as the D800 in live view mode, it lacks the two-axis overlay in the viewfinder; instead, it uses the exposure meter to show left-right tilt, at the expense of the other shooting information which subsequently disappears. The LCD also appears to be less accurate for judging exposure than before; it appears much brighter and more contrasty than the actual image, which is something I haven’t seen on Nikon’s typically accurate LCDs.

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Untitled. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

You get the 39-point MultiCAM 4800FX autofocus module in this camera, not the wide-field CAM3500FX system in the D700 and D800 – and the cause of much consternation amongst D800 owners for the notorious ‘left side AF’ issue. I’m pleased to report that after extensive testing and specifically looking for the problem, autofocus on the D600 is fast, accurate and positive even with moving subjects; perhaps feeling a little more ‘solid’ than the D800 – more like the D700, in this sense. My particular example required no AF fine tune adjustment with most of my lenses, and -5/20 on the 28/1.8. CAM4800 has been tried, tested and proven in the D7000, and performs equally well here; it’s even been tweaked a bit to be able to focus consistently with lenses as slow as f8 to allow reliable use with 2x teleconverters.

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A glimpse into home and family. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

The one bad piece of news regarding autofocus is that the points are now even more clustered around the center of the frame than the CAM3500FX cameras; it seems that the base AF sensor itself has been taken from the D7000 and used without adaptation to the field of coverage. The overall coverage area is similar to the Canon 5DII, and it doesn’t cover the rule of thirds points, meaning that you’re almost always going to have to focus and reframe with off-center subjects, whereas the outermost row of five points would cover these subjects on the D700 and D800. Still, I’d rather have reliable accuracy over wider coverage, but ideally we should have both. The AF mode controls now use the new Nikon system of button plus command dial; rear to select AF-S or AF-C, and front to choose the number of points or 3D tracking.

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Stall proprietors sometimes remind me of thespians. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

In some ways, I miss the physical switches of the last generation, but having these settings electronically selectable means that you can save all settings, including AF configuration, to the U1 and U2 mode dials – I’ll probably keep one set up for regular reportage-style shooting with 11-point AF-C, aperture priority and auto-ISO, and the other for studio/ flash work at the X-sync speed (1/200s), manual exposure mode, base ISO, and 39-point AF-C. I wish my D800E had this option. That said, I’ll probably leave the D600 set up for reportage, and the D800E for studio work.

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Lantern and Dunlop. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

The D600 uses Nikon’s tried and tested RGB metering sensor (which also feeds color information to the AF system for subject tracking, as well as face recognition); it appears to be less biased to the active focus point than in the consumer cameras, but not quite as accurate for the overall scene like the D700; the camera seems to meter a bit hot in dark scenes, and a bit under for light/ white scenes – it seems we’ve taken a step backwards here. I feel the D700 generation had the most reliable metering of the lot; the D800 falls somewhere between the two. Auto white balance is accurate, and can safely be used for most situations.

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A curious symmetry. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

I believe the D600 shares the same base Sony sensor as the A99 (previewed here). It’s a 24MP CMOS design, apparently customized for Nikon – in the process losing the A99’s 10fps capability (or perhaps deliberately, to protect the D4’s position in the line as flasgship). Uncompressed RAW is no longer an option, but the whole workflow is 14bit. In any case, I remember testing the difference between lossless compressed and uncompressed NEF with the D3 and not being able to see any difference. The sensor delivers the same color palette as all of the other modern 14-bit Nikons; no surprises here. It’s worth noting that despite the larger pixel pitch, the D600 only matches it for dynamic range – somewhere around 13.5 stops useable at base ISO, which is on par with the leading DSLRs at the moment.

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Full test scene.

D600-D700-D800E low iso comparison
Low ISO crops. Click here for 100% version. As usual go by what I say, not what you see; you’re looking at an artefacted JPEG, not the original file.

D600-D700-D800E high iso comparison
High ISO crops. Click here for 100% version.

Both D600 and D800E produce slightly cleaner images at the pixel level than the D700 at identical print sizes; they’re also cleaner at the pixel level. The D600 doesn’t seem to gain anything over the D800E though; if anything, there appears to be more chroma noise at a lower, blotchier frequency. There’s also some softening going on; it seems that NR OFF isn’t really NR OFF on the D600 in the same way that it is on the D700 an D800E. The D600 also isn’t holding anywhere near as much detail – the AA filter no doubt has some bearing on that. What’s surprising is that at ISO 6400 and above, I’m not sure it’s outresolving the D700, either – look at the numbers in the purple swatch. The D700 also has noticeably less chroma noise; the amplitude is higher, but the grain pattern appears tighter and almost entirely monochromatic. Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to use ISO 6400 under normal conditions, and perhaps 12800/HI1 under duress with a significant amount of postprocessing. One important caveat: Adobe Camera Raw does not yet support the D600, so I couldn’t put the files through my usual workflow. I used the default Neutral picture control with sharpness at 7 and HIGH ISO NR off from all three cameras; though it seems that sharpening 7 means different things on the different bodies I believe I’ll probably gain another incremental bit of image quality once I can run the files through my normal workflow. Such are the downsides of early adoption. For now though, a flat JPEG is eminently useable, if lacking in some of the tonal plasticity of a good NEF. The lens used was a Zeiss 2/50 Makro-Planar at f5.6, focused at high magnification with live view. The cameras were locked down on a Gitzo 5-series Systematic tripod and Manfrotto Hydrostat head.

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Inside the ‘kitchen’. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

Overall, it’s safe to say the D600 shoots with the dynamic and tonal range of the D800, with the low light usability of the D700 – in part due to the lower pixel density sensor, and in part due to the very low vibration shutter. The large pixel pitch also means that it’s more forgiving when it comes to lens quality; needless to say anything that performs well on the D800E is going to perform well on the D600; I’m primarily using my AFS 28/1.8 G and 85/1.8 G without issue. Image quality is definitely closer to the D800 than the D700, and under circumstances where you can’t achieve sufficiently high shutter speeds, I suspect the D600 may well yield a better image than the D800 can, simply because it’s less demanding on the photographer.

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Feeling the emptiness and abandonment. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

Battery life may well be the best of all of the current Nikons – I’m estimating around 2,000+ frames per charge with my normal shooting pattern (400 frames with a mix of CLS, live view and regular CH reportage/ street cost 20% in battery life). No flash and short bursts of 2-3 shots yielded the results below – without a photo, I don’t think any of you would have believed it. I certainly wouldn’t – that extrapolates to about 3,400 frames/ charge! If that’s still not enough for you, there’s an optional MB-D14 vertical grip that allows addition of another EN-EL15 battery; the grip is physically smaller to match the size of the camera, so it can’t physically fit the larger battery from the D4, and consequently doesn’t get a frame rate boost with the grip installed.

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I don’t remember seeing this even on my D3. Whatever they’re doing with that new sensor, it’s very, very power-frugal. Also, the test was done with an older battery from my D800E which had been cycled a few times – so it’s not a new cell anomaly. The screen appears monochrome because the highlights are blown; it was a very dark scene and shot for illustrative purposes only.

I don’t have much to say about the camera’s video capabilities – I’m leaving that for persons more knowledgeable than myself; I’m absolutely not a videographer. However, on the few quick panning test videos I’ve done, I see minimal rolling shutter and to my eyes, it looks slightly more fluid overall than the D800’s video. This isn’t entirely surprising given the sensor’s shared origins with Sony’s heavily video-centric A99; video has traditionally been one of the company’s strengths. I believe the D600 also has the same capability as the D800E to stream uncompressed video out to an external recorder via HDMI, which will make it an interesting option for videographers on a budget.

The D600 didn’t receive anywhere near the same fanfare or hype as the D800/ D800E at introduction; perhaps it was the long rumour train, or perhaps it was the fairly conservative spec sheet. However, I think this is going to be one of those cameras that enjoys a long burn in much the same way as the D70 and D700 did – it brought a decent feature set with a sizeable leap in image quality at a new low price point. The D600 body retails at US$2,100 or thereabouts. In that respect, I feel in the long term it will do for full frame what the D70 did for DSLRs in general: it made it accessible. It’s more than enough camera for the average user, yet not so much that getting the most out of it becomes a challenge, like the D800/ D800E. The D600 is full frame for the masses; if you’re not a pro but you’re itching for an upgrade from your D700 or D7000, this is probably what you’ve been waiting for.

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Untitled. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

You’ll notice I haven’t said much about its nearest immediate competition, the Canon 6D – that’s because I haven’t handled one. But I’d be surprised if there was any dramatic difference in image quality; photographers will pick one or the other based on the lenses they already own. Both of these cameras would make excellent travel outfits. Personally, I’m currently trying to decide if I’ll stick with the OM-D or go with a D600 and a couple of pancake primes. Both are capable of delivering excellent image quality in the right hands, have a few tradeoffs, but neither would be taxing to carry and shoot for an extended period of time in the same way a D800 and suitable lenses would. It’s the first big camera I’ve bought that didn’t feel like it was a dramatic upgrade in some way to what I had previously (think D200 to D3, or D700 to D800E) ; but a solid, incremental upgrade in all directions.

In conclusion: the Nikon D600 may not be the D700 replacement or make waves like the D3 did, but for most users it’s going to be like Goldilocks: just right. MT

The Nikon D600 is available here from B&H and Amazon (body only or kit (with 24-85 VR lens).


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