Saturday, July 17, 2010

An Impulse Upgrade.

I've been using the Nikon D200 for the past 3 years as my primary tool for photography. It has served me well and the controls on the camera feel like second nature to me. Before taking a picture, I can switch the settings for ISO, Aperture, Shutter, etc. without even looking at the camera body. I was happy with my images and I had no plans of upgrading as I was waiting for Nikon to update their full-frame (FX Sensor) camera D700, (hopefully with 1080p video) before making the upgrade decision.

Jumping to a FX sensor  is going to be a big jump for me - as I have already invested in some quality lenses that are not compatible with the FX sensor (especially my lovely Nikkor 17-55 f2.8 and the Sigma 30mm f1.4). Besides buying the expensive camera body, I will also have to invest in some quality FX lenses. So that will not happen in the near future.

When I saw an ad for a used D300 body for a very good price, my antenna went up. I knew that the D300 was a step up from the D200. I was also aware of its improved ISO performance, but was not really sure about other enhancements compared to my current D200.

I pulled the trigger and purchased the body (It came bundled with the awesome 50mm f1.4 lens that I reviewed yesterday). Once I had the camera in my grubby hands, I decided to check its features compared to the D200. I was shocked!. This thing is an improvement over the D200 in almost every single area. DPReview has a nice side-by-side comparison of both D200 and D300. If I had analyzed these differences earlier, I am sure I would  have been tempted to upgrade much much earlier.

For me, these are the main differences:

1. ISO performance: I can shoot comfortably up to ISO 800 on the D200. It can go up to ISO 1600, but the pictures are not really usable. According to the data sheet, D300 allows me to shoot usable pictures up to ISO 1600, and it goes up to ISO 3200. So essentially, 1 whole stop of low-light improvement.

2. Auto-Focusing: D300 has 51 focus points for fast and accurate focusing, compared to the 11 focus points of D200.

3. Picture Size: D300 outputs 12.3 megapixels, compared to the 10.2 megapixels from the D200.

4. Dust Reduction System: D300 comes with a dust reduction system that automatically cleans the sensor using vibrations. D200 does not have such a system and dust removal requires careful manual cleaning that requires surgical skills.

5. Live View: I was surprised to learn that D300 has a live-view mode. Images can be composed using the LCD screen. D200 does not support live view.

Of course, there are many other differences but the above are what caught my fancy.

I've had the camera in my hands for only 2 days so I can't make a definitive judgement on how good it is compared to the D200. However, I will be shooting a lot in the coming days and I will post my detailed impressions on this camera. More importantly, I am going for a Himalayan trek next month so the camera will see some action there.

Since my main motivation of upgrading to D300 was its low-light capabilities, I decided to test this first. We had an outing last night at the beach with some friends. I took the new camera along with me to try some low-light shots. Here's one example shot at ISO 3200.

The place was almost dark and the only lights available for this picture were some sodium lights in a nearby basket-ball court about 50 meters away!!. This photo would be impossible to capture with the D200,

As expected, the image was quite noisy. I ran it through Neat Image Pro, and then applied some sharpening to make it usable. As you can see, the picture is decent and usable (albeit at a lower-resolution). But at the end of the day, it is usable and that is all that matters.

Here's a 100% crop of the original image (after running through Neat Image).

 Needless to say, I am terribly excited with the D300. Combined with the 50mm f1.4, it appears to be a deadly combination for low-light photography.

I still haven't decided what I will do with the D200. Perhaps use it as a backup body. It is, after all, still an awesome picture-taking machine.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Superlative Nikon 50mm f/1.4D AF

Back in 2008, I sold off my trusty 50mm f/1.8D AF prime lens, with the idea that I will upgrade to the faster version of the lens. I even placed the order for it on Amazon. For some reason, Amazon had difficulty in fulfilling the order and kept postponing the delivery. I got fed up and cancelled the order and got the 105mm VR macro lens instead.

It was always in my schedule to eventually get the f/1.4 lens, and when Nikon introduced their AF-S version of the 50mm f/1.4, I thought that is the lens I should go for - but the steep price of $440 kept me at bay.

So when I saw an ad for a used 50mm f/1.4 for around $200, I was really really tempted even though I was not sure whether I could afford it. The decision became much easier when my wife urged me to go ahead and pick it up. All photographers should have a wife like mine.

The f/1.4 lens is 2/3rd stops brighter than the f/1.8 counterpart (i.e. 66% brighter). That makes a big difference when it comes to shooting in low-light situations.

The lens can be shot wide open without any worries (i.e. images appear sharp even when the lens is fully opened at f/1.4) unlike some lenses that need to be stopped down by a stop or two to get ideal results.

This picture of my daughter Erika was taken at f/1.4.

BTW, it is a ritual of mine to first take a picture of Erika with any new lens that I purchase.

The f/1.4 also makes it possible to completely blur out the background because of its extremely shallow DOF (depth-of-field). This is easy to see in the picture above. Erika was standing in a mall when I took the picture - but the whole background is completely blurred out.

The shallow DOF makes it very tricky to get the right focus. Even a slight mistake can render the picture out-of-focus so nailing the focus is extremely important when shooting wide open with this lens.

This picture really demonstrates the wafer-thin DOF of this lens. In this picture (shot wide open at f/1.4), just 2 or 3 lines of text are in focus, while the rest of the book (both front and rear) are out of focus. This can best be demonstrated by a 100% crop of the above image.

The area of focus is just a few millimeters. Imagine if you were shooting a portrait with this lens, it would be extremely important to get the camera to focus on the eyes of the model to ensure that the portrait appears sharp. Of course, you must keep in mind that the depth-of-field is also determined by the distance to the subject. Closer the subject (as in the case of Erika above), nailing the focus is paramount. However, when the subject moves further away, the depth-of-field increases. This means that if you are shooting a photo of a person who is 10 meters away, then focusing on any part of the body will be just fine.

Traditionally, on the film cameras, 50mm was considered the "normal" lens because the area of coverage provided by a 50mm is similar to the coverage that we get with our naked eyes. And this principle still applies if you have a FX sensor camera such as a Nikon D700, Nikon D3S, Nikon D3X, etc. However, when you mount this lens on a DX sensor camera such as the D90, D300s, the camera gives you a field-of-view of 75mm because these sensors have a crop factor of 1.5 (so 50mm x 1.5 = 75mm).

Since 75mm is an ideal range for portraits, this becomes an ideal portrait lens when mounted on DX sensor cameras.

Conclusion: If you love low-light photography or portrait photography, you owe it to yourself to invest in a 50mm f/1.4.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Sigma 30mm f1.4

Perfect Breakfast
Originally uploaded by Cajie.
I was just checking my archives and realized that I never posted about this beautiful lens. I've had this lens for more than a year, but never really made good use of it.

However, I've recently become something of a health nut. I even started a separate blog to record my progress. Since the new blog is dedicated to fitness and healthy lifestyle, I find myself taking lots of food pictures. The Sigma (with its ultra-fast f1.4 aperture) allows amazing shallow depth-of-field, which, in turn, results in interesting pictures of food.

The Sigma 30mm f1.4 is a DX-optimized lens, which means it works on DX sensors such as D40, D80, D300 etc. It will not work correctly on full-frame sensors such as D700, D3, D3X etc.

It has a HSM (Hyper-Sonic Motor) on its body, which allows for fast and silent focusing. The HSM also allows the lens to be used on bodies that don't have a motor on the body such as the D40 and the D60.

It is not cheap. At around $450, it is something you purchase when you have lots of spare change or you need it for professional work.