Monday, June 30, 2014

Nikon D810 vs. D800E vs. D800: Is the New Camera Worth Your Money?

Nikon has just unveiled its D810, which has been designated by its manufacturer as a replacement model for both the D800 and D800E, both of which was announced in early 2012. The headline upgrade: no low-pass filter, whose effect was 'canceled' with the D800E. Other upgrades include an Expeed 4 (vs. 3) processor, a new mirror mechanism, and several upgrades to the video mode. Now the big question: is the D810, set for a $3300 introductory price, worth the money?

Short answer: absolutely!

Looking at the specifications for the cameras side-by side, there are very few differences between the old D800/D800E models and the D810. As for the differences, they are as follows.

First up: the D810 has no low-pass filter. The effect of this filter, which can reduce the effective resolution of the camera by softening the image, was present in the D800 and canceled out with the D800E. In the D810, the filter is gone, which Nikon promises as a way to deliver sharper, more detailed images. Next difference: a new processor, whose only quantitative advantage is a faster frame rate of 5 vs. 4fps.

Moving deeper down the spec sheet, the D810 has 6 (vs. 5) custom white balance settings, an expanded ISO rating (32 vs. 100 on t he low side and 51,200 vs. 25,600 on the high), a higher video frame rate (60 vs. 30fps), a stereo microphone, and the ability to stream uncompressed HDMI output while simultaneously writing to the memory card.

So, with so few upgrades, why buy a D810? Short answer: price.

When the D810 hits stores in July, it will cost $3300, which is the same as the D800E and just $300 more than the D800. Yes, the D810 does not offer a lot of improvements over the D800/D800E but, thanks to its price point, why not get one if you want one as it doesn't cost anything more than the camera it replaces?

Hint: preorder yours now before the 'line' gets too long!

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Nikon D400 Could be a D4 With a 24Mp DX Chip

It's official: the Nikon D300s is no more, at least in the United States. The news didn't exactly come as a breaking press release, but rather a series of people noticing that Nikon USA is no longer listing the D300s as a current camera on its website. Instead, the D300s has been
moved to the archived (out of production) page. So, does this mean a D400 is just over the horizon?

Short answer: it's hard to say.

While officially a 2009 release,
in reality, the D300s is 2 years older as the D300s is merely a D300 (2007 release) with video. Throughout the digital era, Nikon has had a habit of adding various letter designations to established nameplates in order to create a new, stop-gap replacement model until a major overhaul of the old camera can be perfected. Typically, these letter models have production lives of less than 2 years. Well, the Nikon D300s has now been axed just shy of its 5th (or is it its 7th?) birthday, which begs the question: is the D300/D300s the end of its branch on Nikon's evolutionary tree? My bet: yep.

Unlike the same-age Canon7D, which faces a single-front attack, the D300s is fighting a 2-front war against the D7100 on the lower side and the D600 on the higher side. Initially priced at $1800, the D300s sits smack in the middle of the $1200 D7100 and the $2100 D600, which both share a lot of features with the D300s. Result: Nikonians have 2 options here: pay a little more than the D300s and get a FX sensor, or save some money and get an in many ways (save user interface) superior D7100. Bottom line: as it stands now, if Nikon were to launch a D400 as a direct evolutionary model to the D300s, not many people would be willing to buy, which leads to my theory: the D400 (if it comes out at all), will probably be a D4 body featuring a DX chip.

Sound wild? Remember when Nikon said they'd never make a FF sensor? Well, so much for that pledge!

As for my take on a possible D400, it does make sense. When the D300s came out back in 2009, the next tier down camera (then the D90) came nowhere near the D300s in terms of performance. Examples: the D300s had a 51-point AF grid while the D90 only had 11 AF points. The D300s sported a 1/8000
th second top shutter speed while the D90 was a full stop slower at 1/4000th second. Weather-sealing? The D300s had it along with metal construction while the plastic D90 had no sealing whatsoever. As for the viewfinder, the D300s was 100% while the D90 was only 96%. Want a built-in intervalometer? You won't find it on the D90 but it was included with the D300s.

Fast forward to 2014.

Now, when pitted against the D7100, the D300s doesn't look so special anymore as the D7100 shares all the features that made the D300s superior vs. the D90. In addition, the D7100 also has the following pluses: full 1080p HD video, the same 51-point AF as found in the D300s, 2 extra stops of ISO sensitivity, a slightly higher resolution LCD screen, dual memory card slots (vs. the D300s's one), a built-in microphone, a second aspect ratio, and a lighter weight despite retaining the D300s's tough build quality.

Bottom line: come 2014 and the D7100's laundry list of pro-grade features and its intro price of $1200, Nikon could never sell many D400s at $1800 with the only benefit being a better user interface.

They need to do something bolder.

When looking at the D7100 vs the flagship D4s, there's a lot of added capabilities. These extra features include the ability to save in a TIFF format, 11fps (vs. 6), a microphone and video port, built-in vertical grip, and the FX sensor along with all of its resultant benefits.

Now, if one were to take the D4s's specifications, remove the FX sensor, stick in a DX one, and call it a D400, Nikon probably couldn't make them fast enough.

As for who would want a D400 if it were to take the D4 with a DX sensor form, there's a lot of people, including: pros looking for a backup body but who don't want to pay for another D4, people who like the focal length multiplier (sports and wildlife photographers come to mind here), cash-strapped pros, amateurs who are heavily invested in DX glass, and simply anyone who wants the best on the market without going FX.

Will this come to pass? Who knows, only time will tell.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

In-Depth Review: 200 f4 AI Micro Nikkor

Tech Specs
Focal Length: 200mm
Dimensions: 7.2 x 2.6 in. 
Weight: 29.1oz.
Maximum Aperture: f4
Minimum Aperture: f32
Diaphragm Blades: 9
Front Element: non-rotating, non-extending
Optical arrangement: 9 elements in 6 groups
Autofocus Mechanism: NA
Closest Focus: 2.34 feet
Maximum magnification: 1:2
Filter Size: 52mm

Nikon made its first macro lens for cameras (rangefinder) in 1956: a 55mm f3.5. With the advent of the Nikon F SLR system in 1959, Nikon started producing SLR micro lenses by lifting the optics from the rangefinder version and dropping them into a F-mount housing. Nikon's first SLR macro, a 55mm f3.5, came to market in 1961. In 1970, Nikon upped the reach of its close-up lenses when it came out with a 105mm f4 micro that was used with a bellows and then a conventional barrel design 105 f4 in 1975. Come 1978, Nikon upped the focal length again with its first 200mm macro, this lens, which would continue to be produced in an updated AI-s version until as recently as 2005. As for the original AI version here, production ceased in 1982, meaning that, at newest, this lens is 31 years old. 

Build Quality: 5/5
This oldie is built to the typical standards of its time: rock solid as in out of solid metal. Funny how Nikon is now churning out mostly plastic junk lenses and selling them for thousands of dollars, isn't it? Needless to say, this lens could be used as a weapon if necessary. A nice, added touch sorely missing on current lenses (Nikon and everyone else) is the built-in lens hood, which slides in and out and fixes into place against the end of the barrel itself. On my copy, the focus ring moves smooth and not too freely but, these being 20+ year old lenses, should you buy one, your copy may vary.

With no AF system to break, this lens should last forever.

AF Performance: NA
Focus is as fast and accurate (or not) as your hand can move the ring! For real macro photographers, the lack of AF should be a non-issue when using this lens for its dedicated purpose.

Optics: 5/5
(Note: on DX, consider the mid frame here to be the corner)

The lens is good in terms of sharpness for a 30+ year old design. In the center, there is only slight softness at f4, which is reduced at f5.6 and virtually disappears by f8. In mid frame, the sharpness lags about a stop behind the center and as for corners, that lags about a stop behind the mid frame. The best news: there is no large drop in sharpness due to diffraction limiting, even at f36, a truly impressive feat that will go a long way in making for good close-up pictures, provided the subject is still and/or the lighting is adequate. On DX, with the crop factor and resulting difference in depth of field at any given aperture, diffraction may be a limiting factor but not having a DX format camera, I cannot address this directly. As for this slight corner softening, it really doesn't matter as macro shooting often has subjects in the center of the frame and requires serious stopping down to get a depth of field that isn't razor thin.

There is some shading with the 200 AI Micro Nikkor wide open at f4. A stop down, the shading decreases dramatically and disappears by f8. 

This lens focuses down to 1:2, or half life size.

Note: With a teleconverter, you can double the focal length and get 1:1 life size (albeit at the cost of 2 f-stops of aperture) reproduction. I have the TC 200 converter and expect a follow-up with this addition soon!

See also: Half vs. Full Life Size: how big is the difference?

Infinity is infinity on this one, so simply turn the ring till it stops and you'll have perfectly focused stars. In addition, with infinity focus actually being infinity and infinity coming just past 50 feet with this lens, it can also be great for birding and other aerial photography, too.
Nil here, trust me.

There is some slight chromatic aberration at f4 as seen in the above photo. A stop down at f5.6, it's gone.

This lens is remarkably resistant to flaring.

Value: 4/5
Simply put, where else can you get a 200mm macro lens for under $400? Answer: nowhere. The only thing keeping this lens from a perfect 5/5 is the fact that it only goes to 1:2 magnification, meaning that one has to buy a teleconverter in order to get to the now standard 1:1 magnification found on today's macro optics.


To put it plainly, there really is no direct competition for this old lens. Back when this was produced as new, non name brand was synonymous with junk, plain and simple. At the time, Nikon made other, shorter micro optics, with the second longest being 105mm f4 and f2.8s, both of which also require teleconverters/extension tubes to get to 1:1 magnification. In the AF market, there is a variety of 200ish macros to choose from, headlined by Nikon's 1:1 capable 200 f4 AF-D Micro Nikkor, which, even second-hand, commonly costs about 3 to 4 times as much as this lens. Other current, long macro lenses capable of going 1:1 out of the box are 180mm optics from Sigma and Tamron, which generally get good reviews, too. Today, one can also get 1:1 with a wide variety of shorter lenses at a similar price point to this one. In the end: it's all about price and whether you need AF or not.
Conclusion: 4.6/5
There's no doubt about it: this oldie is a goodie! To put it plainly, there's no other lens offering such a combination of high build quality, optical excellence, and insane value as this one. Sure, you can pay a lot more for a current macro lens for AF capability and out of the box 1:1 magnification but real macro photographers don't use AF anyway and an extra $30 can get you a teleconverter that takes this lens to 1:1. Yes, dreams can come true as the 200 f4 AI Micro Nikkor is tangible proof of this fact!. Recommendation: if you want a long macro and are on a budget, buy one of these if you're lucky enough to come across one.

Note: all macro shots are downsized originals, with crops being 100%. Camera: Nikon D700.

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