Melissa & Dennis – their wedding day from Neil van Niekerk on Vimeo.

review of the Nikon D3100 video capability

Nikon recently released two very interesting D-SLRs – the Nikon D3100 (B&H) and the Nikon D7000 (B&H). Improving on several of the entry-level Nikon D-SLRs, they also offer HD video capability (1080p at 24 fps), and even does so with full-time auto-focus capability.

So when B&H sent me a Nikon D3100 for review, I thought what better test than to start in the deep end, and use it during a wedding to shoot HD video. The intention was to use the HD video from the D3100 along with the still photographs from my usual set of Nikon D3 bodies … and compile this as a stills & video Fusion clip, shown at the top here. I shot the stills, and Jessica, my assistant with an attitude, shot & edited the D3100 video clips. A first attempt at stills/video Fusion for us.

So how did the Nikon D3100 fare? Quite impressively actually …

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Auto-focus (AF) settings for Nikon cameras

The current line-up of top Nikon D-SLRs offer a range of AF settings.  The combination’s in settings seem daunting at first.  But with other settings on my D3 bodies, I keep it fairly simple.  Instead of flip-flopping between numerous settings, I keep it simple by generally using the AF settings in just two ways.  This depends on what whether my subject is static or moving …

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review: Nikon 85mm f/1.4G

October 22, 2010

review: Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G AF-S

So after a slight delay, my copy of the brand-new Nikon 85mm f1.4G (B&H) actually did arrive. I was itching to try it out on a photo session, and yesterday afternoon had my assistant, Jessica model for me. During the short photo session, I used the new 85mm f1.4G and the classic 85mm f1.4D side-by-side. As you can see in the photo above, (Just like the older version of this lens), the new lens’ extremely shallow depth of field and superb bokeh, give backgrounds that just melt away.

My first impression already is that lens is even better than I anticipated …

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review: Nikon 24mm f/1.4G

August 16, 2010

review: Nikon 24mm f/1.4 G AF-S

For a long time the only wide-angle auto-focus prime lens that Nikon had available, was the remarkable 28mm f1.4D … which caused the lens to reach astronomical prices eventually on the used market when it was discontinued.  I sold my copy of the 18mm f1.4 a few years ago – a move I still regret – but I couldn’t pull the trigger on a $4000.00 wide-angle prime lens when Nikon’s wide-angle zooms were so incredible.  The Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 AF-S (B&H), for example, set a new standard for how good a wide-angle zoom can be, surpassing pretty much ever other lens, including primes. But still there was a gap in Nikon’s line-up with a fast aperture wide-angle prime lens.  Until now … enter the Nikon 24mm f1.4 G (B&H) which I was happily able to use at a wedding this past weekend.

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Nikon flash system – TTL vs TTL BL

Nikon’s TTL flash system is generally accepted as being quite exceptional.  The camera and speedlight working together according to various algorithms to control the flash exposure.  The TTL flash exposure will depend on various factors – the tonality of the subject and scene; the brightness of the scene;  and how the camera interprets the sections of the metering pattern.  The other factors quite possibly also includes data from the lens.

How these factors inter-relate, we can only guess at.  We can make educated guesses; and many photographers have taken time and effort to do test shoots to see how the cameras and speedlights work.  To make things even more interesting, Nikon offers two modes of TTL flash metering:  TTL and TTL BL.

The way I understand this to work, is that with TTL BL flash metering, the camera takes the ambient light into account when calculating the flash exposure.  With TTL flash metering, the flash metering would appear to be de-coupled from the ambient metering.

Similarly, with Canon, you have Average / Evaluative flash metering for TTL flash.  (This is set on the camera body via the custom functions.)  Again, the way I understand this to work (and I’ll gladly be corrected or fine-tuned on this), is that with Evaluative TTL flash metering, the camera takes the ambient light into account. And with Average TTL flash metering, the camera is less biased by the available light..

So which TTL flash exposure mode to use?  TTL or TLL BL?
In the end, I work in a fairly simplistic way …

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review: Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II

I’ve been very happy with the older 70-200mm f2.8 VR telephoto zoom.  Even even though the edges are softer than the center, it never bothered me.  With weddings, I am mostly only interested in the center portions of the image being super-crisp.  Similarly, the vignetting didn’t bother me.  I usually add more vignetting in post-processing anyway.

Still, I ordered the new Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II (B&H), and received it on Friday.
It’s beautiful!

Doing a few test shots around the house, and was immediately impressed. It is sharp! I like sharp.  Every thing about this lens is good news.  Focusing is faster, and flare is very well controlled. There has been considerable debate about the shortening of focal length with this lens as you focus closer and closer.  Yet, I would never have noticed it if I hadn’t been told about it. For my work, a total non-issue.

One of the features of this new lens, is that it has even more aggressive vibration reduction / stabilization.  So even though I do take my shutter speeds low at times, my advice is always that if you want sharp images, the first thing you need to do is make your shutter speed much faster.  Now, I’ve never been one to really be able to hold my camera steady without careful control or with steadying myself against a wall. So for me, vibration reduction is an essential feature on long lenses .. especially since I don’t work with a tripod for the style of photography I do.

At a wedding on Saturday, where I was the second shooter for a friend, I was able to see how the VR worked during an actual photo shoot.   During the ceremony I took photos of the guests sitting in the dark temple.  How dark? 1/6 th @ f2.8 @ 2000 ISO kinda dark …

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review: Nikon D5000

August 12, 2009

In testing cameras these days, they are rated not just for specification, but for their primary qualities in helping you take great photographs.  And for that, judging the camera according to handling, image quality and auto-focus speed and accuracy, becomes even more important than just the list of specs.

Nikon D5000 hands-on review

So with that in mind, when I recently got my hands on a brand-new Nikon D5000, (B&H), I thought I’d hit the streets and see how it performs.  I took it for a late-night stroll around Times Square in New York, armed only with a Nikon 50mm f1.4G AF-S, (B&H), lens to see how the camera handled the low light levels there.

Nikon D5000 image quality

And of course, late night in Times Square is when you see and even meet the interesting people, the gorgeous people and the usual mix’n’match that Manhattan throws at you.  So let’s see how the 12.3 megapixel Nikon D5000 performed in low light, at high ISO settings; all hand-held, using just the light from the billboards ..

Here is Blueberry Studmuffin, posing for the camera.
1/250th F1.8 @ 1000 ISO; no flash

As you can see, the camera responds fast enough for a candid portrait in low light.
Impressive so far …

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the Best Camera in the World ..

.. will be the one where the camera manufacturers allow me some input into the matter.  If only Nikon and Canon (and Pentax and Fuji and everyone else) would just gather around a table and listen to me.  If only …

When I get to handle a new camera, I often wonder why the manufacturers designed a camera the specific way they did.  It might be the strange placement of a button or control; or the omission of a feature, or even the deliberate hampering of features in the non-pro bodies.  Sometimes I just wish they would bring in a feature that I love on another camera.

Here are the gear-head musings on what I would insist the Best Camera in the World would be like, if I had any say in it.  (Sorry, but that means this posting will have a lot of words and no images this time around.)

Firstly, the Best Camera in the World would have to be a modern full-frame digital SLR camera (D-SLR)  for the combination of accessibility, versatility and image quality.

I recently moved from using Canon 1D mkIII bodies to using Nikon D3 bodies.  Personally, I think the Nikon D3 is the best camera that has ever been made to date.   But there are a number of pros and cons, and not everything falls in favor of the Nikon D3.  Therefore most of this post is a comparison between these two cameras, and which things from either camera I would want to see in the Best Camera in the World.

But before we even get there, I have to touch on something - Exposure Modes.  Both these cameras fall down sorely when it comes to how the exposure modes are accessed.  Pentax’s ingenuity here towers over them in this regard.

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Canon’s TTL flash vs Nikon’s TTL flash

One of the frequent topics on the various forums is the Canon vs Nikon debate … and one of the usual replies is that Nikon is better in certain ways, and Canon is better in other ways.  And the common wisdom that Nikon’s flash system is superior to Canon.  And this seems to be accepted as one of those general truths.

Now, having shot primarily Nikon for a few years (D100 / D2H / D2x), and then Canon (mk2 / mk2N / 5D / mk3), and now Nikon again (D3) … I have this observation about Canon’s flash system vs Nikon’s flash system … they are different. 

Disregarding wireless TTL flash, where Nikon is ahead in simplicity of operation and how much control you have – if we just look at TTL flash in various situations – I honestly can’t say the one is better than the other.  Just that they are different.  So I have to go against the common wisdom there.

But they are different in ways that aren’t easy to quantify.  Where I’m used to Canon’s TTL flash responding in a certain way during different situations, the Nikon flash needs different flash exposure compensation.  So it responds differently, and I have to get used to it again.

This is going to be a long post and I’m afraid the point of what I am trying to say might get lost along the way.  So here it is right at the start already:  When it comes to any particular TTL flash system, just become familiar with it.  You can then make it work. 
As simple a point as this … get used to how your particular camera and flash respond, and adjust your technique accordingly.

So, down to business …

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In blending flash with available light, I am often after that delicate balance where the flash is just barely perceptible.  This can be with flash as an equal partner to the available light, or with flash as a subtle fill-flash.

But what I’ve found with my Nikon D3 bodies, when used with the SB-900,  that the fill-flash flash is still too much, even when turned down -3EV on the flash exposure compensation.  I’ve found similar with the various Nikon D300 and Nikon D700 bodies that attendees to my workshops use.  In other words, this isn’t just my cameras – this is repeatable with other cameras too.

Here’s the set-up:

With the model close to a window, and positioning her so that we have the typical window-lit portrait, our light is great. No flash needed.

[ Nikon D3; Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 AF-S; no flash ]

Now, the moment our subject looks at the camera, we have strong contrast, with one side of her face being much darker.  If the room was less bright and reflected less light on her, the difference would be more stark.  The image here isn’t too contrasty, so it will still work .. but I would still prefer a touch less contrast and more light on the shadow side.

[ Nikon D3; Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 AF-S; no flash ]

I can now control the contrast with flash …

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