Thursday, July 30, 2015

Tools of the trade

The coast of Cornwall at Tintagel.
To take on the world, one needs the right tools. For me, this means photography equipment.

I make the decision some time ago to cast my lot with Nikon. In 2013, when I made a big upgrade from my D2Xs, I choose the D800E. I was tried of the fuzzy images the old glass on the low resolution sensor was giving me and I've been especially pleased with the choice.

The host of megapixels gives lots of choices on how to rotate ('cause I can't shoot level!) or crop ('cause I can't get close to the bird) and still have a nice image.
At the Lost Gardens of Heligan
However, it is true that toting this beast all day is a tiring job. For those times that we are knocking about a city and the goal is to capture the feel of the streets and people in them, a smaller camera is in order.

In 2013, my choice was the Fujifilm X100s.
This fellow fits in a pocket and is well suited for the sort of tourist and street photography I commonly do. There is much to like about this camera. There is also much to criticize. I find it supremely frustrating to use the camera in anything but strong light and even then, after using the Nikon, the slow focus makes me crazy. I find that I have to use it a couple days uninterrupted to get used to the way it focuses and take pictures that are respectable.
London at Christmas time.
If you have the patience, it does a fine job. But I'm short on this quality when being jostled on the street in a crowd. So, after much looking and thinking, I have settled on a new choice for the city that has a couple extra benefits well worth looking at.

My new choice is the Nikon 1 v3.
This is smaller, lighter camera that is extremely responsive. Although I only have the kit lens (10-30 mm) that is a bit slow, this lens has vibration reduction (VR) and seems to work pretty well at low shutter speeds. What I really like is the super-fast focus. On the X100s, I use back-button focus, in part, to avoid having to focus every single time I pressed the shutter button. With this animal, there is no need for such a complication. It focuses faster than you can blink.

In addition, there is both a mechanical and electronic shutter. With the electronic shutter one can take 20 full resolution images per second and it will re-focus for each one! This an amazing capability for working on the street where time is of the essence. You can even get bursts of up to 60fps if you forego the re-focus.

From the tests I have made, the focus does not really suffer a lot in low light. It is a bit slower, a bit less sure, but nowhere nearly as terrible as the Fuji. That camera would rack back and forth through the entire rage of focus several times before settling on a good focus that was often not very good. A switch to AF-C mode does help make it more tolerable in low light but this is a hard way to make a living. For the 1 v3, when it reaches a place where I'm failing to make a focus, it is because it is too dark for me to see what I'm shooting. This makes it time for manual focusing and a tripod anyway. I'm still learning my way around this critter, but so far it is nice. The main thing to adjust to is that there really is no reason to ever go to an aperture smaller than f/5.6 and reasons not to. Because the small sensor (1"), it is more sensitive to diffraction. At apertures smaller than f/5.6, this begins to be a problem. On the other hand, even at larger apertures like f/3.5 (wide open on the kit lens), the depth of field is big at any distance over a foot or two. This means that if I set it for with largest aperture in aperture priority, I'm good to go.

The small sensor also means that noise is a bigger problem than in the X100s or the D800E. After collecting some test shots, I find that this is something I can live with. Corrections in software help a lot and street shooting is often OK with a little noise. And the noise here is pleasant, not harsh.

But the real bonus with the 1 v3 is that Nikon has built an adapter to allow me to use all the lenses for the D800E with it. This means I can use, for example, the 80-400 mm zoom with the camera to shoot birds. the great thing about this choice is that with the small sensor, I get the same angle of view at 400 mm as I would with a 1080mm lens. This effectively moves me much closer to the bird and makes previously impossible shots possible. This is much better than simply cropping the D800E image. Once cropped to the same size, the 1v3 has much better resolution. This is the way to bird!

This fellow, sitting in an antique car in the street in front of our house was photographed using the 1 v3 with the large 80-400 mm lens (for the D800E) set at 400 mm. In addition I had the 1.4X teleconverter in there with it. This gives the same field of view as 1512 mm lens! This image is the full, uncropped image shot without a tripod (leaning against a post). Sharpness suffers since the largest aperture is f/8, but it is still pretty darned neat that is possible.

It seems likely that in the near future, the X100s will go away, and I'll be back to two cameras. The goal is to build a kit that does what I want and I can carry it. The full-frame D800E means that a full complement of lenses is pretty darned heavy. Adding a second camera and a laptop means carrying the backpack all day is a physical trial. Nevertheless, it is do-able, especially if I can set it down every once in a while.

With the overlap in lenses with the two Nikons I really only need one sharp large aperture lens for the 1 v3. I'm going with the kit lens for now, but I'm eyeing the 18mm f/1.8 pretty closely. It is inexpensive (under $200) and small. This gives, approximately, the equivalent of the X100s in a smaller, faster, more versatile package that easily fits in the traveling pack.
The Kiboko 22L camera pack from Gura Gear.
So, we are off to see the world and I'm assembling the tools (toys) to make the memories last.