Fun with the Nikon V1

100% crop of adolescent cheetah
100% crop of adolescent cheetah (National Zoo, Washington DC). The camera nailed focus, and the image is decently sharp, although clearly the lens is not matching the sensor’s resolution.

Just before Christmas I got a pretty good deal on the Nikon V1 (I paid more than I need have since the price dropped even further after I got mine). I ended up picking up the V1 with the 10-30mm kit lens (which is a pretty decent macro lens in case you’re wondering) and the FT-1 adapter, allowing me to use my F-mount lenses — notably my 70-300mm VR — with the V1.

Adolescent cheetah — straight out of camera (converted from RAW)
Adolescent cheetah — straight out of camera (converted from RAW)

My previous blog post shows three photographs I took with the V1/70-300 combination at the zoo, but this was all hand-held and pretty terrible. I’m actually surprised any of the pictures were usable at all (a few of the red panda pics were lovely). On my second excursion I brought my new monopod (a Christmas present). Definitely better but (a) I need more practice with a monopod and (b) an 810mm (effective) lens probably needs a tripod.

Adolescent Cheetah — minor fixes in iPhoto
Adolescent Cheetah — minor fixes in iPhoto. Click for full-size image.

When I pixel-peeped at the unretouched image I noticed some chromatic aberration. Loading the image in iPhoto fixed it automagically. So I added a tiny bit of saturation, retouched two tiny blemishes (not the camera’s fault — the cheetah had some gunk stuck in its fur), and performed a single unsharp mask.

To my eye it’s sharp — not quite tack sharp, I think the pixel density of the V1 sensor is beyond the lens’s resolving power (but it looks like the 70-300VR should do just fine on a 24MP FX sensor) — and the background looks fine. Not bad.

RAW Deals

Red Panda curled up in tree

I’m pretty paranoid about my RAW photos. I keep them (and a lot of other stuff) backed up locally (albeit in desultory fashion) and in the cloud via Crashplan. My initial backup took nearly three months, but once I got over that hump it’s pretty much seamless and my computers are usually only an hour or two ahead of backups (unless I leave them in sleep mode for days, which I do — but it’s not like data are being created while they’re asleep).

Flower Chloe Loewald — Tornado Survivor

My own history of failure

Three years ago I worked with some former colleagues and friends on a startup called Photozen and later PurePhoto. The domain still exists, but it’s become a online photo art dealership (I was also involved in that pivot — I implemented the initial data migration by building a hack tool for consuming PurePhoto’s data from specific photographers’ accounts and pushing it to Shopify.)

But, at the time, we avoided dealing with RAWs despite the fact that, in my opinion, that’s where the real opportunity lies. There’s a lot of mythology surrounding RAW files — I’ve just had an email exchange with the redoubtable Thom Hogan (a very smart guy who, after an illustrious career in hi-tech, is making a good living as a pro photographer, which is no mean feat) over the importance of knowing how to set white balance on your high-end digital camera.

Acorn's UI wrapped around Apple's RAW converter — see that temperature slide?
Acorn’s UI wrapped around Apple’s RAW converter — see that temperature slider?

In my opinion as a RAW shooter there is almost no importance in memorizing this operation — I can second-guess the Auto-WB setting later. On the rare occasion when I need to shoot JPEG (e.g. to optimize my use of the continuous shooting buffer) I can figure it out, but it’s not that common. Thom is under the impression that white balance drives the exposure meter which determines the quality of RAW capture. I can’t verify this experimentally (my experiments indicate otherwise) and it doesn’t make sense to me (as I understand it, Nikon polls an RGB sensor array and then fuzzy-matches the result to an image database to calculate exposure meters — why you’d want to put a white balance calculation in the middle of that escapes me).

Of course Nikon doesn’t help us by using a proprietary and encrypted RAW file format (the actual image data is accessible, but the metadata — which bears directly on a discussion like this — is encrypted). In any event, there’s this mystical attachment to the original RAW file, as though it contains secret sauce, when in fact it’s just a bunch of floating point values that can be “losslessly” converted into some other format (e.g. DNG) or quasi-losslessly converted into — say — lower resolution pixel-binned images (suppose you want to keep dynamic range, but don’t need resolution). As far as I can tell, demand for tools that deal with RAW files intelligently is so low that such tools do not exist, but they’re perfectly doable.

Cheetah

Everpix

So along comes a really neat looking startup called Everpix which promises to solve every photographer’s most annoying workflow problem — unifying all those different silos of photos under one management umbrella. Upload a photo to your iPad, snap a photo on your iPhone, dock your camera to your Mac Pro, every device you own can access every photo.

And they even promise to do things like figure out which shots are in near-identical sequences and automagically pick the best one, and automatically detect incorrect exposures and blurry shots so you don’t need to sort them out.

Of couse it only does this with JPEGs. Grrrr.

Aside: after writing this post, I discovered that — apparently — Everpix can’t upload from my main Aperture library. I also did some Googling to see if anyone else has figured this out — Adobe Revel makes no mention of RAW files even in its FAQ (seriously, no-one wonders about RAW backup to the cloud?) and SugarSync (which looks very similar to Everpix) also makes no mention of RAW support anywhere. My guess, if you’re studiously not mentioning it anywhere on your website, you aren’t dealing with it.

Look guys. You’ve gotten me to install your software on every machine I own. You can see the darn files. How about (a) figuring out which images are blurred or underexposed before you upload them, or (b) using the metadata I’ve provided (e.g. which photos I’ve given star ratings or bothered to fine-tune). This will help filter signal from noise and with the insane amounts of bandwidth you save you can upload the damn RAW files.

Note that I proposed this exact idea to my colleagues working on PurePhoto and it was set aside for after release. (Release never really happened.) Here’s the thing — I don’t need a better image editor. I don’t need a tool for sorting my pictures into folders. I really don’t care about JPEGs because those are “prints”. I can replace them. I need to deal with baggigabytes of photos, 90% of them crap, and I need it to be seamless and handle RAW.

A typical RAW file is three times larger than the corresponding “fine” JPEG. So, support RAW files and figure out a way to avoid uploading 70% of the images and you’re ahead. You’re way ahead because now you’re doing something useful.

Here’s another way of looking at it: if you save 100% of my JPEGs you’ve done nothing useful. If you save 90% of the RAW files I care about (missing 10% because your filter algorithm is imperfect) you’ve done me a huge, huge service, and I can become smarter about finessing your algorithm and you can improve your algorithm over time.

Go forth and implement something useful.

Meta Photo Blog Review

In the spirit of the immortal Shiny vs. Useful graph (the quintessential 90’s business graphic) here’s my shiny vs. useful photography blog slash review site meta review in one simply chart. Stuff towards the top is reliable and insightful. Stuff at the right features great photography.

dxomark is right in the middle for photo quality, because it doesn’t feature photographs. That said, it should lose marks for having such a damn ugly flash-dependent website. Kenrockwell loses points on photo quality because, frankly, I don’t like the photos of his kids. (Sorry.) His other photography can be very good, although it’s usually just ho-hum with the saturation blown out. Mansurovs (now photography life) has slipped down the reliability chart since it stopped being a blog and started being more of a business. Indeed, deciding to remove the bookmark to Mansurovs from my browser is what prompted me to create this chart.

I only added Ming Thien’s blog to my regular bookmarks in the last couple of days and his next two blog posts were: 1) a garage sale of his old gear, and 2) a horrible article on color theory that starts out bad (with a badly designed diagram), and manages to be both impenetrably dense and wrong. Just more evidence that color theory is hard, I guess. No question Ming Thien is a great photographer — which I guess is just more evidence that you don’t need to really understand color theory. Oh well, I’ll persist with his site a bit longer.

Cameralabs would be higher up the chart if it didn’t insist on giving cameras a score based in significant part on MSRP. Both dpreview and cameralabs suffer from this (and from grading on an intangible curve — “relative to similar cameras at the time of the review”). I actually preferred it when dpreview simply said “highly recommended” or whatever.

Next up, I think I’ll review iDraw (which I used to create the graphic) and compare it to Artboard (which I am giving up on until it gets a major update).

Full-frame or Micro four-thirds… or Bust?

Camera Bag
My camera bag. Shot with D7000 in very difficult lighting (I’ve pulled in masses of shadow and highlight detail from the RAW).

My current camera bag is pretty hefty. It’s the size of a large laptop bag, divided into compartments and pretty much full with two Nikon bodies (D5000 and D7000), and five lenses (35mm f1.8, 18-200mm, 11-16mm, 70-300mm, and a Lensbaby Composer). There are a few other small items, such as an SB-400 flash and an IR remote shutter release. Sometimes I carry a compact tripod. The D5000 usually has the 35mm or the 18-200 and sits in the “quick access” compartment — the D7000 is barely able to pass through quick-access compartment’s opening.

God Rays
God Rays on my office roof. D5000 35mm f1.8. Guess I should have used my lens hood.

If I were to rank the lenses in my order of preference, it would be:

  • 35mm (also great for my daughters, since they don’t know how to deal with zooming)
  • 70-300mm
  • 11-16mm (I have no clue how to use this lens, but it is great fun)
  • 18-200mm (even though it’s second from the bottom, it’s a damn fine lens)
  • The Lensbaby is a stupid toy.

I’m not that serious a photographer — I don’t need a “backup body”, but I don’t tend to sell my old stuff so it just accumulates. Even so, the D5000 is hardly the bulkiest item in the pack, and I really like it, especially for odd-angle shots. Also, my daughters can manage the D5000’s body (kind of) but the D7000 is just a bit too big and heavy for them. Also, I don’t want them to drop it.

Romilly using the D5000
Romilly using the D5000 (with 35mm f1.8). Shot with the D7000.

So, I’ve been sorely tempted by Micro four-thirds, and having seen several Olympus OM-D E-M5’s in the “wild”, they’re very small, neat, attractive, and apparently well-made cameras. And they’re tiny. The idea of switching to M43 has become very tempting. I even resigned myself to an EVF.

Bridge Support
This photograph was shot with the D5000 — two generations behind and half the sensor size of the D600 — using the “mediocre” Nikon 18-200mm VR zoom (at 200mm). The D5000 has a DxOmark sensor score of 72, vs. 71 for the OM-D E-M5.

So: how much will it cost to switch? Let’s start with a “fast prime” system, since fast primes are what makes Micro four-thirds so compelling.

  • Olympus OM-D E-M5 $999
  • Zuiko 12mm f2 $800
  • Panasonic (Leica) 25mm f1.4 $540
  • Zuiko 75mm f1.8 $900
  • Total $3240

Not bad. When I mentioned this to a colleague who is also an avid photographer, he said “wow, about the price of an FX body”. My thoughts exactly.

Let’s compare the cost for Nikon.

  • Nikon D600 $2100
  • Nikon 24mm f2.8 AF-D $360
  • Nikon 50mm f1.4 AF-D $330
  • Nikon 85mm f1.8 AF-G $500
  • Total $3290

Let that sink in for a second. A D600 with three very credible primes costs a total of $50 more than a similar Olympus / Panasonic system.

Seagull
Seagull photographed with D5000 and 18-200mm lens (at 200mm). I haven’t included a 100% crop, but it is seriously sharp.

Clearly, this is going to be a lot bulkier than the Micro four-thirds option, but it will be much smaller than my current DX kit and, frankly, pretty awesome. It actually makes simply going for a D800 (with the same set of lenses) seem like a pretty reasonable idea.

While we’re at it, here’s the cost of the equivalent Canon system.

  • Canon 6D $2100
  • Canon 20mm f2.8 $490 (the 24mm f2.8 is twice the price and not especially well-reviewed – go figure)
  • Canon 50mm f1.4 $360
  • Canon 85mm f1.8 $370
  • Total $3320

That’s not much more.

You’d think that for fast zooms the advantage would be more decidedly in favor of Micro Four-Thirds, but not really.

Certainly the Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 zoom is $1100 is far cheaper than $1900 for the 24-70mm f2.8 Nikon (and even more for its Canon counterpart). But there’s no f2.8 ultra-wide zoom for M43, and the Panasonic 7-14mm f4 is $900 versus $1300 for the far more versatile Nikon 16-35mm f4 (and $850 for the Tokina 16-28mm f2.8). Finally, the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 isn’t available yet but Amazon has it listed for $1500 — less than the $2400 Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR II, but more than the $1000 Nikon 80-200mm (without VR).

So, M43 comes to $3500 versus $3750—$5600 for Nikon FX depending on your choices, but no matter which options you take on the Nikon side you end up with better glass and more DOF control. The M43 options are far less bulky, though.

But there’s no way I’m going to buy $3500 or more worth of lenses, and certainly not all at once.

Cheetah Cub
Cheetah Cub — early morning at the Smithsonian National Zoo. (Woefully underexposed. I had “bracketing” switched on and didn’t realize it immediately.)

Finally, I like to have a long telephoto lens and the options for Micro Four-Thirds are actually quite depressing. The two longest lenses are the Panasonic 100-300mm (200-600mm equivalent) f4-5.6 which is pretty poor and doesn’t focus close at all. Then there’s the Olympus 75-300mm (150-600mm equivalent) which is a bit sharper, focuses somewhat closer, but is slow (f4.8-6.7) and $900. Now, it’s pretty hard to find inexpensive lenses beyond 300mm for full-frame DSLRs, but the IQ of even a cropped image from the FX camera will tend to exceed that of a M43 camera and it will be easier to frame the shot. (A 400mm lens on an FX camera cropped to APS-C is effectively 600mm.) The Nikon 80-400mm is around $1700, but the Sigma 150-500mm is around $1100 and is better regarded than the M43 options.

Butterfly
Butterfly at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. D7000 with 18-200mm at 200mm.

I should also add that the Olympus has in-body image stabilization, whereas the D600 doesn’t and neither do any of the primes listed. Even so, the Nikon is a freaking FX camera with a DxO sensor score of 94 and a giant 100% coverage optical viewfinder. And judging by how often I end up resorting to the 18-200mm for difficult shots, I’ll probably end up getting either the 28-300mm or the 24-120mm Nikons, and — again — the Micro four-thirds equivalents are not inspiring.

Quick Dismissal of the Other Options

Fujifilm XE-1 and Olympus OM-D E-M5
The Fujifilm XE-1 is a handsome beast and comparable in size to the OM-D E-M5.

Probably my favorite alternative is the Fujifilm XE-1.

  • XE-1 Body $1000
  • 18mm f2 lens $520
  • 35mm f1.4 lens $520
  • 60mm f2.4 lens $600
  • Total $2640

I think it’s pretty astonishing that an XE-1 system (or an X-Pro1 system for that matter) ends up being considerably cheaper than the comparable M43 system.

The problem is that there’s not much more to the lens range (and no serious telephotos for the foreseeable future, to begin with), autofocus is the weakest feature (and I have high-speed twins), and RAW-processing remains an issue. No question the cameras look great and Fujifilm is definitely making great choices in terms of lens rollout (compare it to Nikon 1!) but in the end I think it’s just too limited (and then there’s the whole EVF thing). I guess the X-Pro1 has an optical viewfinder (and I cut my teeth on rangefinder-style 35mm cameras) but do I really want parallax and glowing crop lines?

There’s always Leica. Haha. Not bloody likely.

The Panasonic GH-3 looks like a great body, but in the end it has the same pros and cons and will probably be more expensive than the OM-D E-M5.

The Sony A99 is the ugliest damn thing I’ve ever seen, costs almost as much as the D800, uses that accursed translucent mirror technology, and has a borked lens selection. Also, I’ve been burned by both Minolta and Sony in the past. On the other hand, the RX-1 is almost the camera I was pleading for in Full Frame or Bust, but it’s also $3k, has a focal length I don’t care for,  an orange ring with advertising on it, and no viewfinder. The sample shots I’ve seen on dpreview aren’t exactly tack sharp either.

Benches

So, despite everything, it looks like Nikon (or perhaps Canon) wins this round. Once you realize that you can turn a D600 into a complete FX system for about $1200 it simply makes all the other options seem ridiculous. The only real question is whether to upgrade to the D600 or wait for a successor with built-in GPS and WiFi (or a successor to the 6D with a 100% viewfinder and — hopefully — a better sensor).

Addendum

I should really cost the Sony NEX system as an option.

  • NEX-6 Body $850, but I’d be inclined to pay an extra $150 for the folding 16-50mm “power zoom” kit lens. (The NEX-7 is $1200 for the body; I don’t care for the $1350 kit lens option.)
  • 16mm f2.8 Prime (and it’s a pancake) — $250
  • 35mm f1.8 Prime — $450
  • 50mm f1.8 Prime — $300
  • And there’s a 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 telephoto zoom — $350
  • Total (strict apples-to-apples) for NEX 6 and three primes — $1850
  • Total (strict apples-to-apples) for NEX 7 and three primes — $2200
  • Add the compact zoom and telephoto zoom — $2350

Perhaps I should stop dismissing Sony’s NEX cameras out of hand. The lens selection remains limited, but it’s less limited than Fuji’s and they’ve got their bases covered now (there’s even a 10-18mm ultra-wide zoom now), and Sony has by far the best video capability (60p) along with every gimmicky feature you can think of.

Sony’s sensor dominance

iPhone 4S Camera Module (via Chipworks)
iPhone 4S Camera Module (via Chipworks)

Is Sony building a sensor monopoly?

It’s beginning to look like Sony is positioning itself as the Kodak of digital photography. Or perhaps the Intel.

Virtually all the exciting new cameras around are sporting Sony cameras — including Sony’s own RX-1, the Leica M, the Olympus OM-D EM-5, and the D-600. The new Leica is almost certainly using a Sony sensor. Fuji’s XF system seems to be based on the 16MP APS-C sensor with a custom color filter. Does the GH-3 use a Sony sensor too? And, if not, will it be competitive? I’d suggest that Panasonic relying on Sony sensors would be pretty disturbing given that for a long time Panasonic has been Sony’s only credible rival in video.

Now and for several years Sony’s sensors have dominated DxOMark’s rankings (perhaps Sony has cottoned onto DxOMark as the most cited sensor benchmark and is optimizing its sensors accordingly).

It’s also worth noting that Pentax’s K5 and K30 both use the same Sony sensor used in the Nikon D7000. And, for good measure, Sony has just invested a bunch of money in Olympus, giving it some kind of stake in Micro Four-Thirds. The camera module in the iPhone 4S is known to be from Sony, and it’s highly likely that in the iPhone 5 is also. (Who makes the camera modules in Nokia’s various “PureView” branded phones?) It seems like the only major holdouts are Samsung (who I assume are busily trying to clone Sony’s sensors) and Canon (and I for one am not going to buy a Canon DSLR to help prop them up until they give up on their ridiculous control layout).

The digital photography market is not an easy place to be right now. Smartphones with ridiculously good camera modules are eating out the ground beneath it, and at the high end Sony is cheerfully selling very nice sensor modules to everyone and letting them all kill each other. Sony (and Minolta) have never managed to dominate this market (aside from a brief period where their high-end point-and-shoots were all that enthusiasts could afford), so a chaotic melee where everyone ends up weakened and dependent on Sony suits them just fine. In this context, Sony’s injection of $400M into Olympus makes a lot of sense. In a world where Sony were trying to make NEX dominant it wouldn’t make sense to prop up NEX’s most credible competitor, but in a world where Sony just wants everyone else weak or dead it makes perfect sense.

Of course, Sony has been losing money for a couple of years now, so in order to capitalize on its success in the camera market (where it still makes money) it needs to get the rest of its house in order.