The Nikon D90’s Annoying Flaw

Nikon’s long-rumored and just-announced D90 is a pretty wonderful piece of kit by all accounts, but with one notable and annoying limitation buried in its tech specs. It has a 12-bit A/D converter whereas Canon offers 14-bit support in its similarly priced 40D (indeed I can find 40D’s selling from reputable vendors for under $950) and considerably cheaper EOS 450D. While providing HD video capabilities in the D90 is certainly a radical, bold, and perhaps even compelling move — skimping on still picture quality (tonal* range) is pretty annoying.

Perhaps Nikon is trying to differentiate its “pro-ish” D200 and D300 from it’s “enthusiast” D80 and D90 with tonal* range. If so, this seems to me to be a grave misjudgment. Serious photographers will be intrigued by the video shooting capability, but ultimately I think that — effectively — limiting the D90 to inferior quality “film” is very, very bad idea. Nikon never did similarly dumb things with film cameras — why do it with digital?

Nikon is now in the rather odd position of having a huge gap between the D60 (which retails for around $600) and the D200 (which retails for around $1300) which has two Canons (the 450D and 40D) in it, both of which shoot 14-bit RAW.

Now, just how big a difference 14-bit makes over 12-bit in practice is unclear. Pixel-peeping review sites such as dpreview.com haven’t really started looking hard at it, but it’s obviously important enough that both Canon and Nikon have added support for it in some of their cameras. In theory, each “bit” should equate to an f-stop of dynamic range, which would make it ridiculously important.

Anyway, leaving 14-bit RAW support out of the D90 seems like a foolish oversight. It gives people a reason not to buy the D90. The D80 simply did everything it could reasonably be expected to do and then some. It was incredibly successful because there was simply no reason not to buy it. The D90’s lack of 14-bit support will give me, for one, pause. Of course, Nikon may release a D90x with 14-bit RAW once it ramps up production … in six months.

Second Thoughts

If you visit the Nikon’s D90 web page you can see a sample of the video quality, which is stunning. Autofocus is disabled while shooting, so it’s not going to be an all-round camcorder substitute, even with a separate audio recorder (which is a good idea even if you’re using a real camcorder) and an external battery grip. So, video is definitely not a half-arsed feature.

While the 12- vs. 14- bit issue is galling, it’s worth noting that the D90 excels the 450D (and in several cases the 40D and 50D) in some rather more important ways, such as continuous shooting speed (4.5 vs. 3.5 fps), 3D predictive autofocus, autofocus points, metering, and viewfinder quality. So, while the lack of 14-bit NEF support is still grating (reminiscent of Apple blocking dual display support from iBooks to differentiate them from Powerbooks way back when) Nikon is delivering an all-round superior camera.

The street price of the D300 is dropping, too, so I guess Nikon is bracketing the 50D with the D90 and D300, and letting the D90’s superior usability deal with the 40D and 450D.

Correction

As per comments from an alert reader, 14-bit refers to tonal range not “dynamic”. The two aren’t completely independent (as per my responses in comments) but I stand corrected.

Post Script

dpreview has posted sample shots from the Nikon D90 and also the Canon 50D. The first thing I look for is good low light performance, and both produce very usable output even at ISO 6400 (if you pixel peep, it looks like the Nikon produces “clusters” of noise while the Canon produces more outright artifacts, but this is just one photograph per camera of different scenes).

There’s no question that the $1000 D90 trounces the $800 450D. Although the Canon has 14-bit RAW, it is built like a toy, has a pentamirror* viewfinder, maxes out at ISO 1600, uses its flash for low-light focusing, and offers lower shooting speed (3.5fps vs 4.5fps). The 50D barely trumps the D90 for considerably more money with compact flash, 14-bit RAW, and slightly higher resolution… but the D300’s price is now in the same ballpark as the 50D.

Canon has finally released an image-stabilized 18-200mm lens (quite reasonably priced too) which will at least remove that as a reason to go Nikon.

* Every film SLR I’ve ever owned or used has had a pentaprism with excellent coverage, and not one cost more than $350, so why on earth do we find pentamirrors acceptable in $800 digitals?

Canon 50D at 6400 ISO
Canon 50D at 6400 ISO
Nikon 90D at 6400 ISO
Nikon D90 at 6400 ISO

Photoshop Elements 6.0 for Mac

I’ve had the Photoshop Elements 6.0 (PSE henceforth) trial installer sitting in my Downloads folder for a while now, and it’s high time I took a look at it. I’ve actually never used Photoshop Elements, although I have quite a bit of experience with the crippleware Photoshop 4.0 “Limited Edition”, which — thankfully — PSE doesn’t resemble in the slightest.

First of all, PSE is very much an Adobe application with all the annoyances that entails namely:

  • Adobe’s slow-as-a-wet-week, mentally challenged installer
  • Adobe’s “hey, watch us load all our plugins” splash screen
  • Adobe’s laughable updater
  • And Adobe Bridge which is good in some ways and horrible in others — more on this later

So for first impressions, installation was slow and painful. The installer won’t install anything unless all Adobe apps, web browsers, and anything else they can think of are not running. This is bad enough, but it also complains about the offending programs one at a time. Quit Safari then click Try Again. Quit Photoshop and then click Try Again. And so on. Yuck.

Once installed, Photoshop Elements weighs in at 427MB of which about 30MB is tutorials and documentation. That’s atrocious but par for the course these days.

Pixelmator, Photoline, and Acorn are all “drag this icon to your Applications folder” to install, and “drag this icon to the Trash” to uninstall. This is how Mac software should be and generally has been since 1984.

Bridge is slower than the Media Browser component that Pixelmator uses, but a lot more capable — with one glaring exception. When you try to access the iPhoto Library (which it provides a handy shortcut for) rather than behaving sensibly and letting you browse the directories within or, better yet, parse them with some knowledge as to how iPhoto structures them and conceal the garbage, it simply launches iPhoto.

I might note that, knowing where iPhoto actually stores stuff is no help. If you try to sneak up on your RAW images by finding them yourself, Bridge cleverly sees what you’re trying to do and helpfully launches iPhoto instead. So, special effort went into this little Usability Fiasco.

iPhoto in turn needs to be set to use PSE as its external editor and, to add insult to injury, when you double-click a RAW image in iPhoto, it sends PSE a processed JPEG to edit — bypassing Adobe Camera Raw which is pretty much the main selling point of PSE.

Helpful Hint: to actually use ACR on RAW images in your iPhoto Library, you need to right-click on the Photo and choose “Show in Finder”, and then drag the document into PSE manually. Good grief. I hope Adobe fixes this idiocy in an update.

OK, so we’re in PSE and we’ve managed to load a RAW image.

First of all, PSE has a pretty nice looking interface. Very much inspired by Apple’s “Pro” apps (not as polished, but not bad) with dark grey panels and a lack of clutter. Sadly, not all of PSE’s interface matches this look, so you’re occasionally brought into jarring contact with vanilla Aqua dialogs (much like the way the Type and Color Picker floaters stick out like a sore thumb in Pixelmator, but worse). And, unlike Apple’s Pro apps, it doesn’t really know what to do with a second monitor.

Next, PSE has some great stuff for novice users. The interface is divided into three “stages”: Edit (process and retouch images), Create (assemble albums, etc.), and Share (distribute content). For the Edit stage there is a “full” interface (with every tool available), a “quick” interface with just the most common stuff, and a “Guided” interface which is very simple to use, and useful even for experienced users who want to make sure they haven’t forgotten something obvious.

The Guided interface also reveals some of PSE’s most brilliant tools, such as its Correct Skin Tone tool which is one of the fastest and most effective color correction tools I’ve ever seen.

Above, PSE has HUD-style confirmation dialogs, which I find to be an improvement over Photoshop’s interface.

In the Full interface it took me a little while to map what I saw on to Photoshop’s toolset. At first I thought Curves was missing, but not only is it present, it comes with useful presets (e.g. correct for backlighting) whichallow novice users to see how Curves works without being thrown in the deep end. I didn’t really use the Quick interface at all, and I’m not sure it’s really all that useful since the Full interface isn’t terribly cluttered.


PSE’s magnetic lasso tool tries to trace the edges of objects automagically, and does a pretty good job (this Photo was taken in appalling lighting conditions).

PSE has Photoshop’s excellent tools for correcting for lens distortion, the quirky magnetic lasso, and a bewildering variety of color correction and finessing tools. It also seems to have all of Photoshop’s filters. So, what does Photoshop do that PSE doesn’t? Aside from obvious high-end and print-related features such as support for HDR images and CMYK:

  • PSE doesn’t have editable bezier curves
  • Text layers are limited (but not crippled)
  • Layers can’t be nested
  • No editable masks (but you can mask with shapes from a library)
  • Blending options are hidden behind “Layer Styles” which allow most of the things most people would want to do (such as emboss and stick drop shadows under things) but which are far less powerful and flexible than Photoshop’s
  • No matting tools

This isn’t a huge list. I could certainly live with PSE (instead of Photoshop) in a pinch, although I’d certainly miss its bezier tools, masking, and layer organization functions.

One area where PSE really pales in comparison with the Core Image-based editors is filters.  On the whole, Adobe’s suite of Filters (which is starting to get a bit dated) is still probably more useful, overall, than Core Image’s basic set, but Core Image — especially as implemented in Pixelmator, but also in Acorn — has some really nice filters wrapped in a far better, more interactive interface that Adobe can’t match. While bread-and-butter filters (Gaussian Blur, Unsharp Mask) are simply quicker and more pleasant in Core Image, in some more obscure cases, such as Zoom Blur (Radial Blur in Zoom mode for Photoshop users), Core Image simply makes Adobe’s filters look amateurish.


PSE’s Zoom Blur filter (which is straight out of Photoshop) hasn’t been updated since 1995 or so, and has no preview, and produces mediocre results. You place the center of the blur by clicking in the black and white square thingy, and then undo when you get it wrong.


Pixelmator’s Core Image based Zoom Blur is completely interactive. You place the center of the blur effect directly on the image, dragging the intensity results in a live, full-screen preview near instantaneously (at least on my Mac Pro, editing a full resolution image).

Conclusions

Given my recent comments on Pixelmator, how does PSE compare? Well, it’s about $20 more expensive ($79 from Amazon versus $59) although the Windows version is cheaper. The installation process is annoying, Adobe’s Updater is a joke, and Bridge offers atrocious iPhoto integration. (I can’t speak for Aperture but can only assume it works better with PSE than iPhoto does.) Once installed, in terms of features PSE runs circles around Pixelmator everywhere except in Filters. In terms of user interface, Pixelmator is definitely prettier and has a more consistent look and feel, but Adobe has done a great deal to make quite complex features (many of which Pixelmator flat out doesn’t have, such as Skin Tone Color Correction and Correct Lens Distortion) approachable to novices.

Pixelmator feels a lot less ponderous than PSE, which might be a whole bunch cheaper than Photoshop but — launch times aside — feels considerably more sluggish. Pixelmator is also more Mac-like, and — this is a taste thing — I find it more fun to use. That said, I have Photoshop, so for me PSE is just a dumbed down version of Photoshop with some very clunky and crippled features, and a bunch of stuff I use constantly (beziers!) missing altogether. If you don’t have Photoshop and you’re a Photographer, I’d have to recommend PSE over Pixelmator. PSE has tools for photographers that Pixelmator simply can’t match, not least of which is Adobe Camera Raw (Pixelmator simply imports RAWs without allowing you to correct anything on the way in). For me, PSE has been crippled in just the right way to make it intolerable, while Pixelmator seems to me to have pretty close to the right set of features for what it does, and it’s just more pleasant to use.

So, unsurprisingly, PSE offers nothing to those of us with Photoshop, but it’s pretty compelling for Photographers, if annoying to install and a bit torpid and old fashioned in places.

Nikon DSLRs and Lenses, Computer Buying Rules of Thumb, and Twins

There’s a new web page on my site, which is very much under development. You can find it here. As I said, very much under development.

I’ve recently purchased (retail! ugh!) a Nikon 18-200mm lens. This is unquestionably the most jaw-droppingly awesome (cropped-frame) DSLR lens ever, but I’d been putting off buying it because of my general attitude towards digital equipment purchases in general, and DSLR stuff in particular, which has served me well, but cost me in the neighborhood of $150 in the case of this lens. Still, overall, no regrets.

Note: the photo posted above was taken with a Panasonic TZ-3 point and shoot in a dimly lit NICU, so don’t blame Nikon for the image quality. The TZ-3 is a small, cheap camera with a 10:1 zoom ratio optically stabilized Leica lens that can shoot video at similar quality to a MiniDV camcorder. Its successors (the TZ-5) can shoot 720p. And unlke the Canon TX-1 these cameras have good ergonomics and are cheap.

Anyway, when you’ve just had gorgeous twins after four years of trying, you don’t order the camera lens you plan to immortalize them with from the cheapest vendor on froogle, even if it will save you a few bucks, if it means missing their first few days. Or, at least, I don’t.

The Problem with Camera Reviews

The basic problem with online camera reviews is the complete lack of sane standards or criteria. For example, some reviewers such as dpreview and cameralabs (the two best review sites I’ve found) seem to insist on evaluating cameras by using their default settings — which is barely defensible for point-and-shoots, and indefensible for serious cameras — and spending most or all their time looking at JPEGs for cameras that shoot RAW.

Consequently, I’ve yet to see any useful reviews of Pentax DSLRs because they’ve got crappy in-camera JPEG processing and stupid presets. Just one serious review where the reviewer tweaked the settings before writing a “hey this is a pretty good camera with poor presets and JPEG output” review would be nice.

Anyway, the history of DSLRs is such that it’s very hard to really commit to a camera line (i.e. lens line) because everything is in such a state of flux. Consider Olympus who decided to adopt the Kodak-driven 4/3 standard (i.e. standardized vendor-neutral lens mount, smaller sensor) with the tacit assumption that DSLRs would standardize on smaller sensors. Boy is anyone who has invested a ton of money in Zuiko 4/3 system lenses screwed.

Nikon seemed to be sticking to cropped frame cameras too, but then responsed to the Canon full-frame cameras with the D3, which shows us that, in the end, DSLRs will settle on 35mm sized sensors, Olympus will be screwed, and cropped-frame digital lenses will only be useful in special “cropped frame” modes on bodies that ship in 2009 or 2010. Given that most people who shop for camera lenses are used to accumulating their lenses over a lifetime, this means … well just go back to my comment about how screwed the folks who bought into the 4/3 system are.

Note that Kodak has this strange history of trying to popularize retarded film formats. Can you remember 135 cartridges (basically drop in film cartridges that used 35mm sized film but didn’t require tricky threading… but didn’t hold the film flat on the focal plane guaranteeing crap pictures)? How about 110? How about disc film? How about APS? The only “successful” launch they seem to have managed was disposable cameras, an achievement roughly as praiseworthy as the invention of spam (email, not the meat by-product, which is actually useful). Each of these formats was intended to combat the (basically non-existent) problem of loading film into a camera at the cost of sharpness and resolution.

Moore’s Law and Digital Equipment Purchases

The rule of thumb I use to buy all forms of computer (and DSLRs are a computer with a lens mount) are as follows.

  1. Buy the best option that’s substantially cheaper than top-of-the-line
  2. Only upgrade when the replacement is at least twice as “good”
  3. Avoid Vendor Lock-In Unless Absolutely Necessary
  4. Buy only the barest chassis from Apple

Here are some examples:

If you buy a top-of-the-line Mac Pro (ignoring RAM and hard disks) you’ll pay $1600 more for 0.4 GHz of CPU speed. That’s at best a 15% speed improvement for nearly 60% more cash.

If you bought a Nikon D200 instead of a Nikon D80 when they both came out, again you got basically the same camera but in a better constructed box for a lot more money. Sure, it’s less likely to break, but (unless you make your living from Photography, and if you do, you don’t need my advice) you could spend the difference on lenses which (subject to the extinction of cropped frame cameras issue touched on above) won’t go obsolete in the time it takes UPS to deliver your new camera.

The Future Will Be Corrected On-The-Fly

The Nikon D3/D300 are, at least for the moment, a special case. They have the ability to compensate for lens distortion — at least by Nikon lenses — during in-camera processing, so you can shoot JPEGs in burst mode and have lens aberrations corrected on-the-fly. Moving forward, this threatens to turn many characteristics of lenses into software, and thus put optics into digital overdrive. Today, lenses designed and made before WWII compete with anything produced today, making lenses a lifetime investment. But if cameras can correct for lens flaws (chromatic and geometric aberration, falloff, etc.) on-the-fly, then you could basically stick a magnifying glass in front of the damn thing, completely changing the economics of camera lenses.

Some time ago, Panasonic (I think) pioneered digital cameras which continuously took photos and then simply grabbed the one that was taken as you pressed the shutter button. Casio has gone well beyond this with their latest camera which can (in one mode) temporally bracket your shot for 30 frames to either “side” of the point you release the shutter (at up to 60 fps at full resolution). You take a picture, and then select from the 60 frames the camera grabbed for the shot you really wanted. No more missing the point at which the bat struck the ball, the bride’s lips touched the groom’s or whatever.

Aside from having Casio optics, sensors, and ergonomics, the principle is brilliant. A future digital “point-and-shoot” could have a crappy lens whose bad characteristics are corrected on-the-fly by the onboard computer, and temporally shoot “around” the shutter press. Resolution is already high enough to allow composition after the fact (just keep zoomed out a little and you can crop in Photoshop).

Twins!

So I’ve been shooting a lot of pictures of baby girls for some strange reason, using a Nikon D50 with a new 18-200mm VR lens (after being blown away by this thing’s versatility, sharpness, and fast focusing, I must note that the damn thing is heavy, I may end up buying an 18-55mm VR lens for more casual use) and also my TZ-3. The TZ-3 pretty much makes SD video camcorders obsolete, although its video quality isn’t quite as good. I would imagine that the TZ-5 really does stomp SD camcorders.

The Nikon D50 was the first Nikon DSLR that was under $1000 and well-featured. It was, in essence, identical to the D70 (including having a focus motor and top-side display, things the D40, D40x, and D60 all lack). Following my own rule of thumb, I’ve yet to upgrade since there’s been no camera that’s twice as good at roughly the same price, so far. (The D80 has actually hit the price-point, but it’s not “twice as good” and it will presumably be supplanted by a D80x or D90 which will be “twice as good”.)

Going back to my dissing of camera reviews, another major point is that for almost everybody, the real difference between cameras is low light performance, and yet almost no space is devoted to it. E.g. dpreview’s galleries usually only feature one or two pictures taken at high ISO. Given the price differences between cameras with it and cameras without it, image stabilization is simply a must-have. Cameras without it should simply be pointed, and laughed, at. Optical is better than sensor-based. (My TZ-3 shoots like a steadicam.) Electronic is a joke. When reviewing digital cameras, a camera without image stabilization should simply be rated “useless” unless it has some incredible redeeming quality (like awesome high ISO performance).

Of all the photos I’ve taken in the past couple of weeks, only in one case was I shooting in ideal lighting conditions. And, guess what, even disposables shot pretty good photos in “ideal lighting conditions”. Pinhole cameras rock. When you’re shooting hand-held shots without flash at 1/4s in a dimly lit NICU, or at a family reunion, or in a museum, or at a concert, or any of the other zillions of badly lit places most photos get taken, “studio lighting comparisons” and “sample landscapes” are irrelevant. The ability of a DSLR to fire off 3-8 full resolution frames in a second through top quality glass is simply incomparable to smaller cameras.

One of the truly beautiful things about shooting baby pictures with a VR lens at very low shutter speeds is that I can capture the subject’s motion without camera shake. It’s a beautiful thing.

Oh well, feeding time…

Photoline Revisited

I’ve mentioned Photoline before as the first true Photoshop alternative I’ve come across, and I wrote a generally glowing review for MacApper a week or two back. I made a few critical remarks, mainly concerning cosmetic issues with Photoline’s UI. Well, the developer seems to have read the review and tidied up all the dialogs and made some enhancements besides.

Wow.

Life Without Adobe: A Halfway Decent Photoshop Replacement

Turns out that all this time there’s been a pretty sold Photoshop alternative in the shape of Photoline v14 (another piece of German shareware … what is it with these German indie developers?). It’s a cross-platform app and its UI seems a trifle clunky in spots, but it’s very stable and its feature set is certainly in the ballpark (in fact it has some nice features that Photoshop doesn’t have). Price is €59 (about USD 90).

Oh, and Photoline launches in ~1s.

Sorry, but a half-assed image editor with a ton of Core Image filters is no match for a mature image editor with a few well chosen filters (Gaussian Blur, Noise, Clouds, etc.).