Archive for the ‘Gear’ Category

First impressions of the Nikon 24-120/4

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

Northern Lights

Ever since I sold the venerable (and really quite excellent) 18-70/3.5-4.5 kit lens that came with my old D70, I’ve been wanting a new “walk-around” lens to slap onto my camera for general purpose use and for travel. By “walk-around” lens I mean a relatively compact zoom lens that covers midrange focal lengths but also reaches a bit into the wide territory and a bit into telephoto territory as well – something that would be useful in a wide range of situations so that I wouldn’t need to be changing lenses all the time.

When I travel I often just bring my 24-70/2.8 as a walk-around lens, and throw in a prime or two to have some more options. But the 24-70, as much as I love it, is freaking enormous and really heavy, and while 24mm is the sweet spot in the wide-angle range for me, 70mm isn’t quite long enough on the telephoto end for some things like street photography and certain kinds of landscapey stuff. I basically looked at two full-frame options for Nikon glass in the walk-around category: the 24-85mm f/2.8-4 and the 24-120mm f/4.

I went with the 24-120/4 AF-S N VR despite a couple of drawbacks – it’s big and heavy, and it’s nearly twice as expensive as the 24-85. I really, really value constant aperture, and having f/4 on the long end of this range is going to be something I take full advantage of – both in terms of low light capability and shallow DOF. And I wanted a bit more reach than 85mm on the long end. While the 24-85 was tempting, particularly given the price difference, the 24-120 ended up seeming like the best compromise for me. So when Nikon’s recent round of lens rebates kicked in ($300 off this lens and a free Tiffen filter kit from Adorama), I jumped.

This is an interesting lens in that it sits somewhere between a consumer midrange zoom and a more professional-level piece of glass. It has all the modern pro Nikon frills like nano-crystal coating (which is way more than just a marketing gimmick), vibration reduction, ED glass, a rubber gasket on the lens mount, 77mm filter threads, and that telltale gold band around the business end of the lens body. The build quality is a step down from the true pro lenses – I wouldn’t want to drop it off a stage like I recently did to both my 24-70/2.8 and my 80-200/2.8 – but it still feels pretty rugged. It’s also priced almost like a pro lens, at only $400 less than the 24-70/2.8. I suppose in some way I’m the exact target audience for this lens: someone who is used to full-featured, well-built lenses with constant aperture, but who wants something more portable than, say, the “trinity” of f/2.8 zooms (14-24, 24-70, 70-200) for casual use.

I just got this lens and have had very little opportunity to play with it, but took it around town this past weekend on my D4 and got a few shots in. My first impression is that VR is fantastic – despite owning something like 10 modern Nikon lenses, this is the first lens I’ve ever owned with VR. (My autofocus telephoto lenses are all at least one generation before VR was a thing.) For non-moving subjects, VR makes up for the f/4 aperture, at least compared to the f/2.8 zooms I’m used to using, and especially when combined with my willingness to use high ISOs. The focal range is great; being able to rack out to 120mm really makes a huge difference compared to the long end of, say, the 24-70. Autofocus was quite fast and accurate. Image quality is good enough for me (I’m not a pixel-peeper, but I can usually tell the difference between a top-of-the-line pro lens and something like this).

As for the down sides, there’s considerable distortion at the wide end, and quite noticeable vignetting at f/4, both of which are easily corrected in Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW. When I carried my camera on my shoulder lens-down, there was some zoom creep, but nothing terrible, and in actual shooting situations it never bothered me. The biggest problem is that I’m a bit disappointed at how big the lens is – in girth it’s no smaller than the 24-70, though it’s maybe an inch shorter and quite a bit lighter. As far as “walk-around” lenses go, this one is definitely on the larger end of what I would want – certainly big enough that I would forego it in some situations where I want to be as inconspicuous as one can be with a DSLR.

In the meantime, here are a few samples from that set showing what I got from the lens this weekend. Sometimes I wished for something wider than 24mm, and sometimes I wished for something faster than f/4, but all told, I was pretty happy with this piece of equipment. Excepting the two photos of cars on the street, most of the below photos are corrected for distortion and vignetting and shot wide open at f/4 and fairly high ISOs (1600-6400) on a Nikon D4.

I Street

Nordic Cool 2013

Northern Lights + Migration

National Portrait Gallery

Dupont Circle Metro

Dupont Circle Metro

To I-66

National Portrait Gallery

Portrait Gallery Portrait

I’ll be taking this thing as my primary lens on a few international trips in the next couple months, so I’ll have lots of good hands-on time with it and will let you know what I think!

USA Ultimate Division III College Championships

Monday, May 21st, 2012

This past weekend I photographed USA Ultimate’s Division III College National Championships in Appleton, Wisconsin for UltiPhotos. I’m working on the photos now and it’ll take me a couple weeks to get the full sets up. For now, there are some preview galleries available for viewing at UltiPhotos. The shot above is of the University of Mary Washington’s women’s team, “Mary Massacre,” pulling to their opponent in the first round of lower bracket play on Sunday morning.

I had a great time at this tournament, although the incredibly stiff winds all weekend made for some uninspiring quality of play at times. All things considered I think I got some good shots, especially given that I once again had some problems with my 300/2.8 (I’m planning to send it in for one more round of repairs, and if that doesn’t work it’s time to shell out the cash for a new long lens). The lens mount has a stripped screw, which means that the top part of the mount doesn’t stay flush to the camera. This has two effects: one, the lens doesn’t properly engage the aperture lever on the camera, which gives an fEE error and renders it unusable. This was relatively easily fixed with a bit of gaffer tape to ensure the lens made contact with the camera aperture lever. However, the second effect was not field-fixable: the mount issue meant that the lens focal plane was ever so slightly off. As a result, the bottom halves of many of my photos are in perfect focus, but the top half is out of focus. This is terribly unfortunate because the top half of most Ultimate photos is the most important – that’s where the faces are, and that’s where the eye goes first.

By the middle of the second day I resorted to running around with only my 80-200/2.8, chasing the action where it went rather than lugging two bodies and staying relatively more stationary. I got some great shots despite the equipment issues, but I’ll be looking forward to having a reliable long lens again soon.

Stay tuned for the full sets from the tournament.

Snowstorm through the 35/1.8

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Snow @ 35mm

You may have heard that it snowed a lot on the Eastern seaboard the past couple days. The Washington Post is saying that DC got 25 inches or so, which sounds about right to me – when I stepped outside on Saturday morning, the snow came up to my knees, and there were still several hours of snowfall still to come at that point. On Friday night, I wandered around a bit with a few friends, shooting some typical documentary snow photos using only a Nikon 35/1.8 DX lens. I’ve heard that this lens works well on FX bodies with just a bit of vignetting. All the photos in this set shot with that lens (which is all but the last two) are totally uncropped so you can see how true or untrue that is.


I like how this lens works on my full-frame D700. Yes, there are limitations: it has to be shot wide open or the vignetting gets much worse, and the further away the focal point, the more pronounced the vignetting is as well. That said, when shot wide open with a close focus, the vignetting actually almost disappears. This isn’t evident in any of the photos in this set because I didn’t get really close to any subjects, unfortunately. Still, in a lot of cases the dark corners actually give kind of a cool, claustrophobic effect. (Not to mention that, in some applications like concert photography, they are often not even noticeable at all.)

Snow @ 35mm

Again, here’s a larger set of photos with this lens, from Friday night.

Another Nikon service experience

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Some time ago I sent my D300 in because of the autofocus flakiness I’ve described in previous posts. I sent it in on Thursday, January 7th, got an estimate for the repair work on Thursday, January 14th, and got the camera back on Wednesday, January 20th. So just under two weeks’ turnaround, including shipping times. Not bad at all.

The repair was classified B2 – “moderate repair, major parts replaced.” This is what was done, according to the paperwork I received:


Total came to just under $250. For that sum I have a D300 with theoretically fixed autofocus circuitry (nice), a brand-new lens mount (great), and a replacement for my well-worn rubber grip (cool, but I don’t care about cosmetics so whatever). Also, the camera came back safely and spiffily packaged, per the above. I haven’t actually had a chance to test it yet. But assuming all works well, this was a pretty good repair experience.

ISO 102,400

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

St. Vincent 16

OK, this is just getting ridiculous. I guess Nikon knows its target audience for the new D3s – photojournalists and sports photogs who can actually use these insane ISO values. And concert photographers! Except concert photographers don’t make any money and so can’t afford this thing. I sure could have used a better ISO 12,800 (which the D3s can now do without the artificial “HI 1.0” boosting) at some of the shows I covered recently.

More on those later, perhaps; for now, the headline photo is one of the best-looking ISO 6400 photos I’ve ever captured. St. Vincent at a very dim Black Cat. Below, one of the best-looking ISO 12800 photos I’ve ever captured… Bloody Panda at an even dimmer The Red & the Black (f/1.4, 1/25 sec).

Bloody Panda 4

If the D3s really has a stop better ISO performance than the D3/D700, I can’t wait to see what the next generation of sensor technology brings.

If I had to spend $8,000…

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

I would definitely get this instead of this. No question. Kind of crazy to think that you can get a nice used Nikon 400/2.8 AF-S VR (or three D700 bodies!) for the price of this little rangefinder camera. Of course, I’d still pick the M9.

Photo courtesy DPReview.

Cheaper (much cheaper!) alternatives for those looking for small, mirrorless cameras that produce great quality images: Leica X1, Epson R-D1, Panasonic GF1, Canon G11. Of course, none of these have the full-frame 35mm sensor that the M9 has.

EDIT: And, if I had another $10,000 I just HAD to spend, I’d get this to go with the M9. Ha.

Putting the studio to work

Monday, August 24th, 2009


I recently posted about slapping together a studio in my basement. This past weekend, I put it to use for the first time, with my friend Kate who agreed to be a guinea pig. Kate has done some completely amateur modeling before, but it was still a learning process for both of us.

I started off shooting on white seamless. I kept the background lit with two SB-600s (each on 1/8 power or so) for a nice high-key look. Many awkward shots resulted as Kate and I tried to work out proper posing techniques, but plenty of good shots came out of it as well. I was keeping things simple, using a single SB-800 to light Kate from camera left. The SB-800 was firing through a shoot-thru umbrella on about 1/16 power, and I also had a Lastolite reflector to camera right throwing a little bit of light back on the shadow side.


This lighting combo was working nicely, so I used it for several poses and outfits before moving the main light over to camera right for a (very) slightly different look. In retrospect, I wish I’d done some different things with the background light. I think I was getting a bit too much wrap, lowering contrast and casting some shadows on the floor that I didn’t want. (Faint reflections I wanted; shadows not as much.) I should have lowered the power on those strobes a bit, and for some shots, just to get a different look, I should have turned them off altogether. Ah, well… next time.

The below shot illustrates both the reflections/shadows issue and the wrap from the background issue:


After a while, we took down the seamless and went for a darker look. In the small confines of my basement I can’t get enough subject-background separation to get a white sheet to go black, so I cheated and hung a plain black bedsheet from my background support. Worked like a charm and I didn’t have to obsessively worry about feathering my light. With this setup in place, I decided to hit Kate from the sides at a really hard angle to emphasize her muscular build (she’s a martial artist). I did do a tiny bit of contrast adjustment in Photoshop – dodging/burning and high pass – but the following image is mostly a product of the light striking Kate almost directly from the sides. Both lights are at 1/128 power, one to camera left and slightly behind Kate and the other at camera right very slightly in front of her. In retrospect, I wish I’d used a touch of hair light as well to add some separation to the top of her head.


I wanted to get a little more interesting so we took down the background altogether, including the stand. I stuck Kate against the wall – an ugly, white-painted brick wall – and put my SB-800 on a lightstand outside the house. I set the SB-800 to its maximum 105mm zoom and stuck a grid spot on the front, then aimed it carefully through the basement window. We have a bush in front of that window that’s pretty, uh, bushy, so I had to make sure the flash was pointed just so to get through the foliage. Between the bush and the bars on the window I got a pretty interesting pattern to the light. Here’s what happened:

Alone in the basement

Then I set up an SB-600 inside, gelled it with a full cut of CTO, and set my white balance to tungsten. This made the SB-800 go blue and cast a warm light on Kate against the cool tones on the wall. That’s what’s going on in the headline photo. These were my favorite shots of the day and I really hope to be able to do some more stuff like this – kind of dark and edgy with a bit of urban decay feel to them. Here’s a wider shot that shows a bit more of the environment (check it out large for best effect):


After the jump, some quick gear talk about this new studio.


A robot is guarding my photos

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009


Sorry, that’s me talking in marketing jargon. Above is a Drobo, which is sold as “the world’s first data storage robot” or some nonsense like that. It’s not a freaking robot. It’s a 4-bay hard drive enclosure that has a particularly clever RAID-like data striping/mirroring implementation built in. As far as I can tell it’s something like RAID 5, but it’s smart enough to be able to handle non-identical (in size, spec or brand) hard drives and changes its strategy based on the number and size of the drives it has to work with. Right now I have two 1.5 terabyte Western Digital Caviar Green drives installed in my Drobo, so basically all it’s doing (as far as I can tell) is a simple RAID 1 mirroring strategy. If I were to add a third or fourth drive, its strategy would change to something more sophisticated. The real amazing thing is that drives are hot-swappable while you work – as long as you have more than one drive installed, you can literally pull one out and still be able to access all your data with no interruption.

Installing and uninstalling drives is a snap, too – no cables to play with, just take a 3.5″ SATA hard drive and slide it into a slot. Bingo. The ease of use of this thing is amazing, and it’s nice to know that my photos are backed up on a secure device that can withstand the failure of a hard drive (but not two at once). I was running out of space for all my photos, and this seemed like a much easier, and ultimately cheaper, solution than building a file server or an external RAID array. What’s more, it’s easily expandable, as I still have two open bays and I can always swap out older, smaller drives with newer, larger ones. But I should be good to go for a year or so.

This thing is apparently very, very, very, very, very, very popular among photographers.

DX lens (Nikon 17-55) on an FX body (D700)

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

D700 + 17-55/2.8 test @ 17mm

How well does it work? The above is shot at 17mm on my D700 using my Nikon 17-55/2.8 DX lens. Obviously, the image circle doesn’t cover the FX frame. No surprises there. I’ve been told that the Nikon 17-55 is usable on FX bodies (D3x, D3, D700) at 28mm onwards. I did a few very quick and unscientific test shots to see for myself. Results after the jump. You can click through to each photo on Flickr to view the full-size 12 megapixel image, if you really want to.

No lens hood and no filter mounted on the lens (using the hood results in much more severe vignetting). Settings: manual exposure at ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/40 sec. Manual white balance at 4,917 Kelvins. D2XMODE3 picture control. None of this stuff changed from shot to shot, the only thing I changed was the focal length. But, I didn’t use a tripod, and note that at f/5.6 the darkening in the corners will be slightly milder than if I had shot wide open at f/2.8. So take this all with a grain of salt.


Back in the world of 24x36mm

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Happy birthday Amy

That’s right, I got myself a D700. Wide is wide again! Normal is normal again! Long is… uh, not quite as long again!

And, of course, the high ISO technology is cutting-edge. The above photo was shot at ISO 3200, underexposed, brought up about two-thirds of a stop in post (so effective ISO 5000), with high ISO noise reduction set to “low” and no other noise reduction done after the fact. The noise is definitely there, but the it’s mostly luminance noise, not a whole lot of chroma noise, and the pattern is actually pretty appealing, closer to film grain than any other digital noise signature I’ve seen. It looks a lot better in larger sizes – available at Flickr – than at the compressed, small version above.

Back in my pre-DSLR (and therefore pre-DX crop) days, my favorite lens was a Nikkor 24/2.0 AI-S. I absolutely loved the 24mm field of view, and the lens was fast, reasonably sharp, and built like a tank. After I got my first DSLR, if Nikon had made a 16mm DX prime I would have snapped it up in a second. After getting the D700, I slapped the trusty ol’ 24/2.0 on it and used it for my first real shots tonight. Felt like an old friend. On the other hand, a true 50mm is now something I’m a bit uncomfortable with; I don’t like it on DX, but on FX it now seems like this weird in-between to me, which is funny because for a long time all I had was an old 50/1.8 Series E lens handed down from my brother, and I loved it.

More to come, of course!