Archive for December, 2008

The Nikon repair saga concludes

Friday, December 26th, 2008

17-55!

Well, that ended up being pretty easy, initial delay aside. I dropped off my Nikon 17-55/2.8 lens for repair at Penn Camera at the beginning of November. I was told it would take a couple weeks for an estimate to come down the pike. It ended up taking almost a month for reasons unknown to me. After I approved the estimate – 10 days after it came in from Nikon to Penn Camera, because somehow I wasn’t notified and had to call to find out – it was only 10 more days before the repair was complete and the lens was back at Penn Camera for me to pick up. All told, exactly seven weeks’ wait, although if you subtract the 10-day delay that was Penn Camera’s fault instead of Nikon’s, the total wait was well within the 4-6 week range that I was told. Not bad.

The timeline looked like this:

  • October 31 – I drop the lens about 4 feet. The impact embeds the AF contacts into the bayonet mount of the lens. Glass is fine but AF does not work.
  • November 4 – I drop the lens off at Penn Camera for repair, am told it will take up to 2 weeks to get an estimate and up to 4-6 weeks total before I get the lens back, barring unforeseen delays involving parts shortages or whatnot.
  • December 2 – Nikon finally gets an estimate in to Penn Camera. Penn Camera fails to notify me.
  • December 12 – I call Penn Camera, they look up my ticket and find the estimate, and I approve it.
  • December 23 – Penn Camera calls me to tell me the lens is back in their hands. I pick it up; it looks good. End of story.

The lens itself looks great – the above AF contacts were what had gotten bashed into the body of the lens by the impact when I dropped it on the sidewalk on Halloween night. Things that were done at the Nikon repair shop, according to my receipt, include “Replace bayonet mount unit,” “Repair Helicoid Assembly,” “Repair Aperture Ring Assembly,” and “General CLA to Specs.” Total cost? US $225 – far less than I had feared; I was braced for anything up to and above $500. Sweet!

Sigma 18-50: Epic fail (and, Wilco in Baltimore)

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Wilco 09

That’s it, I’m never buying another third-party lens unless it’s gotten universally glowing reviews and I’m prepared to spend several weeks exchanging until I get a decent copy. After the debacle of the Tamron 17-50/2.8 that wouldn’t focus, I returned it and got a Sigma 18-50/2.8 instead. This thing focuses way faster than the Tamron, and the autofocus actually engages when I ask it to. So that’s an improvement. Unfortunately, it has a massive front-focus problem that doesn’t seem to be correctable by my D300’s AF fine-tune, even at max settings.

Bad copies of third-party lenses having now screwed up a couple concert shoots for me, I have learned the following: one, part of what you pay for when you buy a Nikon lens that costs 3-4 times as much as a third-party lens is quality control. I’ve shot with 3-4 different copies of the Nikon 17-55/2.8, and they all exhibited the exact same image quality and autofocus accuracy properties. Two, short-term replacements (or any kind of new gear) are trouble if you don’t have the time to adequately test them before a shoot. Even if you do have time to test them, if you don’t have time to get a replacement, that testing only goes so far.

Wilco 05

Anyway, I’ve now returned the Sigma lens. And, slightly soft photos aside, I got to shoot Wilco, so that was cool. It was at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore; I had trouble at the door, where my name wasn’t on the list as it was supposed to be. So I missed the opening band, which was annoying, but eventually everything got sorted out and I got my pass. (Lesson for all concert shooters: print out your confirmation email! If I hadn’t done that I would have been up a creek.)

So I get in, and as is often the case at venues like this – a big seated theatre where rock concerts are a minority of what usually gets booked – the ushers have no clue what the rules are. Finally I find someone who told me three songs, no flash, which matches up with what the publicist had told me (I’ve learned to double-check with the tour manager, sometimes they are more lenient). No photos allowed after the first three, from anywhere in the venue. Dang. I’ve been spoiled lately as even at the three-songs shows I’ve seen in recent months, I’ve been allowed to shoot the rest of the set outside the pit.

Wilco 03

Anyway, three songs come and go. I barely notice what they are because I’m too busy moving around in front of the stage trying to get The Shot. I never get The Shot, but I do get some decent ones of Nels Cline in particular. The backlighting is gorgeous and colorful but there is often not quite enough frontlighting – case in point the three photos above. I shoot with that damn 18-50 for two songs and then switch to my 80-200/2.8 for the third song (the unfortunately short “War On War”) to get some shots of the three musicians placed further back on the stage on keyboards, electronics and drums. I forget to turn around and grab a couple audience shots, crap.

Then I settled in and enjoyed the rest of the show – I didn’t have a seat since my pass didn’t come with a ticket and the show was sold out, but the ushers let me hang out against one of the side walls. I saw another professional-looking photographer meandering around shooting through the whole set, found out he was with the tour, and got seriously envious.

Wilco 14

Because this was another case where the three-song rule really sucked. The band weren’t very active or emotional during those first three songs, but later in the set all kinds of great visuals happened: my favorite was drummer Glenn Kotche standing up at his kit, both hands raised above his head, screaming, with a white spotlight shining down on him. Totally fucking epic photo op. Another was when Cline and Tweedy were jamming, leaning back-to-back as they created squalls of noise with their guitars. Or when Tweedy put on some dude’s neck brace just for the hell of it and played through an entire song wearing the damn thing. Or when he messed up the lyrics to “Jesus, Etc.” and briefly buried his head in his hands as the rest of the band continued playing.

(Side note: it’s always ridiculously endearing when super-professional bands fuck up onstage and own up to it. I saw Regina Spektor do the same thing earlier this year – she even had to ask the audience what the words to the song were.)

Wilco 15

The setlist was great and included only three four songs from Sky Blue Sky, always a plus for me. Tweedy was funny as usual. Check out my brief City Paper writeup as well as other people’s reviews for more. And, check out this torrent for pretty good audio from the show. Sweet!

Oh right, and the rest of my photos are here at Flickr.

Tamron 17-50: Epic fail

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

36 Crazyfists 10

The above is perhaps my favorite from my photoset of 36 Crazyfists, Gojira and In Flames, who played at Ram’s Head Live in Baltimore last Friday. It was shot with my trusty Nikon 80-200/2.8 AF-S lens. Unfortunately, I spent most of the night shooting with a Tamron 17-50/2.8 lens, which I recently bought to fill in for my Nikon 17-55/2.8 currently undergoing repair (or maybe just sitting in a Nikon warehouse somewhere, I’m not sure). The Tamron and I did not get along. More importantly, the Tamron and my camera did not get along.

Problem: The autofocus on the lens froze up after a few seconds of use, requiring me to turn the camera off and back on (sometimes multiple times) to get it working again. I tried cleaning the AF contacts, but no dice. I would have to focus and frame a shot, take as many photos as I could while the camera-to-subject distance remained the same, and then basically reboot my camera in order to be able to refocus. Annoying to say the least, and who knows how many great shots I lost because of it. I did a little Googling after the show and it doesn’t look like this is an isolated problem – lots of users are reporting this with the new version of the Tamron 17-50, which has an internal focus motor (the old version had screw-driven AF that was apparently faster and more reliable).

Gojira 01

The above shot is slightly out of focus because I took it without rebooting my camera. Needless to say, I’m returning this piece of junk lens. I guess I can’t do a fair assessment of it since I got a faulty copy, but even when the autofocus was working it was slow as molasses. Also, the 17mm end didn’t seem quite as wide as the 17mm end of my Nikon 17-55. I can’t evaluate sharpness since so many of my shots are slightly out of focus, but I’d be shocked if it was as sharp as the Nikon wide open (there’s that $800 price difference to account for, after all). What I did like is that the thing is tiny – smaller even than my Nikon 18-70 kit lens. Quite a relief after lugging around the beast that is the Nikon 17-55.

Oh yeah, there was a concert. I went mostly for Gojira, who are awesome. Their breakthrough record (From Mars to Sirius) is a concept album about global warming and a science fiction future involving flying whales. Their singer is a death metal growler who screams lyrics like “I had a dream/Our planet surviving” instead of the usual gore-obsessed extreme metal stuff. They are outspoken environmentalists and hippie Frenchmen. And they’re one of the absolute heaviest bands I’ve ever heard, especially live. Holy crap.

Gojira 05

I’m not a big fan of 36 Crazyfists (metalcore) or In Flames (classic Gothenburg melodeath – they kind of started it all), but they both put on solid shows. 36 Crazyfists got the crowd to do a wall of death pit, and Gojira and In Flames were getting ridiculous amounts of people to crowdsurf. It seemed like the poor security dudes up front had to catch a crowdsurfer every five seconds. In this context the three-song limit made lots of sense: the security dudes wanted photographers out of the way as soon as possible.

That said, security was incredibly professional, competent and friendly, helping make the Ram’s Head a new favorite venue for me. After three songs, I was allowed to shoot anywhere in the venue other than in the middle of the pit. That’s a lot of freedom, since Ram’s Head has a weird layout that has two levels of balconies and all kinds of bizarre nooks and crannies, not all of which have views of the stage. There’s even this small stadium-style seating part way at the back up in the third level. So strange. Some of my favorite shots were of the crowd, taken from the uppermost balcony above and slightly behind the stage.

In fact, I spent a lot of time shooting the crowd, because Gojira wasn’t the most exciting band visually (other than their bassist who was fucking awesome) and the lighting for In Flames was atrocious. Ram’s Head has a pretty elaborate lighting setup but In Flames favored monochrome color washes, tons of backlight, and very little frontlight. Sucked. So after I got a few safe shots, rather than shooting In Flames throughout their long set, instead I took lots of pictures of fans and crowd surfers.

Fans 01

Fans 10

Wish I could have gotten a cleaner shot of this guy here; he did a nice little backflip on top of the crowd before getting tossed over to the security guys:

Fans 08

So that was good times, other than my lens crapping out on me of course. Hurry the hell up, Nikon repair…

Oh and one more thing: you might have noticed I have a new watermark. Looks much more professional than the old one, no? It really shouldn’t have taken me this long to get around to doing something so simple that has such a visual impact.

Full 36 Crazyfists, Gojira and In Flames photoset here. This set is not really up to my usual standards, a result of my fighting with the Tamron too much, but I still managed to get some usable stuff.

Worst concert photography advice ever

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

Broken Social Scene 01

From aphotomag.com:

Turn off the AF: Any auto focus mechanism requires a certain amount of minimum light level for it to work effectively. In concerts where the lights often flash, such as rock shows and dance events, this becomes difficult. The camera’s auto focus mechanism simply does not have the capability to focus when the lights are flashing on and off and varying in intensity as well. No camera in today’s market would be able to lock focus in such circumstances. This is why you could get off-focus images in low light conditions. The answer of course lies in switching the focus to Manual Focus. Many compacts apart from DSLRs of course, offer the manual focus feature. To make things even better, use as small an aperture as possible, so the depth of field is greatest. Again, read that as very high ISO levels to start with (out first tip).

I highly recommend any budding concert photographers out there not heed this nonsense (unless you’re using a film SLR or a full-frame DSLR with a custom focusing screen). And that tip to use as small an aperture as possible? Wow.

Although, I suppose it’s valid if you take “as small as possible” to mean “wide open or really close to it.”

Sometimes you really need that flash

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Jucifer 10

I shot Jucifer last Saturday night at Volume 11 Tavern in Raleigh, NC (I was down in NC for the holiday weekend and managed to get a show in, which was great). I could not possibly have shot this show if it weren’t for the SB-800 I’ve started to bring to every show I can. This is a radical change from my previous mentality, which was a strict available-light-only ethos. To be honest, part of that was attributable to my lack of practice using flash, but part of it was a genuine sense of aesthetic “purity.”

Recently, I was forced to learn how to do flash photography in concert by two factors: first, a show in which lighting was literally nonexistent for two bands; second, the fact that I busted up my 17-55/2.8 lens and no longer have a fast midrange zoom. Now that I at least somewhat know what I’m doing, I’ll definitely have a flash in my bag anytime it’s allowed at a show. It just opens up a ton of possibilities that aren’t there with available light, particularly for shows like Jucifer’s.

Jucifer 12

Jucifer did not use any of the ample house lights at Volume 11. Instead, they had various stage lights set up on the stage floor, and a bank of bright white lights on top of their mountain of amps behind them. These were all coordinated in some complex way to match the music, and most of the time very few of the lights were on and the band’s fog machine was pumping out copious amounts of haze. Needless to say, very difficult shooting conditions, and even with a fast prime I don’t think I could have gotten much of use, especially since both band members were ridiculously, amazingly active.

My favorite shots are when there was some ambient light against which to balance my flash, as in the above two shots where those bright white backlights were on. I did get some decent shots with just the flash, but I generally dislike concert photos where it’s obvious the flash has nuked any and all ambient light. Still, when there’s no ambient light to speak of, you don’t exactly have many options. And I’d much rather have a shot like the one below – lit pretty much only by my strobe – than no shot at all.

Jucifer 15

The opening bands at this show were equally active, so while the lighting at Volume 11 was more than adequate, the combination of fast action and my lack of a fast midrange zoom meant that I shot about half of each opening band’s set using my flash. Can’t complain about some of the results – in the below shot of Chapel Hill’s Black Skies, the performer was well-lit, but even so there’s no way I could have frozen the action this effectively (and gotten such punchy colors) without a strobe.

Black Skies 17

Lens repair update…

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Day 339: Temporary Replacement

…Unfortunately, I have nothing to report. One full month since dropping off my busted Nikon 17-55/2.8 at Penn Camera, and absolutely not a peep from Nikon. This is where my using Penn Camera as an intermediary is a problem – instead of my being able to call Nikon service directly and harass them, I have to go through Penn Camera and harass them to harass Nikon, which seems much less effective.

I am resigned to not seeing my beloved 17-55 again for at least another month. Instead of repeatedly renting Penn Camera’s copy at a cost of $30/day, I’ve decided to take a slightly more dramatic course of action, purchasing the above-pictured Tamron 17-50/2.8 as a stopgap with full intention of reselling it whenever I get my 17-55 back. I expect to need to use it for at least two shows in December (including the In Flames/Gojira show in Baltimore tomorrow, for which I finally got a photo pass confirmed today), so basically I’m gambling that I will be able to resell the Tamron lens for within $60 of my purchase price. So far, judging from eBay prices and such, this seems like a good bet. And I’ll have a fast midrange zoom at my disposal once again.

But for now, so far my Nikon repair experience gets a big fat thumbs down. More to come.