Saturday, March 29, 2014

Nikon D4S - a hands on review

The first noticeable difference between the D4s from the D4 is the new sound of the motor clipping along at 11fps. The change in sound is probably attributable to the redesigned mirror box built to accommodate the faster speed by shortening the mirror travel distance. The other thing that came as a surprise was how long the D4s could keep on shooting and processing RAW files when there was a fast card in the slot. Nikon may have to do a take on the Energizer Bunny ad for the D4s.  These were the most immediately noticeable differences.

Here is a Nikon D4s sitting on my studio equipment cart ready to go to work. 
On the surface the D4 and D4s don't look so different, aside from a redesign of the smaller joystick controls on back, and minor tweaking to both hand grips. The differences are primarily inside.

Here are some of the improvements in the D4s:

- The 51-point autofocus system remains the same as the D4, however it adds a new Group Area AF mode grouping 5 points together to act as one unit to improve AF ability in confusing areas.

-  The D4s shoots at 11fps with continuous AE and AF.

- The mirror assembly has been redesigned to accommodate the increased speed to 11fps and has a side benefit of keeping the mirror in its open position for a longer time between shots thereby minimizes the blackout time caused by the mirror in the up position.

- There is a new Expeed 4 processing engine, and while the megapixels remain at 16.1, it has been redesigned to work even better in low light so that a new top extended ISO speed of 409,600 has been added. The full range is 100-25,000 with extended from 50-409,600.

- The D4s takes a new battery, the EN-EL18a, to extend use time out to 3020 shots, up from 2600 from the older EN-EL18 with which it remains compatible.

- There is a new uncompressed 12-bit RAW mode for capturing smaller RAW files that are 1/2 the size of standard uncompressed RAW files. Handy if you want to speed up workflow or save storage space. In addition there is the standard 14-bit compressed and uncompressed files, JPEG, and TIFF.

- An auto-ISO feature has been added and works when the camera is in manual mode. I find this handy when I want to lock in a specific shutter speed and aperture combo and let the ISO float a bit to keep the exposure consistent, as sometimes needed with time-lapse photography.

- Addition of a 1080/60p video recording for up to 10 minutes at 42Mbps or 20 mins at 24Mbps

We had to improvise some more extensive testing situations to see the improvements in low light shooting, and auto-focus.

I found that the upper limit of the D4s without much, if any, correction for noise is about 6400 depending upon the lighting situation, of course.

Download a high res version of this image by clicking here.

You might be able to get away with an ISO of 51200 after applying some noise reduction and improvement techniques in post processing.

This is an image shot at ISO 51200 with post processing corrections applied. Download a high res version of this file by clicking here.
Then there is the new top ISO of 409,600. It might make for attention getting copy in a press release, but I don't see much use for it given the results I've seen.

This is what an ISO 409600 image looks like from the D4s -- flat, ultra noisy, with color casts. The ultimate usage is going to have to be very small for the photo to be usable at all, even after applying some corrections. 
This is a full size crop from the image above it to show how the noise level from ISO 409600 appears. Have fun fixing that!
Putting the D4s to work:

The most obvious use of a camera like the D4s is fast-paced sporting events and wildlife photography. My own commercial work is different from that  consists mostly of lifestyle photography, over 90% of which I currently do with a D4, often shooting over 4000 frames per day. I prefer working with available light and like to keep the models constantly moving to add a feeling of spontaneity to the resulting images. The excellent low noise and low light capability, superb auto-focus system, and super fast 11fps motor make the D4s an absolutely perfect choice for this type of shooting. The situations are similar to what a wedding photographer might face in candid shooting, or an events photographer working in low light. With this in mind I decided to test the D4s over four different lifestyle shoots with varying available light. Some of the results are below.

This sequence shows what a camera is up against in a fast moving lifestyle situation that led up to the finished image below. The D4s was shooting at 11fps. There are 12 shots in the sequence so it took only a hair over 1 second. The scene is entirely back lit from a window and no fill from the front. The 85mm lens was set to an aperture of f/2. At this close distance that left zero tolerance for depth of field. A continuous focus point was placed on the model's eye and had to keep changing the distance as the model's head moved forward towards the camera and her hand came up to further block the view. Although the model's face only moved forward four or five inches, with the distance of the lens, the focal length, and speed of action that is considerable. There were actually 118 images in the entire sequence of the model laughing and rocking her head back and forth, and every shot remained in focus. 

Not only is this scene back lit, but I am shooting past some out-of-focus foreground glassware to create the softness surrounding the models. As always, I instructed the models to keep moving and had to follow with a continuous focus point placed on the woman's eye. 
It wasn't bad enough that this scene was lit only by the window behind the model, I decided to add in a tungsten lamp to create a flare and flatten the contrast on his face even more. The 85mm lens was set to f/1.8 and focus placed on the right eye with plenty of obstructions caused by the foreground computer screens. 

To obtain a shallow depth of field along with the blur motion in the person walking I put a variable ND filter on the 85mm lens set to f/1.8 and turned the filter until it gave me a shutter speed of 1/20th second to create the blur. The foreground model was instructed to hold her pose and not move. This scene was taken in a very dimly lit scene with light coming only from the windows behind the models.  

We set this scene up in the studio just to test the auto-focus performance of the D4s. The scene is entirely back lit with tungsten lamps, smoke was added to add a layer of haze, and the rest of the room was blacked out for darkness. The camera was set to ISO 1600 with the 85mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens. Blazing away at 11 fps, the D4s almost never missed its focus. 
Photographed with a 35mm lens at f/1.4

Typically in a scene like this I would have a difficult time achieving focus on the model's eye. The D4s consistently found the spot and kept the eye -- in this case the eyelashes -- in focus.  And in the scene above the model was not sitting still, but constantly moving about. 

On paper the differences between a  D4 and D4s appear so tame you begin to wonder why Nikon would even bother introducing a model change. But the D4 series is the workhorse cornerstone of many pro photographers, me included. It probably isn't a question of whether of not the changes are needed. Rather, it is more a question of whether or not the changes improve your workflow. For me, moving from 10 fps to 11fps is overkill. I still find the 9fps of the D3 more than sufficient. But there are photographers shooting fast action sports and wildlife for whom this improvement would be significant. 

Working as I do in low light with high speed aperture lenses, my chief concern was with the improved AF of the D4s. This is one of the reasons I tested the D4s over several lifestyle shoots with dim back lighting. In these situations I know I am going to lose a large percentage of the take to missed-focus so I always overshoot the scenes as a way of bracketing the focus. The D4s was considerably better at delivering in-focus results in these situations, so much so that by the fourth lifestyle shoot I began feeling comfortable enough to cut back on my normal focus bracketing.

I also appreciated the faster write speed to high speed memory cards. This allowed me to keep on shooting while as long as the models continued to deliver the action. Having to ask the model to stop and wait while the buffer is transferring to the memory card is can be disruptive to the fluidity and mood of a scene. 

Bottom line question is: Based on the improvements, would I trade in my D4 for a D4s?  If there were enough life left in my D4, I would say probably not. The new conveniences of the D4s, while nice, are not something I absolutely need. If my D4 were older, then I would do the trade even though the newer D4s model is priced around $500 higher at $6496.95. The extra cost would most likely be made up down the road when the Nikon D5 comes out. 

The lineage of Nikon flagship models, the D3, D3s, D4, and now the D4s, are absolute workhorses, and best of breed at what they do. In the hands of a working pro, this camera represents dependability and exceptional image quality under the worst circumstances you can throw at it, qualities that have endeared themselves to Nikon users since the original Nikon F.

85mm lens at f/1.8
If you are planning on purchasing this camera, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sometimes you just get lucky

Last night my grand-daughter was on my lap when she discovered a vintage typewriter I had nearby and began playing with the keys. The lucky part was that I keep a camera -- in this case the Fuji X-T1 -- always on the ready. By "ready" I mean that, when not in use, I keep the camera set to auto-ISO, auto shutter speed, and with a wide open aperture, usually with the 18-55mm zoom attached.  Using the new tilt out viewing screen I was able to compose the shot from above and shoot it with one hand while holding onto the baby with the other.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

First wireless shoot with the Fuji X-T1

We were doing a lifestyle photo shoot in our studios today and one shot called for a plumber underneath a sink. To save time, we decided to use the actual kitchen sink in our studio, despite the fact that it presented us with close quarter. I have been wanting to try out the wi-fi phone controls of the Fuji X-T1 and this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I setup the X-T1 camera with the Fuji 14mm lens and put it right on the cabinet floor underneath the sink. The camera wi-fi connected immediately with my Android phone and gave me total control over the X-T1. I was able to change the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and focus points with ease.  I took several exposures from the phone and called it a wrap. This is definitely the best remote wi-fi system I have used to date.

There was no way I could have taken this angle for my shot without wi-fi control of the camera. I was even able to move the focus points right over the model's eyes. 
This is the camera control view I had with my smart phone using the Fuji Remote APP. I could change shutter speed, aperture, ISO, EV compensation from the phone. The focus point is selected by tapping on the screen in the location you want it to be. Pretty nifty.
You have to remember to preset your camera with some basic settings before connecting with the remote APP. Once connected, no controls on the camera function. Everything must be done from the APP.  If you are planning to use Manual, Aperture Priority, or any other taking mode, the camera needs to be set for it prior to making the wi-fi connection. You can then access from the APP  whatever controls are normally available for the mode you are using.

This shows the cramped working quarters. The camera was jammed into the corner and pointed up. Obviously, no room for me to be in there with it and no way to see the LCD. I took the actual picture using my mobile phone from another location in the room.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Workshop on platinum printing from digital negatives workshop

The Center for Alternative Photography (CAP) is a workshop based educational program developed 10 years ago.  It holds workshops on historical, emulsion, and alternative photographic processes. CAP later morphed into the Penumbra Foundation, a non-profit, member supported organization dedicated to preserving historical and emulsion based photography and maintaining its relevance as an artistic and educational tool in the evolving digital age.

CAP has workshops in kallitype, albumen, cyanotype, Van Dyke brown printing, gum bichromate, wet plate, with some courses partnered through ICP (International Center for Photography). It also has its own tintype studio on the premises at 36 East 30th Street, New York.

You might recognize this picture in the print above from yesterday's blog post. I took it while walking on the way to the weekend workshop on platinum printing from digital negatives. The photo was taken with my X-T1 and 35mm lens and converted later in the workshop to a black and white negative that you can see at the top of the photo above. At the bottom right is the final platinum/palladium print made from the negative. 
This past weekend CAP held a 2-day hands-on workshop on making platinum/palladium prints from digital negatives taught by the excellent photographer, Carl Weese. Platinum/palladium is a contact printing process so the negative must be the same size as the final print. To achieve this a negative can be made from a digital camera file or scanned from an original film negative, scaled to size in Photoshop, and printed on a digital printer. This is the process being used to make my platinum prints.

I used to use digital images taken with a Nikon D800 because of its high resolution, but after some experimentation I have found prints made from the smaller-sized, 16bit sensor of Fuji X-cameras, such as the X-Pro1, X-E2, and new X-T1, seem to deliver an image that more closely matches the quality I used to achieve from 6x6cm film negatives. I think the reason for this is that the D800 files deliver almost too much resolution, whereas the Fuji files introduce a bit of graininess more like film. Whatever the reason, I have had a much easier time and better results since I began transferring Fuji-X digital images to platinum prints.

Platinum prints are known for their superior, extensive tonal range. The process was invented in the 1870s and has qualities never surpassed by later methods. As Weese says, "Silver prints, and now digital prints, can be very, very good, but neither can actually duplicate the tone, surface, and color of a well-made platinum/palladium print." The Platinum/Palladium printing is done on archival graphic media, usually watercolor paper, and with the Pt/Pd embedded right in the paper it produces the most permanently stable results.

Below are some photos from the workshop showing some of the progressive steps in making a print.

The most important part of this entire process was learning how to create the right negative to print. Platinum printing has a very extensive tonal range, way more that in silver printing. One of the most difficult parts of the process for me was finding how far I had to extend the tonal range in Photoshop to achieve a good negative. Because the tonal range is so extensive, expanding the image data to accommodate it was far more subtle than the post-processing I normally would do. The image on the computer above held a very wide dynamic range of tones. Spreading them out to cover the tonal range of a platinum print was a real learning experience.

The digital negative for platinum printing is printed on a transparent medium, such as Pictorico Ultra Premium OHP Transparency Film shown in this photo. We used an Epson 3880 printer to create the final negative. The X-Pro1 I used for my week end project is shown in the upper left of the picture.

Water color paper cut down from larger sheets is marked out with an outline of the actual printing size.

The mixture of platinum and palladium plus any additives is measured out in drops sufficient to coat the chosen paper size.

There are two methods for coating the paper with the emulsion mix. In this workshop we spread it with a brush. You can also use a glass cylinder with attached handle. Platinum is only sensitive to extreme UV light, like that from the sun, and can be worked  in a room lit with low wattage tungsten lamps. 

Time to cook the print in UV light. The negative is sandwiched with the emulsion prepped paper and placed in a frame. This is then exposed to UV light in either a homemade or purchased box. In our case the exposure was eight minutes. Platinum is sensitive only to UV light. You could also expose it directly to sunlight, but measuring the time becomes a bit sketchy.

Next comes the wet development process. Here Carl is pouring the developer over the exposed paper. Results are immediate.

The print is developed for 90 seconds. One interesting thing about the process is that the developing solution essentially never ages. You can use it over and over again for years with replenishment only for lost liquid.

After development the print goes through a wash, two stop baths, and a final wash before being hung up to dry. Platinum printing is the most stable printing process out there. Final prints on archival paper will last pretty much forever. 
If you are interested in alternative photographic processes, or just want to have a tintype portrait made, it is worth a visit to the Penumbra Foundation anytime you are in New York. As they like to point out, the foundation is located right around the corner from where the famous 291 Gallery created by Alfred Stieglitz was housed on Fifth Avenue.

Further information and details for the Penumbra Foundation and Center for Alternative Processes (CAP):

Address: 36 East 30th Street, New York, NY 10016
Phone: 917-288-0343
Office Hours: Monday to Friday 10:00am to 6:00pm

Sunday, March 23, 2014

To and fro, a weekend project with the Fuji X-T1 and X-Pro1

I try to give myself a photo assignment at least one a week, usually on the weekend -- something not related to what I do professionally and with some restrictions that force me to stretch my imagination and break the mold a bit. This weekend I attended an intensive seminar on platinum print leaving not much time to work on anything else.

The seminar was held within walking distance to where I live so I came up with the idea of carrying a camera with me and recording what I saw on my way to and from the place where the seminar was held. On day on, Saturday I grabbed my X-T1, my new favorite camera.  On Sunday I saw my X-Pro1 sitting neglected on the shelf. The X-Pro1 is one of my favorite cameras, probably because I really like optical viewfinders, and with its hybrid finder it represents the best of both worlds. I decided to give it a workout.

As part of my weekend project idea I decided to limit myself to to only fast aperture prime lenses and use them at full aperture whenever possible.

Each day began with breakfast at a local diner on the way to the seminar location. 

An old, appellate NY State Supreme Court Building taken through an arch of the Metropolitan Live Building with the 56mm lens on the X-T1, one of the few times I took the aperture down to f/5.6 to keep a focus in both the foreground arch and background statue. Had to stand in the middle of the street to get this angle -- never a safe place considering NYC traffic. A shot like this shows the extensive dynamic range of modern digital cameras like the X-T1. There is full detail everywhere, in the shadows and the highlights. 

Church and winter tree along Fifth Avenue.

This is a building I love. It is a small, state supreme court building on Madison Avenue across from Madison Square park, built in 1900 and decorated by exceptional statues. 

Another view of the small supreme court building in the fading light of late afternoon on my way home. What I like about this shot is that it is all about the composition formed by the shadows. Taken with the X-T1 and 56mm lens. 

Lock detail along the way taken with the Fuji 35mm lens at full open f/1.4 aperture.

A view of the Chrysler Building taken through the ornate metal fence surrounding Gramercy Square Park. Shot with the X-Pro1 and 35mm lens at f/1.4.

There is a very beautiful, cloistered church complex in the 20's between Fifth and Madison. From here you can see the top of the Empire State Building above it and through the trees. This photo was taken with the X-T1 and the 35mm lens at f/1.4 on my way to the seminar.

On my way home from the seminar the sun was low in the sky, not quite sunset, but close to it. I grabbed this silhouette of a typical New York water tower surrounded by the trees of Madison Square Park using the 56mm lens on the X-T1. 

Home for sunset. Weekend over. Project over. X-Pro1 and long zoom. The only time I used a lens other than a prime, but I needed to reach out with a long focal length for this graphic sunset silhouette in 16:9 format and aperture didn't matter. 
I have been complaining of the small-sized focus adjust buttons on the X-T1 command ring. Now I know why. Those on the X-Pro1 are large, rounder, and higher -- and I can find them without looking. Fuji is going to have to correct this on the X-T1. 

On the left is the command ring of the X-Pro1. Note the large rounded shape to the four buttons -- very easy to find without hunting for them. On the right is the command ring of the X-T1 showing a different shape and size with slightly recessed buttons. The entire ring on the X-T1 is also a little smaller, just enough to be difficult to find.  Now I know why I have been having problems moving the focus point around. The buttons on the X-Pro1 are much easier to locate quickly by touch, and press than on the X-T1.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Ode to a legend -- the Leica M4

For me, the M4 is the camera that reached the pinnacle of analog design. It was the natural sequel to the M2 and M3 designs into one body with a few more bells and whistles added. The one time Leica attempted to diverge from this basic M design with the M5 model in 1971 led to such an uproar that the M4 was reinstated only a few years later and has continued to be the basis for flagship camera design of the company even up to the newest M 240 digital model.

My 1968 black painted M4. I sent it back to Leica for a factory replacement of the viewfinder so it now has six lens frame lines of the M6 instead of the original four. I did this because I use a 28mm lens a lot and usually have the Leica meter on top of the camera taking up the slot where I would normally put an auxiliary optical finder. And look at the beautiful engraving on top. Don't see that much anymore. 
There were several iterations of the M4. The M4-2 was introduced in 1977, followed by the M4-P in 1981. Each new version added a couple of new features -- a hot shoe, motor-drive capability, extra finder frames -- but modernized the production line and replaced the black enamel with a more durable black chrome.  I always had a penchant for cameras with black paint over brass. After a little use some of the paint wears through to the brass and the camera takes on an individual patina that identifies it as yours. Excessive brassing becomes a battle-worn badge of honor, something to be worn proudly, as if to say, "I served".

The Leica M4 with MR-4 meter mounted on top.

The M4 was introduced in 1967 and produced until 1975 with a little break while the M5 ran its short-lived, orphened course. The M4 had framelines for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses in a 0.72 magnification viewfinder. Mine was made in 1968, and had a later, standard factory addition of the M6 viewfinder adding 28mm and 75mm frame lines.

I always liked the look of the Leica meter. Not that it worked all that well -- I still carried around a hand held auxiliary meter for more accurate readings -- but it slipped conveniently into the accessory shoe, had a high/low range, and synchronized with the shutter speed dial, all pretty advanced stuff for 1968.

The handle-crank rewind knob was one of the late-to-the-party innovations Leitz added to the M. The one on the M4 was angled so it could be operated quickly without constantly scraping your fingers on the side of the camera -- something of an anachronism in today's digital world, but much appreciated at the time by photographers needing to get the spent roll out of the camera quickly and reload it for the next breaking shot. 
Adding the angled rapid rewind crank was considered a big deal at the time. I can still recall discussions with veteran photographers who were convinced that Leitz maintained the slow turning rewind knob on the M2 and M3 to avoid rewinding the film too fast and causing static light discharge that might damage a film frame.

The M4 did away with the removable film take up spool, and introduced a faster film loading system that gripped the end of the film automatically to load it onto the spool. 

The self-timer lever was an M4 luxury -- some say frivolous addition -- eliminated from later versions of the M series. After all, pros don't need self-timers. 

The M4 was the last of a breed. It reminds me of souped-up, propeller-driven fighter aircraft at the end of WWII. Each had reached the apex of analog, hand-crafted design on the cusp of fading into oblivion in the face of a newer technology. The planes were replaced by jets, the rangefinder by the SLR. Fortunately, the M-series camera hit a very responsive chord in the human psyche that has made it last even into the digital era. For many, Leica M is the icon of professional camera, and retro styling based on the Leica M design is undergoing a renaissance in cameras like the popular Fuji X-Pro1.  And let's not forget that in keeping with the M analog tradition Leica continues to make the M7 and MP film cameras today.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Nikon 1 AW1 camera is now available

The new Nikon 1 AW1 underwater camera is now available at B&H. It is a 14.2mp camera that is waterproof down to 49'. It has Nikon's CX sensor which is 1" with a 2.7x image size multiple, can shoot at 15fps, and do HD video. Anyone remember the Nikonos?  I suppose this is the new digital replacement. With summer coming, this camera should be flying off the store shelves.

I will be doing a full hands on review of this camera in a later blog post. Stay tuned.

If you are planning on purchasing this camera with lens, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.

Nikon 1 AW1 Mirrorless Digital Camera with 11-27.5mm Lens can be ordered from:  BH-Photo  Amazon   

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fuji 56mm -- the perfect portrait lens

The portrait focal length for a full frame lens is considered to fall between 75mm and 105mm because is provides the least amount of perspective distortion on a face. Wider than that and excessive rounding occurs. Longer than that and telephoto compression begins. The ideal portrait lens would sit right in the middle at 85mm, or 56mm on an APS-C sensor. Of course, this is all a rule of thumb and also depends not only on the distance from the subject, but also on the desired subjective effect.

The Fuji 56mm is not only tack sharp, but maintains its sharpness even at its widest aperture of f/1.2 where it also delivers the sweetest bokeh effects of any lens out there. This series of photos was taken with filtered daylight and the lens aperture either wide open or close to it.  One nice thing about this mid-range portrait length is that it allows you to come in close to fill up the frame with just the head, or pull back to include more of the body, while still maintaining an ideal perspective.

If you are planning on purchasing this camera or lens, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.

The Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R lens is available for ordering at:   BH-photo  Amazon