Monday, September 29, 2014

Nikon 20mm f/1.8G lens -- a hands-on review

This lens has been a long awaited -- by me at least -- update of the original Nikkor 20mm f/2.8D lens design that is 30 years old. In the film era this lens had always been my favorite super-wide, but on a digital camera it showed its age and was, to my mind, totally unusable. Although updated several times with mechanical changes, the optical system of the f/2.8 lens has remained the same as that of the original 1984 model. The new version not only refreshes the optical layout with a new design containing ED glass and aspherical elements, but adds over one stop to the maximum aperture.

Even with its extra f/stop, and 77mm as opposed to 62mm filter size, the new lens weighs in slightly more that 3oz than the older f/2.8 version (9.52oz) and does not exhibit the bulkiness of zoom lenses in a similar focal range. In other words, its a perfect super-wide option for when you want to travel light.

The real problem for resolution with a super-wide is usually found in the corners. This lens does not disappoint. Although at its most extreme aperture you can detect some corner softness, I did not find it objectionable, and once the lens is stopped down even to f/2.8 it is acceptable, and really good at f/5.6 as you would expect, and is probably the range where most of us would normally use a lens like this. If this lens had come out with an f/2.8 aperture this review would be even better and I would have been content simply for an updated replacement of the older model. As it is, the f/1.8 aperture is an added bonus that will undoubtedly come in handy for many applications.

Below are some sample images where you can download high res files to judge the performance for yourself. All were shot as original jpgs.

In my brick wall test you can see the obvious vignetting occurring in the f/1.8 image on the left, but gone from the f/5.6 image on the right. Of course, vignetting is one of the easiest things to control in post-processing and typical at very wide open apertures on most lenses. The gray triangular shape at the bottom is a perpendicular fence I use to be certain the camera back is parallel to the wall during these tests. I included a few of the tests below for downloading so you can see the results. 

A 20mm focal length is very well suited to capturing subjects like night time starry skies and the fast f/1.8 aperture allows working at a lower ISO for better noise control, while also keeping the exposure time down so as not to blur the stars.

Despite its appearance in one extreme example below of the interior of Grand Central Station, the correction for chromatic aberration in this lens is really excellent. The green tree image below is a test I do for chromatic aberration.

This is a lens test I do for chromatic aberration by shooting an open image of leaves over-exposed against a bright sky. I know from experience that chromatic aberration is almost always present in a shot like this. With the Nikon 20mm lens it is almost non-existent except in subtle traces towards the top of the frame.  Click here to download the high res version of this file.

This image of the Brooklyn Bridge and World Trade Center is typical of the way I would normally use a 20mm lens for a travel shot. Taken at f/5.6 on a D750 the focus is sharp everywhere, even in the corners. Click here to download a high res version of this file. 

Note the chromatic aberration occurring in the bright window area at the bottom of the frame. To be fair, this is exactly the set of circumstances where I would expect this type of fringing to occur with almost any lens. Fortunately, it is very easy to correct. Click here to download a full res version of this file.

The scene below (taken with a 16mm focal length) is typical of how I shoot a landscape with a super-wide lens. I put the focus in the foreground and stop down enough to obtain enough detail in the background. The foreground is usually filled with detail that I want to preserve. If a lens cannot hold detail in its corners, it becomes glaringly obvious in a shot like this. The test I do to determine how a lens will perform in this situation is shown in the photo below this one of a cobble-stone street.

For this test I place the lens close to the ground and focus on the foreground. I want to see if the lens can hold focus across the focus plane into the edges of the photo. The Nikon 20mm lens proved itself a real winner in this test. Below are some links to full res files taken at different f/stops.  Even at f/1.8 this lens is looking good.
The close-up range of 7.9" makes it easy to get right on top of your subject, closer than the super-wide zooms.

Situations like this is why 20mm is my preferred super-wide lens. It delivers just the right amount of sweeping perspective and depth with minimal distortion. This image was taken late in the day with a Nikon D750 and the 20mm lens set to f/7.1.


Stopped down, which is where a lens like this is typically used for landscape photography, the results are impressive with edge-to-edge sharpness. It's fast f/1.8 aperture is an added bonus useful for dimly lit interiors and night photography.  It comes in a light-weight package and can easily replace in weight and performance any of the heavier zoom lenses that hover around this focal length. 

The resolution for this 20mm lens is no match for the Nikkor 24mm f/1.4, but it is much wider and, at $796.95, less than half the price. For me it has already become a welcome addition to my camera bag and I will probably sell off one of my shorter zooms -- like the much slower 18-35mm, which it out-performs -- to make room for it.

If you are planning on buying this lens, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by clicking the link and purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.
The Nikon 20mm f/1.8G lens can be ordered from:  BH-Photo   Amazon   

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Close-up of white orchids with the Zeiss Touit 50mm f/2.8 macro lens

This orchid plant has been in our living room for about a month. Today I put it near the window where it was back lit, and photographed it with the Zeiss Touit 50mm macro lens used wide open at f/2.8 on the Fuji X-T1.  I used the lens wide open to obtain a shallow depth of field with the main focus just on the stamen of one of the flowers. I wanted to contrast the large white areas of of the flowers and with the small bright colors in their center.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Problem with Lexar CF cards and Nikon D810?

Recently, we have had an issue with several different Lexar Professional 400x Compactflash 32GB and 64GB cards and two different Nikon D810 cameras. The cameras would be shooting along normally and then report a card error and stop shooting. When we turned the camera off and back on again the situation fixed itself and the camera continued shooting for awhile, but the same error appeared again randomly.

The Lexar Professional  cards are on the Nikon list of approved cards for the D810, and none of them have the bad serial numbers already reported by Nikon when reporting a compatibility issue with certain Lexar cards and the Nikon D4s and D800. Reformatting the cards did not eliminate the problem. We also use SanDisk cards in the D810, and have not had any problems at all with them.

If you have had a similar problem, please feel free to leave a comment and share your experiences.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Nikon D750 now in stock

Nikon's new 24.3MP FX camera is now in stock at various outlets. I began testing it a week ago and will have a full, hands-on report soon. My initial impressions of the D750 can be read here.  Adobe Camera RAW support is still lacking for it so RAW images must be processed in Nikon's own Capture NX-D software, which can be downloaded here.  Below is a sample image taken with the D750 and processed in NX-D.  More on this process in a later post.

This photo was taken with the D750 and processing the RAW image using the new "Flat" mode available in Capture NX-D. Flat preserves the most detail in both highlights and shadows for later adjustment in post-processing. The photo on the left is "Flat", that on the right is "Standard". Note the extended highlight detail in the sky in the Flat image, along with the brighter shadows, especially in the shadow from the hat on the girls face. These two images were done with no other processing that the difference between "Flat" and "Standard". By saving the image as a 16-bit Tiff file, the details are preserved and the image can be further tweaked with post-processing software. 

The Nikon D750 camera body only can be ordered from:  BH-Photo   Amazon
The Nikon D750 bundled with 24-120mm lens can be pre-ordered from:  BH-Photo  Amazon   
Nikon MB-D16 Multi Power Battery Pack for D750 can be pre-ordered from:  BH-Photo 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Nikon 20mm f/1.8G lens is already in stock

Nikon's latest addition to its optical lineup, the 20mm f/1.8G lens, is out and available at several places. I have already begun testing this lens and will do a full write-up soon. My initial experiences are showing that it is looking good. Stay tuned.

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

The Nikon 20mm f/1.8G lens can be ordered from:  BH-Photo      

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Country still lifes with a Fuji X-T1 and Zeiss Touit 50mm macro

We did another set of still life photos in the studio. This time it was for a project on a kitchen theme. The photos need to be soft, delicate, with a muted palette, and have a country feel to them.

The camera used was the Fuji X-T1 with my favorite macro, the Zeiss Touit 50mm f/2.8. All the images were taken back lit by available window light softened with a scrim.


As we often do when shooting still lifes, Janet, our stylist, was preparing setups on one table, while I am next to her on another table doing some other shots so as to maximize our time spent in the studio. All the photos above were styled by Janet while I was working on the shots below for another project.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Aerials of New York and the World Trade Center with the Nikon D810

I have anticipated doing some helicopter sunset aerial photos of New York City ever since the exterior of the new World Trade Center was completed earlier this year. This is part of my plan to re-photograph the various views of Manhattan with the new World Trade Center included in them.

Sunsets in the summer are so late that by the time the sun goes down the building lights are no longer turned on. Sunset city shots are always more dramatic if taken when the office buildings are still lit up. September is a good time because the trees are still green and, although the sunset in New York is around 7:00PM, many of the building lights are on.

The choice of camera was the Nikon D810 because of its extremely high resolution, and good noise control. The main lens was a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom, but I also had a 14-24mm f/2.8 for wider shots, a 70-200mm f/2.8 (that it did not use) for long shots, and a Nikon 24mm f/1.4 to gain two aperture stops when the light dropped as it got dark.

The D810 allows for auto-ISO, which I set to cap at 3200. Anything higher than that and I would switch to the 24mm f/1.4 lens to pick up two more stops and lower the ISO.

As a second camera, I carried a Leica M because of its exceptional, fast-aperture lenses.

A sunset shoot like this lasts about 45 minutes: beginning 15 minutes before sunset and ending a half hour after sunset, around the end of civil twilight. A shoot like this is happening fast so you need to have a game plan.

The session was divided into three parts. Before the sun set we traveled up and down the Hudson River to capture lower Manhattan and the Trade Center with the setting sun reflecting from the glass windows. Next we headed out to the Statue of Liberty in time for the actual sunset and used the statue to frame the city.  After sunset, when the city lights were beginning to come on, we headed up the East River just above the Manhattan Bridge and used it and the Brooklyn Bridge to frame photos of lower Manhattan. Finally, with the approach of civil twilight, we retraced our path back around the island, and, as we went along, grabbed some shots of the city with the lights on.

The first part of the script called for images of lower Manhattan with the direct light from the setting sun glinting off the buildings, as it is here and in the image below.

This is one of the very first photos I took. It was nice of the little schooner on the far right to accommodate me.

This was one of the last shots of the session where the lights in the buildings are clearly visible and the twilight sky is reflected in the glass. This image and the one above it illustrate what a difference 45 minutes can make. At this point my auto-ISO setting was maxing out at 3200, but the D810 handled it quite well with the noise most noticeable in the sky where it is easily dealt with in post-processing.. 

View from the harbor as the last rays of sunlight hit the city.

This wide angle image was done by panning the camera and taking two shots in close succession then combining them later to to extend the scene so it covered the financial district in Jersey City on the left, the Statue of Liberty, and the financial district with lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center. 

For a view of the island that showed more of the relationship of lower Manhattan to mid-town, we took the helicopter up to an altitude just high enough to keep the World Trade Center partially outlined against the sky.

For the third part of the session, we are looking back at the city from Brooklyn with the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground. We positioned the helicopter so we could see a clear silhouette of the front tower of the bridge contrasted against the lighter shade of the water in the East River.

One of the last shots of the day, the fading glimmer of twilight is reflected in the glass buildings with the interior lights on in the buildings and some detail still left in the sky. Taken with a Leica M and 28mm Summicron lens at f/2 and ISO 1600. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stacked focus for maximum depth of field

This is another image in a series I am doing on natural farm foods. The theme for this one was late summer fruits. My stylist and I visited the farmers market in the morning searching for fresh, but natural looking produce that looked like it came straight from the farm.

The depth of this still life set up was 28" front to back. We set up a ruler off camera and marked 1" intervals. I refocused the Nikon D810 28 times, once every inch, from front to back. The lens was a 60mm Nikon macro set to f/5.6. From having done these setups before, I have found that f/5.6 seems to work best.

Click here to download a high res version of this image. 

All 28 16-bit RAW files are treated similarly in Adobe Camera Raw and processed to 16-bit tif files to preserve the maximum color depth. The we run the 28 images through Helicon Focus to combine them in to one photo comprised of the sharpest part of each of the 28 exposures. The process doesn't always work the first time around and the software settings have to be tweaked several times to find the right combination of settings. I redid this one over ten times before I got it the way I liked it.

To give the scene the look of a painting done by an "Old Master" , I used a soft window light very much the way it would have lit for a painting.

I provided a link to a high res version of this file below the image. I did reduce the size of the full file because it was so large it would have taken a lot of time and space handling it. The version here is still large enough to give an idea of how these stacked images look when finished.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What a difference a day makes

When photographing popular travel or landscape subjects it is often difficult to get a vista that is different from what has been done before. One thing that is always changing is the weather, and whenever possible in these situations, I compose the image for the weather first and the subject second.

On Saturday morning the sky was threatening when I set out on a bike ride towards lower Manhattan. As I approached the World Trade Center there were some storm clouds passing behind it. I grabbed this shot with the Fuji X-T1 and 18-135mm zoom for conversion to a platinum print.

On Sunday morning I had sunny blue skies and a very hard light when I took this photo with the Fuji X-T1 and 55-200mm zoom of the Empire State Building peeking out from between some apartment building. Later I processed it as infrared in Photoshop to darken the blues and then prepared the file to make a platinum print.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rainy Saturday night in Manhattan

Rainy nights make for colorful reflections in the city. These interpretations of traffic in the Big Apple were taken with the Fuji X-T1 and Fuji 55-200mm zoom hand held at an ISO of 1600. While taking these I kept thinking of the painting by Piet Mondrian called "Broadway Boogie Woogie", his 1943 abstract reflection of a frenetic city grid pulsing to a syncopated rhythm.

Multiple exposure in Photoshop

Last night the Empire State Building was still lit with red, white, and blue. On the weekends I like to experiment with my cameras on the theory that you never stop learning. It's a habit I began many years ago. I find I usually learn something by taking a break from my normal routine once in awhile.

Using the long Fuji zoom on the X-T1, I took a number of exposures, some in focus, some out of focus, and some while moving the camera to create motion blur. Later I combined a few of each type image to create this multiple exposure in Photoshop. Each image was on its own layer. Some of the layers were converted to "Screen" mode, others had their opacity reduced, and all of them had a layer mask where I could paint out certain areas and smooth out the transitions. This image is a combination using five separate photos.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Photo for 9/11

Every year on the eve of 9/11 I take a photo in honor of 9/11, usually of the ceremonial lights. This year I branch out with a different subject but still on the same theme.

The Empire State Building was lit up in red, white, and blue for the event and for a very fleeting moment at dusk the clouds and sunset formed a magnificent compositional arrangement with the building. When I saw it, I knew I had very little time to capture the the scene for the light was fading fast. As it turned out, I had about 1 minute. Problem was at the time I was indoors and had to shoot through a window, a dirty window at that. Later I thought others might be interested in the techniques I use for shooting in these circumstances in which, for some reason, I constantly find myself.

Sometimes for a scene like this where the building and clouds align themselves in a perfect composition you just have to be lucky -- but you also have to also be prepared to capture it.

I had the Fuji X-T1 with me fit with the new 18-135mm zoom. This lens has a 5-stop vibration reduction feature so I knew that would help with the slow aperture. 

I removed the lens hood so that I could press the front of the lens as close as possible to the window. With my left hand I formed a seal between the front of the lens and the window so that none of the interior light could reflect into the window and back into the camera. I set the lens to its widest aperture to minimize the focus on the window. Next, I braced myself as best I could -- I had no tripod at this point -- pressing the lens against the window and my body and arms against the wall to steady myself. With the camera set to motor drive, I would press and hold the shutter through several exposures. From experience I know that the first press would be the one to blur the shot, but after that the pressing finger is idle and the camera is not moving so the second or third exposure will usually be blur free.

In situations like these I bracket like crazy against any motion that will ruin the shot. Better to have an excess of exposures than an image with motion blur. I repeated these bursts about a dozen times. The sky light and color was fading very fast. As it turned out, I had the aperture wide open, shutter speed at a comfortable 1/60 second, and an ISO of 1250.  If I were doing it again, I would lower the shutter speed to 1/30 and the ISO to 640.

The next problem I had was adjusting the image in post processing to what my eye saw, not what the camera recorded.

The image below was what the camera actually recorded in the fading light. My eye saw it with more brilliant colors and brighter, but the scene was fading very fast. After bringing it into Photoshop with some corrections in Adobe ACR I next switched the color mode to LAB. LAB is a very extended color profile and also non-destructive. I never boost colors by using saturation in post-processing because it is asking for trouble by posterizing the image. LAB on the other hand can punch the colors without adding artifacts to the image.

This is the original photo before applying corrections.

The first thing I had to do was color correct the image. It was much too yellow. The middle lighting on the building was white, as in "red, white, and blue". The camera pushed the scene to much warmer tones. I brought the white light back to white reflected off of a yellow building. Some fun. After that, I needed to retouch out some of the color reflections as a result of shooting through glass. You can see some of them next to the tower in the above photo. After that, it was into LAB to increase the color to what I actually saw, add the typical "S" contrast curve, eliminate the noise with Neat Image, and done -- until next year.

First impressions of the Nikon D750 camera

Those of us who have used the popular D700 camera (and many still do) have longed for its replacement. The D700 was a professional grade camera in a smaller package, perfect as a backup to a pro system, excellent in its own right, and just what you would want when you want to travel with something lighter that the heavier, top of the line models.

Now the Nikon D750 is here.  It hasn't been billed as a D700 update, but in terms of  how it fits within the Nikon pro lineup, that is what it is.

The D750 has a smaller, weather-sealed body, about the same size and a tad lighter than the D610. It's the kind of camera where you don't just carry one of them, you have two, each with a different lens on the ready. It has a 24.3 MP FX sensor with an impressive ISO range of 100-12800 in 1/3-stop increments, extendable to 50-51200 in 1-stop increments.

The new EXPEED 4 processing engine currently found in the Nikon D4s and D810 is also used in the D750. Other D4s and D810 niceties, like the 51 point AF screen coupled with the new Group AF, have also been included in the D750. These features alone are reason enough to add this camera to your arsenal.

At purported 1230 shots per charge the D750 battery life is about that of the D810 using the same EN-EL15 battery, and it has a new, optional MB-D16 Multi-Power Battery Pack available for it. The maximum frame rate is 6.5 fps, not the 8fps some of us hoped for, but still faster than anything other than the D4s. The real question is: How much will the EXPEED 4 processor improve the burst rate? It is one thing to shoot at 6.5 fps, but if the burst rate is limited, it doesn't help things all that much. The D610 with a similar 24.3MP sensor can deliver 6 fps, but only for 13 shots.

The controls of the D750 are similar to the other pro and semi-pro models, one of the nice things Nikon does. If you've used one Nikon DSLR, you will feel right at home with any of the others. 
With the D750 Nikon has gone back to including an anti-aliasing filter over the sensor.

This is the first pro level Nikon camera with a fully articulating tilt screen that is bi-directional for both low angle and overhead shots.  Add to that a new built-in WiFi feature where the camera can be controlled remotely from a phone or tablet, and you will be able to extend the viewing angle to previously inaccessible areas.

I think that wedding photographers who often  have to carry more than one camera with them all day long are going to appreciate the D750.

Notable Features of the D750:

          •  24.3MP FX-Format CMOS Sensor
          •  EXPEED 4 Image Processor
          •  3.2" 1,229k-Dot RGBW Tilting LCD Monitor
          •  Full HD 1080p Video Recording at 60 fps
          •  Multi-CAM 3500FX 51-Point AF Sensor
          •  Native ISO 12800, Extended to ISO 51200
          •  Continuous Shooting Up to 6.5 fps
          •  91k-Pixel RGB Sensor and Group Area AF
          •  Built-In Wi-Fi Connectivity

Bottom line, the D750 may be the most practical, all-around Nikon camera of all. The 24.3MP sensor is enough resolution for most demanding situations. The 6.5 fps, though not up there with the fastest DSLR's, is plenty fast, and the added niceties of tilting LDC, internal WiFi control, EXPEED 4 processor, along with the best AF of any Nikon camera is probably going to result in this camera flying off  store shelves, particularly when we consider its price of $2299.95.

The D750 will be initially available around September 23 as body only, and later bundled with the AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm F4 VR.

There will be a hands-on review of the D750 on this blog in a few weeks, after I've had time to give it a workout.

If you are planning on buying a D750, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by clicking the link and purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.

The Nikon D750 camera body only can be ordered from:  BH-Photo   Amazon
The Nikon D750 bundled with 24-120mm lens can be pre-ordered from:  BH-Photo  Amazon   
Nikon MB-D16 Multi Power Battery Pack for D750 can be pre-ordered from:  BH-Photo