The latest chapter in my ongoing Nikon D3200 review.

ISO 100

After a week of shooting portraits with black and white film in a medium format camera and shooting a television commercial with a Sony a77 I decided to take a break this afternoon and go for a stroll around downtown Austin in the warm glow of the late afternoon.  As a counterpoint to the lit, on tripod work I've been doing I chose to take along just the little Nikon D3200, the kit lens (18-55mm) and, well....nothing else.  My first observation:  The whole package is small and light and easy to walk with. I do think it will balance better with a single focal length lens so I'm trying to decide between the 35mm 1.8 Nikon lens or its longer brother, the 50mm 1.8 lens.  I'm not into expensive glass for what I consider to be my new point and shoot system so I'll leave my choice right there.

Let's get the stuff that's most important to the web dwellers from hell first. An ISO test.  The above image was shot (handheld) at ISO 100.  It's about as noise free as I can imagine and the large file is creamy smooth and detailed.  All the files from the D3200 seem to want some sharpening if you look at them at 100% but if you don't have you nose pressed to the screen the unsharpened images look natural and.....photographic. 

ISO 3200

The image directly above is the other half of my ISO test. It was shot at 3200 ISO (also handheld). If you blow it up you can see a pepper grain pattern noise that has no color flecking or transmorgification of duplicitous color.  That means there's a pattern that looks like Tri-X film grain but is not bothersome to me and is invisible at normal magnifications and viewing distances.  The nice thing about the Nikon files is how they maintain color saturation at the higher ISO's.  The high ISO's are a little better than the Sony a77 files.  Maybe by one half to three quarters of a stop.  

ISO 3200

Here's one more at 3200 ISO.  The beer in the image is Alaskan IPA ale.  It was delicious. The perfect counterpart to a 100 degree stroll through the asphalt heaven we call home.  I got and drank the ale at Caffe Medici on Congress Ave.  Giving up caffeine doesn't mean that all is lost...
I do wonder what the staff think when we photographers descend upon their workplace and spend time photographing our beverages...

ISO 800

Sometimes, when I am between projects and Belinda is working at the ad agency I cook dinner for the three of us.  I made a dish last night that was kind of fun. I got a handful of red potatoes, the small ones.  I rinsed them, quartered them and steamed them for five minutes and then set them aside.  I did the same with several handfuls of fresh green beans.  I got a big skillet and sauteed sweet onions in olive oil, a touch of butter, fresh oregano from our herb garden and some comino pepper.  Then I pulled the onions out and tossed in the potatoes, cooking them until they started to get brown and crusty.  Then I tossed in the blanched green beans and finally added back the onions and some carrot chips for color.  But I like to photograph while I cook so I set the camera at ISO 800 and kept it next to my chef's knife while I partied on the prep.

ISO 800

The camera and lens combo is good at close distances. The lens focuses down to about a foot.

ISO 800.

Here's my finished dish. I call it "carrot, green bean and potatoe sauté.  The family thought it was yummy.  I served a smoked brisket (lean) along with it and I made a peach pie for dessert. A mix of healthy and fun.  I was shooting in manual and underexposed the two images directly above.  I pulled them up over a stop in Lightroom but the noise didn't come up to badly.  Nice to know there's some safety room there when you're cooking and not paying attention to the numbers in the bottom of the finder.  I served dinner with a delicious Cabernet Sauvignon.  Ben had mint tea.

ISO 100.

So, what do you give up in what is ostensibly a $600 dollar, 24 megapixel DSLR?  Let's go through them by the numbers:  1. No depth of field button. You're on your own.  I know what f8 will do but it's nice to be able to see it.  2. The finder is small.  It's bright but it's small. I wish they'd just bite the bullet, conquer their fear and put a great EVF in this camera.  (The bottom line is I've enjoyed using cameras with much worse finders and, like anything else in life, if you use it enough you'll get used to it.  It's just hard to use after having used cameras with much better finders.  Kinda like driving an M series BMW and then saddling up in a Toyota Corola...). 3. The HDR (techno V... ) crowd will cry, moan and whine about the lack of autobracketing.  4.  I'd rather piss and moan about the loss of a PC socket. Or, 5. A separate set of control wheels for the aperture and shutter speed settings.

ISO 100

So, you give up some stuff.  What do you get in return?  How about a camera that feels solid but is small, lightweight and comfortable? I like the size and the grip. I think the files are very, very good and very, very detailed. The 4 fps is fast enough for me and, even though the buffer isn't very big it clears very quickly if you are using fast SDHC cards.  The battery life is much better than I thought it would be.  I think you can expect 750 shots with no chimping and about 500 shots, well chimped. You also get to have a really bitching file generator for far less than a grand.

Two other complaints, one that's easily remedied. First, you can try hard but you'll have difficulty seeing she screen on the back if you're out shooting in the daylight.  Especially in Austin in the Summer where we enjoy about 12 hours of harsh, brutal sunlight.  I'm sure that if you live in one of the dark countries you won't even think about it but I had to step into deep shade to be sure I was setting things correctly.  And I just gave up on chimping as it was doing more harm than good.  You could carry a Hoodman loupe around with you but that would just be goofy. No solution for this.  Set your camera before you get out of your car and pray you don't need to change settings in full sun.

The other complaint is that the active D-Lighting has no range of adjustment, it's either on or off.  I'm used to the Sony cameras which have both an automatic setting and five levels of manual setting for shadow recovery.  Easy fix. Turn it off and do your shadow savings in post.  One way or another you'll need to hit the shadows with a little noise reduction if you are making heroic detail saves.

When I first started shooting with the camera I thought I'd be happy just plugging away with large, fine Jpegs. I am not.  It's not that the Jpegs aren't good.  They are as good as they need to be, it's just that you have so much more control over the files in raw.  On most cameras these days I feel the need to boost contrast and crunch down hard on the blacks.  (That means I think the blacks are too weak as the camera companies try to give you the dynamic range you thought you wanted). I think the blacks in most digital cameras are totally un-filmlike and boring. Next time you find some noise in the shadows jump on that black slider and your files will look a hell of a lot better. I swear.

I'm presuming the lens adds about $100 to the overall kit price.  It's worth it.  It's a nice focal range, it's sharp in the center and the corners and edges come in well with a combination of stopping down and lens correction software in Lightroom. What you end up with is an image that is sharp and has good resolution but which needs a bit of a contrast boost and some black bump. I also like to add a bit of clarity slider for most files except for the high ISO files where the clarity slider accentuates the noise.

Should you run out and buy this camera?  Do you already have: A Nikon D800 or Canon 5Dmk3 or Olympus OMD EM-5 or a Pentax K-5 or .......?????? If so you don't really need this one, do you? But if you have a kid who's a budding photographer or videographer, or a spouse who wants a lighter, easier to use camera it's killer.  It is my current, "this is the camera you need for your sports, family photo, vacations" recommendation camera. The files are nice and clean and the VR in the lens works great.  The only thing missing, and something that would make this the ultimate tyro camera, is auto-ISO. Edit:  I found the auto-ISO. Instead of being part of the accessible ISO setting via the rear panel you have to go into the menu to turn it on and off. Painful but okay.  Most people doing auto-ISO leave it on all the time.  The rest of it can turn it off until we overdo happy hour and still want to shoot....

What about competitors? Well, the Canon t4i looks good on paper. I haven't played with one yet but it adds some sophistication to the movie mode with a phase detection/ contrast detection hybrid that seems like it's what we need to focus quicker in the video mode. It shoots at 5 fps instead of 4. The lower pixel count of the sensor, couple with Canon's sprinkling of high ISO pixie dust will probably get you a stop more cleanliness at high ISO's and that's about it.  If you have a bag full of Canon lenses it's kind of a "no brainer." But you will be paying $300 more.  

My final take on the camera and lens as a package is this:  Nice shooting package and very well done by Nikon. Would I like more stuff on the camera? Always.  Do I want to pay more? Naw.  You could do decent, professional work with this combo and, if your client never made eye contact with your camera package he or she would never know whether you shot your jobs with the top of the line or the bottom of the line camera in 90% of all jobs.  All bets are off if you are shooting professional sports for money or you need very high ISO's for paying specialized work.
This one really proves that it's not the camera the operator.  Operate well and the D3200 will reward you.

Good basic field kit?  This body, the 12-24mm (which I owned and was happy with...), the 35mm 1.8, the 50mm 1.8 and the Nikon 55-300 mm DX VR zoom.  Now you're ready for just about anything.  Add specialty lenses to taste.

The telephoto end of the kit zoom is pretty nice. I'd still through in a little more contrast and black.

Nikon will do well with this one.  But I'm not switching systems yet.

Hello Sony.  Still waiting for a couple of things.  I'd like to know for sure that the full frame camera is coming soon.  And, I'd like you to produce a 60mm f1.8 lens for the cropped frame cameras. That would be the perfect portrait length.  Please make it small and light and send it to me now.  The check's in the mail...

I promised to show a recent set-up shot on film.

 I collaborated in a portrait session last Saturday. I photographed with three different cameras and I've shown work from two of the cameras, the Nikon D3200 and the Sony a77. The third camera was my Hasselblad film camera with a 150mm lens.  I shot four rolls of color transparency and four rolls of Fuji Acros 100 speed black and white film.  I didn't change the lighting during the course of the shoot. The above photograph is of my friend, Lou, from one of the medium format, black and white film frames, developed by Holland Photo Imaging and scanned in my lowly Epson Perfection V500 Photo, flatbed scanner.

I scanned it at 7000 by 7000 pixels. While I don't see much increased detail vis a vis a scan at 3500 by 3500 I do see a much richer tonal distribution that makes the extra file size and time spent worthwhile.

My attention is immediately drawn to Lou's eyes.  And that's where I want it to be. The next thing I notice (and like) is that her right arm (left side of the frame as you face it) and her dress on the opposite side of the frame are already out of focus in a very gentle yet obvious way.

I love the diagonals created by the crossed arms, the incline of her body and the tilt of her head. Purists will want to crop out her watch but I don't really want to.  For some reason, maybe a need to have imperfections in the art, I think it adds a contrasting distraction that keeps your eye moving around the frame, looking for more clues.

I like the strong shadows on the sides of her arms and her face that are opposite the main light.  Those occurred deliberately.  My studio is painted all white. Without intervention the shadows get filled by the reflection from the white walls.  I added black panels to kill the reflections and help enrich the shadows.

I like the contrasting effect of her lit face pushing into the darker area in the top left of the frame and the balance created by the lighter area of the background against the shadow side of her face.

I am most happy with the expression.

When I analyze the file from the scan I find a smoother tonal transition from dark to light than I did in the files from the two digital cameras.  I also find that the hair seems more real and more detailed than it does in either of the other two files.  None of them are technical "fails" and, to some extent, whether you like the files from one camera over the files from either of the other two files, none of them are bad or unusable. Like the swimming at the Olympic Trials some things are measure in 10th's or 100th's of a second...

The biggest difference in the files is in the rendering of out of focus areas and in the manner of the focus "fall-off."  The Hasselblad  is my favorite but then I also like anchovies.

If you want to see the differences you might open up two new windows on your browser and see them side by side.  The Hasselblad 150mm (Zeiss Planar) is the oldest lens in my collection.  It's a mid 1960's version.  It still stands up well.

On an unrelated topic, send a little prayer out to the people in Colorado.  They're living through the kind of heat wave and wildfire situation that we experienced last year.  I can tell you that it's not fun.  I hope they have relief soon.

We're having fun here this Summer.  So far I've done more swimming than working. I'd like to be a little busier in the studio but I'm happy to have the time to work on my endurance.

The First Book: