This image is from Balmorhea, Texas. It was shot with
an Olympus EP-2.
Earlier this year a client took me by surprise. We didn't communicate as well as we usually do or maybe I just didn't pay attention very well but... we did a photo shoot of an actor in a number of different characters in front of a white background. I thought the client would be using the images in print ads and on the web so I was very, very comfortable shooting it with a Panasonic GH4, a camera I had used extensively and knew I could rely upon for just about anything. I used one of the best m4:3 lenses, the Leica Summulux 1.4 and we lit the whole thing with studio flash so we could freeze any action. I shot at the base ISO and metered carefully. The raw images looked really, really good.
Then, casually, the final client announced that they were very excited to have such nice images to work with on their posters! Yikes! Could an m4:3 file stretch up to 24 by 36 inches and still look great? My old prejudices, fueled by the group hysteria of the web, overwhelmed my ability to evaluate empirical evidence and see the reality that the 16 megapixel files from the GH4 were very much up to the task. Perhaps a Nikon D810 would have given us more detail but what the client produced in the real world was right on target.
Too bad for me that I am reactive and reflexive and a bundle of anxiety. The minute we finished the shoot, with the fresh information about the intention to produce posters, my mind rushed to the worst case scenario= the files might not work. (The problem with being an anxiety inflicted freelance photographer is that one tends to worry about every detail and every step and works on back up plans to ward off imagined disaster, always forgetting that photography is rarely a life-or-death undertaking).
I decided to add camera inventory I could use for future giant blow ups. I did some quick research, looked at my potential budget and all the vectors crossed at intersection of resolution/cost/no "AA" filter and track record. I rushed up to Precision Camera and bought a Nikon D7100 and some extra batteries.
I bought a 50mm 1.8G, repurposed my Nikon 55mm f2.8 Micro and also grabbed a very well reviewed 85mm 1.8G. With that selection, a 35mm and a couple of zooms I had a kit that I felt was a good candidate for high res, high enlargement imaging. Should I have bought a full frame camera instead? Maybe. But at ISO 100 and 200 (my usually studio ISO settings) I sure doubt that I would see much difference. Certainly third party tests didn't show much (if all all) difference.
Since buying the camera I've done back and forth comparisons with the GH4 and I'm relieved to find that the GH4 is within a nano-whisker of the level of detail and, with the X lenses (35-100 and 12-35) is, overall, very competitive with the Nikon. Finding that out meant additional rationalizations would be needed to justify keeping the Nikon (beside the fact that some clients seem comforted by tradition). The one I settled on was flash performance. Yes, the Nikon has more accurate exposure in flash modes than does the Panasonic. But is that reason enough to keep it considering the few times per year I use on camera or slightly off camera flash anymore? Maybe, but I'm pretty sure I can sort out the Panasonic flash situation, given time...
At any rate I decided to use the Nikon D7100 with the 85mm lens to make the 100 portraits I'd been hired to do yesterday and the day before. We'd be working in a makeshift studio in a large training room at the client location and doing everything with studio flash. The camera seemed appropriate given its crispy file rendition, its double card slot which allowed me to shoot 2200+ raw images to one SD card while simultaneously writing smaller Jpeg files to the second card slot for quick web gallery images. The battery life is really good and the magazines and web sites all say that the PD autofocus of the camera is fast and sure even under low light...
I worked with assistant, Amy, the past two days and we worked together as though we'd practiced... The white background was lit within a quarter stop all the way across. It was neatly framed by two large, black flags just out of the camera's view. We were doing a very particular style which will be subjected to lots of post production so our main light was a large beauty dish covered with diffusion.
The camera was set up and meter readings taken everywhere. In fact, we metered at the start of every session. We also did a custom white balance each morning---just to be sure. It should have been so easy...
First issue. While the camera and lens say f8 the light absorption of the optical system is probably two or three tenths of a stop. It's hard to evaluate that on the rear screen (which always looks cheery and perky!!!) but when you pull files into a raw converter it's pretty obvious. Since there's no review in the finder (where the image would be protected from ambient light contamination and screen reflections) you really are at the mercy of histograms while in the field and I find that the histograms are calibrated to keep jpegs from blowing highlights which means that relying upon the histograms in cameras means darker raw files. Not that big of an issue at ISO 100 or 200 as there is a ton of headroom in the raw files from the magical Sony or Toshiba sensor. But still it's an extra pain in the butt.
With a well set up GH4 you would see the disparity between measured light and light on the sensor immediately in the post review in the EVF, along with info about aperture and shutter speed settings. Not so on the Nikon. When I stopped to bring up a review at one point I mis-used the four way control on the back of the camera and inadvertently changed the f-stop by 1/3 stop and the shutter speed by 1/3 stop. I didn't catch the mistake until our next break but there really wasn't much change on the camera's rear screen, only on the computer monitor back at the studio. On the GH4 the exposure change would have been immediately apparent on the EVF. And the f-stop and shutter speed are constantly shown on my rear screen between shots. Not so on the Nikon. If your camera is at eye level on a tripod you cannot see the top window with its indications and you can only see the technical information if you go into the preview mode and then toggle the view to see more information. Operator controls seem crucial to basic photography and at this juncture the EVF just spanks the hell out of the OVFs for relevant control.
I haven't really thought about camera buffers since the days of the Nikon D100 and the Fuji S2 but man oh man does the D7100 ever come crashing against its buffer again and again. I initially had the camera set for lossless compressed raw files at 14 bits with lens distortion correction enabled. As I hit the buffer again and again one after the other settings were compromised. First I switched to lossy compression of the raw files. Then I switched to 12 bits. Then I turned off the distortion correction. Even then I would still hit the buffer when shooting quickly to catch a fleeting expression or gesture. Yes, I know it's 24 megapixels. Maybe that's why Canon lets you choose raw image sizes....
But if you never used a better camera it might not bother you. Using the GH4 means super fast processing and a much deeper buffer. It's very raw to hit the wall with that camera. The immediate comparison was eye opening.
Next issue. All of the moonlights we use have 100 watt modeling lights. While the illumination is sufficient to quickly focus a new GH4 the D7100 seemed to struggle a bit to lock focus in the same basic light levels and it was a bit frustrating. Since this metric (fast focusing) is the crux of all arguments in favor of traditional camera designs I was more than a little stumped. Maybe it's a sinister case of marketing over reality. Maybe the only thing DSLRs really do well in the focus realm is AF-C. They sure aren't a step up for in-studio AF-S....
At one point yesterday I was photographing a person who was easily six feet, six or seven inches tall. Remember, I'm the optimum height, five foot eight. I stood on my little Pelican case and stretched but it was clear that I needed to use live view in order to really be able to frame and shoot the images well. After years of using great live view in Panasonic, Olympus and Sony cameras the comparison with the Nikon live view was-----stark. Really stark. Snail focus. Long lags. Crappy live view boost. Took me right back to the early, ugly days of digital. I got the shot but I was miffed at the low level of tech being delivered by my camera.
So, bitch, bitch, bitch. The bottom line is that the files are very pretty, we're experienced enough to catch and work around the issues and the job got done with little muss and fuss. And the files are very, very good. Nice tonality, no burned highlights, great dynamic range. But all in all, for the use in mind I will reach for the GH4 or the Olympus EM-5 next time. Even if only for the lovely implementation of live view on the rear screen for photographing tall people. I believe that, at ISO 200 with good lenses on both cameras, both would exceed all quality parameters with ease and headroom to spare. So why not work with a camera that makes shooting easier and more fluid?
Will I keep the Nikon and the flurry of lenses I've gathered in? Hmm. I guess so. Unless you want them... But it's hard to imagine any shoot other than a flash centric one or an "ultimate possible resolution" one in which it would make more sense than an m4:3 camera.
I'm actually anxious to get my hands on a test body of the NX 1 from Samsung as it might meld the best of both worlds when it comes to handling and resolution. I've never tried on camera flash with a Samsung camera so I would guess that's a whole other adventure.
I imagine the only sensible reason for Nikon to continue to make traditional cameras lies in the low light performance and much narrower depth of field of the full frame sensor. It get the appeal of the full frame cameras having owned six different varieties but I find it interesting and revealing that all six of them are in someone else's hand right now while I have a rich bounty of smaller, EVF enhanced cameras that seem to swirl back to me over and over again. While Sony's A7 series is a bit compromised it is my idea of one path to the future of photography. (Fix the shutter noise, the focus speed, the vibration issue and the battery issues, please!!!).
I'm interested to hear from those of you out there who have gone in the other direction: from EVFs and mirror-free back to the older technology. What drove you to accept all the compromises of the older technologies? What is it about mirrored cameras that has their claws in you? I'm not really very interested in hearing how much people who've never extensively used EVFs love their viewfinder cameras. That's like people who've never tasted chocolate protesting their love for brussel sprouts instead. Really though, I change my mind occasionally. I like the "romance" of the older tech. It also reminds me of twenty or so years of shooting. Nothing wrong with it if you really like it....
Just a note. I'll be out of town from tomorrow till the end of the weekend and posts might be light. The only electronics I plan to take on the trip are contained in my iPhone and I'm not about to start writing long posts on that. If you see me in Saratoga Springs be sure to flag me down and say hello.
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