3.15.2015

Past Due Reviews. The first in a series. The Nikon D610. Executive Summary. At $1295 it's a cheap and wonderful entry to full frame photography.

#Austin  #SXSW Downtown.

 I'm writing a review here on the Nikon D610 camera. I'm writing it not because I think you should run out and buy one or because it happens to be the best in any one category (it's not) but because it's an affable camera, I enjoy shooting it and, so far, it's been generating images that look really good to me. It's already been superseded by the D750 camera which is largely the same but in some ways "better." But it remains in the Nikon product line up and the price of the camera seems to have stabilized around $1495 which I think is a good value for the quality of the sensor and the particular feel of the camera. 

I shoot with several different cameras and I have reasons for every choice. I have a Nikon D810 when I am after perfect images with unassailable resolution and dynamic range. Lately I've been shooting the Olympus EM-5 camera more often since I discovered both how much I like the black and white setting (with the green filtration) and how nice video can look in black and white when you use the image stabilization offered by that camera in the video mode. But these days I grab the D610 as my personal shooting camera for portraits and street shooting. More and more I've come to value a camera that's a nice balance rather than a tool with which to pursue "perfection." 

Let's jump into the D610 and see why I enjoy using one. 



I'll start by saying that the enjoyment of any camera is likely contextual. At whatever point we entered the enjoyable field of photography (almost always as an enthused amateur...) we embraced the tools that were available to us at the time and those became our norms and baselines. If you came "of age" in the time of smartphones you are probably most comfortable with cameras that have a small size profile and are loaded with features and apps. If you discovered cameras while toiling your way through college back in the 1970's or 1980's you probably picked up a single lens reflex camera like a Canon AE-1 or a Nikon FM or FE and you learned everything you needed to know on one of those cameras. When you choose cameras now all of that context and personal history comes into play in a different way for each person. It just makes sense; how else could Samsung think there would be a market for their highly connectible Galaxy NX camera while Nikon trolls for users from earlier eras with their Df camera.  Kirk's rule of camera appreciation: The first camera with which you make really good nudes of a beautiful girlfriend will be remembered as the most magical camera. 

I am inquisitive and fickle when it comes to buying and using photographic equipment. It's a blessing and curse. There is so much I love about the smaller, electronic viewfinder cameras like the Olympus Pen line. I've waded through nearly every generation of those little gems except the most recent and I've found lots to like in each evolution. But it's sometimes hard to shake my own history and the context in which I tumbled into photography. It was a time when Canon, Nikon and Pentax had a really good handle on how to make trouble free, single lens reflex cameras that were small enough to be "carry everywhere cams" and stout enough to handle motorcycle rides, a few falls from bicycles and the general disregard of gear that goes along with youthful enthusiasm. 

For nearly the entire decade of the 1980's my camera of choice was the Nikon F3 which was a no nonsense SLR that was built to a high standard and had a luscious viewfinder. That camera, and a handful of lenses, followed me everywhere. I'd arrive at class, on a date or at an event with the camera, complete with a 50mm f1.4, and a pocket full of rolls of Tri-X film.  My socks might not have always matched but the camera and its attendant paraphernalia were always set and ready.

In the ten years or so that I used that camera I had no mechanical or electrical failures. Since everything was focused manually and everything was built to a very high standard (and my eyes were younger, brighter, stronger...) there was no such thing as front or back focusing. There were no cards to corrupt, no static to crater an operating system. In short the camera became as transparent, over time, as water and with the few and simple controls the learning curve was largely external to the camera. It consisted of learning to breathe slowly to ensure human powered image stabilization and learning exactly when to trip the shutter. 

So now when I choose cameras I am drawn in two directions. I think things like the EVFs of the new Olympus cameras are wonderful and I love shooting with them. But I think the full frame imaging still draws me because that's what was imprinted on my shooting psyche in those formative years of mechanical camera handling. I like the image stabilization of the new cameras but I also like the ability to use old, classic lenses as they were designed to be used. Classics like the 105mm f2.5 and the ever present 50mm f1.4's. In many ways I am as much a relic as the relics I crave using. This dichotomy is probably why I own cameras at both ends of the spectrum. I have full frame, tradiitional (as traditional as a digital simulacrum of a film camera can be....) cameras and at the other end of the short spectrum I have four of the EM-5 cameras and love them. I'm currently maneuvering to trade in the Nikon APS-C cameras in order to add the EM-5-2 just for its upgraded video capabilities coupled with its improved I.S. in video...

But lately the Nikons are what I've been shooting for most of my work and even more recently the D610 is the camera I pick out to have swinging at my side as I walk around and take snapshots of life swirling all around me. So why?

The body. The D610, along with it's close predecessors and the DX 7000 series, really does fall into the Goldilocks meme for me. It's big enough that the body sits in my hands perfectly when I'm shooting. Just perfectly. That helps me hold it in the most correct fashion to stabilize the platform and get into making the shot. The increase of landscape square inches over something like an EM-5 or smaller camera means that the buttons and knobs are more accessible and less finicky. At the opposite end of the spectrum the D610 seems absolutely miniature compared to something like the D4s or even the older Kodaks we routinely used to shoot with. That makes the D610, while not a small camera, bearable to carry around all day over one's shoulder on a regular strap.  The body is as weatherproofed as anything else and the whole package feels very well made. 

The finder. This camera is a traditional DSLR with an optical finder. I think that is the camera's one weakness. It would be so cool to have everything just as it is on this body but for Nikon to have put in a really high definition electronic viewfinder. To be able to shoot with the full frame and still be able to pre-chimp everything would be glorious. But it's not that. The D610 has a very good optical viewfinder. It's not as bright and snappy as the viewfinder in the D810 but it is very good. My one gripe is that the diopter range is more limited. I am right at the edge of the minus 2.0 diopter adjustment and I was hoping for a minus 3.0 so I could adjust as my near vision falters further. Some of this is my vanity. Some of this is my comfort zone born of decades of working experience. I don't want to succumb to having to wear glasses to operate the camera; any camera. But after we crest the minus 2.0 mark it's either inevitable or all the -2.0 cameras get spun off in favor of ones with more range. (Incidentally, this is why I never bought the original Fuji Pro-1 even though I was ready with cash in my hot little hands----the camera had no diopter adjustment!!! Insane.).  

I know many of you adore the optical viewfinders but I'm always thinking these days of using my cameras to shoot video so I'm always weighing the features that will help in that regard. Having an EVF means shooting video in broad daylight without dragging around either a monster big loupe for the rear LCD screen or an even bigger circus dragging around an HDMI monitor and attendant monitor shade. It would be nice to hold the camera at eye level with my occipital bone pressed to the body for stability and my eye seeing an image not degraded by stray light. It will come. It's inevitable from a manufacturing and cost savings angle. 

All that said, I am able to change gears and go right back to the days of the F3 when I pick up this camera. The optical viewfinder is just fine for street shooting and portrait work...

Menus. If you can master either the Olympus Pen or the Fuji X menus you should have no issues at all getting very much at ease with the Nikon menus. They are largely straightforward and logical. There are no mystery icons and there is enough customization possible to keep most rational people happy. I find endless customization only works for people who have not memorized lots and lots of other facts and concepts in their lives and who therefore have lots of empty space to fill up and play around with. When I dive into various nefarious submenus and reassign this function to that button and then give all five buttons a second function but only if some other knob is engaged I fall down into a patch of peyote like madness that twists the mind and hampers one from ever truly mastering the camera as a tool. It's like learning every single menu item in PhotoShop. Yes, you will have mastered the menu but most probably you will have sliced years off the effective use of your brain in the service of learning many things that are largely unnecessary. But let's not get into it. Some people can quote every line in every episode of the TV series, Star Trek, and they see some value or happiness in that achievement. To me that is the same as learning every customization step on certain cameras. As useless for the most part as it is annoying to all those photographers in the surrounding area who have to hear about it.

The D610 menus are a continuation of the menus I saw in the D1x, the D100, the D200, the D2X and the D7X00 series. That sort of continuity is useful to people who don't like to change systems or who like to bounce back and forth between systems. Final word about menus from me: The original Sony Nex 7 menu was obviously built as a punishment for shop lifting or perhaps accidental murder. In certain countries a convicted party might be required to use that menu for the rest of their lives to, in part, pay for their crimes. We have nothing like that sort of torture in the D610.

Focusing. The D610, like the D600 and the D7000, is not problem free. Focusing action slows down as the prevailing light falls. At normal light levels where I can shoot at ISO 400,  f 2.8 at 1/60th of a second the camera does fine. At really low light levels with lower subject contrasts the focus falters. It almost always achieves its goal at the end but that end may be five or ten seconds later. Sorry. That's just the way this one is. I'm old fashion (see the idea of historical context:above) when it comes to AF. I rarely set the camera for anything other than central focusing target in the S-AF mode. I push down the shutter button half way until the image flops into focus and then push the rest of the way down to make the photo. In that mode the camera generally works well. In the past few days I've been trying to get used to a mode of focusing and shooting that all of my long time, never switching, Nikon user friends use. You use the AF-on button on the camera to start and stop the AF process and then the shutter button is unfettered from focusing responsibilities and is solely concerned with, well, operating the shutter. 

The non-deadly fly in this ointment is the lack of an AF-on button on this particular camera (it must live wherever they exiled the 1/8000th shutter speed to) and so you must dive into the (logical) camera menu and reassign a button to make this all work (now I'm starting to sound like an Olympus user....). I've reassigned the AF-on function to the ae-l, af-l lock button and this method actually works quite well when I remember that I've done this and that the camera not focusing when I mash on the shutter button is not an indication that something is broken...  I guess time and training will work out the kinks.

With manual lenses. The camera can use a wide range of Nikon's past lenses. In fact, if you can find someone to preform the "Ai conversion" on almost any old Nikon lens you can use it with "A" and "M" functionallity, including metering, on the D610. This is a big plus, especially if you are part of the cult of users who believe that the hand built, hand adjusted optics in metal casings with ultra-smooth focusing rings and hard stops at infinity and the close focus distances are indeed better in just about every way than the newer AF lenses.  But you will have some issues getting sharp focus because the focusing screens in the new AF cameras are optimized for brightness rather than manual focusing acuity. 

I have two workarounds that I use and it depends on which lens and under what conditions I am shooting as to which method I use. The first method, which works well because the lenses have clearly marked distance scales and the focus settings are repeatable. In this method we fall back on the idea of hyperfocal distances and preset distance estimation. In other words take a gander at your subject and estimate how far away they are, then set the focus distance to that number on the lens, make sure you've chosen an aperture that gives enough depth of field and then fire away. 

The second method works best on a tripod but can be workable with a handheld camera and it consists of going into live view and enlarging the image and then focusing with the help of the magnification. Then either shoot your image or exit live view, recompose and shoot your image. 

The guesstimation method works really well with wide angle lenses. Yesterday was sunny in Austin and I was out and about shooting with the D610 and my favorite MF wide angle, the 25-50mm f4 Nikkor. I set the camera to manual and set the exposure to 1/125th of a second shutter speed and f8 or f11. I used the auto ISO, which works in manual, and let the camera ride the ISO for correct exposure. If I shot at the 25mm focal length and used f11 I could set the lens to ten or fifteen feet and have enough depth of field to cover from about 7 feet to infinity. The longer the focal length the smaller the hyperfocal window but really, with a little practice it's a piece of cake... Most of the images below were done that way. Amazing system in its utter simplicity. The camera and lens do all the heavy lifting leaving the photographer free to instantly react. What fun. 

The live view method is for all those times when I have the leisure of working on a tripod or when I am using a very fast, long lens and need to absolutely nail focus with the aperture wide open. A classic example is the Rokinon 85mm f1.4. It's a manual focus lens. The d.o.f. wide open and within ten feet is narrower than we actually think. If you want to shoot an optic like that wide open, especially in chancy light, you'd do well to click into live view, enlarge the frame, focus exactly on something with good contrast and then click back out into the regular shooting mode. As long as you don't change subject to camera distance you can shoot with that setting and get good results. 

Those are the methods I use when I really want the focus to work just right but I'm not above using the "green dot" confirmation method. With the attributes of the older Nikon lens set in the menu I often rely on just focusing and letting the camera tell me when it guesses that we're focuses. Not on client shoots but on my own dime.. It works for a large percentage of images. 

Handling. With any caveats about focusing outlined above taken into consideration the camera, overall, is delightful to shoot with because it is very responsive. If you are a speed demon the regular full frame shooting rate is about 5.5 frames per second. This is just fine for real life even if it's not what we might see on TV as an example of "professional photography". Shooting 5.5 frames a second in raw is just another way of ensuring that you'll have lots of useless work to do after the fact. I generally use my cameras in the single shot mode. I wait for the smile. I don't want to get smiles from people who are secretly laughing at me for pointing my camera at them and triggering it at maximum intrusion motor drive mode. But since nothing every stays the same I have been working with another mode on the drive dial ( which surrounds the mode dial and is eminently sensible in terms of layout...) which is the new continuous silent setting. It's about 3 fps but it's marginally quieter than the regular settings and I am still reflexively agile enough to lift my finger after one or two shots... I like this setting better than the single silent setting which holds off on the mirror recharge until you release the shutter button. I don't really appreciate the two step mode...

When speaking about handling I think it's fair to discuss battery life. I praised the photo gods when I bought both the D610 and the D810 because they take the same batteries as the entire 7x00 series and lots of other recent Nikon models, including the D600, D800, D810. What a boon to be able to use the same battery across so many cameras!  The batteries tend to give me about 1200 to 1500 exposures but remember, I'm shooting in moderate temperatures and I'm pretty sparing in the use of the review function. It's good but not great battery life. When I shot with the older D2X with it's much larger battery it was not unusual to shoot five or ten assignments and as many as 4,000 shots on one charge. 

I bring along three batteries with me when I'm using the either the D610 or the D810 on assignment. 
I generally come home with the same battery I started with still in the camera but I'm sure from time to time I'll be rewarded for my paranoia when it comes to back up units. 

Where it is not paranoia is battery use when shooting video. I am spoiled by the Panasonic GH4 which seems to be the video battery champion. When shooting an industrial I routinely get nearly two hours of almost continuous use out of a standard battery which is not physically larger than the Nikon battery. Don't know what the difference is but I suspect that some energy goes to keeping the Nikon mirrors up during the exposure.   Speaking of video....

Video.  I have mixed feelings about the video capabilities of the D610. Like most of its Nikon peers (not the D750 or D810!!!) the codec or the way the video is written is a pretty low information stream of about 24 megabits per second. Compare that to an average of 50 mbs on the new Olympus EM-5 mk2 or 72 mbs in its All-I format. The Panasonic GH4 can give you a whopping 200 mbs, written in camera to a fast, fast card. 

The video in the Nikon is distinctly "last generation" or "first generation" video compared to the feature sets in the Sony RX-10 and the Panasonics. But many times we focus a bit too much on ultimate performance instead of story telling so you have to keep everything in perspective. What bugs me though are the little operational gotchas that add up to basically a sucky user experience. 
While the camera (D610) had both a microphone jack ( stereo 3.5mm) and a headphone jack and the audio levels can be set manually they can only be set before you start recording and cannot be adjusted during video shooting. Likewise there is no ability for the operator to adjust headphone volume when monitoring audio. Finally, based on my use of four different microphones I find the audio preamplifiers in the camera to be noisy. They have a consistent level of higher frequency hiss. The old work around, which I do not have to use on the GH4, is to route the audio through an external digital audio recorder and pull sound off the line out of the recorder and into the D610. Set the D610 audio levels to manual and ride levels on the separate recorder. 

But with all of that as a disclaimer the reality is that the camera can perform some of the duties I need a video camera for well enough. I use my cameras to record a lot of interviews where I have control over microphone placement ( a closer microphone = less noise + better sound), room noise, subject movement and lighting. In a controlled environment, and especially with lower ISOs. A little time spent adjusting the adjustments in your chosen profiles also helps. I'd back off the sharpening just a bit and maybe the saturation as well.

This camera model doesn't have the new FLAT profile for video that's found on the D810 and D750 but there is a strong rumor that the profile may be added via a firmware update sometimes this year. The FLAT profile has also made its appearance on the newly announced DX D7200. 

One last design glitch on the D610 is that the aperture on a lens cannot be electronically changed while the camera is shooting video. You have to exit the live view mode to change the aperture and then re-enter the movie mode. This is a tragic oversight for some users but within the sweet ISO range you can make 1/3 stop changes in ISO while shooting to get the same exposure control without really effecting the quality or consistency of the files. Many of the lenses I use on the camera are older, manual lenses and one has full control over the aperture settings even when shooting. Even better are the Rokinon Cine lenses which have infinitely variable apertures with NO click stops. You can open and close the apertures with reckless abandon. 

A number of the issues with the camera in video mode can be remedied if you are willing to add some complexity and storage costs to your projects. To wit, the camera can output absolutely clean, 8 bit 4:2:2 video to an outboard digital video recorder like the Atomos Ninja Star. The recorder and one 64 gigabyte (new format) memory card will run you about $400 but it brings top notch video into the system by side stepping the baked in compression that the camera uses when writing video to the internal memory card. You can set up the Ninja Star to write the files in various forms of ProRes, including ProRes LT and have a much more detailed and robust file to edit with. It also does away with the 20 minute time limit to each video segment. But if you are adding both an audio recorder and a digital video recorder to your mix you may be better off financially getting a GH4 for video projects or seeing how the video handling and file quality of the more expensive and newer Nikon cameras such as the D750 and D810 are. My experiences lead me to believe that I can use the D810 without the add-on and get everything I want for web and presentation video. If I were shooting for broadcast I would still add a video recorder to the mix to get the better looking, uncompressed files. 

What the Nikons and Canons don't do well when pressed into service as video cameras is decent, decisive focusing in AF and any sort of real time image stabilization. In fact, the stabilization issue is why I am looking at adding the Olympus EM-5 typ2. My shot tests with the camera in video mode and the IS engaged show a stability that trumps any hand held rig up to a real steady cam, is better than most people can get with a monopod and is handhold able for long shots. It would make a nice adjunct to the stuff I have now.

Lenses. The real reason for me to shoot with some of these Nikon cameras is to use the Nikon lenses in the way I learned to use them many years ago. I think some of the Nikon MF lenses are very good. The 105mm f2.5, the 55 macros, the 25-50mm f4, the 50mm f1.2, and even the older 85mm f1.8. While all of these lenses can be easily adapted to smaller format cameras the whole point in my argument about context is that this adaptation moves the lenses out of the visual style I have hardwired into my brain and makes them, for the most part, unable telephoto optics. 

Final Thoughts. I've spent months now with the D610 that I bought in late December of 2014. I've shot corporate portraits, personal portraits and touristy shots around town. I like the camera very much because it reminds me and helps me channel the way I shot when I was still learning and so emotionally engaged in photography. That's one person insight into why people prefer one camera over another. But from a rational point of view the camera really delivers good images. The sensor is the second or third best rated of all the sensors at DXO database and gives the user (me) great color, extremely ample dynamic range and see-in-the-dark ISO performance  unrivaled in nearly every other camera on the market. 

I paid $1249 for the camera. A small fraction of what I've paid for other full frame cameras. For that price I don't have to treat this camera as a precious object. I don't worry about taking it out in foul weather or leaving it under the front seat of the car while I go shopping or meet with someone downtown. I can shoot and, more importantly, frame shots as I did when I first learned to photograph. It's a sensibility that is hammered into my consciousness by thousands of hours of shooting and printing. The camera is nearly perfect for me because it isn't perfect. It's just an all around good camera. It's uncomplicated. It's accessible. It's comfortable. 

If I need the highest performance I can reach for some other camera. But this one is a great back up for the D810 when shooting stills. It's an acceptable back-up for shooting most kinds of video. But it's quickly as comfortable as an old pair of running shoes or a pair of swim goggles that don't ever leak and that's exactly what I was looking for. Not perfection, just comfort and reliability.

disclaimer: I bought this camera from a vendor on Amazon with my own funds. The camera and lenses I've written about were all purchased from various retailers and there is no connection, financial or otherwise, between me and Nikon. I am not selling Nikon cameras, don't give a rat's ass whether you buy one or not. This is not an "either/or" column about why you should choose one system over another. Just my thoughts about the D610. I'd probably feel much the same about a Canon 5D mk xxx.



#SXSW gets underway. Lots of a signage.

This is the alley behind Esther's Follies on Sixth St. They just painted these
fresh murals. I think the murals are a lot of fun. 
I love public art.

Esther's Follies.

Esther's Follies.

Cops and folks out on Sixth Street. 

What are the ramifications of chest mounted iPads with interactive apps?
A new breed of intimate advertising.


Festival Tourism.

The signage one the gentleman near the center of the frame is another iPad.
Drink specials: "Three Dollar Hurricanes."



Together at #SXSW

Like most modern cameras the D610 can do it's own raw processing, in camera.
I took this as a test and processed the image in the camera then I came 
back to the studio and tried processing the same raw file in Lightroom.
The camera version is much, much better. Crap. Something 
new to worry about.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I took this as a test and processed the image in the camera then I came back to the studio and tried processing the same raw file in Lightroom.
The camera version is much, much better. Crap. Something new to worry about."


Why would you worry about something like that? After all, there are alternatives for Lightroom.
If the version cooked in-camera is better than the one cooked in LR, that is telling something about LR, isn't it.

So, Adobebots need to start tweaking some more, while others can choose to use a better tool for their raw files and use the extra time for something else. Or cook the shots in-camera. Suppose it's a lifestyle choice.

Peter Wright said...

You gave me some insights into why I have the cameras I have: I discovered cameras in the 1960s, when I got a 120 folder (I now have a Fuji GF670 120 folder). Then I got a german interchangeable lens rangefinder – Agfa not Leica (I now have a Leica MP and its digital version the M240), Then I moved into SLR land with a Pentax MX (I now have a Nikon FM3A and F6, with manual focus lenses. D750 to come.) All is now explained!

Kirk, perhaps you should take up psychoanalysis? Just don't get out our old girlfriend pictures, now frozen in eternal youth, to share with your wife!

Carlo Santin said...

I think it is hard to find a bad camera in 2015 from any manufacturer. The new lenses are all pretty good also despite the efforts of people on some sites to prove otherwise. Megaipxel counts and high ISO usability are more than acceptable now for pretty much all users. If anything I suffer from choice paralysis. I simply dont know what to choose for my next body upgrade. So many cameras, so many good choices, so little money. So I have decided to invest a little in lighting and not worry about cameras so much.

Dave said...

I still have Nikon full frame in the back of my mind. Old addictions are the hardest to break. While I'm loving the little A6000 the RX10 does such a nice all around job with my video that I can see myself selling it at a profit and making the RX10 & D610 my lightening and thunder combo. Just slap my 50mm on and go. Hmm... I still have the 85 in the living room. Dammit Kirk you are the devil! :)

neopavlik said...

I'm enjoying my D600 too.
It's my "serious business" as an amateur camera.

I got a very cost effective Vivitar battery grip for it and was over the moon because the vertical shutter and knobs work absolutely perfect.

New D610s are currently available at certain sellers offering a free battery grip as well (Nikon and/or Vello variants )