Sky and tree. The Sigma 50mm Art lens + the Nikon D610. My review of a camera body that's nearly discontinued.

When I first got interested in photography, back in college, the choice of cameras didn't seem nearly as extensive as it does now. I don't mean that there were fewer brands or fewer models to choose from but that for every serious beginning photographer no  matter which brand you decided on you were +98% likely to choose a model that used 35mm film. Leica M, Canon G17, Nikon F2, Canon F1, Olympus OM-1, even the old Pentax Spotmatic were all using the same, spooled, 35mm film and creating negatives and slides that were 24 by 36mm in size.

To be sure, there were outliers who were using medium format cameras and a few precocious beginners who went straight to the large format cameras, but a walk across campus or a stroll through town would quickly convince you that almost the entire world was working in the same basic format size. There was also no such thing as the 18 month product cycle with most of the SLR cameras. Nikon updated their professional camera body about once every ten years which generally created an even stronger demand for their previous models. Canon extended their line with more gusto but even they were measured when it came to changing their flagship product.

The uniformity of format even extended to the most basic point and shoot cameras. The Olympus Trip35s and later, the Stylus cameras, tiny though they were, still took the familiar 35mm rolls of Fuji, Agfa and Kodak film. Another commonality was the fact that the focal lengths of the lenses had the same "meaning" across all lines of 35mm cameras. A 105 mm on a big, pro camera had exactly the same angle of view as the 105 mm setting on the zoom on the lowliest point and shoot.

I owned a number of different 35mm camera bodies from Nikon, Canon, Leica and Contax. The common thread between most of them was the uniformity of construction and operation. The bodies were all built from solid metal, had a certain heft in your hand and all worked in much the same fashion. From a quality point of view all of the top cameras from the top brands were equally capable but just as today there were rabid fans of the optics from each brand.

It is against this background that I select and embrace the cameras that I use in the business. I am used to the DSLR form factor since it is the direct descendant of the many cameras I have used over the years in the SLR form factor. While I keep pushing and pulling and stretching the various mirrorless cameras with their addictive EVFs I seem to have come full circle to re-embrace the capabilities of the traditional cameras. (Note: I have not sold or given away the Olympus EM5.2 cameras and use them extensively for my personal work!). The primary reason for me to use the full frame Nikon cameras that I do use is for the quality of their sensors and the more rapid retreat of focus with fast lenses.  The newest Sony sensors are visibly better than previous generations, and also better at the ISOs that I am used to using when compared to the Canon
cameras I have owned. I do want to be clear though that any of the cameras from Nikon and Canon, and others, since about the time of the Nikon D2x are entirely adequate to make great images, regardless of brand.

I started toying with the idea of getting back into the bigger cameras over a year ago when I was working on a project here in the studio. The clients were loving the images coming out of the (extremely capable) Panasonic GH4 and I was totally sold on the idea that I could compete in the advertising imaging marketplace with the smaller sensor cameras. Then the client mentioned that we needed to use the images to make posters. 24 by 36 inch posters. In the end I was able to use DXO's great software to up-rez the 16 megapixel images up to the required size and deliver a good product but the whole situation triggered my anxiety and shook my gear self-confidence. Did I need to prove something by sticking with the smaller sensor cameras? My clients aren't part of the debate between the m4:3 adherents and their full frame at any cost adversaries, all they cared about were the very best images they could get when judging the images by their client parameters. Sharp, detailed, low noise and, when necessary complete with backgrounds that slide out of focus like butter.

I could stick to my guns and use my painfully acquired skills to try and match the performance from the lower resolution sensors with their smaller pixel pitch and smaller dimensions or I could capitulate to my emotional/marketing driven need for confidence insurance and buy into what is the mainstream solution in 2nd tier markets like Austin, and central Texas. That would be the full frame, high megapixel cameras. I did what any halfway intelligent business owner would do and gave in.

I tried a few "middle road" APS-C cameras but I soon figured out that if I was going to go in I should go all the way in and glean the full advantages of the full frame cameras. I'm now shooting with a Nikon D810 for many client engagements but the camera that sucked me back into full frame this time, and the camera which I am most drawn to shoot when clients don't need over the top resolution is the inexpensive and soon to be discontinued, Nikon D610.

A tiny bit of history. A few years ago Nikon introduced a camera at the $2200 price point called the D600. The concept was great, it was a 24 megapixel, full frame camera that used the latest Sony sensor in that size. In the moment it boasted the best dynamic range of all by the D800 from Nikon. It also was one of the top performing high ISO cameras around. But it had a fatal fault! In a number of the D600 cameras the shutter famously spewed an oily residue on the sensor which built up into an almost un-cleanable mess over time. The camera also cropped, slightly, the HD video frame, but very few people cared about that. The dirt thing was death for that model. Within a year Nikon rushed out a replacement with a much improved shutter and a few other tweaks (they also fixed the HD video crop) in a new model called the D610.

In my mind this camera, the D610, was the current day evocation of all the film DSLRs I'd shot with over a span of twenty years. The menus were simple to navigate, the OVF was big and clean, the haptics were a well honed evolution of our professional cameras from the film days and the shutter sounds pretty darn good. When I came across a very clean one, lightly used, for about $1200 I bought it and started buying various lenses to shoot with it. As of this year the D610 is still in the top four sensors for overall quality in the DXO ratings of cameras sensors. It's within a gnat's whisker of the top camera, the Nikon D810. And all of that means more of everything that we want when we compete against the other people who would like our clients and our jobs.

After shooting with a D610 for half a year I bought another one at the beginning of the Summer, just a few months after also buying the D810. Why? Because I think of the D610s as my normal, professional tools and I always want two identical cameras to use on jobs. In event work and conferences I like the ease of putting a wide ranging wide to short telephoto zoom on one body and a medium to long zoom on the other. Currently I am fitting them with the 24-120mm f4G and the 80-200mm f2.8 ED. I can set the menus identically and the shooting parameters identically and shoot with the two bodies interchangeably without having to invest extra conscious thought, and without having to stop and change lenses.

The combo is a better compromise in most shooting situations than using the D810. The uncompressed, 14 bit raw files from that camera are enormous. They take a lot of resources. When I need the ultimate file I'm happy to have that camera. When I shoot video I am very happy to have that camera, but when I am shooting documentation, reportage, events, most portraits, and most street photography the lower pixel count combined with the same high dynamic range and overall image rendering provided by the D610s makes every part of the shooting and post processing steps quicker and easier. Since most deliverables to the clients are intended to be smaller than the file sizes from either camera there's no real loss in quality.  The gains are in the speed of processing and more efficient storage.

The D610 body is heavy but not overly so. If I were to take a shooting trip strictly for my pleasure I would obviously prefer the compactness and lower weight of the m4:3 cameras and lenses but when shooting most public relations and advertising jobs the cameras are traveling along with the rest of the gear, which might include a couple hundred pounds of lights, stands, modifiers and sandbags. The  additional several pounds of full frame gear would hardly be noticeable.

It's also an interesting point (at least to me) that I shoot most paid jobs with my cameras locked down on tripods. The exception is event or conference photography but even in those situations I find myself, more and more, using monopods for stabilization and to ameliorate the weight of the cameras and lenses. Conversely, with the exception of trying out the Olympus Hi-Res mode, I very rarely use the smaller cameras on tripods, preferring to think of the mirrorless cameras as we did the Leica Ms we used in the film days = stealthy, handheld, quick response cameras.

To put the camera into perspective, it's an inoffensive package that works well and delivers really nice files most of the time.

Here are the reasons I like the D610:

1. It takes the same batteries as my D810, all the other recent, semi-cool Nikons as well as my
      new, Marshall video monitor. That means I can take ten Nikon and generic batteries out in the
      field and shoot for days and days without running out of juice. About 1200 frames, give or take,
      out of one battery.

2. The control set up of the camera hasn't changed that much from my Nikon F5 to the D100, D200,
      D2x, D7100, etc. That means that I can almost always find exactly the control or menu item I
     with few frustrating moments. Many people underestimate the comfort that muscle memory with
     a camera gives you. And when I say "comfort" I mean emotional comfort. Being able to trust that,
      under pressure you will be able to operate all the functions of the camera that you need to without
      hesitation or fumbling.

3.  Dynamic Range of the sensor. It's wild times on the web these days as people trash some    
      company's cameras and tout others based on dynamic range. Just because we were able to
      get good shots with lesser performing sensors in the past is no reason not to leverage the
      bounty of the new generation of sensors available to us now. The D610 is a dynamic range
      champ. But before Nikonians get too wrapped up in the DXO numbers I have to say that the
      advantages of the dynamic range in the new Sony sensors residing in Nikon cameras is really
      only significant at ISO 800 and below (in comparison to current Canon cameras). If you are
      one of the photographers who loves shooting at ISO 3200-12,000 you likely won't see much
      difference at all in dynamic range. Fortunately for me I'm usually happiest shooting at the lowest
      ISO I can set on the camera.

4.  All Nikon Lenses. Nikon makes pretty good lenses. Even better, they've been doing so for about
      sixty years. With these Nikon D610 bodies you can use the really wonderful manual lenses (from
      the "ai" generation onward) on the cameras, and the icing on the cake is that you can tell the
      camera what focal length and what maximum aperture the lens is and the camera will allow
      unrestricted automatic exposure and metered exposures in aperture and manual modes,
      respectively. Very, very nice. Reality check though: You still have to be able to manually focus
      them and with the current finders, optimized for brightness and not acuity, you'll need to
      practice well and often. Brand equalizing disclosure: You can, with an adapter, use pretty much
      any Nikon lens with an external aperture ring on the full frame or APS-C Canon cameras as
      well but you can't use the Canon lenses on the Nikons!

5.   I like the controls and especially the button next to the lens mount that allows you to quickly
      access the focusing controls and make changes. The changes include "S" or "C" as well as
      which groups are active, etc. Finally, the "info" button on the back gives you a menu on the back
      screen that reminds me very much of the super control panel on the Olympus cameras. You can
      see at a glance what you've got set and, if you are familiar with the control layout, you can
      quickly make changes while looking at the menu.

The biggest plus for me about the D610 is that the sensor is really, really good for the kind of stuff I like to shoot with the kinds of lenses I like. And mostly those lenses are the fast 50mms, the fast 85mms and the fast 100-135mm lenses. You get maximum (unless you are ready to splash out for medium format) depth of field control with the best image quality. And with this camera having been superseded by the D750 you can purchase a basic professional full frame camera (the D610) for prices that would have seemed miraculous for this level of camera only four years ago. Seriously.

But with every camera (except the Leica M3, M4 and M6 .85ttl) there are things that bother me and that I wish were different. Obviously not deal killers, but none the less....

Here's where the D610 can be lame: 

1.  It's becomes slower and slower to lock focus as the light levels drop. I keep the AF illumination
      light off because it's annoying to my portrait subjects but if I'm shooting in lower light and using
      a hot shoe flash in an umbrella that AF can really start to hunt. The D810 is so much faster...

2.  Every once in a while the metering just goes rogue. I'll shoot something in one of the auto modes,
      Look at the review image on the back of the camera and just be amazed at how under or over
      exposed the frame is. It's a rare occurrence but it happens enough to push me to always use
      the manual mode for any shot I care about. And that's most shots. Don't know if it's a metering
     issue or a camera/lens interface issue but I know to watch for it.

3.  I used to own a Canon 5D mk2 and one of the things I really liked was being able to set smaller
      raw file sizes. Even better was the older Kodak SLR/n which allowed one to set 14mp, 6mp
      and 3mp raw file sizes without silly restrictions like the ones that accompany the 9mp raw file
      in the D810 (not "real" full on raw). I wish the D610 would allow me to set a real, half size
      raw file. God knows we don't always need all those extra pixels.

4.  The video controls on the D610 are hampered. If you want to change the f-stop on an AF lens you
      have to stop shooting, exit the video mode and change the setting and then go back into the video
      mode to start shooting again. It's crazy. While most people will tell you the video from the D810
      is head and shoulders above the D610 I think the later camera is pretty good for most of the stuff
      I like to shoot. Mostly close up interviews and close in industrial shots. And the files aren't too
      big for quick work.

5.  I'm a little pissed that the Nikon viewfinder diopter adjustment only goes to +/- two. That's
      a bit cheap in my experiences. Most good cameras give you three degrees of diopter correction
      in both directions. As we get a bit older stuff like this makes a bigger difference.

6.  I don't like the live view implementation. I can never figure out how to get the camera to show me
      exactly what the exposure will look like when I've shot the image. I must be doing something
      wrong because that's the beauty of live view in cameras like the Olympus OMDs, etc. That's
      the compelling reason for EVFs. If someone here can tell me how to track exposure in live view
      with the Nikon cameras I will be really grateful.

7.  The camera doesn't exactly have a huge buffer for raw files but truthfully, it writes fast enough so
      that I am rarely caught up short.

8.  The shutter only goes up to 1/4,000th of a second while most of the pro cameras on the market
      get you right up to at least 1/8,000th of a second. Nice to have when shooting at wide apertures,
     outside.  And the shutter is noisier than I'd like for discreet shooting.

To be fair, the D610 emulates the best of the film cameras I grew up with and, if I consider it just as a stills camera for the type of work I like to do and do often in my business (portraits, still life) it's perfectly capable and situated in a nice sweet spot for general work.

Why am I even writing about a cheap camera that's been mostly replaced by a newer model? Well, because it plays into the concept of sufficiency that Ming Thein talks about and it really is a great tool at a great price point that delivers class leading files right now. There will always be camera bodies to spend more money on.  My purchase of a D810 is proof of that. But my totally rational mind keeps coming back to the thought of buying cameras that are up to the tasks at hand with the least amount of investment. Not "cheap" cameras but cameras I like the feel of and the operation of.

I know the sensors will take another jump up soon. The introduction of the BSI full frame sensors from Sony is the start. But I also know that it's nice to jump off the endless product upgrade cycle for a little while and to do so with cameras that are likable and in many ways still comfortably ahead of the competitors for the work that I do. In my mind $1200 for a like new, full frame body that feels nice in the hand and offers sensor performance that puts it in the top five of current 35mm full frame models is a logical and rational bargain. At these prices I can afford two. I can shoot in the same style as I did in the film days, with a body dedicated to each lens. And that's worth something to me.

Now, what about that lens I keep harping on? The Sigma 50mm Art...

So, the real advantages of full frame sensors, apart from their high ISO performance, is the way things go out of focus. I call it the defocusing ramp. As the dimensions of sensors get bigger and the angle of view of lenses stay the same the plane of sharp focus drops off over shorter and shorter distances in front of and behind the point of actual focus. Compare the steep incline of defocus ramp in medium format lenses as compared to full frame lenses and you'll see that at the same angle of view and the same f-stop the bigger format has a much quicker transition from in focus to out of focus. It's a look. And it's a look a lot of people (and a lot of clients) really like.

To get the most convincing defocused look in 35mm images you need to use the fastest aperture you can, commensurate with getting the things you do need to be in focus in focus. There are tons of fast 35mm lenses out in the market place but the problem with most lenses is that the wide open aperture sharpness and resolution performance of many of them isn't very good. In the quest for extremely shallow depth of field the use of lesser lenses means you are constantly compromising sharpness and contrast in the pursuit of that sliver of "in focus" subject. For casual work it's not really that big of an issue but if you have your heart set on narrow depth of field and high sharpness and contrast you have some work cut out for you, both in execution and, before that, in lens selection.

I've owned a lot of 50mm lenses and some are better than others. Some of the worst ones I've owned were Canon and Nikon's recent 50mm f1.4 lenses while some of the better performers, at least in the Nikon line, have been the 50mm f1.8s. After using most lenses (including the Zeiss 50mm zf 1.4) I pretty much gave up using them at their maximum apertures and routinely started using them at f2.8. It works for most stuff but sometimes you really do want to push the envelope, especially if you have a very high resolution camera at your disposal.

On a whim I bought the Sigma 50mm Art lens. I had heard lots and lots of good things about the lens and probably the thing that struck me was the legend in the market that it was even sharper in the center of the frame at f1.4 than the $4,000 Zeiss Otus 55mm f1.4. I wanted to try that. I wanted to see what very narrow depth of field coupled with very high lens performance looked like. In a word? Wonderful. The Sigma really performs, rendering a very sharp and very narrow slice of anything you point it at (the closer the subject the greater the effect).

As soon as I got tired of the look I realized the real value of buying a fast and well corrected lens lays in its performance once you stop it down a bit. All fast lenses improve when you stop them down a stop or two but if you are starting from damn good then going to f2.0 means you're getting really damn good and stopping down to f2.8 means you are just getting spectacular performance. 

Of course, all of this enthusiasm is for naught if you don't appreciate and enjoy the angle of view you get from the classic 50mm lens. Fortunately for me I love looking through viewfinders with this focal length attached. I'd almost rather have a just decent 50mm lens on my camera than a much better lens at a focal length to which I am indifferent.

When I combine the Sigma with either the D610 or the D810 I tend to think about the whole system differently than when I put the 25mm Summilux on the Olympus OMD EM5.2. The smaller package is all about speed, stealth and agility. Fast shooting. Fast subject recognition and low profile. I understand that the compromise will be in ultimate image quality but I accept it because the images are more representative of real life. But the bigger system pushes me to find images that work via a combination of subject selection combined with a higher level of image quality.

I am using the D810 and the 50mm on monopods and tripods more often and I work in a more measured and planned way. If I'm shooting portraits I'm not looking for candids I am looking for situations where I can collaborate with my subjects, slow them down, focus carefully, take maximum advantage of beautiful light.

Some days I feel like dumping everything I own except the one big camera and this one lens. I am convinced that I could spend the next ten years shooting everything I like to shoot with it. But then I come back to reality and realize that clients will always need a wide shot, always need a telephoto shot and sometimes need macros or specialty shots. The nature of being in the commercial end of photography requires a certain inventory of focal lengths to suit our client's purposes.

And that's the way I feel about it all today. Big, fast, sharp 50mm f1.4 lenses on big, high dynamic range, high image quality sensor equipped full frame cameras. It's my current intersection of need and  desire. It will probably switch back to the smaller system next week. The ration of desire between two competing solutions will always be like a sinusoidal wavelength. That's the crippling nature of desire....


Ravi Bindra said...

I am surprised you haven't tried the Nikor 58/1.4 lens? It gives (IMHO) a lovely buttery rendition to the blurred backround. I am also a fan of the Voigtländer 58mm.

Max Rottersman said...

I'm always looking at Nikons on Craigslist thinking of going back. If my eyes weren't old I would have kept a Nikon D600. The best advantage of the Sony A7 over the Nikon is the EVF (with focus zoom and peaking). The best advantage of the Nikon was how quickly it turns on and a Nikon TTL viewfinder doesn't need to "refresh". Even with the latest Sony firmware, the A7 boots up slowly (compared to Nikon). To hear that the diopter on the Nikon only goes +/- 2 makes me wonder how seriously Nikon understands its graying users.

If you've already tried an A7 (or A6000 in APS-C land), then I'm sorry I missed it. They're not built like Nikons, lack the fast menus, etc., but they are miles ahead of Nikon technologically. The Sonys are closer to the size and weight of MFT. I wonder if you subconsciously avoid Sonys (if you are) because you don't want to move away from the Olympus' that drive so much of your personal photography love.

Here's a photo I took last night the the A7 and 55mm/1.8. It looks like there was a soft-light next to the guitarist. I assure you, there was no light and in actuality, I could NOT see his face. Unlike a Nikon, I was able to focus-zoom into his face and manually focus. Yes, it takes some time to get good at moving the focus box around, etc., but once you do, I don't know how anyone could go back. If Nikon doesn't solve the focus in low light problem, which you write about, they're going to get overwhelmed because Sony keeps improving its EVF technology each year.


My experience is no MFT camera can get that kind of low-noise. There is no camera, at 50mm (effective) that you can put in your pocket. An Olympus with 25mm will need a bag too. So why not go a little larger with a full frame A7?

Yes, there are great deals in D600. There are also great deals in the original A7. I don't shoot professionaly so have no idea how much of a focus difference there is between both cameras in low light. If there is something to this EVF benefit, then you might like the Sigma 50mm Art lens even better on a Sony A7 in low light.

Don Parsons said...

How did you find the Contax in use?

I have a hankering to shoot the S2 and the 85 1.4.


Eric Rose said...

Canon G17?? Was that a slip of the fingers? Do you have one for testing? Beyond that excellent, intelligent article. I am looking at buying another FF DSLR to compliment my D700, the D610 looks like a good bet.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Eric. Bad mental typing on my part. should read QL17, the famous Canonet.

Don, The Contax S2 and the 85mm 1.4 were great although for "carry everywhere" convenience I actually preferred the small and light 85mm f2.8.

Max, I have worked with the Sony products up to the A7 quite extensively and have written about the Nex-7, Nex-6, a58, a57, a99 and a850 cameras a lot. I tried the original A7 when it came out but the shutter noise and vibration were so gruesome that I never entertained the thought of using one, even for a minute. It's is only now with the upcoming A7r-2 and the vast shutter improvements that I would consider using one.

Ravi, while I find the voitlander interesting the Nikon 58mm 1.4 holds less interest for me since it is twice the cost of the Sigma and isn't reputed to be as good.

Mark said...

I can definitely agree with all of this. I grew up shooting 50mm on a Minolta X300, and I still find 50mm the most natural focal length.

Today I mostly shoot a 50mm Sonnar on an M7, or the 50mm f1.2L on a 5DIII - both lenses regarded as soft, but for which I really like the rendering. Both are cameras which are for me extremely enjoyable to use.

The biggest problem with full-frame digital today is the size and weight of the equipment - much more than comparable film cameras and lenses. Perhaps the new Sony A7rII will address this without the compromises of the earlier A7s or the expense and unreliability of the digital Leicas.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Mark, The Sigma Art lens definitely adds too much weight to make it a top candidate for a street shooting lens to carry all day long but the D610 and D750 bodies are not that much heavier than the new Sony A7r2 which is the first of the Sony A7 series with a pleasant and acoustically responsible shutter. If I'm heading out in the heat and just shooting a 50mm for my own enjoyment I'm just as likely to use the 50mm f1.8G Nikon lens. It weighs a fraction of what the Sigma or even the fast Sony lenses weigh and so it balances out the slightly heavier bodies.

Loved shooting an M7. I wish I still had the patience (and budgets) to shoot film...

TMJ said...

"Loved shooting an M7. I wish I still had the patience (and budgets) to shoot film..."

But at present your alter-ego has a well brassed, black paint M4 with a 50mm Summilux. You could ask to borrow it.....

Frank Field said...

Kirk -- Good post - thanks! I've always enjoyed following your exploits with m4:3 cameras and (for a limited time) APS-C camera(s) (D7100). Given the centrality of portraits to your professional and personal work, I have been moderately surprised that you had not moved back to full frame earlier. As you point out, there are fundamentals of the physics of optics that will always provide shallower depth of field as sensor size increases (assuming your subjects are equally filling the frame across all sensor sizes). I am a Nikon shooter, doing mostly landscape work. I looked very carefully at some of the mirrorless APS-C offerings, especially Fuji's, before opting to move from Nikon DX to Nikon FX. While smaller / lighter certainly applies to the mirrorless body, the lenses are the same size and weight for all practical purposes (comparing Fuji's lenses for APS-C to Nikons for DX). Couple that with great dynamic range, low-light sensitivity of a full frame sensor and my existing collection of Nikon F-mount lenses and the choice of a D750 was pretty straightforward. Best regards, Frank

tgchan said...

I enjoyed the reading. I am planning to move from my k-50 to d610. It is just a hard step to make when you know you will have to spend so much money...

d610 + sigma 35mm 1.4 A

I wonder if I will make this step...