I worked with a great combination of equipment yesterday. It all worked even better than I expected.

Every working photographer (generalist) needs
a folder full of all kinds of cloud-jeweled skies.
I call it the Cloud Folder. 
Perfect when the sky 
is not cooperative.

I shudder to write anything nice about any gear anymore because as soon as I do people remember a nice article or review I wrote four or five years ago about a different brand of equipment and they go ----what is the phrase I am looking for ???? ---- oh yeah, Ape Shit Crazy.  And then the furor starts.

"Gear Head." "Fanboi." "Indecisive." "Camera addict." "Equipment butterfly." etc.

It seems, in the world of cameras, that you are only allowed to select and use one system for the entirety of your engagement with digital photography. To use different cameras is to be in some way adulterous, not only to the cameras you owned but to the other owners of that brand who may still cherish them. I think it's even more difficult to the hard core brand loyalists when people like me shoot with three or more systems in a short amount of time. Well, the critics can go pound sand because to me, using the same stuff all the time does two things: 1. It keeps you from finding out about cameras, lenses and lights that could improve your photography either by providing a new feature, or level of performance. Or, 2. It keeps you from trying cameras which have menus that sync with the way you think, or grips and control placements that fit your hands (and working methodologies) exactly.  And, B: It makes one dull and bored doing the same thing over and over again. You wouldn't eat the same food every day, would you?

Someone in the comments inferred that what I wrote a week ago about not suffering pangs of desire for new gear was already moot and, because I wrote positively about it I would be rushing off to order my Sony RX10-2 as soon as the keyboard released me. Didn't happen. May not happen. But it doesn't dampen my enthusiasm and respect for the RX10-2. Or the fact that it may be a perfect camera for some clearly defined projects. Mad that someone buys gear "too" often? Get over it.

But I'm going to go ahead and write some nice stuff about my real world engagement with a Nikon camera and two lenses. Neither of them are particularly new to me but all of them keep worming their way into my shooting consciousness because they keep delivering the goods. 

It's remarkable that I feel the need to justify writing about gear that's been on the market for at least a year at this point. But I think we've gotten far too used to people writing "reviews" after two weeks of casual shooting and faux "lab measurements." In my humble opinion most of the stuff that gets written in the heat of launch is mindless drivel. To really understand how it is to shoot a particular camera I think you have to spend time with it, and shoot it on lots of real jobs to see how it handles...how it performs. 

There are so many variables that only show up over time. If you live in Phoenix, AZ. and you review cameras there you may never learn about how a camera handles high humidity environments. If you live in Montreal, Canada and get a test camera in the dead of winter you'll likely never know if it's going to overheat in heat saturated environments. And if you are a casual, bumbling reviewer with no particular work pressure, or pressure to deliver real images for pay, you may find the access to hidden controls or contrary menus just fine and dandy. Always time to figure out the mysteries with a cup of coffee in one hand, some scones in front of you and a good view of a cute barista in your line of sight.
But trying to remember the custom WB sequence in the intense noon day sun, with the temperatures climbing into the hundreds (fahrenheit), with a nervous marketing director looking over your shoulder and a CEO in front of you, starting to grow perfect little drops of sweat across his face, is a totally different way of appraising the performance, holistically, of the camera under consideration. 

I've used the Nikon D750 on thirty eight paid assignments, to date. I've also spent many days shooting personal work with the camera and attendant lenses, and I've learned a few things about the camera. 

My copy, without micro-adjusting, nails focus with every lens I have in the bag. When I pair the D750 and any lens for the first time I test them out by shooting my inclined test target and also by shooting a close up portrait with the lens at, or near, the maximum aperture. It's a good test for the way I shoot. I prefer to use the central area in single frame AF, and use Nikon's group focus feature. The camera seems to know what I want to focus within the square formed by the four focusing boxes and I have yet to be disappointed. It is on par with the AF of the D810 and that camera is the best phase detection, DSLR autofocusing sensor camera I have ever used. 

The 24 megapixel sensor is just right for most portraits. Too much bigger a resolution (I'm looking at you, D810) and the files become too big to fit enough of onto a memory card, take up too much space on my redundant back-ups, and take too long to process and convert into useable files from the raw files.  Anything smaller than 24 megapixels and I lose the sloppy tolerance of sharpness and detail that covers my ass. 

Coming from either the Sony RX10 (1 or 2) or the Olympus cameras you'll be convinced that the battery life of the D750 is miraculous. It's not as good as the batteries in the big, pro cameras but it's better than anything in the mirrorless realm except for the remarkable, Panasonic GH4 (which I still consider one of the finest all-around cameras to grace the marketplace). 

The finder isn't "phenomenal" but it's good and workmanlike. The control layout is very logical for someone who has owned many previous generations (and concurrent generations) of Nikon digital cameras. (For those keeping score: D100, D2H, D2X, D2XS, D200, D300, D80, D610, D750, D810, D7000, D7100, D3200, as well as four different Coolpix cameras, the model numbers of which elude my frail memory...).

The camera is smaller and lighter than the D810, or even the D610s I owned. And the exposure metering has yet to fail me as long as I believe the histograms instead of the rear screen. All in all it seems to be a well done camera and is available at a fair price point. Final, positive point: The rubber eyecup has never come off. Not even come loose. 

Ho-hum. You've heard it all before, as have I. 

So, now that I'm feeling comfortable with the camera, know where all the controls are and such, I've started taking more chances and pushing the ( Ming-patented) performance envelope just a bit more and that's what I really wanted to write about. 

Yesterday I spent the quality core of the day, those wonderfully productive hours from 11 am to 5 pm, setting up in various locations on the twenty something-th floor of a new, downtown office building, making quasi-environmental portraits of lawyers. I'd love to show you a sample but, well, they are lawyers and they haven't even seen the images yet... Suffice it to say that the photographs are "awesome, amazing, artistic, cutting edge and worthy of many awards," or at least might be after I've done some post production to them. If, indeed, they do fall short I'll take the blame instead of the camera or lenses as I really did see some flashes of genius in their camps. 

Why was yesterday a departure? Well, I was using a combination of available (diffuse) daylight through floor to ceiling windows, augmented by some new LED lights to make some of the images. I used two LED lights as main lights (though plane of diffusion) for shots done deeper in the interior of the offices where there was not sunlight component AND I shot almost every frame of 950 frames with the lenses either wide open or, at the most, one stop down from the maximum aperture! Take that!!! all you experts who routinely advise shooting portraits at a dismal and boring f8.0.  (Like I did last week with the images destined for clipping paths---- oh! the inconsistency of this blog...). 

Daunting? Well, I probably wouldn't have tried this with a film camera loaded with slide film, I can tell you. The mixed light alone was like mixing an atonal musical piece from Karlheinz Stockhausen with something melodic from Ravel. It was difficult and, at times, discordant. In each situation I designated the LED lighting as my primary, or main lighting and then corrected it with a delicate touch of gel filtration to nudge their daylight balance into closer compliance with whatever was coming through the windows or beaming down from the ceilings. I did use a Chimera 4x4 foot ENG panel with a black, opaque fabric, to kill hot, direct and sharp top (overhead) lights. 

I started out using the Nikon 85mm f1.8 G lens (a nice lens but not a subject of this discussion in any primary sense). It was too short for the compression I wanted to get in some set ups and too long for the tight rooms I had to work in for other set ups. After a short time experimenting I settled on using the world's most appropriate lens for people photography, along with the Sigma 50mm f1.4 art lens. 

The primary shooting lens was the older, Nikon 105mm f2.5. It had the best combination of "perfect" focal length, good sharpness at and near wide open and an indescribable mellowness within the sharpness that is flattering when used for portraits of real (not "model") people. 

The issue with using a manual focus lens of a longer telephoto range, near its maximum aperture, is that the sliver of area in sharp focus is rather small, and with most of the AF cameras there are no optical focus aids built into the eyepiece/finder/focusing screen. Depending on the green, focus confirmation dot can be a dodgy game of hit and miss. I used the Live View with image magnification to do my initial focusing and had my subjects stand behind a chair so they would have something (the chair back) to put their hands on and also put them into a relatively stationary position. For the most part it worked very well. I probably stopped and re-checked focus more often that I should have but I have worked with medium format and large format cameras so the slowdown of shooting pace wasn't totally foreign to me. It probably kept me from overshooting. The majority of shots done with the 105mm were from about mid torso to just over the subjects' heads (composed horizontally) which is a good compromise between the ability to do flexible cropping while using enough magnification to keep depth of field narrow; just the way the client, agency and I wanted it. 

Having looked at several hundred images taken in this way today I have to report that the Nikon 105mm f2.5 is seriously sharp at f4.0 and sharp enough even wide open to satisfy most people. The only thing that really prevents me from wanting to use it wide open is my paranoia that a slight shift in the subject's stance will throw the system far enough out of focus to make the image too soft. 

All of the shots done with the 105mm f2.5 were
done on a tripod. The magnification is just too much for me to be able to hand hold a camera and lens at 1/80th of second with the assurance of 100% competency. Wouldn't it be nice if Nikon was to update this nearly perfect lens with auto focus and also VR (Nikon's indicator for image stabilization)??

The existing 100mm f2.0 DF lens is wonderful and all but you're paying a goodly sum for that extra 2/3rds of a stop which, for the most part, is unusable by portrait artists. 

I should mention that the lighting (beyond the available/ambient lighting) I was using consisted mostly of the new RPS CooLED 100 W unit, with a polished reflector that has barn doors on it to control spill to the sides, pushed through a 4x4 foot Chimera panel with two layers of half stop diffusion on it. I use it as close as I can without intruding on the frame of the photo. The light is soft and strong enough to overpower the existing interior lights when used in concert with a light blocker to fend of obnoxious, hard ceiling can lights diving in from the top. 

The other lens that I used more sparingly, but to good effect, was the Sigma Art 50mm. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record on this piece of gear but when used with the Nikon D750 or the D810 it becomes part of an amazingly capable system. For part of the shoot I was in a very small conference room that got very beautiful, diffuse, late afternoon light, from the windows. By subtracting some more of the natural fill on the opposite side of my subject's face from the window with a black flag I was able to get a great looking effect. Unfortunately, the room and the subject position didn't allow me to move back very far and even the 85mm was a bit too long. I ended up using the big 50mm at f2.0, which is 2/3rds of a stop down from wide open. 

When I looked carefully at images this afternoon I was astounded with the quality and quantity of sharp nano acuity in all the areas that were in sharp focus. The areas that were in sharp focus were the ones that corresponded exactly to where I had asked the camera to focus. We all worked together like a well oiled system. In this shooting situation I needed to lean across a big table to get the composition I wanted with the subject and so I resorted to handholding the camera and lens. At 1/160th of a second f2.0, ISO 200, I had no failures whatsoever due to shake or focus shift. It's a performance of which the camera, lens and I are very proud. We think the client will share our appreciation of this particular aesthetic. Especially since one of the principals in the firm we were photographing for is an avid and talented photographer in his own right. 

More and more I am going on assignments that involve people with just these three the lenses and leaning almost all the time on the capabilities of the D750. For the horribly linear and literal amongst you that does not mean that I now "hate" the Nikon D810 or regret its purchase. It means that I see it more as a specialty tool (and a pricey back-up for the D750). When push comes to shove, when the chips are down, when it's now or never, when we need to bring our A++ game, that's when the D810 shines. If hard drive space was unlimited I'd probably shoot with it more often. But it's nice to have two great tools in the bag that both make me smile when I shoot in the challenging performance envelope of wide open apertures. 

I've owned a lot of cameras and lenses but the D750 and the glass I've mentioned really does a nice job of keeping everything under control and looking nice. I'd buy it all again. Unless something better comes out. 

Hey, Buy a Nice Book. 

I was re-reading the Lisbon Portfolio last night. It's pretty damn fun. If you haven't bought a copy yet you should. You can tell me you don't like fiction but just as with cameras you may want to try something new; it may fit you perfectly. 


Mike Rosiak said...

Y'all got some mighty fine clouds down there in Texas. Gotta get us some of them for the Philly area. (Maybe the Pope can help out?)

Anonymous said...

You are a brilliant writer and a modern thinker. Thank you for sharing.

Ed Posthumus said...

Hi Kirk
Thank you for the insight into your life with camera and gear. I am going to do something now that I haven't done before and that is ask a question, after all it is the comment section not the question section. But anyways here it goes. I am curious why you seem committed to a prime lens at that focal length when there seem to perfectly acceptable 70-200 zooms that will give you the same focal length? I ask from a position of ignorance since I don’t own a full frame camera or a 70-200 lens. I have only rented them a couple of times.

Henry said...

Here's my general philosophy: As long as a person is not directly hurting someone else then they can live their life however they want. They can also spend their money however they want. You enjoy camera gear and I can't see how that hurts anyone else. I even enjoy sometimes reading what you or someone else writes about their new gear. I gather that you and I are very close to the same age. During your years of buying camera gear I have also bought some from time to time, but not even close to your level. In my case, I really enjoy travel, visiting and living abroad, and have done it for many years. I daresay I have spent much, much more on that than you have on camera gear. It is just something I care about and where I allocate a lot of my money. And I am a close to the ground traveler so not spending huge amounts on a resort vacation or 1st class travel. I have some friends and relatives who are more stay at home types who also directly or indirectly criticize my choice. Oh well. I am enjoying it and they are free to enjoy their houses, cars, big TVs, etc. :-) Vive La Différence!

bpr said...

Hey Kirk,

Your comments on gear faithfulness are spot on. I once commented to a fellow brand X user that Brand Y had some pretty neat stuff. I was no longer their 'photo buddy' after that incident, even though I continued to use brand X for a number of years thereafter (and still use their lenses along with others on my current brand 'S' camera.

Lesson? Continue to use what you like as long as you like it and don't engage with fanboys, even if you are currently using 'their' brand.

Paul said...

I don't know about most people, but I only seem to use about 5% of menu options on my cameras, ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed probably represent 70% of setting changes, the rest are changes to White Balance, metering, shutter mode, bracketing and flash options. Reviewers rabbit on about complex menu structures, myriad metering options and focus options etc. but most of the time I don't even think of selecting the option let alone remember to set it. My thought process is auto ISO settings, choose aperture priority/shutter priority, set selected parameter, focus, shoot.
I've used a variety of brands and how it feels in your hand is far more important than menu structures (which are all mostly undecipherable without the manual). hence the importance of local camera stores

Max Rottersman said...

My similar setup is the A7 and 55/1.8. When you shoot portraits with a 50 how far do you get back, or get close, to the subject. Would you say the face takes up 1/4, 1/8th, 1/16th of the image. Do you shoot portrait of landscape. Obviously, the lens broadens the nose more than the 85. When you do want to move farther back, and need to crop more, doesn't that make a case for the higher resolution of the D810 (or in my case A7R)? Sorry if this is all in your Craftsy tutorial I haven't finished watching yet!

Part of me want to ditch the 85/100/105 lenses I have. Often I just use them because they're "Portrait" lenses. How do you think about it? Thanks!

Kirk Tuck said...

Max, the distortion of noses, etc. has more to do with your distance to the subject than the focal length of the lens. You can prove this to yourself by standing ten feet away from someone, shooting with a 50 and a 100 and cropping the 50mm to match the 100mm frame. You'll find the geometry of the face is identical. I stay five feet or more away from portrait subjects. On the project I talk about here I was using the camera in landscape mode. We're shooting for a website design so my 24 megapixels is more than enough even if the designer decides to change direction and wants tighter, vertical crops. It's all good as long as we nail focus. My use of the longer lenses is important to me as they allow me to compress the background, put it out of focus more quickly and also render the subject the way I want it at the distance I want to shoot in. The 50mm is too short for me most of the time with portraits. I like to be close enough to communicate with the client, have my images cropped in camera they way I want them (saves post processing time and may be necessary when working toward large blow ups) but far enough not to intrude into people's personal space. That and control of background compression and focus makes the 85-135mm lenses ideal for the way see portraits and the spaces in which I work. I always work with the camera frame in mind and rarely crop in post processing. Maybe it's a discipline thing or maybe it's a holdover from my days of shooting film and low res digital cameras when cropping meant giving up too much quality. Use your 85mm and frame for final use in camera. See if that makes a difference in your appreciation of the longer lenses.

amolitor said...

What I like about you, Kirk, is that you can actually change my mind and make me see things I didn't see before.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that "performance envelope" can be Ming patented - it has been used in aviation for many decades. ;)
I continue to enjoy your articles (along with Thom Hogan's for a somewhat different narrative) so please keep up the good work.
& I'm not even a Nikon user :P

Racecar said...

I don't know of a better portrait photographer than you Kirk. Portraits require a sort of non-verbal communication between the photographer and the Subject. This comes across in your work. That non-verbal relationship has very little to do with the equipment, although it is nice to have good equipment. I'm sure you could produce interesting portraits with any reasonably decent camera/lens & lighting combination.

Here you have shared with us the current "perfect" mixture for you at this point in time. Next year it may be the D750s or D7xx and LED panel light XX. Does not matter really - the expression on the Subject's face and interesting lighting makes all the difference in the world. Can you say, "Mona Lisa"?

Don Karner said...

Once again I am just floored by one of your thoughtful photographic essays. As a person who, in another life, received a degree in music, when I read your quote about "mixing an atonal musical piece from Karlheinz Stockhausen with something melodic from Ravel." I must admit I was transported to another time and place. I didn't expect that from a photographer's blog.

Your blog is one of the most worthwhile I have ever read. Don't you ever quit! ;-)

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Don. I took a music theory class from a famous pianist (whose name escapes me at the moment) at The University of Texas back in the 1970's. My old girlfriend was a classical cellist who studied with cellist, Paul Olefsky and one of my friends is Anton Nel, also a concert pianist. Ah, the collateral damage of a liberal arts education...

Kepano said...

What does the shutter sound like compared to the D810? I have rented the D810 on a couple of jobs and love how discrete the shutter sounds when shooting events compared to my D3s. Pew pew vs CLACK CLACK. Very technical, I know.

Kirk Tuck said...

The D750 is louder than the D810 but nowhere near as loud as the shutter in the D3.