An exercise in Nikon Nostalgia. Out shooting an assignment with a D300S and a D700.

Here is the dynamic duo that I used to complete a P.R. assignment this past Tuesday afternoon. The camera on the left is a D300S and the camera on the right is the D700. The D300S was equipped with an old, push-pull 70-210mm zoom lens with the D700 sported a slightly used 24-120mm f4.0. Why were they a good choice for this assignment?

Yeah, I know this is all a bit crazy but I've reacting to the widespread false narrative that working professional photographers need to be using the newest and highest performing cameras on the market in order to get the shots that pay the bills. Actually, I'm beginning to think that in many cases nothing could be further from the truth.

About a month ago I started getting interested in cameras with fat pixels. I think some of them, because the pixel sites are so much bigger, have a different look to their files. In many applications the files actually look sharper and better defined. I can't argue about situations where raw resolution is essential, vital or otherwise preferred but in uses where the file's resolution exceeds the resolution of the final target my preliminary dive into the issue seemed to confirm to me that there is an aesthetic difference that most people can see. I won't go into the "why" of the effect; I am certain there are smarter folks here on VSL who can explain the science or engineering behind my observations.

The obvious cameras to grab from the dusty used cases were the ones where the biggest sensors have the smallest number of total pixels because....each pixel is bigger. This led me back to the D700 which has pixels that are bigger than 8 microns across. For reference the pixels in my GH5 are about 3.3 microns across. My intuitive break point between bigger pixels and smaller pixels seems to be set at about 5 microns. At that size and smaller I'm thinking the pixels are small while at anything over 5.x microns the pixel are in the larger camp. Anything over 7 gets me into a zone that yields the visual effect I've come to identify as the big pixel look. 

There are several cameras I've owned that had enormous pixels and, even with the huge pixel wells they were still plagued with high ISO noise that was off the charts, so I want to make it clear that what I am seeing is not about noise or lack of noise but more about edge effect, acuity and the perception of file sharpness. The Kodak DCS 760, the files from which I was always impressed, clocks in with pixels that are 9.18 microns while another favorite, the Nikon D2HS has pixels that re 9.32 microns.

Even though the last two cameras are not full frame it's their pixel size that sets them apart in my mind.

In contrast the Nikon D800e whose files are nicely detailed but which lack, for me, a certain snappy look have pixels that are closer to those of my micro four thirds cameras at 4.87 microns. Even my D2XS and D300S cameras have pixels that are 5.48 and 5.51, respectively. This may account for the perception that the D2XS files seem sharper if neither the D800e files or the D2XS files are used in final targets at more than the native resolution of the D2XS. We get the benefit of the greater perceptual acuity of the older camera and its illusion(?) of greater sharpness.

At any rate my curiosity has led me to buy and borrow various cameras and to test their files at various magnifications to see, just perceptually, which ones yield files that look most photographic to me. (And be aware that this could be a prejudice of visual habit, of variations in each camera's contrast rendering and a host of other parameters). I've shot some files with a camera I never owned; the Canon 5D, and can see how it pushed the 5D line into prominence. Big pixels and nice tonality with an undercurrent of well managed sharpness.

Recently I added a D300S to the mix because I found a treasure trove of old concert photo files that I re-imagined in the latest rev of Adobe's raw converter and was pretty surprised at the quality inherent in the files. So my curiosity about bigger pixels is now intersection with the idea that older cameras created raw files that contained much good information that was neglected or sub-optimally processed by older raw converters which led us to conjecture that it was new camera hardware that was making newer cameras seem cleaner and better when, in fact, it may just be the continual introduction of much more processor power being available to process the files which has led software engineers to be able to distill more detail, color information and nuance from all files. This also seems to be apparent as I test more stuff.

But at some point you have to stop testing and go out to shoot some jobs for clients. Otherwise, how will we pay for the boxes and boxes of new stuff that we're hauling back from the camera stores?

I was asked to do photographic event documentation for the groundbreaking of the new site for the headquarters of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Austin. In our pre-planning phone call the marketing director let everyone know that the ten acres had just been cleared and that the dust and pollen on site was plentiful. A continuing dry spell wasn't helping but bulldozers pushing the dry dirt around were the biggest culprit. We would walk a quarter of a mile to access the space and the whole event would take place without a covering tent. We would be in full sun on the hottest day of the year so far, in the middle of an intermittent dust storm. I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this; if there was ever a case for having a couple of "trash cams" to take into the field this would be one of the front runners.

I chose the D700 because the full frame is a nice match of the flexibility of the 24-120mm f4.0, which is the only image stabilized lens I have for that system right now. I grabbed the D300S because it was a good match for my only really long Nikon lens right now; a lowly 70-210mm f4.0-5.6 consumer zoom which is actually very nice for outdoor stuff. I put each lens on its body before I left my car in an attempt to keep the sensors as dust free as possible. Then I stuffed both rigs into my all purpose Amazon photo backpack and trudged down a quarter mile dirt and dust path to the location.

With ND filters on both cameras I was able to use on camera flash to add many stops of dynamic range to the system which was very advantageous for shooting in direct sun. The flashes were used in a total manual mode with me riding the power settings for various distances.

I photographed a group of cheerleaders from a local school who opened the program. There was a drum band and then speeches by politicians, donors and board members of the organization. Every time the wind whipped up a cloud of dust and debris swirled through the crowd. By the time the event was over and I had ambled back to my car my dark brown hiking boots were covered with a light gray coating of dust. My cameras were speckled with dust every where and the fronts of the filters looked as though someone had misted them with dust.

When I got back to the studio I swept the dust off my boots outside the office door. I grabbed a can of compressed air and carefully sprayed off every square inch of each camera and lens, trying to make them as dust free as possible. I used an artist's paint brush to dust off any resilient dust specs before opening the memory card doors and pulling out the cards.

The files were uniform and good. The flash helped lift the shadows a good bit, putting them into a good level and allowing me to just finish off the files with a lift of the shadows in post. I edited down from 600 shots to 300 shots, color corrected and tonal corrected each shot (usually in small groups) and delivered them the same evening.

Shooting raw, setting a smart color balance and using fill flash judiciously were all ways of equalizing whatever improvements have been made in sensors over the years. The raw converter seems to lift all boats.

If either camera had been compromised by the dust and rendered unusable it would be much less sad than losing a shiny, new camera for which I had paid the full retail price. This was one of the many situations photographers work in frequently where just about any pro caliber camera made in the last 10-12 years would have acquitted itself well. The files are ample, the colors great and the overall look of the files generated is right in line with the work we expect from today's cameras.

If you think my P.R. client, posting images to the web and for mostly online use, really needed the latest medium format, 50 mp file camera to document an event like this----you are nuts.


Doug said...

Kirk: Really enjoying your looking back at "old" cameras. I can't believe the low prices on some pristine used gear at my local camera store. I only wish the gear wasn't so large and heavy. Still, I saw a D300s in the case this week for $199! How well does the current software resolve the noise that used to be apparent from ISO 800/160p and above in the older Nikons?

Mark Davidson said...

I just visited a client who had 40x60 prints made of images I had created for them. The images were a mix of 22MP Canon 5DmkIII files and 50MP 5DsR files.
I was eager to see how my investment in a new body and ultra careful technique trounced the the older body. Sadly the difference was so small as to be invisible except with my nose nearly on the print. These were architectural images all taken on tripods with the best Canon L lenses focused via Live View so I could not attribute any shortcoming to handheld capture.

I am not sure I will even keep the 5DsR as the processing of the files bog down PS to a much greater degree than the mkIV I now own.

As to our preoccupation with new gear, I think a large part is our desire to justify the purchase by "seeing" an improvement that is only vaguely better. I still go back to old files on occasion and see that I had actually nailed the lighting, composition, and PP. Even re-processing the file with the latest versions of LR yield no improvement but rather reflect my change of taste.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks for this comment, Mark. I keep having the same basic experience. I'm so confused now that I may just exit the business and become a full time writer.

Mark Davidson said...

As I have read your inaugural work I can say that it would be no bad thing if you gave us a few more.
But if clients still call and ask for your work I would keep shooting with any damn camera you please.

Rufus said...

Try shooting st 3200 or 6400. Use higher shutter speeds because you need to freeze some movement. Imagine you can’t use flash.

Then come back and tell us a D300 is all you need.

You are learning about “suffiency”. It should not be a surprise that a D300 is fine in good light. Try the same challenge in a situation where you are not in control.

I love your work in recent years you always seem to be in total control of your light source or you are blessed with Austin sunshine. Spare a thought for environmental portrait shooters or reportage. The difference between 10 yr old tech and modern sensors truly makes a big difference for us.

Anonymous said...

I am a better photographer than writer but I would rather be a writer.

I am tired of buying and learning to use new gear.

Jon Porter said...

Another thing helping these older cameras is improved editing capabilities. I recently reprinted a NEF file taken 10 years ago with a Nikon D1X then edited with Photoshop CS and printed on an Epson R800. The new print was edited in Photoshop CS6 and printed on an Epson P800 (Epson loves to recycle its model numbers). The new print is vastly better in shadow detail, crispness of background foliage and the overall "look & feel" of the print.

Paul said...

This is a great series of posts that for some may prevent an attack of GAS, or at least reduce the cost if they pick up older gear.
I remember buying my first OM-D and being disappointed with the files produced by the version of LR I had at the time. So I experimented with Olympus Viewer, DXO and Capture One and settled on Capture One for a much quicker process. Later versions of LR have a greatly improved RAW converter, so I would highly recommend people try the latest version of raw converters before lashing out on the latest hardware.

JereK said...

Since I do not remember, I shall ask. Did you ever try/use the Nikon DF? I tried one as a spare body (3rd) for a wedding and fell in love with it. Nice shutter sound, small and light enough. Paired with the 16Mpix sensor. The photos were excellent, the couple were very happy. Used it up to iso6400 with very good quality. Only minus, no video and no second memory card slot.

ODL Designs said...

Hey Kirk,
Do you think some of the issue is that the native lower resolution of the older sensors is closer to screen resolutions. So the computer and monitor are doing less averaging and fixing of the higher resolution image?

One step I introduced a while ago was sharpening for monitors/screens (for press printing I always prepare imagery at output size and sharpen for the number of lines), I find it gives images much more bite, but with very little penalty. While just letting my higher resolution images be scaled by my viewing software always leaves them looking a little lack-luster.

Allan Jackson said...

Know exactly what you mean Kirk. I'm happily still using a Nikon D90 (5.5 micron pixels) and prefer its files to those produced by my much newer Panasonic G6. I'm happy enough with the D90 that the only real item on my wishlist would be improved high-iso performance for photographing musicians in low light.

William Collinson said...

In response to Rufus, I don't think that Kirk has suggested that there is no benefit to the current generation of digital bodies. It is just that the benefits are perhaps not as grand as we once imagined. If you're an available light/low light photographer, then yeah, the newer sensors have less read noise and overall superior high ISO behavior. At the same time, I know more than one photographer who specializes in stage (theater, dance) who still use the venerable D700. There is something about the files out of that camera that newer bodies simply cannot replicate. I think that is a lot of what Kirk is getting at, we've moved forward but taken as a whole (color response, pixel size, acuity) maybe not as far as the marketing suggests.

eric erickson said...

Kirk, great post. I generally use my fuji's for travel and keep my Nikon D750 for serious work. There is something about the files that is so much better than any camera I have ever owned. When I put the 24-70 f 2.8 on the front of the 750 it is magic. I think you hit on something that many other bloggers have missed, the size of the pixels. I looked up the size of the d750's pixels and found they were larger than the d800. I have always felt my d750 produced better images than my d800. Thanks for the great post. I may go out and rebuy an old d700 again or maybe a used Nikon DF. It is interesting how cheap used cameras are. All the best.

Wally said...

How about going back to 120 roll film, shoot, process, and have it scanned on a drum scanner then spend time in post tweaking...

Anonymous said...

I'm going to take a crazy wild shot at the "why":
The larger (>7um) pixels are creating a tiny, yet perceptible "edge effect" as you stated. When viewed at nearly-full resolution, we perceive an instilled sharpening effect due the larger size of the sensor's pixels.
However, with denser pixel pitch & size (<7um pixels) we now begin to see or perceive the limits of resolution of the LENS itself, and not the sensor as much. A given lens provides an imperfect, and slightly fuzzy image; whereas the big pixel sensors of yore instill an artificial sharpening effect.

Another contributing factor might also be related to the resolution or interpolation of luminance or color gamma limitations in the in-camera processing.

Call me a fool...just thinking aloud.


Ron Zack said...

So glad you are doing this series about the old Nikon cameras. I never actually owned the D300s or D700, but I would borrow them for some sports photography gigs I used to do, and absolutely loved those cameras. One of the great mysteries of life is why Nikon didn't immediately follow up the D300 with a D400...a true lost opportunity, but I've heard very good things about the D500.

Speaking of fat pixels, Seems we now have a "fat pixel" choice for Micro43: at the recent NAB show, Black Magic introduced an all-new "Pocket" Cinema camera with a whopping 8 mp sensor and an active lens mount! When micro43 was first introduced, all the Olympus and Panasonic cameras has 12mp sensors, so this is quite a throw-back. I would love to know what your thoughts are about it.

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K