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How to photograph the Aurora Borealis

This year (2013-2014) is a good time for seeing the Aurora Borealis (and its lesser-known Southern twin, the Aurora Australis) – commonly known as the Northern- and Southern Lights. I have my heart set on seeing the Lights with my own eyes in the coming year, so in this post I’d like to talk about how one can best prepare for capturing this natural wonder.

A friend, Bart Vastenhouw, travelled to the region of Varanger in Norway to see and photograph the lights. Here is one of the photographs he came back with:Aurora at Varanger

Bart captured this beautiful scene using a Canon 40D and Canon 10-22mm F3.5-4.5 wide-angle lens. The 40D was a good camera, but these days there are better ones to choose from. The lens is decent too, but for best results you’d want a wide angle with larger aperture (F2.8 or faster).

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New firmware fixes D600 HDMI output. (Also, updates for almost all of Nikon’s current other DSLRs)

Yesterday, Nikon released new firmware for almost all of its current DSLR line-up, namely for the D4, D800, D600, D3, D3s, D3x, D7000 and D3200. Most of these updates only add full compatibility to the exotic new 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR lens – a lens very few people will ever see or use.

D600Bits

The highlight, for me, is the fact that Nikon has now finally addressed the uncompressed HDMI bug that frustrated D600 videographers. This issue used to be a reason for DSLR videographers to get the more expensive D800, and seemed like a lame up-selling scam on Nikon’s part. No more, it seems!

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(c) Usain Bolt

Not only is Usain Bolt the fastest man alive, but he is also a budding photographer! :)

Usain Bolt shooting some after-action snapshots with Swedish photographer Jimmy Wixtröm's camera. Image (c) Reuters

Usain Bolt shooting some after-action snapshots with Swedish photographer Jimmy Wixtröm’s camera. Image (c) Reuters

Immediately after making history by defending his 200m Olympic crown, Usain walked over to the photographer booth and took Swedish photographer Jimmy Wixtröm’s camera.
Bolt then proceeded to take several photos from his unique point of view. Pretty good photos, too! Now the question may be asked who has copyright of these photos.

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Anti-alias or Moiré? (buy the Nikon D800 instead of the D800E)

Bottom line: the D800E misses a proper anti-aliasing filter. This probably does more harm than good, so buy the D800 instead, unless you absolutely need maximum per-pixel resolution and know how to avoid Moiré artefacts.
Disclaimer: The D800/D800E are great cameras that differ in subtle ways. Making a purchasing decision based on these differences will necessarily involve “splitting hairs”, but that is probably why you are reading this blog entry, so let’s do that.
I started writing this post before D800E reviews were available online. 
Now that it’s been tested by dpreview and DxO I have to admit that the D800E is less prone to Moiré than I expected it to be. Yet I stand by what I wrote in this post and I still advise you to get the D800 instead of the D800E unless you know exactly what you’re doing. Read on.

The D800 and the D800E

When Nikon announced their brand new D800 and D800E full frame (FX) DSLRs a few months ago, it was a breakthrough. These cameras push the limits in resolution beyond anything previously seen on 35mm and set new benchmarks in DSLR video capabilities. This is great news, because whether or not competitors come up with even better models, you (the consumer) still win. So, we know that they are excellent. All he reviews tell us so. The big question in photographers’ minds is probably whether to get the D800 or the D800E. The “E” sounds somehow more Exotic and Exclusive, and promises even sharper photos. Given this, the D800E’s 10% higher ($3300 vs $3000) price sounds justified. Sort of like a D800 “de luxe” edition, right? Not necessarily.

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Which DSLR camera brand is the best?

J.D. Power and Associates, a company best known for their car satisfaction surveys, have recently published a buyer satisfaction comparison for the major DSLR manufacturers. In the car world we know that Japanese cars tend to be the most reliable/satisfying, but in the camera world we deal almost exclusively with Japanese brands – so who is going to win?

Since bars speak louder than words, I'll skip to the results:*Note that the term "DSLR" excludes mirrorless and compact cameras. 
Olympus and Panasonic are leaders in mirrorless system cameras, 
at the expense of their DSLR product lines.
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Canon 7D firmware update 2.0.X

Update (7 Aug 2012): Canon has just released firmware 2.0.0 (click here for official site)

It is always a good idea to keep your camera’s firmware updated. In Sony’s NEX series, for example, updates resulted in major usability improvements. For the Nikon D800/D4, updates fixed bugs that made it past quality control. No matter what brand you own, you win by getting the latest firmware.

Now Canon 7D owners really have reason to rejoice since firmware update 2.0.X adds a lot of performance and usability improvements to what is already a very good camera. It is almost like upgrading to an even better and more expensive camera, only it’s free!

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The new Nikon D600 with 24-85mm VR kit lens

Rumours (and even leaked photographs) are all saying that Nikon will soon be introducing the D600, a more affordable FX (full frame) camera.

Leaked photograph of the new Nikon D600. Note the “FX” emblem.

Allthough not 100% confirmed, I certainly see this as a sensible and welcome newcomer to their line-up. Yesterday Nikon paved the way to the D600’s release with brand new Nikkor 24-85mm F2.5-4.5 VR lens.

On FX, this new lens will perform similarly to a 16-57mm F2.8 VR on DX (APS-C). The closest one gets to those specifications on DX, however, is with the expensive but built-like-a-tank Nikon 17-55mm F2.8, or Sigma/Tamron 17-50mm F2.8. The former lacks optical stabilization, while the latter two lack the Nikon badge, and risk more focussing and quality control issues.

The new Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR Lens

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Review: Sigma 17-50 F2.8 OS vs Tamron 17-50 F2.8 VC

Today I am comparing two “premium” third-party standard zoom lenses: the Tamron 17-50mm F2.8 VC ($650, B&H), and Sigma 17-50mm F2.8 OS ($594, B&H). Both offer a useful 17-50mm with fast F2.8 max aperture (at all focal lengths). Both feature optical stabilization. Both are available for multiple camera mounts (including Canon, Nikon and Sony).

Interestingly the price difference in The Netherlands (where I live) used to be reversed, although recently the Tamron got more expensive and the Sigma much cheaper, so that they currently retail for €419  and €389 respectively (28 December 2013).

In addition to their similar specifications, these two have very similar size and weight, and compete in the same price range. Direct competitors, therefore. But which one is best?

I got my hands on both of them (Nikon mount), and put them to the test.

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A stabilized Sony 50mm f/1.8

Photozone.de just published their review of Sony’s new stabilized 50mm f/1.8 lens, available for their NEX mirrorless system. The thing that makes this lens special is the fact that it combines a big aperture with optical stabilization. In fact, to my knowledge this is the fastest (lowest f-number) stabilized system lens (of any focal length) ever built!

Large apertures are great in low light situations. It enables you to gather more light, thereby letting you use a lower ISO value or faster shutter speed. Lower ISO means less image noise and better colours.

The “problem” with traditional 50mm primes (like those of Canon, Nikon) is that when you’re shooting hand-held you have to use a fast shutter speed (e.g. < 1/80) because they lack stabilization. If you had stabilization and were shooting a static subject you could probably have gone down to 1/10 and have used an ISO value 8 times lower.
The large f/1.8 aperture gives about 3 stops extra light compared to a 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 “kit zoom”, but you lose the 3-stop advantage you would have gotten with the kit zoom’s image stabilization. Since the advantages cancel out you instead have to use the same ISO value for either lens at its minimum usable hand-held shutter speed. But with the new Sony you can choose to apply that large aperture either for low ISO (useful for static subjects) or for fast shutter speeds (useful for moving subjects). In one word: versatility!

Why you want a large aperture:
fast shutter speed (less motion blurring) and shallow depth of field

The advantages of a “nifty fifty” go further than being able to use fast shutter speeds. These lenses are almost always sharp (at smaller apertures), small, light, and can render backgrounds with beautiful shallow depth of field blurring, known as “bokeh”. By also being affordable (often < $300) you will find one in the bag, or on the camera, of every serious photographer.

For the reasons stated above a “nifty fifty” works nicely as a portrait lens on cropped sensor DSLRs. For a great example, see this photo by Ana Santos :

An example of the great results you can get with a 50mm f/1.8
(such great bokeh is unachievable with a 18-55mm kit lens).

Reading the review we see that this new Sony lens has nothing to be ashamed of, and at $300 (available for pre-order at B&H) it is good value for money, too! It is not the sharpest lens at large apertures, but renders beautiful out-of-focus background “bokeh”. If you want sharpness you just have to stop it down. And, it is stabilized!

Conclusion: a very harmonious offering. The unique double advantages of a classical fast 50mm prime and image stabilization. Sony NEX users can count themselves privileged.

The D800(E) is upon us – video and resolution taken to the next level!

This tuesday, Nikon officially released the Nikon D800 (and its twin sibling, the D800E). The D800 is an important model and will certainly find its way into the camera bag of many (if not most) pro Nikon “FX” shooters. It is already available for pre-order (B&H) so if you know you need it just go ahead and order – you are buying into the new Nikon semi-professional full-frame standard.

I have a lot I want to say about this camera, but I will have to take the time for that in future posts (hopefully in the near future). But it boils down to this:

The D800 offers two class-leading things:

  • extremely high resolution. The highest of any current main-stream DSLR.
  • advanced/pro video features (“Full frame” 35mm 1080p, uncompressed HDMI out, live audio monitoring via headphone jack)

Key features: 36 Megapixel full-frame sensor. Live audio output for video sound monitoring. Uncompressed HDMI video output.

The rest of the spec sheet pretty much consists of evolutionary tweaks and refinements.

In future posts I will talk about what all this means. Is 36MP better than the Canon 5D Mk II’s 21MP, or the Nikon D700’s 12MP? Is it worth it to buy this camera instead of the much cheaper Nikon D7000? What kind of person should consider this camera? What is the difference between the D800E and the D800? Stay tuned.

Oh, and before I sign off – here is the official “made by a Nikon D800” teaser video. As you can see this camera just loves video:

[youtube_sc url=E3doNm4bH7U width=520]