Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The shift to nikon, or why I love the D700

Yengyo made the mistake of asking me why. Here is why :-).

I have been with canon for the last eleven years. My first SLR was a film Rebel purchased in 1998 and I have stuck with canon since. I have been through a 10D, a digital rebel, 20D, 5D, 5D Mark II, 7D, 5D Mark II again and have finally decided to try the Nikon D700 following the accounts of a number of people who have switched from the 1DIII and 5DII to the D700. I figured that if they were happy using the D700 professionally, maybe it will suit my modest needs well.

I have multiple reasons for deciding to give Nikon a shot
  • I have been with canon for a long time. Change is good for the soul.
  • I have been wanting a better AFing camera for a while and while I would miss the 21Mpix's cropping ability and canon's video impl, the usability of the Nikon that some people were raving about simply had to be experienced.
  • What if I was more of a "Nikon" guy but stuck with canon because of an accident (no money in grad student days to spend on Nikon)
  • I was getting bored.

The D700 specifically over the D300 or others as I wanted a small sized FF body and it was the only option for me. Over the 5DII, from a specs perspective I get
  • + More rugged and better weather sealed
  • + With the grip, I get 8fps if I need
  • + Better low light AF
  • + Even if the cross points are somewhat idiotically clustered in the center three columns, the outer points are far from lame.
  • + Built in flash which is also a flash commander
  • + Built in AF assist
  • + Better Auto White balance
  • + Excellent Auto ISO implementation.
  • - Only 12Mp compared to 21MP. Less opportunities for cropping.
  • - Somewhat worse skin colors (but I can work around this as I always shoot raw)
  • = No video (But then using the 5DII video in practice is not that easy and I don't do it often)
  • - Lack of mid range image stabilized lens. But thankfully the Sigma 50/1.4 works its magic on Nikon as well and the 24-85mm AF-S is pretty good too. I can wait a bit on this as I don't think Nikon can afford to ignore this bracket any longer.
    When I found an excellent deal on a D700, I snatched one up with the intent to play with it side by side with the 5DII and then decide which one to keep. Giving up all my canon stuff would get expensive and painful (lots of things to sell, dealing with craigslist jokers who want stuff for 30% of posted value etc). It wasn't love at first sight though.


      Moving to  Nikon for a canon guy requires a decent learning curve. You have to learn much about lenses and what lenses work on what cameras and so on. Most of the ones available are manual focus and come with an array of acronyms.What I learned was that I should stick with the AF-S lenses featuring SWM (the Nikon equivalent to Canon's USM, silent fast focusing). Once this was out of the way, the real shock set in. Nikon's mid range lens collection for full frame is non-existant once you consider what Canon has to offer. There is no single good mid range zoom with VR. Having been spoiled by the Canon 24-105L, I was somewhat surprised to see that Nikon had ignored the FX users for the most part, the one exception being the highly ignorable 24-120VR . So I looked around and the one lens that got decent reviews for someone wanting to try Nikon out was the 24-85 AF-S F3.5-4.5 (not very slow but close enough to constant F4). This is a nice and small lens and gets a good review by Thom Hogan. I found one on EBay for a good price and got that to test the camera out.

    Initial impressions
    • Everything in the viewfinder looked yellow
    • The images looked yellow and somewhat nasty. I could never stand the Nikon colors as they tend to render images too cool or skins too yellow.
    • Grip was not as deep as the 5D and my fingers would hit the Fn and DOF buttons making it not as friendly to hold.
    • Very hard for me to hold one-handed which I could easily do with the 5DII inspite of (or maybe because) it being a larger body.
    • The AF dial pad was too low and awkward to use to change the AF point. Would start hurting my thumb almost immediately.
    So I was all set to pick up the 5DII again and you know, make it feel loved again. A few days later, however, I started reading the manual (thick affair, all 420 pages of it) and started searching for settings that would really make it my own. This is what I found and this time, it was like love at first read :-). I had found my camera at last! (I am still waiting for Nikon to takes its collective head out of dark places and come up with an answer to Canon's 24-105 F4).

    Before I describe why I fell in love, I need to explain what kind of issues I face with my camera. The 7D probably came close to fixing some of them, but I wanted a larger sensor for the DOF control so the 7D was not it.

    Camera manufactures seem to segment users in somewhat strange buckets (At least Canon does). Nikon does the same when it comes to lenses (you pay 1700$ for the 24-70mm 2.8 or 500$ for the 24-120 VR piece of junk. Nothing in the middle).

    Canon Segmentation 

        The biggest issue with canon currently is that you just cannot get a D700 equivalent body. The description I am looking for is probably "small sized, full frame, customizable body with pro AF and weather sealing". The 5DII lacks the AF capabilities, frame rate and weatherproofing of the D700 (weather proofing I cannot comment on as I haven't exposed either to the elements). To get all of that in a full-frame body, the only option is the large (and expensive) 1Ds series. Now I don't want to carry a beast like that all the time. The only small body that does what I want is the Canon 7D and that is a APS-C sensor, which I would rather not buy (I did try it out for a while and while I liked the body, the loss of the shallow DOF option was a big one and I sold it soon after and went back to the 5DII).

    My Typical use case

       Some people are able to say that they shoot a specific set of subjects that define their photographic needs as landscape (target doesn't move, very good noise control at low ISO, access to sharp wide angle lenses etc), portrait (studio or slow moving, good skin color rendition, access to fast telephoto lenses with rounded aperture blades, low base ISO to allow wide open shots with fast glass under bright light) or sports (fast moving targets that demand accurate AF-tracking and high frame rate needs. Access to fast long glass for reach and subject isolation).

    The P&S industry have this mythical creature called "Jennifer" :-). She represents their customer. The average mom ferrying her kids to soccer matches, fixing up birthday parties and so on. She just wants the camera to work. Intuitively and with good results.

    The SLR industry doesn't seem to have their own version of Jen. Their segmentation is oriented towards professionals who know what they shoot because that is what they get paid to shoot whatever it is that they have chosen to shoot.

    While, I might not be the standard use case, I think my needs are very similar to most people who buy SLRs.
    • I shoot what I shoot and I buy an SLR for the image quality. I am willing to learn and put effort into the shooting but the camera better allow me flexibility as I learn.
    • On vacations it is landscapes
      • Uniformly lit
      • Non uniformly lit and needing bracketing or spot metering
    • When photographing a kid: nephews, friend's kids etc.
      • capture a brat that can move suddenly. Accurate AF and tracking.
      • High contrast situation so need access to spot metering on active AF point.
      • Low base IO so I can use ultra fast lenses without bumping against min shutter speed limits.
      • Need positionable AF points so I get more accurate AF without having to focus-recompose and throw AF accuracy outta the window (in most cases)
    The thing about trying out the D700 is that most of my points have been answered and answered in ways that make the camera fantastic to use and very quickly adaptable to changing situations. 

    Once I setup the camera according to how some wedding photogs have (prakashphotography AF settings,  Nikon thread on POTN and a few other sources I don't remember) I have the following
    • Single shot mode. (top left dial)
    • Always on C (Continuous servo mode), Switch near lens mount
    • Always on Dynamic AF and default to 51pt 3D Tracking
    • AF only on AF-On button press
    • Center button of joy-pad to zoom in on active AF when pressed during playback
    • 11 pts for manual selection
    • Preview overridden to Spot-meter
    • Preview + dial to change Dynamic AF modes (9,21,51,51 + 3D)
    • Fn + dial to set bracketing 
    • Fn + shutter to shoot bracket burst even in Single shot mode.
    • Set shutter to not lock exposure
    • Set the indicators to reverse (Nikon's exposure dials have + at the left side and - at the right side. Remarkably stupid I think, but I'm sure there was a reason connected to the way the dials turn for compensation).
    • Set the dials to reverse as well
    • RAW and 14bit NEFs.
    • The AF assist light has turned out to be as much of a nuisance and as distracting as canon's stupid strobing flash when shooting people. so I always turn this off.

    The beauty is that Nikon's continuous AF is not as jittery as AI Servo (atleast in my experience) that this works for single shot as well as actual action. These settings allow me to do the following very easily.

    Examining AF accuracy: After shooting, while the image is on display, I simply hit the center button of the dial pad and the image zooms to the AF point to check accuracy. Super convenient. On the 5DII, I have to hit the magnify button multiple time to do this.

    3D Tracking as focus-recompose aid: When outside, with enough color difference between subject and bg, I can actually simply focus on a face using the center AF point, keeping the AF-ON pressed, I can reframe the scene. When 3D tracking works (which is most of the time), the active AF point moves around and the closest one (one of the 51) is on the face. This is pretty cool! It removes the need to use the unergonomic (to me) pad to select the AF point manually and lets 3D tracking do that for me. A huge plus!

    Dedicated spot metering: On a hike, if I see a branch in shadow that I want to capture and the scene is otherwise very bright and I decide to spot meter: what do I do ? Simply keep the preview button pressed with my index finger while I press the shutter button and I get instant spot metering (Note that for this to work when shutter button is already pressed half-way, the setting to *not* lock exposure on shutter must be enabled). On my 5DII, I have to set my exposure to spot using the buttons on top (can be done by feel I guess but I never succeeded in doing so. If you can do it, the VF will show which mode you are in). This is significantly easier for me being able to dedicate an action to spot metering without having to scroll through all the metering modes. I am using this more and more in backlit situations with people as well. Very very useful!

    Dedicated bracket controls: This is not as frequently used but I love the functionality. If I find scenes that I feel like blending exposures later on, I can set bracketing and shoot the entire bracket in seconds. The way I have it setup. Press the Fn button with my ring finger, and turn the front-dial to decide the separation of the shots (1ev, 2 ev etc). Once that is done, use the rear dial to set the number of shots (I use 3 usually) and then keeping Fn pressed, keep the shutter pressed and the entire bracket is shot! I find this fantastic and it is done much faster than the instructions here might indicate.

    Dynamic AF: The 3D tracking feature on the D700 can be fooled with the background colors match the foreground. Even if that doesn't happen, sometimes it locks on to all kinds of things. This is very similar to the 7D's iFCL (color sensitive) tracking but seems to track better. When it goes for a toss, I simply keep the preview button pressed with my index finger and rotate the rear dial. The choice of dynamic AF area shows up on the rear LCD and I then tend to choose 9 or 21 pt for tracking. This is not often though as I stick to 3D tracking more often than not.

    Stationary brat deciding to move suddenly: This is real simple, since I am always in continuous servo, I just keep AF-On pressed and track the moving bullet. This is where one might need to switch from 3D tracking to 9/21 pt depending on the backgrounds (Which does force you to take your eyes off the VF once but then after that you don't need to switch back to 3D as 21pt is more than enough if you are tracking the kid)

    Following someone that moves from dark into light This is where the beauty of auto-iso comes in. Nikon's implementation is simply superb. You specify a base-iso, a minimum shutter speed and a max-iso. And after trying to use the base-iso, it keeps on increasing the ISO till it reaches the ISO max limit or the min shutter speed. Very nice. The canon one never worked this well.

    Overall, I am very happy with the D700. Much less so with the lenses but the Sigma 50/1.4 is as beautiful on the D700 as it was on the 5DII. I have sold pretty much all of my canon stuff (just have a flash, some extenders and a 100-400IS lens left. Those will be gone soon as CL is a great market place in the bay area).

    I don't think the image quality of the D700 is all that though. It is very good but the 5DII equals it or trumps it readily and at 21MP it is quite the feat. People do say that the amount of data you can extract from the Nikon raw files is amazing and I have yet to experience that. However, IQ aside, the D700 allows me to shoot the way I want without getting in the way. It takes away a lot of annoyances and obstacles which was a huge bonus. No stupid marketing morons forcing me to work their way. And for that I am grateful to nikon, in spite of the tacky gold boxes and the red swoosh on the front.

    I still think that Canon leads in tech overall. Having a lot more resources compared to Nikon, this is probably to be expected. They were the first to introduce USM, IS, Hybrid IS, using CMOS in sensors, excellent video implementation, first with DO lenses etc. However for my needs, the current state of Nikon tech is just fine (For the next several years atleast :-) ).

    Taking advantage of bing cashbacks and the price increases since I purchased some of my stuff, I have so far actually made a small profit in selling my 5DII, 24-105L, Sigma 50/1.4 and the 580EXII. The rest will probably lose me some 50$ total. Not bad for a complete change of systems.


      1. Read through the whole thing; sweet. I'm with Nikon (lower-end for now) again because of ergonomics. Canon has perhaps always been better for ISO, megapixels and as some would argue colour. To me it just came down to how I use the camera; that it should get out of the way to get the shot I want and Nikon for one reason or the other proved to be better in that respect for me. Enjoy your D700.

      2. Yeah. I still wish Nikon had the AF selection joystick falling closer to the resting position of the thumb as opposed to way down. I guess nothing is perfect!

        I don't think the D300 would ever be classified as lower end. The only reason I went for the D700 is because I am sucker for shallow DOF shots and FF naurally gives you significantly less DOF compared to APS-C for the same aperture (equivalent would be around 1.3 or so stops I think).

      3. Excellent and high quality article. Great tip on that Fn button plus shutter to shoot bracketed frames even in single shot mode. I used to set CH mode manually for bracketing bursts.

        The 5DII image quality might be better than D700 in addition to the crop-ability, but if you compose carefully, the D700 is a very enjoyable camera. I am sure I don't need a body upgrade in several more years.

      4. :-), yeah, I loved the bracketing feature when I heard about it. Fantastic usability.

        And yeah. I also think I'll hang on to the D700 for a while. I don't need more MP or cross type sensors all around as the existing AF sensors seem to work just fine.

        I think I'll upgrade when they eventually figure out how to provide phase-detect AF speeds for video.