Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 5
Column Tag: Digital Photography
Been waiting for that serious digital camera? Wait no longer. Here's a geek's perspective
by Neil Ticktin, Publisher
MacTech is a magazine for developers of all types. As the technical heart of the community, we're all constantly asked questions by others about anything related to computers. We thought it would be interesting to describe a non-developer topic in detail. That way, our readers would be better armed to answer questions from their friends and cohorts ... you know the questions like "Which digital camera should I buy?", or "How many megapixel should I get?". Let us know what you think of this article.
If you are like me, you like to take pictures. For years, I've been a Nikon guy, having bought my first Nikon (an EM) many years ago. I loved my Nikon FE, but as we moved into the 90's, I was irritated by film. I'm a digital kind of guy.
Over the past few years, I poked around at digital cameras, experimenting with the name brand consumer electronics solutions for digital cameras, but they all left me flat. Don't get me wrong, they were great for taking snap shots, but they frustrated me because I couldn't get the kind of pictures I wanted.
Enter the Nikon D100.
If you are the kind of photographer that takes more than snapshots, but you aren't at the professional level, you may be a "pro-sumer". If you are willing to pay for it, there are solutions out there that can really get the job done for you. These cameras are for the serious photographer, amateur or professional.
Now, if you aren't willing to spend a couple of thousand dollars for a D100 setup, Nikon does have other solutions, and their CoolPix line is quite good with a variety of options. Similarly, other vendors have some good solutions but, it all comes down to what you are comfortable with.
In my investigation, I looked at a variety of cameras ... including the Canon D10 (Canon's entry into this market). What I found is that there are Nikon people, and there are Canon people. To me, the Canon felt funny in my hand, where as the Nikon felt like home ... then again, this is my fourth Nikon SLR and I've taken many thousands of pictures with Nikons. It's second nature for me. Now, everyone can tell you why their camera is better than the other guy's, but in the end, you need to pick the camera up and play with it. If you like it better, it's for you.
Make sure you are comfortable with it -- a D100 goes for around $1600 on the street. And, this is just the body, no lenses, no external flash, no case, no memory card ... just the body.
Figure 1. Nikon D100 Body.
Before getting into why the Nikon D100 is cool, here's the essential information that you'll need. The D100 has a large CCD, equal in size to that of the Nikon D1 series professional cameras, but with higher definition. The camera features 6.1 million effective pixels which produce ultrahigh-definition 3,008 x 2,000-pixel images. Quality in fact that rivals film printing itself, according to my professional photographer friends. Any more resolution might be a waste for most.
Figure 2. Let the Nikon software deal with tough spots like shooting against snow.
There's a couple of features that make the D100 stand out from a photography point of view. First, Nikon has incredible color reproduction with very smooth gradations between the colors. Automatic white balancing is done through an innovative methodology that yields more precise color temperatures. And the light metering is done not algorithmically, but checking the conditions against a database that Nikon has built up from true experience, not a formula. All of this is done automatically, and it's fast.
While this camera is not small, it is compact for what it does. The body weighs in at 700g/24.7 oz. The D100 features a five-Area Autofocus system.
With a top shutter speed of 1/4,000 sec., the flash sync speed goes up to 1/180 sec. ISO equivalency 200 - 1600, but you can boost it higher if you want.
It not only has a USB 1.1 interface, but also takes CompactFlash Type I and Type II cards, including 512MB/1GB IBM MicroDrive. And, if you are wondering about these, here's a couple of tips. If you have a fast camera like the D100, you will notice the difference between the speed of a high-speed Compact Flash card, and a low-speed one. A MicroDrive, while very cool for its large size, will be about the same speed as the slower Compact Flash cards. Also, MicroDrives are not known for their robustness -- one drop, and it might be over for the MicroDrive, whereas Compact Flash cards have been rumored to survive the washing machine and still work.
There are a whole slew of other specs that you can read on the Nikon web site, but let's get down to the nitty gritty of this camera.
I think that the small, consumer electronic cameras are very cool. They are so small that you have no excuse to not take pictures of your vacation, kids, or whatever. All of these truly compact cameras are designed to be small and inexpensive (whether film or digital). This works against the idea of control, features, and speed.
As an example, the average consumer compact camera takes between 500-1000 milliseconds from the time you press the shutter release to the time that the picture is taken. That's half to a full second! That may not seem like long, but if you are trying to catch an action shot, or that special moment of your kids, it's the difference between getting the picture and not.
The D100 takes the picture in 60 (yes, sixty) milliseconds. Need I say more? Ok, I will. That's just the time to take the picture. Focusing speed on these SLRs is really quick ... especially with those lenses with internal motors in them. In Nikon's case, these lenses are the ones with the "Silent Wave" motor built right into the lens. On top of it, you may want to take a rapid succession of pictures ... the D100 can take 3 frames per second, for 6 frames. Which, when combined with a high-speed card, is more than enough in my experience.
Figure 3. Shot at 1/1000th of a second, you can read the writing on the ball.
Why does the speed matter? It truly makes a difference on getting pictures even on simple things like action or kids. For example see Figure 3 with the ball midair, or take the below sequence (Figure 4). You can see the picture emerging, and clearly the fourth one is the best one, but you would either have to be extremely lucky, or look at a rapid fire sequence to really capture the moment.
Controlling Your Picture Taking
The D100 sports four exposure modes. Auto-Multi Program (Flexible Program possible), Shutter-Priority Auto, Aperture-Priority Auto, and fully Manual. You may very well use the Auto-Multi Program quite a bit, but there are times that you'll want to use the others. For those less experienced with photography, let me explain.
Let's say you are shooting action ... like a kids' soccer game. You want to be able to stop the action of the ball like in Figure 3, so you may use shutter priority or a manual setting.
Figure 4. A rapid fire sequence makes all the difference in capturing the shot.
Or if you are trying to compose a shot and you want to control the depth of field (e.g., by changing aperture settings), you can go for effects like those seen in Figure 5.
Figure 5. Controlling the depth of field can be dramatic.
Nikon, more than anything else, is known for their incredible lenses. The cool thing about Nikons is that if you have older lenses (any F-type mounts since 1977), they will work on this camera. But, even if that's the case, you really want to look at the newer lenses for their features, speed, weight ... and of course, clarity.
There is something that you should know about digital SLRs and lenses when comparing them to film SLRs. In most digital SLRs, the size of the CCD is physically different than the size of a piece of 35mm film -- even though the quality is about the same. As a result, on the D100 the focal length of the lens is 1.5 times that of the same lens on a film camera. In other words, if you have a 70-300mm lens on a film camera, and move that same lens to a D100, it's the equivalent of 105-450mm. Why is this the case? It's a bit tricky to explain, but it's similar to why an image projected on a movie screen gets larger and smaller as you move the projector farther and closer to the screen. As a point of reference, the Canon D1O has a 1.6 multiple.
We looked at two lenses ... and we find that they serve our needs quite well.
The first is the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S Zoom-Nikkor. Again, realize that this lens is equivalent to a 36-127mm lens on a film camera. A couple of things about this lens--the AF-S means that its autofocus has the silent wave motor. Aside from this motor being super fast at focusing the lens (and I mean it's really fast), it's nearly completely silent ... so you won't be distracting anyone with focusing noise by the lens. Second, the "G" part of the lens describes a new direction that Nikon (and others) are taking. It means that there's no aperature ring on the lens. This has the benefit of reducing not only the weight of the lens, but the cost. You want to change the aperature? No problem ... it's done by a sub-command dial controlled by your index finger just below the shutter release. This lens runs around $450 on the street.
The second lens is the 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED AF Zoom-Nikkor, which I use for two purposes. First, to catch pictures of people in candid situations. This is a long enough lens that in well lit situations (e.g., daylight), you'll be able to take a picture of someone and they will never know it (see Figure 6). It really is a huge help to get some wonderful candid shots, especially of kids or animals (like an unsuspecting water fowel (see Figure 7). The second thing is for action shots ... like shooting at a sporting event like a soccer field, or baseball game. This lens runs around $450 on the street. Why so cheap for so much lens? The biggest difference between the professional lenses and these is the f-stop. Many of the professional lenses go down to a f2.8 allowing for lower light shooting. Then again, those lenses are typically around $1500.
Figure 6. With 300mm of focal length, you can be quite a distance away. It makes it easier to watch for that neat shot. In this case, "Baywatch, the early years".
Both of these lenses use Nikon's "ED" Glass, which according to Nikon, gives you superior overall optical performance. This is achieved by an optical design featuring ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass elements for minimized chromatic aberration, and aspherical lens elements for low distortion. I've shot pictures with both the ED and the standard glass. Where you really see the difference is in sharpness of pictures.
Bottom line: Unless you have some driving reason not to ... go with the ED glass, it makes a difference, and it's worth the extra money (see Figures 8 and 9).
Figure 7. The power of zoom can make all the difference in whether you scare off your subject
You may also decide that you want to get a lens that does wide angle if you shoot a lot of scenery shots that require it. Remember, you'll want to go with a wider angle than you would on a film camera because the focal length will get multiplied by 1.5x on the D100.
Figure 8. The ripples in the water tell all.
Figure 9. Check out the sharpness of the sand on his knee.
One last thing. Without naming names, I tried other brands of lenses. I'm now only using Nikon lenses on this camera. Obviously, there's a reason.
Software and File Formats
The D100 can store the files in NEF, TIFF and JPGs. Most people are shooting with JPGs because they are easy to move about, and there are a number of services available to them. TIFF is not compressed, so you have no loss in image quality (there is some with JPG), but honestly, I can't see a reason to use it. NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) is very cool in that it gives you all the raw data you need to work from, and is still only 9 megabytes for a full resolution picture.
The camera works with a couple of pieces of Nikon software -- Nikon View 5 software enables transfer and viewing of images on your computer (or you can use iPhoto). The optional Nikon Capture 3 software for excellent image management and remote operation.
Shooting in RAW Formats
One of the coolest things that can be done with a higher end digital camera like the Nikon D100 is the ability to capture and work with raw images. In this case, the D100 uses NEF or Nikon Electronic Format as the file format. In this format, there's a jpg thumbnail that makes it so that you can open the picture in "standard" applications, but more importantly, there's an instruction set and the raw CCD data. What's really cool is that you can open this NEF file in the Nikon software (Nikon View, or Nikon Capture), and you can work magic with it that you cannot do with a jpg.
For example, the white balance settings on a digital camera are critical. If you shoot in the wrong setting, you can end up with pictures with a blue cast, or a yellow cast, etc... You can shoot using the camera in an automatic white balance mode, but most professionals will shoot by setting the white balance manually, or by selecting a white balance mode of direct sunlight, cloudy, incandescent lighting, flourescent lighting, flash, etc... Make the wrong choice, get a weird color casting to the picture. NEF and the Nikon software allow you to change the white balance setting after the picture is taken.
As an additional example, you can also push the exposure levels. For example, film process allows a photographer to push by a few f-stops. Using the D100, you can do the same ... and if you shoot in NEF and use Nikon software, you can do it after the picture was taken.
Flashes today are more integrated with the camera than ever. I strongly advise that you go with one of the Nikon flashes to take advantage of the best integration you can. That pretty much gives you the choice of the Nikon SB-50DX and the SB-80DX. Both of these provide compatibility with D-TTL and 3D Multi-Sensor Balanced Fill-Flash controls. The SB-80DX is a newer flash, and costs more (close to $500 list), but I haven't had enough time with the flash to make a recommendation on whether it's worth the extra dough. For consumers, the SB-50DX will do the job fairly well and is a perfect match for this camera. Whatever you do, try to get an external flash. It helps reduce red-eye (by being up and away form the image plane). You'll also be able to use the flash at longer distances.
You may think about buying a camera from one of those places that advertises super low prices. Be careful. Only work with those with a good reputation. They tend to run several scams in these places. First, they sell "gray market" cameras which were not imported by Nikon USA, but were purchased by a consumer in the USA. Expect to be sold an extended warranty, and to pay for shipping costs at up to 5x the going rate (which they may make non-refundable even if you return the camera). Bottom line: Only deal with reputable places, store fronts, or vendors that you are used to buying from. Otherwise, you may end up with a product that doesn't have a US warranty, or is missing manuals or accessories.
Sharing with the World
Apple's iPhoto has its weaknesses, mostly in that it's very slow, and limited in its organizing capabilities, but it makes fantastic slide shows very quickly. You can take these slide shows, save them to QuickTime, optimize them through programs like Discreet's Cleaner to make them smaller, cross platform, and overall better for sharing via the web ... and you will be the favorite of all for putting together need slides. There's nothing like photos put to music ... it touches the heart. Cleaner is a fabulous product that will allow you all kinds of flexibility in working with QuickTime and other file formats (see http://www.discreet.com/).
With all the pictures that I've taken, I've been using a combination of iView MediaPro <http://www.iview-multimedia.com/> and iPhoto. iView is exceptionally good at moving through a lot of pictures very quickly. It gives you the ability to organize them, and the scrolling speed alone makes the program worthwhile. If you are serious, you will probably end up using this product. iView can also handle NEF files by looking at the jpg embedded in the NEF file format and does a far superior job at this than iPhoto does. By the time you read this article, there will be a consumer version (iView Media) that may be a better solution for you than iPhoto.
And, if you are interested in a neat little site that allows for easy uploading of a lot of pictures on the web, check out http://www.fotki.com/ which has some of the features of iPhoto's online sharing as well as ofoto's but at a much lower cost.
Nikon Resources in Learning
There's a ton of stuff on the net that's helpful to learning about taking pictures. A new resource that's out there is the newly launched SLR Learning Center by Nikon. See http://www.slrlearningcenter.com/ ... and it's especially useful for those that want to know more, but are not currently at a professional level of photography.
You probably can guess that I not only like this camera, I love it. As of this writing, I've now shot over 10,000 pictures with it, and it's brought me back to a true love of photography. Capturing moments in a way that makes me feel like an artist. Yes, $3500 is a lot for a full system ... but it's the best money I've spent in a long, long time.
Neil is the publisher of MacTech Magazine. As a closet geek, he tends to experiment with some of the more interesting forms of technology, and then frightening the magazine staff by announcing he'll write about them. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org