Sunday, December 21, 2008

Our Town

Where else do we begin to learn but at "our town"?

That's where we find the value of a silhouette...

And also where we learn to appreciate the telling details...

And the stuff that makes life worth living. 

I live in a small, unpretentious town in the Midwest: DeKalb, IL (pop. 39,018), home of Northern Illinois University, where I teach.  The town is not known for its picturesque views but for being the cradle of barbed wire and Cindy Crawford (proud DeKalb High School graduate).  

DeKalb is also the place where I cut my photographic teeth.  I couldn't do it in Guatemala, where I was born, simply because I had eyes, but no camera.  Here, I found myself with both. 

My theme for the next few entries, then, is, you guessed, my town, what it looks like, and what I've seen in it.  Of course, that includes shots in film and digital.  The ones above, for now, are recent additions from the D700... which is, indeed, a joy to use, and very tolerant to low temperatures (as the GM grill should prove).


Friday, December 19, 2008


Like many things in life, sharpness can be a blessing in disguise.

Why obsess about it?  What does it bring with?  Are the great photos in the world all that sharp? 

And, conversely, what's with the opposite of sharp?  What does it say?  What can it suggest? 

Long before plunging into digital photography, one very good photographer with years of excellent work explained to me his reason to drop film and buy a Nikon D200 this way: "No grain."   I was still thinking about the amazing sharpness of my Leicas and some of my Nikons (especially the AF ED 80-200 I have), and decided that if grain was a problem, sharpness was overrated.

Above are some old images, made with my Nikon F5 and my AF-S 24-120 VR on Kodak tungsten film ISO 160, in December 2007, in Chicago, in the midst of a hellish winter.  These images show (gasp!) grain.  In fact, the grain here is just gorgeous... and makes me wonder about the reasons, the legitimate reasons why I fell in love with sharpness. 

And now, one that stands out, at least to me:

Dearborn Bridge in Chicago

In this photograph of the Dearborn Bridge in Chicago, there was a lot of grain in the lower right corner before I tinkered with it. While I was initially annoyed about it, suddently I realized that this precise aspect drew me to certain images: grain, like the painter's strokes, is not a problem here, not something to eschew, but the artist's "signature", the proof that we're not looking at nature itself, but at something that represents a particular subjectivity. 

Pretty nice, huh?  Grain, as opposed to what others term "coldness" or "impure perfection", separates two different media.  Digital gives us a perfect image, but film is still a personal choice.  Since this film has a slow ISO (just 160), what would the photos be like with, say, a typical B&W ISO 400?  Grain galore...  Does it mean "imperfection" or is it just an interpretive view?

What do you think now? 

Monday, December 15, 2008

My menu: or the choices we make.

What have you added to the "My Menu" tab in the D700?

I have decided to make a choice about activating D-Lighting if I'm going to use it in uneven lighting situations.  So, that's one item (Candy jars, Sycamore, IL, with Nikon AF-S 24-70 f2.8, at f5.6, ISO 5000).

Another option I singled out and added to "My Menu" was battery order and battery information.  Even though I have the MB-D10, I don't want to rely on the battery icon that appears on the LCD.  In my experience, it can go from one notch below full, to very urgently low in the blink of an eye (Chicago Christmas Market, with the same gear above, but with lens wide open). 

Then, I also added "Image Area" (the choice between DX and FX coverage).  Why not?  At times it does come in handy (Chicago, a view from the Daley Plaza, shot just like the cats photo above: lens wide open and fast ISO; only difference is that I turned off the Auto D-Lighting).

Now, the photographs above DO NOT illustrate necessarily any of the functions I added to "My Menu," and I've used them just to show what this camera can do.  Oddly enough, I tend to use it more and more for very low light situations, in which the WB gets, let's say, "challenged."  The jury is still out (to me) about whether it is better to use the Auto or to select a choice.  In a few situations, the Auto has worked well, and given me the same results that the Tungsten choice yields (under tungsten light, of course).  I also used it with the flash option, and the results seemed better than Auto.  The problem I face is that choosing constantly can be a drag.  Hence, Auto is the least bothering choice, and also the most convenient.  

I will be using RAW sometime soon... hopefully, before I leave for San Francisco, on Dec 26.  Who knows, if it is possible, I may post from there and share what can be done with RAW, even if I had to turn it into jpegs first.  

Monday, December 8, 2008

Shooting in the cold

In very cold temperatures...

Of course, with the AF-S 24-70 f2.8 (minuscule speck of flare fixed in PSE here)...

And with the Nikon matrix meter.

I can report that the D700 worked wonders in very low temperatures.  The manual shows that the camera can work at 32°F, but then, any given camera can perform at this temperature.  The fact that this one, just like other Nikon bodies, can work flawlessly at something like 12°F really means the world to me.   Nice it is to add that the battery didn't lose significant amounts of power here: it left the house and came back at the exact same level.  Granted, it was not a long walk... after all, I am not insensitive to cold! 

Other findings: forget about perfect WB.  That's not a thing with this camera alone.  It's a problem with digital.  I recall some of the playful shots I made with a small Lumix under different light conditions and they showed a peculiar color cast.  Just in case, readers recently converted to digital (like me) expect a magical rendition of color under challenging lighting conditions...  rest assured that it won't happen.  Digital sensors ain't that smart.

More to come as I make a little more time.  

Monday, December 1, 2008

Portraits with this combo

Portraits with the D700 and the AF-S 24-70 lens.

These girls were roasting and selling nuts at the Krist Kindl Market in Chicago.  While I saw one of them completely in the dark (and wondered what the lens saw to lock focus on her), the fact that I had Active D-Lighting on helped a lot.  Their faces are visible... and they're smiling. 

Another vendor at the Krist Kindl Markt in Chicago IL.  With Active D-Lighting on and the camera on P&S mode (more on that later), it's not too bad.  Problem: the color cast is simply part of the image.  There's no way I can fix this without altering the white balance completely. 

This one was different.  The lens wasn't completely extended to the longest, and the window was letting in a fairly strong bit of sun, so I used my built-in flash here.  No D-Lighting trick was necessary, as the photograph looks good on my screen and in print.  

These two girls looked friendly enough to say yes to my request to photograph them.  Since I was in a bit of a hurry, I focused on the one on the right, and compensated the exposure by opening it two thirds (the D700 has the Easy-Exposure feature on).  That will explain the blown highlights behind them. 

Portraiture does not need to be with long lenses only, and this zoom just proves that.  Of course, there's the operator's skill at play here... but that's enough for another day, when we deal with urban 'scapes.  In the meanwhile, I will keep using long lenses for anything but portraiture, and wide-angles for people shots.  Why not? 

Friday, November 28, 2008

Continuing with this Nikon lens

Truly versatile, I am not missing my AF-S 24-120 VR as much as I thought...

In fact, I wonder what is it I did when I didn't have this lens...  As noticeable above, while not a macro, it's remarkably close.  The photo above was taken in a store at Hinsdale, IL, at a focal length of 70mm, and not quite close to the subject (farther than one foot), wide open.  Yet the detail is amazing.

Of course, if to the quality of the lens we add the miracle of D-Lighting (which saved this duck from looking quite gloomy), this is some winning duo.  I cannot recall the exact focal length at which this photograph was made, but it was not 70mm.  Light at my in-laws's home, where this shot was taken, was natural, coming in from a window.  

At the risk of sounding corny I must admit that I really cannot find fault with this lens.  Any further attempt at "reviewing" it would sound sycophantic.  Despite its bulk (which is severe), it's a lens to have and keep.  With my AF-S 24-85 G I used to sense a bit of a warm tone through the viewfinder whenever I used the lens in my F100 and my F5.  The AF-S 24-120 VR was excessively dim in the film bodies, and even in the D700.  The Sigma AF 24-70 was heavy and noisy, but this one?  It's perfect!  Even if the zoom turns in the opposite direction of the Sigma's, the adaptation process is relatively easy.  And the fact that the zoom does not change its size in noticeable form (the protrusion always stays under the hood) makes it even better.  But one thing should be noted: this lens is conspicuous.  It has a nice design, but it is not discrete.  My theory is that professional cameras and lenses need not to be discrete because they were designed for professional image takers, who are going to be conspicuous thanks to their cameras.  If the camera (and its user) can be spotted a mile away, why bother making the lens small or light?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What to say about the Nikon AF-S 24-70 f2.8?

One word...

Or maybe two... 

If any, which would be the first?

Illuminating, perhaps?

In short, this lens is astounding.  Unlike other Nikon zooms, this one allows for a very well lit viewfinder.  Granted, something like this appears when I use my 80-200 f2.8, but there more things to say about this lens and it's less expensive brethren, the Sigma AF 24-70 f2.8 (for sale, by the way). 

The first is in the position and finish of the zoom ring.  Like in the Sigma 24-70 f2.8, it's close to the mount and camera body.  Unlike the Sigma's, it's very well dampened and smooth. 

The zooming makes the lens protrude out of its casing.  Like the Sigma, it is longer at its wider end (go figure...).  Unlike the Sigma, the protrusion is covered by the hood.  To the casual observer, this lens never changes its size.  

Finally, the filter size difference is significant.  With the Sigma, filters are size 82mm.  With the Nikon, they are 77mm (more affordable and common size).  

One big difference: the Nikon's barrel seems to be metal.  Sigma has a strong, firm barrel, but it's still polycarbonate.  Both, however, have a very confortable close-focusing distance, and then allow for decent closeup shots. 

All these shots were made with the D700 at ISO 5000 (at least) and wide-open .  The details are astounding, and the nicest thing is that this lens is surprisingly fast to focus, and extremely quiet, as it fits to any AF-S product.  

I will keep trying this glass under different conditions.  It's a keeper, and a very fit lens for this camera. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Exposure quick fix

Last night, I spent an impressive amount of time with this camera..

While I was at it, I tinkered with some of the photos I had in my card.  The one above, with the Sigma AF 24-70, did get some help from the built-in flash.  

This one (same lens), didn't.

And this very grumpy Ben, wasn't really under the flash either.

So, the reason I posted them is that, in the end, all got the benefit of the D-lighting exposure remedy built in the menus of the camera.  While you can have Active D-Lighting on, D-Lighting alone only comes up when you click the OK button twice while viewing a photograph in the monitor.  Then, you see a choice of your photo as is, next to another one, modified with High, Normal or Low D-Lighting.  It seems to be a "smart fix" that corrects shadows (in a histogram, it probably moves the midtone slider a bit, without altering the other two).  My coffee mug did get some additional, judicious light, while the bottle didn't.  Ben, however, got a bit of the filter treatment... but the truth is that the shot pretty much looks the same as when I looked at it first.

BTW, I'm still learning, and not blaming the camera for my mistakes.  In any event, I had to realize, philosophically, that digital is not any better than film in terms of rendering an image the way we see it.  Colors will change, light will have an effect, no matter what we do with WB, but in the end, the good thing about digital is... that is different. 

And that's the news for today... Of course, without mentioning that my newest zoom (a financial suicide, but then, life is short) may be here on Monday, Nov. 25.  

Be back soon! 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Monster a-coming!

All these shots were done with some lenses I have already.

This one, with my Sigma AF 24-70 f2.8 (ISO 3000)

This one, also with my Sigma AF 24-70 f2.8 (ISO 800)

And this one, with my Tamron 200-400 f5.6 in DX mode. 

However, there are some small things that leave me slightly unsatisfied with this camera.  First, the sharpness isn't all that's cracked up to be, and then, there's a strange cast on all the color shots taken indoors without flash.  Then, the noticeable difference between both photographs with the Sigma.  It may be me, it may be the ISO, it may be something else... I won't blame it on the camera, as I still need to learn what some settings do.  Actually, my cat photograph below was taken with my Nikon AF 24-120 VR, of ill repute to some... and the sharpness is amazing.  Go figure... 

In any event, one thing kept coming up in my mind: if I managed to snag a camera like this one, the right thing is to have the best possible lens.  

So, I simply went and ordered the Nikon 24-70 AF-S from Amazon today. 

Actually, I am very happy with the shots from my Nikon 24-120, but the Sigma ones... aren't that great wide open.  And, being used to Leicas, I simply prefer to shoot wide-open.  The DOF in these lenses isn't like the German glass...  I can learn to live with that, but however shallow, I'd enjoy a bit more sharpness in my open shots.  We'll see what it is like when the zoom comes...  And, of course, I won't take long to post some results here. 

BTW, I downloaded Nikon Capture today.  The 60-day trial version still hasn't won me over yet.  My computers, however, could handle it well.  I may use it (combined with Nikon View) to turn NEFs into JPEGs.   I also played connecting the camera to my laptop and transferring around 60 photographs (a total of over 230 MB).

But first things first: the lens should be coming on November 25th.  Just around the corner, right before Thanksgiving.  Let's see how that one plays the trick.   

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Personal Camera

It's amazing what this camera can do on command...

Julia Grant's Statue, overlooking Galena

The VFW sign... at night, of course.

Cadillac Trunk and Street Light

It's amazing how personal a camera can be.  In the few days I've had it (just a week from today) and I'm still in awe.  This one is quite complex.

However, at least I managed to figure out which functions I like to use, check out or control often enough, so I transferred to "My Menu" already.  I want to have control over the photographs (Picture Control), the energy level (Battery control and order), and Image Extension (to pick between using FX and DX).  Other things I changed from day one were the annoying buzz (turned off), the focus-assist light (off) and the on-demand grid lines in the viewfinder (turned on). 

Now... if I only could figure out how to "warm" some of the high ISO shots I've taken under tungsten light with Auto WB...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Out in Galena, IL

The music of old times...

The spirits of old times...

The candies of old times...

These photographs were taken in Galena, IL, with my Nikon D700 and my AF-S 24-120 G lens, just on November 15th, 2008.  It was a cool, gray day, so I set the picture mode to vivid and the ISO at 400 for outdoors, while indoors was at ISO 3200.  

While wondering about, I figured out how to add custom functions to my Personal Menu, so I did put Picture Control there.  Before even getting out of the car, I also had set my card to record RAW and fine JPEGs, and it gave me room for some 153 photographs in the card (buffer room for 6, but I can live with that).   

So far, so good... in fact, I was really proud of having done all the updates, as now, even Photoshop Elements can read NEF files!  Otherwise, the copying of files off the card and into the computer is relatively easy thanks to NX Transfer.  I haven't seen in what way is NXView so good... but then, I'm fairly ignorant, so let me catch up a bit. 

Will return when I have some further material developed.  Thanks!   

Friday, November 14, 2008

More impressive shots

My photos are so lame, only this camera saves them... just a bit.

First, our youngest cat, Mimí, looking up (AF-S 24-120 VR).  Then, the headless gargoyle from NIU (w/ Sigma AF 24-70 f2.8) and last, one of my first shots with this camera: my home street lamp (same Sigma lens).  

First, I downloaded the images from my card with the aid of a card reader (Lexar, firewire connection).  Then, after Nikon View opened immediately, I renamed them and transferred to a folder of mine.  Once copied onto my computer, I opened Photoshop Elements and re-saved them as Photoshop JPEGs.  

Is that how I should treat RAW files?  Does ViewNX just open them and turns them into TIFFs or something?  

Sure, I hear so much about the wonders of RAW files... but I still feel kinda reluctant about using them.  Then, why did I get this camera?  Heck, time to try.  Hopefully, next time I update this blog I'll have Capture in my hard disk.  

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Out of the box

Two shots taken with this camera, probably half an hour after I took it out of the box.

Two hanging there

As Ellis Vener said in his own blog about the D700, it's a nice packaging job.  Here's the second image...

Lonely again

The third does test the ISO limits... just a bit. It's my own desk.

My Desk While Not at Work

Despite of the fact that the Nikon software scared the bejesus out of me by jumping and opening on its own when I plugged the card reader in my computer, I'm finding the whole experience kinda nice.

Let's see how this camera works with my telephotos...

More news later!

BTW, does anybody know about tutorials to understand Nikon's software?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hooray! It's here!

The Nikon D700 body I ordered came in today.  Oddly enough, they didn't add a 4 GB card as offered initially... but I won't quibble.  They sent the camera via Next-Day UPS shipping and that's good enough.

Now... first impressions:
  • The body, heavy already, feels pretty much like my Nikon F100
  • The battery came partially charged.  It was easy to get it to work.
  • Menus and options are remarkably LESS complicated than I expected
  • Photographers used to the layout and controls of Nikon AF film cameras won't find this one any different from the F100 or the F5.
  • Buttons, controls, dials... are remarkably smooth
That's all for now.  I've set the camera to shoot JPEGs for now, but later, once I have figured out how to handle RAW files and other quirks, I'll set it up for the job.  For now, I have still room for about 250 exposures in a 2GB Lexar card. 

BTW, the camera is very responsive, and can be used just minutes after getting it out of the box.  In short, I'm a happy camper!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Shipped at last!

My Nikon D700 has been shipped at last!  After an anxious weekend and an ugly Monday (the store website didn't show anything about my order except that it was "processing"), now I got an e-mail from telling me the camera was sent out my way. 

Funny... last night I was so upset I decided to call them, cancel my order, and buy the camera from B&H instead. Maybe I should have done that in the beginning... Hmmm... Lesson learned.

Let's spend some time scanning, writing stuff, reading the D700 manual, whatever it takes to kill time.

Friends from Argentina during the 2006 Cornfest in DeKalb IL (Nikon F100, AF-S 24-85, SB-30)

Frances (my wife) and friends at the 2006 Cornfest (same, same)

Ferris wheel operators (I owe them a print of this photograph!  Same gear)

Of course they're OOF!  I used the slow synchronization with the flash!  For some reason, I forgot I had set it that way... and while I got the background (dark) nicely exposed, the scans are despicable and people moved while the shutter was open.  But... I like them.  That's it. 

More to come while the other thing comes! (I know, I'm bad at puns)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

First Day, Looong Wait

Heck, why not? Let's post some Nikon photos...

Ready for the party (Nikon F5, AFS 24-120 VR, Provia ISO 400)

Red Leaves, Fall 08 in DeKalb (Nikon F5, 80-200, Superia ISO 200)

Our cats, Mimi and Ben (Nikon F5, Sigma AF 24-70 f2.8, Kodachrome ISO 64)

I've been swamped with busy work; I may be a professor, but I've chosen to study German and I'm on sabbatical, so today, to think of something else and not about the impending arrival of my new camera, I went all into my work.  For a good part of the morning, worked on an essay for publication, and this evening (after going to see a play in campus), I just finished my presentation for my German class... on Leica cameras. 

I may read another part of the Nikon D700 manual I downloaded some time ago, but then, there's a book I should read, and I haven't even started with it.  Seems that I got more "entertainment" than I can handle.  If things keep going this way, I'm not going to have time to enjoy my new camera, especially since we have a friend coming to visit on Friday.  In fact, it was because of his visit (and our consequent trip to Galena, IL) that I decided to pull the trigger on my Nikon D700.  In short, Galena will be "the maiden voyage" for my digital behemoth. 

In the meanwhile, I'll keep working, and when I update this blog, I'll throw in some Nikon shots of yore... 

Saturday, November 8, 2008

First Things First

As the title says, this is the neophyte's guide, not a guide for a neophyte.  Not only is this a neophyte's guide, but also it's a guide from a neophyte to all other neophytes around.  Neophytes like me, for whom digital technology is pretty much an unexplored forest. 

However, I'm not entirely new to digital.  In fact, I do own a very small digital camera (a small Lumix, sitting here next to me, largely unused unless I want to sell things).  Also, I have a scanner and a printer and have done some scanning of slides, taken with my film gear.  In fact, I do use it to post items in my other blog, one devoted to my Leica M4-2.

Despite being such a film user, I had been contemplating the purchase of a digital body and conditioned it until Nikon came with a full-frame camera, so I could use my wide-angle glass.  It seemed an impossible, distant proposition when I decided over it in 2004... but they were smart in taking their time.   While their first full-frame, the Nikon D3, was simply out of my reach, their second, the Nikon D700, was not as distant... and I made the decision to buy one. 

Which I finally did.  On Thursday, November 6, 2008, I simply went and ordered a Nikon D700 body from (a fairly good retailer, offering a good deal on the D700 body).  Shortly afterwards, as a lot of questions started crowding in my head, I came upon the idea of this blog, in which I plan on writing about my experiences with this camera, its complicated menus and the variety of customized functions (I've downloaded the manual from Nikon USA and I'm overwhelmed every time I look at it). 

Will I succeed in understanding what this camera can do?  Not at first.  It took me a year to grasp the controls of my Nikon F80 (a grey version of the celebrated, now discontinued, Nikon N80), but at least learning to use well my Nikon F100 was a lot easier, and considerably faster was my transition into the Nikon F5.  With all this "expertise" under my belt, using the "film side" of a digital camera shouldn't be too difficult.  

I'm not posting photographs for now, but I may yield to the temptation as a way to kill time before the camera arrives.  In the meanwhile, having upgraded the shipping, it should be arriving on Thursday, Nov 13, one week after the day I ordered it. 

Let's see how I cope with the wait...