Sunday, April 06, 2008

Nikon DSLRs and Lenses, Computer Buying Rules of Thumb, and Twins

There's a new web page on my site, which is very much under development. You can find it here. As I said, very much under development.

I've recently purchased (retail! ugh!) a Nikon 18-200mm lens. This is unquestionably the most jaw-droppingly awesome (cropped-frame) DSLR lens ever, but I'd been putting off buying it because of my general attitude towards digital equipment purchases in general, and DSLR stuff in particular, which has served me well, but cost me in the neighborhood of $150 in the case of this lens. Still, overall, no regrets.

Note: the photo posted above was taken with a Panasonic TZ-3 point and shoot in a dimly lit NICU, so don't blame Nikon for the image quality. The TZ-3 is a small, cheap camera with a 10:1 zoom ratio optically stabilized Leica lens that can shoot video at similar quality to a MiniDV camcorder. Its successors (the TZ-5) can shoot 720p. And unlke the Canon TX-1 these cameras have good ergonomics and are cheap.

Anyway, when you've just had gorgeous twins after four years of trying, you don't order the camera lens you plan to immortalize them with from the cheapest vendor on froogle, even if it will save you a few bucks, if it means missing their first few days. Or, at least, I don't.

The Problem with Camera Reviews

The basic problem with online camera reviews is the complete lack of sane standards or criteria. For example, some reviewers such as dpreview and cameralabs (the two best review sites I've found) seem to insist on evaluating cameras by using their default settings -- which is barely defensible for point-and-shoots, and indefensible for serious cameras -- and spending most or all their time looking at JPEGs for cameras that shoot RAW.

Consequently, I've yet to see any useful reviews of Pentax DSLRs because they've got crappy in-camera JPEG processing and stupid presets. Just one serious review where the reviewer tweaked the settings before writing a "hey this is a pretty good camera with poor presets and JPEG output" review would be nice.

Anyway, the history of DSLRs is such that it's very hard to really commit to a camera line (i.e. lens line) because everything is in such a state of flux. Consider Olympus who decided to adopt the Kodak-driven 4/3 standard (i.e. standardized vendor-neutral lens mount, smaller sensor) with the tacit assumption that DSLRs would standardize on smaller sensors. Boy is anyone who has invested a ton of money in Zuiko 4/3 system lenses screwed.

Nikon seemed to be sticking to cropped frame cameras too, but then responsed to the Canon full-frame cameras with the D3, which shows us that, in the end, DSLRs will settle on 35mm sized sensors, Olympus will be screwed, and cropped-frame digital lenses will only be useful in special "cropped frame" modes on bodies that ship in 2009 or 2010. Given that most people who shop for camera lenses are used to accumulating their lenses over a lifetime, this means ... well just go back to my comment about how screwed the folks who bought into the 4/3 system are.

Note that Kodak has this strange history of trying to popularize retarded film formats. Can you remember 135 cartridges (basically drop in film cartridges that used 35mm sized film but didn't require tricky threading... but didn't hold the film flat on the focal plane guaranteeing crap pictures)? How about 110? How about disc film? How about APS? The only "successful" launch they seem to have managed was disposable cameras, an achievement roughly as praiseworthy as the invention of spam (email, not the meat by-product, which is actually useful). Each of these formats was intended to combat the (basically non-existent) problem of loading film into a camera at the cost of sharpness and resolution.

Moore's Law and Digital Equipment Purchases

The rule of thumb I use to buy all forms of computer (and DSLRs are a computer with a lens mount) are as follows.

  1. Buy the best option that's substantially cheaper than top-of-the-line

  2. Only upgrade when the replacement is at least twice as "good"

  3. Avoid Vendor Lock-In Unless Absolutely Necessary

  4. Buy only the barest chassis from Apple

Here are some examples:

If you buy a top-of-the-line Mac Pro (ignoring RAM and hard disks) you'll pay $1600 more for 0.4 GHz of CPU speed. That's at best a 15% speed improvement for nearly 60% more cash.

If you bought a Nikon D200 instead of a Nikon D80 when they both came out, again you got basically the same camera but in a better constructed box for a lot more money. Sure, it's less likely to break, but (unless you make your living from Photography, and if you do, you don't need my advice) you could spend the difference on lenses which (subject to the extinction of cropped frame cameras issue touched on above) won't go obsolete in the time it takes UPS to deliver your new camera.

The Future Will Be Corrected On-The-Fly

The Nikon D3/D300 are, at least for the moment, a special case. They have the ability to compensate for lens distortion -- at least by Nikon lenses -- during in-camera processing, so you can shoot JPEGs in burst mode and have lens aberrations corrected on-the-fly. Moving forward, this threatens to turn many characteristics of lenses into software, and thus put optics into digital overdrive. Today, lenses designed and made before WWII compete with anything produced today, making lenses a lifetime investment. But if cameras can correct for lens flaws (chromatic and geometric aberration, falloff, etc.) on-the-fly, then you could basically stick a magnifying glass in front of the damn thing, completely changing the economics of camera lenses.

Some time ago, Panasonic (I think) pioneered digital cameras which continuously took photos and then simply grabbed the one that was taken as you pressed the shutter button. Casio has gone well beyond this with their latest camera which can (in one mode) temporally bracket your shot for 30 frames to either "side" of the point you release the shutter (at up to 60 fps at full resolution). You take a picture, and then select from the 60 frames the camera grabbed for the shot you really wanted. No more missing the point at which the bat struck the ball, the bride's lips touched the groom's or whatever.

Aside from having Casio optics, sensors, and ergonomics, the principle is brilliant. A future digital "point-and-shoot" could have a crappy lens whose bad characteristics are corrected on-the-fly by the onboard computer, and temporally shoot "around" the shutter press. Resolution is already high enough to allow composition after the fact (just keep zoomed out a little and you can crop in Photoshop).


So I've been shooting a lot of pictures of baby girls for some strange reason, using a Nikon D50 with a new 18-200mm VR lens (after being blown away by this thing's versatility, sharpness, and fast focusing, I must note that the damn thing is heavy, I may end up buying an 18-55mm VR lens for more casual use) and also my TZ-3. The TZ-3 pretty much makes SD video camcorders obsolete, although its video quality isn't quite as good. I would imagine that the TZ-5 really does stomp SD camcorders.

The Nikon D50 was the first Nikon DSLR that was under $1000 and well-featured. It was, in essence, identical to the D70 (including having a focus motor and top-side display, things the D40, D40x, and D60 all lack). Following my own rule of thumb, I've yet to upgrade since there's been no camera that's twice as good at roughly the same price, so far. (The D80 has actually hit the price-point, but it's not "twice as good" and it will presumably be supplanted by a D80x or D90 which will be "twice as good".)

Going back to my dissing of camera reviews, another major point is that for almost everybody, the real difference between cameras is low light performance, and yet almost no space is devoted to it. E.g. dpreview's galleries usually only feature one or two pictures taken at high ISO. Given the price differences between cameras with it and cameras without it, image stabilization is simply a must-have. Cameras without it should simply be pointed, and laughed, at. Optical is better than sensor-based. (My TZ-3 shoots like a steadicam.) Electronic is a joke. When reviewing digital cameras, a camera without image stabilization should simply be rated "useless" unless it has some incredible redeeming quality (like awesome high ISO performance).

Of all the photos I've taken in the past couple of weeks, only in one case was I shooting in ideal lighting conditions. And, guess what, even disposables shot pretty good photos in "ideal lighting conditions". Pinhole cameras rock. When you're shooting hand-held shots without flash at 1/4s in a dimly lit NICU, or at a family reunion, or in a museum, or at a concert, or any of the other zillions of badly lit places most photos get taken, "studio lighting comparisons" and "sample landscapes" are irrelevant. The ability of a DSLR to fire off 3-8 full resolution frames in a second through top quality glass is simply incomparable to smaller cameras.

One of the truly beautiful things about shooting baby pictures with a VR lens at very low shutter speeds is that I can capture the subject's motion without camera shake. It's a beautiful thing.

Oh well, feeding time...