Tag Archive | Nikon

Take a stress pill: dual memory cards

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The Nikon Z7 is undoubtedly a quantum leap in Nikon’s camera evolution, essentially putting the best features of the Dxx series into a mirrorless body. Yet there is the inevitable complaint: “No dual card slot? Only one? No pro camera is like that!”

Pardon me, but plenty of pro cameras have been like that – and not just pro digital cameras in some benighted past (n.b., an era ending maybe 4 years ago). Consider the D2x and D700. Anyone want to call those “not pro” cameras? How about the flagships of the EOS fleet for a stretch?

In an era where film ruled the waves, it’s not like you could put two films into the same camera simultaneously for “backup.” And back then, pictures were scarcer and more valuable, and your chances of losing a shot due to a light leak, film defect, or development failure were astronomically high compared to anything that could befall a digital outfit.

So let’s move to digital. What is the measured malfunction rate of properly kept, brand-named CF, SD, or XQD cards? Hint: it’s astronomically low compared to the failure rate of the cameras that use them (SanDisk posts an MTBF of 1 million hours, or 114 years). Here are things that are far more likely to happen:

  • Dying (which is all but guaranteed within the MTBF cited)
  • Being killed in a car crash
  • Being hit by lightning
  • Finding a lost cousin on some genealogy site
  • Winning Powerball

The threat of a bad flash card bringing down the system is simply not a real thing for most people. Dropping a camera, having a battery burn out, or suffering some physical mishap is far more likely. Even being in a car accident is more likely. And for that matter, why wouldn’t “any responsible pro” bring an extra car? An extra photographer?

I suspect that many of the people complaining about this issue — if not simply fronting to front — are semi-pros who scraped up every last dime to buy one really good camera to shoot wedding pictures. Fair enough. Maybe they had a bad experience with a counterfeit card once. Abused a good one. Ran one into the ground. It’s also possible to screw up the file system of a card by failing to respect buffers that are still clearing or repeatedly using without ever doing an in-camera format.

But this group is not positioned to speak for all pros (i.e., make the statement that “no pro would…”). Real pros in every field use redundancy – and it’s not limited to using two cards in the same camera (which does nothing if your camera is the single point of failure). Redundancy could include:

  • Using smaller cards to reduce the “all eggs in one basket” effect. 32Gb is fine. Smaller media is one of the reasons that film was safe; 36 frames on a roll of film is small.
  • Rotating between cards over the course of the shoot (the nice thing about EXIF is that Lightroom can combine shots from multiple cards into exactly the right order).
  • Using two cameras and two cards, which means you will never be high and dry.
  • Beaming your images in real time using wireless (a Toshiba Flashair is great for this, though there is no XQD version yet).
  • Downloading one card to your laptop while shooting a second card.

When you consider the other options, thinking that two cards in a camera would get you off the hook seems a little odd, does it not?

Maybe the whole “multiple card slot” thing is a product of general societal economic insecurity. Or a “mine is bigger than yours” mindset. But any way you slice it, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense for most people.

End-stage​ Nikon manual focus

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There must have once been an awkward moment when Homo sapiens neanderthalensis saw a gangly baby Homo sapiens sapiens and wondered, for the first time, what the future would be like. The Neanderthals basically merged into the surviving human line (or were eaten —  the explanation seems to vary now) — and essentially disappeared. But not before giving Europeans those nettlesome brow ridges and occipital buns.

Neanderthal shock happened sooner in the Canon world than it did for Nikon. Canon released its last mainline* manual-focus camera (the T90) in 1986. Canon did not then engage in a merging of genes but instead a lens-mount genocide. FD lenses faded fast as EOS came to rule the jungle. Nikon took a few more years to get there in 1990 with its last manual focus camera, though that camera lingered for five years on the market — and Nikon never really gave up on the F-mount. Well, not immediately. Like Neanderthals, some degree of interbreeding was available, but all that fur began to repel people after a while.  All of this was 23 years ago now.

By the way, when the last newly designed Nikon MF SLR went out of production, this was dominating the disco:

Nikon would in 2001 release the FM3a, but like the contemporaneous Beatles 1 album. It was just a rehashed FE2 with a new shutter. And that was so long ago that kids born then are old enough to vote. If you were an adult excited about the release of the FM3a, you’ve probably just passed out of the “18-35” demographic, if not past the “uncool 44” milestone. But don’t worry – Nikon has your back with retro-rerun cameras like that, the S3 and SP. Because it’s more fun to reminisce with cameras that were shiny and new (the first time) before you were born.

* By mainline, I mean serious and mass-produced. Yes, Canon made a craptastic T60 and Nikon made (or branded…) the FM10, but these were cameras for developing markets or students.

Detour into how Nikon’s product strategy: so many cameras

It would not be a Machine Planet article without a detour into some kind of editorial, and here is one: digital cameras did not usher in the age of meaningless upgrades and gimmicks designed to excite camera buyers into “one more body.” Film SLRs were the greatest feature-chase of them all: the lenses and the film are the ultimate determinants of performance on a film camera; everything else is metering, motor, and in some cases autofocus.

Consider that in 1980-1985, Nikon fielded five prosumer cameras based on the same platform (FM, FE, FM2, FE2, and FA), at the same time it fielded three based on an intermediate architecture (EM, FG, and FG-20), and a next-generation intermediate (N2000/F-501). All of these variations revolve around binary features/exclusions: needle meter or not; matrix metering or not; internal motor or not; program mode or not. And you thought Sony had a short attention span?

To be fair (why start now?!), by the sunset of Nikon’s manual focus cameras in 1995, post-processing was out of the reach of most people. Photoshop was at version 3 and barely able to handle the tasks it routinely handles today (it also fit on 5 Mac floppies…); scanners were insanely expensive; and if you had a bad slide, you were out of luck. If you had a bad negative, you were mostly at the mercy of Candice at Fox Photo to maybe run that one neg through the Fujitsu at N-N-N-3 instead of N-N-N-N (this person actually existed, was roughly my age, and was quite cute).

Even when Nikon made the jump to autofocus, this proliferation continued, with performance carefully meted out between models that used the same AF module (consider that the N50, N70, N4004, N5005, N6006, N8008/s, and F4 used the same module – with outcomes so different, you have to wonder what they were holding back.

But what was going on with the lenses?

Nikon’s lenses had a more tortured history that got off to its first wrong turn when Nikon started releasing metered prisms. That would have been the time to revise the mount to include aperture information (relative and maximum). Almost the entire subsequent drama of Nikon lenses was a product of trying to fix that: prongs, AI, AI-s, CPUs. When the Photomic metered prism came out in 1962, Nikon already knew that it was enough of a market force that it could have moved to a meter coupling in the body without losing its user base. For six long years, Nikon’s meter prisms required the user to set the maximum aperture of the lens on the meter, manually.

Actually, that didn’t just stop in six years. In 1968, Nikon introduced the FTn finder, with its semi-automatic indexing: mount the lens; turn the ring right, turn the ring left, done. The kludginess of this solution was only more glaring when companies like Konica were releasing lenses that could transmit maximum aperture information with a pin on the back of the lens (as opposed to a poky thing screwed onto its aperture ring) and using irises that were consistently linear, so as to allow automatic control of the iris. Granted, shutter priority did not predominate as a single-factor autoexposure method, but the point was that Nikon was well behind the curve. By 1971, Canon’s pro bodies had moved the meter cell to inside the body and were transmitting relative aperture position invisibly.

Nikon’s Aperture-Indexing (AI) lenses did away in 1977 with the prong, song, and dance because they fit cameras that only needed to know how many stops the selected aperture was away from wide-open. If anyone knew what the max aperture of the lens was, it was the user – not the camera. AI was in a way a step backward from the FTN, since it was only a system for transmitting relative apertures. And AI-only bodies turned out to be the full-employment act for repair people and machinists – because mounting an old lens on an AI body, absent modifications to the lens, the mildest of which was a new aperture control ring, would cause damage. AI ushered in a tiny doubled aperture scale, the Aperture Direct Readout (ADR) that some cameras could display in their viewfinders via a wedge prism, like the F2AS, F3, FA, F4, and F5.

The next iteration, AI-s (1981) brought Nikon almost up to date. It finally added a maximum aperture indexing pin to lenses (as well as a pin that transmitted the focal length to the camera. The only camera to fully implement this scheme was the FA, for its program and shutter-priority modes. There were three implementations of AI-s:

  • The FA used the full AI-s protocol for AI-s lenses, going open loop when shooting AI-s lenses (because it knew the maximum aperture, focal length range, and stop-down rate) and selected a program based on focal length. It went closed-loop when shooting AI and AI-converted lenses. By “closed loop,” I mean the camera reads the scene, stops down, takes another reading, and finally fires.
  • The FG and its replacement the N2000/F-301 all used a similar open/closed-loop setup, except these cameras could not read the focal length via the pin and thus only used one program (or one selected by the user)
  • The N2020/F-501 would act like an N2000/F-501, but it could switch to P-Hi from P-Auto when a CPU-equipped lens with a longer focal length was mounted.

Of course, with closed-loop exposure, the only value of AI-s is purely informational; the FA and FG/N2000 systems don’t really need to know maximum aperture to work. And when it comes to “Program” operation for AI lenses, is it really programmed in the sense of a neat little graph – or is it shutter speeds programmed against apertures stopped down against the maximum?

A tale of two cameras

Nikon’s technological peak came with the FA, pretty much the most sophisticated camera anyone had ever seen. Four (count ’em!) exposure modes – Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual, all powered by two MS-76 cells. Matrix metering with any native AI lens. Program shooting with any AI-s lens. LCD display in the viewfinder. And… it wasn’t quite ready for prime-time, developing a reputation for having flaky electronics and poor matrix metering. Or so people say.

In 1990, the successor to the FA, the N6000, hit the scene. The N6000 kept most of the FA feature set but swapped in some new features. Incoming ones included:

  • A 2 fps internal motor drive to replace the bulky MD-15
  • Auto film loading
  • Power film rewinding
  • Auto bracketing
  • Slow and rear-curtain flash
  • DX code reading
  • Automatic balanced fill flash
  • An “analog” (graphic) over/under-exposure display that pops up in manual mode
  • Exposure mode indicator in the viewfinder

You could argue that the N8008 was the successor to the “technocamera” FA, but the N8008 was an autofocus camera. Or you might have argued the F4, which is a cross between an F3, an MD-12, and an FA. The departures with the N6000 were somewhat less notable:

  • Elimination of interchangeable focusing screens (which were apparently not a popular feature of the FA)
  • A new reliance on CPU lenses (AF and AI-P), which allowed the correct aperture to show in the viewfinder without an ADR display
  • Loss of program mode for AI-s lenses (due to CPU dependency)
  • Loss of matrix metering for AI-s lenses (same)
  • Loss of a mechanical shutter speed
  • Loss of 1/4000 sec on the shutter
  • Change from MS-76 button cells to the somewhat less common CR223A/CR-P2.

But for all intents and purposes, this was “it.” Although Nikon continued to sell (not make) the F3 into the mid-2000s, the only newish manual purpose-built manual focus design was the FM3a, which is little more functionally than an FE2 with a shutter that could also be governed mechanically. It also followed a six-year period in which the N6000 was off the market.

On Earth-399, Nikon made manual focus cameras from 1959 to 2270. But that is also the universe in which “George Washington freed the slaves… Abraham Lincoln was regarded as the father of his country… and George Custer became president of the Indian Federation.” (“Superman… you’re DEAD… DEAD… DEAD,” 1971).

First in/last in (F3AF/F3)

Nikon had always managed to be both early and late to the AF party. The Nikon F3AF emerged in 1983, just three years into the F3 era. In fact, it came onto the scene at the same time the DE-3 High Eyepoint finder came out (this is the thing that makes the F3 into the F3HP, the most popular variant). The F3AF was the first camera to use electronic contacts to control lens focus, using a contact system that is eerily similar to current Nikon lenses – but with a motor-in-the-lens implementation that most people came to associate with Canon. The manual focus version of the F3 proved wildly more popular and became one of the longest-running Nikons in history, with a 20-year run. That is catalog time, not necessarily production time. When it was time for the F4, Nikon was playing catchup with Minolta and Canon on AF, whose amateur cameras were upping the stakes.

The forgotten Nikons (N2020/N2000)

In 1984-1985, just after the F3AF, Nikon made another pair of cameras, one with AF and one without. These were the N2020 (F-501) and its value-engineered little brother, the manual-focus N2000 (F-301). These were essentially a motorized version of the FG. According to lore, the N2000 was a last-minute decision from the accountants. That’s believable since it allowed the company to drop the FG and make two cameras on a common set of tooling. But it cannot actually be true, because the N2000 was the first of the two cameras to be released – and by a year.

Rather than the interchangeable screens of the N2020 (B/E/J), the N2000 had a fixed K screen (split prism plus micro prism collar), a LED shutter speed display (but no AF indications), and no automatic selection between programs (on the FA, this had required a post on AI-s lenses; on the N2020, it required a CPU to tell the camera the focal length). Common to both cameras, though, was a traditional control layout, a coreless drive motor for film advance, auto-loading, an exposure compensation dial, DX coding, plus pretty much everything the FG had – save the +1.5EV backlight button (the N2000/N2020 had an AE lock button that served much the same purpose). One mystery is why the N2020 was typically sold with an AAA battery holder rather than the N2000’s AA – since it is fairly obvious that the battery chamber was designed around AA. The smaller batteries required a special inset tray. But on the plus side, they do shave some height and weight off the assembled body. And the N2000/2020 is a pretty heavy body.

The N2000 is a camera with a level of elegance that we forget about: a large, bright, spartan viewfinder, a normal control layout, and a certain fluidity of shooting. Motor drives can be very important if you are left-eye dominant. Plus normal batteries that you can buy anywhere. Plus it has nice, sharp edges. It’s just not a camera that has the simulated chrome that is so popular with “the kids today.” And yes, by simulated, meaning that pretty much every “chrome” camera post-1980s has plastic covers.

But what about the N6006/N6000?!

The N6006 is something of a hidden gem in the Nikon line; it has most of the things you like about the N8008 (sans 1/8000 top speed, AA batteries, and high-eyepoint finder) in a smaller package. It is actually pleasant to shoot, though it does carry the stigma of using 223 lithium batteries. That might have actually made a difference a few years ago, when you could walk into a drug store and buy CR123As and 2CR5s, but today, all lithium batteries are more Amazon than the corner store.

The N6006 is one of many Nikons that share the AM200 AF sensor array (the others being the N4004/F-401,N5005/F-401s, N8008/N8008s/F-801/F-801s, and the F4. As you might have surmised from the AF performance differences in these bodies, CPU speed and motor torque are huge determinants of speed. The F4 is tops in both CPU and motor power, and the N4004 has the smallest brain and smallest muscles. The N6006 and N8008 are mid-range, and the N8008 has a more powerful motor.

The little brother, the N6000, loses some functionality compared to its AF twin: no spot metering (because that comes from the AF module), no built-in flash (spite?), and a slightly smaller LCD display (that omits the AF confirmation dot, obviously…). But all the same, it is much smaller and lighter. Oddly, it still does support (or for P and S, requires) CPU lenses. As an adjunct for occasional manual focus with otherwise-AF lenses, it is fine; in fact, examples of the N6000 sell for less than the price of any manual-focus-friendly interchangeable screen for any SLR or DSLR. So I would ask, are you better off…

Take a stress pill: shutter actuations

What is the maximum shutter actuations for the Nikon D700 [or Leica M9 or whatever]?

There is nothing such as “maximum shutter actuations.” People act as if there were some magic number. People freak out about this. The rated number is unlikely to be reached for most amateur photographers. It’s unlikely to be reached by two amateurs using a camera back to back. Maybe even three or four, unless one used the camera at the beach or somewhere gritty.

  • The rating itself is the MTBF, or Mean Time Between Failures. That means that on average, Nikon’s rated shutters last 150,000 cycles. You don’t know whether that means most last to 250,000 and relatively few go 50,000 or whether all of them are somewhere around 150k.
  • There is no warranty that a shutter will get to 150,000. Your two year factory warranty will expire one day, and it could be at 18,000 exposures or 180,000. Doesn’t matter. Nikon is not fixing it for you for free.
  • Inside the factory warranty, Nikon does fix it for free, shutter count notwithstanding.
  • Likewise, Nikon is not fixing your used camera, even its original sale was within 2 years ago, or even if the shutter failed at 8,000.

It’s all marketing.

By the way, when Nikon was coming up with its 150,000 exposure MTBF, that was 4,166 rolls of film, which was more than most people shot in their lifetime. For a pro, a new shutter (which in those days was a $250 repair) cost nothing compared to the cost $12,000 in film you shot before you got there!

Maximizing your Nikon FH-869S

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Is there a problem here?

Nikon packages terrible directions with the standard medium format holder for its high-end scanners.  Rather than going crazy with your FH-869S and pining for an FH-869G glass carrier,* let me suggest the following to maximize the usefulness of the medium-format (“Brownie”) carrier that came with your Nikon LS-8000ED or LS-9000ED.

*  There is nothing wrong with a glass carrier except dust, inconvenience, skewed negatives, expense, rarity, and a tiny amount of overall resolution loss from the antinewton glass.  For some negatives (panoramic, warped, etc.), they are indispensable.

A better way to use your glassless holder:

1.  Make sure the rubber grip strips are clean.  This is crucial – and probably responsible for most of the complaining about the standard carrier.  Clean them with a cotton swab and the alcohol that comes with a cassette tape cleaning kit (or Radio Shack “Non-Slip Fluid,” 44-1013).  DO NOT touch the strips with your fingers afterward.  Even your skin oil can make them too slick to work.

2.  Turn the carrier so that the open-close slider is on the bottom and the end that enters the scanner is on the left side (see the picture at the top).  This is going to establish the orientation that you will need for the rest of these directions.

3.  Use your forefingers to open the gripper latch at the top.   Position the film so that it “corners into” the end of the carrier with the two prongs and the film channel at the top.  The end of the filmstrip should be fully supported.  Now push the negative strip up toward the ridge at the top of the channel underneath the gripper latch.  Get it as even as you can (and it should be possible to get it very, very even).  Snap the latch down.

4.  Make sure that the open-close slider at the bottom (the one with the “Pac Man” symbol) is in the rightward (“open”) position.  Open the bottom gripper latch.  Slide the bottom gripper assembly upward until the film edge uniformly contacts the ridge.   Be aware that the gripper assembly can be rotated slightly around the open-close slider.  You will probably not be able to get it perfect, but the beauty is that you don’t have to.  When you have it as close as you can, snap down the film latch.

5.  Now gently pull the bottom gripper toward you.  Note again that it still pivots around the open-close slider.  Get it tight and pivot it until the entire film is flat.  This gives you a last chance to make sure that the film is evenly tensioned.

6.  While holding the gripper assembly in position, use the last couple of fingers of your strong hand to push the slider left, to the closed position, to lock things down.

7.  Run over the film with a rocket blower.

8.  Scan.

9.  Stop complaining about this carrier.

Fuji X-T10, Time Magazine’s 35mm Camera, and Fuji’s direction

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Unfrozen Cave-Man Design

The comparisons are inevitable (if you were born before, say, 1985). They are unnoticeable to Fujifilm’s obsequious band of pre-release “reviewers” (more on this later). But the similarity is undeniable. Fuji has, for its sixth camera based on the X-Trans II sensor and its eighth based on the 2011 Sony 16Mp base sensor, copied the design of a camera given away with magazine subscriptions. Hopefully unconsciously. That said, let’s not denigrate the Time-Life unit too much; it has a 50mm f/5.6 glass meniscus lens that at a small enough aperture will be competitive with multi-element lenses. It also contains so much lead in a ballast plate in the base that the scrap metal content outweighs (literally) the purchase price. Operators are standing by.

The only thing that makes the X-T10’s design really egregious coming from Fuji is that the Fuji X line is supposed to be a better-thought-out alternative to DSLRs. Yet here we are, in 2015, and the most recent two models have aped DSLR designs. Are we as a market that gullible? Do they think this will somehow make it easier for us to swallow giving up heavy SLR gear? Whatever it is, it does not say good things about the market or the manufacturer.

The silly game of making one thing look like another goes back a while. Consider the Horsey Horseless Carriage. Whether it was serious or a parody perpetrated by a rich gentleman, you get the point:

horsey

HorseyText

Fig1

Fig2

One is left to wonder whether the head was to be sourced from taxidermy or upholstery, but whatever the intent, it was not going to end well for horses.

Mimicry in camera design is not new, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon. In most cameras, form has to follow function; a camera is a box with a lens on one end and an imaging surface (film or digital) on the other. In the old days, there were no twin-lens reflexes that looked like rangefinders and no SLRs that looked like anything else. It is probably also fair to say that with a few exceptions (like the Zeiss Tenax or a couple of Raymond Loewy specials), no one actually cared whether a camera was ugly or not. After all, a Rolleiflex is only attractive in the context of twin-lens reflexes. You wouldn’t put it on a coffee table.

For some time, the proportions of digital SLRs were tied in to the film cameras that spawned them. Some of this was understandable; makers were in many cases recycling the chassis castings/moldings of existing cameras – or reusing key components like mirror/shutter boxes and viewfinder assemblies. When DSLRs started to feature their own purpose-built main castings, there was some carryover that were hard to explain – such as why grip surfaces retained proportions originally designed to house 35mm cartridges. But then again, the Space Shuttle’s engines’ dimensions are ultimately traceable to the size of the rump of a Roman soldier’s horse.

Fuji, for its part, stuck to function in designing its early X-series cameras. The X100 looked like a baby Leica M3, but any combination of an integrated optical finder is going to force a certain layout – the window either goes on the left of the right of the lens, and most people are right-eye-dominant. Yes, there was a little window-frame embellishment, but that has evaporated in the X100T. The X-Pro1 carried very subtle call-backs to the G/GL690-series cameras, but it too stuck to the function-defines-form script for the most part (it is clear given subsequent cameras that Fuji made this camera much thicker than it needed to be, given that it had a non-articulating screen). The XE, XM, and XA cameras looked like other finder-equipped or finder-less bodies – various Panasonic G, Sony NEX, and Olympus EP cameras.

The industry turning point (for the worse) came with the Olympus OMD-E5 in 2012, an unabashed visual clone of any of a number of Olympus OM-series SLRs. There was no reason to stick a pentaprism-looking housing atop a mirrorless camera. Pentax was also right there with its K-3. As if it had passed through a mirrorless camera development stage, the K-1’s top bump suddenly blossomed into a full-figured faux prism.

Fuji was always late to the party, and it took Fuji until 2014 to imitate SLR design in the X-T1, the pretext being that the big EVF required a pentaprism “hump.” Fuji dropped that pretext with the 2015 release of the blocky X-T10, stating now that it did this to recall Fuji’s (forgettable) AX line of SLRs. But the X-T10 does not look like an AX at all; it looks like a rinky-dink plastic camera. And its design appears driven neither by function nor aesthetics. It’s an ugly little box.

Why should anyone care?

On one hand, one would be tempted to ask, who cares? Fuji owners (and potential Fuji owners) should. Like a photographic version of roles written for Jason Statham, Fuji has for three years pumped out camera after camera based on the same sensor and incremental inclusions of off-the-shelf technology. Fuji’s three big additions since the X-Pro1 – namely, high-quality EVF technology, on-chip phase-detect focus, and face-detection – were set up for consumer products before the X-Pro1 came out (check out the timing of the NEX-5R and its patents). By the time the X-E2 came out, all the pieces were in place for a serious update to the X-Pro, the “flagship” camera. Between then and now, Fuji has instead pumped millions into design, tooling, and software for multiple minimally differentiated cameras – far more than it would have taken to put an X-Trans II chip, EXR II processor, and better EVF into an X-Pro2. This points to one of two possibilities: (1) the X-Pro1 was such a dog for sales that management required the engineering team to start doing what other mirrorless makers were doing or (2) Fuji has turned to avidly churning the market to keep up market share in the declining interchangeable-lens market, and an updated X-Pro1 was not anticipated to do the job.

1. Looking like what sells. On the first point, it is of some note that the X-E2 resembled the Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4:3 cameras, as well as the Sony NEX-6 and -7 APS-C Cameras. The X-T1 and -T10 have followed other manufacturers’ quasi-SLR digital designs. The lens selection in compacts of both formats (APS-C and M43) also reflects a more into competing with entry-level DSLRs: zooms, big zooms, and big primes.

This direction (physical bloating) undermines what APS-C (and Micro 4:3) were supposed to be about: smaller, lighter cameras. This has never really happened: Fuji’s and others’ lenses are not as much smaller than FX lenses as one might have been led to believe. Part of this may be that it’s cheaper to design big telecentric lenses than smaller, more symmetrical ones that require offset micro lenses. And autofocus probably exerts its own size expansion.

But for people who liked the idea of the X-Pro1, this translates into a camera that is somehow bulkier than a 24x36mm Leica M. That does not seem to be the right direction in an era where camera phones (that everyone is already carrying) are eating into compact camera sales. If aside from a camera phone, we are going to haul around another box with its own lithium-ion battery, one that is not plugged directly into social networking, do we want it to be bulky?

2. Churning and burning. The second possibility is more sinister-sounding – but it is supportable. Fuji’s product releases have occurred twice yearly since the X-Pro1. That is very often considering that the underlying technology has moved very little since fall 2013. Fuji’s marketing strategy for the XF has been simple: use shills to build up excitement, release products at high prices, slash prices when sales start to flag a couple months in, and then build excitement for the next big thing.

Fuji is not alone here, but it seems more visible in its use of “reviewers” to promote the process. The practice began with with some Fuji employees — but at least they disclosed who they worked for. But then it moved on to “reviews” started coming rom (a) semi-pros; (b) Fuji-sponsored photographers; and (c) a few easy marks who believe that whatever just came out – from whatever manufacturer – is the greatest thing ever (we all know who they are). Throw into the mix some hyperventilating Fuji-oriented sites that get revenue when people click through to retailers, and you get the perfect storm of non-objective reporting. After all, whether it trips FTC guidelines or not, who would bite the hand that feeds him? And in a world where people pay good money for SEO work, catapulting your photo business to the top of any search has value.

Then comes the product. It’s great. It takes great pictures. I know this first-hand.

And a few months later comes the burn. Left with a run that it can’t sell, and even absent any fundamental spec change or replacement model, Fuji will usually slash prices 20-30% within six months. This gives an impression that every Fuji model is overpriced to begin with – and in slashing new prices, Fuji puts its own new sales directly in competition with the secondary market. This in turn hurts middle-class amateurs trying to unload old Fuji equipment to upgrade within the line. This is a great strategy for fixing a one-time inventory problem, and certainly no budget shopper in the used market will object. But especially where forced depreciation occurs without some compelling improvement (or even the oddly missing “camera body” roadmap), existing users start to feel burned, and smart shoppers learn to hang back. Why would you ever buy new? Look at completed sale prices on Ebay. Buying an XF body or lens new costs you 30-40% the day you open it. Put another way, Fuji’s pricing practices violate a fundamental rule of luxury goods sales (and let’s face it, a $1,300 camera body is a luxury good for most people): never slash MSRPs. You can have occasional rebates, bundles, or “demo” units. But once you start slashing prices, you begin degrading your brand equity. Or has that happened already?

3. Rewarding risk? Fuji should never lose track of the risks that one takes on a proprietary camera system. XF lenses do not fit anything else. There is no repurposing the same lenses on old film bodies (such as with Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Leica) – or even repurposing them on different types of digital bodies (you can stick the same Nikkor on an APS-C D7500, FX D4, and 36Mp D810, for example). In a closed digital system. people invest in a collection of lenses in part on the premise that the line is going to continue – and that the line will remain viable compared to other systems. In a sense, everyone knows that they will be replacing camera bodies in 3-4 years. But when real upgrades never come, it causes justifiable questioning. And it’s not just sensor resolution. It goes to functionality:

  • Will battery life ever improve?
  • Will there ever be a good TTL flash?
  • Is there something about X-Trans decoding that makes it too processor-intensive for a 24Mp sensor?
  • Is the “organic sensor” thing a dodge for never upgrading the X-Pro?
  • Will the video function get less “aliasy?”

These are questions that Fuji should be in a position to answer.

Now what?

Fuji presents a strange case. Its X100 line is fantastic (and its marketing low-key). Even in the XF line, there is little to complain about in image quality. But the reaction to Fuji’s marketing strategy? Maybe the best strategy is to wait out new Fuji XF product releases and just buy used. History, after all, tells us that most of the the prices are inflated anyway.

Kodak DCS Pro 14n First Shot

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I always looked down my (Roman) nose at cameras made by film manufacturers. Who would have thought, then, that after 18 years of photography with real cameras, that I would own a Kodak (14n) and a Fuji (GSW690III)? After a few weeks with the DCS 14n, and months of reading petty complaints about it, it’s time for the blow-by-blow. The 14n is a harsh mistress, but imagine some of the tricks she knows by now:

This is the most important part, so let’s knock that part off first. The 14n has an absolutely fantastic CMOS sensor. It’s not fast at a native speed of 80 and a maximum excellent picture speed of 160, but since when were fast film or fast CCDs any good. The sheer size of the gives you some distinct advantages.

  • No adjustment in angle of view. This is particularly important if you have a collection of fast wide lenses. It is also important if you like fast portrait-length lenses.
  • No change in depth of field. The “crop factor” present in most digital SLRs requires you to use shorter lenses to get equivalent fields of view. The problem is that the depth of field of a 18mm lens is still the depth of field of a 18mm lens, even if the angle of view is of a 24mm lens. And there’s no way to get a 105mm’s field of view with a DX prime.
  • DX lenses are a fraud. We were told that smaller-than-24×36 sensors would result in liberated lens design, higher speed and less size/weight. Wrong. DX lenses, especially wides, are just lenses with more retrofocal distance. DX lenses make it less challenging to build sensors, since more light is straight-on (telecentric). Worse, they are slow. Since when is it ok to have a constant f/4 zoom? Put simply, DX lenses are nothing but a substitute for engineering on the back end.

Is there noise at high gain (ISO settings like 400)? Yes, but not as obnoxious as you would be led to believe from reading on the Internet. Does it take a ton of in-camera processing to make 35mm lenses designed before digital was even thought of work properly on a chip? Yes. Does the Kodak system achieve it? Remarkably. Are the results worth it? Hell yes.

The main user interface is pretty good but not phenomenal. The VF covers 92% of the frame. It’s not as bright or clear as an F3 or F4, dimmer than an F5 and about on a par with the F100. It’s adequate but not exceptional for manual focus operation. At least it has a real pentaprism, sucka… Let’s face it, viewfinders aren’t what they used to be. Put an E screen in an F4 and you’ll see what I mean.

The info readouts are highly legible green LEDs. The focus point (selecable from center, left, right, up or down) is indicated by an LCD bracket that lights up red in low light. There are no more left and right arrows for out-of-focus direction. The flash indicator is an eyecatching red color. There is also an indicator to show metering mode (spot, center, matrix).

In a trick that I find pretty cool, the entire viewfinder dims and blurs (and the focus points and metering reference circle disappear) when you pull the battery out of the camera. Wow. Guess there’s no picking this one up and forgetting the power source. I suspect that this is what drains the battery when you leave the battery in, even when the camera is off.

Outside the F5, Nikon focusing comes in two flavors. Smart or strong. The smart sensors are found on things like the F80 and F100 and seem designed to drive AF-S lenses by quickly computing focus. Call this the BMW 318 theory. The strong motors are found in older bodies like the F4, where the detection and computation is not so strong, but the motor has a lot of torque. Call this the Pontiac GTO school. Based on my tests with some AFS and non-AFS lenses, my conclusions were:

  • Light primes (20/2.8, 24/2.8, 50/1.8) – quick focusing but not earth-shattering.
  • Heavy, internal focus primes (28/1.4, 105/2 DC) – not as fast, but still ok.
  • Old-style AF zooms (35-105/3.5-4.5) – slow.
  • Low-end AF-s (24-85/3.5-4.5) – medium speed. This lens inexplicably produced underexposures with flash. Why?
  • High-end AF-s (28-70/2.8) – now were getting somewhere. Bankruptcy! But they’re fast.

Focusing is extremely accurate. The AF brackets are huge in the F80/14n/etc., making selection of focus as a point on the subject a somewhat uncertain from the user’s end in looking through the viewfinder. You just have to take it on faith. It works. If the light gets really bad, you can turn on a white AF illuminator light. Your subjects will hate you for using it. Capture their scowls. Other than using the electronic rangefinder function, manual focusing is a vestigial capability in the viewfinder. The focusing screen has neither the brightness nor the matte surface required to do the job. This is really too bad; had this been an F4s platform instead, the focusing would have been great.

Size and weight. If you are used to professional-sized cameras like the F4, F5 and EOS-1n, why do you think that this camera is big and heavy? The bottom pod (for lack of a better word) houses a huge-capacity battery, a Compact Flash Type II card (or Microdrive). This camera is not as big as it looks in pictures, and it is in fact quite light compared to an F4s. I’m sorry that it can’t have that blowaway, throwaway feel of the Digital Rebel – and with telephotos and even the heavier wides, you actually want some weight on the camera end. The amount of hardware necessary to replicate 35mm film in performance is something that should be sobering to people who think that one day Leica is just going to bring out a digital back someday for the M cameras.

Battery Life. With the current version of the firmware (4.5.x), little use of the LCD, and the shortest meter-off setting, I was able to have the camera sit turned on for 7 hours and then shoot 132 14Mp RAW files and about 78 1Mp JPGs (recorded simultaneously with the RAW). I then secure-erased the microdrive (i.e., the camera wrote and rewrote the entire 1Gb several times) then quick formatted both it and the 256Mb Secure Digital card. Not too shabby for a battery that charges in about an hour. Three batteries would pretty much cover it for a really long day’s shooting.

Card Capacity. The camera has a nice separate LED display counting down available frames. RAW files are computed using the full-freight size (14Mb), but they are stored compressed. Typically, on a 1Gb Microdrive, this means about 90-96 frames per 1Gb card – roughly equivalent to 4 rolls of 135-24 film. Or, if I was reading the display right, over 1,300 1Mp JPGs.

Burst Capacity. Camera write speed with a a Hitachi 1Gb Microdrive clocked at 4Mb/sec, about as fast as any Compact Flash device. You can shoot 6-7 RAW frames continuously before the 256Mb buffer fills. You can then shoot the next picture 5 seconds later. The camera continuously writes to the storage devices. If you are shooting simultaneous RAW and low-res JPEG, you can take 2 frames about every 15 seconds, which is not bad unless you are shooting a war. In-camera JPG is pretty rough on speed and battery power. Given that you really want to use Photodesk to do the hard-core processing, you can probably skip the in-camera JPG.

In terms of transfer rate to the computer, popping that Microdrive into a USB card reader and letting her rip takes about 20 minutes. I’m sure that a firewire reader would be faster. This camera does not mount as a Firewire drive through its computer connection; that connection only exists to let Camera Manager read the files in the camera.

Shutter Release. Thank God for small favors. The main shutter release is threaded for a standard cable release; there is also a Nikon MR-3/etc. terminal on the bottom. There is a vertical release that is only active when the camera is… vertical. Cool. No more having the thing go off by accident when you grab the camera.

Ok, screw that technical stuff. So how well does it do black and white? The short answer is that it does pretty well, although it’s not like shooting T-Max 400 on a 6×9 camera. If you know what you are doing with film and conventional printing, you will be able to deal with the 14n. The first way is that you can pretty smoothly adjust perspective with a huge digital file. The picture below was taken with a 20mm f/2.8 AF Nikkor.

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The second way is that because you are shooting onto a smaller sensor compared to a medium-format camera, wideangle lenses are shorter, faster, and have a lot more depth of field. This is the reverse of the problem with DX lenses.

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The third is that filtration doesn’t really matter that much – nor can you readily duplicate it in digital. Stick around this camera and you will have to learn a lot more about contrast control than you probably ever cared to.

BS Internet gripes. Ok, since this is what you were waiting to see. Like any Internet rumor (Hexar RF, anyone?), the gripes concerning the 14n are pretty overblown.

  • Cold startup time is 7 seconds, not 30 as some people claim. This is not an eternity, and you can leave the camera on until you need it.
  • Burst depth at 256Mb buffer is 6 RAW frames, more than enough for any normal application. If you need something faster, you better reach for a Nikon D2H.
  • There is zero noise up to 160 ASA. After that, you need to use Photodesk and realize that all high-speed media (film, digital cameras, etc) have noise and that the difference is that the Nikon, Fuji and Canon DSLRs seem to address that only by wasting all the shadow detail.
  • Nose-activated LCD was eliminated in firmware 4.5.5. Now you can disable the “Ok” key that turns on the screen.

So get over it!

How does it compare to the Fuji S2? There is no comparison. The Fuji has low noise for fast shots, and that’s it. The Kodak has better software, higher resolution, and no crop factor. The Fuji — if you can find it — no longer has a price advantage (the difference is a scant $600 — and I actually paid less for a 14n than what you can buy the S2 for…) and that advantage is destroyed by the fact that you have to refit the short end of your line.

How does it compare to a Canon 1Ds? The grass is always greener. If you dig up a Canon 1Ds bulletin board, you will see all the complaints about it – including some pretty serious chromatic aberration with wideangle lenses and not-so-good software. For all of the Kodak’s noise faults, its omission of microlenses spares the wideangle user this issue. And the 1Ds costs $8,000, which is three times what the Kodak costs. Unless it’s a writeoff on your taxes, your money ($5,500) is better spent on four European vacations or a couple of trips to Asia to use the equipment. The one thing that the 1Ds does have is a little tougher body — but the kind of spill that would damage the 14n would also damage the 1Ds.

How does 14mp compare to film?  This is a difficult question to answer, because there is no single answer.  Digital camera manufacturers generally claim that anything is as good as medium format, and people’s opinions of what is enough resolution tend to center on the minimum that does not look bad.  150dpi can do for passable prints for some people.  72dpi, or one megapixel is enough for any on-screen application.  If all you are doing is web work, the 14n is serious overkill in every department, not the least of which is price.

But for prints, you have to arrive at a minimum acceptable quality level. We can pretty safely assume that a Fuji Frontier minilab print (scanning 35mm film and digitally outputting to photo paper at 302dpi is a pretty good benchmark.  So we should see how big a 14n print can get and still maintain that resolution. A 14 megapixel (4500×3000) image, translated to a 6×9 inch print (dividing the long side of the image in pixels by the long side in inches), equals 500dpi.  At 8×10, it equals 450dpi.  At 11×14, it is 321dpi.  Bearing in mind that 11×14 is pretty much the practical limit for enlarging 35mm film (except for 35mm film the limiting factor is the grain), you realize that the 14n can reasonably hold its own with 35mm film in terms of enlargeability.

On the other hand, claims that any digital system under 14mp is competitive with medium format is a little bit suspect. Here is a simple table for people who want arbitrary answers, based on my observations.  These DO NOT apply to cameras with less than the 14n’s pixel count.

Compared to… Sharpness/Resolution Tonality / Color Fidelity
Pre-1980s 35mm SLR scanned @2800dpi
14n generally wins. 14n wins.
Modern 35mm SLR scanned @2800dpi Dead heat, assuming proper scanning technique.  Film has an edge above ISO 200.
14n wins in both tonality and fidelity under most circumstances. 
Pre-1970 6×4.5/6×6 Camera (b/w) 14n wins due to higher resolution lenses and lack of film flatness issues.
14n wins
Pre-1970 6×9 (b/w) 14n wins due to higher resolution lenses and lack of film flatness issues.
Film wins.
Modern 6×4.5/6×6 Camera (b/w) Film wins at ISO 400 and below.  Above ISO 400, grain diminishes resolution.
Film wins, especially when printed to silver paper.
Modern 6×7 Camera (b/w) Film wins due to overwhelming image size.
Ditto
Modern 6×9 Camera (b/w) Film wins due to overwhelming image size. Are you kidding?

 

DAST