Saturday, 21 January 2012

... And in with the (old) new

A pigeon for an audience. Nikon D700, 105mm AF DC at f2

 My four-year-old D300 has developed a major fault. It started at RIAT last year: the mirror occasionally began to stick up, especially during bursts in continuous high-speed mode. Not a big issue at the time, because it was only very intermittent.

After RIAT, I took it into Fixation who diagnosed a problem with the sequencer unit. They recommended replacing it, along with the shutter since at 110,000 shutter actuations it was getting to the point where they see those shutters failing. But adding together the price of the new sequencer and shutter units, together with a set of seals, labour and VAT made the D300 look like a car with 110,000 miles on it. So the question was – an expensive repair or a new model?

The Duxford Autumn Air Show in October saw the sequencer problem getting worse – to the point where the camera became more or less unusable in burst mode. In fact, I got sufficiently few pictures that are worthwhile from that Duxford show I've not bothered posting any on Pbase.

And over Christmas, doing some family portraits – not in burst mode – the problem get worse still. Every third exposure the mirror locked up, requiring a fairly complex reset going via live view and switching the camera off and on again.

In effect, I was without a camera. Decision time.

Nikon Rumours has been carrying increasingly detailed previews (allegedly) of the successor to the D700, the D800. Now, I have been very interested in the idea of the D700 or its successor, because I believe that the time is right to move on to a full frame sensor (more on that later). But, the D800 is forecast to be 36 megapixels and to cost the best part of £3000.

A taste for loose boots

It's quite rare for me to print larger than 18" x 12", so 36 megapixels is a complete waste on me. And for £3000 I'd rather take the family on holiday. As much as I would like more megapixels, in practise as long as I can get a pin sharp 18" x 12" print, I'm happy. The D300 gave me those just fine, so 12 megapixels does me. (Not only that, but for the projects I’m planning over the next 3-5 years, I will be presenting mounted prints at no more than 20" x 16" – so the reality is that I won't be printing most of my  important stuff at more than 15 inches on the long side, which is pretty much the exact size that a D700 image gives at 300ppi). So, the long and the short of it is that for a full frame camera, a D700 would give me sufficient pixels, 1 to 2 stops of better ISO performance than the D300 and the ability to use the majority of my lenses as they were intended for a sensor size equivalent to a 35mm negative.

Let me just amplify those last points, as they are the reasons I want to go full frame. The D300 is a wonderful camera – no doubt about it. I never got colour prints from 35mm film as good as I've got from the D300: (lack of) skill of the operator, no doubt, but for sharpness, colour and tonality I’ll take a D300 every time. Not only that but it is possible to get a decent size print from 1600 ISO. And the focusing is excellent, as is the general build quality and weatherproofing. But, like any artefact of human enterprise, it has its limitations. 1600 ISO is about as high as I normally like to go, 2500 in emergency. I've done quite a number of night shoots over the last few years: they are great fun and I am going to be doing more (next one in March). When a helicopter is hovering by hangar light (like this or this), the sensitivity of the camera is at a premium. In general terms, for this kind of shot, doubling (or better) the ISO-availability would probably double the success rate.

The other point is lenses.  In all, I have more lenses for full frame (FX) sensors than I do for crop (DX) sensors. Two of my favourite lenses are the 35mm F2 AF-D and 105 mm F2 AF DC lenses. Although these are older designs, they're small, fast and lightweight. The 105 mm, in particular, is probably the sharpest lens I own, along with the 60 mm micro-Nikkor. For many years on film these two were my go-to focal lengths, with my Olympus Zuiko 35 mm f 2.8 and 100mm f2.8 primes. I kind of "see" with these focal lengths. The D300 has a crop sensor (1.5 times factor), so the 35mm makes a nice "normal" lens, but does not give me the angle of view I tend to favour for street work. Similarly 150 mm equivalent is quite limiting for portraits, and doesn’t suit me for street work. I'll have more to say about lens choices in a  future blog piece.
Blackfriars Bridge
Anyhow, the point of this rambling is that I made a decision that I wanted to go for a D700 at this point rather than spend the money repairing the D300. (When I can afford it, fixing the D300 is also on the list).

So, I found a used D700 advertised at a reputable London dealer at a good price. It had being used fairly heavily but had a new shutter and new seals, so should keep going a good long time. Not only that, but the asking price was less than used D700's in recent eBay auctions. So, I succumbed to temptation and bought the thing.

I took the D700 for a walk along the Embankment in London, to try to get a feel for how it works. In the end, I walked all the way from Lambeth Bridge along the South Bank to London Bridge and the Borough Market. It is always pleasurable to walk along there, as we have noted on this blog before, but especially with some new gear in hand.

January sun
I just pottered along taking touristy photographs (well, actually mostly photographs of the tourists). To my surprise and delight, the 105 mm was wonderful walk around lens. In fact, I was so enjoying this lens that I left the 35mm mostly unused until I got into the Borough Market, where the confined spaces made it my preference.

Taking a break, Borough Market, D700 and 35mm f2 AF-D
Opening up the files at home, they were lovely. Very sharp, and extraordinarily smooth. Everything, in fact, the D700 is supposed to be. Most of the reviews put the D700 at 1 to 2 stops more sensitive than the D300. I reckon it is the least two stops better in practical terms. Just looking at the ISO 6400 images, I would not hesitate to use that sensitivity on a night shoot to try to capture a wobbly hovering helicopter. Not only that, but there's loads of highlight detail to be recovered. As part of trying it out, I was deliberately exposing some images to push the highlights as far as I could. There are some images where brightly illuminated buildings across the other side of the river looked like they were completely blown on the camera's screen, but in Lightroom or Capture NX 2 there's a surprising amount of highlight detail to be recovered. Again, this is very much in line with the reviews, and completely lives up to my expectations.

Perhaps the biggest downside of the D700 is the fact that the 12 megapixels being spread over a larger area do not give the effective magnification multiplier that the crop sensor does with telephoto work. It would be very nice to have the D300 back in action for the start of the next airshow season. But I can't help feeling that they are additional possibilities in other ways that are opened up by the D700 will keep me more than happy.

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