416 – Castles In The Air

This was the fifth day with my Nikon D300. Like on all those winter days I shoot mostly in the morning when the sun may be up, but definitely can’t be seen down in the streets, or after work, and that means various kinds of street lights, normally all at the same time, a weird mix of difficult light conditions. Low-contrast low-light situations, and the next moment highest contrast, soft pastels mixed with over-saturated street lights, everything a nasty tester would throw at a camera, and all that happens just naturally.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing hard to handle, all that can easily be accounted for, you only need to manually tweak settings until the result is OK. Nothing could be easier than that, but it takes time.

Is that so? Not necessarily.

The difference between any camera and a good camera is, that the good camera can do most of that by itself. Mind, I don’t want the camera to exclusively be on full automatic, I do want to be able to tweak things if I feel like that, but in those twilight situations, when I have maybe 20 minutes and not more, in those situations I want a camera that I can trust, a camera that simply does the right thing, a camera that I can forget, a camera that leaves me to my dreams of color.

Well, the D300 is not perfect. We’ll talk about imperfections another time, but don’t worry, there is nothing grave in this department. As a tool it comes closer to this ideal than the D200 ever did. This is due to all the things I have already mentioned, white balance, better high-ISO behavior, the better monitor and the 100% viewfinder, but it is also due to the fantastic ergonomics, coupled with wide-ranging customization options.

What are my convenience settings? Well, I almost exclusively use mode “A”, meaning that I set an aperture and let the camera choose the shutter speed. Most of my subjects are static, thus that works for me. Action shooters normally do the opposite.

Unfortunately this covers only a small dynamic range, and when the resulting shutter speed gets too low, there is no way out but cranking up ISO. Any camera lets you dial it in, but that is tedious. I always use “ISO Sensitivity Automatic Control”, set the maximum ISO to 3200 and the minimum shutter speed to 1/15s, yes even down to 1/4s when I shoot with the 18-200 VR at the very wide end. ISO 6400 was too much, but 3200 works great, at least for me. In that mode, the camera lowers shutter speed until it reaches the lower limit, and from then on it increases ISO, always only just so much as to keep me above the lower limit. When it finally reaches the maximum ISO of 3200, it gives in and from then on it again lowers shutter speed, going beyond the lower limit. Obviously this system extends the working range greatly, and it does so in a very practical and unobtrusive way.

Other than that, I have “Automatic D-Lighting” set to “Normal”, base ISO to 200, and the center point of the multi-selector set to “Zoom”. Normally I press this button after each shot and this zooms me immediately to maximum. There is no better way to check if an image is sufficiently sharp. Actually, if I should choose a feature that I’m addicted to, then it is this zoom to 100% with one click. The D200 already had it, but the button on the D300 is of better quality, making it very unlikely to use the arrows instead.

The monitor is set to display each image after the shot, and I display highlight clipping as well as the RGB histogram. The metering is automatic matrix metering, and the focus is set to “Single Point”.

Enough for tonight. It is insanely late and I should get a cap of sleep 🙂

The image was shot on my way home from work. Nikon 18-200 VR at 18mm, f3.5, 1/6s and ISO 3200. Post-processing was done in Photoshop.

The Song of the Day is “Castles In The Air” by Don McLean. Hear it for instance on “Legendary Songs of Don McLean” or live by a well-seasoned McLean on YouTube.