Dec 222007

When the D200 appeared, it was clear from the beginning, that the camera would be a compromise. Superior ergonomics and an absolutely professional feature set were paired with a sensor that had weaknesses in the high-ISO range, at least compared to what Canon could deliver at that time. Don’t get me wrong, the D200 was (and is) a fantastic camera and in normal light its image quality was second to none, but from ISO 800 and above it began to deteriorate, where the Canons still could shine.

For most people this would be absolutely no problem, but for some, a camera can’t ever be sensitive enough. Sports shooters are such a crowd. For sports you need high shutter speeds, and at the same time you want detail. For a long time this was the domain of the Canon 1D Mk II, at least from the moment when the 4 megapixel Nikon D2h became uncompetitive. The D200, although very fast in operation, could not break into the lower portion of this market, and it failed for exactly this reason: too weak image quality in high ISO ranges.

While it could not get the professionals back to Nikon, it brought many advanced and serious amateurs though, people who were able and willing to use the spectacular feature set, and who began to rely on it. From a usability point of view, Nikon has some killer features, and the D200 certainly has them all. ISO automatics are such a feature that you, once you have experienced it, wouldn’t want to miss ever more. You set a maximum ISO, a minimum shutter speed, and then you forget about all that and go shooting. The camera keeps to the base ISO (100 for the D200, 200 for the D300 and the D3) as long as it can without falling below the minimum shutter speed. From then on it increases ISO, but only so much as is needed to maintain minimum shutter speed.

Compare that to what you have to do without that feature: Would you constantly change ISO, essentially mimicking the automatics? Certainly, you could, but then you’d have to risk not shooting at all. Chances are that you won’t. You’d probably set ISO to a value that should work with most light conditions that you’re likely to experience. See the problem? You may have a camera with a theoretically superior sensor, but most of the time you would have it set to a higher ISO than needed, essentially burning image quality. Isn’t that interesting how ergonomics can influence quality?

The other killer feature, insignificant as it may seem at first, was the option to zoom to 100% with one button press, and not to the left upper corner or something like that, no, to the focus point of the image. One click, and you know if the image is critically sharp or not. No Nikon below the D200 has that, and it becomes so addictive, that I can’t imagine ever again shooting without that feature. I could accept another button, no problem, but not having it at all would be unacceptable.

There were many other interesting and partially unique features, but there still remained some things to wish for. For me, those were better high-ISO performance and a 100% viewfinder. For my style, lines coming out of corners are very important. I like that, I think it strongly anchors an image. With a 95% viewfinder this is no problem as long as the lines come at 45 degrees relative to the edges, but it quickly gets nasty for very small or large angles. A 100% viewfinder of course fixes the problem perfectly.

Enter D300. It certainly changed a lot, and my two most important wishes were fulfilled. Additionally I got such useful things as the best LCD on any DSLR ever, even better ergonomics, better build quality, better white balance and a much better autofocus, along with gimmicks (at least for me) as Live View.

And now? What is there to wish for? What would I like to see in 18 months when the D400 will most likely be in my hands? A full-frame sensor?

Probably not. That’s something I could have now with the D3 (although for a premium), or in the Canon world at a much better price point with the 5D. Actually the 5D was a camera that I had considered originally, and then I had gone for the D200. Why? Well, the 5D would have been only slightly more expensive, but I would have had to spend much more on lenses. Consider only the wide-angle zoom. At the moment I use a Sigma 10-20 and I couldn’t be happier. At an equivalent of 15mm, it is almost as wide as it gets for recti-linear lenses, the quality is more than adequate, and it set me back 450 Euros. Compare this to a 16-35L MkII or a 17-40L. The same applies at the long end. My stabilized 18-200 is equivalent to 300mm, and I could get a stabilized 70-200/2.8 for below 2000 Euros. Try to get a stabilized 300/2.8 for that price.

Basically, what kept me from buying the Canon 5D originally, keeps me from wishing that the D400 will be a full-frame camera, and it is what kept me from even considering the D3. I mean, I could live with a full-frame camera when for example it had much higher resolution, but wishing for, no, that not.

What else? Now, there are some minor annoyances with the D300. It has a menu (“My Menu”) that you can put together individually. I have the setting for Picture Control there, Auto ISO on/off, sensor cleaning, Active D-Lighting, but I can’t put the menu points for minimum shutter speed and maximum ISO into that menu. This is deliberate stupidity, but nothing that Nikon couldn’t fix with a firmware upgrade. Probably they won’t do it, but they certainly could, and I wish they did. If not for the D300, then at least for the next camera.

Now it begins to get a bit thin. Even better ISO performance, yes, certainly. Last night was the longest night of the year and now it can only get better, but I will still have to shoot mostly in the dark for at least one or two months, thus ISO performance is something that I take all the time.

The other thing could be resolution, but on the other hand, 12 megapixels, and I mean good 12 megapixels, are already a burden. File sizes are big (I shoot lossless compressed RAW plus large fine JPEG, netting about 20MB per shot), from a typical weekend I return with between 2 and 3 GB of new images, and processing times in Photoshop rise with file size as well. Would I reject a camera with higher resolution? No, of course not, but wishing for? Probably not.

And then? Nothing. At least nothing that I could imagine. The ever important ISO and a minor fix in the menus. This is not very much to wish for, and that’s not even due to lack of fantasy on my side, it is simply because the D300 is so very good.

The image of the Day was shot this afternoon on my way to the train. The stone is the edge of the building that I work in, and I used the Sigma 70/2.8 macro, as always the last three days.

The image has something cool, in the sense of cold I mean, and cold it certainly was. The Song of the Day is cool and distanced as well: “Coolsville” from Laurie Anderson’s 2001 album “Live in New York“. Hear the studio version on YouTube.

  One Response to “434 – Coolsville”

  1. (oh to edit better the first time around…)

    What is it about this image that I find so satisfying? I honestly can’t say, but I do like it quite a bit.

    I believe the smooth colors and glowing bokeh highlights may have something to do with it, as does the edge of the granite building–they make great contrasts.

    Whatever the case, its a fine image. Thanks for sharing.

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