Er, is this thing still on?

I’m running low on film, so it’s time to check in on the D80. Flick the power switch. SD card, still plenty of shots left. Battery, nearly full. Nearly full charge? Really? When’s the last time I used this thing? Thinking, thinking, thinking. Sometime before Christmas, and I’m fairly certain that the battery hasn’t been charged since Thanksgiving.

That’s quite an improvement since the days of my 10D or even worse the KM 7D, both of which could drain their battery if you looked at them wrong. A battery that stays charged even when sitting goes a long way towards replicating the ever-readiness of the older manual fiml SLR’s. Not a bad thing.

But, why, might you ask, has that D80 been sitting on the shelf for a couple of months? Well, that’s complicated. Three points:

  • The quirks of the D80’s metering combined with the somewhat limited dynamic range of it’s 10MP sensor, require constant attention and a good measure of manual control.
  • As with nearly every post AF, multi-function control wheel sprouting, tehcno wonder camera of doom, the D80 provides tons of manual control but no physical feedback as to the settings. The wheels just spin and spin. See some of the recent comments on the K10D over at for more on this.
  • Although the VF is fairly large and fairly bright and not entirely useless for manual focussing, it’s got no eye relief. Yes, I know all the cool kids are wearing contacts or have got that fancy new lasiks surgery that can turn your field of vision upside down – no, really it can – but some of us still wear glasses. When wearing glasses, I can’t see all the metering info at the bottom of the vf unless I consciously look at it, in which case I lose about the top third of the frame.

Taken individually, none of these issue would be that bad. So the metering is hinky. No problem, I’ll work in manual. Oh wait, the controls give no feedback. No problem, I’ll check the meter readings in the VF. Uh, now I can’t see the picture. Damn, it’s gone. I should have bought a 30D.

D80 B&W Filter Effects

There’ve been a lot of questions on the last few days regarding the B&W capabilities of the D80. Although the general consensus seems to be that real men shoot RAW, that seems to me a little too much like the digital hairshirt equivalent of using stainless steel reels in changing bag. I’m not convinced of the general superiority of RAW, and I’d rather get it right in camera, which preference has nothing doing with a luddite tendency, but rather is mostly an outgrowth of laziness and impatience on my part. I’d rather not process raw files on a laptop. A demonstration of the filtering effects follows:

B&W mode, no filter applied
B&W mode, green filter applied
B&W mode, orange filter applied
B&W mode, red filter applied
B&W mode, yellow filter applied

There’s also a contrast adjustment to be played with, and over the next few days I’m going to be looking at using a custom curve in camera.

B&W and Vibrant All Over

Q: What’s B&W and Vibrant All Over?

A: JPEGS from the D80.

Not at the same time of course, but the options are there. In camera JPEG processing keeps getting better and better. The D80 – and a lot of the other recent DSLRs – are offering far more options than they used to, or at least more predefined sets. In the case of the D80 you get predifined settings for B&W, Portrait, Vivid and More Vivid (I think that one goes to 11). There’s also a custom setting that allows you to define your own sharpness, saturation, hue, and color mode. Of these, I’m finding the B&W mode to be the most interesting. In B&W mode you can choose sharpening, tone compensation (contrast) and Yellow, Orange, Green or Red filtering. Those filtering options are particularing interesting. When combined with the contrast settings this gives you a lot of control over how a scene is rendered. I’m currently shooting with Green filtering and Medium Low contrast; it’s a lot like Delta 400 or TMY.

Now, you may ask what’s the point of using these JPEG modes. Why not use RAW? It’s a valid question, and at the moment one of the main reason I’m using JPEGS is curiousity. Certainly camera manufacturers wouldn’t include them if they weren’t useful? Right 😉

Apart from curiousity, I think there’s value in anticipating your post processing – and comitting to it – before you actuate the shutter. I know this is a radical idea in the world of RAW shooting, PhotoShop, highlight recovery etc etc etc, but it’s one that I’m fairly comfortable with. For years I’ve made these choices with film. The limitations have made me a better photographer, and I’ve still got a ways to go. I’m not ready to throw them off yet. Luckily the D80’s JPEGS are pretty much entirely free from artifacts.

B&W, Medium Low Contrast, Green filter

Vivid (kind of looks like E100VS, doesn’t it?)

Noise; A Train of Thought in 3 Parts

  1. A certain amount of noise can improve the performance of non-linear systems. This sounds like nonsense, but it’s not when you stop to think about it. For example, B&W photographers have long known that a grainier image can often look sharper than a grainless one. If you are interested in the science behind it, this guy has written some articles about noise that are entirely over my head. His book, which was discussed on Science Friday recently, sounds like its more my speed. He also has some challenging thoughts on the diminishing importance of the comma.
  2. Although a lot photographers seem to be pursuing noiselessness, noiseless photos fail to satisfy me on some deeper level. I can appreciate the technical mastery, or least the amount of money, involved in creating a noiseless image, but I don’t find them particularly interesting. I’m not the only one, but I’d argue that as a group, photographers don’t know nearly enough about the roll noise plays in the success or failure of a photograph. For example, can you to a certain extent hide blown highlights by adding the right amount and kind of noise?
  3. I’m pretty happy with the noise qualities of the D80. You can check out a whole bunch of test shots and comparisons over at Dpreview. I haven’t used the D80 at 1600 all that often yet, but I’m pleased with the results so far.

ISO 1600

Crop of ISO 1600 image

As a side note, this is the first DSLR I’ve owned whose AF system functioned well enough in low light that it could actually take some advantage of the available high ISOs.

Life seen dimly

Take it as hyperbole if you like, but I see life through a camera’s viewfinder, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. We all have ways of structuring our reality. Some folks have religion. Some have Nascar. Others barbeque on their back deck every weekend. The viewfinder is my way, so it’s really dissapointing that they keep building these digital cameras with such crummy viewfinders.

The D80 is supposed to have a pretty good VF for a cropped frame DSLR, and from having used the competition, I’d say the D80 is pretty much the state of the art. But that’s not saying very much. Even the full frame 5D has a VF that would have never made it into a basic manual focus SLR from the late 70’s or early 80’s. Those were pretty good cameras in a lot of ways. Nice big viewfinders. Although not as big as something like an F2, they were pretty good. They still are pretty good. If you haven’t ever picked up a Canon AE-1, a Minolta X-something, a Nikon FE or best of all an Olympus OM-1, don’t do it. You’ll hate your DSLR viewfinder. Pick up a good rangefinder, and you’ll be seriously depressed.

How much difference does this make? It’s hard to say. On a psychological level, this is pretty big hurdle to get over. I’m used to the disconnect between vision and print coming at a much later stage of the photographic process. With film, if the end result doesn’t match my vision, it’s usually due to bad processing. It’s not something I’m aware of at the moment of taking the photo. With digital, the bad viewfinder puts the disconect right at the moment of photographing. Making the most of that disconnect is going to be the most challenging aspect of digital for me. The rest of the chain is cake by comparison.

It just keeps going and going and going and . . . .

It’s just before noon on Friday . . .
My D80 arrived sometime early Monday afternoon . . .
I’m still on the original battery charge . . .
Almost 96 hours later and the battery still shows 22% (220 shots) left. That shot counter may be a little optimistic for my usage since I only took 250 shots with the first 78% of the battery, but that’s still some pretty incredible longevity. I like my cameras to be ready to go whenever, hung over my shoulder, waiting for something good to come along. The previous gneration of DSLRs couldn’t support this kind of use. Even if they could shoot 400 or 500 shots on a charge, that meant continuous shooting over a short period of time. The battery wouldn’t always last through a day of off and on shooting. At 4 days and counting, the D80 seems up to the challenge. And it’s a good thing too, since EN-EL3e batteries are still out of stock at B&H 😉

The D80, the M8 and MJ’s DMD

If you follow Leica stuff at all, you know by now that Leica’s first digital RF, the M8, is now real as in you can look at pictures and video of it on the internet. I’d love an M8, two actually. While the price tag ($5000) is pretty reasonable compared to other pro digicams, it’s way out of my league given other goals I have at the moment – like getting into and paying for Salt next spring.

So what’s the point of this unique wedding of old fashioned RF technology and brand spanking new digital hotness? Having used the D80 for a couple of days now, I think I can enumerate a few points where an RF is still superior:

  1. Size: while the D80 is pretty small for a DSLR, it’s nothing like an RF body. When you get to lenses it’s game over. The RF allows for considerably smaller lenses.
  2. Speed of operation: I’ve now used DSLR’s from all the major manufacturers, so I think I can make a pretty broad statement here. In comparison to an all manual camera, DSLR ergonomics suck. Aperture rings on the lens, shutterspeeds on a thumb actuated dial ala Hexar RF, and a highly refined manual focussing system whoop the pants off Multi-badass 10000 AF modules, command and sub-command dials, reprogrammable buttons etc etc etc.
  3. Lenses: you can do cool things when you don’t have a design around a big flapping mirror.
  4. No VF blackout: being able to see your subject at the actual moment of exposure gives the RF user a better sense of timing and the ability to handhold at slower shutter speeds.

If I could buy a digital RF for the same price as a D80, I would. But I can’t, so I’ll make the most the of the advantages the D80 offers. AF is definitely nice for things that keep moving.

I’d also take one of Michael Johnson’s DMDs. Think Hexar AF with a digital sensor, built in A&S and a few other goodies. Heck, I’d even pay $1000 for one. I will not however, pay any amount for a Richoh GRD, no matter how many posts Mitch makes about it on Mitch seems like a pretty decent guy, and the GRD a pretty decent camera, but 28mm lenses just don’t float my boat, and I know that I require something a little faster to keep my frustration level at the right level for photographic production.

Nikon D80, First Thoughts

My D80 came Monday afternoon, so here’s my first thoughts. It’s a lot like the N80 I owned a couple of years ago. The metering and the af are better. The ergonomics and the build are pretty similar. I like the reprogrammable AE/AF lock and Func buttons. I set my Func to spot metering and my AE/AF lock button to AF On; I like keeping my metering and focus seperate. It does seem kind of weird that the Func default allows you to display ISO but not set it.

Battery life is good. Thirtysix hours and a couple hundred photos later the battery meter only shows one bar down. My 7D ate batteries like a contestant just kicked off the Biggest Loser, so this is a nice change for me.

Image quality is impressive, although the default image parameters are a little agressive on the contrast and sharpening. I changed that in the image parameters pretty quick. Fine JPEGS look really good. High ISO noise doesn’t seem out of line, but I don’t plan on using anything above 800 that much. If it’s that dark the Hexar RF focusses faster than any AF I’ve ever used, and Neopan 1600 keeps the mood right for dark scenes. Auto WB seems close enough.

Picture Project is junk, so I’ll be looking for something to process raw files. Right now I’m shooting RAW + JPEG Fine, so I’m just working with the JPEGS. I’m working on a laptop, so I don’t have a lot of processing power available for decoding RAW files. Given that, I’ll probably mostly work from JPEGs unless something goes wrong.

Enough with the talk. Here’s some photos:

One More Time

I’ve tried DSLRs before, namely the Canon 10D and the KM 7D. Both were pretty decent light tight boxes, but, man, they were crummy cameras. You couldn’t argue with the image quality in most situations, the typical digital highlights issue aside. A camera’s a lot more than a light tight box though, or at least a good one should be. Squinty viewfinders, short battery life, long start up times, wonky AF systems, and generally bad human interface issues do not make for a good camera. Given that a lot of photography depends on issues not even vaguely related to technical quality, a camera with useability issues is like a ferrari with steering wheel covered in porcupine skin, quills included.

I was pleased when the D200 was announced. I’ve always liked the controls on Nikon’s AF cameras. They’re almost as good as a manual camera. And the D200’s viewfinder seemed to address one of the other major issues; the issue of battery life and start up times seems to have been resolved in most of Canon’s and Nikon’s recent models. The price of the D200 was on the upper edge of my spending limit though, and it’s a little too big for day to day use. So when Nikon announced the D80, I thought, hmm, I might get one of those in a couple of months. Well, when I saw them in stock on B&H’s website yesterday, I ordered one immediately without really think about it. Blame the jet lag – I’m still recovering from the 24 hours in transit from Korea, not to mention the 14 hour time difference.

My D80 will be here in a couple of days, along with a 30mm F1.4 sigma lens and 2gb card. If I end up liking it, maybe some of the hexar gear will end up for sale. If not, anybody interested in a 20% discount on a barely used D80?