Category Archives: technology

Tales of a System Convert: Part 2, What’s The Diff?

Yesterday I sat down to write a blog post about my thoughts regarding my new camera system versus the old one, and ended up writing a rather lengthy piece about why I decided to switch systems in the first place instead. So tonight is the promised follow-up, or, what does Zed really think about the Olympus E-3 vs the Nikon D700.

First off, for the gearheads among us, here’s my old kit:

  • Olympus E-3
  • Olympus Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5 ED
  • Olympus Zuiko 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 ED
  • Lensbaby 3G (with macro and creative aperture kits)
  • Olympus OM 50mm f1.8

And this is my new kit so far, since flipping systems means it’ll take time to build everything back up:

  • Nikon D700
  • Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f2.8G ED
  • Nikon AF-S VR 70-300mm f4.5-5.6G IF-ED

While I don’t have a novelty lens or lowlight prime for the new system, the day-to-day difference between the two kits is negligible, since my two digital Zuiko lenses were my primary work horses before.

Now, thoughts. First off, the most tangible benefit the D700 has is the sensor. That big ol’ full-frame sensor is the heart and soul of this deal, bringing with it shallower depth of field, better dynamic range, and greatly enhanced low-light performance. Greatly enhanced. For example, both of the following were quick shots in my bathroom, lights off, at the end of a dark hall. Both were shot on Aperture priority, at 28mm equivalent, at f2.8, at ISO 3200. ISO 3200 is the push ISO on the E-3. On the D700, it’s got another three ISO settings higher than it. Here’s the E-3:

click for larger

And here’s the D700:

click for larger

The term “night and day” comes to mind, if for no other reason than one looks like it was shot at night and the other in the middle of the day. The sensor is a star, here.

Also in the D700’s favor is a more flexible auto-focus system with considerably better continuous focus tracking, and a superior LCD.

And that’s about as much as I can say is distinctly better than what the Olympus system had to offer. Most of the features are the same between the two models, including flash sync flexibility, mode options, etc. The E-3 is actually the superior camera in configurability, when it offers features. The E-3 allowed both control wheels to be defined individually for each of the four shooting modes. More options were accessible directly through buttons. The rear LCD displayed more settings and offered the ability to change them directly. Instead of odd transient “Custom Banks,” it had two proper resets, and two custom modes per reset. Auto ISO was a setting on the ISO dial, and not the weird toggle buried in a menu that Nikon uses. And anything you could control with a button on the E-3 you could do without taking your eye off the viewfinder. Try changing the D700’s white balance without taking your eye out of the viewfinder, I dare you.

Also, regarding auto-focus. The D700 has lots of cross-type sensors, but weirdly clusters them in the middle, making portrait focusing in low light… fun. Not a full win because it’s the only weakness in an otherwise superior AF system for Nikon, but the E-3s cross-type sensors did cover more working area. (I actually leave the selectable points on the D700 set to 11 because they’re in basically the same 11 spots I’m used to on the E-3. Small comforts.)

The D700 is weather-sealed, but Nikon rather cautiously calls it “splash resistant.” There’re pictures of my E-3 dripping water after shooting in the rain, and I never had a single problem. That’s going to be the hardest part of this transition. I miss feeling invincible.

On a completely subjective, personal note, the E-3 was also better sculpted to my hand. My fingers cramp a bit more when carrying the D700 around. That’s going to be a per-person thing though, so we’ll just consider it a niggle and not a complaint.

Moving onto lenses. Nikon makes stellar lenses. No doubt. They’re sharp and the auto-focus on AF-S models is fast. That said, Nikon lacks a clearly defined middle tier of lenses, and you’ll find yourself with little ground between a slow f4.5-5.6 zoom and a fast f2.8 constant. Actually, there frequently isn’t any ground there. You have consumer or pro, screw the in-between. Olympus’ line-up wasn’t as extensive or storied, but when they got a chance to do it from scratch, they did it pretty good. They had three clearly laid out ranges, with a full focal length coverage in each with three zooms. Zuikos, because of their shorter focal lengths or something, also had about half the minimum focusing distances of their Nikon counterparts, letting you focus on things right up on you. And if you’ve never used the ZD 50-200mm before, let me tell you this. For its cost and features, it has no equal. It’s equivalent to a 100-400mm f2.8-3.5, had IS thanks to the E-3’s in-body system, and was weighted to be sharper closer to wide open. I’ll miss that lens. A lot.

Speak of IS. More subjective, I don’t have the data here. But I’ve found I have to go back to practicing tighter form to get sharp shots with the unstabilized 24-70mm, and even the VR 70-300mm seems a bit shakier. But, then again, thanks to the 2x crop factor, the Oly was working with physically shorter lenses, and it could just be down to that.

I haven’t ever been much of a flash shooter, other than manual, so, I didn’t use the Oly flashes much, and I haven’t used the CLS much, so, flash will have to wait, but I hear from everyone that Nikon is king of flash systems. I’m willing to believe that, and we’ll chalk the possibility to go that way up as a win in the D700 corner.

Also in the D700 corner are the big, attached-to-the-damn-camera rubber boots over the ports. The E-3 used some teeny-tiny plastic caps that I was forever losing. How could you not? They seemed to be made to lose.

And… that’s most of my thoughts. The E-3 handled better. Some of the decisions made going into the Four Thirds were really, really good. It was well thought-out. It’s just a pity the sensor tech couldn’t keep up. The D700’s sensor is beyond reproach. It’s good. It’s really good. Sure, when the E-3 was happy with the light, you were going to be happy to. With adequate light, the E-3 and those Zuikos turned out quality shots. But man, if the E-3 wasn’t happy with the light, it was going to make sure you were unhappy too. When the studio lights turn off you get to see just what the fuss about the D700 is. I’ve taken better causal shots easier indoors and at dusk with the D700 than the E-3 would ever have given me. The number of shots I can go for has greatly increased. Which is what I needed, ultimately. Performance where the E-3 did well isn’t vastly superior, but it is as good or maybe a slight bit better, so I’m not losing ground. But I’m gaining flexibility outside controlled environments. The trade off for that is a less customization and some awkward control decisions. And a weird lens line-up (although, there’s complexity even there. Sure, 4.5-5.6 isn’t as fast as 2.8-3.5, but, thanks to the 2x crop factor on the E-3 the depth of field is nearly identical, and thanks to the D700’s superior low-light performance the noise is slightly better even after using ISO to compensate for the slower aperture).

So that’s that. Like a wise, wise man (my design prof Fred Bower) once told me, “It is what it is.” Both systems have a lot going for them, and at the end of the day I needed that sensor, and that means the compromises that go with it, too. The cost of keeping what I liked about the E system was locking in to a dead system, and fewer photographic options. It had to happen, but man, I still find myself torn about it.

Oh well, Zed. It is what it is. For you the end viewers, the differences will be nearly transparent at first, since my main series right now started with the old system and I want to keep the look consistent. But, especially on Flickr first, you’ll start seeing some new boundaries being pushed as we go forwards. New tool, you know, I got step up to it, or it doesn’t matter for squat.

Tales of a System Convert: Part 1, Why Switch?

I don’t talk gear a lot on here. I don’t wax sentimental about my brushes (bought on sale and used until ugly, hard stubs), or my paint (except stand oil, I love that stuff). I don’t see why it should be any different with my camera gear. Sure, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ve already heard me get all squee about the new system, but that’s because technology that makes my car look simple is friggin’ exciting. My old system was no less squee when I got it.

Still, lots of photographers care about gear, and digital did little to change that. In digital, all your total image quality is much, much more dependent on the camera you have powering it. Fair enough. A camera remains a tool, but your choice in tools in this age will have an impact on what you can do and how easily you can do it. And it was on that premise that I inadvertently spent the past few years as an evangelist for the Olympus E system. Which, by the way, is a quick was to get a few jabs and eye rolls from a lot of the photographic world. Not, mind you, that most people can pick out what camera was used for most shots unless they see the EXIF anyway.

Two pretty ladies. Two different cameras. Same great look. I know which one’s which, but for those of you playing along in the home audience, can you readily guess which of these was shot with a camera that cost three times what the other did? Probably not.

So. If the gear isn’t the thing, why switch? Good question. To be fair, what I present was a skewed example. Both of those shots were done in a controlled environment with high quality, consistent studio lights. With a sharp enough lens, you could walk away with those shots from any DSLR made in the past four years. Not a problem, they’re comfortably in the realm where digital sensors excel.

I got a new camera because that’s not always the case.

Olympus Evolt E-410

So. Four years ago I bought my first DSLR: The Olympus E-410. I went with it for a lot of reasons. It was cheap, I was broke. It was 10 megapixels, Nikon’s likewise newly announced D40 was 6. It had dust reduction, and was the only camera on the market to support directly editing the camera settings without diving into menus.

Over the next few months I learned a lot about Olympus and their history of innovation, and also the limitations of their E-system due to the compromises they chose to make. And I was on board. Later that year, they announced the professional-grade E-3, and I came to know gear lust.

Olympus E-3

The next spring, I finally made the jump and bought one. Getting started on a nice, ignominious note, it was a lemon. A swap with Oly later, and I had a tank of a camera. One of two ever made the manufacturer proudly boasted about the weather-sealing on. And, with some slow investment in better glass, I put together a system I’ve used now for about three years. An E-3, a 14-54mm 2.8-3.5, and a 50-200mm f2.8-3.5.  And, I’ve been pretty darn happy, and had grown considerably attached to that camera. I named it Leon.

So, now I’ve switched to Nikon, though. Why? Well, several reasons. Let’s start with some background. If Olympus was the innovative company that took some compromises to image quality (IQ) to make unique cameras with wacky features that were usually industry standards two years later, than in the past four years Nikon has proven that if it’s not the most innovative company, it’s the one most doggedly pursuing the highest IQ it could get. Right about the same time Olympus announced the fearless tank that was the E-3, Nikon took the world by surprise when it announced its own professional camera, the D3, which featured technology that broke the incremental upgrades mould and leap-frogged most of the market. It featured a full-frame sensor with an even-then controversially low 12 megapixel count. When Nikon showed what it could do as far as low light and high dynamic range handling as a result of that conservative pixel count, most everyone was floored. Sure, the camera cost almost 5 grand, but it could shoot in the dark, and it had one of the widest dynamic ranges this side of film. Combined with an autofocus system with four times the standard number of AF points at that time, which had been coupled into the metering system to create an effect that resembled magic more than the crude technology of autofocus, and it was easy to see they’d gone somewhere else entirely with their line.

But that wasn’t enough to get me going. Nikon’s pro stuff was swank, but it was also five times what my E-3 had cost. So, I was still happy. Over the last three years, though, Nikon has announced eleven DSLRs, four of which were pro grade (and two of those have already seen refreshes.) Two of those eleven have proven so successful they haven’t been replaced yet, the D700 and the D90 (which is technically superseded by the new D7000 more than replaced by it.)

In the same time frame, Olympus only pulled out seven new DSLRs. Five of them were consumer models (and two of those were lukewarm rehashes that went straight to QVC and skipped specialty camera retailers.) They did, though, start a new line of Micro Four Thirds cameras, another brilliant innovation that created a new market. Except, it was clear right away that this was also a consumer-oriented line. Where was the investment in their pro system?

Then came the worrying announcement from an Olympus head that there wouldn’t be any new lenses developed for the DSLR system. All new lenses would be for the limited, consumer Micro Four Thirds system. Sure, they’d keep making the existing DSLR lenses, and they did have a rock solid lineup. But that was it. There was no growth. And this was before they’d made whisper of a new pro body. Just three years of increasingly consumer oriented bodies. When they finally did announce the refresh to the E-3, it felt tired on the press sheet. It was a collection of minor upgrades to say the least. Nothing of Olympus’ famed innovation to show, and it hadn’t even tried to match the advances competitors had made in autofocus, tracking, metering, or low-light performance in the preceding three years.

It wasn’t hard to see the writing on the wall at that point. The E-3 was a good camera. Still is. And it would have served me loyally for years more. But, I was pushing against its upper limits, and there was nowhere to go with Oly. The new body would buy minor upgrades, but it wasn’t looking sustainable.

Nikon D700

So, I finally bit the bullet and went with Nikon’s show-stopping D700. All the goodness that made the D3 astounding–the full-frame sensor with creamy bokeh and astounding low-light performance and dynamic range (all three the weakest parts of the E system), the magical metering system combined with four and a half times the number of AF points, a screen with over twice the resolution–for two grand less. It wasn’t a decision to make lightly, because flipping systems always comes at a huge, huge loss. But, I did it. And I’ve now had time to acclimate to my new equipment, in a brand that’s proven to me consistently over the past few years to be concerned about making the kinds of tools I’m after to make doing what I do easier. And better. So, what do I have to say about the differences between these two systems? I think that’ll have to wait for its own overtly long post. How about tomorrow? Meet back here tomorrow and I’ll tell you the skinny on the switch. Make all you gear heads happy, and bore all you people who just like seeing pictures of pretty girls out of your skulls.

It’s the least I could do.

Day 1 on a Mac

Well, this officially marks my first day as a Mac user. Voluntarily, this time, unlike at the design department. I gotta say, OSX has come a long way since it’s early incarnations, but, all of its improvements alone I don’t think would be enough to accomodate my workflow if not for one thing: the new 4-finger gesture touchpads. Keyboard shortucts are marvelous, but Exposé, which makes multitasking on a Mac possible, is normally bound to the function keys all the way on the other side of my keyboard from the Scared Touch Pad where all my navigation work is done.

Or, now I can flip my fingers up or down. Guess which is more useful? Actually, the gestures are so useful they might be my new favorite time-saver, supplanting the all-mighty Alt+Tab. Now that’s impressive.

Oh, and pinch-push scales my thumbnails in LR, and yes, rotating on the touchpad rotates my images. That’s workflow I can get behind.

Flock: Now This Is a Power Browser

So, just today I installed and began putzing around with a new and exciting (to me) browser: Flock.

At it’s heart of hearts, Flock is just Firefox. It’s built on the Mozilla code, afterall. It does have the clear advantage of not chewing my computers to a grinding, chugging hault– a problem recent builds of Firefox seem to have developed much to my frustration.

But, what makes Flock exciting is how it deviates from Firefox. Flock, you see, aims to be the social browser. To that end, it calmly integrates Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, MySpace, Digg, Delicious, Picasa, Photobucket, YouTube, WordPress, Blogger, and a bit more into it. Once configured, all of your buddies from each service and their most recent updates show up in a side bar. You can quickly add links or images to your own feed with a click, or drag-and-drop.

Or, have the sidebar show you feeds. Or your Gmail. A togglable bar above the tab bar can load media feeds, letting you view all of your buddie’s vacation photos at once without having to deal with Facebook’s AJAX galleries.

Heck, I’m writing this post from Flock. Not from my admin page loaded in Flock, but from Flock’s built-in blog composer. I right-clicked on their logo there, chose “Blog This” and it got me started.

Flock is a pretty busy browser, so minimalists need not imply. But, with the increasingly social nature of my site and mingling, this might just be the thing I needed to streamline my eternally-connected life.

“iPhone Therefore iArt” Splendid Example Of Not Fearing Progress

 

Image created by Mike Nourse, Jon Satrom, Carl Sweets, and Melissa Porter. Apps: Satromizer, Collage, Juxtaposer, and Swissmaker.

So, via Art Fag City I found a link to this splendid exhibition from Chi-town where all the art was done using an iPhone. I’ve complained before (mostly in the photo realm) about the current anti-technology conservatism that’s plaguing art, and by being inherently nostalgic holding us back from truly exploring the new world, ideas, and business models that need to be explored. This, it strikes me, is more a step I can approve of.

Apparently this is the result of a class of ten artists who met weekly to create art in a variety of mediums with one thing in common: they were done on an iPhone. The final exhibition includes international artists as well. Some of the text in the statement is the usual over-the-top artist-grade bullshit I don’t like, but the idea still rests beautifully within it: technology doesn’t mean the end of art, just the beginning of something new.

Hit the external link below to read the full release.