What Is Wrong With My (VERY) Expensive DSLR Camera??!!

How often do we pick up a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art DSLR camera like the Nikon D800 or D800E only to be disappointed with the result?

I am not talking about the times when we look at the image scratching our heads while wondering what on Earth we were thinking when we pressed the shutter? No. That is the Purgatory of Composition, Light and Colour which many of us visit all too often. No. This time, I am talking pixel peeping!

It has happened to all of us to expect a razor sharp image chock full of fine detail with excellent micro-contrast and great colour rendering, especially when using a modern, high pixel count camera. Instead, we get so-and-so details, slightly fuzzy edges and maybe funny colours in high contrast transition areas. The camera was on a tripod that could hold the Keck Telescope steady and we used a wireless remote and mirror lockup, so camera shake cannot be the cause.

We then go online on photography forums and vent our anger by letting everyone know how overrated that $4,000 camera is and how that darned manufacturer blew it again!

In reality, the cause of many of these failures is much simpler: lenses, lenses, lenses. If you do not believe me, let’s have a closer look at how the Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8 performs. This lens is by no means a dud. In fact, it is one of the sharpest, highest rated lenses for the Nikon F-Mount. I used DxOMark to compare how the lens performs in the lab on three different cameras: D7100 (24MP DX), D800 (36MP FX) and D600 (24MP FX). I picked these particular cameras for the following reasons:

  • the 24MP D7100 DX crop sensor camera has the highest pixel density (smallest photo sites) and no OLPF (anti-aliasing filter);
  • the 24MP D600 has the same number of pixels as the D7100, but is a full frame camera; the sensor has twice the area of the D7100 and the photo-sites are larger
  • the 36MP D800 full frame (FX) camera has a higher pixel density compared to the D600, but lower than the D7100.

Let’s have a look at the DxOMark Score comparison below:

DxOMark scores for the AF-S 85mm f/1.8 lens when mounted on the D7100, D800 and D600

DxOMark scores for the AF-S 85mm f/1.8 lens when mounted on the D7100, D800 and D600

Two things stand out right away:

  1. Although the D7100 and D600 are both 24MP cameras, Sharpness for the D600 is 19MP, but only 15MP for the D7100; why? sensor size? pixel density? Read on.
  2. Although the D800 is a 36MP camera and both the D800 and D600 have full frame sensors, both have the same Sharpness reading of 19MP; why?
  3. The D800 is a 36MP camera; how come we only get 19MP (perceptual)??!! What gives??!!

Considering only the sensor, one would expect the D7100 sharpness to be much closer to the D600 than it is. After all, it is the SAME lens we are using. Instead, while the perceptual sharpness for the D600 is close to the sensor resolution, for the D7100 we get only 15MP perceptual resolution out of the 24MP sensor. Even more disappointing, the D7100 does not have an AA filter, which, in theory, should allow the camera to capture more detail.

Another expectation is that the sharpness measurement for the 36MP camera would be significantly higher than the one for the D600 with only 24MP and closer to its physical resolution. Instead, it performs well below the expectation and identical to the much lower resolution D600.

Clearly, we are missing something. Before we draw any conclusions, let’s interpret the accutance chart for the same camera/lens combinations:

Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8 Accutance Comparison when mounted on a D7100, D800 or D600

Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8 Accutance Comparison when mounted on a D7100, D800 or D600

Here is the big surprise: comparing the D600 with the D800 we can see that the behaviour is identical, but the D600 is out-resolving the D800 slightly. Say what??!!

When analyzing how the D7100 fares, we find that in the center of the frame the accutance for the D7100 comes in lower than that of the full frame D600. As we move towards the edge of the sensor, however, the D7100 beats the D800 and almost matches the D600. When used with the D7100 the AF-S 85mm f/1.8 shows no astigmatism and almost no drop in sharpness across the entire frame! Surprising??!!

OK, one more diagram before we draw our conclusions (last one, I promise ;~) ):

Zeiss Distagon T* Otus 55mm 1.4/55 ZF.2 DxOMark Scores Comparison

Zeiss Distagon T* Otus 55mm 1.4/55 ZF.2 DxOMark Scores Comparison

Whoa!!! Totally different picture!!

The same DxOMark Score comparison but this time using the Carl Zeiss Distagon Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2 prime lens.

  • notice the difference in Sharpness: values for ALL cameras are VERY CLOSE to the physical MP count!
  • notice how close the Sharpness values are for the D7100 and D600; it appears that the DX vs. FX and the pixel density controversy are red herrings … a lens matched with the camera can take advantage of the high physical resolution of the sensor;
  • notice that the 36MP FX sensor performs better from a Sharpness perspective that the 24MP FX sensor, AS IT SHOULD!

So, now the obvious conclusion:

  • The Carl Zeiss Optus 1.4/55 ZF.2 out-resolves ALL modern FX and DX cameras; we expected no less from a $4,000 prime lens designed specifically for the new breed of high resolution full frame cameras!
  • Although the Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8 is an excellent and modern lens and works great on the D600, it is out-resolved by today’s very high pixel density sensors (36MP FX and 24MP DX no AA)
  • Everything else being equal, the higher the pixel density of the sensor, the better (sharper) lens you will need in order to take advantage of those extra pixels; as densities get higher you need better lenses; this is even more critical for smaller sensor cameras (read Nikon 1, m4/3, etc)
  • Smaller sensor cameras use only the central part of the image circle produced by lenses for full frame cameras; since lens performance for most lenses (except some very, very expensive ones) drops as you move away from the centre, DX and CX cameras use only the best part of the image circle.

It is common knowledge that we need excellent lenses in order to fully utilize the high pixel counts of today’s cameras. What is not apparent, however, is just HOW GOOD those lenses need to be. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, the AF-S 85mm f/1.8 is an excellent, modern lens. However, it takes a $4,000, two pound monster NORMAL PRIME lens to take FULL advantage of those pixels.

Does this mean you have to mortgage your house and hire a Sherpa porter to carry your gear around??!! Not really. When you post your dog’s portrait on Facebook, it will not matter whether you used the Otus or the Nikkor. Only you will know what the pixels look like. The key messages are, IMHO:

  • don’t buy MegaPixels; the D800 will net you nothing in terms of IQ compared to the D600 unless you have the lenses to go with it (and shot discipline, and workflow, and computing power, and budget….)
  • make sure the lenses match your camera performance; the Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8 is a perfect match for the D600 and quite good on the D7100 too; you won’t get the huge bump in IQ you’d expect when moving to the D800, though; on the flip side, the Otus brings the best out of the D800 and D7100, but it will be almost wasted on a 12MP Nikon D3.
  • make sure your expectations match your camera/lens combination; the fact that the 85mm f/1.8 cannot squeeze every pixel out of the D800 does not mean you cannot get spectacular photos that will satisfy the pixel peeper as well; it will do so for under $600, which is a lot less than what the Otus costs.
  • don’t shy away from smaller sensor cameras: they have advantages that might just be the ones that matter most for you; in our comparison, although not exactly apples-to-apples (85mm vs 55mm), the 24MP DX D7100 with the Zeiss Otus has the same 21MP perceptual resolution as the 36MP FX D800 with the 85mm f/1.8 Nikkor.

As sensor resolution for FX and even DX cameras creeps into medium format (MF) territory, we are quickly hitting new limitations: lens quality, diffraction, workflow, cost, etc. It will take a new generation of lenses, like the Zeiss Otus, designed specifically for the high resolution cameras, to ensure we fully reap the benefits of those densely packed sensors.

The Size Factor – OM-D E-M1 vs. D7100

Holiday buying season is upon us and so are reviews and recommendations. Right on cue, dpreview.com recently published their Enthusiast interchangeable lens camera 2013 roundup.  If you are at all interested in higher end crop cameras, I encourage you to read it. As is the case with most of the articles published by dpreview, the article is well written by staff who understand photography.

This, however, doesn’t stop me from being again baffled by and in strong disagreement with the conclusion: the Olympus OM-D E-M1 wins over the Nikon D7100. Don’t get me wrong: if I wasn’t heavily invested in Nikon, I am almost certain the E-M1 or E-M5 would be in my bag. No question that these are two exceptional cameras.

What bothers me is that we are supposedly presented with a facts based analysis, when, in reality, the deciding factor is the coolness quotient. The idea that OM-D is cool while APS-C DSLR is “OLD” oozes throughout the article.

Let’s see what the facts are.

First, I will get out of the way the features that are too close to call:

  1. Build quality: both cameras have excellent build quality, pro-like weather sealing, etc
  2. Lens Quality: there are exceptional lenses available for both systems
  3. Viewfinder: I know many will jump at this one, as generally good OVFs are still better than EVFs; personally, I like both for different reasons and in different situations; I think there is enough going for the EVFs to declare this a tie
  4. Stabilization: Again, a disputed subject: sensor vs. lens stabilization; this is probably material for a full article on its own; again, I think there are so many pros and cons on both sides that it really depends on your particular situation which one is better; we will call it a draw, but you are free to move it to either of the two sections below.
  5. Crop factor: smaller sensors provide more DOF and favour situations requiring long lenses; larger sensors require slower lenses for the same level of subject isolation; in addition to all of this back and forth, the D7100 has a 2x equivalent crop mode that effectively turns it into an m4/3 equivalent; let’s call this one even.

In favour of the E-M1:

  1. Camera body size & weight: 497g vs. 675g; not a big deal on its own, but when you factor in lenses, it helps
  2. Size & weight of the lenses: Although generally not as small as one would hope, lenses for the m4/3 system are smaller and lighter than DX or FX lenses of comparable performance.
  3. Weight of support gear: you need a lighter tripod or monopod to support the OM-D compared to the D7100 when fitted with lenses that have similar full frame equivalent focal lengths;
  4. Continuous shooting performance & buffer: 10 fps vs. 6 fps; the RAW buffer is also larger than the one in the D7100;
  5. Flash sync speed: 1/320s vs. 1/250s

If I missed something significant, please let me know (“really, really cool” might be true, but certainly not significant … ;~) ).

In favour of the D7100:

  1. Absolute Image Quality: low ISO image quality is significantly better (1EV dynamic range, 3.7dB lower noise, 1.2 bits higher colour depth)
  2. High ISO image quality: about 0.7 stops in favour of the D7100
  3. 14 bit RAW: as opposed to 12 bit RAW for the E-M1
  4. Focus speed and focus tracking: the EM-1 is no slouch, but the D7100 still outperforms it; the gap gets larger as available light is less; this sort of counteracts the continuous shooting performance advantage of the E-M1
  5. Wider selection of lenses: there is 50 years’ worth of Nikon glass out there …. The “not built for DX” argument is a red herring; it comes down to size (again) and price (although good lenses for the OM-D are not cheap either)
  6. Price: $1,150 vs. $1,400 for the body only (can you spell “cool factor” ??!!)
  7. Resolution: 24MP vs. 16MP; no OLPF vs. Yes OLPF; if you need to print big, the D7100 provides significantly more detail at all ISOs
  8. 1.3x Crop Factor: if you really like the m4/3 form factor, the D7100 has a 1.3x crop mode that results in a total crop factor of 2x, just like m4/3; the 1.3x crop mode virtually nixes the advantage the m4/3 format has at the long end of the lens spectrum; in addition, the 51 focus sensors of the D7100 virtually cover the 1.3x crop frame edge to edge, making continuous focus tracking across the frame even better.

Conclusion:

IMHO, choosing between these two excellent cameras comes down to

size, weight and continuous shooting speed (fps and buffer)

VERSUS

final image quality (initial IQ, high ISO IQ, 14bit RAW), sensor resolution, autofocus speed, lens selection, price

In circumstances where size and weight are the driving factors, you cannot go wrong with the E-M1. In most other situations, the D7100 will outperform it.

Oh, by the way, if you were wondering: I really, really don’t care about video. ;~)

The Size Factor

This is one of those ./rant posts I feel compelled to make occasionally.

More and more we hear how mirrorless cameras are the best choice around because of their size. I have made similar statements several times in previous articles.

Taking a step back, however, I think we are loosing perspective with all the “size and weight” excitement, to the point where we are willing to accept a lesser camera just because it is smaller. Another urban myth is that lens selection for the m4/3 format is far superior to the one available for DSLRs, especially for the DX crop sensor format.

If we look at the two statements above through a magnifying glass, however, major cracks are clearly visible.

1. The size factor

It is absolutely true that the size factor is significant. I find myself carrying the Nikon 1 V1 around quite often when shooting wildlife. The reason I do it most of the time, however, is not really because I cannot carry a few extra pounds around. It has to do more with the fact that, in order to get better results, I have to carry many extra pounds that cost a lot more. For most of my needs a $900 V1/70-300mm combo weighing less than 2 pounds allows me to take about the same shots I would take with a $10,000, 10-15 pound full frame rig. So weight and size are not the only factors; cost and convenience play a big role as well.

There are certainly occasions when carrying around a big, heavy camera rig is impossible, or at least extremely impractical. In all other circumstances, it is a price-performance calculation.

2. The lens factor

We are being bombarded by reviewers and fanboys fretting about how great m4/3 lenses are. I spent a lot of time comparing the top performing m4/3 cameras and lenses with top DX combos. What I found was that, while the performance differential between the larger sensor DX format and m4/3 was smaller than you’d expect, it was still in the favour of the DX DSLRs at a smaller price. Not to mention that the selection of lenses for DSLRs still beats the m4/3 crop hands down. In other words, the main value proposition is size and weight versus performance and features. Oh, let’s not forget the cool factor. It is cool to write about the OM-D over and over again, despite the fact they are barely making a dent in the market and Olympus is loosing money. It is not so cool writing about have-been DSLRs like the D5300, D71oo or even the best full frame DSLR ever, the D800.

I will keep shooting with my V1. It is quite possible that the best camera for you is the OM-D or the NEX … errrrr, the A7. Make sure you know why you choose it (hint: it shouldn’t be because of the cool factor; it will do nothing to improve your photography).

Aperture 3.5 with MacOS 10.9 Mavericks – Change in Multi-screen Behaviour – UPDATED (AGAIN)

Before upgrading to MacOS 10.9 and Aperture 3.5 on my editing workstations I thought I had thoroughly tested the combination on my MacBook. To my surprise, I found no issues …. ;~)

I just upgraded my multi-screen workstations only to find out that the behaviour has changed significantly. Since everyone has a different multi-screen setup workflow, I will not go into the details of what changed and how it affected me. It does not appear to be broken, however it has significantly changed to the point where you will have to spend some time and perhaps make some adjustments.

Needless to say that the best thing to do is to try it on a non-critical computer. Good luck and feel free to drop me a line with your experience.

UPDATE: I may have to revise my statement about the new MacOS 10.9 multi-screen features not being broken. X-Rite Colormunki Display monitor calibration software now crashes every time I try to calibrate the second monitor. The application never crashed once in the past year or so since I got it. We will have to keep an eye on this in the coming days.

FIX/WORKAROUND:  There is a way to make the multi-screen behaviour revert (almost) to a pre-Mavericks state: in

System Preferences -> Mission Control -> uncheck Displays have separate Spaces 

You can find more details in the article.

The workaround for the Colormunki crash is described in this article. Essentially, you set your secondary display as primary, reboot, calibrate and revert to your initial configuration.

Hands On With the Nikon 1 FT1 Adapter and the Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8 Prime Lens

The AF-S 85mm f/1.8 Nikkor prime is one of the sharpest lenses available for full frame cameras. It does not have VR, however that shortcoming is more than made up for considering the size, weight (350g) and price point below $500.

The lens was originally intended to serve as a high quality, low cost portrait lens for FX cameras. Although this is probably still one of the more frequent applications, when mounted on a DX body it becomes a 135mm equivalent f/1.8 medium telephoto.

Even more intriguing is the fact that, when mounted on the Nikon 1 via the FT1 adapter, it becomes a 230mm equivalent f/1.8 telephoto lens.

Following the pattern from my previous article, here is a rundown of the main highlights for this lens:

- razor sharp
- fast f/1.8 prime
- very well controlled CA
- low vignetting
- small and light
- competitive price

The downside:

- no VR (not a problem when used with FX bodies, but definitely a factor when mounted on a Nikon 1)
- not a macro lens by any stretch of the imagination (0.12x magnification factor)

So, what are the things we need to take into consideration when using the 85mm f/1.8 with the Nikon 1 bodies:

First and foremost, this is a 230mm telephoto with no VR. As a general rule, I would not go with shutter speeds slower than 1/200 unless I was very, very good at handheld shots.

Second, although the lens performs exceptionally well when stopped down, remember that the 1″ sensor of the Nikon 1 will start showing the effects of diffraction at apertures of f/6.3 and above (f/8 is still OK for anything but the largest prints).

Why should you use this lens without VR with the Nikon 1? For two main reasons:

In order to take advantage of all the capabilities of a sensor with such pixel density, you need a very, very sharp lens. The Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8 is it.

The second reason is also tied to the sensor: depth of field is increasing as sensor sizes decrease. In order to get good subject isolation and a nice bokeh you need a fast lens (large maximum aperture). The Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8 is it.

Without further due, here are a few samples using the 85mm f/1.8 lens. As usual, I tried to push the limits of the gear to find out just how much we can get out of it.

Copyright Notice: you are granted the right to download the full resolution non-watermarked photos published in this article for the sole purpose of examining the images on your own device(s). The images in this post cannot be reused or altered in any way, for any purpose (commercial or not) without my written consent.
 
Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO100, f/4.5, 1/400s @85mm (230mm equivalent) In-camera JPEG

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO100, f/4.5, 1/400s @85mm (230mm equivalent)
In-camera JPEG

The image above was taken under favorable circumstances. As expected, the image is sharp, without any visible issues and the bokeh is good.

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO110, f/2.2, 1/6400s @85mm (230mm equivalent) In-camear JPEG

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO110, f/2.2, 1/6400s @85mm (230mm equivalent)
In-camear JPEG

Another in-camera JPEG. I will let you look at the full size photo and decide for yourselves whether you like what you see or not. Remember, this is a 230 mm f/1.8 equivalent. Something similar on a full frame body will cost at least four times more than the 85mm f/1.8. I want to draw your attention to the catamaran: at 100% magnification you can see some chromatic aberrations. This is to be expected from a fast prime. The camera does a decent job of correcting it, but keep on reading….

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO100, f/2.2, 1/5000s @85mm (230mm equivalent) In-camera JPEG

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO100, f/2.2, 1/5000s @85mm (230mm equivalent)
In-camera JPEG

The image above represents a torture test of sorts for the V1/85mm combo. Shooting into the light with the strong reflections on the water is bound to bring the worst of the CA in plain sight. Indeed, you do not need to look at the full size image to see the purple fringing in the foreground and the green fringing in the background – telltale signs of longitudinal CA. As you can see, the in-camera JPEG processing does not remove this type of CA. Let’s run the RAW NEF file through Capture NX2 and see what happens:

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO100, f/2.2, 1/5000s @85mm (230mm equivalent) Processed in Capture NX2

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO100, f/2.2, 1/5000s @85mm (230mm equivalent)
Processed in Capture NX2

The annoying color fringes of the bright reflections are almost entirely gone. Processing the RAW files also allows me to make small white balance and tonal corrections much easier than with the in-camera JPEG.

Let’s look at another example:

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO100, f/2.5, 1/4000s @85mm (230mm equivalent) In-camera JPEG

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO100, f/2.5, 1/4000s @85mm (230mm equivalent)
In-camera JPEG

Very sharp, good DOF control and color rendering. The effects of the CA are visible in the white shirt and around the edges of the white surf boards. The same image processed in Capture NX2 from RAW:

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO100, f/2.5, 1/4000s @85mm (230mm equivalent) Processed in Capture NX2

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO100, f/2.5, 1/4000s @85mm (230mm equivalent)
Processed in Capture NX2

CA is all but gone and the image is even sharper and has better micro-contrast.

Another interesting finding that I did not spend time creating samples for is that in most cases automatic distortion control is OFF when using Nikon lenses with the FT1 adapter. I am not sure why this happens, but again, processing in NX2 will take care of it.

Bottom line: I feel that, although the JPEGs out of the camera are OK, there is much room for improvement, more so than the usual difference between JPEG and RAW processing. This holds especially true with the primes. Zooms like the 70-300mm VR or even the 18-105mm VR seem to produce better in-camera JPEGs than the primes. On the other hand, images taken with primes like the 85mm f/1.8 or the 105mm Micro Nikkor and processed with Capture NX2 are nothing short of spectacular.

More Samples With the Nikon 1 FT1 Adapter and the Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm f/4.5 – 5.6 Lens

Below you can find a few more samples taken with the 70-300mm and the Nikon 1 V1 and J1. I tried to select shots taken in a wide range of conditions to illustrate the capabilities and limitations of the setup.
Copyright Notice: you are granted the right to download the full resolution non-watermarked photos published in this article for the sole purpose of examining the images on your own device(s). The images in this post cannot be reused or altered in any way, for any purpose (commercial or not) without my written consent.
A. Favorable Conditions - both lens and camera are working within their optimum performance envelope
Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO180, f/8, 1/250s @300mm (810mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO180, f/8, 1/250s @300mm (810mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO250, f/6.3, 1/320s @200mm (540mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO250, f/6.3, 1/320s @200mm (540mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO100, f/7.1, 1/200s @240mm (650mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO100, f/7.1, 1/200s @240mm (650mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO140, f/5.6, 1/200s @220mm (600mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO140, f/5.6, 1/200s @220mm (600mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 J1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO100, f/5.6, 1/800s @135mm (365mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 J1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO100, f/5.6, 1/800s @135mm (365mm equivalent) – AF-S servo

Nikon 1 J1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO100, f/5.3, 1/500s @210mm (560mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 J1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO100, f/5.3, 1/500s @210mm (560mm equivalent) – AF-S servo

Nikon 1 J1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO100, f/6.3, 1/640s @270mm (730mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 J1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO100, f/6.3, 1/640s @270mm (730mm equivalent)

B. Pushing the Limits - either the lens is outside the optimal envelope, or the camera ISO is pushed high, or both

Resplendent Quetzal - Juvenile Male

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO800, f/5.6, 1/80s @270mm (730mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO1800, f/8, 1/250s @210mm (560mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO1800, f/8, 1/250s @210mm (560mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO1400, f/7.1, 1/200s @300mm (810mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO1400, f/7.1, 1/200s @300mm (810mm equivalent)

C. Macro - the 70-300mm can be used in a pinch as a quasi-macro lens, especially at the long end

Nikon 1 J1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO100, f/5.6, 1/320s @220mm (600mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 J1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO100, f/5.6, 1/320s @220mm (600mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO200, f/8, 1/250s @300mm (810mm equivalent)

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO200, f/8, 1/250s @300mm (810mm equivalent)

Hands On With the Nikon 1 FT1 Adapter and the Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm f/4.5 – 5.6 Lens

When I set out to write the FT1 field report article, I was planning to make it a two part report: The first one dealing with the FT1 adapter in general, while the second part was going to be the actual field report for the lenses I was going to test. After spending time in the field using the different lenses, it became apparent that it was going to be necessary to deal with each lens individually.
As expected, the lens that proved to be the most useful with the Nikon 1 was the 70-300mm full frame telephoto zoom. This is the VR version and, given that the 35mm equivalent at the long end is 810mm, I would not recommend trying the non VR version, unless you are always shooting in bright light.
For those who are not familiar with this lens, here are some basic facts:
  • variable aperture f/4.5 – 5.6
  • VR rated at 2.5 stops (CIPA)
  • lens is sharp between 70 and 200 mm, even wide open (f/5.6 is the best aperture at 70mm and f/8 at 200)
  • between 200 and 250mm it is still good, but you need to stop down to f/8 or f/11
  • beyond 250mm the lens is quite soft regardless of the aperture
When we consider 35mm equivalent focal lengths, we are looking roughly at a sharp 200-600mm f/4.5-5.3 telephoto zoom, capable of going up to 800mm in a pinch. All for under $600! Not bad, IF it performs. Well, let’s see some samples.
NIKON 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/320s @240mm

NIKON 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/320s @240mm (650mm equivalent)

This is a shot taken under some of the best possible conditions: good light, the subject did not move much across the frame and the 35mm equivalent focal length was 650mm, which is impressive, but still within the range where the lens performs well. Given that it is a hand held shot at half the minimum recommended shutter speed for a 650mm lens without VR, it is clear that VR does make a difference. Here is the same shot at 100% magnification.

Great Kiskadee - Detail

There isn’t much to complain about, is there?! The results are impressive, especially given the very light weight of the gear (less than two pounds and we can loose the tripod) and the even lighter weight on our bank account. There is plenty of detail, the image is sharp and colors are accurate. The only limitation is that this is a 10MP image, which will allow you to get quality prints up to 11 x 14. You could get very similar results using a D600 with a 200-400mm lens in DX crop mode. However, at ISO100 there will be very little to tell the two shots apart. If you want to print bigger, you need a D7000 or D7100 instead of the D600. ( homework: how much will these two alternative solutions weigh and cost? hint: a lot more …. ;-) )

The next image was taken under radically different conditions: it was a rainy day with low light and the viper was hidden under a bromeliad below the rainforest canopy. I had to go for the 300mm setting ( 810mm equivalent) and shoot at f/7.1 instead of f/11, which would have given me the best sharpness possible.

Yellow Eyelash Viper

NIKON 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO 3200, f/7.1, 1/80s @300mm (810mm equivalent)

As you can see, edges are degraded and the small sensor is having difficulty rendering the tones and the colors. Dynamic range is not an issue here due to the flat light, but it would have been compromised even in a mild contrast situation. Noise is visible even after careful processing to remove it while still preserving edges. The good news is that a handheld shot with an 810mm (equivalent) telephoto at 1/80s does not exhibit any significant camera shake. Assuming I am average at handheld shots, this means that the VR adds over 3 stops of “shake reduction”, which is better than the numbers published by Nikon.

Let’s recap: the lens is pushed to the maximum, well outside the optimum performance range and the 1″ sensor is set to ISO 3200. It would be unreasonable to expect a good 11 x 14 print. Still, even in these extremely unfavorable conditions, the image is usable for posting on the web or printing small.

What about autofocus? Just before I left, Nikon quietly published a firmware upgrade for the FT1 adapter. IMHO they should have made a much bigger deal of it, because it took an already great thing and made it even better: it eliminated the one significant limitation that came when using Nikkor AF-S lenses with the Nikon 1 line: lack of Continuous Servo Autofocus. AF-C is now available and works when using AF-S lenses with the FT1/Nikon 1 combo. The only remaining limitation of importance is that both Single and Continuous Servo use only the central sensor for AF. Subject tracking is therefore not available.

Since it has been only a few weeks since AF-C has become available, I cannot say I have explored all the aspects of using AF-C in all possible conditions. I did use it extensively on most of the non-static subjects. AF-C performance seems to be very much in line with the AF-S performance when using the Nikon 1/FT1 combo:

  • very fast in good light, comparable or better than many DSLRs;
  • compared to 1 Nikkor lenses under the same conditions, AF using the FT1 adapter seems just slightly slower, but not enough to make a difference
  • in low light the camera reverts to contrast based AF, which is much slower, but still useable for static subjects
  • AF-C in low light is a hit-and-miss proposition
  • as with many other AF systems, it is not entirely clear which part of the marked AF sensor area will be chosen by the camera to focus on; this makes it difficult to get consistent results when using AF-C with small subjects.

Here are a few samples using AF-C

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO 560, f/7.1, 1/500s @195mm

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO 560, f/7.1, 1/500s @195mm (520mm equivalent)

At 100%
Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO 560, f/7.1, 1/500s @195mm

Nikon 1 V1, AF-S VR 70-300mm, ISO 560, f/7.1, 1/500s @195mm

There is still plenty of detail, image is sharp and color rendering is OK. Noise, although visible, is not objectionable. Focus is precise and I didn’t have many misses in this particular sequence.
Something notable by its absence: vignetting. Since the small 1″ sensor uses only the central portion of the full frame lens, vignetting is virtually non-existent.
Chromatic aberrations are also very well controlled and in many cases not visible even at 100% magnification.
In conclusion, I am convinced that this setup should be in every sports and wildlife photographer’s bag. Results are very good in a relatively wide range of conditions and in many cases it is the only gear combination that will do the job (due to the combination of AF speed, lens quality, low weight and low cost).
As with all photographic gear, there are many small things that you need to understand or do when using this setup in the field. Understanding the limitations and the conditions where it performs best will allow you to get spectacular results, on par or better that those using heavyweight gear.
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