Nikon D600 Review: Ten Pounds of Camera in a Five-Pound Bag

The box is the only dull thing about this camera.

For years now, no camera discussion forum has been worth its salt if it hasn’t included a thread or two speculating about how neat it’d be if someone would stick a full-frame sensor into a crop-sensor body and slap an affordable price tag on it. Rumors have come and gone and come again, but now we’ve got the real deal with the Nikon D600, which was announced barely three weeks ago, and has actually been available in stores since its September 18 release date (if you’re even a casual Nikonian, you know this is nothing to take for granted). Read below for the results of real-world use (read: no test charts or silly photos of brick walls) from a real live photographer.


The D600’s $2,100.00 price tag isn’t exactly pocket change, but as full-frame cameras go, it’s enough to put this Nikon in the “affordable” category, relatively speaking. The price is held down by a few things; it doesn’t have the D800’s 36MP sensor or control surfaces, or a huge buffer, or the D4’s frame rate. Its body largely carries over from the D7000, from the remarkably similar design, measurements and weight to the use of titanium only for the back and sides. With all that being said, this isn’t a no-frills camera; there’s an awful lot of capability packed into a comparatively small package. Read on to find out more.

Hands (Crop; 1600 ISO)

Sensor: If you’re the kind of person who obsesses over lab tests, the DXOMark score for the D600 is 94 (third only to the Nikon D800 and D800E, which came in at 95 and 96; more on that here). If, on the other hand, you’re concerned more with the resultant photos…  Look, the thing’s got 24.3 megapixels. You can, in other words, crop like an overzealous barber and still get good shots out of this puppy. There are caveats, of course. Higher-megapixel sensors have a tendency to show the flaws of the lenses put in front of them (or of the photographer behind them), not to mention that the file sizes are much larger. Color depth is very good, and the dynamic range is… well, it’s a good reason to give this camera a close look if you hadn’t already.

Fireman (Crop, 3200 ISO)

Ergonomics and Controls: this is, naturally, highly subjective; one thing I’ve always liked about Nikon is that they feel right in your hands, and the D600 is no exception. There are plenty of knobs and buttons, which makes a huge difference when it comes to changing settings quickly (if it has, or can be assigned, a knob or button, that’s one less thing you’ve got to hunt for in a menu). Some of the buttons do double duty, controlling different functions depending on how you’re using the camera at the time; in other words, the buttons that control ISO and white balance will control your ability to zoom in and out on an image during playback. Some people see this as a major drawback… I’m not one of them. Like anything else, you adapt. The D600 is further helped by the inclusion of user-customizable menus, as well as two banks’ worth of user settings on the mode dial, which can be useful if you’re making lots of wholesale changes to your settings for certain situations. So if, for example, you’re doing product photography strictly for the web, you can dial in smaller file sizes, different color and ISO settings, et cetera, and recall them on the dial rather than having to set everything manually each time you want to shoot that way. As an added bonus, both halves of the mode dial now lock, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally changing from Aperture Priority to Manual when you take the camera out of your bag.

Fireman (Crop, 6400 ISO)

ISO: Native ISO spans 100-6400, with a “Low” setting of 50 and a “HI2” of 25,600 ISO. I was fully prepared to write off the HI modes altogether; on the D7000, 6400 was useable, but just barely, and by Hi2, it was as noisy as a bar band. Even without noise reduction, you can get useable prints up to 6400. Noise is very well handled in the upper ranges. The pleasant surprise here is in the reaches beyond 6400. It’s still noisy in the Hi modes, and there’s still loss of detail, but it’s held down much better on this camera than on the D7000. What’s more, even where there’s grain, it looks (up to 6400) like film grain. I’m not seeing the kind of luminance noise with the 600 that I’ve noticed with nearly every other camera I’ve tried – even in RAW, or in JPG with noise reduction turned off.

Metering: I’m finding the metering on this camera to be a tad more reliable than on the D7000. Left to its own devices (at least in matrix metering, which I tend to use most often), the 7000 had a tendency to slightly overexpose. The D600 blows fewer highlights in Matrix metering than the D7000, and also has visibly improved dynamic range (the inclusion of in-camera HDR is a nice touch, but I haven’t used it nearly enough – or used dedicated HDR programs like Photomatix at all – to be able to say exactly how well it does HDR).

Victory (Crop, 12500 ISO)

Autofocus: 39 focus points with 11 cross-type sensors. While I don’t have the fancy gear of the folks at Popular Photography or DP Review, I will say that the AF is noticeably faster in low light, even with my finicky, screw-drive 105 f/2.8D mounted to the camera. The one thing that may pose an issue for you, depending on what you shoot and how, is the grouping of those AF sensors. It’s essentially the same grouping as on the 7000, and in the same amount of space. In other words, what gave you pretty generous coverage on a DX sensor instead gives you a relatively tight grouping toward the center of an FX sensor. If you’re used to shooting with a single sensor point (or coming from a camera like the D60, which has only three evenly-spaced focus points on a single horizontal plane), this doesn’t present a huge issue.

Victory (Crop, 25600)

Battery: The D600 uses the same EN-EL15 that’s used in the D7000 and D800. It’s CIPA rated for 900-1050 shots. I haven’t shot quite that many frames (yet) with this camera, but my experience using the same battery in the D7000 bears this out. Other factors (overuse of the burst mode, lots of chimping, using the onboard flash, cold weather) can, of course, lead to your results varying.

Finder: 100% coverage, .71x magnification. It’s big and bright, with the option to overlay grid lines, plus a frame that shows the DX coverage area if you’re using a DX lens, or if you set the camera to shoot in crop mode using an FX lens. Unlike previous and other current Nikon FX cameras, the 600 carries over the square viewfinder found on the DX line (not that I mind; it means not having to buy another eye cup for the finder).

Lenses: You can use practically anything with a Nikon F mount on this camera, including DX lenses, from your old AI-S lenses, to the more recent 2.8D screw drive AF lenses (the drive’s built in, as it was on the 7000) to the newest VR G lenses. If you’re weighing the move from a dedicated DX camera to FF but have hesitated ‘til now because you needed the additional magnification provided by the crop sensor (and/or didn’t want to lose too much resolution), you’ll be happy to know that this shoots at a respectable 10 megapixels in crop mode, so you can still use that 70-300 like a 450mm at the long end if you need to.

Video: I’m a stills guy. I can count on my fingers and toes how many videos I’ve shot with any cameras I’ve used that had the capability, and would only need one hand for the number of those videos I’ve actually kept. I bring this up by way of suggesting you take this section with a grain of salt. Video quality was, to my eyes, pretty darned good in daylight, but not so much in lower light. The edge still goes to Canon (or Sony) on video performance, though Nikon’s improved significantly since they introduced SLR video with the D90. Audio’s spotty, but then again, I didn’t expect much from the audio to begin with;  nearly any non-video camera that relies on a built-in condenser mic has poor sound quality, and picks up every whirr, click, and hum from the camera’s and lens’ guts. If you’re serious about DSLR video, get a shotgun mic. But then, if you’re serious about DSLR video, you already knew that.

Extras: A strap, which is the usual cheap, garish and and uncomfortable nylon Nikon strap; if you haven’t already, I’d suggest buying something more comfy (like the Crumpler Crumpler Industry Disgrace***), especially since your neck’s going to feel like hamburger if you’ve got anything larger than a 50mm on the camera for any length of time. There’s also a USB cable, the little thingy that protects your hot shoe, that other little doohickey*that you’re supposed to put over the viewfinder if you’re not going to be shooting at eye level, another slab o’ plastic that covers the rear LCD, instruction manuals in English and Spanish (which you probably won’t read, choosing instead to ask on the NikonRumors forum, you scallywag), one EN-EL15 battery (with charger) and a body cap.

The Verdict:

Pros include excellent dynamic range, very good high ISO performance and color depth, good ergonomics, plenty of manual controls and buttons, quick buffering, and all the perks that go with shooting full-frame packed into a body with the form factor of the prosumer D7000. Cons** include a tightly-grouped 39-point AF system, slightly slower burst rate, and 1/200 flash sync.

Is this the camera you need? Well, that all depends. As with any other camera, a lot has to do with expectations. My last camera, traded in toward this one, was a D7000. That wasn’t an easy choice to make; the 7000 was an excellent camera, and if I had to do it over again, I’d buy another without hesitation. I heard gripes about the 7000 (notably, hot pixels, and sometimes gimpy AF, especially in low light). I didn’t have the same hot pixels that some early adopters had (one of the benefits of waiting), and given that I was coming to the 7000 from a point-and-shoot that could be poky in broad daylight, I found the 7000 a joy to use. If you’re stepping up to the 600 from an older generation of the D series (say, anything from a D40 to about a D80), this camera is a quantum leap.

Build quality is identical to the D7000, and the frame rate in burst is half-a-frame slower. If those things are deal breakers for you, plunk down the extra $900.00 for a D800 for the added build quality (and 36MP) and a more evenly-distributed 51 point AF. Or, for just (just?) an additional $3,800.00, you can get 10 frames per second, 51 point AF, and the build quality (not to mention concomitant weight) of a freakin’ tank with a D4.

I could easily sum up the D600 in two words: Holy shit. I’m a bit given to profanity as it is, but this camera had me cursing like a sailor on shore leave. Over and over again, it’s performed better than I expected: quick AF, jaw-dropping performance at high ISOs, the ability to crop with impunity, the lovely bokeh that’s the reason you buy fast lenses to begin with, and superb image quality.

If you’re on the fence because you’ve got a D90, D7000, or D300, all I can tell you is, put this puppy through its paces. Its controls are very close to those of the 7000 (with a couple of minor variations), and its dimensions and weight are so close that you won’t feel the difference in your hands. If you’re looking for the successor to the D700, this could well be that camera (keeping the caveats above in mind). If you’re looking for a backup body for your D800… well, that all depends. In terms of image quality, the D600 gives the D800 a run for its money, but the controls on both are very different, so unless your other camera’s a D7000, that could prove to be frustrating. With all that said, here’s the bottom line: if the compromises that come with this camera are the kind that you can live with (for me, they were) then this is a damn good camera for the price.

Buying options***:

Nikon D600 with 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR AF-S Kit Lens

Nikon D600 (Body Only)

Nikon EN-EL15 Rechargeable Li-Ion Battery (you’ll want a spare battery)

*Sincere apologies for all this technical jargon.

**Whether some of these things are “cons,” of course, depend on your needs and expectations.

***Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases through these links help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks!

A note on the photos: The file sizes on the original photos, as you’d expect on a camera with a 24MP sensor, are enormous. The photos above have, therefore, been cropped and downsampled. The only one that’s had any processing applied beyond in-camera noise reduction (set at Normal) is the flower photo above.

D600 User’s Manual (PDF/English)

D600 User’s Manual (PDF/Spanish)

If you’re using a smartphone, I suggest just putting the manual directly on your phone.

Review: Zen in the Art of Photography, by Robert Leverant

Zen in the Art of Photography, by Robert Leverant

The first review run on The First 10,000 was of a photographers’ handbook first published 70 years before. Like that book, Robert Leverant’s Zen in the Art of Photography is an oldie (first published in 1969), but this one doesn’t show its age in the least. It’s a short book that you could probably get through very quickly. I’m going to suggest that you don’t do that.

It’s not that this isn’t a good book. Quite the opposite, really; it’s very good. But it’s not a how-to in the conventional sense, where the author lets you in on his or her secrets to getting a particular shot. One of the cover blurbs on the book addresses a librarian’s exasperation as to how, exactly, he ought to file the thing. Is it photography? Philosophy? Religion? Poetry? The short answer would be “Yes, and…” It’s a book that’s all about the philosophy of photography, and it proposes, in its own low-key way, a more spiritual approach to photography.

Befitting a radically different approach to photography, even the book’s layout and writing are unconventional. It’s a poem in prose, a series of epigrammatic snippets that nonetheless hold together if you try to read them the way you would, say, Ansel Adams or Freeman Patterson. The advantage to this is that you could, if you wanted, read the book in sequence, cover to cover, the same as you would any other. But you could also, if you wanted, read the book’s, or poem’s, individual lines and pore over them the way you would a series of Zen koans.

Like koans, the cryptic phrases given by Zen monks to new practitioners to prod them toward enlightenment, Leverant’s phrases — either on their own, or read as a cohesive whole — don’t reveal themselves all at once, hence my earlier suggestion not to plow through the book in one sitting. You could, but it’s better — or at least, was more fulfilling for this particular reader — to approach each of the 168 segments on its own merits, and to give it full, mindful attention.

So is this even a book, or is it a series of snapshots in words? The advantage to the author’s approach is that it turns the cliche of a photo being worth a thousand words completely on its ear. This book isn’t as explicit as it could be, and to my mind, that’s a good thing, since it gives the words, as sparse and minimalist as they are, plenty of room to breathe. Your own experience, practice, and thought process ends up fleshing out what’s already on the page. In that sense, these aren’t fragments of poetry or prose as much as they’re seeds, meant to be watered by attention, meditation, and practice. Then it’s a matter of transferring that approach to your own life and craft. As the book hints at, this is both as simple as it seems, and as difficult as anything rewarding usually is.

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Review: Take Your Best Shot, By Miriam Leuchter

Take Your Best Shot, by Miriam Leuchter

Some time ago in this space in the course of reviewing one of Tom Ang’s many introductions to photography, I noted that Ang had covered the same ground, albeit with minor variations, several times before. Upon reading Miriam Leuchter’s Take Your Best Shot: Essential Tips & Tricks for Shooting Amazing Photos, I realized that the issue is by no means unique to Ang, Leuchter, or any other writer who’s already covered this territory (or has yet to do so). Put simply: the fundamentals are what they are, and there’s only so many ways to state the same fundamental principles.

Especially, might I add, when you’re covering them this briefly. The book’s 240-odd page length is a bit deceiving, since Leuchter covers some 86 topics, ranging from useful equipment and a glossary of terms, all the way up to advice on architectural shooting and portraiture. On the surface, that’s all well and good, but the author rarely devotes more than a page to any of her topics.

That leaves somewhere north of 150 pages’ worth of photos illustrating each of the topics. While I won’t knock the photography, which is as good as you’d expect from the Popular Photography stable, I can see where it might be frustrating to think you’re going to get the straight skinny on, say, macro photography, only to end up with a short blurb and some (admittedly beautiful) photos. Far be it from me to complain about photos in a book about photography, but cliches aside, those photos aren’t going to supply their own thousand words. More in-depth writing about the techniques used to get the shots would have been welcome, even if it had meant fewer photos; a small handful of photos accompanied by case studies or deeper technical information would also have been helpful.

This book’s back cover copy promises that even advanced photographers will find the book useful, I differ (albeit politely) with that assessment. While there are a few bits and pieces toward the end of the book that are useful regardless of skill level (especially the bits on the legal aspects of photography), much of the rest will be review to more experienced shooters (even if, like me, you’re not quite “advanced). The brevity with which most of the subject matter is treated isn’t the most useful thing if you needed, or wanted, a more in-depth explanation of the concepts (though, in fairness, there are book-length treatments of nearly every single topic the book covers, and you could seek those out if you want that much depth).

However, if you’re just beginning your journey behind the lens, Take Your Best Shot represents a good starting point. It’s  a brisk and readable overview — illustrated with some breathtaking examples — that can help you hit the ground running.

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Review: The Fuji X10 Camera

The Fuji X10: A flash of brilliance, or a flash in the pan? Read to find out.

Fuji turned a lot of heads last year with the introduction of the X100, a stylish, retro-looking compactish APS-C camera that was about the last thing anyone expected from a company widely viewed as a perpetual also-ran. Despite some quirks (such as a fixed 35mm lens, which some shooters found a bit too limiting) and issues (not least of which were chronic shortages and a poky autofocus system), the company clearly had a hit on their hands. Many people – myself included – wondered if this would be a flash in the pan, or if the company would follow up with something equally promising.

With the Fujifilm X10, it appears as though they’ve done just that. A smaller camera, with a smaller sensor, it nonetheless combines respectable image quality with the same balance of form and function that made its bigger brother a hot commodity. After a week shooting with the X10, here are some early impressions.

Specs and features: The X10 features a 28mm – 112mm equivalent 4x optical zoom (pancake) lens with f/2.0 to f/2.8 aperture, a 2/3” 12mp CMOS sensor, OIS (Optical Image Stabilization), auto bracketing, RAW shooting, 2.8″ 460K dot high contrast LCD screen, magnesium alloy body, macro focusing to 1cm (at 28mm equivalent), 1080p full HD, full manual controls, optical viewfinder, built-in flash plus flash hotshoe, burst rates of 7fps full resolution/10fps at 6mp.

Build: Metal, and lots of it. Metal body, metal control dials, metal housing for the zoom, even a metal lens cap. The build is pleasantly solid, yet the X10 doesn’t feel like an albatross around your neck. Two features on the X10 take some getting used to. First, unlike other cameras in its class (most notably the Canon G12 and Nikon P7100), the X10 features a smooth and precise manual zoom, rather than the motorized zoom more commonly found on compacts. The on-off switch, interestingly, is built into the zoom ring as well. The cam is stiff, but not frustratingly so, and there’s likewise just enough resistance from the on-off switch to keep you from accidentally shutting the camera off, provided you don’t jerk the zoom ring.

The only downsides to the build are small ones. First, when you first pick this camera up, you’ll find yourself looking for buttons (like zoom and power) that aren’t there or have other buttons in their place. Not a flaw, exactly, but something that takes some getting used to. Second, there’s the odd thread size on the lens, which won’t take any filters currently available (the threading is 40.3mm, and the smallest filters I’ve seen are 40.5mm) and requires the purchase of a lens hood/adapter that costs eighty bucks. Nothing like mandatory “accessories.”

Controls and menus:  I’ve heard complaints about the menu layout on Fuji cameras, but I didn’t find it to be an issue here. For one thing, the menus aren’t that much of a nightmare. For another, the wealth of buttons, switches, and dials (P, A, S, M, EXR, user modes and an “Advanced” mode on the main dial, dedicated exposure compensation, a Function softkey, and a handful of other knobbies) on the camera’s exterior means being able to do quite a bit on the fly without having to trudge through menus and submenus to do what you want to do. An assignable function button and two user-programmable modes add even more flexibility. The biggest adjustment – especially once you get used to having your key settings in your viewfinder on an SLR – is having to take your eye away from the finder if you want to adjust your shutter speed or aperture, or double check your metering. While I wasn’t expecting the lovely and innovative hybrid viewfinder from the X100, I would at least have appreciated an AF indicator in-finder. One of my previous film cameras – as luck would have it, a cheap Fuji compact – had the feature, so you’d think this wouldn’t have been an insurmountable challenge.

f/2.5, 1/1000, ISO 100, Macro mode.

Optics: The X10’s lens is “only” a 4x zoom, covering the equivalent of 28-112mm.* That doesn’t sound like much when some available superzooms boast up to 36x zoom. However, it’s a useful range, and by keeping the range reasonable, Fuji avoided the optical compromises that inherently come with superzoom cameras (including their own). There’s slight barrel distortion at the wide end, but it’s easily corrected with the right software. The maximum aperture ranges from f/2.0 to a still-bright f/2.8 at the long end; because of the size of the sensor, f/2 isn’t going to give you quite the same control over depth of field, or the pleasing bokeh, that you’d get from a fast 50mm on an SLR, but it’s useful in low light nonetheless. The minimum aperture is f/11 throughout.

Autofocus: Not SLR fast, and not even Olympus PEN fast. However, compared to many compacts I’ve tried, it’s quick and doesn’t hunt much in low light. It’s also noticeably faster than its notoriously poky bigger brother. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a soccer game, but under normal conditions it performs acceptably well.

Video: In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a stills guy. As such, I shot a couple of cursory test videos. They’re about what you’d expect from a camera of this size… fine for home viewing, but unlike, say, a Canon 60D, not something you’d use for cinematic shooting. The stereo condenser mics are merely acceptable, and there’s no jack for an external microphone, so your movies will pick up the noises from zoom and autofocus.

f/5, 1/480, ISO 1600. As expected, there's noise from the ISO setting, but the photo is still useable.

EXR and High ISO Performance: Given that I tend to do a lot of shooting in low light, I wanted something with good (read: low noise) performance in the upper reaches of the ISO range. As it turns out, high ISO shots are good at 800, acceptable through 1,600, questionable at 3,200, and go downhill sharply after that. The EXR setting for High ISO/Low Noise performs quite well in low light, as does an “Advanced Mode” that fires off four shots in sequence and then merges them. Both are useful indoors for situations where you’ve got some light but would prefer not to use flash (especially since the built-in flash has all the limitations you usually get from a built-in flash). The EXR for dynamic range, on the other hand, turned out to be something of a disappointment. After trying a number of metering, exposure and DR settings in EXR with the same results (only a moderate improvement in dynamic range, but nothing that’d knock your socks off), I’m less than impressed.

Image Quality: There are a number of image sizes, compression options, and aspect ratios to choose from if you’re shooting in JPG. While this is a 12MP camera, keep in mind that it’s much smaller than an APS-C sensor, so those are 12 million really tiny pixels.  You won’t be able to crop with the same kind of impunity that you can with, say, a D90. To further complicate things, certain modes (EXR and high-speed burst, for instance) cut the resolution from 12MP to 6MP. While the IQ is still good, it doesn’t leave as much wiggle room in post. RAW shooting is also an option, whether full-time RAW, RAW + JPG, or (using a dedicated RAW button on the camera body) the ability to shoot single RAW frames. RAW processing can be handled in-camera, or via the software that comes bundled with the camera.

The X10 has a few different saturation settings that simulate Provia, Velvia, and Astia film, in addition to filtered black and white modes, and control over noise reduction. The film simulations are competent, the black and whites pleasing, and the NR a decidedly mixed bag; as with most other cameras, the more NR that’s applied, there’s a loss of detail, but there’s also a change in the overall color cast of the photos when too much is applied. Auto White Balance is generally reliable, though there are presets for certain lighting situations, and custom WB is quick and easy on this camera.

The Short Version:

Pros: Top-notch build quality; optical finder; a mostly well-corrected lens that’s fast throughout the zoom range; good low-light performance; thoughtful, discrete design; good image quality; minimal shutter lag; SLR-worthy burst rates at full resolution; whisper-quiet performance.

Cons: It’s nice to have a viewfinder (for me it’s mandatory, actually), but this finder’s lack of AF indicator, lack of parallax correction, and 85% coverage have been a bit frustrating.  While the AF is much improved over the X100, this isn’t a camera for sports shooting (unless it’s competitive chess).  The metering can be a bit iffy in less-than-optimal lighting (not consistently, but it does happen). Also, battery life –whether you’re using the Fuji NP 50 battery that ships with the camera or the Kodak KLIC-7004 which also happens to fit – is rated at a merely “meh” 250 shots.**

f/10, 1/110, ISO 400. Note the slight barrel distortion.

In Conclusion: Let’s not forget the price. I’m certainly not listing it under Pros (right now, the camera has a street price of $600.00, not counting the price gouging from some vendors that comes from a product being more in demand than in supply), but I’d have an equally hard time calling it a Con. You either need what this camera offers (the build quality, the faster lens, manual zoom, larger sensor, brighter optical finder, good performance at high ISO) or you don’t. If you need it, and have some idea what these things add to the cost of a camera, you likely understand why the camera costs what it does. If you don’t need those things, it stops being an expensive camera because you likely would’ve bought something else anyway.

A fair amount of whether this camera (or any other, really) “works” for you comes down to your expectations, and the kinds of compromises you’re willing to make. If you’re expecting the Fuji X10 have the same level of performance as a Micro 4/3 camera, much less an SLR, you will be disappointed, the same as you’d be if you expected a spork to perform like a Swiss Army knife. If, however, you approach the camera on its own terms, remaining mindful of what it is and what it’s designed to do, it’s a perfectly competent – and in many ways, quite good – piece of kit.

*There’s a digital zoom option that extends this to 8x, but camera shake (even with image stabilization turned on) and digital crop on an already smallish sensor makes this a last resort rather than a go-to option. If you really need 8x zoom, get a camera that’s built to do it optically.

**Real world results — that is to say, yours — may vary. On its first couple of uses, the battery that shipped with the camera actually shot less than that, while the older, broken in, Kodak batteries I was using as backup actually managed to surpass it by a bit. Other steps, like turning off automatic review and not using maximum illumination on the LCD, can further stretch battery life. If you’re using this as a backup or supplement to an SLR, though, you’re going to have to get used to changing batteries much more often.

The Fuji X10 Manual (PDF format)

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Getting the Most out of Photo Equipment Reviews


I’m a researcher. Not by trade, mind you, just out of habit. If there’s something I like, I learn more. If there’s something about which I’m curious, I find out what I can about it. And if I’m going to spend my hard-earned money on it, you can bet your hard-earned money that I’m going to do my homework first. This is vital with camera gear for a number of reasons, and I’d like to give you a few pointers out of getting the most out of your research so you can get more out of your money while you’re at it.

The first step needs to start with you, before you even start doing your research. Namely, you need to figure out not only what you need, but also what you need it for. Having a ton of information’s not going to get you very far if it’s the wrong information, or all the right information on precisely the wrong piece of equipment. To simplify this a little, let’s assume you’re in the market for a new lens. The first issue is whether you own a lens of that type (let’s say it’s a long telephoto) currently. If so, you need to ask yourself why you need the new one, and be honest. In what ways would it represent a step up from what you’ve got? Reliability? Performance (i.e. more reach than what you currently own)? Or is it just the allure of owning the newest whatzit on the market? If not, what limitations are you noticing on your photography because of what you own now? Are those limitations the result of the gear, or is there something that you could/should be doing differently with the existing equipment that you’re not doing now? And so on… The point is, be clear not only on what you’re buying, but why you’re buying it. Sometimes this results in talking yourself out of a new piece of equipment for one or more reasons, but just as often it means knowing what to look out for while you’re doing your research.

Let’s say, then, that you’ve decided what you need and why you need it. You’re in the market for a long telephoto because the 18-55 that came with your camera has been fine within its limits, but it doesn’t reach quite far enough. After careful consideration, you start researching your options. One of the best ways to do this is not by visiting a single site, but several of them. Below, I’ve listed a few types of sites (with examples), and the reason why you need to visit at least one of each over the course of your research.

Start with the manufacturer’s website. The manufacturer isn’t going to give you an unbiased review of the piece (it’s the job of the Marketing folks to try to sell you more crap whether you need it or not, after all), but at the very least, you’ll find out your options (some of which you may not otherwise have considered, or even been aware of) and the specs for each. This can save you the trouble of having to redo the other steps that follow because you forgot, or missed, a viable option.

Next thing you’ll want to do is check up on one of the more established photography magazines or websites. Popular Photography,, the BJP (British Journal of Photography) and others of their ilk generally get their hands on the equipment first, and will usually subject it to rigorous testing.* These tests are based less on informal/anecdotal evidence than on standardized tests that will look for things like distortion, chromatic aberrations, and precise measurement of things like autofocus times. You can skip straight to the conclusion of the review, where the reviewer will usually lay out the pros and cons of a particular piece in short form, or go through the entire thing for a detailed explanation. Take notes. There’s a quiz later (I’m kidding. Probably.)

Having done that, I’d now suggest going where the consumers are, on sites like Amazon, B&H, and Adorama. Pay attention to what you find. If an issue is only mentioned once or twice in 100 reviews, you can probably chalk it up to sample variation. If, on the other hand, 48 of those same 100 say that a lens vignettes at its wide end, or has consistent color fringing, that’s something to pay attention to, because it’s much more likely to be something baked into that lens’s DNA. Also take into consideration the reviewer’s skill/experience level. Sometimes a less-experienced photographer may praise a piece of equipment because they don’t know what flaws to look for, or may give it a poor review because they don’t have the experience to put it to better use; a more experienced photographer is going to have a somewhat more discerning eye, and is also generally going to be able to use a piece as intended.

Another great resource is Flickr, since you can sort photos by camera body and lens used. Test charts have their uses, but there’s nothing like being able to see real-world results taken with the body/lens combination you’re researching. These aren’t reviews in the traditional sense, but they’re very useful information, and the discussion that takes place on some of the forums can be a lot more useful than the number of stars something’s gotten.

Perhaps most importantly, once you’ve done your research and your mind’s just about made up, get to a camera shop. Test the stuff. Take plenty of shots so you can get a feel for the piece before you buy.** I know I sound like a broken record when it comes to indie camera shops, but you’ve got someone right there who can answer your questions, you can try the gear before buying it, and if you come across a lousy sample or two, you can try others ’til you come across one that fits your needs, rather than mailing stuff back and forth to your online retailer of choice.

To sum things up: I don’t think there’s a single information source out there that’s a magic bullet. There’s no way you can safely visit just one site or store and then just decide you’re done. Your best bet is to check out multiple sources, aggregate your results, and follow what your sources, your gut, and your experience tell you.

*I say “usually” because I’ve seen occasions when they assigned a review to someone who had an obvious bias toward one brand over another, or not enough experience with something to be able to really provide useful information about it.

**I recently wandered into a camera shop to buy a strap, and was looking at a third party wide-angle lens. The person who tried to sell it to me assured me that it had “practically no distortion.” I asked if he minded me taking some shots to try it out. He didn’t. I tried a couple of shots of the shelves, and something looked a bit “off.” So, just for the hell of it, I aimed for the drop ceiling in the store and fired off a few shots at varying focal lengths. Without blowing them up, I saw some pretty serious barrel distortion. Needless to say, I didn’t buy the lens, and will avoid that salesman the next time I go to that shop.

Review: The Exposure Field Guide, by Michael Freeman

The Exposure Field Guide, by Michael Freeman

Since I seem to be in the habit of simplifying things to an almost silly degree, let me at least be consistent. If we’re going to take photography down to its barest essentials, it comes down to framing a subject (composition) and getting that subject to look the way we want it to in our photographic medium of choice (exposure). There are, of course, dozens of ways to approach each of these things, and buckets of ink have been spilled on both. One author who’s added his two cents’ worth to that pile of prose is Michael Freeman, who’s approached the mental game of photography, composition, and a multitude of other subjects. While I’ll be revisiting the aforementioned works another time, today I’d like to consider Freeman’s The Exposure Field Guide: The essential handbook to getting the perfect exposure in photography; any subject, anywhere(Focal Press).

Freeman doesn’t just give an overview of the basics of exposure; if that were a photographer’s only concern, a camera’s Automatic mode would be sufficient to cover any situation under the sun (or under tungsten, for that matter). What he explores here is much more useful, whether to a beginning photographer, or a rather more experienced one who’s bedeviled by certain lighting situations.

After dealing with a handful of technical considerations in the book’s first section (terminology, sensor behavior, metering, gray cards and the like) and admitting that he’s none too fond of generalizations, Freeman nonetheless proceeds to spend the book’s next section laying out twelve types of lighting situations into which every picture falls, dealing not only with the kind of “average” lighting that makes for easy exposures, but also the low- and high-key lighting that’s the bane of many a photographer, and also leads to some of the most striking images once you’ve got the hang of the exposure.

The final sections (“Style” and “Post-Processing”) ensure that the book goes beyond exposure. There are brief pieces on finding one’s personal style, but also on using exposure to set/capture mood, making use of shadows, exposing for black and white, and the zone system, in addition to subjects like HDR imaging and exposure bracketing.

There’s more that could be said on each of these dozen scenarios, but to summarize them in a short enough form that they’d make sense in the context of a book review is to sell them short. As it is, none of the sections of this book is so long (each is two to four pages on average, with plenty of photos illustrating the principles discussed in each section) that you’ll be very long reading it.

This book’s small size (it should fit easily in your camera bag, and it probably isn’t a half-bad idea to keep a copy there) belies the wealth of information in its pages. Like Freeman’s other books, it’s thought-provoking, but just as importantly, it shows how to put those thoughts into action — to get them on paper, or on a screen, as you envisioned them when you framed the shot. If you flip through the pages at your local bookstore and are a bit intimidated by the information (as I’ll admit I initially was), that’s pretty much precisely why you need it. If, on the other hand, you’re an experienced shooter but still find yourself tripped up in certain lighting situations, this probably still wouldn’t be bad to have on hand. It won’t make you an overnight expert, but if it does nothing else, The Exposure Field Guide just might give you the confidence to take on shooting in more challenging lighting situations… and that’s where things start to get interesting.

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Google Picasa 3.8: The First 10,000 Review

We’d all love our photos to come out of the camera perfect from the moment we’ve pressed the shutter down. While that will happen every so often, it’s generally the exception that proves the rule. More often, we look at the photo and realize the exposure’s just a little off, something’s in the frame that shouldn’t be, or we feel that maybe the photo would work better in black and white. There are literally dozens of photo editing and retouching options out there, some of which cost hundreds of dollars (and give you the degree of control a software package that costs you hundreds of dollars had better have) and others of which will cost you absolutely nothing, yet still manage to disprove the old saying that you get what you pay for. Case in point: Google’s Picasa 3.8. It’s a free download, and it’s easy enough to use that even though books have been written on it, you can easily teach yourself the basics and then some over the course of an afternoon. It does a great job of helping you organize, prioritize, tag, and share photos, but I’ll be concerning myself here with its use as an editor.
Figure One (Let's Just Call Him "Walter")

To give you an idea of the program’s capabilities, I’ll be performing a series of operations on multiple copies of the same photo. The image to the left is the original image, with absolutely nothing done to it. Obviously, there are some issues here. For one thing, it’s crooked. There’s also a bit of highlight clipping on the subject’s left sleeve, thanks to the mirror to his left that provided me with what was otherwise some nice reflected light. The whole thing is slightly out of focus. Obviously, under normal circumstances, not what you’d call a “keeper.” The burning (and/or dodging) question, then, is can Picasa turn this into, if not a work of art, then at least something less of an embarrassment?

The Basic Fixes screen

As you can see, the “Basic Fixes” screen provides limited EXIF and histogram data (a nice touch), as well as a number of basic commands. The “Crop” function allows you to crop to common custom sizes and aspect ratios (common print sizes, square crop, 4:3, 16:9, etc.). The “Straighten” feature overlays a grid on the entire photo, making alignment very easy. “Redeye” does a respectable job of reducing or eliminating redeye. “I’m Feeling Lucky” takes an educated guess at fixing color, contrast, saturation, and white balance. True to the name, sometimes you get lucky, but other times not; the program tends to cheat toward looking either too warm (think 1950’s postcard) or a bit too cold. “Text” works as advertised. “Retouch,” meant for minor blemishes, is a pretty ham-fisted solution. When I tried it on this fella’s sleeve, it looked as though he’d spilled something on it, and the less said about what it did to his nose, the better.

“Edit in Picnik” could probably get a review all to itself, but truth be told, I’d find very little nice to say about it. The bottom line about this feature, which includes all sorts of speech bubbles, cartoon characters, ribbons, frames, and cheesy filters to add to your photos, is that it’s just the thing if you like your photos to look like they were retouched by a five-year-old. If that’s not your thing, look elsewhere.

The Tuning screen

Now we come to the Tuning screen. “Fill Light” can be used if your photo is, on the whole, too dark. The problem is, your photograph can very quickly go from being too dark to being washed out; you may recover some details from underexposed areas, but you’ll also find that highlights that didn’t look clipped before suddenly do. “Highlights” is supposed to emphasize highlights, and does give a somewhat finer degree of control, but still leaves you with fundamentally the same issue.

Tuning: Shadows

“Shadows” takes the issue presented by the other two controls and inverts it; it can be used to increase shadows and contrast, but as there’s no way to choose the areas to which it’s applied, you’re really applying a global setting that darkens the entire picture. Now, instead of your highlights looking clipped, your shadows might instead. The “Natural Color Picker,” meantime, is meant to ensure accurate white balance, or blacks that are truly black. It generally works well for white balance, but be aware that it will also change color values across the rest of the photo as well, sometimes drastically.


The Effects screen

Finally, we come to the Effects screen. “Sharpen” is a mixed blessing; while it can sharpen edges and somewhat mitigate the effects of something that’s slightly out of focus, if it’s used too much, it gives you all sorts of ugly artifacts in the photo. The “Sepia” and “B&W” effects work as advertised; however, you may find yourself wanting or needing to go back and adjust other settings to get the most out of these effects (the black and whites produced, while they’re okay, leave a bit to be desired if you like a more contrasty look). You may also find that the “Filtered B&W” presets, which simulate shooting black and white through colored filters, serve you better.

The "Soft Focus" effect applied

“Soft Focus” isn’t. A true soft-focus shot is still in focus, but the edges are softened; done right, it gives a nice, sort of ethereal, glow to the subject. This just makes it look as though you’re looking at your subject through a foggy window. The “Glow” feature actually manages to get somewhat closer to the intended effect, but still makes your picture look a bit like a poorly-done Glamour Shot.


Walter, "Warmified."

In theory, “Warmify” is supposed to make your photos look as though they were shot through a warming filter. In practice, though, it doesn’t just warm the tones, it also has a distracting tendency to warm  everything to the same temperature, to the point that the photo looks flat. “Saturation” tends toward overkill if not used carefully. The “Tint” and “Graduated Tint” presets likewise take some practice; the latter is useful for adding a color cast to a washed-out sky, but since Picasa doesn’t allow layers or intelligent selection, odds are pretty good that the colors used will “bleed” into parts of the scene where they’re not needed or welcome.

PROS: Cost (free), ease of use, and a generally useful set of options; also an excellent tool for organizing and viewing your collection.

CONS: Lack of fine control over fundamentals like Hue, Saturation, and Brightness can make for a frustrating experience; some options can give your images a markedly overprocessed look.

Walter's Close-up

THE END RESULT: The straightening and cropping gave the expected results quickly and easily. Sharpening, however, introduced a bit more noise and loss of detail than I would have liked, and the color adjustments – in the instance of this particular picture, I should point out – just weren’t doing it for me. Being unable to selectively burn (darken) the subject’s sleeve, and finding the shadow tool a bit too heavy-handed in this case, I tried to split the difference. Converting to black and white, as I’ve done here, turns the noise from a distraction into something closer to film grain, and is also a bit more forgiving of the program’s issues with shadows.

THE VERDICT: This isn’t the most powerful tool available, even in its price range. However, once you learn its quirks and limitations (and get the hang of which features “need” other features to be used to full advantage), it can be a useful tool for small tweaks to individual photos. It isn’t quite the tool for major photo salvage; then again, that rather underscores the importance of getting the photo as close to correct as you possibly can the first time. Download it here: