UK Photographer of the Year Won with Nikon’s Cheapest-ever DSLR

The Nikon D40.

It’s the photographer, not the camera.

Knoxville Zoo and the Nikon 18-105mm VR

Saturday was a dry and warm January day, so we took the opportunity to visit the zoo.

Natalie at the Knoxville Zoo

This was the first outing with the new Nikon 18-105mm VR lens. I definitely liked the extra range  compared to the 18-55mm kit lens that got stolen last fall. The zoom ring also feels a bit better mechanically. It pushes the lens straight out, compared to the 18-55mm which is a “double trombone” design that extends out up to a point and comes back in.

Katie and Natalie at the zoo

I can’t say much more without getting some shutter time with it. I suspect that just as with the 18-55mm this lens likes lots of sunlight, which was in fairly short supply yesterday afternoon.

Natalie on the slide

P.S. When I downloaded the pictures to the computer they weren’t as sharp as I would have expected for a camera with VR (Vibration Reduction – Nikon’s name for their anti-shake technology). Then I checked the setting on the lens and realized the VR switch was set to off from the factory. So I’ll test VR on the next outing.

Zebras, Knoxville Zoo

New Nikon cameras and lenses

D3000, D300s, and updates to the 18-200mm and 70-200mm/F2.8. Amazon already has them up.

DP Review has a brief D3000 hands on with full specs. Hit the next and prev buttons for other new Nikon gear. Somewhere on DP Review there’s a side-by-side chart comparing the D60, D3000 and D5000, but I can’t find it again.

What I wanted was a camera the size of a D40/D60 with the 12MP high ISO sensor of the D90/D5000. The size is right, and the D3000 has the improved autofocus system of the D5000, along with a larger LCD (but with the same 230,000 pixels).

The big disappointment is that the D3000 has the D60’s 10.7MP sensor. I don’t care about the 1.3 extra megapixels, but what I lusted after was the amazing high ISO performance of the 12MP sensor and this camera doesn’t have it. That pretty much does it for me, but just to pile on, the D3000 lacks the built-in chromatic aberration correction and distortion correction of the D5000 and D90. Also missing from the D5000: LiveView, movie mode, and exposure bracketing.

None of this makes the D3000 a bad camera, but it does make it a half-hearted upgrade from the D40 and a pointless upgrade from the D60. If you’re starting from scratch this looks like a decent camera at a fair price, but be aware the feature set here is getting a bit out of date. (Almost every new DSLR these days has LiveView, for instance.) It definitely ain’t the swingin’ deal the D40 was three years ago. Me, I’ll keep plugging away with the D40 until there’s something clearly better at a price I’m willing to pay.

P.S. It’s still a few days until August 4th, but compare today’s introduction to the (supposedly) leaked Nikon roadmap.

In praise of Nikon’s 70-300mm VR lens

Good reviews of the Nikon 70-300mm VR lens keep coming. Wildlife photographer Moose Peterson has a huge kit of expensive telephoto lenses, but he still likes the 70-300mm VR, calling it Nikon’s best kept secret.

Likewise, Thom Hogan likes his 70-300mm VR and would choose it as one of only three FX lenses on a desert island. “You’re probably surprised with the 70-300mm VR. If you don’t need f/2.8, then you don’t need the 70-200mm. Indeed, you’ll like the 70-300mm at f/5.6 or f/8 better on an FX body. Close your mouth, that dropped jaw makes you look stupid. Really. The 70-300mm has very good edge to edge performance and doesn’t really start to fall down in any way until you start to approach 300mm. And even then, it’ll do in a pinch.”

Do the math

I like mine, too. It’s a heck of a lens for a reasonable amount of money – not cheap, but not crazy expensive. To realize how good this lens really is you have to take a look at what it would take to get a better lens.

At current prices (inflated due to a strong Yen) the 70-300mm VR is about $550. Weight is 1.5 pounds, length is 5 inches. The next longer lens, the 80-400mm VR, costs $1,500, weighs 3 pounds, and is 7 inches long. The next faster but shorter lens, the 70-200mm VR 2.8, is $1900, weighs 3 pounds, and is 8 inches long.

I’m not putting down those other lenses in any way. They can do things the 70-300mm can’t. It’s just that they do them at double or triple the weight and triple the cost.

Example. You know how I carry my 70-300mm when I’m walking around? If it isn’t on the camera I stick it in the pocket of my Columbia pants. No problem. I do that all the time when I’m switching between the 70-300mm and a shorter lens. I’m not going to carry those other two lenses around that way.

LATER: I bought a 70-200mm VR 2.8.

My review

I use the 70-300mm on a Nikon D40, which is DX a (1.5x crop sensor) body, but it’s an FX lens that works on the new full frame D3 and D700 bodies. Better, some say, than the 70-200mm VR, which will probably get a redesign to reduce vignetting on the full frame bodies. DX users won’t see vignetting with this lens because the image circle is overly-specced for a DX body. Whenever I look through the viewfinder with this lens I notice how very bright it is compared to my DX lenses.

This is a good portrait and wildlife lens, which was my original motivation for buying it. On a DX body it has the same field of view as a 450mm lens. I find that’s plenty for mammals and large birds, though not really enough for tiny songbirds. If you want to photograph songbirds you’ll either need to attract them with a feeder, stalk them, or get a second mortgage.

As a sports lens it’s limited by its maximum aperture of 3.5-5.6. That’s fast enough to freeze action outdoors on a sunny day. With a newer Nikon like the D90, D5000, D3, or D700 you can boost the ISO to extend its usefulness without sacrificing too much picture quality. If indoor sports is what you want to shoot you’ll eventually want a 2.8 or faster lens, which is where the 70-200mm 2.8 becomes the lens to have.

Autofocus speed is very good. The VR (Vibration Reduction) II system helps greatly in counteracting shaky hands, which means more pictures are keepers. The lens makes it easy to throw distant backgrounds out of focus on the long end. The quality of the out of focus backgrounds is good, if not up to the level of faster aperture lenses.

Sample photos

Hogan’s birding photos

Sports photos

Shooting across the river

Some pictures I’ve taken with the lens:

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Long live the Nikon D40

Nikon has finally discontinued the D40, the cheapest DSLR Nikon has ever made and a great, affordable tool for making photographs.

Over at Digital Photography Review, people are pulling out the photos they’ve made with their D40s. Ian Bramham posted some amazing D40 photos here and here. A sample:

His Web site is ianbramham.com. For anyone who doubts what a 6 megapixel camera can do, note that he sells prints of his work up to 30 inches wide and sometimes wider.

Previously: Cheap camera owners of the world unite

I can’t see the appeal of the new Nikon D5000 DSLR camera

Even though I’m not ready to buy a camera right now I was looking forward to the new Nikon D5000. It was pitched as a replacement for the D40 (which is what I use ) and D60.

The appeal of the D40 and D60 is that they’re small, lightweight, and inexpensive – perfect for someone like me who wanted something more than a point and shoot but less than a pro DSLR. Yet in size and weight the D5000 is much closer to the D90.

The D5000 is also much closer to the D90 in price than I’d like. Where the D5000 is similar to the D40/D60 is mostly in the negatives:

  • No focus motor for older AF lenses
  • Cheaper pentamirror instead of a brighter pentaprism
  • Lower resolution rear LCD
  • No top LCD
  • No second command wheel
  • No battery grip/portrait grip option

I like my D40. I like the size, the weight, and the fact that it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. What I really want is a D40 with one of the third generation sensors and a few more features. This isn’t that camera. This is a cheaper D90 with some nifty features like the swivel LCD, but without many of the D90 features that would actually help me take better pictures. I’ll pass.

Nikon D5000 and 10-24mm DX lens

The release is supposedly imminent. Check it out at NikonRumors.

  • Bali-angle LCD, 2.7 inch? [Swivel LCD]
  • D movie image editing and enhanced scene mode
  • Silent Mode AF
  • 11-point target tracking AF
  • ISO3200high sensitivity support

Megapixel count is undetermined, but presumably at least 12 MP.

LATER: DP Review has full specs and a comparison with the D90 and D60. Sensor would seem to be the same as the D90. The D90 has a pentaprism vs. the D5000’s pentamirror, and the while the D5000’s LCD is on a swivel mount it’s about a fourth as many number of pixels as the D90.

Price is about $300 hundred dollars different, with a lens on the D90  that’s worth about $200 more. Granted, the D5000 is new and hasn’t been marked down yet, but if I were buying today and wanted the kit lens I’d be tempted to get the D90.

Thom Hogan on used Nikons and upgrades

After reviewing years of his pictures from various Nikon bodies he has this advice (no permalink – get it while it lasts):

So, if you’re looking for bargains and don’t need high ISO much, the D2x/D2xs would be my choice amongst used offerings. The D200 is probably the best “bargain” amongst the group due to its all around decent image quality, and you can find new in box samples of this camera for substantially less than you’d pay for a new D90; the D200 performs quite well overall. So much so that I had one converted to IR and it’s my main IR camera now.

Another way of looking at things is “is it time to upgrade?” Here, I’ll look at each body and make a judgment about whether it’s time to move to a newer generation:

  • D1, D1h, D1x: yes, to any of the FX bodies.
  • D2h, D2hs: yes, to a D3 for more pixels, better really high ISO values; otherwise no.
  • D2x, D2xs: no, unless you’re moving to a D3x or need high ISO regularly.
  • D100: yes, to a D300.
  • D200: no; I’d wait for a D400.
  • D40: if you need more pixels, yes, to a D60; otherwise no.
  • D40x: no; present bodies don’t provide enough more unless you move upwards in the lineup (e.g. D300).
  • D50: yes, to a D60. (But note you may lose AF on some lenses, which may bring you back to no.)
  • D70, D70s: yes, to a D90.
  • D80: probably, to a D90.
  • S1, S2: yes, to almost anything from a D90 up.
  • S3, S5: yes, to a D700.
  • Pro 14n, SLR/n: no, unless you need high ISO (D700) or lots more pixels (D3x).

No Nikon D5000 at PMA

That was a letdown.

The D40 is being shown as discontinued all over the place. The D60 is still available. We saw a palette of them at Sam’s Club last weekend.

Previous item on D5000.

Snow!

Saturday was sunny and warm. The kids spent the day playing outside. I noticed the first crocuses blooming. Then snow moved in Sunday morning and covered everything in a white blanket. That’s East Tennessee winter for you. It’s enough cold to remind you it’s winter and enough warm to remind you that spring is on the way.

We wanted to see more snow so we took a daytrip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There seemed to be more snow in Walland than at home, but a few miles later in Townsend the snow level had dropped. Once we got in the park it was no better, but we drove to Sugarlands anyway.

Nope. The snow wasn’t any deeper there. We turned up 441 and made our way up the mountains past the Chimneys and Mt. LeCeonte to Newfound Gap, up in the spruce-fir zone. There was a little more snow there along with some impressive icicles from water seeping out of the rocks. It was definitely cold as all get out up on top. We only kept the girls outside for a few minutes before diving back inside the vehicle.

On the way back we stopped in Gatlinburg at Howard’s Steakhouse, where we had a good dinner served by a very nice Romanian waitress with a pretty accent. Howard’s is one of our favorite restaurants in Gatlinburg. It’s on the main drag near the park entrance and we can always find parking. The prices are reasonable and in warm weather we like eating on the back patio which overlooks LeConte Creek. Their pickles are delicious and their onion rings are colossal.

Photography notes: gray snow
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Rumor of a Nikon D40/D60 replacement: the D5000

Nikon Rumors broke the rumor about a Nikon D5000 being introduced at PMA in a few weeks.The D5000 is expected to be positioned between the D60 and D90 in price and features. Most people are guessing the D40 will be discontinued and the D60’s price lowered.

Rumors slash reasonable assumptions are that the D5000 will be the size of the D40 and D60, seeing as how the next size up is already occupied by the D300 and the still-new D90. That would likely mean it won’t have an autofocus motor, a top LCD, or the option of a portrait grip. If you want those features, or a second command wheel or Nikon’s Creative Lighting System, you’ll probably have to pony up for a D90. The advantage over the D90 would be size, weight, and price.

The main upgrade over the D60 will be the sensor, which will almost certainly be the same excellent sensor as the D90. That would mean 12 megapixels with fantastic ISO performance, LiveView, video, and dust control. If the D5000 has the D90’s 3″ 920,000 pixel rear LCD that would be even better.

One feature I’d like to see move down to the D5000 is exposure bracketing. That’s a pretty basic digital camera feature which the D40 and D60 lack. Heck, my point and shoots had exposure bracketing. Without it HDR photography is all but impossible.

P.S. Nikon ran out of numbers in the DX0 line, so they had to go to DX000. How dumb would it be, then, to go straight to D5000? Any model number below that would be assumed to be a lesser camera. They should go with D1000 to prolong the usefulness of that namespace.

Milo the cat

Milo showed up at my house not long after I bought it. My roommate Josh and I were sitting outside and this fat and sassy cat just ambled right up. It was obvious he had been someone’s house cat.

At first I gave him some food outside. Then I bought him some actual cat food. Then I bought him an actual cat bowl. Eventually he got to come inside and much later I even put in a cat door. Growing up, my family had cats but I never thought of myself as a cat person until Milo showed up.

I’ve been taking pictures of Milo for years, but I’ve never felt like I captured his essence. These pictures of him sunning himself in a flowerbed are the closest I’ve come.

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New Nikon AF-S 35mm prime lens for DX cameras

Pretty cool. It’s an AF-S lens so it focuses on the D40/D60 (as well as any other Nikon DSLR), and the focus should be as silent as it on other AF-S lenses. At 35mm it replicates the 50mm field of view on a Nikon crop sensor DSLR. And it’s less than $200 retail. Assuming the picture quality is good this should make a decent lens for indoor or nighttime work on a budget. Good stuff, Nikon.

I was going to do a longer writeup, but Chris has already done it.

Hey D40 owners

Check out Donald Peterson’s great photos. They’re all taken with the D40, Nikon’s cheapest DSLR ever. Most of them are taken either with the included 18-55mm kit lens or Nikon’s budget 55-200mm.

Hat tip to Ken Rockwell, who convinced me to buy my D40 around this time last year.

Previously

Make your own Christmas cards online

Earlier this year we bought a Nikon D40 DSLR. We’ve been getting great pictures from it, so my wife decided to make our Christmas cards using pictures of the kids.

She found a red tablecloth in our Christmas boxes to use as a backdrop. You can see how the tablecloth is draped over the couch in the picture below. The girls are already so tall that next year we’ll need to hang the tablecloth from a higher point.

Our lighting couldn’t have been simpler. For some of the pictures we used the camera’s built-in flash, but we used available light as much as possible. We turned on all the lights in the living room and had the door and drapes open to let in morning sunlight. (One tip we’ve heard from multiple people is that kids are usually easier to photograph in the morning. As the day goes on they get crankier and less cooperative.) As a bonus, morning light and evening light comes in low, so it peaks in through the windows. You can see sunlight coming from a side window in the middle of that second picture above.

After taking the pictures I did some simple tuning in Google’s free Picasa software. All pictures got Auto Contrast (under the Basic Fixes tab) and one round of Sharpening (under the Effects tab). Each of those operations involves clicking a single button. A few pictures were cropped and a few more had red eye removed with the Red Eye button (also under Basic Fixes). Some other Effects you might try are Saturation (to boost the color) and B&W or Sepia (to remove the  color and create the look of a faraway classic).

My wife printed the best pictures on a card from Walgreens.com using their online printing service and picked them up from a local Walgreens a few hours later. Cost was $10 for 20 cards. The cards are ready to stamp, address, and email with no envelope required.

Making our own Christmas cards online was quick, inexpensive, and fun. We liked the results so much we’ll be doing it again next year. The only glitch was that Walgreens’ site lost our card several times before successfully saving it, so my wife had to recreate the layout more than once. We’re hoping Walgreens has that bug fixed next year.