Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Best New Camera To Buy: The Nikon D300...wait, what?

Since mainstream photographic culture made the switch from the complicated and expensive world of film to the cheap and (arguably*) easy world of digital, the number of people interested in buying a camera and trying their hand at being an amateur photographer has skyrocketed. Now although taking digital photographs is (arguably) easy, understanding the differences between the variety of cameras and camera systems is not.

As I am a photographer by trade, I’m asked for advice about cameras constantly. Friends, family, and social network acquaintances, regularly ask me what kind of camera they should buy. My advice is almost always not to buy a brand new camera. Buying a used camera tends to save a fair bit of money and, since used cameras have been out for a while, there are a ton of consumer and professional reviews to tell you tell you all about the camera in detail.

For those of you out there that are in the market for your first Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, I am going to recommend the Nikon D300. This tried and true piece of machinery has everything a brand new photographer could want, none of the crazy extras that, while seductive, can ruin your foray into the photographic arts, and can now be purchased at a very reasonable price.

At around $1,000.00 used, the D300 has a 12.3 mpx sensor. This is more than enough for any entry level shooters, or even most serious amateurs. While a 36 mpx D800 may sound exciting, an amateur using this camera would be like putting a 16 year old in a Ferrari. They are more likely to hurt themselves than anything else. Unless you intend to have your photos printed on a billboard, 12.3 is more than enough.

The D300 also has the best ISO capabilities for new photographers. It takes excellent photos up to ISO 800, very good photos up to 1000-1600, and fairly ok ones up to 3200. This is the highest that you will want to go when you are first starting out. While some of the new Canon and Nikon pro level cameras can go up to ISO 250,000 almost taking pictures in the dark, this is not something that you are going to want at your disposal when you first start out.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people making when they start to use their cameras seriously is not learning about how lighting is supposed to work. If you want to be able to take aesthetically pleasing photographs, you have to be able to work in a variety of lighting situations and learn how to make all of them work for you. If you are in a dark room and want to take a photograph, the worst thing you can do is simply crank up the ISO. Chances are, you are just going to get a crappy picture with flat light. No light equals bad light.

Lighting options are why speedlights (aka flashes) were invented. Long before you start using super high ISOs, you want to learn how to use speedlights. What’s the best possible camera for a beginner learning to use speedlights? That’s right, the Nikon D300. Nikon speedlight technology is unrivaled by any other company*. The Nikon system allows the photographer to control off camera speedlights right from the back of the camera. I personally have controlled as many as 12 speedlights simultaneously from distances up to 25 ft. Awesome. It is like having an entire photography studio that fits in a backpack. If you want to get into creative photography, this is an excellent place to invest your time and money.

The reason that the D300 is the best camera for new photographers in regards to speedlight technology is the cost. Consumer level cameras don’t have the built-in technology to operate speedlights. You have to go to the pro levels to get those features. Which means spending at least $3K if you want to buy a new one. This doesn’t leave much money to buy the speedlights with. However, since there is no generational disconnect between speedlights and cameras, the D300 will work with the oldest and the newest speedlights. This means that you can buy old used speedlights, new snazzy speedlights, or a combination of both. And if you decided in a year that you want to buy a new camera, all of the speedlights that you bought will still work with the newer camera.

The same is true for Nikon lenses. One of the best features about Nikon cameras are that when the company switched to digital, they kept the same lens mount system. This means that any autofocus lens made since 1982 will work on the D300. One of the best lenses that I own, an 85mm 1.8 that retailed for a thousand bucks in the late 80’s, I picked up at a fleamarket for $15 from some guy who had no idea what it was. And when I buy my new camera, it will work just fine on that one too.

There are a few limitations with the D300 however. It does not shoot video. I usually tell people that this doesn’t matter. If you are just looking to shoot home videos of your kids, a DSLR is over kill. Buy a $50 flip cam and spend the money you save on an excellent still camera. Besides, if you are just starting out in photography, chances are you are nowhere near ready to take on video. Having the option to shoot video is likely to be a major distraction that will hinder your learning. But if you really want video in your DSLR, spend a couple of hundred extra and buy the D300S. It is the same camera, except it shoots video. They might be a bit harder to find secondhand however, as fewer people have sold their D300S specifically because it shoots video.

Other specs on the D300 include a cropped sensor. If you know the difference between a cropped and full frame sensor, all I can say is to look deep inside of yourself and ask if this really matters. If you don’t know the difference then don’t worry about it. You don’t need a full frame sensor.

The D300 also only has one memory card slot and it is for a compact flash card (CF). Most newer pro level cameras have either dual CF slots or a CF and SD slot. I don’t think this matters much, especially at the amateur level. Outside of studio work and advanced sports/wildlife photography, I have never seen any sizable value to having multiple card slots.

So the D300 has all of the pro level features, none of the crazy new features that will hold you back from learning what you are doing with the camera, and costs about as much as a brand new soccer mom camera. Combine that with the fact mine saw 6 years of hard service in the field, never needed servicing, is still in a condition to sell at top dollar, and I am left with no ethical choice other than to recommend this camera wholeheartedly to any and all beginner photographers.

*What I mean: Taking a “good” photograph is difficult no matter what kind of camera you use. However, in the film days, there was a large knowledge base needed even to take a crappy photograph (e.g. film asa/iso, film color temperature, etc). With new digital cameras, almost all of those aspects of the photography can be automated. So, if you don’t care or know whether a photograph is any good, then all you have to be able to do is press the shutter release.

*If anyone ever tries to tell you that Canon’s speedlight system is just as good, immediately begin ignoring everything that person says. This is not a matter of personal belief. 100% of the pro photographers that I know that use Canon openly admit that Nikon is far superior. Anyone who says different, does not have any idea what they are talking about.

Friday, May 4, 2012


For several years now, street style photographers who work to capture those “slice of life” moments have been waiting desperately for a digital camera to fill the role of the Leica series from the film days. A camera that takes beautiful quality pictures, is versatile enough to handle a variety of situations, and is small enough to fit in the palm of the hand. While modern DSLRs are amazing, they are also large, heavy, and fairly conspicuous. They are not the type of thing that is comfortable or convenient to be carrying around city streets for several hours while trying not to draw attention to one’s self. They don’t allow for what I call, the Winogrand experience.

When the newest generation of the Canon G series, the G1X was announced, I got my hopes way up. A pocket sized camera with a full frame 14.3 megapixel sensor and all of the Canon G-Series usual controls plus more might just be the camera that we have been waiting for.

Here is how the G1X held up in my first two weeks with it.

Exterior handling:

The first thing I noticed when I held the G1X was that it felt like a real camera. The body is made of metal instead of the usual cheap plastic that most point and shoot cameras are now made with. This makes it heavier than most other cameras of its size, but in a good way. It is just heavy enough to feel substantial in the hand without being a pain to carry. It is well balanced and doesn’t feel like it is going to break if you breath on it wrong. Canon also equipped the G1X with a front facing control dial, which is a standard on most DSLRs, but rare in a point and shoot. This index finger dial helps to create a much more fluid and professional shooting experience by allowing you to change aperture and shutter setting more quickly than in the past G-series cameras when there was only a rear facing dial.

New to the G series, the G1X’s built in flash is a pop-up flash on the top left of the camera body instead of being directly in the frame right above the lens.
The new positioning makes for noticeably better flash photographs, but to be honest, it is still an on camera flash. So don’t expect any miracles when it comes to on camera lighting.

For the most part, the button and control setup on the G1X is quite good. There is no physical ISO dial on the top of the camera because of the new positioning of the flash. I thought this was going to be a major annoyance, but even though I had to use the digital menu to change the ISO, it is just a two click process, so it hasn’t really bothered me at all.

Canon was nice enough to add a little red-dot-button on the upper right hand side of the body that when pressed, immediately starts video capture. This allows the user to move from image to video capture and back again on the fly with ease.

The one major problem with the camera’s external design is the “view-finder”. I use the term loosely, because like all of its G-series predecessors, the G1X’s eye piece is nothing more than a crappy hole at the top of the body that has some crappy glass in it. Canon obviously intends for photographers to use the LCD screen on the back of the camera to compose their shots and check their aperture/shutter settings. However, since I am not a tourist and I am not using the G1X to take bar photos of my friends, I don’t think this system works.

I completely understand Canon’s decision to forgo a real and usable viewfinder on the G-series thus far. The shape and design of the cameras would make it very difficult (and likely very expensive) to try to fit a usable viewfinder into the camera. However, I think Canon needs to understand its customers a little bit better. Not many casual shooters are going to fork over the $800 to buy the G1X for everyday shooting. The main market for the G1X is going to be professionals and very serious amateurs. Two groups that would perfer (if not require) a solid working viewfinder and would be willing to pay the extra $50-$100 to have it. If we wanted to take photos composed on an LCD screen, we would use our iPhones. Since this is hands-down the biggest problem with the G1X, I would really love to see Canon spend a bit more time and effort trying to get a decent viewfinder into the next generation of the G-series.

Interior handling:

The start up time for the G1X is lightning fast. It takes between 2 and 3 seconds after pressing the power button for it to be ready to start snapping photos. That being said, once it is on, the G1X is a pretty slow moving camera. There is a significant delay between the time the shutter release is pressed, and when the shutter is actually released. The longest I’ve seen up to this point, is almost a full second delay. When trying to capture photographs of life on fast moving city streets, even a fraction of a second delay can make a huge difference.

This delay is made even worse by the fact that the autofocus is pretty slow too. I will note that the autofocus is very accurate and is faster than previous generations of the G-series, but it is still way too slow to capture fast moving subjects. And heaven forbid you have to change the zoom of the lens. That adds at least another 2 full seconds before you can get the shot off.

The digital menu of the G1X is just as easy to understand as the menus of its forbearers were. All of the display, shooting, and system options and controls are well marked, easy to find, and easy to understand. Only the most inexperienced novice would require an instruction manual to find their way around. Canon has done an excellent job setting up the user interface so that it never takes more than 3-4 clicks to change any of the important shooting settings, making it quick and easy to make setting changes on the fly. As a devote Nikon user in my professional life, I will admit to getting confused on how things like the display settings work from time to time. But I’m pretty sure that has more to do with me being accustomed to a different system than any lack of quality user interface design on Canon’s part.

The auto bracketing in the G1X is a noteworthy feature. For anyone that has a fancy for working with HDR, the auto bracketing options are easy to get to through the digital menu in 3 quick clicks and once the shutter release is pressed once, it auto fires however many exposures you set the bracketing too. If you are trying to capture for HDR without a tripod, this can be a lifesaver.

Canon also added the ability to set up 3 different custom shooting displays for the LCD screen that can be toggled between. I have found that when you have to use the LCD to compose the photograph, it is a BIG help to be able to split up the information display to save on screen real estate. I set up one display to only show my histogram, another that only has the auto balancer, and another that only displays the memory card data. That way I can get at all of that information quickly and easily, but I am never using more than about 15% of the screen on data displays.

The Final Images:

Excellent. Done.

Ok, in a little more detail. The fact that the 14.3 mpx full frame sensor is inside of a tiny point and shoot body makes absolutely no difference. The RAW images that come out of the G1X are on par with ones that come out of the Nikon D700 in terms of both quality and malleability (which, at an almost $2000 cost difference, is a pretty big deal).

The biggest difference I saw between the giant sensor of the G1X and the smaller cropped sensors of the G11 and G12 was the size of its dynamic range. While the 11 and 12 could both capture RAW images, unless it was a cloudy day, you were almost guaranteed to clip your highlights and shadows. My first day out with the G1X, I overexposed a number of captures by 2 stops to see how they would hold up in post production. With quick flick of the exposure slider in Camera Raw, all of the details of the images were there.

And as you can see, the color density and accuracy of the G1X is absolutely stunning for a point and shoot camera.

Canon continues to impress with their high ISO quality. I was able to take excellent quality pictures up to 1600 ISO, good to very good quality pictures up to 3,200 ISO, and then things got dicey after that. I’ve read other reviews that say that the G1X can take high quality images up to 6,400, but I don’t buy it. Any time I took it up that high, I got noticeable color shift and color noise. Still, usable photographs up to 3200 ISO from a pocket sized camera was previously unheard of.
A pretty significant disadvantage to the G1X is that the lens is not interchangeable. You are stuck (at least for now) with the one that Canon threw on there. It is a fairly ok lens for most situations. But it is very difficult to get a shallow depth of field. The lowest aperture that the lens can go down to is 2.8 (which, because of the distance between the lens and the sensor on such a small body, actually looks more like 4-5.6 to me). Meaning that the G1X is much better suited for landscapes than for macro work.

Now for the kicker. The CR2 RAW images that come out of the G1X are next to impossible to process at the moment. To be able to get the images from the camera and into photoshop, I had to download the beta (tester) version of PS6, Bridge 6, Camera Raw 7, and Adobe DNG converter 6.7. The Canon Software that comes with the camera can only export the CR2s as jpegs and tifs, completely killing the point of shooting in RAW and none of the other major softwares out there have worked in the G1X’s coding. Supposedly Lightroom 4 can read them, but I have heard mixed reviews on this matter. Some people say it works, others say it works for a couple of minutes but then crashes LR, and still others say that it doesn’t work at all. Since I am a Camera Raw/Bridge kinda guy, I was not willing to spend $100 on a program that I didn’t want, just so that I could convert the CR2s to DNGs for the next month or two until the final rollout of CS6. I’m sure that this will be a non issue within the next few weeks, but until then, it is extremely annoying.


The G1X is one hell of a camera. The quality of the images that come out of it are of a prosumer, if not fully professional level. Its high resolution, beautiful color capture, and small size make it perfect for travel and landscape photography. The days of having to carry 40 lbs. of camera gear up the side of a mountain just to get a crystal clear shot from the top are over.

All that being said however, the G1X is not the digital street photographer’s dream that I had hoped for. Although it is fairly versatile, it does take high quality pictures, and it does fit into the palm of the hand, it is just too slow for street work. Between the shutter release delay, the slow lens zoom, and needing to compose with the LCD from lack of a reasonable viewfinder, there is just no way to move quickly enough to capture those slice of life images before they are gone.

Even though I won’t really be able to use it for the purpose that I had hoped, the G1X is still well worth the money I paid for it. If you usually have at least 15 seconds or more to compose your photographs and you don’t like carrying your DSLR everywhere you go, the G1X is the camera for you.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to digitally follow in the footsteps of the street photography greats:

Garry Winogrand

Robert Frank

Walker Evans

*Note: Someone out there is going to try to tell me that Evans was a portrait photographer and not a street photographer. Well you know what, he took those portraits on the streets. So don’t bother complaining about it.