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Some thoughts after a few days with the Nikon D810

October 03, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I've been getting to grips with my new D810 over the past few days. I used it on a couple of occasions during the last week of our Painting-Photography-France holidays, and since then I've also had chance to check out the video capabilities. And my first reaction to the camera is simply... Wow! Wow! and thrice Wow!

Plenty has been written by others about the quality of the D810's 36 megapixel images so to go into great detail on the matter here would be a waste of your time and mine; suffice it to say that I can confirm that the images it produces are simply stunning.

Many of you will know that I came to the D810 from the D300 and that, as per my last post, I simply got tired of waiting for a D300 replacement. After almost seven years I had reached a point where I needed better low light performance, I needed a greater dynamic range, and I needed high quality video. So I took the plunge.

But, actually, I didn't take quite as deep a plunge as you might think (looking at WEX prices for example); for the first time in my life I have bought a 'grey' import and, together with an equally 'grey' 18-35 AF-S Nikkor f3.5-f4.5 G ED lens, I saved myself a massive £800. Now some people are wary of grey imports, they prefer to buy a camera brought into Europe from Asia by the camera manufacturer, which is sold by a British retailer with the standard one year's manufacturer’s warranty and a proper handbook. After some research, I weighed up the pros and cons and eventually settled for a camera brought into Europe from Asia by a British online retailer (Cotswold Cameras) which came with a three year warranty (from Cotswold Cameras) and a photocopied English manual. The cameras are made in Asia after all, so what's the difference? The photocopied manual didn't bother me as I prefer always to use the PDF manual available for download from Nikon. And, just as I had been assured by Cotswold Cameras that it would be, my D810 was one of the new batch of non-problematic models with regard to the ‘thermal issue’ (I checked the serial number on Nikon’s website to make sure) - so no worries there.

I ordered the camera on a Sunday afternoon; the order was processed next day, despatched on Tuesday, and arrived here in rural France, from Hong Kong, the following Thursday lunchtime - so 48 hours door to door, free delivery and, as I say, an £800 saving. Impressive. What was equally impressive was Cotswold Cameras' after sales service. Shortly after the camera was delivered, I received an invoice from FedEx in respect of a 45.50 euro charge for VAT on the import duty. I immediately scanned the invoice and emailed it to Cotswold Cameras. Within five minutes I received a reply to say that this sometimes happens with deliveries into France and not to worry, they would take care of it. Sure enough, five minutes after that I received a PayPal refund for this amount, enabling me to pay FedEx immediately. Let me say that, living in France, I am not used to such incredible levels of service!

Incidentally, I had no problems at all registering the serial numbers of the camera and lens with Nikon Professional Services.

OK, let’s get back to the camera in use :

Like all high end Nikon cameras, the D810’s ergonomics are great and the menu system is intuitive. To be perfectly honest, even with Nikon having moved a couple of buttons, and added some new ones (compared to the D300) everything is all so familiar and intuitive that nothing has annoyed or frustrated me and I have only glanced at the manual twice.

The new LCD screen is stunning – very bright and crisp - and for me, even though the screen size is only a little larger than the D300, it’s like looking at a 42” HD plasma TV after living with a 32” Trinitron. The screen brightness can be altered separately for image review (when shooting stills) and for live view (photo and video) and both brightness levels are remembered and held by the camera until reset.

The shutter is remarkably quiet, even without using the two ‘quiet’ modes provided, and the sound of the mechanism reminds me of the ticking of a Rolex; it just sounds like quality engineering.

The magnesium alloy body is solid, not overly heavy (only 77g more than my D300) and completely weather-sealed. The design of the battery door is much better than the D300, as is the (dual SD/CF) card slot door. The CF facility is very welcome as I have a whole ruck of CF cards which I can use.

The newly designed grip is very comfortable ; it’s deeper than my D300 which makes it easier to carry hung from my crooked fingers, it also means that the DOF Preview and Function buttons are perfectly placed for the second and third fingers of my right hand when shooting. I have long fingers and, on the D300, the shallower grip made using these buttons just a tad awkward. On the D810, I have set the Function button give me a level indication in the viewfinder when pressed, and the Preview button I have programmed to give me a spot meter reading. In real life shooting, have always found 'depth of field preview' to be virtually useless due the obviously necessary darkening of the image when it's used. Nowadays, if I have a DOF concern I just look at the DOF app on my smartphone, therefore the ability to reprogram that button is a godsend.

As I said earlier, the 36 mp images are stunning, but in addition to full frame, the D810 also offers a 1.2x crop and a 1.5x DX crop. I'll discuss the usefulness of the DX crop further down this post but, for still photography, it’s the 1.2x crop that has grabbed my interest.

The 1.2x crop gives me 6 fps (shooting in 12 bit RAW) which is as fast as my D300 and, in practice, plenty fast enough for most people, including me. It also gives a 25 Mp image which has a file size around 25 Mb. Again, the images are stunning and, to be honest, 25 Mp images are going to provide all the image quality necessary for magazine publication or an A3 coffee table book. I think, therefore, that for much of the time I'll settle for the 1.2x crop and keep the option of FF for any images which I think I might want to print super large, or for those occasions when I want to capture the complete field of view from my lenses. When shooting stills, therefore, I have programmed the ‘Movie’ button to give me instant switching between shooting full frame or shooting with a 1.2x crop. Admittedly, using a 1.2x crop means that I’m only seeing 80% of the potential area in the viewfinder but, as the image is still bigger and brighter than the one I’m used to in the D300, that doesn’t bother me.

One quirk which I find completely bizarre and unnecessary is that you have to switch off ‘AF Point Illumination’ (Autofocus menu item ‘a6’) in order to get the unwanted area in the viewfinder to go dark grey when shooting in one of the two crops. Why this area just doesn’t darken automatically is a mystery because it’s absolutely essential (the alternative has you seeing the whole viewfinder and trying to find the relevant frame within that to compose the shot, which just doesn’t work)

Talking of the viewfinder, it is really bright and crisp, as is the information readout (now with vertical and horizontal level indicators superimposed at the side and bottom respectively, when activated).

Nikon’s 51 point AF system has always been excellent, but the D810 takes the AF system from the D4s and adds some useful improvements. For example it now comes with a new five point ‘Group’ mode for moving subjects. The five points (all cross type) are fairly close together and the group is movable across the frame. I’ve tested this on a friend who is a Tour de France type cyclist and the focus was bang on every time.

My trusty and vital (for me) AF-ON button is right there where it should be but has now been given a small and nicely curved rest to its left which nicely fits the edge of my thumb. It’s a subtle design change but it feels great.

Just as an aside, if you don’t use the AF-ON button you’re missing a lot (in my humble opinion). Try it set up like this (check your manual for how to do this) :

1.    Enable AF-ON
2.    Disable AF via the shutter release
3.    Select AF-C and leave it permanently set

Now when you press AF-ON and then take your thumb off, you lock focus – great for static subjects, especially if you want to focus and then recompose. No need to half-press the shutter button any more!

Keep your thumb on the AF-ON button and you get continuous focus as long as you keep it depressed.

Don’t press the AF-ON button and, by definition, AF is disengaged, so you can focus manually without resort to any AF/M switches (note that this doesn’t work with screw focus,  i.e. non AF-S, lenses, with those you still have to physically disengage the autofocus on the camera body).

The D810’s native ISO of 64 is amazing, offering 2/3 of a stop more flexibility in bright light, and super clean too. This is a true ISO, incidentally, not one produced by electronic trickery like the ‘Lo 1’, ‘Lo 2’ found on the D300 and other cameras.

And on the subject of ISO, coming from a camera that maxed out a very noisy 3,200 ISO and which was unusable for all practical commercial purposes beyond 400 ISO, the D810’s noise free images at up to 400 ISO and almost noise free images from 500 to 1,600 ISO are breathtaking. And to be honest, the ability to say, “OK Auto ISO, do your thing but don’t shoot higher than 6,400 ISO” is amazing! Of course I could set the ISO to 51,200 but that would be just silly :-)

Earlier this week, I was with my favourite model at a fashion show in les Galeries Lafayette in Bordeaux, choosing outfits that we’ll use in our next shoot. I wanted a photo of each outfit so that, next morning, we could sit together in front of the computer and make a careful choice. This ensemble was our favourite – shot at 1/125th @ f5.6 50mm 5,600 ISO, no flash. The image is obviously not noise free but I wouldn’t even have been able to get this shot with my D300.

Dynamic range too is excellent and absolutely streets ahead of the D300 ( the D810 has three more stops of DR than the D300 – 14.8 EV compared to 12 EV)

One of the new buttons on the D810 is an ‘i’ button and it took me few minutes to figure out the real usefulness of this. Pressing it in normal photo mode merely brings up a screen of shooting data and some options to quickly change a few things that you can otherwise access in the menu system. However, select Live View / Video and then press the ‘i’ button and you’ll see a bunch of options that don’t exist at all in the menu system! Zebra striping for blown highlight monitoring in video, for example, or autofocus face recognition, for another (which I’ve yet to experiment with).

‘Highlight weighted metering’ is an addition that caters for situations that Nikon describe as useful “whenever you are faced with uneven lighting and a background that is much darker than the subject”, so it might also have been called, ‘Theatre/Concert/Fashion Show metering’, because that is what it seems it would be really useful for. I was hoping to try this out at the above mentioned fashion show; unfortunately, however, the lighting turned out to be normal department store overheads and so that exercise will have to wait until another day.

Matrix metering with face recognition is another new addition to a Nikon metering system; I’ve yet to try this out and I’m not really sure what the value of this would be. I suspect it’s a solution to a problem I didn’t even know I had.

Live view was very poorly implemented on the D300 (in fact I never used it) but it works extremely well on the D810. Manual focusing with a magnified view is a doddle and the new ‘split-screen’ feature will be great for architectural and landscape photographers. Mind you it would have been even better if there was a choice of splitting the screen vertically (i.e. separate top + bottom) as well as horizontally (separate left + right)

The provision of easy HDMI out for Live View and Video is an excellent option, enabling me to use my 7" Black Pearl 'Quadcopter' monitor for such purposes, if I need to.

The new semi-electronic shutter option with mirror up will allow much smoother (i.e. shake-free) operation on a tripod in live view - great for landscape purists wanting every last nano-particle of definition from their images.

And so to video. I shot a lot of video in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s but, for various reasons, I’ve done no video work for about twenty years. However, shooting aerial footage with my quad-copter this summer has brought me back to it, and I have the movie-making bug once more. I can’t wait to shoot some D810 footage, making use of the ‘Auto-ISO’ facility whilst locking in the shutter speed and using the ‘Power aperture’ feature to smoothly and seamlessly change aperture whilst shooting. Those are two fabulous, professional features. In 'Movie' mode, I have the 'Preview' and 'Function' buttons programmed to change the aperture in this way.

Which brings me to the 1.5x DX crop. I’ll shortly be selling all my current DX lenses except for the 18-200 VRII which I bought as a ‘walkabout’ lens for a Roman holiday three years ago. It may seem odd for me to say that; I mean why buy an expensive full frame camera and then stick a DX lens on it.? Well, the answer is video. The D810 shoots broadcast quality HD video at up to 60 frames per second and, unlike the D800, there is no difference in video quality between FF and DX footage. That means that I can use the 18-200 as an effective 27-300 video zoom with no loss of resolution, as well as my super fast full frame lenses. Brilliant! Of course, in still photo mode, the camera automatically switches to a 1.5x DX crop when a DX lens is attached and that shows in the viewfinder (i.e. 33% of the viewfinder is greyed out, but switch to Live View video mode and the monitor (camera or external) shows you exactly what the lens sees over the whole screen with no vignetting, even though the lens in use is DX.

 

There are a few shortcomings of course, especially at this price point:

  • I would really like to have several series of settings that can be remembered and recalled simply and quickly, why Nikon think that professional photographers don’t want this facility but amateurs do never ceases to amaze me. Their tired old system of ‘Shooting Menu Banks’ that can’t remember the default settings I give them is really just not good enough.  This could easily be fixed with a firmware change.
     
  • The ‘Flat’ picture control operates on both stills and video. Although it can be changed later in Capture NX-Dud or Photoshop CC 2014, I’d still like to be able to set it only for video. Again this could easily be fixed in firmware
     
  • I’d like to be able to control three groups of speedlights and not just two
     
  • There are times when I wish that I could record voice memos with each shot. (Hey Nikon, you have a stereo microphone installed there already for goodness sake! So how hard can that be?
     
  • The  ‘sRAW’ file option seems a complete and utter waste of development time which could have been better spent implementing the deficiencies I’ve noted above. I just cannot imagine who would want to use this. Unless my maths are off, it seems to me that you’re throwing away 75% of your image data in exchange for a 10% saving in storage space* Crazy!


* This assumes normal shooting of 12 bit lossless compressed RAW, which gives a 32 Mb file. Uncompressed 14 bit RAW files are 73 Mb!  On this point, to be honest there is no real discernable difference between 12 bit and 14 bit files, or between lossless compressed and uncompressed. Obsessive pixel-peepers are welcome to disagree but, in all honesty, I would only ever shoot 14 bit uncompressed if I were shooting large commercial photos and needed to wring every single detail out of the image; for 90% of my work, 12 bit lossless compressed RAW will be absolutely fine.

 

So, after just a few days of use, those are my first thoughts on the Nikon D810. To sum up, it’s a beautifully built, almost perfect camera for both stills and video, and it is an absolute delight to use. In fact it is so very good that, when I couple my foreseeable photographic / movie-making needs with the law of diminishing returns regarding camera technology, I think I might actually be in possession of my ‘last camera’

 


"So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you"

September 17, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

An UPDATE re: Nikon NX-D, the Nikon D750, and the mythical Nikon ‘D400’

The Kinks once recorded a song called 'So Tired'. It had a chorus that went, "So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you"

And that's pretty much how I feel about the mythical D400. It seems now that, almost six and a half years after the launch of the fabulous, ground-breaking D300, there will no longer be a professional DX (APS-C) camera in Nikon's line-up. I'm not absolutely sure of that of course (I mean, who knows what goes on in the bizarre minds of the current Nikon management?) but it seems that with the launch of the D750, the message from Nikon is becoming clear, “Quit whining and waiting, and move up to full frame! Get a D750!). Well Nikon, I'm sorry but I don’t want a camera that tries to be all things to all people, I want a camera designed specifically for people like me (as was my D300).

Many of those who know me will recall my philosophy that you only need to upgrade your camera when your current model :

(a) has deficiencies in the design and ergonomics which are becoming an irritation and interfering with the creative process

and/or

(b) is not giving you access to features and performance you need now but didn’t need before (or could, by necessity, live without)

In my case, the D300 is perfectly fine as regards (a) but has long since passed its sell-by date as regards (b)

But “Why?” you might ask, “If the D300 was a great camera in 2008, why isn’t it still a great camera?”  Well, actually, I haven’t said that it isn’t; the D300 is still an excellent camera and I shall still be keeping it as a back-up. Unfortunately, however, what was fabulous and ground-breaking in 2008 is now no longer so, especially in terms of higher ISO capability and dynamic range (and, in any case, shutter mechanisms have a finite life). I also have rekindled my interest in video and my D300 has no video capability. All of which fits into category (b) above.

OK, if there is not, and never will be, a suitable DX alternative to my trusty D300, what am I going to do?

Well actually, I’ve already done it and, as I write, a D810 is winging its way across the world, hopefully to arrive here before our seven guests arrive on Saturday 20th for their ‘Advanced Week’ at Painting-Photography-France.

Why the D810? Well, simply because it gives me exactly what I wanted and needed from a ‘D400’ except for the fact that it’s full frame.

The switch of format from APS-C to Full Frame 35mm doesn’t bother me that much because I already have three suitable lenses and need only two to fill the focal range gap. So at long last, after a break of 15 years, I’m back shooting 35mm! :-)

My three unwanted DX lenses will be going on eBay in October, together with my D200 (ex-backup camera). If anyone is interested the lenses are :

AF DX Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S DX Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G ED-IF
AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II

Finally we come back to the subject of Nikon Capture NX-D ('D' for Dumb-Dismal-and-Disappointing). As I said in an earlier post on the matter, with the launch of  NX-D, Nikon announced that they would no longer be supporting any new camera’s RAW output in Capture NX-2 and, sure enough, I see that the D810 is not included in NX-2’s list of supported cameras. So I’m going to be forced to use NX-D to process my RAW files. Photoshop is not an option because Photoshop handles Nikon’s NEF format differently from NX (always has) and not in a good way either (for me, that is).

Which means my workflow will now be:

  • Transfer of images from card to PC by USB 3.0 card reader using Windows Explorer
  • Review of images using FastStone Image Viewer
  • Process NEF in Capture NX-D and save as a TIFF
  • Examine TIFF. If localised U-point work required, open TIFF in Capture NX-2 and re-save as a TIFF
  • Open final TIFF in Photoshop and save as PSD
  • Delete TIFF
  • Work on PSD in Photoshop and save
  • Resize for purpose
  • Sharpen for purpose
  • Save as JPG

     

I’ll publish my thoughts on the D810 later in the autumn, together with my thoughts on 'grey' imports (yes, the D810 and accompanying wide-angle zoom winging their way to me from Asia are 'grey' imports).

Footnote:
For anyone considering the purchase of a D750, please don't be put off by anything I've said about it. From everything I've read, I know that it's a very good camera. It just doesn't give me what I need and, instead, it gives me things I don't need - that's all.

 


Nikon D750 - First comment.... Another disappointment

September 11, 2014  •  2 Comments

It's beginning to seem like I do nothing but moan. But honestly, what on earth were the Nikon designers thinking of when they had this model on the drawing board.

  1. Here we have a full frame camera with a state-of-the-art AF system, a high end video capability, a Carbon Fibre + Magnesium Alloy partially weather-sealed body, a 10 pin accessory socket, and a dual SD card bay - pretty much all professional features - but then......
     
  2. We have no AF-ON button, we get scene modes, we get a maximum 1/200 flash sync and we get a maximum 1/4000 shutter speed.

Does Nikon really think that a photographer who needs the features in (1) above really wants a 'Food Mode' or 'Blossom Mode' on his or her camera? And that that photographer doesn't need an AF-ON button?  Or that he or she wants the flash sync and shutter speeds reduced to entry-level DSLR rates? Even my seven year old D300 has a 1/320 FP flash sync and 1/8000 max shutter speed for goodness sake.

Talk about falling between two stools. This camera makes no sense to me at all.

If this actually IS the D300 replacement (i.e. there is never going to be another professional level DX body), as some pundits are saying, then I'm more than a little disappointed.

But then Photokina doesn't start until the 16th, so my fingers are still crossed, albeit more in hope than expectation :-)


UPDATE:

A few hours after I published this, Thom Hogan made his views known. He sums up by saying, "The genius (i.e. Nikon) that gave us the F2, F4, D1, D3, N90s, F100, and D300 seems to be missing at the moment. Instead we’re seeing more of the company that gave us the F5, N65, D2h, D80, and D4."

I couldn't agree more.


The 'D' does stand for 'Dumb', 'Dismal' & 'Disappointing' - It's official

June 02, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I am of course talking about Nikon Capture NX-D..

Following on from the suspicions I voiced in my last comment on this matter, Nikon have confirmed that they have parted company with Google-owned Nik software and that the new Capture NX-D is being developed by Ichikawa Soft Laboratory, the people who brought us 'Silkypix' (which I was forced to use as a RAW converter for my Fuji X10 and X20 files, and which I didn't think much of to be honest).

That means there will definitely not be any U-Point technology (and so no localised tweaking) in Capture NX-D no matter how hard we protest. What a shame.

However, as I said before, it's not the end of the world because I can work around the problem by using temporary TIFFs; it will just add another step to my workflow, that's all.

So, we have another example of how corporate acquisitions and technology ownership spats can end up upsetting the photographer's apple-cart.

 


Aerial photography with a Sony RX100 on a Phantom 2.... Part 3 - My Solution

May 18, 2014  •  2 Comments

OK, well I've eventually solved the problem, and with an expenditure of less than 20 euros.

It's a long story with lots of photos and one I don't want to upload twice, so please see here for details:

http://www.phantompilots.com/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=15626


Update following my review of the Dronexpert RX100 Mount for the DJI Phantom

April 22, 2014  •  4 Comments

Just to prove what an opportunity Dronexpert have missed, I can reveal that my review of their RX100 mount had 72 views in the first 24 hours after publication. For a really niche product reviewed by a photographer who is anything but famous (my Blog gets about 700 views a month on average), I find that quite remarkable. And so should Dronexpert.

I know from the comments made on the review, and from the many private messages I'm getting, that they have lost a good number of sales as a result. I'm sorry about that as they have a great concept which has a lot of potential (but only after a major rethink on design and pricing). I sincerely hope that they react appropriately so that other photographers looking to produce quality aerial photographs may benefit from my unfortunate experience.

We shall see.


Review of the Dronexpert mount for a Sony RX100 and Phantom Quadcopter

April 20, 2014  •  11 Comments

"Taking My Photography To A New Level - Part 2"

Before I begin this review, let me say that shooting from a Phantom 2 'non-Vision' quadcopter using a Sony RX100 and shooting using a Phantom 2 Vision, is way more than the difference between chalk and cheese. As I said in my January Blog, shooting with the Phantom 2 Vision gave me images which were akin to something you might expect from a low-end smartphone. Shooting with the RX100 gives me superb images that I can print to A3 with no problem. Since that last Phantom Blog post, DJI released the 'Phantom 2 Vision Plus' which carries the in-built camera on a proprietary, three-directional gimbal. Unfortunately, however, the camera used on the 'Plus' model has exactly the same lens and 'guts' as the one I tested in January.

So, back to the Sony RX100. In order to get this into the air, I bought a special mount costing 875 euro (plus tax!) made by Dronexpert in Holland. My initial reaction when I unpacked this was one of surprise and annoyance. The mount sent to me was not made from carbon-fibre as per Dronexpert's website photo and YouTube instructional video, it was made from a cheap-looking, white plastic.

This is what was advertised:

This is what I received (including of course the above monitor etc.)

Image from Dronen-Papst.de

Dronexpert say that, "the new mount is stronger" but, as you will discover below, I was very soon able to disprove that. Note how close the four fixing holes are to the edge of the mount..

Because of the change in design, attaching the Sony RX100 to the mount was more difficult than the method shown in Dronexpert's YouTube instructional video.  The video shows the camera being fitted to the carbon-fibre mount, then the mount being fitted to the Phantom simply as a spring-fit between the landing gear. However, the white plastic version requires the mount to be fastened to the Phantom with nylon cable ties, which makes it a permanent fixture. So, if you want to practice flying without risking damaging this mount you're going to need a pair of 'snips' and a good supply of cable ties.

Once the mount is fixed to the Phantom, attaching the camera is fiddly because of the restricted space between the mount and the underside of the Phantom's body. I have long, slim 'pianist's fingers' and yet I got exasperated fixing it in this position; goodness knows how someone with large fingers will cope. Dronexpert supply what purport to be 'tripod screws' (two plastic and two metal) but they really need to source a proper tripod screw for this purpose rather than use things that look like they came from the local ironmonger. The screws are a bit short too, which makes the connection even more difficult. If they used a proper tripod screw then they could hold that permanently in place on the camera platform with a circlip so that the screw doesn't get lost when the camera is not attached. The first time I went out in the field with this, the fiddly fitting method caused me to drop the screw in long grass, never to be found again.

The ribbon cable connecting the Dronexpert mount to the camera's HDMI-out port is exceptionally fine. On the original carbon-fibre mount this cable was protected; on the white plastic mount the cable is not protected and gets damaged by the base of the HDMI connector (the cable bends back on itself and so, after the plug is inserted into the camera and the camera is locked down on the mount, the back of the HDMI connector presses hard into the ribbon cable). You can see the result after just one mounting in the image below. This is poor design and will surely shorten the life of that cable.

The reason there is so much pressure on the ribbon cable is that the connector, which plugs into the RX100's HDMI socket, is about three millimetres too long and, as a consequence, not only does it foul the cable, it also stops the camera bracket sitting flat. This makes it difficult to hook the tilt lever in place. It also means that, with the tilt mechanism set fully back, the camera still leans forward just a tad (i.e. it's not quite perpendicular to the platform).

As I said in my introduction, contrary to the Dronexpert YouTube video, the mount is not a 'spring fit', it's held in place by nylon cable ties. This is not a good method of fixing considering the low quality of plastic used. The platform broke around one of the fixing holes on my first flight with the camera attached.

It doesn't help that the mount sits 2mm below the level of the Phantom's landing gear and so it's the first thing to hit the ground when the Phantom lands. It would have been a simple matter to include some form of landing gear as part of the mount so as to keep it clear of the ground. Such a system could then incorporate a much more satisfactory method of fixing the mount to the Phantom.


The camera's tilt angle is adjusted by a radio-controlled servo which utilises a plastic arm and a small screw. Twice when flying, I tilted the camera down and it fell forward and stayed there, ruining my planned shot. This needs a redesign.


Talking of angles, it's not possible to shoot straight down to get a true overhead shot. This is because the RX100's lens barrel fouls the mount before it gets to a 90° position. Dronexpert need to cut and shape the front of the mount slightly in order to allow this.

The shutter is fired by a radio-controlled servo which fastens to the top right of the camera (see the last but one image above). Again, a little more thought would have resulted in a rubber-tipped, flat-nosed screw to hold this in place. Instead, you get a sharp pointed screw which digs into the camera's magnesium alloy body.

The rubber buttons on the remote control fob that tilt the camera and fire the shutter are rather soft and 'spongy'; the tilt buttons are also very small and so don't always work when you want them to (but at least that means you can't operate them by accident!). You do have to use a very firm push on the remote's shutter button

The FPV monitor provided sits on a flat piece of plastic with slots that are supposed to fix it to the Phantom's controller but it's not very secure; twice, the monitor slid off my controller and fell to earth while I was bending forward to deal with the Phantom. Fortunately, I was on soft ground both times. The resolution of the provided FPV monitor is 800 x 480 which is sufficient for framing up shots and reading the telemetry but it's pretty basic screen technology given the price of the kit. The screen has a nice matte finish and is just about usable in bright sunlight (when shaded) but the contrast range available is really insufficient and the colour reproduction is awful. The 5" screen gets very cluttered with the live-view image together with the iOSD flight telemetry and camera data. At this price I expect a good quality 7" screen such as a Black Pearl.  I experienced a lot of video signal break-up on the monitor at less than 100 metres.

I was very surprised to find that the monitor is also a DVR because this fact isn't mentioned anywhere on the Dronexpert website. The DVR takes a micro-SD card up to 32GB and can record video and stills to the card wirelessly from the mount AND it records it together with the iOSD overlay.

I was also surprised that no manual is supplied with the mount; the manual is to be found on Dronexpert's website and is, in fact, simply a link to the YouTube instruction video I already mentioned above. No lanyard for the Phantom's remote controller is included either (like the one shown in Dronexpert's video). I just assumed that there would be one (that would be good PR after all, wouldn't it?). In any case, I think that's a fair expectation given the price asked for this kit. As it happens I had a bunch of Fujifilm freebies that work perfectly. So that's Fujifilm 10, Dronexpert 0

Left - Tilt servo : Centre left - FPV TX : Centre right - Video : Right - Power + Remote Camera Controller RX

So, is this mount worth the incredible 875 euro (plus tax!) asking price? The short answer is, no it is not - certainly not to me, anyway. It looks like poor value for money and it feels like poor value for money. It seems like Dronexpert have done the minimum they can get away with in order to make the mount function and then charged a ridiculous sum for it because they have no competition. The mount works for stills, provided you don't want to fly too far and you don't want overhead shots, but it's too rigid for video. Even using the RX100's excellent image stabilisation, video is very hit and miss, requiring so much re-shooting and editing that movie-making becomes a frustrating and tedious task. You can see a short trial video I made here  As a reult of this experience I came to the conclusion that successful airborne video really needs a moving gimbal so, if you want to use a Phantom for quality still photography and great video, you need two interchangeable systems - one for each (which is why it would be good to have an RX100 mount that was easily removable).

By the way, Dronexpert's after-sales service also proved to be less than satisfactory. Although I did have their telephone number from my pre-sales communications with them, I notice that there is no telephone contact number on their website. In any event my calls went unanswered and it took me several emails to get a response after the mount snapped. The response was a terse email on the lines of, "You can send it back for repair provided you pay all postage costs," with no apology.

You won't be surprised to hear that the mount is being returned for a full refund (a) because it wasn't as described, which is against French law and (b) because it broke on the first flight. Incidentally, the offer of a refund is thanks to Studiosport.fr, my excellent, very supportive and very helpful dealer, and is nothing to do with Dronexpert who, apparently, are not even communicating with the dealer!

My verdict:
The Dronexpert mount for the Sony RX100 and Phantom 2 quadcopter seems to have had zero input from an experienced photographer. It is a great concept but it is ill thought through and extremely expensive given the limited functionality and the low quality of materials used. It needs a better design (which also incorporates a minimum 5 cm landing gear extension), a better finish, a better monitor, better video transmission, and better after-sales; oh, and it needs to be priced around 700 euros (including taxes). And if it were all those things, from the conversations I've had with fellow photographers on the interweb*, I believe it would sell like the proverbial hot-cakes.  As it is none of those things, I won't be using one and neither will they. Dronexpert need to take on board the fact that it's better to sell ten items at 700 euros than none at 1,050 euros.


But not to worry, using a bit of ingenuity, I think have figured out a way to get great aerial photographs by utilising the astonishing capabilities of the Sony RX100 teamed with the amazing Phantom 2 quadcopter, without the need for a mount costing over 1,000 euros. And, with the help of Studiosport, I am actually in the process of sorting that out right now. Great videography won't be forgotten in my plans either!  ;-)

So, watch this space for "Taking My Photography To A New Level - Part 3" ;-)

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

* EDIT:
I've posted a short update to this review. To see it, click here

 


Capture NX2 gets the Heave-Ho. NX-D takes it place

March 01, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Last week Nikon announced the forthcoming demise of Nikon Capture NX2, its proprietary software for processing NEFs (Nikon RAW files). Now that would have been fine by me if it were being replaced by a better product - a much snappier and efficient product with even better functionality - something like, oh I don't know, let's say, Nikon Capture NX3.

But no, what we're going to get is Nikon Capture NX-D. Now I'm not entirely sure what the 'D' stands for, but I have several pretty good suggestions: 'Dumb', 'Dismal', and 'Disappointing' are the first three that come to mind.
 

Gone is the dedicated editing software that was NX2. And gone with it is the clever and extremely useful U-point technology we had in NX2 - the technology that gave us 'control points', allowing image alteration options in highly selectable areas - the technology that made even a clunky piece of software so much better than Adobe Camera Raw.  What we have now is a sort of messy combination of Nikon View (which I haven't used for years) and a much less useful and fewer featured RAW image editor than we had before. It's awful: the thumbnails are fuzzy, the full size images are pixelated as they load and the whole thing is just poorly conceived and badly executed.

The software is currently in beta and Nikon are inviting us, the great unwashed, to download it, try it, and report back to them. If you're a NEF shooter, then I urge you to do that. You can find the software at this link

Nikon say that NX-D is free to acquire and that you will be able to experience it for free for the foreseeable future; but then the same could be said of athlete's foot.

With this latest software fiasco coming on top of no D400 announcement and no new DX lenses, Nikon seem to me to be losing the plot. And that's a shame, because I've been a Nikon man for a very long time.

Note:
Here's a thought I had. When you fire up Capture NX2, on the first line of the splash screen you see copyright notices for Nikon Corporation and Nik Software.The U-point (Control point) technology is the brainchild of the latter. And who now owns NIK Software? Answer, Google. So, maybe this is the heart of the problem -  an 'it's ours and you can't have it' scenario being played out by Google and Nikon to the detriment of us, the customers, the photographers. I hope not and, if not, I hope the situation gets resolved by all of us telling Nikon just how badly they've got this wrong.

Of course, Capture NX2 won't stop working if you already have it, but Nikon say that they won't be updating it to handle images from any new cameras that are introduced in the future. However, I do have a Plan B to cope with that, should the mythical D400 ever appear.

My Plan B is to change my future workflow as follows: Use Nikon D-ismal for processing the NEF,  save the image as a TIFF, import the TIFF into the last version of NX2, use the control point technology as required, save back to a TIFF, and finally import the TIFF into Photoshop. To be honest that would just add one extra step to my current workflow. A PITA but not the end of the world.


Taking my photography to a new level? Yes, but NOT with the Phantom 2 Vision

January 30, 2014  •  1 Comment

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to explore the possibilities of aerial photography with one of these :

Unfortunately I found that the quality of the images was truly disappointing, despite being able to shoot RAW; the results were akin to something you might expect from a low-end smartphone and totally at odds with the manufacturer's marketing hype of being a "High End Camera". As it's equipped with a 14 Mp 1/2.3" sensor perhaps I should have known better (I've always argued that, with sensors of this size, the law of diminishing returns came into play at 8-10 megapixels) but as a five year-old Canon Ixus 95 we have in the house still produces excellent JPEGs (and that has a 10mp 1/2.3" sensor), I decided to order one anyway. Big mistake!

Here's an unprocessed 100% centre crop from a RAW (.dng) image, converted to a high quality JPEG for the purposes of uploading here. The ISO was 100 and the shutter speed 1/1000th (the aperture is fixed at f2.8).  You can see just how bad the resolution is.  With the best will in the world, no amount of post-processing work is going to give a decent printable image from this. It's a perfect example of not being able to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

I have to say, however, that the DJI Phantom 2 quad-copter itself is an amazing piece of technology, with integral GPS navigation, compass, smart battery etc. In fact it is so clever that, if you get 'brain freeze' while you're flying it, you simply let go of the controls and it just hovers, waiting patiently for you to get your act together. And if you really get into trouble, you switch off the controller and the 'copter then flies back to the point above it's take-off spot, descends, lands, and switches itself off. Amazing!  Plus, whilst in flight, it sends a live FPV (First Person View) to your smartphone which you have attached to the controller and, by means of which, you can remotely control the camera. Not only that, but laid over the live video is full flight telemetry (distance from you, height, speed, orientation, satellite lock data, battery remaining, etc.)  So, in short, it's a fabulous camera transport and control system with a poor camera attached. What a shame.

HOWEVER, although I have had to return the thing to the French dealer from whom I bought it, I confess to having been seriously hooked, and so another Phantom 2, identical to the one above but without the integral camera, will be replacing it. For photos and video, I'm going to be using a Sony RX100 and this will sit underneath the Phantom, attached to a special mount made by a company called DronExpert in Holland. The latter comes complete with FPV, beaming down images from the RX100 to a dedicated LCD screen attached to the Phantom's controller and, with this device added, flight telemetry also. And, of course, I will be able to control the camera's shutter remotely from the ground.

 

EDIT:
After some forum discussion with other owners over on phantompilots.com I found that there are good examples and not so good examples of the FC200 camera that the P2V uses. In other words it's become obvious that DJI needs a serious review of the quality control at the camera's production plant. You can see the discussion and view various bad and not so bad images here


I just stumbled across this extremely useful program/app

December 18, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

This is really useful for photographers (and painters too).... a program that tells you where the sun / moon will rise and set relative to any location on any date. For example, this screenshot shows a location of a disused factory where I shot in October and where I want to shoot again next spring.

The yellow and orange  lines indicate the direction of the sun relative to this exact location at sunrise (07:22) and sunset (20:50) on 16th April 2014. This knowledge is so useful because, having been there before, I know exactly where I want my model to be in relation to the windows and doors in the building and now I know what times I need to be there to get the light I want.  For example, I know that, if I were shooting there on 16/04/14 then I need to make sure that my model can be available for the period between 07:30 and lunchtime.

Here's another example; this time at a chateau near to 'chez nous' where I hope to be shooting in February or March.

The only snag with the program is that it doesn't tell you if the sun will actually be shining when you get to your location!  :-)

Seriously though, I'm going to find this very useful and I bet you will too. And what's more, the program is free for both Windows and Mac users.  Mobile versions are available as low-cost apps over on Google Play for Android and on the Apple Store for iPhones and iPads. You can find all the versions here.  The Android app, for example, costs just €3.74 and comes with lots of additional features; I've already downloaded it to my Nexus 5.

My thanks to Mike Watson and C.J. Glynn over on Photo Net for the heads-up on this.