A Resurgent Nikon

As a photographer, I’ve been a longtime Nikon user. Nikon always epitomized, for me, the ultimate real photographers. From my beautifully crafted FM3a to to the modern DSLRs, the had always been something magical about handling a Nikon. But over the past few years, Nikon has fallen into a rut. The short story is they stopped innovating.

Nikon behaved as if they were the only game in town. In a way, they were. Canon hasn’t done anything exciting since the 5D mark III, which is really long in the tooth. Nikon started to treat their own camera lines as their only competition. They started to intentionally crippling different camera segments to ensure they didn’t cannibalize on each other. Want a pro caliber body in DX format? No way. Even a FX sensor in a pro body without going to 36MP was not an option. And even within a range, improvements within new releases were minor. For example, the D600 -> D610 -> D750 series offered only minor, evolutionary enhancements, contrary to what their customers were demanding. Nikon became more interested in protecting model segmentation than doing the right thing for their customers.

It had nearly reached the point where I was prepared to divest of my Nikon gear. Over the past two years, there has been a lot of innovation happening in photography, but unfortunately for Nikon, it was happening with mirrorless cameras and not Nikon DSLRs. I’ve been really impressed with the Fuji XT-1 and the high quality lenses Fuji has been releasing. I feared Nikon was about to pull a Kodak and let themselves fail due to their own arrogance.

Sony has been out innovating Nikon at every turn with their new A7 cameras. They have high quality third-party lens manufacturers making lenses only for their camera. In short, Sony was not just moving Nikon’s cheese, they were stealing it outright.

Sony was also churning quickly, responding to the demands of photographers. They only waited a year between the A7R and A7RII, and the changes between them were huge. Sony was also engaging more with photographers. They even contacted me to ask if they could use one of my tweets for their social media marketing campaign.

Fortunately, rather than die the Kodak death, Nikon appears to have realized the challenges they face rather than sticking their head in the sand. Along with releasing their new flagship DSLR, the D5, the also dropped a camera no one was expecting: the D500.

The D500 is the camera a lot of Nikon users had been asking for: a true professional body APS-C (DX) sensor camera. I had used the D200 back before moving to full frame and loved it, but I felt back then APS-C was being left for dead. I don’t think Nikon would have made this camera without the competition from Sony. It is the first revolutionary camera they have released in years, and it shows that Nikon is back in the game.

I’m predicting Nikon will release a D900 later this year, which takes the same pro body of the D500 and upsizes it to hold the same full-frame sensor as the D5. This would be the no-compromise successor to the D700 that photographers have been screaming for, not another pro-sumer lightweight like the D600/D610/D750 chain. I love my D750, but would upgrade in a heartbeat to the D900.

I’m hoping Nikon has finally realizing that protecting the segmentation between their camera lines is less important than giving photographers what they want and protecting them from the huge threat of Sony. It remains to be seen, but at last I see a glimmer of hope. And I’ll be hanging onto my Nikon gear.

Surface Pro 4 Impressions

Background

I’m a huge fan of the iPad. My iPad Air is my most used device, outside of my work laptop. I appreciate the tablet form factor in general, and have really only been disappointed by the iPads lack of ability to do some more of the general computing tasks I do.

I started getting interested in the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 earlier this year. It looked like an ideal compromise, but I refused to buy one because of the abomination that was Windows 8. By the time Windows 10 dropped, there were already rumblings of the Surface Pro 4, so I waited a bit longer. Finally, in the past couple weeks, we had two huge announcements: the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4.

Both looked like exciting devices. Both have screens about the size of a piece of letter-sized paper, which would be great for reading. But the Surface Pro 4 was especially interesting because it brings Windows 10 to the form factor. I use my Windows 10 desktop most the time at home over my aging MacBook Pro. It’s definitely a bit rough around the edges compared to OS X, but Microsoft is really churning on it and I’ve been very happy using it.

The Microsoft Store

While hitting the mall with my daughter this weekend, I dropped into the Microsoft Store and was surprised to see they had both the Surface Pro 4 tablet and a Surface Book to try. I stuck my daughter in front of an Xbox One with Forza, and proceeded to poke away at both them for a good 15 minutes. Since I couldn’t install anything on them, I used Google’s Octane 2 benchmark to get a comparison point for performance. Conveniently, the mall also has an Apple store, so I ran the same benchmark on a current MacBook Air and 13″ Retina MacBook Pro.

Surface Pro 4 Impressions

  1. The Surface Pro 4 is slightly heavier than the iPad Pro, but it is still a very manageable weight. I can see carrying it around easily or sitting on the sofa with it on my lap.
  2. Construction quality appears really good. The screen is bright. The kickstand is slick. And having a USB 3.0 and Mini Displayport connector makes hooking up to peripherals and an external monitor easy, which is something the iPad Pro can’t do.
  3. Precision of the pen is really good. It flows smoothly, and can do fine lines, including a signature, easily. It’s comfortable in the hand, and the “eraser” end feels natural. The only downside is it only attaches magnetically to the Surface Pro 4 on one side of the tablet, and in one direction. And you can’t just randomly attach it to the side. The pen needs to be turned to the correct side for the magnet to attach.
  4. Palm detection while using the stylus was a bit slow. Any time I put down my palm, it scrolled a little bit before it figured out what I wanted to do. Since this is software, I’m sure it is something Microsoft will churn on and get right.
  5. The keyboard smart cover is nice. I actually thought it was a bit too stiff, but the trackpad works well. I’m sure I could get used to the keys, though, and be productive with it. It attaches firmly and easily.
  6. The power connection isn’t up the the quality of Apple’s MagSafe connector. It doesn’t attach as firmly, and the cord comes off the connector to the side, not straight, so you have to put it in one way.
  7. Windows 10 felt snappy, and responded easily to touch.
  8. The Surface Pro 4 doesn’t have a cellular data option. I have this on the iPad, and would miss this on the Surface Pro, but it’s not a deal killer. It is a pretty big oversight on Microsoft’s part though. The always on, always ready internet is now.

Surface Book impressions

I played with the Surface Book too, but I actually preferred the Surface Pro 4. In tablet mode, it felt too large. The keyboard and trackpad felt really good, but it didn’t feel any more special than my MacBook Pro keyboard. In convertible mode (screen turned around, attached to base), it is too heavy for normal use. The mechanism for detaching the screen for tablet mode is slick, and worked well, but I suspect it’s going to be a point of failure.

The Surface Book has potential, but I found it too laptop-like. The Surface Pro 4 is an excellent tablet that can become a laptop replacement, while the Surface Book is a laptop that can become a tablet for a little bit.

Performance

Here’s the fun part — the Octane 2 scores:

System Score
Surface Pro 4, i5, 4GB, MS Edge 23,994
Surface Book, i5, 8GB, MS Edge 28,979
13″ MacBook Air, 1.6ghz i5, 4GB, Safari 21,036
13″ Retina MacBook Pro, 2.7ghz i5, 8GB, Safari 25,520
iPad Air, A7, Safari 7,153

The Surface Pro 4 sits closer to the Retina Macbook Pro than the Macbook Air. I suspect, once loaded up with the i7, it will be a direct competitor of Apple’s MacBook Pro and not the Macbook Air. I also added the iPad to try and infer what the iPad Pro will do. Even if the A9X is 2.5x faster than the A7, it still leaves it way behind even the base Surface Pro 4 with an i5 at essentially the same price point. The iPad Pro is going to be a tough sell going head to head with the Surface Pro 4.

The Surface Book is definitely a MacBook Pro killer. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on Apple for their next iteration of laptops.

Summary

The Surface Pro 4 is a big win, to the point I’ll be ordering one. It has all the media consumption capabilities of a large iPad, while also allowing me to click open the kickstand, slap a keyboard on, and do real work, all on the same device. I could see it becoming my primary computing device. With the pen, this is going to be an awesome tablet for editing photos. I can run real Photoshop, with my favorite plugins, and do high quality edits easily.

Microsoft has really knocked it out of the park with the Surface series, and the Surface Pro 4 in particular. As a Java developer, I’ve been pretty critical of Microsoft in the past. But Satya Nadella has really turned the company around. Microsoft is a technology company again, not just a bunch of sales people trying to suck every dollar possible out of windows and office sales to enterprises.

And great job to the Surface team for building such a truly stunning device. I look forward to seeing what else comes from you all in the future.

California with the Fuji XT-1

I spent the past week taking advantage of Spring Break to take a trip out to California with the family. We hadn’t been back to the Bay Area and Monterey for about two years, and it is one of our favorite places to visit.

For this trip, I decided to pack light and only take my Fuji XT-1 with the 23mm, 56mm and 14mm lenses. I ended up using the Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 lens most the time, but I did do some street photography with the Fujinon 14mm f/2.8 lens in San Francisco.

While I love the 56mm lens for portraits, the 23mm has proven to be my favorite general purpose lens. It handles itself well in most any circumstance, from portraits to travel shots. Here are some of the shots with this trio.

Statues at Cannery Row in Monterey
Statues at Cannery Row in Monterey
Chinatown in San Francisco
Chinatown in San Francisco
Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco
Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge
Drug Store Pirate along Cannery Row in Monterey
Drug Store Pirate along Cannery Row in Monterey
Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco
Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco

Fuji Fujinon XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR Lens Review

The new “pro” zoom from Fuji is finally starting to hit the streets. My favorite local camera store, Competitive Cameras, actually got two in last weekend. The first guy on the list drove halfway across the state of Texas to get his. I was number two.

I became a fan of Fuji when they released the XT-1 last year. It had the feel of the manual cameras I was used to from the days of film, but with a size and feature set of a modern digital camera. I also really loved the size and build quality of their prime lenses. The 23mm and 56mm are incredible lenses. Combined with the XT-1, they make for a potent street shooting and travel combination.

Which brings us to their new big brother, the Fujinon XF 16-55mm f/2.8 zoom lens. This definitely marks Fuji’s attempt at producing a pro-grade lens and the size reflects it. While I’m not selling any of my primes any time soon, I also know there is a time and place for a solid, fast short zoom.

The first reaction to mounting it on my XT-1 was “damn, this is a big lens”. This is actually pretty similar in size to the Nikon 24-120mm lens which I found to be a boat anchor after carrying it around all day on a Nikon D600.

I carry my XT-1 cross-body on a DSPTCH Standard Sling. The 16-55mm definitely sticks out further than the primes, but I didn’t find to too unbalancing, so I decided to take the chance and bring the lens home.

Here’s the 16-55mm compared to the 23mm and 56mm. Yep, it is that big, with a wide 77mm filter size to boot.

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And here it is hanging off the front of the XT-1. The vertical grip would probably improve the balance, but I don’t find it too bad on the XT-1. I definitely don’t see this as a lens to use on any of the other smaller Fuji bodies.

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The first weekend, I shot a kids birthday party to get used to the lens. It was crappy weather, so lots of high-ISO indoor shooting or flash shots with a Nissin i40. We finally had some nice weather this weekend, so I trucked the 16-55mm and family off to one of our favorite local parks for some shooting.

I’m usually a RAW shooter, but to stay consistent, all the images for the review are jpegs straight from the camera, shot in Standard profile with +1 color. Clicking an image will bring up the full sized files for pixel peepers.

First up is the obligatory wall shot to see how the lens handles in the corners. Since you’re buying this lens to shoot at f/2.8, I’ll only post those versions. I also took a set at f/8 that are extremely sharp across the frame. All shots are at ISO 200.

16mm at f/2.8
16mm at f/2.8
23mm at f/2.8
23mm at f/2.8
35mm at f/2.8
35mm at f/2.8
55mm at f/2.8
55mm at f/2.8

Center sharpness at all the focal lengths is incredible. Wide open at 16mm we get a bit of curvature and the corners are a bit soft. At 23mm and 35mm, I see just a touch of softness at the outer edges, and 85mm is essentially perfect from edge to edge. I don’t see any vignetting at any of the focal lengths, but I’ll have to try against a white background.

Overall, this is an insanely sharp, high performance lens that holds its own against the f/2.8 offerings from the big dogs. Here are a few more shots from out at the park. The small versions are a bit distorted, so click to see a visually correct version.

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After carrying this lens around for afternoon, I would call this lens a keeper. Like any f/2.8 zoom, you’re really buying it to use at that aperture, and it doesn’t disappoint.

The focus on this lens is extremely fast and quiet. The aperture ring has very solid detentes, more so than any of my primes, so no accidentally knocking the aperture loose. The zoom ring is just stiff enough. It is easy to turn, but the lens won’t start to creep out while hanging around your next. This was a major complaint of mine with the Nikon 24-120mm. I also like the bokeh I got from this lens.

For the bad side, this lens pretty much kills the typical stealth mode of the XT-1 with a prime. This bad boy sticks out from your body. And I’m not a fan of the lens hood. Due to how I carry the camera, I was catching my hand on the irregular edge while walking before I finally found a comfortable angle to carry it at.

So should you buy it? You really can’t go wrong with this lens assuming you can stomach the size and price. If you’re comfortable with the primes and going lean and mean, this isn’t your lens. I like the versatility this fast, sharp lens brings to the game and it will definitely be a travel companion going forwards. In fact, this lens along with its big brother, the Fujinon XF 50-140mm f/2.8 lens, are probably all some people will need.

(Note: this review was originally posted on another site I was experimenting with. I didn’t like the experiment, so I moved the review over here)

Hot Summer Nights

One of my favorite times of the year in Texas are the hot summer evenings. I enjoy going for a walk or jog in the 100+ degree late sunset hours, with the cicadas chirping full bore. I suspect this unnatural appreciation for activities in the evening heat stems back to spending a year of my life in Saudi Arabia.

I spent six months in Riyadh for the first Gulf War, from Christmas 1990 to June 1991. I worked in the world’s most heavily fortified soccer field, supporting mission crews flying RC-135s. I also spent another six months over the following two years on different stints flying aboard the AWACS.

Saudi Arabia is a strange place, and not only from a cultural perspective. As summer rolled around, temperatures would start spiking well north of 100 degrees. The blazing sun pounded down on everything like something out of a Dune novel. You tried to avoid going out during the day unless you had to.

Then evening rolled around and life found a way. The temperature stayed above 100 degrees, but it was a comfortable hot compared to the brutal daylight hours. The Saudis obviously learned this centuries ago. We would drive back from missions in the evening and there would be tents scattered throughout the desert along the roads with men sitting in front of fires, probably telling the tales their fathers used to tell them in similar settings.

These golden evenings were also the hours everyone used to exercise. I would run a few miles or play volleyball well into the night as temperatures slowly tipped south. Breathing in the hot dry air while jogging along in the silent darkness was my favorite way to keep my sanity. I don’t think I’ve ever been in as good of shape in my life as I was during my time in the sandbox.

Which brings us back to Texas. The hot summer nights here bring back that nostalgia for a more simple time 20+ years ago. I actually prefer taking a long walk in the hot summer evenings than I do during the cooler fall and winter. There is something relaxing about the heat. Outside the camaraderie, it is one of the only things I miss from the desert.