I cut my photography teeth on SLR cameras (for the non camera folks, that is the kind of camera you look through an optical viewfinder and see what the lens sees). Over the years, many new camera systems have come out that have given the old SLR a run for its money. Several years ago when I first entered the oil field and began travelling for a living, I sold my Nikon DSLR for a mirrorless Sony NEX-5. I was very pleased by the few compromises made in data quality for the weight-savings of a mirrorless camera system. I specifically used the words “Data quality” for a reason. I’ll get into that in the Technical Details to follow. Since I practically live out of my backpack when I’m on the road six months out of the year, weight and space are very important to me. If a piece of equipment isn’t needed or doesn’t work hard to earn its place in my bag, it quickly finds out how lively Craigslist is in Raleigh, North Carolina. My trusty mirrorless NEX-7 has been a good little camera, well earning its spot in my bag since last year. It has superb data quality, producing very richly detailed images. So why would I get rid of it after all of these posts I’ve made praising its excellence? Back on March 19th, I talked about my experiment where I travelled with my NEX-7 and a 30mm lens. I felt very limited by this single-lens setup but it was good practice and very revealing. Not having any sort of zoom lens, I had to be more creative to get decent shots. Zoom lenses, I found, have made me very lazy. What I re-discovered was the joy in the challenge of making photos. I find I have to look around more for shots and then, when I find something of interest, I need to move around and study it to figure out how I’m going to make from it an interesting image.
When I came back from this last trip, I began questioning why I originally got rid of my old Nikon SLR that I enjoyed so much. The old camera and lenses were very big and heavy. On my very first trip to the field, feeling anxious about leaving anything behind, I carried a battery-gripped Nikon D700 with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and a Nikon 80-200 AF-S f/2.8. Anyone familiar with that equipment will understand that unless you’re shooting for money or on a trip dedicated to photography, carrying that kind of weight around on month-long trips is just crazy. Since photography is now just what I try to fit into my work-focused travel, I can’t justify that sort of load. I came back from that first trip with sore shoulders and an aching back. Enter my foray into the mirrorless NEX cameras; I’ve owned the NEX-5 and NEX-7. I made a lot of pleasing shots with those cameras but I never have gotten over the taint of LCDs and menus. When the NEX-7 was first announced, I was giddy with excitement over the promised mechanical dials that would be added for better manual control. Indeed, the NEX-7 was an improvement for the more manual-style shooters but it still isn’t as pure as a good SLR. To me, shooting with these NEX cameras – good as they are – it feels synthetic… padded… technical in all the wrong ways. I feel like my art has been reduced to an interaction with a computer. My last experiment with a single simple lens led me to reconsider what I might carry when I’m out for 30. I knew if I went back to an SLR-style camera, it would need to be Full-Frame (the digital sensor is 35mm in size, the same as film) so I could have back that gorgeous, shallow depth of field and unbeatable low-light-shooting capability. Nikon had an answer for me. The D600. It is a relatively small-bodied DSLR with a 24MP full-frame sensor. Earlier this week I bought it along with a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens. This lens and body combination weighs about as much as my NEX-7 with a 18-200mm zoom lens. Oh my goodness. What a difference in handling and image quality! Purity! The itch has been thoroughly scratched. Along with the first image in this post, here are some images I’ve recently shot with it:
I hope to be posting a lot more images soon. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these and I hope you’re inspired to get out and shoot. Spring is an awesome time of year for photography!
I mentioned earlier that I would go into what I meant by saying “Data quality” when referring to the NEX cameras. If you’re shooting test charts and lab images to compare, the difference in pixels, flat sharpness, and ISO performance between the NEX cameras and DSLRs, it can be very difficult to see any justification for the added heft of the DSLR. The NEX-7, like the D600, has 24 million pixels to define an image. They both are capable of capturing ridiculous levels of detail. In this regard, both cameras’ Data Quality is top-notch. Now, take them out of the lab and start composing and shooting real-world images. The lab’s test images aren’t designed to show how wonderfully shallow the depth of field is with the Full-Frame sensor of the D600. Isolating a subject using focus is very difficult with the smaller APS-C sensor of the NEX because its depth of field is naturally deeper which more clearly renders the background. A wide aperture lens focused at a close distance from the subject will still show more background focus than a Full-Frame sensor using the same lens, aperture, and equivalent focal length. Depth of field compression from a telephoto lens can help the APS-C sensor isolate the subject quite a bit but it still lacks the buttery smoothness you get from Full-Frame. Below, I’ve posted a little demonstration of the difference in how depth of field affects subject isolation. I’m not attempting to get scientific here so please don’t take too serious the relaxed approach of my illustration. I just searched for images from each camera that would approximate the effect.
If you already have a camera with an APS-C size sensor and you’re happy,think nothing more about what I’ve written. I’m certainly not trying to sell anything to anyone except maybe myself. 🙂 I just felt like sharing my excitement of why I like the FF camera and how pleased I am to get back into the simpler, more mechanical interface of the D600. The best camera is always the one you actually use. That includes iPhones!
** With the exception of the farm house in a field picture all of the images in this post were shot using the Nikon D600 with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens. The farm house was shot using a Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8. For the shot of the spider web on the tree against the setting sun, I used the built-in flash turned down to -1.0 compensation.