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Living with the D800E & lenses (Pt 2)

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Pebbles-in-the-palmCarrying on from my last blog, you've probably worked out by now that I'm really impressed with the performance from the Carl Zeiss 25mm f2 lens. So what about the other two lenses I purchased - namely the Nikon 45mm Tilt/Shift lens and the Nikon 70-200mm?

Nikon 45mm PC-E Micro Nikkor

Let's start with the 45mm. A very rugged looking lens was my first impression, with knobs on every side for creating tilt focus effects along with the ability to use it for rise and fall or laterally to stitch two or more images together to create a panorama. Unfortunately, rise/fall and tilt cannot be carried out simultaneously without spending another £140 (approx) to send the lens back to Nikon service to have it converted! If it's possible in the first place Nikon why not offer it as an option at point of sale?!

The 45mm does have an air of quality about it but nothing like in the same league as the Zeiss. I guess this is down to the aforementioned knobs which look flimsy and plasticky and I wonder how strong these will be in the medium to long term. 


Pebbles-in-the-palmPerformance wise it works very well and is sharpest at a relatively shallow f-stop of between f5.6 to f8 - due I guess to the fact that this is a Micro Nikkor lens (macro to the rest of us). Which is where this lens earns its brownie points in my opinion as it's like owning two lenses in one.

When used as a standard lens with no tilt or shift this is a very fine lens. It even performs very well at smaller apertures as can be seen from this image I made from Porth Nanven in Cornwall when I was there on holiday recently. This image, which I've decided to name 'Pebbles in the palm', was taken at f18 and yet still looks nice and sharp and I know it would print out beautifully.

Of course the whole point of this lens for me is it's ability to render landscape images tack sharp from front to back using tilt focussing (or Scheimpflug Principle for those of us Large Format geeks)! It's not too different from the way you tilt with a view camera but as the camera's viewfinder and rear screen are nothing like the size of the wonderful 4x5" screen I have on the back my Ebony View Camera it's a little more tricky to get right. However, the saving grace is the ability to zoom in using the Live View screen on the D800E to check for certain that all the correct areas are in focus. This is best done by using a very shallow aperture before stopping down to take the image.

Having only needed to use the tilt focus on a couple of occasions it's still early days to give a full report on the quality of the results. I still need to try the lens in different situations using tilt focussing but from the limited number I've made so far I'm liking what I see. The lens does suffer from a small amount of  chromatic aberration which increases with the greater degree of tilt that's applied. However, it's easily removed using Lightroom 4 so it's not a deal breaker. 

Likes and dislikes?

This is a great lens for optimum depth of field when shooting landscapes and is also exceedingly good for macro work which I look forward to using more of this autumn. I dislike the plasticky knobs as mentioned but my biggest gripe is the ability to only use the lens either in tilt or shift and not both. That said I knew this before buying and although not happy about it I nevertheless made the purchase.

My only real reservation about this purchase is that with my LF gear I almost always use tilt focus on my wider lenses and less often at this standard focal length so I'm unsure how much I will use the tilt facility in the long term. Again this was a question I'd already asked myself but I made the purchase as I knew I needed a macro lens sooner or later anyway. That said, now I know more about the Zeiss lenses, if given a second chance I'd be sorely tempted to opt for their 50mm macro Planar instead. In fact, I'm already considering purchasing the Zeiss 50mm f1.4 Planar lens or the Voigtlander 58mm f1.4 Nokton SL II to use as a standard lens for family snapshots which I know I could use as a high quality landscape lens too. At between £400 and £530 they appear to offer good value compared to others in their range. I've also read that the standard Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF-D is a particularly sharp lens and for a bargain price of around £180 it appears to be a no-brainer.

AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8GII ED

I have to say that this lens came as a nice surprise as I really only purchased it to complete the lens focal range that exists in my LF kit. OK, at £1700 it should be a good lens anyway but sometimes that's not always the case in reality.

Fortunately, this lens performs even better than it looks - both handheld and on a tripod. Weighing in at just over 1.5Kg it's not a light lens and even needs its own tripod mount to ensure stability. The mount also swivels around the lens axis to allow easy rotation between landscape and portrait style images which makes it all feel like child's play out in the field. You really notice the weight when hand holding the lens and camera together but in a good way. The Vibration Reduction system (VR II) makes shooting images handheld a pleasure. Not that I do this much personally but I can imagine it would be great for special events. This image of a jovial police motorcyclist in the recent olympic torch convoy is a case in point. Firing off a small burst of images, each one was as sharp as a pin where it was needed. Very impressive! 


The 70-200mm came in very handy for this image from Swaledale where the viewpoint and main barn in the image were some distance off. The lens performed very well and produced a tack sharp image as expected.








Likes and dislikes?

Overall, a brilliant lens and although it's the one I struggled justifying purchasing, I'm glad I did. It's bitingly sharp at my most common used apertures and I know it will create some quality images in due course. If I had any dislikes it would be that I have come across issues when using filters. It seems to be more prone to light scatter within the image if you're not very careful about screening the lens from the sun (and I'm not talking about covering the lens from the sun in the traditional sense). This manifests itself as a double image that I initially thought was a fault with the lens. It was recommended that I place a filter cloth around the filter holder between the filters and the lens to avoid this issue and so far this appears to have done the trick.

So, what about the D800E itself?

Overall, I'm very happy with the D800E but it would be remiss of me if I wasn't to point out some early disappointments

As a previous Nikon D200 owner (before going over to the 'dark slide'), I was already familiar with the solid build quality and many of the control placements on the Nikon body. All the buttons seem to be placed in logical positions along with a bright rear screen and informative viewfinder, so no surprise there. However, I'm disappointed with the quality of the rear screen (Live View) in low light which renders focussing near impossible in twilight due to high noise and ugly pixelation. Indeed the above image from Porth Nanven was taken in very low light (20 second exposure) and I had to use the markings on the lens to help with focussing this particular image. I can understand this issue if the technology isn't yet out there, but from the reviews I've read, the Canon 5D MkIII is far superior in this respect. Even the ground glass on my Ebony is better!

Battery performance also appears to be an issue. It hasn't run out on me yet but I'm expecting it to at some point soon. I remember this being a problem with the D200 but I rather expected the longevity of such batteries to have been addressed by now. I guess I'm just used to clicking away with my old Panasonic G1 without having to keep an eye on the battery. I shall therefore need to purchase another as a backup which is yet another unwelcome outlay.

These are my only two gripes I have though which, all things considered, isn't too bad as long as it remains that way. 

Of course, I purchased this camera specifically for its quality of sensor and it doesn't dissapoint. So long as the same level of care is taken as for when I set up my Large Format equipment the images produced are truly stunning. The level of detail is extraordinary - particularly in shadow areas where amazing detail can be pulled out when required. 

You do have to be meticulous though to gleen the best possible quality from this camera. Apart from using excellent lenses a good solid tripod and remote release are the least requirements. On top of this, mirror lock-up, 1 second shutter delay and a strategically placed hand when using filters are all important factors that should be considered whenever making an image... or else the camera's sensor will bite back with a poor image.

I also like the ability to assign the function+command dial to quickly scroll through different aspect ratios and the centre of the multi-selector to zoom into the equivalent of 100% in Photoshop. All this helps when out in the field to ensure you return home with an image you're happy with.

Another great feature is the ability to create Tiff or Jpeg images from two exposures (one after the other). It's called HDR on the camera but it shouldn't be seen as an attempt to create those ghastly HDR images that I personally dislike. No, this HDR feature simply combines two exposures when you either don't have any graduated filters to hand or when you have a scene that doesn't lend itself to a straight edged graduation. This works brilliantly, but I'm going to stop there as I've been asked to write an article about this elsewhere at some point in the future!

Why the 'E' over the standard?

That's easily answered in that my other purchasing alternative was to consider a second hand Phase One back for my Ebony. These backs don't have any anti-aliasing filters on them and I know quite a few people who are using them for landscape photography without any issues. Therefore, it seemed obvious to go for the 'E'. 

So far I haven't experienced any moiré issues with any of my images so I'm well pleased. That said my camera is pretty much used only for landscape work and I would urge anyone considering buying one to check this very useful article from OnLandscape which I gave a small hand in before making a final decision (Subscription is required - and recommended!). 

Comparing using the D800E and a large format camera.

Although both cameras make amazing pictures it really is like comparing apples and pears.

In my eyes I only started making good images once I started using a large format camera. The reason I think is that it slows you down and makes you consider all the options in a more methodical way. You don't rush with a view camera - you instinctively know that if you see a great image and you haven't yet set up, you're likely to have missed it anyway! Whereas with a digital camera you're more likely to try to capture the moment... but will you do it justice? Rushing around setting up your equipment for a quick 'in the bag' image rarely is as good on the computer as you thought at the scene. From experience I find the composition isn't quite right or maybe I should've added a polariser (or whatever) which I hadn't thought of at the time etc... So it's not always a good thing to have a camera you can prepare quickly - in fact it can be a disadvantage for landscape photography. Discipline to keep slowing down is going to be my biggest challenge with digital.

Setting up a view camera is a delight. It's a very tactile piece of equipment with knobs and levers that you screw in and out. It's all so bizarre compared to modern day technology. A large screen (4"x5" in my case) is just fabulous for focusing - particularly when tilt focussing. Better still is when you receive your transparency back from the developers. The colour from a well executed exposure is something very special indeed. Of course, all that's very well and good but as certain 4x5 film stock is in demise along with the hassle of changing film in a dark tent then this takes away the enjoyment for me. 

Fortunately for me the D800E came at the right time and ticks all the boxes for my requirements. OK, it hasn't got the kudos of a 5x4 and it's not as much of a pleasure setting it up either but surely it's down to what's inside... what's inside me that is. How my images impart what I'm feeling at the time. The emotions I'm feeling - happy, sad, excited, tired, bored and so on. I always wonder when I look at the finished images on my Mac what my next twelve months of images will look like. That fascinates me and drives me out into the wonderful landscape we live in.



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