Friday, March 3, 2017

400/2.8G VR - 10 Years Later

It's fast, it's long, it makes great images, and... it's heavy.

The 400/2.8 G VR was first introduced in 2007 and in production to 2014. With over 7000 units made, it's safe to day that this is the most popular (by numbers) of the 400/2.8 primes that Nikon is made. Still a relatively new model (succeeded by the 400/2.8E FL), there are many copies still "in the wild". Price wise, they can be the sweet spot on the used market, landing under the current version at $11000.

A 400mm/f2.8 lens a must have piece of equipment for any professional sports photographer. The 400mm focal length is suitable for a number of applications, and the 2.8 aperture is needed for the extra light needed for night sports and for the definition of subject from a background. It takes a Nikon 1.4x TC III very well, and makes a close equivalent (560mm/f4) of the 600/4. I barely notice any change in the AF speed in good light and don't see really hardly any loss of image quality. It's also takes the 2.0x TC III fairly well to become an equivalent (800/5.6) to Nikon's 800mm/f5.6. Auto focus does slow down somewhat and I do see some loss of image sharpness. However, doubling the focal length of the lens and still having a f5.6 aperture makes this a very versatile lens. Use this combo with a DX body like the D500 and you've got some incredible reach.

All of Nikon's super telephoto zooms are considered to produce excellent image quality, and the 400/2.8G VR is no exception. In fact, it's takes less sharpening with RAW files than some of my other lenses (the 70-200/2.8 E being an exception). The colors are beautiful and the bokeh is very pleasing with a very smooth quality to it. I've used it for all field sports and even sometime for indoor sports - the 400mm focal length is that versatile (there I go using that word again).

So what's not to like about it? It's heavy. It's nearly  10 lbs. One advantage of the replacement FL version is it shed nearly two pounds. It's also a physically big piece of gear and takes some technique adjustments and if you've never used a super tele before, it'll take some getting used to. The price is also a barrier to many, but it's a bread a butter tool for any professional sports photographer.

On the last point, an earlier version (AF-S II) can be had for significantly less on the used market. Keep in mind though that Nikon guarantees to keep replacement parts for a lens for seven years after it' falls out of production. The 400/2.8G VR should be good then at least until 2021.

Since it's been out of production since 2014, to acquire one will have to be through the second hand market. Beyond the general condition and functionality, there are two things to look for that might not be apparent if it's the first time you're buying one. The first detail is that the lens uses rear filters. The lens comes with a 58mm clear filter that's a particular model from Nikon. This filter is part of the optical formula, so if it's not included, look into the availability of finding a direct replacement. Secondly, check outage condition of the lens hood. It's a two piece item and can be a little susceptible to wear and tear. This is important because you'll find yourself standing the lens on the lens hood quite often and you want it to be stable. If you have to replace it, them last time I checked, it was over $500. That's something to take note of.

10 years old and still a very relevant and useful design and piece of equipment. You'll see many of this model at pro sporting events and they produce images you see in the media daily. If you need it, there isn't anything that's going to fill the shoes of a 400/2.8G VR (except the newer FL  :) ).

Update: I sent the lens into Nikon because I noticed a focus anomaly. NPS (Nikon Professional Service) sent me a 400/2.8E FL to try and use while my lens was being worked on. I loved the E version. The lighter weight was really nice but the balance of the weight took some getting used to (one three hour MLB game). When I received my 400G back, it focused faster and more reliably and was sharper. Judging from the serial number, I have an older copy that had probably not been sent in for routine maintenance. It came back amazing. The sharpness and responsiveness is off the charts. Besides the aforementioned weight and balance difference, the only other difference between the two lenses was with using teleconverters.

I now use my 400G with a 1.4x TC III at MLB games - pretty critical stuff. Sharpness and focus speed are great. The 400E had just a minuscule advantage with the TC. I don't think most people would notice unless they did the extensive testing that I did , including dialing each lens for focus tuning.

At the end of the day, it comes down to the price difference. Both lenses bare are equal in my tests. The difference is the weight (big deal for football), balance and a small difference when using TC's. My plans were to upgrade to the 400/2.8E FL as soon as possible as it's my most used lenses and I like the latest and greatest. However,  it's now going to take a little more time to move away from my Nikon 400/2.8 G VRII.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Nikon 70-200/2.8E FL Review

I switched to Nikon in June and my first two lenses to pick up were in the 24-70/2.8E VR and the 14-24/2.8G. By early July, I had just bought a 70-200/2.8G VRII. Within less than a week, I came across the "reliable" rumor that a new 70-200/2.8 was coming by the end of the year. I promptly returned my 70-200/2.8G and spent the next four months renting a 70-200 when I needed one(which was often) and buying a 200/2G to pick up the slack. In hindsight, it would've been more cost beneficial to take the hit on selling a 70-200 than the money I spent renting and time spent AF tuning a lens each time I rented.

Nikon 70-200/2.8E FL
Fast forward to November 14th; I received the new 70-200/2.8E FL. Bogged down with a chest cold and a hole in my shooting schedule, I've been restricted to taking shots around the house and comparing to other images. Finally feeling better, I've had the chance to venture out and give the lens a test and trial.

I had a few reasons for waiting for the new release. I was so impressed by the speed increase of the 24-70 VR over the previous 24-70/G. Also, the overall sharpness of the newer 24-70 was significant enough that I had a hunch that this would be passed on to Nikon's newest 70-200/2.8 as well. Shooting primarily sports, sharpness and fast and accurate AF are paramount to me.

Was it worth the wait? So far... yes. Autofocus was good with the last version, but the new FL feels as snappy as the 24-70E. That's a great thing. Overall sharpness is improved too; to wasn't bad before, but it's better now. I've only gotten to shoot in less intensive environments that I'm used to, but the difference is already apparent.

Nikon 70-200/2.8E FL
Already, there's a mild uproar of the switching of placement of the zoom and focus rings compared to the previous version. I get that - people are used to a certain way of shooting and it feels funky. An hour of shooting and I was comfortable with a new way of holding and usage of the zoo and focus rings. The tripod foot actually works well for hand holding. I have the foot in the back of my palm and my fingers are free to adjust the zoom. I have a 200/2G and that requires a certain placement too, but we adapt to these things really quickly. That's done.

Sharpness? I still need to do a proper AF tuning with the lens and my D5 and D500, but just a few test shots, and it becomes clear that this is an incredibly sharp lens. DxOMark.com's Rick has already gone on record backing this up with the MTF charts to prove it.

The last complaint is the $2800 price. The previous 70-200/2.8G was $2400 when released in 2009. That translates to $2700 in 2016 US dollars. Sure, the price dropped down over the years since the release, as do most electronics. The bottom line is, if you need to fastest AF, the sharpest zoom wide open, and a lighter and shorter lens, an extra $100 is insignificant. If these aren't important to you, you can still find the previous version new, plus expect an increase of them in the second hand market, as well as the offerings by the 3rd party lens manufacturers. We have choices.

Nikon is keeping up with new technology and providing updates to their current line up (i.e. 70-200/2.8 E FL) and releasing new products (Nikon 19mm f4.0 E ED) to keep ahead of trends and the competition. New technology will trickle down the product lines and in a time of cameraphones taking a portion of the market, this is a good thing. Keep going...

Nikon 70mm-200mm/f2.8 E FL
Update: I've shot about 50 MLB games, and over that many college level sports with the 70-200/2.8E FL. I love this lens. The image quality rivals primes. The AF (auto focus) is even faster than the previous version. If you want the best 70-200/2.8, this is it. It's better than Canon or Sony's latest endevours. nIt does come at a price, but that's what you pay for across the board best in class.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Nikon D5 - First Impression

Nikon D500 (gripped) and Nikon D5
I switched from Canon to Nikon for the D500. Getting back to shooting after a 6 year hiatus, I was used to 1DMk3 and 1DMk4 bodies but fooled myself into thinking I didn't need a pro body. I bought a 7DMk2 and used it for a day before returning it. I came across the specs of the D500 and jumped in. The switch was costly, but the D500 was what I had before in a smaller body and much better performance.

I've returned to doing photography full time (I still sell RE on the side), the D750 wasn't fitting my needs. I loved the image quality, but I always went for the D500 because of it's speed, responsiveness, AF, etc... Needing a body with a better match, my choices were a D4 variant or go all in with a D5, Nikon's current flagship pro body. I chose the latter.

I found a great deal on a D5 that was bundled with a Lexar 64 gig 2933x XQD card and a second OEM Nikon EN-EL 18a battery from Kenmore Camera on eBay for the list price of the body alone. I phoned them to verify that the bundled items were indeed OEM, and they confirmed that they were. It was my first time buying an item in this price range off of eBay and I highly recommend Kenmore Camera as an authorized Nikon dealer.

It's been a week, so this really is a first impression. My biggest apprehension was the reports of it's low ISO dynamic range. I research extensively before I make a purchase, so this was a concern. It's the most common complaint on the camera. Digging a little deeper, it seems that most of the negative comments on this come from people who don't own the camera.

I don't try to pull three or four stops of exposure in post. That's user error if one needs to do that. I have pushed it two stops and haven't had any issues with shadow noise. I don't have any worries about it. In fact, that's the consensus of most D5 users. We're out shooting, not looking at charts and making hypothetical situations. This is a real world camera for real world usage. That''s about it for the DR issue.

Mounting a lens for the first time, you know this is different from Nikon's current lineup. It sounds like you're opening a bank safe with the ticking as you twist on lens. The body is robust - some call is heavy, because it's metal body is built to withstand the use (and abuse) that a camera takes when used day in and day out for professional use. This is good.

Customization goes another level beyond the D500, which is already extensive. Taking advantage of Custom Shooting Banks allows the camera to be instantly tailored to your intended usage.

The high ISO performance is all that others have praised. I don't need to add to it. The sensor is different than the D500's (obviously) and I'm still working on my "recipe" for post processing (note: Nikon's Capture NX-D does a surprisingly well job, coming from a PhotoShop user since version 1).

Autofocus? I can't add to what's already been written, but it's all true. This is the most sophisticated AF system on the market. Tailor it to your usage and subject and you'll be amazed at the increase of your keepers.

If you need the benefits and features of a pro body, the D5 is a no-brainer. Upgrading? The AF improvements are reason alone to warrant a purchase. The high ISO performance is icing on the cake. I received the camera on a Thursday afternoon and was shooting with it the next day due to familiarity from the D500.

The big question - D5 or D500? The best answer is both. The extra reach of the D500 makes it a valuable tool in many situations. I use the D500 with the 70-200/2.8E FL with the TC 1.4x III for shooting surfing. If I had to choose one, the D5 does it all. I briefly considered replacing the gripped D500 (~$2400 total) with an older pro Dx body (D3s), but decided against it because of the much improved high ISO and auto focus. This is a great compliment to the D500. A D5 coupled with a D500 is a great combination, with both cameras having a place and time. Add in the 1.4x TC III and you have options that give you a great range. Keep in mind, a D500 with a 1.4 TC  on a 400/2.8 gives you an effective 840mm focal length a f4.0, or on the D5, a 560mm/4.0. My go-to sports set-up is the D5 on the 400/2.8G, and the D500 on the 70-200/2.8 VRII. That gives me a 400/2.8 prime and (an effective) 105-300/2.8 zoom. That's pretty strong. Occasionally I'll put a D50 with my Nikkor 14-24/2.8 on my neck for daytime use, but if I can find a way to pick up a 200/2.0 and keep my D750, then all will be good for any situation.

Update 8/10/17: I've been using two D5 instead of the D5/D500 combo. Contrary to Steve Perry's test, I find the crop ability of the D5 to outweigh the magnification of the D500. An upcoming post on this is coming up.

Nikon has really hit it out of the park with the D5 and D500. They're two very similar, but different cameras that work well with each other, and appeal to a market at very different price points.

It's a great time to shoot Nikon.

D5 400mm/f2.8 ISO 12,800 1/1000th





Thursday, September 22, 2016

Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sport Review

I was drawn to this lens because it is truly unique and was a combination and replacement for other lenses. It was a 300/2.8 prime while maybe replacing a 70-200 with benefits. I have had really bad experience with 3rd party lenses, but was told by many that there is a new Sigma with a dedication to quality.

So I went for it. Buying new with a Sigma USB dock and Sigma's TC-1401 teleconverter brings the price close to what a good condition Nikon 300/2.8 VR goes for - with the benefit of the zoom. I spent a day tuning the lens with the dock (note: a focus tool is really necessary, I used the Datacolor  SpyderLENSCAL). It was a pain in the neck putting the body on, take it off, hook up the dock, then take it off. In the end I was happy I did it.

The Good:

  • f2.8 tele zoom with nice, pleasing bokeh
  • can be sharp at most focal lengths
  • decent AF speed and accuracy with fast AF (auto focus) bodies
  • OS (VR in Nikon speak)
  • customizable (with the Sigma USB dock)

The Bad:

  • bad balance (makes lens feel heavier and awkward to use)
  • CA (purple and green fringe on the wide end)
  • lens collar
  • reverse zoom rotation (for Nikon users)
  • slow AF with certain bodies
  • flimsy case

I've got to admit, the zoom range is pretty useable. I showed up to a tiny polo field expecting to use the TC-1401 with this lens, only to find out the field was about the size of a basketball court - no problem, pop off the TC and I had all the range I needed. It's a decent 300/2.8, but not as sharp as Nikon or Canon's prime offerings (but close) and a little slower AF with my D500 (I never understood why people would buy a f2.8 zoom and talk about how sharp the lens is when stopped down - you pay for 2.8 to use 2.8). However, the AF on the lens without the TC on the D500 was definitely useable for fast action sports. This is difficult to objectively gauge. The first reason being that practically any zoom is going to have a slower AF compared to a prime comparable. Secondly, there isn't another zoom lens in the same focal ranges to compare to. Nikon's 70-200/2.8 VRII is a very fast focusing lens, but the Sigma has a much different range. Furthermore, it is slower with the TC (Sigma's TC1401), but that's a given with any lens and TC combo.

I don't use any OS/VR/IS when shooting sports, but it the optical stabilization was great for shooting stills or wildlife handheld. I loved being able to set the focus limiter for whatever I wanted. I set mine for a custom setting in a range for shooting tennis from courtside. This was an improvement for speeding up the AF.

© 2016 http://www.luxproxima.com
I read other reviews that talked about the balance issue, but I thought it wasn't a big deal. I was wrong. The lens was awkward to use on a monopod because of the shift in weight when zooming in and out. It doesn't sound like much of a problem, but in real world usage, it was for me. This was exacerbated by the reverse zoom direction. I have to wonder why, if making a Nikon compatible lens, with a different mount and AF system, they didn't go "all the way" and make this a Nikon standard zoom direction.

The purple fringe was removable, but I sold some images "off the card" in jpg to clients and the fringe was unacceptable for that. I also read comments about the lens collar. To rotate between vertical and horizontal, there are no "clicks" or stops that let you know when you're parallel. It also is really unsmooth and the collar feels loose when it's open enough to rotate. It's not a good feeling. Shooting sports, I like to be able to swing the lens around quickly, and to do so, felt like the lens might slip out or I was putting a lot of stress on my camera's lens mount.

©2016 Valerie Shoaps http://www.luxproxima.com
The deal breaker for me, came when I put my D750 on it. The AF was slow, hunting increased and accuracy dropped off. It was so bad, I thought I had done something to the lens. I put the D500 and it was fine again. I tried this several times and in different situations, and it kept repeating. I don't know if this is an testament to the D500's AF, but it just wasn't going to useable for low light sports. One of my intended uses was to have a 400/2.8 prime on my D500 with a monopod, and the Sigma 120-300/2.8 on my D750 slung around my shoulder. This wasn't going to happen. To be fair, I'm trying to come up with a way to turn my D750 into a D5, and I don't think the AF would be an issue then.

My last issue was the case. I expect more from a lens in this range, but the case didn't offer a lot of protection and doesn't stay put when slung over the shoulder. A third party option like the Think Tank Glass Taxi would be a good option.

My conclusion is that this is a good special occasion lens. It's not the magical answer to fill in gaps that I thought it would be. The range on a full frame camera is similar to a 70-200/2.8 on a DX or ASP-C sensor. It definitely has a place, but for me, it's not a primary part of my sports kit at this time. Some people swear by the Sigma 120-300/2.8 Sport, so it's downsides for me, are overcome by others.

Sigma is redefining themselves as is evident with this lens, as well as their Art series of lenses. On the bench and lab, this lens looks great, but in real world sports shooting, it could use a few tweaks. It's an admirable effort on Sigma's part to make such a lens, but it could be so much more with just a few improvements or tweaks. As is, if I find one on the second hand market at a price competitive to Nikon's 70-200/2.8 zoom, I'll be very tempted to buy one again.

I really hope they release another version of this lens as it could be (and currently is for many) a really strong tool in the pro sports shooter's arsenal. Sigma's CEO Kazuto Yamaki has stated that they are committed to developing innovative products (such as their 50-100/f1.8) and this lens, and I think that's going to do great things for them and I'm looking forward to what they create next.




Thursday, September 8, 2016

Expert Shield GLASS LCD Screen Protector Review

LCD screen protectors are a personal choice. Many people prefer to go "bare" but I don't want to damage a screen with a belt buckle, jean riot, or any of the many things that can damage it and remind me of my decision overtime I review an image.

As soon as I received my D500, I did a search on which screen to use. There are a number on the market ranging from $10-$20. I found a post and was pointed to one particular brand. "Works great and no bubbles" was the consensus, so I went with it.


I followed the directions exactly, and this was the result. They said you could remove it carefully and reapply if necessary. "Necessary" was four or five times, and still not a satisfactory result. I decided to live with it, and didn't want to spend anymore time on it. Overtime I reviewed an image or showed one to somebody, I felt a little cringe.

When I bought my D750, I definitely wasn't going to buy the same product. I went onto Amazon, spent way too much time reading reviews, and made a choice to try GLASS by Expert Shield. The application was simpler. Position on the screen, lock on one side with a piece of tape to get the alignment, then peel off the backing and done. It was that easy and it was perfect.


After a couple of weeks, I got fed up with the screen protector on my D500. Showing images to people was embarrassing. It's kind of like when you see cars with black out windows that are peeling - it does't look good. I went back to Amazon and bought another GLASS by Expert Shield for the other body. It felt good to peel off the bubbled screen and toss it in the trash. It went on as easy as on the D750 and I'm done.

I put one on my Sony RX100 III, which I keep in my purse and takes a beating. The screen looks great. They're $19.95, but it's going to be on your camera for as long as you have it. It works well and is easy to apply and has no detrimental effect on the D500's touchscreen. If you're going for a screen protector, this one does what you want and is easy to apply.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Peak Design SL-2 Review

After buying some new (and heavier) equipment, I really needed to find a system that I could use across the board with all of my photo gear. My much loved and comfortable 12 yo Calumet strap was also looking a little (or a lot) worn and wasn't very quickly interchangeable.

I like having strap that can be used as a shoulder sling, or as a neck strap. Many people recommended the Black Rapid and Peak Design systems. I looked into the former first. What I didn't like about the Black Rapid systems, was that they connect only to one point. I could probably figure out a way to add a second fastening point, but that would take away some of their sliding and adjusting capability. If a lens has a tripod collar with more than one mounting hole, it doesn't seem like a good idea to use just one for all of the stress of the connection.


So I looked into Peak Design. I like that they're a local San Francisco company. Initially, I was apprehensive about the "Anchor Link" system. They state that they're good for 200 lbs. (they're made of Dyneema cord) but they didn't instantly inspire confidence in me. However, they've been revised with a color coded method of showing wear and when they should be replaced, so I felt a little better about them. I've gotten over my worries, especially since I'm doing an unintentional inspection overtime I hook them onto a strap. They're also unobtrusive so they don't get in the way when not connected to a strap. Attaching them is easy and they run about $20 for four (SL-2 strap includes four plus mounting plates - read on).

After looping them to the strap hooks on one of my bodies, I pul the strap out of the box and find what I think to be a manufacturing defect. The  grip "stuff" appears to be on the outside of the strap. With the orientation of the adjustment buckles, it looked that way to me. I wrote to Peak Design asking them about this and included a photo. They got back to me quickly stating that this is how they were designed.


Peak Design SL-2 strap
"... the Slide was designed with the main feature being it gives maximum camera movement as a sling or neck strap. The grip on the outside is there too give you the option to have less movement."

OK, so I guess I can live with that. I tried turning the strap over to use the grip side, but one of the buckles dug into my chest a bit when wearing a t-shirt. Putting it in my bag for the first time, I folded it too tightly and put a kink in the middle of the strap where the padding is. The function isn't effected at all. It's not a deal breaker, but I would've preferred to have some kind of warning not to do that. I play with stuff, I break stuff. I do QA in addition to sales and marketing for the software company I work for. I find things that other people don't seem to notice or care about.
Connected to strap rings

I've had the strap and system for over a month. It works for me. I've attached anchors to both of my bodies, super tele lens strap rings and bought the PROdrive Screws to screw into tripod and collar mounts for when I want to carry. It works well for me, because they attached to straps quickly (no more threading), and are inexpensive  enough to buy for all of my gear.

The SL-2 strap works as a shoulder strap, sling or neck strap. It's made out of what looks like seat belt material (kind of cool) which seems very strong. It comes with 4 anchors and a small Arca-Swiss plate for more mounting options. I like that it doesn't use carabiner clips which could scratch up my equipment and be noisy. I am careful when putting the SL-2 in my camera bag, so the metal buckles don't hit my other gear. I'm going to look into their Clutch and Cuff straps as other options for when I'm on the go.

The system works, has unique features, is expandable, is priced well among with competitive landscape and they respond quickly to support email. They have other products such as their Everyday Messenger, which I think is worth considering if one is in need of it. They've also just launched a new product called the Range Pouch. I applaud the company for moving ahead and providing new products with differentiating features, rather than cranking out a product version that provides nothing new.

Hook it up and go shoot.