My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

More hating on my Nikon

I have been using my Nikon D50 for a couple of weeks now, ever since I killed my Canon Powershot while kayaking. In these last two weeks, I have taken around 1,000 pictures, and I’m finally beginning to figure the Nikon out, not that it is helping all that much.

Let me start by saying that Nikon has always had the reputation of producing superior optics, and I agree with that 100%, the Nikkor lenses are some of the best made. When everything comes together perfectly, the Nikon produces some stunningly clear photos, such as this one.

Mute swan

The problem is that getting a photo with this kind of quality is a rarity, and it shouldn’t be that way. But you can see that optically, the Nikon is a great camera.

When I say optics, I mean the glass in the lenses and camera, and Nikon’s are superior. There is no distortion of any type, not that the eye can see anyway. I am sure that using lab equipment, some one could measure the amount of distortion in this picture, but lab results are nothing, the finished photos are what count.

My Canon would take photos that at first glance seemed to be almost as good, but I could tell that it was because of the way the Canon is programmed to record the information reaching the sensor. The Canon engineers sharpen the images, much like you can do with software once you load your pictures on a computer, in the way the images are recorded digitally.

The Canon’s optics can’t match the Nikon’s, I wouldn’t expect it to. The Canon is a mid-priced compact all in one point and shoot camera, the Nikon is a high-end amateur SLR. But, I could go out with the Canon, shoot 100 pictures, and at least 90 of them would be good enough for me to use in my blog. I take the Nikon out, shoot 100 pictures, and I am lucky if 40 of them are good enough for here. So why the difference? I’m beginning to figure it out.

First of all, the Nikon’s auto-focus system sucks, I’ve said it before, and I’m not going to mince words about it. When I went for my 4th of July hike near Muskegon, the auto-focus would fail to lock on a focus probably 25% of the time when shooting landscape pictures. That was on a day when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, I couldn’t have asked for much better conditions for photography. And by failing to lock on a focus, I don’t mean that it was simply out of focus, but that the lens would cycle through its two attempts to find a focus, fail, and not let me shoot a picture unless I switched to manual focus. Then there were all the times it locked on a focus that was wrong, the shot was way out of focus, but the camera locked on, and told me it was OK to shoot. A camera such as the D50 should not have trouble focusing on a shot like this.

Coast Guard Station at Muskegon

To me, that is unacceptable performance. There are a few leaves in the shot fairly close, but almost everything else in the frame should have been focused at the infinity setting. At first I thought the camera just had trouble focusing on close-ups. Then I thought it had trouble focusing out to infinity, because it wouldn’t focus on a cloud, or in this case, a building in the distance. What I have figured out is that it has trouble focusing on close-ups, has trouble focusing on distant objects, and has trouble focusing on anything in between. The more I use it, the more I am using it as a manual focus camera. maybe it’s just my camera, or just my lens, I don’t know, and it’s too late to send it in under warranty, so I’m stuck with it the way it is. I know that I have to switch to manual focus so often that my left thumb now “knows” exactly where the switch for the focusing mode is.

One thing I noticed when the camera does focus correctly is that as I was getting ready to shoot, I could hear and see the servo for focusing making small adjustments as I was pressing the shutter. I figured out that the depth of field is so small, that any breeze that caused the subject to move, or movement on my part, was enough to cause my pictures to be out of focus. There are two reasons for this.

One is the lens, it has a very narrow depth of field, and there isn’t much I can do about that except to learn to live with it. The only thing I can compare the Nikon camera and lens to is my old Pentax Spotmatic II, which is a film SLR. I don’t recall the depth of field being so narrow with any of the lenses I have for the Pentax, but they’re all fixed length lenses, not a zoom lens like I have for the Nikon. I don’t know if the very narrow depth of field is because of the type of lens I have, or if it is in the way that Nikon designs their Nikkor lenses, but it makes getting the correct focus critical, which isn’t easy when the auto focus doesn’t work very well.

Also making the narrow depth of field problem worse is the way Nikon programmed the exposure control for the D50. It is heavily weighted towards fast shutter speeds, with the lens aperture quite wide open. I have been taking note of the exposure settings the camera has chosen when I shoot in the program mode in order to help me solve the problems I have been having. For example, for some of the landscape shots I took on the 4th of July hike, I was seeing exposure settings like 1/2,500 of a second at F/8. Or, 1/1,600 of a second at F/5.6

Huh?

The fastest shutter speed my old Pentax is capable of shooting at is 1/1,000 of a second for a comparison, and the Nikon was selecting shutter speeds faster than that, while keeping the lens aperture fairly open, no wonder the depth of field is so narrow! That also explains why focus is so critical on the Nikon, as well as other problems I’ll get to in a minute here.

To me, that’s an epic fail on the part of the Nikon engineers when they wrote the software for the exposure control for the D50. Every one who knows anything about photography knows that stopping the lenses down produces better pictures as far as overall quality. Haven’t they ever heard of Ansel Adams and the Group F/64? I think the Nikon engineers should have struck a better balance in the exposure control between shutter speed and lens aperture, going with slightly slower shutter speeds and stopping the lens down a little more. Instead of F/8 at 1/2,500 of a second, the exposure should have been F/16 at 1/1,000 of a second or so.

I know I could switch to the aperture mode and set the F-stop to what I would like it to be, and I may very well end up doing that, but I’ll have to explore some other options first. I like shooting in the program mode for the speed it gives me when I am trying to photograph animals and the like, when taking time to set the camera manually may take too long before the animal runs off.

The other problem I have always had with the Nikon is that it doesn’t do well as far as color rendition and saturation when shooting landscape photos. I think part of that is due to the wide aperture settings the exposure control chooses, but I think there is more to the problem than that. In the landscape photos I have taken, the colors look washed out or faded most of the time, especially the greens from the foliage. The camera does well with other colors, especially reds, oranges, and yellows.

I started playing with the exposure compensation, since my landscape photos looked washed out, I thought that they were over-exposed. By adjusting the exposure down manually, I was able to get better color rendition and saturation of the green of foliage, but then the other colors were out of whack, making the pictures look fake. I also got some really bizarre effects as well, completely unexpected, which I won’t go into here. Anyway, the exposure compensation wasn’t the answer.

Then came my hike at Muskegon on the 4th of July. A nearly perfect day for photography, bright blue skies with out a cloud in sight, low humidity and no haze, I should have gotten excellent photos, but I didn’t. I filled my memory card that day, 375 photos to sort through. One of the reasons I took so many photos is because I have to take two or three of the same thing hoping to get one good one out of the bunch.

There were quite a few of the fireworks, but over 200 of them were landscape photos, and less than half a dozen were really good. I was ticked, and disappointed. Then I did something I have always sworn I would never do, I adjusted many of the landscape pictures digitally on my computer. I felt I had no choice. The greens of the trees and grasses were washed out, as always, and I wanted to post some pictures of the day on my blog of it. I knew the Nikon software had the ability to edit photos, but I had never used it before.

I was looking at one of the photos, wishing the color had come out right, when I decided to see what the color booster included with the Nikon software would do. I clicked it to start it, and found it had a built-in automatic color correction feature for nature photos. Hmmm. I clicked that, and lo and behold, the photo then looked just the way I saw it when I snapped the shutter! The greens of the foliage , the blue sky, and the blue of the lake were now just right! They no longer looked faded and washed out.

So, I tried another, then another, and found that the automatic color correction for nature photos made all the pictures I had been disappointed in look like I wanted them to look. They didn’t look fake or phony, the auto correct did a great job of making the photos look just right.

Okay, so that begs the question of why I have to use the automatic color correction for nature photos in the first place? Apparently, the Nikon engineers know that the camera doesn’t record nature photographs well, and have programmed the auto correct feature to make up for that fact. So, my next question is, why didn’t they just program that into the camera in the first place?

Nikon has to know the weakness of their camera in reproducing landscape photos, or they wouldn’t have gone to the expense of writing an auto-correct feature in their computer software, and if they know there is a weakness, why not re-write the camera software to eliminate it?

I don’t get it.

So what I have is a camera and lens with superb optics, and poor software to go with it. A note to the Nikon engineers, in digital photography, the best optics in the world will produce poor results if your software sucks, and yours does!

The 70-360mm lens that I have has a narrow depth of field that makes focusing correctly more critical than ever, but that wouldn’t be that big of a problem if it weren’t for the way the camera is programmed. The auto focus doesn’t work, it is close to being useless. Then there is the exposure control that compounds the narrow depth of field by prioritizing shutter speed over aperture as far as photo quality is concerned, and to top it all off the camera software washes out the colors found in nature.

I guess I made a very poor choice in cameras and lenses seeing as how 99% of my photos are nature photos.

I am going to go out today and pick up another Canon Powershot, the optics may not be nearly as good as Nikon’s, but at least the engineers at Canon know how to make an auto focus system that actually works, and know how to write software IN the camera to accurately record colors found in nature. And I’ll just note in passing that the Canon is much easier to carry and use while on the go than the Nikon, but that’s due to the type of camera it is.

I am not going to give up on the Nikon though, not this time. I did when I bought my first Powershot, it took such good pictures without any hassles that the Nikon was relegated to back up duties. The superior optics and larger sensor in the Nikon means the potential is there for some truly fantastic photos, but I have to find my way around the software roadblocks the Nikon engineers programmed into the camera. Now that I am getting a handle on those roadblocks, I think I will be able to make the Nikon live up to its potential. Time to read the manual again, right after I get back with my new Canon.

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