Jon Sparks: Blog en-us (C) Jon Sparks (Jon Sparks) Tue, 08 Sep 2015 10:22:00 GMT Tue, 08 Sep 2015 10:22:00 GMT Jon Sparks: Blog 90 120 Better Focus Control with Back-button AF How do you focus? To ask the question more precisely, how do you tell the camera when to focus? Or, in even simpler terms, which button do you use?

I’m sure many people never really think about this. The camera focuses automatically and that’s enough. However, as enthusiasts know, sometimes you want to focus on a subject and then just stay focused on that point. You may even want to focus on a subject and then hold focus while you reframe the image with that subject near the edge of the frame (i.e. outside the area covered by the focus points) – this is called focus lock.


Off centre-subject

At other times you want the camera to keep adjusting focus because you’re dealing with a moving subject; whether it’s moving across the frame, directly towards (or away from) you, or following some more complex trajectory, you want the camera to keep track of it and maintain focus on your chosen subject.

Single and Continuous 

More sophisticated cameras, including DSLRs and the majority of mirrorless cameras, allow you to switch between single-shot and continuous autofocus modes. Single-shot modes work for static subjects – our first scenarios, a couple of paragraphs back. After all, if neither the subject nor the camera move, you only need to focus once. Continuous modes allow the camera to keep adjusting focus to deal with moving subjects.

Nikon (whose cameras I know best) badges these modes AF-S and SF-C respectively. That’s understandable; it probably becomes less clear when you see that the official full names of these modes are Single-servo AF and Continuous-servo AF. Hands up if ‘servo’ means anything at all to you... 

Other camera-makers may use different jargon, but the basic single/continuous distinction still applies. For example, Canon’s equivalents (in most cameras, anyway) are One Shot AF, which is clear enough, and AI Servo AF, which is arguably even more obscure than Nikon’s terminology.

There’s also an auto  option (AF-A, or AI-Focus in Canonspeak), in which the camera decides whether AF-S or AF-C should be employed. If it detects a moving subject it will use continuous AF to track it. However, I’m sure we can all imagine scenarios where there’s movement in the scene but the actual subject we want to capture is stationary. Or we may simply want to make our own decisions about when to use AF-S or AF-C.


‘There’s movement in the scene but the actual subject we want to capture is stationary.’

Normally, you switch between AF-S and AF-C using a separate control. On recent Nikon DSLRs, for instance, you hold the centre of the focus selector switch and turn the command dial (main command dial on cameras with two dials). It’s simpler than it sounds, but it takes practise to be able to do this without taking the camera from your eye, and it isn’t instant.

What if there was a way to switch from single to continuous AF at any time, with no delay, and without looking at any of the controls? Well, there is, and it’s called back-button AF.

Some cameras have a dedicated button on the rear which you can use for this. On Nikons it’s labelled AF-ON, but it’s only found on high-end models like the Df, D810 and D4s. 


Separate AF-ON button on a Nikon Df

However, if like me you use something a bit more ordinary, do not despair. Almost every other Nikon DSLR has a button which you can set up to do the same job. It’s marked AE-L/AF-L. By default, if you hold down this button, both exposure and focus are locked, but you can change its function with a visit to the Custom Setting Menu. The only exceptions are the D3300 and its predecessors, which don’t have a Custom Setting Menu.


AE-L/AF-L button on a Nikon D750


Equivalent to the AE-L/AF-L button, marked with a star, on a Canon EOS 600D

With other models, you need to find the menu item called Assign AE-L/AF-L button, and change the setting there to AF-ON. Having done this, the other step you need to take is to make sure that autofocus is set to Continuous (AF-C). Do this once, and you’ll never need to change the AF mode again, because you’ll be able to shift between AF-S and AF-C at will.

Black magic?

This might sound like black magic, but it isn’t. Changing the function of the AE-L/AF-L button to AF-ON also stops the shutter-release button from activating autofocus. Now, only the AE-L/AF-L button can do this. And, because it has no other function, there’s no confusion. If you press it and then release when the camera focuses, focus then remains set at that distance – it functions as Single-servo AF and focus lock rolled into one. Press the button and keep it pressed, on the other hand, and Continuous AF remains active.

If you have a camera with an AF-ON button, you do have to ‘turn off’ the autofocus function of the shutter-release button; do this by changing the AF activation item in the Custom Setting Menu from Shutter/AF-ON to AF-ON only. Having done this, the AF-ON button then functions in the same way described for the AE-L/AF-L button in the previous paragraph.

No doubt this all sounds complicated. It did to me when I first started experimenting with back-button AF. But once I’d got used to using my right thumb to activate focus rather than my index finger, I soon realised things had actually become simpler. Not only can you switch between single and continuous AF at any instant, you also have no more worries about whether pressing the shutter-release button will cause the camera to refocus if you don’t want it to. 

It took me a few hours to get used to it but soon it became second nature and now I wouldn’t have it any other way. I now set up this option on any camera that I’m using. Try it – give it a fair chance and you may find you never go back.

Mind you, it’s not entirely without pitfalls. It caused a little confusion last week when I lent my D600 to another photographer and next day he emailed to ask if knew that autofocus wasn’t working? I’d forgotten to tell him that pressing the shutter-release button wouldn’t actuate AF. Fortunately, that was quickly resolved. It’s something to remember if you share the camera with someone else – though that could be what User Settings are for. But that’s another story...


Back-button AF lets you jump from Single to Continuous AF instantly

]]> (Jon Sparks) AF Back-button Canon Nikon advice autofocus camera digital discussion focus photography technique Tue, 08 Sep 2015 10:22:22 GMT
Scotland on a Mountain Bike I’ve just got back from a superb week mountain biking in Scotland. Obviously in this blog I’m going to concentrate on photographic aspects but I should start by paying tribute to Tom Hutton who set the whole thing up. Tom is a fellow outdoor writer and photographer and for many years one of his gigs has been as Routes Editor for mbr magazine, so he knows more great trails to ride across more of the UK than almost anyone else. Lately, however, he has been re-inventing himself as a mountain bike guide and the ‘Ultimate Scotland Road Trip’ was planned partly as a way of completing the launch of this new venture.


A couple more credits: as second guide Tom brought along Jay Mulvey from MudTrek Mountain Bike Breaks, another excellent rider and good companion on the trails. And none of it would have been possible without our minibus and driver, Graham Draper of BikeBus Adventures (that’s a Facebook link as the website appears to be currently under reconstruction). Graham is also a skilled rider although it wasn’t possible for him to ride with us every day as drop-off and pick-up points were sometimes widely separated.


And thanks to the rest of the group too: Nik, Paul, Jeroen, Mark, Becky, Fiona and Anne. There was a range of skill and fitness levels but everyone was very supportive of each other. And as a photographer I was very glad that I could at least keep pace with most people – the whole essence of mountain bike photography is having to get ahead of people to shoot as they ride past, and then chase, catch up and do it all again.


On magazine assignments or commercial shoots, all the riders are effectively there as models and have a job to do. If the photographer needs them to ride a section of trail several times, or needs some people to hold flashguns while someone else rides, that’s part of the deal. They may help with carrying extra bits of kit, too.


In this case, however, seven people had paid to come on this trip as a holiday. That, and the fact that several of the days turned out to be pretty long anyway, meant that I needed, most of the time, to get my shots without disruption or delay to other riders. At most I might leave a snack/lunch stop a few moments ahead of the rest, or ask someone just to hang on a few seconds while I got sorted, but there was very little in the way of actually setting up shots or asking anyone to ‘do that bit again’. 



Kit choices

With the foregoing in mind, I didn’t need to carry a vast amount of gear, and with some big days on the bike I was very glad not to have to. And I really don’t think I missed much by not having a fisheye lens or a 300mm. I’m a believer in keeping it simple anyway; I think when you look at the subject and the setting should speak for themselves. I’m turned off by images where the first  impression you get is ‘oh, look, remote flash’ or ‘monster lens’.


I took two DSLRs with me, but only ever carried one at a time. I had my trusty Nikon D600 – perhaps not the most ‘pro-spec’ of Nikon’s FX (full-frame) cameras but nice and light, with a 24–85mm lens as standard. I also had a D7200, as I was in process of writing an Expanded Guide. This is currently Nikon’s top DX-format camera; I paired it with a Sigma 18–125mm lens. This doesn’t give quite such a wide view as the 24mm on the D600, but there’s over double the reach at the longer end. I also had a couple of extra lenses – a 14mm Sigma and 70–200mm f.4 NIkon. In the end I never toted the Nikon tele on a day out but I did take the 14mm with me a couple of times. Changing lenses is another thing that takes up time but in those majestic Scottish landscapes the wide-angle was really needed at times. I also had some remote flash kit which I used a couple of times.


To carry camera and any additional gizmos, as well as general riding kit, food, drink, etc, I used my LowePro Photo Sport 200 AW, which has a handy side-access compartment for the camera. See photo above (in this case with a Nikon D5300). This pack has been in the LowePro range for years – I’ve had mine at least six. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, would seem to apply here.


As to actual photography, one of the most important aspects of shooting in places you haven't been before is maintaining a kind of continual appraisal of the picture opportunities. This includes having eyes in the back of your head! Clearly on more technical sections of trail the focus has to narrow, but of course technical sections make for interesting riding shots so the appraisal still goes on even if it’s as a background process. 


Anyway, here are just a few of my favourite shots from the trip, with brief thoughts on each.


Becky Nokes on the descent into Glen Tilt, Day 2

Nikon D600, 52mm, ISO 400, 1/400, f/5.6

There wasn't much sun to be seen on the first couple of days but on this long (near enough 50km) and remote ride I thought the misty conditions enhanced the epic feel. What caught my eye here was the way the trail pointed into the valley we were heading for. I stopped and let Becky go ahead and took several shots, but this one, where she's right at the intersection of the lines, stood out. I really like using tiny figures in big landscapes but the placement has to be just right.



Becky Nokes starting the descent to Achnashellach, Day 4

Nikon D600, 52mm, ISO 200, 1/500, f/5.6

This was, by general agreement, a superb descent. For me it was the best of the week and one of the best I’ve ever done – continually pushing the limits of the comfort zone without throwing up too many horrors. But this shot is more about the general feeling and atmosphere than any particular technical difficulty. In terms of photographic technicality, it’s pretty much nailed, with a wideish aperture for shallow depth of field so the background is slightly soft while the rider is pin-sharp. But I think what really makes it is Becky's complete focus on the trail ahead.


Jeroen Hoek on the descent from Bealach na Lice, Day 4; Beinn Damh behind

Nikon D600, 66mm, ISO 200, 1/320, f/11

This is an exception to the general rule that there were no set-up shots. While we were re-assembling the team and having a rest at the bealach, this superb light was calling to me and superfit Dutchman Jeroen was happy to ride down the first section of the descent and back up. It takes some processing in Lightroom to bring out the tones in such contrasty lighting and I may yet have another play with this image.


Paul Collins on the final descent to Torridon, Day 4; Beinn Alligin in the distance

Nikon D600, 46mm, ISO 200, 1/200, f/8

It’s getting well on into the evening here (about 6.30pm) and the descent isn’t done yet. This may not have been quite how Tom planned the day but it certainly played into my hands as far as photos were concerned. The light was just gorgeous. Paul’s green helmet certainly stood out in the shots!



Jeroen Hoek, Lochain Stratha Mhoir, Skye, Day 6

Nikon D7200, 20mm, ISO 200, 1/250, f/8

Our last day didn’t start particularly promisingly, with repeated pushes through peaty hollows breaking up any rhythm in the riding. When Jeroen decided to give his bike an impromptu wash, I saw the chance for a shot that would say something a bit different about the trip and about the nature of riding in wilder parts of Scotland. “This is not a trail centre,” as people said more than once.



Nik Wadge, above Kilmarie, Skye, Day 6

Nikon D7200, 24mm, ISO 200, 1/800, f/7.1

​There isn’t anything particularly remarkable about this shot – nice background, fast shutter-speed to freeze the movement, and so on. One point I would make is that I got fairly low, sitting in the heather – a low viewpoint makes the rider more prominent as they appear against the sky. And it was very helpful of Nik to pop his front wheel up just here!



Nik Wadge, Anne Strafford, Mark Bale, Jay Mulvey, Fiona Vaughan, Jeroen Hoek,
descending to Camasunary, Skye, Day 6

Nikon D7200, 14mm, ISO 200, 1/500, f/8

This view, encompassing the entire Cuillin Ridge as well as Marsco on the far right, certainly wasn’t be missed. If I’d had the D600 as well as the 14mm lens, I might have been able to take it all in in a single shot, but that day I’d chosen to take the D7200 with its tighter crop factor. So I took several shots thinking I might be able to make a merged panorama later – and within a few days of getting home a new release of Lightroom gave me the chance to do that without even loading Photoshop. There are actually three frames in this merge, but all the riders were captured in a single shot.




Tom Hutton, Strath na Creitheach, Skye, Day 6; Bla Bheinn behind

Nikon D7200, 22mm, ISO 200, 1/320, f/6.3

I’m struck by the almost desert-like appearance of this shot – is it Utah maybe? No, it’s the Misty Isle of Skye in rainy Scotland. Technically the shot is straightforward, but I like the way that Tom’s helmet and riding kit match the colour of the sky, while everything else in shot is in a complementary palette.



Becky Nokes, Jeroen Hoek, Mark Bale, Gleann Sligachan, Skye, Day 6; Marsco behind

Nikon D7200, 18mm, ISO 100, 1/250, f/6.3

Just a couple of kilometres from the end, not just of the day but of an awesome week’s riding. I’m not sure why I dropped the ISO to 100 and could perhaps wish I hadn’t. The relatively slow shutter speed means that Becky, nearest the camera, is somewhat motion-blurred. Whether or not it spoils the shot is a matter of taste, I guess. I tend to prefer riders to be sharp unless I’m deliberately going for a panning shot or other impressionistic blur. This was another ‘set-up’ shot, as these three back-tracked and re-rode the visible section of trail while we waited for a couple of stragglers.

]]> (Jon Sparks) Nikon Scotland Skye Torridon camera digital discussion mountain biking photography wild Thu, 30 Apr 2015 17:42:49 GMT
Touch and Go? I’ve just completed the text for the Expanded Guide to the Nikon D5500. This is definitely a first draft; there is still a lot of careful checking to be done. But it's all in the right place and it's turned out at the right length too!

It's a nice camera in many ways and capable of excellent results, but in most respects not radically different from its predecessors. The headline feature on this camera is undoubtedly the introduction of a touch-screen.

This is the first time I've used a DSLR with a touch-screen but I’ve been working intensively with this one for a few weeks and I thought I’d share my initial thoughts about it.

I’ve always been somewhat sceptical about the benefits of touch-screens, at least on cameras which are fundamentally designed to be used at eye-level. Has the D5500 changed my views? Read on...

_D7K2998A flexible screenA flexible screen It’s worth saying at the outset that when I’m working on an Expanded Guide I do all sorts of things with a camera that I generally wouldn’t do in my regular shooting. This is obviously necessary in order to be properly familiar with all the modes and functions. And it isn’t a bad thing for me personally as it does mean that I don’t get totally set in my ways. I do regularly get a fresh perspective on my habitual ways of working and this does occasionally lead to changing the way I do things.

A quick example: I was pretty sceptical about Live View when it first appeared. A DSLR is an eye-level camera, isn’t it? Well, it is, and the viewfinder will always be my first choice for most shooting, but Live View does have an advantage when focusing is super-critical, e.g. shooting with very long lenses or in macro. It’s very accurate and you can zoom in on any part of the image to check focusing even more precisely. My default setting for macro shooting is now tripod + Live View zoom + manual focus. I’d probably have figured that out sooner or later but because working on the Guides obliged me to explore Live View, it happened sooner.

But back to the touch-screen. Let’s look at how it works in four main areas: normal shooting (i.e. using the viewfinder); Live View (and movies); menu navigation; and playback.

_D7K3157_D7K3157 Normal shooting

Again, working on a Guide is not like my regular everyday photography. It involves a lot of playing around with different modes and different settings. And for a lot of this, using the touchscreen probably is significantly quicker than using more traditional methods. For many operations on the D5500 you have to highlight a setting using the multi-selector (most other cameras have an equivalent control), then press OK to activate it. With the touchscreen a simple tap turns two steps into one. Not only is this quicker, this soon feels intuitive too.

However, some of these comparisons would pan out differently on other cameras which have a few more dedicated buttons. In fact, all the SLRs ‘above’ the D5500 in the Nikon range also have a separate control panel on the top-plate and it’s easy to change key settings like image quality, white balance and so on using this: just hold the appropriate button and turn the main command dial (or sometimes the sub-command dial for further options). This is quicker than activating the touchscreen and then making a change in settings – but only once you’re familiar with the location of the buttons. I can see that many photographers new to DSLRs – especially if they’re familiar with other touch devices like a smartphone or tablet – will now never learn where the buttons are, and so will miss out on what can be the quickest way to change many settings.

I also am fairly sure, though I don’t have hard evidence, that using the control panel is less draining on the battery than using the touchscreen. This is probably of no practical significance unless you (a) change settings an awful lot and (b) are on a long trip without a spare battery or chance to recharge. But still...

There’s one area where the touchscreen is clearly much slower – and it’s a pretty basic one. This is in setting aperture or shutter speed. First you have to activate the display then tap on-screen arrows – and each tap only changes the setting by 1/3 Ev. It’s far quicker to use the command dial. On the D5500, which only has one command dial, you have to hold the exposure compensation button and turn the dial to set aperture in manual mode, but it’s still loads quicker.

What's more, you can change shutter speed and aperture without taking the camera from your eye as they are shown in the viewfinder. This is particularly important if you’re shooting sports or other action. And the same applies to ISO setting, too, which of course is the third point of the ‘exposure triangle’ and really, on a digital camera, should come into play just as much as the other two. On the D5500, you hold the Fn button (assuming you haven’t changed its default function) and turn the dial to do this. You do need to change a Custom setting (b2, since you asked) to get ISO shown in the finder, but this is a one-time action and honestly it’s a no-brainer. Do it.

In my everyday shooting, I’ll probably never touch most of the settings (Image quality, Picture Control, White Balance, etc) from one end of the day to the other. The things that I do adjust all the time are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The touch-screen is a hindrance for these, so I’ll make little or no use of it in normal shooting.

_D7K3105Tap to adjust any of these optionsTap to adjust any of these options Live View

In Live View, of course, things are a bit different. The screen is already active and you’re using it to frame shots anyway, so there’s much less time lost in transferring your attention to the touch-screen. For most settings, especially the ones you can access quickly by pressing the i button (see footnote), it’s probably quicker to use the touch-screen. It’s still way quicker to use the dial for shutter-speed and aperture, however, and it’s probably a score-draw when it comes to ISO.

But the touch-screen does bring something new to Live View; the ability to tap a point on screen to make the camera focus there. This is much, much quicker than laboriously moving the focus point with the multi-selector and then pressing another button to make the camera focus on it. A big win for the touch-screen here, I’d say.

However, I should add that this only speeds up your half of the focusing process – the bit where you tell the camera where to focus. Actual focusing (the camera’s part of the process) in Live View is still a bit slow and certainly not much good for shooting action. (Surprising that Nikon’s DSLRs aren’t better at this, when the focusing in the Nikon 1 mirrorless cameras is so good).

Personally, when I’m using Live View, I’m also using manual focus much of the time. And what would speed this up is if I could zoom in on the key area with a gesture, or even press the zoom button and then drag a finger to see a different area in the magnified view. Without this, zooming to view a particular area means you have to position the focus point over it first and then use the zoom button. It’s a let-down, and doubly so because you can gesture-zoom in playback (see below).

There’s one other aspect that I haven’t mentioned, which is the ‘touch-shutter’. You have to enable this by tapping an icon on the screen. Once you’ve done this, if you tap a point on the screen the camera will focus there – and when you lift your finger it will take a shot.

I’m really not convinced there’s any advantage to this. Yes, if you’re interacting with the camera solely through the screen, it may seem logical to have this option. But every time you focus on A and then decide you don’t want to take that shot and want to focus on B instead, the camera will take a picture anyway. Of course you can delete the unwanted shot(s) afterwards but still, a function that takes pictures you don’t want is not a very smart function. Needless to say, I quickly disabled the touch shutter and don’t envisage ever using it again.

_D6C1331_D6C1331 Menu navigation

On the face of it, the touch-screen speeds up menu navigation enormously. Instead of scrolling to an item to highlight it, and then pressing OK to accept or move to the next step, you can just tap the item. It cuts the time taken by at least 50% and often much more.

However, the downside for me is that every now and then I tap on the wrong item. You do need to be quite precise as the target areas are quite small (just over 4mm deep). Or maybe it’s just my clumsy fat fingers. And when you do tap in the wrong place it often means having to undo the setting you didn’t mean to change before going back and redoing the one you did.

Still, on balance, it’s a notable improvement. And in one area – text entry – it’s absolutely streets ahead of the older way. I might even use features like Image comment more often now that entering text has become easy, instead of painfully tedious.

_D7K3142_D7K3142 Playback

On the whole I think playback is where the touch-screen really shines. It is natural and easy to swipe left or right to scroll through pictures, and to stretch or pinch to zoom in or out. The improvement is even more noticeable when you hand the camera to someone else who wants to look through your pictures; they’re far more likely to be used to this way of doing things than using the multi-selector.

There’s one blemish, though. You can scroll left or right by touch but you can’t scroll up/down through the different info screens for each image (highlights, histogram, metadata and so on). I use these a lot, especially the histogram, which any serious photographer should refer to regularly. You still have to use the multi-selector for this, and it feels more awkward to do so when you’re switching to it from intuitive gesture-navigation. If Nikon can fix this for future iterations it will be a real benefit.

In general

Of course some of these comments are determined by the specific way Nikon has implemented the touch-screen on the D5500 and some of the shortcomings I’ve mentioned could easily be addressed. Even so, there are clearly some areas where using the touch-screen is easier and faster than other methods and as long as I’m using the D5500 (though it’ll be going back in a few weeks), I’ll happily make use of them, probably more so in Live View than in normal shooting. Nikon’s implementation for Live View does leave a little to be desired, but it undoubtedly speeds up certain operations.

At the same time, I do still have a few reservations. The first is one I’ve already mentioned – that photographers new to DSLRs may get suckered into using the touch-screen for everything, even those areas where it clearly isn’t superior. An SLR is still first and foremost an eye-level camera. You should be able easily to adjust crucial settings without taking the camera away from your eye – and you can.

I also wonder about the durability of the touch-screen, which of course now gets much more hammer than non-touch-enabled screens. After the first day or two playing with the camera, the screen was already seriously in need of cleaning. Nikon doesn’t provide any sort of screen protector but if I were going to keep this camera I’d certainly be looking for one. And as an outdoor photographer, sometimes shooting under time pressure in challenging conditions, I’m a bit concerned about the ruggedness of fold-out screens more generally, too.

As an outdoor photographer I’m also very conscious of how cameras handle when you’re wearing gloves, and clearly touch-screens and gloves don’t play nicely together. (I’m aware there are gloves which claim to work with touch screens but you still lose some of the precision which is definitely needed to use this one). Clearly I’m not going to be pulling off my right glove every time I want to adjust something, so it is important that control through buttons and dials remains available and straightforward. Any camera that only lets you do things through a touch screen is a non-starter for me (one reason why I don’t see the iPhone as a serious full-time camera).

Bottom line

I guess I half-expected to find that a touch-screen on a DSLR was a pointless gimmick. It’s not. It’s genuinely useful and beneficial for some things. But it’s not a panacea and some operations are still best done by other means. 

In future if I have a camera with a touch-screen in my hands I’ll use it for the tasks it’s good at. But the presence or absence of a touch-screen is going to be fairly low on my list of priorities next time I go looking to buy a camera for myself. I like it more than I expected to but I can still live without it.


Footnote: Settings you can access quickly in Live View by pressing the i button:

Image quality, Image size, Bracketing, HDR, Active D-Lighting, White balance, ISO, Set Picture Control, AF mode, AF-area mode, Metering pattern, Flash mode, Flash compensation, Exposure compensation

Out of these, ISO, Flash compensation, and Exposure compensation are more easily accessed by button and dial.

I think Metering pattern is a waste of space here. I never shift out of matrix in normal shooting: for critical exposure assessment I rely on a test shot and looking at the histogram. I’d like to bet that upwards of 95% of owners of a camera like this will use matrix all the time too, or depart from it once in a blue moon. I’d far rather see Release mode on this list. There is a dedicated Release mode button on the D5500, but it’s in a rotten place – a rare fail for Nikon, who usually do a damn good job with their camera ergonomics.

]]> (Jon Sparks) DSLR Live Nikon View camera discussion menu photography settings touch-screen Fri, 06 Mar 2015 08:30:18 GMT
Truth and Consequences I’ve recently had a slight contretemps on a Facebook group. The main lesson is probably to reflect more carefully on whether or not it’s wise to comment at all on other people’s images – but I did, and I had a rush of blood to the head and said I hated ‘this sort of thing’. I immediately added that this was just my personal opinion, and then went on to make some more considered comments.

The person responsible for the image in question proclaimed that whether I like it or not is irrelevant to him –  though this, of course, begs the question of why he bothered to respond at all. He then referred to my ‘cursory dismissal’ of his image. He also used the word ‘art’ in reference to his own work, but let’s not even go there.

I might have been inclined (and might have been wiser) to leave it at that point but the phrase ‘cursory dismissal’ got my back up. My response wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing and I can prove it – as we’ll shortly see. 

I also observed with interest that some people had commented approvingly on the image without, apparently, realising that it was not a straight photograph. You’ll have noticed that I have not referred to the picture in question as a photograph but only as an image. The originator did (though only after being called out) admit that it was a composite of two photos.

Now I don’t have his permission to reproduce it here, and I’m not asking for it, as I don’t want this to become any more personal than it already has. I did, at the start, say I hated ‘this sort of thing’, rather than his photo specifically.

So what ‘sort of thing’ are we talking about anyway? Well, the image in question showed a field of flowers (oilseed rape I think) and a tree, under a deep red sky. There’s no doubt in my mind that the colour of the sky owed much to either a red graduated filter at time of shooting or to some heavy post-processing. If the sky had been that red in reality there would surely have been a distinct shift in the colour of the flowers too. 

So already we have an image that has been altered well beyond what would actually have been visible at the time of shooting. But that’s not all. Floating in that red sky was a huge full moon. 

Now to me it was instantly obvious that this image could never have been created as a straight photograph. There are at least two reasons why it’s impossible; I’ll explain more fully shortly. But let me just go back to that glib accusation of ‘cursory dismissal’. This is not the first time I’ve seen this kind of image. In fact I wrote something about it as far back as 2002, in which I specifically referred to ‘impossible shots created by double exposure, like a telephoto moon hovering over a wide-angle landscape.’ To which I added, ‘These make me almost queasy.’ 13 years later, they still do. (That original piece is reproduced at the end of this blog post).

Of course, that is a personal reaction, and if other people like this sort of thing, that’s fine. At least up to a point... I do genuinely think, after considerable reflection, that there are reasons to be, at least, very wary about this sort of thing. Most of all, we do need to be very clear about what is or isn’t a constructed fantasy image.

Anyway, as I’ve already mentioned, it struck me that some people didn’t seem to realise that the image was a fantasy and that it was both optically and astronomically impossible for it to be a straight photo. So let’s just dissect this a bit. 

Here’s an example. I know it’s very rough and not in any sense convincing. To do a better job I’d need a clearer image of the moon and I’d need to do a much better job of masking around the branches of the tree. But I’m not interested in spending that much time on what would still be a counterfeit image. All I need this image to do is illustrate the two main reasons why nothing like this could ever be seen with the human eye, or captured in a single photograph.

_DSC7101-Edit_DSC7101-Edit First reason: the moon is too big.

Second reason; the moon is in an impossible place.

Just to help explain all this, here are the two original images, un-meddled with.This image was shot on Farleton Fell in Cumbria, a favourite spot of mine, late in the afternoon of 23 November 2007, using a Nikon D2x. The focal length was 18mm – equivalent to 27mm on 35mm/full-frame: in other words, a moderate wide-angle lens. _DSC7101_DSC7101 The moon image was shot about 20 minutes later, and not very far away, so in one sense the two shots are related. However, there are two crucial differences. _DSC7109_DSC7109 First, it’s taken with a 300mm lens (450mm equivalent). This means that the moon appears almost 17 times larger than it would if I’d shot it with the same focal length as the previous. Second, for this shot I’m looking in a completely different direction.


As far as the size of the moon is concerned, placing an oversize, telephoto, moon into a wide-angle landscape plays havoc with normal perspective. Perspective is a vital element of how we judge scale and distance and make sense of the world. It’s been well understood by scientists and artists at least since the Renaissance, and I would have thought that an intuitive grasp of perspective is established in most people at a very early age.

Of course artists like Escher have played very deliberately with perspective to create visions of impossible structures. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with fantasy images as such – but even fantasy needs some level of internal consistency. 

In fact the moon was once much closer to earth, and it’s still drawing slowly further away at a rate of about 3.8cm a year. This has been measured with great precision, as the Apollo astronauts placed reflectors on the lunar surface and scientists can bounce laser beams off these to determine the distance.

Therefore there was a stage in the very distant past when the moon did look as large as this, though there were no humans around to observe it (let alone cameras) and both moon and earth would then have looked very different. Tidal forces were much more extreme and the length of a day on earth was much shorter.

It is possible to imagine a world with either a much larger moon than our own, or a similar sized one that’s much closer. In fact, to appear as large as this while remaining at the same distance as our own moon is today, the ‘moon’ would have to be around four times the Earth’s diameter. It would be the planet and Earth would be the satellite. But four times the diameter implies 64 times the volume, so even if the planet were much less dense than our own Earth or moon, it would be much more massive. The implications go on and on...


The second reason why the image is impossible is that it places a full moon in roughly the same direction as the (in this case) setting sun. It doesn't matter whether it’s sunset or sunrise as the full moon will always appear in the opposite direction to the sun. You can easily verify this for yourself. A full moon will rise in the east in the late afternoon or early evening, when the sun is sinking in the west. For sunrise/moonset, the same applies but the directions are  reversed – sun east, moon west. The reason for this is very simple; the moon is lit by the sun. When the moon is between us and the sun, the side facing us is in shadow – we call this a new moon. (And on the rare occasions when they line up exactly, we get an eclipse).

The only way that you could see a fully illuminated moon in the same part of the sky as a rising or setting sun would be if we were on a planet in a binary star system. In other words, there would need to be two suns. And even then, if there were such a big and bright moon, wouldn’t it dilute the red glow of the setting second sun? And wouldn’t a moon as bright as that cast shadows of its own?

I hope I’ve done enough to show that images like this are impossible. That is to say, nothing like this will ever be seen on Earth by the naked eye, nor can it ever be captured in a single exposure by any camera. But does it matter?

Well, if such images are clearly recognised as fantasy constructs, maybe not. I enjoy fantasy and I could enjoy the vision of a world with a huge moon, or imagine living in a binary system. But, as I said earlier, even fantasy needs some level of internal consistency. And a 17-times-too-big moon in the skies over a normal landscape raises all sorts of unanswered questions – never mind the second issue of ‘what’s making it shine?’. 

Some people may be able to view such images without asking such questions but I can’t, and I think failing to grasp what’s ‘wrong’ with such images implies a lack of understanding of some fairly basic facts about the world.

Still, most of us would probably say that there’s no harm in fantasy as long as we all know that it’s fantasy. My worry is that if we aren’t clear about the nature of constructed images, we devalue genuine photography. If we can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t, where’s the sense of wonder in a real photo of the Milky Way or the Aurora? 


After The Two Towers:

Fantasy, Reality and Photography 

This was originally written at the end of 2002 and appeared in a long-gone online magazine. I’m repeating it exactly as written, complete with references to other articles that I can’t now trace. At this point I hadn’t acquired my first digital camera (that was in 2004) and was still shooting slide film.


The Two Towers, the second part of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, is currently packing ‘em in at cinemas across the country. Don’t miss it: it’s probably the greatest fantasy movie ever made. It’s also worth seeing simply to admire the seamless blend of conventional film and digital images. The character Gollum is a brilliant creation, but there are also many amazing partly or wholly digital landscapes.

As a fantasy film, pure and simple, it’s a masterpiece. However, we also know that the real footage was shot on location in New Zealand. New Zealand is now Lord of the Rings country, and frenetically selling itself as such. Well, on one level, good luck to it. But there is a problem. The New Zealand Tourist Authority would no doubt like us to think that the landscape we see on the big screen is what we’ll see when we go there. But how, with so much digital content, can we be sure? How, indeed, can we be sure of anything we see?

This has been most discussed in relation to news and documentary images, but it concerns all photographers. The Nature Group of the RPS, for example, in its Nature Photographer’s Code of Practice, states that: ‘a nature photograph should convey the essential truth of what the photographer saw at the time it was taken’. A similar stipulation is built into the rules of the BG Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition.

As a landscape and travel photographer, I have been concerned with these issues for some years. The Two Towers just kept the pot simmering. What really stirred it up was the January issue of In Focus, with the fortunate, if not fortuitous, juxtaposition of two fascinating articles: Niall Benvie’s Seeking Ecological Asylum and Mike Busselle’s Decisions. If you haven’t already read them, one of the beauties of a webzine is that you can do so now. But to summarise, Benvie’s article is a powerful meditation on our relationship with nature and landscape, and what it means to us as photographers. Busselle’s explores some of the possibilities offered by digital imaging.

I’m not a digital Luddite. I’m not concerned whether an image is initially captured on silver halide crystals or on a CCD. Nor do I have a blanket aversion to ‘manipulation’. Mike Busselle’s first two examples illustrate a powerful argument in favour of digital capture: the potential to control local tonal values more subtly and more precisely than would ever be possible with a filter. As Mike says, ‘I’ve always considered the neutral graduate to be one of the most useful filters but, in truth, it offers a fairly crude and limited degree of control...’ And these aren’t the only limitations, as I’m well aware, having recently had a neutral grad snatched from my hands by a strong wind on Helvellyn!

So I’m happy to embrace digital technology, whether in initial capture or later manipulation, as a way of fine-tuning the image: improving shadow detail, removing unwanted colour casts, and of course getting rid of dust and scratches. However, when manipulation alters the actual content of the image, it’s a different matter. I would argue that, just like a nature photograph, ‘a landscape or travel photograph should convey the essential truth of what the photographer saw at the time it was taken’. In the context of a fantasy like The Two Towers the only limit is the human imagination. But in, say, a New Zealand tourist brochure, an image should be - at the very least - a reasonable guide to what one could expect to see at that location. 

This conviction has developed during my own career. Over ten years ago, when digital technology was a lot less familiar, I was commissioned to photograph a local church which, for historical reasons, flies the Stars and Stripes on July 4th each year. On the day the light was good and there were no parked cars in the way, but there wasn’t quite enough wind. Lancaster Tourism asked me if they could blend in a flag shot by another photographer, and I agreed. I hadn’t anticipated that they would tell everyone about this when they launched the resulting greetings card.


This image isn’t really misleading: you might see it just like this on another July 4th. Still, it returned to haunt me a few years later. After some detective work I’d found a spot where I could get a view of Lancaster Castle with the Lakeland fells behind. A ‘window’ in the trees framed the shot perfectly.

This has become my most reproduced shot, appearing on greetings cards, posters, calendars and in magazines and tourist brochures. It has also attracted much comment locally, because most people weren’t familiar with this view. Many have asked me how it was done: some have simply branded it a ‘fake’ - citing the Stars and Stripes image as evidence that I manipulate images.

Having been quietly proud of how I’d found the viewpoint, these comments stung. It felt like an attack on the truth of the image - and, by implication on my own honesty. And it led to a decision. I started putting the following on invoices and delivery notes: Substantive manipulation of these images is not permitted, except in special circumstances and by prior agreement

Castle and FellsCastle and FellsCastle Hill, Lancaster, Lancashire, with Lancaster Castle and Priory Church; Morecambe Bay and Coniston Fells beyond

What I mean by ‘substantive manipulation’ of an image is simply anything that changes the substance: taking out something that was there or adding in something that wasn’t. Tweaking the contrast or colour of an image is a matter of interpretation, at least up to a point,: colouring the Taj Mahal bright green would surely be a substantive change! 

When you make changes like this, or allow someone else to do so, you are no longer just interpreting the scene, you are materially altering it. And when that image is presented, explicitly or implicitly, as a representation of a real place, it becomes a falsehood. Which, if you are in the business of travel or landscape photography, is a serious matter.

Of course parked cars and power-lines can be an irritating distraction. Cars come and go, and sometimes you can ‘lose’ a power-line just by choosing a different viewpoint. But if you can never see a scene without parked cars, that’s the reality. (Maybe the answer is to campaign for more yellow lines.) If there’s no way to see the view without power lines, that too is the reality.

These issues are not new. Manipulation is as old as photography itself. Combination printing, air-brushing and retouching, double-exposures and slide sandwiching have all been used. We’ve all seen impossible shots created by double exposure, like a telephoto moon hovering over a wide-angle landscape. (These make me almost queasy). What is alarming about the digital aspect is the utterly casual way in which images are manipulated without a second thought. But a falsehood is a falsehood, whether or not it’s created digitally. And I think it’s wrong to tell lies.

My resolve on this point was tested again more recently, when a book publisher wanted to ‘remove’ a rock from a potential cover image. However, having declared in the book that none of the images had been manipulated, I really had to stick to my guns. Fortunately we were able to agree on an alternative shot.

What’s the harm? Was that rock really important? Maybe not: I could easily have taken a shot without it, just by moving along the beach a few metres. But as the sun came up on that particular morning, that was the shot I felt I wanted to take.

I can’t say that removing the rock would significantly mislead anyone about the location. But it would mean that the image was no longer the shot that I took. It would no longer be the embodiment of what I saw and what I felt.

What this illustrates is that there’s another side to this debate: it is not solely a simple question of honesty. It also has something to do with what it means to be a photographer. For me, it comes back to why I became a photographer in the first place, why photography still excites me9, why it will never be just a job.

For me, being a photographer is about being there. It’s about the whole experience of a place and the effort to capture an image that says this is what it was like. It’s why the time spent walking around, looking, touching, listening, even smelling, are as important as time spent looking through the viewfinder. And ultimately, photography is about those moments when everything comes together: when the light and the weather conspire to make magic.

Moments. Decisive Moments. ‘Being there’ is not only about place; is is also about time. In the studio you may be able to repeat a shot exactly. In the natural world every moment is unique. Clouds move, the light shifts. Over longer time-scales, streams alter their courses; trees grow and fall. So do mountains, if you wait long enough. 

‘It may seem paradoxical that a still photograph can capture this dynamism - but there’s no doubt that it can, just as it can capture the dynamism of an athlete or gymnast. And the process of landscape photography - the actual doing of it - means tuning in to the dynamism of land, light and weather. It means developing a relationship with the landscape - which is, at least partly, what Niall Benvie discussed last month. It doesn't make it easy, but it does make it endlessly rewarding.

I’m more than happy with anything that helps me to express what I saw and felt. Some forms of manipulation - be they filters, traditional darkroom techniques or Photoshop’s Curves dialog - can help to sharpen that sense of being there. But deleting a rock, or importing a ‘better’ sky from another time or place, destroys it. It negates everything that makes me want to be a landscape photographer.

The problem with manipulation, then, is not just about the literal truth of an image or whether it creates a false picture of reality - though this is in itself a very serious issue. It is also about something of more personal concern to all of us: it is about what it means to be a photographer.

]]> (Jon Sparks) camera composite counterfeit discussion fake image manipulation photography reality truth Tue, 24 Feb 2015 11:05:20 GMT
OS Photofit – not as bad as it was The Ordnance Survey has just launched a competition called OS Photofit. It’s asking photographers to enter images for the covers of its next range of maps – 615 in all, covering Explorer, Landranger and Tour maps.

This has irritated lots of professionals, like me. I’ve licensed images to OS for map covers in the past and been paid for it. You can hardly expect pros to be thrilled when yet another once paying client decides to try and get all the images it needs for free.

However, if you’re an amateur photographer, you might think this isn’t your problem. Seeing your photo on the cover of an OS map sounds quite exciting, doesn’t it? What’s more, if your photo is one of the ones selected, you get a free copy of the map in question and a year's subscription to OS Getamap. The overall winner gets £750 of holiday vouchers and the junior winner gets an iPad mini. And if you don’t win, well, what have you got to lose?

Well, potentially quite a bit, but maybe not so much as you would have if people like me hadn’t kicked up a stink. Overnight, and without much fanfare, they have changed the terms of the competition.

Yesterday Clause 58 read:

"By entering the Competition you grant to OS (and Ordnance Survey Leisure Limited) a non- exclusive, royalty free, worldwide, perpetual licence to ... (b) include your photo in our library of images and use it commercially, including but without limitation in our calendars, electonic wallpaper, on the OS website, and in promotional materials, (and sub-licence its use to others for their personal use accordingly). Subject to Clause 59 below, we will not always publish your name and you waive your moral rights in this respect."

Effectively this would allow them to take any photo that was entered and do whatever they liked with it, including selling it on, and without any obligation to credit the photographer.

Today, I decided I'd do a blog entry about it and went back to the competition website. And look:

Clause 58 now says “By entering the Competition you grant to OS (and Ordnance Survey Leisure Limited), a non- exclusive, royalty free, worldwide, perpetual licence to publish your photo(s) on the OS Photofit website, our corporate website and social media websites (such as Facebook and Twitter), and otherwise use the photo, in connection with this Competition”. In other words, whether your photo ends up as one of the winners or not, they can make widespread use of it as long as it has some link to the competition.

And a new Clause 59 says “In the event that your photo is one of the Competition winners, you further grant to OS and Ordnance Survey Leisure Limited a non-exclusive, royalty free, worldwide and perpetual licence to publish the photo(s) on the cover of any of its paper maps, on the OS website, in promotional materials and otherwise use the photo in connection with the business of OS. If your photo is appearing on one of our map covers, we assume that you will want your name to appear on the map cover to indicate that you are the photographer/copyright owner and by entering the Competition you agree that we can do this."

I wouldn't say this is brilliant even now but it does seem like a significant concession, presumably in response to the very strong social media reaction.

Here's a photo that still won't be appearing on any OS map covers any time soon.

]]> (Jon Sparks) OS Ordnance Photofit Survey competition copyright discussion photography rights Wed, 11 Feb 2015 09:20:46 GMT
Nikon D400 – will it ever happen? Check out any Nikon-related rumour site and you’ll see lots of posts, comments or queries about the possible appearance of a new ‘pro DX’ model. (DX is Nikon’s designation for cameras using the smaller APS size sensor, while FX cameras use a full-frame sensor; see this article for a fuller explanation).


If you look through the list of current Nikon cameras, some things start to stand out. First, Nikon doesn’t automatically withdraw older models when an upgrade or replacement comes along. The Nikon UK website currently lists not only the D7100 but the D7000 and even the D90, which is arguably the direct precursor of the D7000. The D5300, D5200 and D5100 are all there, as are the D3300, D3200 and D3100. With the lower-end models in particular, the product cycle is now little more than 12 months, many of the upgrades from one model to the next are incremental at best, and buying a slightly older model can be one way to get a real bargain. (If you don’t need onboard WiFi, for example, there;’s not a lot to set the D5300 apart from the D5200, apart from £150 or so).


However, one model sits rather forlornly on its own; the D300s. This appeared back in 2009. The ‘s’ suffix seems to imply that it was itself a modest upgrade to the D300 rather than a totally new camera, but that’s a bit misleading. Nikon’s model-numbering policy is opaque at best, but I think it’s fair to say that the difference between, say the D3200 and D3300 is considerably less than between D300 and D300s.


The D300, for instance, could not shoot movies; the D300s could, even if its movie mode looks pretty basic alongside current models like the D750. The D300s also added a second card slot (definitely a must for pro use) and a faster maximum shooting rate. It retained most of the other features including a very high standard of ruggedness and weather-sealing. Its control layout and interface was also very much in line with professional expectations – there are no Scene or Effects modes, for instance, just the four key exposure modes; (P) Program, (A) Aperture-priority, (S) Shutter-priority, and (M) Manual. (For a comparison of the D300s with the D7100, see this article).


Nikon D300s – top of the DX range?

Just look at what else was in Nikon’s range at the time: D3 and D3x, D700, D90, D5000 and D3000. Every one of those models has been upgraded several times. I’ve already mentioned the other DX models. In the FX range, the D3 gave way to the D3s, then the D4 and D4s. The D700 was never upgraded, but we now have D810, D750, D610 and Df, so that we now have more models in the FX family than in DX.


All this activity, and yet the D300s soldiers on, more than five years after launch, albeit now with limited availability. You can still pick one up from Jessops, for example, for £879.


This raises, the question, of course – what is Nikon playing at here? They’ve never said that they won’t produce a new professional DX model (whatever it might be called – we’ll use the tag ‘D400’ from here on), but then again, neither have they ever said that they will. This has kept the rumour sites active for years.


I can’t read the minds of the decision-makers at Nikon, and I don’t have any other kind of insider access, but it does appear that part of Nikon’s strategy is to encourage high-end users, whether enthusiast or pro, to migrate to FX. The DX models don’t just compete with other APS-format DSLRs – which basically means Canon and Pentax – but with other formats, notably mirrorless or compact system cameras (CSCs). The full-frame marketplace may be smaller but it’s also a lot less crowded.


Still, the rumour mill seems to suggest there is substantial latent demand for a professional DX SLR. Nikon may have calculated that this actually represents a very small, but very vocal, group that won’t count for very much in terms of sales. I wonder – because it seems to me that I could definitely be a potential customer for a D400 – but there are some serious provisos.


As regular readers know, I spend a good deal of my time shooting well away from any road, mostly either on foot or on a mountain bike. Naturally, I’m interested in lightening the load on my back whenever possible, but as several previous posts have discussed, I don’t want to compromise on image quality or the ability to capture fast-moving action.

_D3C2435_D3C2435Above Davos, Switzerland – shot on a D300s Shot on a D300s above Davos, Switzerland


In fact, there isn’t necessarily a massive difference between DX and FX in terms of body-weight. I’m currently shooting with a D600 and a D7000, and there’s very little between them in size or weight. Of course the D810, which does have a more rugged spec and better spread of AF points than the D600, is a couple of hundred grams heavier – but what really makes the difference is when you are carrying several lenses.


To cover the larger sensor, lenses for FX cameras need to be larger and heavier than their DX equivalents. You can use DX lenses on an FX camera, but the image needs to be cropped; you can also use FX lenses on a DX body, but there’s a penalty in weight and bulk. And Nikon’s DX lens range is notably lacking in what we could call ‘pro’ lenses – primes, or zooms with a constant, fast, maximum aperture.


Now there are lenses from other makers (e.g. Sigma, Tokina, Tamron), which plug at least some of these gaps, but it might not be a smart move by Nikon to bring out a camera body which encourages users to buy other makers’ lenses.


From my own point of view, most of the lenses I have are full-frame. This is partly because I need to be able to use them with FX cameras; as well as my own D600, FX cameras pass through my hands regularly for Expanded Guide purposes. And even if I had bottomless funds (which I most definitely don’t), I couldn’t assemble two full outfits because there simply is no DX equivalent for some of the lenses I use, like my 70–200mm f/4 or 300m f/4.


Without at least a core range of professional DX lenses, the appeal of a professional DX body is strictly limited. At least to me, and I suspect that’s how many others will see it too. If it saves me 200g over a D810 but I’m still carrying the same lenses, the benefit is much less than if it enables me to carry a different set of lenses and save a kilo or more.


And I also suspect that it’s the cost of introducing such lenses, not that of developing a new camera body, which has deterred Nikon from launching a D400.


I don’t underestimate the cost of developing or tooling up a new camera body, but it’s clear that there is a high degree of modularity, so that the most recent camera, the D750, shares many features with other models in the range; the sensor is similar to that in the D610 while the autofocus module is similar to the D810. It also inherits its onboard WiFi from the D5200. There’s no technical reason why Nikon could not produce a D400 body fairly quickly. But producing the right lenses to give it full system backup would be a longer and more costly task.


In addition, for users who are really concerned about weight and bulk, a D400 would emerge into a much more competitive marketplace than the D300s did five years ago. Mirrorless cameras like the Olympus OM-D series, Fujifilm X-T1 and Sony A7 models all produce excellent image quality. I’ve looked long and hard at some of these, but none of them yet fully measure up to the focusing speed of a good DSLR. Still, this is another factor which chips away at the potential market for a D400.


And there’s another strand which is keeping the rumour mills busy – the prospect that Nikon is working on a mirrorless camera, possibly a full-frame model. This may be another reason why the D400 is on the back-burner, and may never come to the front..

_D3C0447_D3C0447Shot with a D300s near Lenzerheide, Switzerland

Shot on a D300s above Davos, Switzerland

]]> (Jon Sparks) D300s. D400 DSLR DX Nikon SLR camera discussion photography Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:26:29 GMT
Nikon D810 or D750? I promised a while back to give my thoughts on the Nikon D810 and having completed my work on the Expanded Guide I was all set to do so. But then Nikon pulled a fast one (in more than one sense) by releasing the D750. This gave me another bout of intensive work with that camera. In fact there were a couple of jobs where I carried and shot with both of them before the D810 had to go back. 


This is not going to be a detailed review of either camera. There’s dpreview for that – see their thoughts on the D810 and the D750. You can also get a view on their image quality from DxoMark. What follows is simply my personal impressions of both cameras, based on fairly short but intense periods shooting with them.

Image Quality

Quite simply, I have no complaints abut the image quality of either camera. The obvious difference is that the D810 has 50% more megapixels, but that’s of little practical benefit to me most of the time. It doesn’t produce visibly better results in any of my regular outlets, even a magazine double-page spread.

It’s perhaps worth saying that I used images from a range of cameras for my cycling photo exhibition, currently on view at Wheelbase at Staveley in Cumbria (if you want to see it, get there before the end of the year). The prints are 30 x 20 inches, which is pretty big by most standards. The cameras used range from 6 to 24 megapixels and, though you might, on very close inspection, be able to identify the ones from the 6mp camera (Nikon D70), I’d defy anyone to reliably distinguish between those from 12, 16 or 24mp cameras.

Catshaw Greave, Forest of BowlandThe D810 handles extended dynamic range superbly well (this is from a single RAW file) – but the D750 is darn near as good

Catshaw Greave, Forest of Bowland
The D810 handles extended dynamic range superbly well (this is from a single RAW file) – but the D750 is darn near as good



For my work, and for the vast majority of what most photographers do, there’s only one possible advantage in 36 megapixels, and that’s the additional scope to crop images severely. I recognise this but it’s not massively important to me as I always try to frame images in-camera. I’m not doctrinaire about it and will crop when necessary but always prefer the final image to reflect what I saw in the viewfinder.

On the other hand, the difference between 36mp (D810) and 24mp (D750) is very apparent in the extra demands on memory card and hard disk capacity, and in slower processing when working with images in Lightroom. These negatives actually outweigh, for me, the occasional crop-ability benefits of the D810.

It’s also worth saying that the massive resolution of the D810/D810 is wasted unless it’s matched by excellent lenses and impeccable technique. And not all the photography I do allows me to set up a sturdy tripod for every single shot...

_D750071No time to set up a tripod here!Three Peaks cyclo-cross, shooting for Outdoor Fitness magazine near the summit of Ingleborough (and I carried both cameras, a range of lenses, and a flashgun... they aren't THAT heavy!)

No time to set up a tripod here!

Three Peaks cyclo-cross, shooting for Outdoor Fitness magazine near the summit of Ingleborough (and I carried both cameras, a range of lenses, and a flashgun... they aren't THAT heavy!)


On every other measure of image quality, i.e. really important things like dynamic range, there’s little to choose between them and both are excellent.

Build and handling

There’s no doubt that the D810 has a slightly more rugged feel to it, and has a higher level of weather-sealing. This is significant, but when I need to shoot in really foul conditions I have a ThinkTank Hydrophobia ‘rain jacket’ which I’ll use anyway. And the D750 is hardly fragile – it compares well with the D600 and D7000 which I’ve used regularly in all sorts of conditions. The D7000 is four years old now and still going strong.

On the other hand the D750 is noticeably lighter and smaller – in fact, Df apart, it’s Nikon’s lightest full-frame DSLR to date. As a hiking and biking photographer this does count for quite a bit.

The other obvious difference between the two is that the D810 has a fixed screen while the D750’s folds out. I don’t normally use the screen for shooting stills and I don’t shoot a lot of video (though maybe I should do more...), so this is not a massive deal for me, but there are times, mostly when using a tripod, that the folding screen does have its advantages, such as when shooting at very low angles. On the other hand the screen seems more vulnerable to damage and it is just slightly fiddly to make sure it is fully stowed away before moving on. I’d say there are both pros and cons to the folding screen and I’m not sure yet which way the balance tips for me.

_D6C0363-EditFolding screen on the D750

Folding screen on the D750


One other difference is that the D750 has dual SD card slots while the D810 has one SD and one Compact Flash, I know some people feel that CF cards are more professional in some way, but for me it’s just a pain having to deal with two different types. This is a definite plus point for the D750.

In most other respects there’s not too much difference between the two cameras. The control layout is all familiar Nikon stuff and I’ve experienced very few glitches either switching between the two or on going back to the D7000 or D600. When working with the D810 and D750 together I was able to shuffle pretty seamlessly between the two.

In use

When Nikon launched the D750 they made a lot of play about its speed. Its maximum continuous shooting speed is 6.5 fps, well ahead of the D810’s 5fps – itself an improvement on the D800. (For comparison, the D600 manages 5.5 and the D7000 6fps). 

Against this, the D810 has higher buffer capacity so is able to shoot longer continuous bursts. personally I rarely shoot more than 6 or 8 frames in a burst so this is almost immaterial to me, but it might be of importance to some sports shooters. The extra speed of the D750 is of much greater value to me.

I’ve found the autofocus performance of both cameras to be excellent. I tested the D810 shooting high-speed cycle racing in Lancaster city centre and even as night drew on, so that the main light source was street-lighting, it didn’t miss a beat. The D750 also performed brilliantly when shooting the the 3 Peaks cyclo-cross race in heavily overcast conditions.

High speed, low lightThe D810 performed superbly in these demanding lighting conditions

High speed, low light
The D810 performed superbly in these demanding lighting conditions


There is one important difference, however, in that the area covered by the autofocus points is wider in the D810, and this is something that does make a real difference to some of my work. (The D600’s AF point coverage is narrower again, which is one reason why I still use my D70000 quite a bit to shoot action). I noticed this recently when shooting at an indoor climbing wall as I often wanted to focus on a climber’s face or hand that was quite close to the corners of the frame and outwith the focus point coverage.

If there is one factor that would make me choose the D810 in preference to the D750, this would be it.

On balance

But that’s only one factor, and as you can see from the foregoing, there are quite a few reasons for me to prefer the D750. It’s lighter and more compact, it’s faster, the folding screen is occasionally useful, and it uses the same type of card for both slots. The smaller file size also speeds up my workflow on desk days.

Does that mean I’m rushing out to buy one? Not yet. It doesn’t really do anything that I can’t already do with my D600 and D7000. It does a few things slightly better, but on a finite budget I need to balance that against alternative spending options like new lenses...

And besides, I have a feeling (and judging by the rumour mill, I’m not alone) that Nikon is about to reveal something interesting in the DX department, though whether it’s a modest upgrade to the D7100, i.e. a D7200, or something more dramatic, perhaps even the long-awaited ‘pr0 DX’ replacement for the D300/D300s, remains to be seen. 

Anyway, the D810 has gone back and I have managed just fine without it. The D750, too, will go back when I’ve finished dealing with editorial queries on the book, and I suspect I will miss it only slightly. I’m sure there’ll come a time, before too long, when I can convincingly say ‘I need a new camera’ rather than just ‘I want a new camera’, but I’m not there yet.

Which is not to say that the D750 and D810 aren’t excellent cameras. They are. If money were no object I might even have both.


_D810092HoverflyNaturally the D810 is great at recording fine detail, like the lenses of the compound eyes...


As you’d expect, the D810 is great at recording fine detail, like the lenses of the compound eyes...


_D751163Dalton Crags,,, but the D750 also does an excellent job on finely detailed subjects. 24 megapixels is still a lot!

Dalton Crags

...but the D750 also does an excellent job on finely detailed subjects. 24 megapixels is still a lot!


_D751270Fireworks and Pendolino, LancasterThe D750 did a great job on this shoot too, capturing images with very little noise even on long exposures (this one is 57 seconds).

Fireworks and Pendolino, Lancaster
The D750 did a great job on this shoot too, capturing images with very little noise even on long exposures (this one is 57 seconds).

]]> (Jon Sparks) D750 D810 Nikon camera comparison discussion photography Mon, 17 Nov 2014 14:35:14 GMT
Winning an Award I'm really pleased to have picked up another award from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, at the Annual Dinner held at the National Mountain Centre, Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia, last Saturday (Oct. 25th)
I was Highly Commended in the Feature category (sponsored by Crimson Publishing Ltd) for my Classic Ride piece on the Isle of Man published in Singletrack magazine. The judges commented: “This had a really strong style. The author's personality and humour came through clearly and there was a good balance between the background description and history, and the ride itself. A really good read!” 
Receiving the award from Kevin Freeborn of sponsors Crimson Publishing
What made this award unusual was an element of synchronicity. Earlier in the day I'd organised and led a a workshop on the challenges and opportunities of new media and one of the speakers – without any prompting or collusion from me – mentioned Singletrack as an example of a mag that is doing things right. And then that same evening I learned that I'd been Highly Commended for a feature published in the same magazine. Sweet.
Although the award was specifically for writing, I did illustrate the feature as well, so here are some images from that shoot.
_D7K3023_D7K3023 _D7K3056_D7K3056


]]> (Jon Sparks) Thu, 30 Oct 2014 14:44:46 GMT
Putting Yourself in the Picture _D7K2467_D7K2467

“That’s not a landscape photo.”


“Why not?”


“Because there’s a person in it.”


This is, almost verbatim, an exchange I had with a student on one of my courses a long time ago. Politely, of course, I begged to differ. Partly because I’m not that fussed about whether any particular photo is, or isn’t, a ‘Landscape’ (capital ‘L’ essential, I think) – and partly because I think that the human element often adds meaning to images. It can help to give the viewer a sense of connection or involvement with the landscape, and it often helps give a better sense of scale too. 


For me, there are lots of situations where I want a figure in some of my shots, and I don’t always have anyone else at hand to act as a model. This means that the only option is to become my own model. If the figure is to be static, it isn’t terribly hard to do, but there are still a few things to think about.


So let’s look at Putting Yourself in the Picture (PYITP for short). First of all, you have to have some way of triggering the camera when you aren’t right behind it. 


Trigger happy


The most obvious of these is the self-timer. Most cameras have one of these, though in some cases you might have to ferret around in the menus to find it. This fires the shutter at a set interval after you press the button, giving you time to stroll, or possibly sprint, into the required position. Ten seconds seems to be a standard interval, though some cameras allow you to select longer or shorter times too. The Nikon SLRs which I use have a maximum delay of 20 secs, which allows a lot more flexibility, especially when you want to position yourself a significant distance from the camera.


Another possibility is to use a wireless remote control device. A few cameras even come with one in the box, but usually it’s a separate purchase, though not necessarily an expensive one. I’ve got a Nikon ML-L3, a simple little infrared unit which allows the camera to be triggered from a distance of up to 5 metres. List price is just under £20 and you can get it for less. It works with most Nikon SLRs as well as a number of Coolpix and Nikon 1 models. There are comparable products for most other makes.


That 5-metre range is the most obvious limitation – there are 3rd party units which have a much longer range, but at a higher price. The other concern when using such a device for PYITP is that you don’t necessarily want to appear to be obviously pointing something at the camera. My SLRs have a ‘delayed remote’ mode which means that the shutter trips 2 seconds after pressing the remote button – just long enough to conceal the device and rearrange myself into a more ‘natural’ pose.


The third, and most flexible option, is to use the interval timer. This allows me to set any delay up to 24 hours, and to shoot an almost unlimited number of images (certainly enough to fill up a memory card and drain the battery!) at intervals thereafter. This is way over the top for PYITP, but it does mean, for example, that if I want to be that tiny figure silhouetted on the edge of the crag I can set a suitable delay of 10 minutes, or whatever it takes. Setting the options takes a fraction longer than using the self-timer, but there are times when this level of flexibility makes it the only viable choice. Of course, not every camera has an interval timer – it’s missing from Nikon’s entry-level D3300 DSLR, for example.


In practice, the one that I use most often is the self-timer. On my Nikons (a D7000 and a D600) there’s also the option to fire a sequence of up to 9 shots, at intervals between 0.5 and 3 secs, For instance, if I set a 20 sec delay and 1 sec interval, the camera will take its first shot after 20 secs, the next at 21 secs (1 sec later) and so on up to 29 secs after first pressing the button.



Exactly how I use this depends on the situation and the type of action I’m trying to capture – we’ll look at one or two examples later. But the timing isn’t the only thing that needs to be thought about; for a start, there’s the where as well as the when.


Right time, right place


The ‘where’ aspect is all about the placement, size and visual impact of the figure in the frame. When you have someone else to act as ‘model’ you can judge this easily by eye and through the viewfinder. Unless you’ve worked out how to be in two places at once, you can’t do this when you’re on your own.


This aspect of PYITP can be either challenging or fun, depending on how you embrace it. You have to imagine – or, in a more ‘photographer-y’ word, visualise –where the figure fits into the overall image. Of course you can take a shot and check it on the camera back, but it can be a fairly lengthy process of trail and error unless you can short-cut it with some pre-visualisation.


Experience obviously helps, particularly in developing a sense of how large a figure will appear in the frame when they are at a particular point. Objects of comparable scale, such as walls, gates, signposts, shrubs, can be very useful reference points but they aren’t always there in open settings such as a beach or a mountain ridge. (In fact these are just the settings where a human figure in shot can be particularly powerful in terms of creating a sense of scale).


When you’re using a wide-angle lens, then even quite small shifts in position of the figure can make a big difference to its size and impact in the frame. With longer lenses, a shift of a metre or two may be much less crucial, but you’ll probably have to be farther from the camera to get into the shot at all.


Sometimes there will be obvious landmarks or reference points – scrambling along a mountain ridge, there may be an obvious crest or edge where you’ll be well outlined against the sky or against a distant backdrop. It nearly always pays to identify something, even if it’s just a particular tuft of grass, to aim for once you trip the timer and start scurrying off to get into shot.


When working out where to place yourself, think about the light too –, especially if it’s patchy (e.g. in a forest). One good way to tell if you’re fully illuminated when standing at a certain point is to look at your shadow – is it complete?



Dynamic element


When a static figure is all you need, it all seems relatively straightforward: set the timer, get into position, wait a few seconds (or until you hear the shutter click). Check image on camera-back and if satisfied, move on. When you want an element of action in the shot, it gets harder. In particular, timing becomes much more critical. 


Undoubtedly, this is where it really helps to have a camera, like my Nikons (and many others) that can shoot multiple frames via self-timer or interval timer. It’s still hit and miss and it’s extremely hard to get that perfect ‘peak of the action’ shot, but you can certainly improve the odds in your favour.


Let’s look at a couple of real-life examples. 


I’m currently working on a book of long (average c100km) road bike rides across the north of England. Wherever possible I’m doing these with someone else, and I’ll certainly take any opportunity offered by other riders randomly encountered en route – but I’ve had to do some of them solo and when doing them midweek there often haven’t been many other cyclists around, let alone on the stretches where I want a photo. 


The first problem is that I’m travelling light (I did mention these were 100km rides, often hilly, didn’t I?) So I’m not carrying a tripod, and this means that I’m looking out for anything I can use as a place to set up the camera. In this case I’m on a lane above Lorton in the Lake District (a lovely sneaky was up to Whinlatter Pass, if you’re interested). 


Another aspect I should mention is that I want riders in the photos, whether it’s me or someone else, to be travelling in the same direction as the ride is described. And I don’t want every shot to be a rear view. So the view in this shot isn’t what I saw in front of me as I was riding up the lane. In other words, you need eyes in the back of your head.


So, as the lane climbed and before it swung away to the right, I knew there was a good view behind and there was a continuous stone wall alongside which gave lots of potential places to set up the camera. I balanced the handlebar-bag which I use to carry the camera on top of the wall to give a bit of extra height and fiddled about with it until the overall framing looked right. I like the way the edge of the lane goes almost exactly into the corner of the frame, for example.


I then set the timer to 20 secs, number of frames to 9 and interval to 1 sec. I knew I needed the time to get a decent way down the road, turn round, clip back into the pedals and get under way again. Even so, on the first attempt I went a little too far and so was still quite small in the frame even for shot no 9. So I tried to adjust my pace a bit and the two shots here are nos 7 and 8 from the second attempt. As you can see, even at fairly moderate speed (it’s steeper than it looks), a cyclist can move a fair distance in a second. 

_D7K9299_D7K9299 _D7K9300_D7K9300

I think my ideal would have been somewhere between the two shots. I’d really like the second shot if I was maybe half a meter further away – just far enough to get the whole of my shadow into shot. But there was no guarantee that I would do any better on a third attempt, and I needed to think about time, the distance remaining, and so on. I’d probably only spent 5 or 6 minutes at this location, but 5–6 minutes repeated 5 or 6 times adds half an hour to a trip. And that suggests that another aspect of PYITP is picking your locations carefully, so that each one counts.


Tech details: ISO 200); focal length 18mm on APS-C (27mm equivalent); aperture f/9 and shutter-speed 1/320 sec.


The second example also features me on a bike, but it’s a bit different because this was a magazine commission. There was a very specific requirement, to illustrate some of the major Yorkshire climbs which didn’t feature in this year’s Tour de France – but which will feature in the Hoy 100 sportive in September. (Which, by the way, I’ve just entered!).


I’d already spent some time on Park Rash and then moved on to Fleet Moss – Yorkshire’s highest road, climbing to 589 metres. It clouded over for a while so I actually rode down and back up the whole thing, partly to get a workout and partly by way of reconnaissance, but it was already pretty clear that this hairpin just below the top was a great spot to choose. 


As I had the car with me I had no shortage of gear and could set the camera on a tripod exactly where I wanted – just as well, as there aren’t many alternative camera platforms hereabouts. Fortunately the band of cloud was moving over and I was getting some nice late afternoon light. 


Again I set the timer to 20 secs but because the climb was steep I knew I might need extra time. I wanted to go back down to where it levels out slightly (the bit of road largely hidden by my torso in the picture). I decided that the thing to do was set the interval to the maximum 3 secs and, once I got to the key part and I could hear the shutter, slow right down. It’s not hard to do this as the gradient is around 20%!


Even so, I rode this section five times before I had a shot I was satisfied with – the light was great and, unlike the Lakes shot, my shadow is entirely in frame. The body language is appropriate, too. And obviously it worked, as the magazine used it across a double-page spread.


Tech details: ISO 100 (for maximum dynamic range); focal length 24mm on full-frame; aperture f/11 and shutter-speed 1/100 sec. I didn’t need anything faster as I was going so slowly; if you look at the image at 100% there’s a tiny bit of motion-blur at the top of the front wheel, which doesn’t do any harm at all. Everything else is pin sharp.


Final thoughts


I’ve spent some time working out the finer points of PYITP, especially how it works with the relatively high speeds of cycling. One of these days I want to try it on a mountain bike, where the timing will be all about catching myself riding up or down some significant trail feature or obstacle. I have a plan in mind... but I’ll report back later. Meanwhile, here’s a final, more restful shot – perhaps a more conventional use of the self-timer. And I can recommend the coffee and cakes at House of Meg in Gilsland, Cumbria...



]]> (Jon Sparks) Nikon camera cycling discussion photography self-timer selfie Thu, 31 Jul 2014 17:07:36 GMT
Viewfinder cameras – the latest A couple of interesting cameras to add to the Viewfinder Roundup.

New Nikon

First – a little belatedly, I'm afraid– there's the Nikon Coolpix P7800. I am quite intrigued by this because it in most respects it is identical to the previous Coolpix P7700, to which I wrote an Expanded Guide. The one real difference – and it is of course a big one –is that they have added an electronic viewfinder, and removed the Quick Control dial to make space for it.

I thought the Coolpix P7700 was a decent performer, although – like most compacts and many other cameras – its autofocus is way too slow for serious action shots. I haven't had my hands on a P7800 yet (and there probably won't be a separate Expanded Guide) so I don't know first-hand  how good that EVF is, but it's a very welcome addition to the woefully small number of compacts with a viewfinder of any kind. Lots of pundits are saying that the compact camera sector is being seriously challenged by smartphones, so it seems to me that bringing back viewfinders is one way that camera makers could make their compacts stand out as superior for picture-taking.

New Fuji

This is even more interesting. Fujifilm have just launched their XT-1. It's a nice-looking SLR-style camera with an APS-C sensor. There's a hint of retro in the styling – it is reminiscent of Fujica 35mm SLRs of yore – but it's carried off intelligently rather than slavishly, and avoids the split personality of the Nikon Df (FM2 at the front, D800 at the back). The EVF is reportedly the best yet, with a huge image size and super-fast refresh rate. And the Fuji X-series cameras are already well regarded for their fine image quality.

Sounds like a tempting camera., but if the rationale is to get something lighter than a DSLR, it is worth noting that the XT-1 comes up 10 grams heavier than a Nikon D3300. And in my quest for just such a light and portable system, I'd inclined strongly towards one of the Fuji X series before veering off because the gains in weight and bulk would be minimal – the lenses are excellent performers but not exactly small or light. But that's another story, and I'll return to it soon. 

Meanwhile, here's the table of viewfinder cameras with the Nikon and Fuji models added.


]]> (Jon Sparks) Fujifilm Nikon camera compact digital discussion evaluation new opinion photography viewfinder Tue, 28 Jan 2014 09:56:13 GMT
Where Are They Now? My first real camera was a Zenit E; I then went on to Yashica and Contax before my first Nikon in 1990. Friends had 35mm SLRs from Pentax, Praktica, and Olympus among others. Other brands which were around included Minolta, Ricoh, Mamiya, Miranda, and Konica. If my memory serves, the ‘Big Five’ were Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus and Minolta.

Take a look around now. It’s not just that 35mm SLRs have all but vanished: Nikon still makes the F6 in limited numbers (but I very much doubt there will ever be an F7), Canon is still selling the EOS-1v but probably just because there are still some in the warehouse, and – much to my surprise – it appears Zenit are still making 35mm SLRs, though I haven't seen one for sale in the UK for decades. Even more surprising, so is Vivitar.

What has really struck me, though, is how few companies still make digital SLRs. As far as I can see, it’s down to Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Sigma. Some might count Sony’s ‘SLRs’ as well, though these are actually SLTs. Olympus does still market its E-5 SLR, but it’s absent from many of the major dealers’ listings and I’m dubious as to whether there'll ever be an E-6.

I’m not an industry expert but it’s not hard to think of some reasons why so many companies have ceased trading or exited the SLR market. In no particular order:

1: higher development costs: digital SLRs are packed full of sensors and circuitry whereas traditional 35mm SLRs were much simpler (and contained quite a lot of empty space! So there are simply more components to develop or to source.

2: shorter product cycles: as noted before, the Nikon F3 was produced, with only minor changes, from 1980 to 2001, and the FM2 for almost as long. These days new models in the ‘enthusiast’ category come along virtually on an annual basis and even the pro cameras only last 2–3 years before at least a minor upgrade. 

3: globalisation: nearly all cameras are now made somewhere in East Asia. Hard for European factories to compete in this market.

4: brand consolidation: big fish swallow little fish. 

And being an old cynic, I could say there’s at least one other reason why some of these brands have disappeared or downsized...

5: some of them were crap.

This, of course does not apply to names like Contax, Leica and Topcon... I’ll leave you to work out for yourself which names in the list below it does apply to.

Of course there’s another major factor in play here: the seismic shift from film to digital. 20 years ago almost all of us used film; now almost no-one does. Some manufacturers didn’t see this coming, or didn’t get on board early enough. 

I’ve occasionally claimed, with some justification, that the digital revolution really began with the Nikon D1. For press photographers, in particular, there’s a strong case that this was the first really usable camera – and it bore a comforting resemblance to the F5 35mm SLR. In the following few years, the majority of digital cameras looked either like a 35mm compact or a 35mm SLR, and used many common components like shutters, pentaprisms and mirror assemblies – as well, of course, as using the same lenses.

And we still see one strong legacy effect in the fact that many cameras, including all those Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Sigma and Sony SLRs, have a default image format that has the same 3:2 aspect ratio as a standard 35mm frame. The Four Thirds consortium set out to challenge this and arguably they succeeded. Many would argue that 4:3 is a more pleasing or more ‘natural’ shape for an image than 3:2. Against that, there’s the smaller size of Four Thirds sensors, which is a slight handicap in areas like dynamic range and high ISO image quality.

A few years ago, Olympus offered several Four Thirds SLRs, and Panasonic also made a couple; now there’s just the lonely E-5. But Four Thirds is alive and well, albeit under the slightly different monicker of Micro Four Thirds. Micro Four Thirds uses the same size sensor but in a mirrorless body, relying on an electronic viewfinder and/or rear screen viewing. Olympus’ OM-D models look similar to its classic OM series 35mm SLRs, but they’re mirrorless cameras, not SLRs.

Mirrorless (aka Compact System) cameras are now available in a range of formats:

1” sensor (CX in Nikon jargon): Nikon 1 series, Pentax Q

Micro Four Thirds: Panasonic, Olympus

APS: Fujifilm, Samsung, Sony NEX, Canon (EOS M), Leica

Full-frame: Sony A

That makes the mirrorless marketplace look a bit more crowded than the traditional DSLR one. (BTW it does seem odd using the term ‘traditional’ for a product that has really only been around for 15 years, but of course what sets DSLRs aside from their mirrorless rivals is the mirror and pentaprism, and that technology is considerably more venerable).

However, this is slightly misleading as SLRs are still selling in pretty large numbers – and there may be fewer manufacturers in the market but they tend to have more models on offer. At least that’s true for the big two, Nikon and Canon. Nikon has at least 7 current DSLRs, and that’s without counting variants (e.g. D800/D800E) or older models which remain on sale even though they’ve been supplanted: for example you can still find the D5100 and D5200 on sale alongside the recently-released D5300. Nikon even continues to list the D90 and D300s (and actually, they’re still darn good cameras). Canon lists 11 current models, Pentax 7 and Sigma just 2.

Conclusions? Heck, I think I’m more confused at the end of this review than I was at the start. There may be far fewer brand-names to choose from in the SLR market, but there’s still a genuine choice, and all of them are excellent cameras. As I’ve suggested earlier, you couldn’t say that about every 35mm SLR that was around, say, 30 years ago. And as photographers now we have an even wider genuine choice with the increasing diversity and ever-advancing quality of mirrorless models.


For nerds like me, here’s a list of all the names I can remember or have been able to trace of 35mm SLRs, starting with what we used to call the ‘Big Five’. I’m quite sure this list is neither exhaustive nor definitive, but it gives at least an impression of the number of names that used to be around. I’ve commented where I can.

Nikon – still making SLRs, and a 35mm SLR too!

Canon – still making SLRs, and still selling a 35mm SLR

Olympus – still making cameras, including some of the best mirrorless cameras around, but its last remaining SLR looks like a lame duck

Minolta – pulled out of camera business in 2008, sold its SLR business to Sony

Pentax – still making SLRs

Zenit – yes, apparently they are still making 35mm SLRs, or just selling off massive backlogs of old stock

Praktica – still making cameras, but all fairly low-end digital now

Contax – ceased making cameras in 2005

Yashica – ended up in same stable as Contax and also ceased in 2005

Ricoh – acquired Pentax, increasingly sells all its cameras under the Pentax brand

Mamiya – always more of a medium format specialist, still makes 645 digital and Leaf backs

Miranda – made its last SLR in 1978

Cosina – used to make 35mm SLRs for many other brands as well as some under its own name. Still makes lenses and a few cameras, but not SLRs.

Konica – merged with Minolta (see above) in 2003

Vivitar – still makes (or at least sells) a 35mm SLR, as well as lenses and compact cameras

Voigtlander – made at least one 35mm SLR. Now part of Cosina and brand still used on rangefinder cameras

Leica – better known for rangefinders but made R-series SLRs until 2009. 

Fuji/Fujica – perversely, now uses the name Fujifilm on its digital cameras. The X-Pro and XE models are some of the best mirrorless cameras around. Used to make digital SLRs – I had a less than wonderful experience with the S3.






Zeiss Ikon/Contaflex – forerunners of Contax


Great Wall



]]> (Jon Sparks) 35mm DSLR SLR camera digital discussion film photography single lens reflex Wed, 15 Jan 2014 18:47:01 GMT
Nikon Df Impressions I’m not a camera reviewer by trade and most of the time I leave that to the specialists like dpreview. On the other hand, I do get to work intensively with most of Nikon’s new DSLR launches, plus a few other cameras, mostly for Expanded Guide duty, and sometimes I feel that one of these cameras stands out from the pack sufficiently that I think it’s worth sharing my impressions. This is certainly the case with the Nikon Df.

The Df attracted a lot of comment before it was even officially launched, and I was certainly intrigued as details emerged, not least because it deliberately harks back to classic 35mm SLRs like the FA, F3 and of course the FM2 – which was my first Nikon, more than 20 years ago now (see Why I am a Nikon user for background on how I stumbled into the world of Nikon). I was even interested enough to venture some thoughts before I got my hands on one.


I’m pleased to see that most of my speculative thoughts in that earlier post stack up pretty well but obviously I can put more flesh on the bones now that I’ve been working with the Df for several weeks.

Image Quality 

Let’s start with the vital issue, which I couldn’t pronounce on before, of Image Quality. In a word, it’s superb. One of the qualities I always look at most closely is dynamic range. In theory, the Df – and the D4, which has the same sensor – are some way behind the D800 and D600 – to the tune of around 1Ev (13.1 as against 14.2 or thereabouts according to DXOmark). This may be so, and if I have time before the Df goes back I’ll do some side by side tests, but my impression after using the Df in some pretty demanding lighting conditions (like the cave shot below) is that it has a more natural look in extreme highlights: in theory the D600 can capture more detail but when it does clip it tends to do so more abruptly.


Where the Df really scores, of course, is in its low-light abilities. In DXOmark’s low-light ISO tests it is the best performer bar none – interestingly, it even beats the D4 although supposedly they have the same sensor. I’ve found that I can use my D600 pretty happily up to ISO 3200, when the situation requires it – whether it’s racing at the Manchester velodrome or in street-lighting at our local Christmas Festival. In ‘studio’ tests with the Df I reckon I could probably take it to 6400 without too many qualms.

In fact I’ve been remarkably impressed with its performance up to 25600, though I’d only use it in extreme circumstances. The ISO settings don’t stop there, though: you can take the Df right up to ISO 204800. That’s definitely a last resort, but you can still get remarkably usable images from it with some careful post-processing.

It’s worth remembering, especially as the Df so consciously recalls 35mm SLR design, that the fastest film we could readily get hold of was rated ISO 400. You could ‘push-process’ black-and-white films in particular up to 1600 or 3200 at the outside, but quality suffered in a big way, with grain that was glaringly obvious in, say, a 10 x 8 print, and very limited dynamic range. 

The Camera

Since we’re talking about the days of film, this seems like a good moment to consider the camera's ‘retro’ design. I said in my First Thoughts blog that I liked the look of the Df, but having had it around for a few weeks I think I’ve cooled a bit. A lot of people seem to either love or hate it but I’m sitting on the fence. Viewed simply as an object, it’s nice enough, but not so gorgeous I’d want to put it on a shelf just to gaze at.

And when you view it as a camera, things get more complicated. From the front, it looks a lot like one of those classic 35mm SLRs – here it is next to my trusty old FM2:


However, in rear view it is 100% a digital camera; the layout of the camera back is very reminiscent of the D800 in particular. Well, of course, a digital camera is what it is: which begs the question of what is gained by turning the clock back 20 years or more in major elements of design, especially the controls on the top-plate.

To be honest, I’m slightly conflicted about the control interface. I quite like the external ISO and exposure compensation dials, not least because I can check what the settings are even when the camera is switched off. However, the acid test for any camera, as far as I’m concerned, is how easily you can change shutter-speed, aperture and ISO – the three points of the ‘exposure triangle’ – when the camera is at your eye. How does the Df stack up on this?

ISO. The DF requires you to depress a lock button and turn the dial to change ISO. It’s perfectly possible to do this with the camera at the eye, but to me feels awkward. On my D600, I depress the ISO button, which is easily located as it’s the lowest button on the left side of the camera back, and turn the main command dial, which is right there under my thumb. This is quicker and easier. A clear win for the D600.

Aperture. The Df allows you to use the aperture ring on older lenses, but most of my lenses don’t have one, and even on those which do I’m going to use the same method as on the others. I can see no earthly reason to shuffle between aperture ring and command dial according to which lens is mounted. This is a useful option if you have really old lenses which can’t set aperture electronically, but for me that’s academic.

The Df, like every other Nikon DSLR – including my D600 – allows aperture to be set using the sub-command dial. However, unlike any other Nikon DSLR, the Df’s aperture dial is set vertically rather than horizontally. It’s not a big difference and it’s not hard to get used to, but it does seem to take more effort from the index finger. I can’t really see the point of setting the dial like this, except to make the camera look more 35mm-like. But that’s a case of form driving function, when it should be the other way around. A narrow win for the D600.

Shutter-speed. This is complicated because the Df has two means of setting shutter-speed. On the one hand, you can set it using the top-plate dial, just like a 35mm SLR. The dial has a lock button, which means you can’t change the shutter-speed inadvertently. Fair enough, but this means that to operate the dial you need to move both thumb and index-finger from their normal positions. 

The dial also only allows you to set shutter-speeds  at 1 Ev intervals, e.g. 1/60, 1/125, 1/250. The main command dial offers 1/3 Ev steps, e.g. 1/60, 1/80, 1/100, 1/125. Second, the slowest shutter-speed that can be set with the dial is 4 seconds. There’s a Custom Setting which allows you to use the command dial to nudge the shutter speed up or down by 1/3 or 2/3 Ev, and to set times up to 30 secs when the dial is at the 4 secs position, but if you’re going to do that, why not use the command dial full-time anyway?

Suffice it to say, after a very short time with the camera, the shutter-speed dial went on to the 1/3 STEP position, which allows me to use the main command dial in the same way I do my D600 (and other Nikon DSLRs) – and I’ve barely touched the top-plate dial since.

Since I can use the main command dial in the way I’m used to, I’m calling this one a draw. Still, that’s two wins for the D600 and one tie in what I consider the most crucial aspects of the control interface. I’m not the first to observe that Nikon have spent decades, and employed top designers, to refine the ergonomics of their DSLRs. I’m also not the only one who thinks that in cameras like the D600 they have pretty much nailed it, and that Nikon DSLRs handle better than any others I have used. So why – again, I’m far from the first to ask – would they discard great chunks of that successful formula? 

Performance and handling

I’m afraid my reservations about the handling of the DF don’t end with the ‘exposure triangle’. In particular – and this is my biggest bugbear of all – I really hate the placement of the Live View button. It’s right where I expect the info button to be, and I keep activating Live View when I want to see the information display. This is one aspect where the Df’s rear layout doesn’t match the D800 (or the D600), and I wish it did.

Now, don’t get these reservations out of proportion. Partly they arise because I’m much more used to cameras like the D600. If I used the Df full-time I’d get properly acclimatised to it. None of them make it a bad camera and it still handles better than many other DSLRs I could name. In particular, it beats any camera without a second command dial. It’s just not as quick, easy and intuitive to use as my D600 or D7000. Mostly the differences are marginal, but the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ can add up to something big.

In the end, I think the design of the Df makes perfect sense if you are using AI and pre-AI lenses. If that’s what most people are buying it for, then that’s fine – but I suspect most people will be using it with more modern lenses and it seems to me like a case of quite a small ‘classic lens’ tail wagging a much larger ‘modern lens’ dog.

One limitation I haven’t mentioned is the lack of a movie mode. Personally, I’m quite happy about this. I’m a photographer, not a film-maker (and I do wish the world still recognised that they are two very different skill sets). The Df sets its stall out as a camera for ‘Pure Photography’ and that’s probably the thing I like best about it. But of course if movies are important to you then the Df is a non-starter.

There’s one other ‘missing’ feature which I do find a significant limitation, and this is the lack of a built-in flash. I know, I know, built-in flash is for amateurs – but the D800, which is a professional camera by almost any reckoning, has one. And while built-in flash is essentially useless as a main source of light, in my view is still has two important roles; it can be a useful fill-light, and it can act as the Commander for a wireless setup. If I want to use off-camera flash with the Df, I either have to pack a sync lead, which means the flash can’t be very far off-camera, or I have to drag along my Phottix Odin wireless triggers. They’re great, but it’s more stuff (and more batteries!) to carry, which is not what I want when travelling light.

More neutrally, focusing speed and coverage are on a par with my D600; in fact, they use the same focus module. In this regard, then, the Df is not equal to a D800 or even a D7100, let alone a D4, for critical action shooting. In particular, though its image quality in low light is outstanding, its ability to focus in the same conditions is not. Even so, it’s still pretty damn good. To put it in perspective, it knocks spots off any mirrorless camera, let alone compact or phone. But if I was actually going to fork out over £2.5K for one, I might expect more. 

And there we have one of the big issues about the Df. Price. It’s awkward to make exact comparisons, because in the UK the Df is only supplied with a 50mm lens – and that’s another gripe, because I’ve already got one of those. This means we have to guess at a body-only cost but it would probably be around £2600. That’s almost £500 more than a D800 and £100 more than a D610. 

Some people will no doubt observe that both of these have more megapixels (36 on the D800, 24 on the D610). To me that’s almost immaterial. In fact it’s one of the things I like best about the Df. If it’s good enough for the D4 (and the upcoming D4s)... 16 megapixels is a fine sweet spot. Few of us ever need more and results in low light in particular are great. But those other models handle better and outperform it in all kinds of ways.

So if I was buying now, which camera would I choose? In the end, probably a D610 for light weight (albeit marginally more than the Df), compact size and all-round image quality. For sports shooting the superior AF system on the D800 might swing it. Either way, it wouldn’t be the Df. 

(Even narrowing the search down to full-frame Nikon, my ideal camera doesn’t quite exist. If I could get the size and weight of the D610, the sensor from the D4/Df, and the build quality and just about everything else from the good old D700 – then I’d be in clover. Especially at a D610-ish price).

Final verdict

The Df is a confusing camera. Maybe it’s a confused one. I probably sound like I’m slating it, and I don’t mean to. In its performance, especially image quality – and above all, low-light image quality – it’s a terrific camera. But in design terms, it’s a step sideways, not a step forward, and its handling in particular just feels like too many compromises have been made for no better reason than paying homage to 30-year-old 35mm cameras. I loved my FM2 and I don’t want to part with it. But I haven't shot a frame of film for at least five years. The only way in which the FM2 conceivably scores over today’s cameras is its sheer indestructibility, and perhaps its ability to go on shooting with no battery.

The Df is the right camera for some people. It makes a style statement, and that will be enough for some buyers. If you want better reasons to buy one, its image quality is terrific, especially in low light, and for a full-frame DSLR it is relatively light and compact. But before I got it I thought this might be one of those cameras that’s hard to hand back. Now I don’t think it will be.

]]> (Jon Sparks) Df Nikon camera digital discussion evaluation new opinion photography Thu, 09 Jan 2014 11:09:03 GMT
Bike Night at Kendal Mountain Festival OK, this is a little way from my usual photography posts, but film-making does provide some sort of a link, and there are issues here worth raising, so bear with me.
Last night my partner and I went to the Bike Night at Kendal Mountain Festival. I went along with high expectations but came away feeling slightly underwhelmed overall and with one very real concern.
But to begin with a positive, it was great to see Imaginate with Danny MacAskill on the big screen, and then great to listen to its maker Stu Thompson talking about how it was put together (months of work for a 6-minute film) and how he became a film-maker. 
Probably the other highlights was a short edit on the Trans-Provence enduro event. I guess this was a fairly ad-hoc collection of clips, but well edited. We could certainly have done with more... and as host Ed Oxley said at the end, “doesn’t that make you want to go and ride your bike?” Which when you think about it is a pretty good testimonial for any bike film.
We also had Not Bad from Anthill Films. Anthill are successors to the Collective, who made ROAM, one of my all-time favourite bike films. So it was no surprise to see some stunning riding and beautiful images. And it was fascinating to me because the film (shot around Queenstown in New Zealand) included some trails I’ve ridden, albeit a lot more slowly. But... as Bernie said afterwards... “where’s the narrative”? In the end it was just a case of ‘here’s a trail, here are some dirt jumps, here’s a trail, here are some more dirt jumps’. And in between, “here are some guys messing around a bit”.
And personally, as impressive and even beautiful as it may be, I can quite easily get enough of people riding dirt jumps. I can never quite escape the feeling that films like this end up heavy on the dirt-jumping because it’s logistically a lot easier to film there than on remote back-country trails. So maybe I’m greedy, but I want to see more of people riding beautiful trails in beautiful places and maybe a bit less of the dirt jumps, which always seem like they could be anywhere.
The evening ended with a session devoted to Steve Peat. Peaty, of course, is a legend among mountain bikers, not just for World Championship and multiple World Cup wins, but for putting a lot back into the sport. But I felt a bit let down, because showing an episode of This is Peaty isn't really good enough. For those who don’t know it, it’s rather like a blog, but in video form, following Peat’s racing and other activities through the year.
In social media terms, it works very well, though I’d have to say the Athertons do it better. But this sort of chummy little internet video doesn't necessarily translate well to the big screen. And in the segment shown last night, we actually don't get to see much of Peaty riding. I'm sorry, but all that stuff about Thai boxing and visits to the snake pit has nothing to do with bikes, and I’m not very interested in it. 
Also, sound quality was poor all night, and even on the professionally-shot movies it wasn't always easy to follow dialogue. The This is Peaty segment did not look like it was short professionally, and it certainly didn’t sound like it. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the entire Thailand section, at least, was shot on a DSLR with the built-in mike – it would certainly explain the (lack of) quality in sound. They'd put sub-titles to much of it but a lot of people couldn't see these. This, and the chat between Ed Oxley and Steve Peat which followed, were presumably intended to be the climax of the evening. The chat was fine – entertaining if a bit inconsequential – but the film was a let-down. Maybe it should have been shown at the very start. Or, better still, maybe we should have waited for the film which Clay Porter has been making about Steve Peat. I have little doubt that will be on another level altogether.
The evening leaves me thinking about a couple of issues. One is the place in a film festival of videos that loads of people have already seen on the Internet. This applies to Imaginate, of course, but riding and film-making of that quality really deserves to be seen on the big screen, and of course we then had the extra dimension with Stu Thompson talking about his work. If I’m travelling to Kendal (and a lot of people will have travelled a lot further than we did) and paying £12 for the evening I want to see films that are special. I want to see stuff that makes me want to buy the DVD (as I did after seeing ROAM for the first time). 
But the biggest issue of all is that we sat and watched around two hours of video from a bunch of different film-makers and, apart from a couple of quick, blink-and-you’ve-missed-them, glimpses in Trans-Provence, you could have gone away thinking that women just don't ride mountain bikes. And that really, really, isn’t good enough.
Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so. Kendal is the UK’s biggest mountain festival (these days it’s much more than just a film festival), and one of the biggest in the world. It should be judged by the highest standards. And its avowed mission is “inspire more people to explore, enjoy and represent mountains, wilderness and their cultures.” I don’t want to come away feeling that mountain biking is a cosy little lads’ club where fart jokes are the height of humour, women are on the sidelines if they exist at all, and inspiration is strictly rationed.
]]> (Jon Sparks) Sat, 16 Nov 2013 15:20:14 GMT
Viewfinder roundup – update Back in June I posted my roundup of cameras, other than SLRs, with viewfinders. Read this if you want the broader picture about why I think  a viewfinder is essential, and what the main options are.

Of course the camera market is not static so, nearly six months on, I thought it would be worth updating the list of cameras. I'm pleased to say the list has grown from 31 to 38, suggesting that manufacturers are waking up to the fact that a lot of people still want a viewfinder – something that has been underlined by feedback to my earlier post as well as comments on Facebook. It's also worth mentioning that a lot of these cameras are now priced lower than they were in June, so bargains may be there for the taking.

A few of the new entries are really interesting – Olympus' Stylus 1 and Sony's RX10 are a shot in the arm for the never-quite-convincing (to me) 'bridge' category, and the Sony Alpha 7 and 7R bring full-frame sensors to the compact system sector. These are very new, but reports suggest image quality is right up there with the best SLRs. I don't think I'll be trading in my Nikons just yet, though, as other aspects of performance – such as AF speed – don't quite seem to compete. In many ways the Olympus OM-D E-M1 looks like the most convincing all-round compact system camera so far.

However, having said all that, I reckon the camera most likely to tempt me to splash the cash right now has to be the Fujifilm X-E2; APS-C sensor, stunning image quality, interchangeable lenses, sensible size.

But then again, by the time I've actually saved up for one, who knows what else might be out there? Both Canon and Nikon have cameras in this list, but I can't say any of them really tempt me. We already have a Nikon 1 V1, which is pretty impressive for a pocketable camera – its AF performance beats many SLRs I've tried and image quality is surprisingly good for a small sensor. I suspect – as do many people who are closer to the industry than I am – that both of the Big Two have something up their sleeves.

So watch this space, but here's the list, as current as I can make it right now (mid-November 2013):




Sensor size

Approx Price (with ‘standard’ lens if interchangeable)









Sensor size

Approx Price


Canon PowerShot SX50 HS


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)



Fujifilm FinePix HS50 EXR


1/2" (6.4 x 4.8 mm)



Fujifilm FinePix SL1000


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)



Fujifilm FinePix S8200


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)



Fujifilm X-S1


2/3" (8.8 x 6.6 mm)



Leica V-Lux 4


1/2.33" (6.08 x 4.56 mm)



Nikon Coolpix P520


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)



Olympus Stylus 1


1/1.7" (7.44 x 5.58 mm)


Interesting new entry, with one of the larger sensors in this group

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ72


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)



Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)



Pentax X-5


1/2.33" (6.08 x 4.56 mm)



Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX300


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)



Sony Cyber-shot DSC RX10


1" (13.2 x 8.8mm)


Largest sensor in the group – and highest price













Sensor size

Approx Price


Canon PowerShot A1400


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)



Canon PowerShot G1 X


1.5″ (18.7 x 14 mm)



Canon PowerShot G15


1/1.7" (7.44 x 5.58 mm)



Canon PowerShot G16


1/1.7" (7.44 x 5.58 mm)



Fujifilm X20


2/3" (8.8 x 6.6 mm)



Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1


1/1.7" (7.44 x 5.58 mm)








Compact System







Sensor size

Approx Price


Nikon 1 V1


1″ (13.2 x 8.8 mm)


Limited availability, bargain price: have seen it even cheaper, though may be 'grey' imports

Nikon 1 V2


1″ (13.2 x 8.8 mm)



Olympus OM-D E-M5


Four Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)



Olympus OM-D E-M1


Four Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)



Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5


Four Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)



Panasonic Lumix DMC-G6


Four Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)



Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3


Four Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)



Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7


Four Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)



Samsung NX20


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)



Samsung Galaxy NX


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)


“Android powered” 

Sony Alpha NEX-6


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)



Sony Alpha NEX-7


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)



Sony Alpha 7


Full frame (36 x 24 mm)


Pioneering full-frame compact system cameras, with truly SLR-like image quality

Sony Alpha 7R


Full frame (36 x 24 mm)


Pioneering full-frame compact system cameras, with truly SLR-like image quality






Rangefinder style







Sensor size

Approx Price


Fujifilm X-E2


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)


Interchangeable lenses

Fujifilm X-Pro1


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)


Interchangeable lenses

Fujifilm X100S


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)


Prime lens

Leica M Typ 240


Full frame (36 x 24 mm)


Interchangeable lenses

Leica M-E Typ 220


Full frame (36 x 24 mm)


Interchangeable lenses



]]> (Jon Sparks) Nikon Olympus Sony camera digital discussion evaluation opinion photography viewfinder Thu, 14 Nov 2013 13:33:15 GMT
First thoughts on the Nikon Df 316404_med316404_med

After a plethora of rumours, leaks and enigmatic teaser ads, Nikon has finally announced its new Df digital DSLR. Its retro styling takes me right back to my first Nikon, the FM2, so there’s definitely an attraction there. And with all the attention it’s been attracting, I may well get the chance to do an Expanded Guide, which would mean spending a solid month using the camera... which would certainly give me a chance to decide exactly how I feel about it.
But meanwhile, based on the published images and specifications, here are a few thoughts about this camera. Aesthetically, I like it. The resemblance to 35mm classic like my FM2 is not a bad thing at all. Not that I dislike the current Nikons – I think they’re quite elegant, in fact – but they don’t have the same character. But in the end I don’t buy a camera because it looks nice. What really matters is how it performs and how it handles.
On this score, how does the Df stack up for me?
Things I like:
Light and compact. It’s Nikon’s smallest and lightest full-frame camera. Body weight is 765g, compared to the 810g of the D610 or the 850g of the D600 I’m currently using. 
Solid and weather-sealed body. It looks as if the Df has much of the rugged quality of the legendary FM2 (mine was/is virtually indestructible, and god knows it took some hammering), and also has a high level of weather-sealing.
16mp sensor. Of course, this will divide opinion; there are many who still insist that more pixels must be better. But for me 16mp is enough. It will stretch to a double page spread in a magazine and I hardly ever have need to take images beyond that. And the relatively large photosites mean that image quality holds up fantastically well in low-light/high ISO use. It’s the same sensor as in the D4, which is a benchmark for quality.
No video. Again, this won’t suit everyone but from my point of view, I really only ever shoot video when I’m evaluating the video mode of each camera for its Expanded Guide. As the Df has no video, its Expanded Guide (if we do one) won’t have a video chapter.
Great battery life. Officially 1400 shots on one charge. Sounds pretty good to me!
Button and dial interface. I’m going to hedge my bets a little on this one. I’m very happy using two command dials to set shutter speed and aperture. I’ve had a long time to get used to this and I’m not absolutely sure whether using a traditional shutter-speed dial will feel more awkward or not. The Df's second command dial, which I presume is used to set aperture (at least on modern lenses without a traditional aperture ring), is set vertically and I'm not sure whether it will feel as natural to operate. On the other hand, I really like the idea of going back to a traditional ISO dial, which means I can see at a glance what ISO is set. And it certainly looks as if I can set key parameters easily with the camera at my eye, which is crucial (and why I think touchscreens are a bad idea).
Things I don’t like:
Only one SD card slot. OK, they’re packing a lot into a compact body, but I’ve come to think that two card slots are well-nigh essential. Sometimes I’ll use this to shoot RAW and JPEG to separate cards, and on a few occasions I’ve used a WiFi card in the second slot, sending the JPEGs direct to my iPad so clients can see images right away. But most of the time I use it as backup, and on longer trips this is very important.
Focus system a la D600/610 rather than D4. This might be asking a lot, but while the AF system on the D600 is pretty good, it covers a relatively small area of the frame. As I shoot quite a lot of action, especially cycling, I really appreciate a camera which spreads its AF points over a higher proportion of the image frame. For me this often means either using a Dx-format camera or using the D600 in DX crop mode – which of course loses me the super-wide-angle view I sometimes want. It would have been nice to have the D4’s AF module too. To be fair,  this is probably just not what this camera is intended for, but for me it means it doesn’t add much to the kit I already have.
And finally, the big one: Price. The UK list price for the Df at launch is a fairly whopping £2750. No doubt it will drift downwards over the next year, but even if it drops closer to £2000... However much I may think I want one of these, I am not going to get enough benefit from it to justify spending that sort of money – even if I could afford it. If I want to extend my action shooting capability, I’d be better off looking for a used D4, or even a D3s. For that matter, the D800 has a better AF system than the D600, and still comes out cheaper than the Df. I don’t want or need the D800’s 36 megapixels, but I can live with it.
In fact, when I think of all the other things I could do with that sort of money, the Df rapidly drifts down the list of things I want. 
However, a lot of industry pundits are predicting that it will sell extremely well. I certainly hope so as it means we are far more likely to do an Expanded Guide. I’m sure I’d love using it for a month or so, and at the end of it I’ll either be convinced that I do need one after all or I’ll have got it out of my system for good.
I think my friend and ace mountain bike photographer Seb Rogers nailed it with his Twitter comment speculating on who’ll buy this camera: “Can you say "wealthy amateur"? (there are no wealthy pros)”. Right on all counts!
]]> (Jon Sparks) Df Nikon camera digital discussion evaluation new opinion photography Tue, 05 Nov 2013 09:16:06 GMT
At 'Cross Purposes My blog posts are like buses; you wait ages and then two come along almost together. I’ve got ideas for another one, too, but I’m making no promises. A lot depends on exactly when the Nikon D5300 turns up as I’ll then be throwing myself into work on its Expanded Guide. And then I’ll let you know what I think of the camera…


Meanwhile, following up on my recent post about shooting the time trial at the Tour of Britain, here are a few thoughts about another branch of bike racing – and one that I heartily recommend as a great spectator event and one that any keen action photographer should find rewarding. I’m talking here about cyclocross.

A longish lens enabled me to shoot this section of the course even while I was standing alongside a completely different part of the lap. (Broughton Hall, 2013)
Nikon D600, focal length 120mm (180mm equivalent), ISO 1000, 1/1600 sec, f/4 A longish lens enabled me to shoot this section of the course even while I was standing alongside a completely different part of the lap.
(Broughton Hall, 2013)

Nikon D600, focal length 120mm (180mm equivalent), ISO 1000, 1/1600 sec, f/4


Cyclocross (often abbreviated to ‘cross) may seem a tad obscure. That’s not the case in Belgium or Holland, where it’s hugely popular, and it seems to be big in North America too. Over here I’d bet most people have never seen a cyclocross race either in the flesh or on TV, but there are far more of them than you might think (see a calendar of events here), most are free to spectators and they have a special, friendly atmosphere that isn’t so obvious at, say, a big road-race.


For those who don’t know, ‘cross racing is traditionally what road riders (some of them anyway) do in the winter to stay fit and sharp. As befits a winter sport, races are normally short, rarely more than an hour long and are run off over short circuits, often in local parks or country parks, where you can see much of the action from one spot. Riders start in a bunch but, unlike road-races, they don’t generally stay grouped for long and usually are soon spread out around the course, with back-markers often being lapped by the faster riders. While individual races are short, there may be several races on a single afternoon (e.g. children, juniors, seniors, veterans) and men and women often race together.


It’s all in the expression. At the top of an off-the-bike climb, speeds were low, but it was under trees and light was also on the low side;
I needed a high ISO and noticed that the AF occasionally lost target. (Broughton Hall, 2013)
Nikon D7000, focal length 200mm (300mm equivalent), ISO 1600, 1/200 sec, f/5


Cyclocross bikes look superficially like road bikes, with slightly modified geometry and fatter, knobbly tyres. In local races you may also seem some people competing on mountain bikes. On every lap the rules require there to be some obstacle that forces riders to dismount – usually it’s a couple of low barriers. One of the skills of ‘cross racers is the ability to dismount, hurdle the barriers with the bike and remount as quickly as possible. Steep climbs, especially when muddy, may also force most or all riders off their bikes.


For the photographer this translates into abundant opportunities. By the mid-way point of a race you may have a steady stream of riders passing a given point on the circuit so there are lots of chances to capture individuals. There’s something essentially eccentric about ‘cross racing too – either it brings out the character in people, or it just brings out the ‘characters’. There can be plenty of (mostly harmless) spills and on occasions it can be wonderfully muddy too. Many riders will have two bikes, changing every lap so a helper can clean off one bike while they ride the other one. The pits and the bike-changes can also furnish shooting opportunities.


Out in the open, in better light, faster shutter-speeds were possible, and greater rider speeds made them essential. (Broughton Hall, 2013)
Nikon D7000, focal length 200mm (300mm equivalent), ISO 800, 1/1000 sec, f/7.1


Technically, it may seem easier to shoot ‘cross than road-racing as the speeds are considerably lower – especially on climbs – but set against this the fact that it mostly takes place on winter afternoons and you may often be dealing with considerably lower light levels.


Actually I’ve been pretty lucky with the weather in my experience of shooting cyclocross – so far! I’ve reached the point where I’d actually welcome some wet and muddy conditions next time to add that extra dimension to the shots.


Pretty much a textbook panning shot: a high aperture and low ISO allowed a slow shutter-speed.
Fill-in flash helps keep the rider sharp too. (Broughton Hall, 2012)
Nikon D600, focal length 50mm, ISO 200, 1/50 sec, f/16


So far I’ve shot at three ‘cross events, all part of the Rapha Super Cross series – at Brockhole on the shores of Windermere in 2011 and at Broughton Hall near Skipton in 2012 and 2013 – just last Saturday, in fact. If you’re reading this blog within a few days of posting, the final round of the Rapha 2013 series is at London’s Alexandra Palace next Sunday (27/10/13). But if you’ve missed it, don’t despair; there are plenty more events through the winter. Top events include the National Trophy Series, Regional Championships, and of course the National Championships, which are in Derby on the 11th/12th of January.


I don’t want to get bogged down in photographic technicalities, but there’s a bit of background in the picture captions. A few basic pointers:


1: It’s winter and the light may be poor: take a camera that gives good results even at higher ISO ratings. This usually means an SLR or mirrorless, or a large-sensor compact. 


2: Although speeds are lower than road-racing (or downhill mountain biking) they can still be high in places, and you can be shooting really close to the action. A lot of mirrorless cameras will be challenged by this, and I don’t know any compact that will cope. You can always try pre-focusing – even with my DSLRs I’ve used this technique for some shots. It’s great at fixed points like the barriers and works well for panning shots too.


3: Flash is good to help sharpen up your results, add fill-light in tricky conditions. But built-in flashes are weak and the light isn’t very pretty. A separate flashgun is better and one that you can take off-camera gives you a whole host of extra options. With some SLRs you can trigger and control remote flash using the camera’s own built-in flash. I’ve done this with good results in the past, though I’m now using a Phottix Odin remote flash system.


Using the widest lens I had with me, on a full-frame camera, gave a different view.
A low viewpoint meant the riders stood out against the sky. Fill-in flash. (Broughton Hall, 2012)
Nikon D600, focal length 14mm, ISO 200, 1/800 sec, f/5.6


And general advice – the weather may be challenging, and indeed some of the best photos may come in difficult conditions, but remember to look after both yourself (warm clothes, wellies or hiking boots, waterproofs if necessary) and the camera (some sort of rain protection, spare battery).


Cyclocross is out there – get out too, and enjoy it.



Under the trees, I used a remote flash, off to the right of the shot, to add light and crispness.(Broughton Hall, 2013)
Nikon D600, focal length 85mm, ISO 800, 1/125 sec, f/6.3


_D7K5442_D7K5442 After struggling with AF here, I found it better to prefocus the barrier shots – after all, I knew where I wanted the riders to be when I took the shot. Again I was using remote flash, on a tripod on the right. And again, a low viewpoint helped – who cares about muddy knees? (Broughton Hall, 2013)
Nikon D7000, focal length 31mm (cropped), ISO 250, 1/259 sec, f/9



Something different: the Rapha Super Cross events include a fun race, a feature of which is the ‘Tequila shortcut’. (Broughton Hall, 2013)
Nikon D7000, focal length 175mm (263mm equivalent), ISO 640, 1/500 sec, f/5.6


]]> (Jon Sparks) action bike camera cycling cyclocross discussion photography racing sport Tue, 22 Oct 2013 16:04:53 GMT
Words and Pictures: Complement or Compromise? I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker because originality is just as important for words as it is for images.


I usually style myself 'photographer and writer'. Occasionally I ring the changes and say 'writer and photographer'. It may depend what I've been doing lately or if I'm trying to sell myself in a particular way. 


In any case, it's usually an advantage to have both strings to my bow. Personally, it means there's more variety in my working life. From a business point of view, it gives me more options, and there are a lot of editors and other clients who like being able to get words and pictures in a single package.


However, I do know that there are some editors who would rather not use the same person to deliver words and pictures on the same job. And, much as I want to say, "hey, no, I can do that!", I think they might have a point.


This is not because there's any fundamental reason why the same person can't be a good photographer and a good writer. In fact I can think of quite a few examples to the contrary, like one of my key influences, Galen Rowell. A developed visual sense and a love of language can easily co-exist in the same person, and the rest is acquired skills. Of course it takes time to learn and to hone two different sets of skills, but then I wasn't born yesterday.


In many ways I think writing and photography can not only co-exist but complement and enhance each other. Both require you to pay close attention to what's going on around you. They may be subtly different kinds of attention. A photograph can only directly represent the visual world, whereas a writer may need to take note of sound, smell, taste and touch as well. But actually it's my contention that photographers should use all their senses, that they should feed into your photography too.


Coincidentally, having mentioned Galen Rowell, I came across this quote while I was preparing a talk I gave last week:

“The combination of pictures and words together can be really effective, and I began to realise early in my career that unless I wrote my own words, then my message was diluted.”

But maybe this strength is also where the problem can arise. The problem is not being able to do both; it's being able to do both at the same time. There are times, especially when trying to do a job in limited time, where the two may pose conflicting demands. 


I don't do a lot of what I'd call proper journalism, though I enjoy what I have done and have even won an award or two for it. But it's clear that, to say the least, it's very difficult to interview someone properly and take pictures at the same time. Of course, you don’t have to write down what the interviewee says: you can record their responses, but you still have to pay close attention then and there if you're going to ask the right questions. Fiddling with cameras at the same time is not conducive to this – and it’s probably very annoying for the interviewee too.


Another example, and one where I do have more experience, is guidebook work. Whether it's original writing or checking existing routes, this demands a very close and particular focus on where the route goes and how best to describe it. My most recent job of this kind was in Shropshire. It's a beautiful county but it's a tough place to be a guidebook writer. In my view, mountains are relatively easy. It's farmland that's hard.


When I'm checking walks, I take lots of photos, but 99% of them are just snaps. They're useful as a record of the route, nothing more. This is partly a matter of time; generally, to make the work viable, I want to do two or even three routes in a day. Good photography takes time. Even a relatively straightforward landscape shot usually takes a little time to find precisely the best position to shoot from. Action shots often take longer, as there may be more setting-up to do and then the subject may have to repeat the moves several times.. 

But switching from guidebook writer to photographer also requires a very distinct mental gear change. Interestingly, both are primarily visual, but they require very different ways of looking. In guidebook mode, especially in complicated country like farmland, I'm constantly looking at where the route goes next. Is the next stile visible when you enter the field or do you need some other reference point? Do you turn left, bear left or go half left? What clues are there to help the walker keep track of their position in a complicated sequence of fields, gates, and stiles? “cross a field to a stile; cross another field to a stile; cross a field to a gate; yadda yadda.”… And often (as with the AA books I’ve worked on) you have a strict word-limit so you’re also trying to figure out how to describe all this in the most concise way possible


In this mode, I'll probably miss a lot of potential photos that I'd see at other times. If something is so visually compelling that I can't ignore it, I can make that gear change, but it it doesn't happen that often and it certainly doesn't deliver anything like the same results from a day out as I’d expect to get if I was focused on looking for great images the whole time. And the shots I do get are often the most obvious possibilities, images that many other people would also have got, rather than the unusual or surprising or different angles.


And what about the magazine feature, where I'm trying to record an experience, such as a mountain climb or bike ride, or give a portrait of a destination? Maybe this is the crux of the matter, because this is exactly the sort of job where it's often expected that writer and photographer are one and the same. 


And not every editor expects this just because it’s cheaper that way, and/or they don’t have  the trouble of sourcing photos separately. As one editor said to me just last week, ‘if we use your photos, then we know they genuinely relate to the story’. Your experience, your photos – which is what the Galen Rowell quote implies.


This is true, and it’s a good point, and sometimes – if I were telling the story of a solo adventure, for example – there would be no other way; they would have to be my photos. But here, I think, is the crux. Taking photos changes the experience, in several ways.


For one, if I’m taking photos as well, I need to carry more stuff. I’ve blogged several times about the search for a smaller, lighter camera which can do everything I want, but I’m still convinced that smartphones and compacts do not cut it for serious photography. And while I might save significant weight using something like an Olympus OM-D EM-1, its autofocus performance for action subjects still isn’t up to DSLR standards (as far as I know, no mirrorless camera is). Plus there’s the small matter of the cost of a whole new system (camera, lenses, flash, ideally a spare camera body, and so on). I simply can’t afford it, unless and until it becomes so good I’d be able to sell my Nikons – and I think that point is still several years off.


Secondly, taking photos takes more time. This is important in itself, and for some experiences can be crucial: bike challenges, for instance – more about that shortly. It can be frustrating for any companions too.

Third, taking photos fundamentally changes the nature of the experience. Partly, it means you have to stop far more often, and in different places, than you might do otherwise. On a mountain bike ride, for example, some of the best images are likely to arise right in the middle of the best descents – just where no rider in their right mind is going to want to stop. Not only does it mean I’ve got to break the flow of my own descent to stop for pictures, it can also mean I’m looking out for possible places to stop all the way down. All of which means that when I come to write about the ride, my memory of the descent is not the same as it would be if all I’d had to do was ride it.


Conclusions? I can only say I have no simple rules for when it’s possible for one person to do justice to both words and images and when it’s better to have two people doing the two jobs. It’s not always my decision, but I hope I’d have the integrity to say something if an editor asked me to do both and I didn’t think it was possible.


I’ll wrap up by saying a few words about a recent experience where I was on words duty and someone else was doing the photos. I hope this may shed a little more light. This was a commission for Outdoor Fitness magazine. I’ve done a few photographic jobs for them this year (you can see the results of two of them in Issue 22), but this was the first time I’d stepped across to do something as writer. In fact I’d pitched the story of the Lakeland Monster Miles (100km ‘adventure cross’ ride, half off-road) knowing that I wanted to ride it, but I really didn’t fancy doing it with a heavy camera backpack. And as I was out for six and a half hours anyway, I dread to think how long I might have taken if I’d been trying to photograph it as well – and, given the weather on the day, how wet and cold I might have got! Fortunately, the mag usually commissions separate writers and photographers for features like this and they booked the excellent Henry Iddon to take pictures for the Monster Miles.


Henry and I discussed plans beforehand and again on the morning of the event; the agreement was that he would ride with me in the early stages, get some shots of me on the first serious off-road section, on the lonely moors of the northern Lake District, then leave me to my own devices and continue more slowly, taking shots of other riders along the way. He’d then take a short-cut and meet me again in Whinlatter Forest, near the end, ride in with me and get shots of me finishing and of the aftermath.


For an off-road, or part-off-road, event I think this was as good a plan as could be devised. He was able to photograph me at several points; this did involve some short delays but Henry knows what he’s doing and didn’t keep me hanging around too long. But leaving me to my own devices for the bulk of the ride meant I was able to experience it purely as any other rider would, while he was able to photograph a range of other people, both faster and slower than me, as well as a representative chunk of the route (if you look at the event website, he must have ridden most of the ‘Mini Massif’ route anyway). Of course he wasn’t there to document my entire ride – but then I had the text to do that. 


Which underlines my conclusion (or as near to a conclusion as I’m going to get); words and pictures shouldn’t duplicate each other, they should complement each other. But when  one person has to do both, it’s quite a challenge to make sure they don’t compromise each other.


By the way, the photos accompanying this blog are from New Zealand, where I was doing both words and pictures for a feature for Privateer magazine (tragically, about to publish its last issue). It was a big ask, but I had the rare luxury of having several weeks to devote to one job. Time does make things easier. 
If you're looking for photos of the Lakeland Monster Miles, look out for a future issue of Outdoor Fitness. I'll post an update as well as alerts on Facebook and Twitter when it appears.

]]> (Jon Sparks) Lakeland Monster Miles New Zealand camera discussion mountain biking photography writing Tue, 22 Oct 2013 09:30:55 GMT
Shooting the Tour of Britain _D6C5574_D6C5574Alessandro Bazzana of UnitedHealthcare riding in Stage 3 of the 2013 Tour of Britain, a 16km individual time trial at Knowsley, Merseyside I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: photographing cycling, and specifically bike racing, is pretty challenging. However, for the amateur photographer who relishes the challenge, bike racing has a lot to recommend it. How many other sports, even at the elite level, are completely free to watch and allow you to get within touching distance of the racers? (I shouldn’t need to say this, but though you can get that close, you should give them a bit more space).

Of course, there are many running events which are also free and open – road, cross-country and fell running all included – but, with all due respect, they are a lot slower. The world record time for a marathon (2.03.38) is an average speed of 20.46km/h. There’s no exact equivalent in cycling, but the British competition record for 25 miles (45.54) equals 52.59km/h; that for 50 miles (1.35.27) equals 50.23km/h. We can see a similar pattern across a range of distances: cyclists are around 2 1/2 times faster, with the advantage tending to increase at longer distances.

Throw in a few hills and the picture changes: the steeper it gets, going up, the slimmer the advantage the bike has, but on the way down bikes outstrip runners by a huge margin, with speeds in excess of 100km/h readily attainable in favourable conditions. I’m a pretty ordinary rider, but I’ve been close to that myself.

The point of all this is that the combination of high speed and potentially close shooting distances can be a challenge to both camera and photographer, but also creates the potential for really dynamic and involving images.

And so to the Tour of Britain. As soon as the route for the 2013 race was announced, I knew I wanted to be at Stage 3. First, it was to be an individual time-trial, which meant that the 100-odd riders would be passing one-by-one, and riding flat-out; in a ‘normal’ road-race stage they may whizz past in one compact group in a few seconds. There was an extra frisson because the distance was to be 10 miles (16km); one of the classic distances over which British time-triallists race regularly. I’ve ridden dozens of them myself. And finally, the venue was to be Knowsley, within fairly easy reach. The date went into my diary right away.

_D7K4884_D7K4884Ian Bibby of Madison Genesis riding in Stage 3 of the 2013 Tour of Britain, a 16km individual time trial at Knowsley, Merseyside Picking the spot

I had no commission for this shoot and certainly wasn’t an accredited photographer (the ones you see on the back of motorbikes in the road-race stages). I decided to pick a spot on an open section of the course, where the crowd probably would be light, so I wouldn’t be jostling with other people and would have relatively uncluttered backgrounds for my shots. I checked the course out on Google Street View and picked a point on Knowsley Lane, about a third of the way into the race. As it turned out, the weather on the day was pretty poor, especially for the earlier starters in the race, and this kept the crowds down even more. 

Of course, rain also poses a few extra problems for photographers. I wasn’t too worried about my Nikon cameras and lenses as they have good weather-sealing, but was a bit reluctant to haul out my flashguns as water and high-voltage don’t mix. Fortunately the rain eased off as the day went on (although it never completely stopped, and the roads remained wet) and I had a chance to try out my recently acquired Phottix Odin remote flash system. But we’ll come to that.


I used two main shooting strategies, both tried and tested. The first was using a relatively long lens for some more-or-less head-on shots. For these I used my Nikon D7000 and Nikkor 70–200 f/4 lens, mostly at the 200mm end of its range. The crop factor of the DX format D7000 means this is like using a 300mm lens on a full-frame camera (or a 35mm SLR, if you’re old enough to remember!) and I never really felt the need for anything longer. I left the lens wide open at f/4. Because I wanted to use a high shutter speed and the light wasn’t great, I set the ISO to 800 and this allowed me to use 1/800 or 1/1000 sec. This is fast enough to give a sharp image of a rider heading towards the camera but probably wouldn’t be quite fast enough for a side-on shot. Remember, these guys would be doing 50+ km/hr and passing pretty close.

Focusing is pretty critical with shots like these as depth of field is minimal. A time-honoured technique is to pre-focus on a spot in the road and shoot as the rider reaches it. This would have been slightly tricky on this occasion as the roads were closed and riders could be riding anywhere across the width of the road. I opted for autofocus, partly to give this camera/lens combination a good test. Continuous AF with 3D focus tracking worked pretty well. This image of Peter Hawkins (Team IG Sigma Sport) was actually one of the first I took and ended up as one of my favourites, one reason that he was among the minority of riders not wearing glasses or a visor and therefore his facial expression is that bit clearer.

Peter Hawkins Team IG Sigma SportPeter Hawkins Team IG Sigma SportPeter Hawkins of Team IG Sigma Sport riding in Stage 3 of the 2013 Tour of Britain, a 16km individual time trial at Knowsley, Merseyside I also really like this shot of Christopher Jones of (UnitedHealthcare) – again the facial expression is great and this time the angle is slightly oblique and we’ve ‘lost’ the following car – although there is a lamp-post directly behind him, which detracts slightly. I was concentrating entirely on keeping him in frame and didn’t notice the post at all as I pressed the shutter.

_D7K4941_D7K4941Christopher Jones of UnitedHealthcare riding in Stage 3 of the 2013 Tour of Britain, a 16km individual time trial at Knowsley, Merseyside

Pan flat

For variety, I also took some panning shots. These were all done with my Nikon D600 and Nikkor 24–85mm lens. As I’ve said, riders might be passing almost anywhere within the width the (two-lane) road and 24mm was wide enough to take in a rider on the near side, while 85mm gave a reasonably frame-filling image if they chose to use the opposite gutter. The photo of Marcin Bialoblocki (in blue) was shot at 24mm, while the one of Gerald Ciolek (wearing gold as race leader) is an 85mm shot, uncropped.

_D6C5590_D6C5590Marcin Bialoblocki of Team UK Youth riding in Stage 3 of the 2013 Tour of Britain, a 16km individual time trial at Knowsley, Merseyside _D6C5629_D6C5629Gerald Ciolek of MTN Qhubeka riding in the gold jersey of overall race leader at Stage 3 of the 2013 Tour of Britain, a 16km individual time trial at Knowsley, Merseyside

If you look at the Bialoblocki shot, it’s obvious he was less than three metres from me. In that situation it’s not easy even to keep a rider centred in the frame; the panning movement is really fast. It was much easier with riders like Ciolek on the far side of the road; the extra distance makes the panning movement a more controllable swing. I did switch sides several times but there was no way to predict which side any given rider would choose. This is one aspect that’s generally easier when shooting regular domestic time trials; the roads aren’t closed so riders will always be well to the left.

Flash tracks

Shutter speed for all these shots was either 1/100 or 1/125 sec. I’ve experimented with slower speeds for panning shots as it increases the background blur, but image of the rider is not so consistently sharp.

For the later batches of panning shots  I also used remote flash: a Nikon SB-700 on a tripod at the side of the road. This helps to sharpen the image of the rider as well as adding a bit of lift on such a dull day. As I’ve mentioned, I triggered it using the Phottix Odin system. This is not only a bit cheaper than the better-known Pocket Wizard but seems to be simpler to use. In the past I’ve often triggered remote flash(es) using the camera’s own flash as the master unit, but using a radio trigger increases the range and makes the system more flexible as you don’t have to worry so much about line of sight between camera and remote flash. 

Anyway, on this first ‘for real’ outing, the system worked perfectly. The strength of the flash does vary with distance but working with co-operative riders or in a situation where the line they take is more predictable this would not be a problem. The flash is in evidence in the shot, but I think you can see it more clearly in this shot of Omega Pharma Quick-Step’s Martin Velits. Still, it doesn’t overwhelm the natural light; I’m not keen on shots which shout ‘REMOTE FLASH’ as the first thing you notice.

_D6C5588_D6C5588Martin Velits of Omega Pharma Quick-Step riding in Stage 3 of the 2013 Tour of Britain, a 16km individual time trial at Knowsley, Merseyside

Here's one more shot to finish off – after all, I could hardly fail to include stage winner (and overall race leader as I write this) Bradley Wiggins.

_D7K4964_D7K4964Sir Bradley Wiggins of Sky Procycling riding in Stage 3 of the 2013 Tour of Britain, a 16km individual time trial at Knowsley, Merseyside. Wiggins won the stage in 19–54 to take the overall race lead

]]> (Jon Sparks) Bradley Nikon Wiggins camera cycling discussion flash lens panning photography race time-trial Fri, 20 Sep 2013 12:25:20 GMT
Shooting Fireworks The 1st of July is Canada Day, and apparently the 4th of July is also quite special to some people. This probably explains why I've seen lots of advice circulating about how to photograph fireworks.

I’ve photographed fireworks on many occasions, including open-air concerts and the World Championships as well as the good old Fifth of November, so I'd like to think I know a bit about it.

World Fireworks Championship, Blackpool

Fireworks World Championships, Blackpool; reflections for extra value!


There's some good advice out there, and some that's not so good. For instance there’s a mostly sound piece by Joe McNally for Adorama. He has lots of suggestions that are worth reading – scouting the location, checking that no-one will object to you turning up with a tripod on the big day, taking food and drink and extra clothing. He even suggests taking a comfy chair and an iPod: fireworks photography can be like wildlife photography – a lot of waiting before a short period of intense activity.

However, McNally makes one suggestion that I strongly disagree with. He correctly says that long exposure times can cause digital camera sensors to get hot and this can lead to increased image noise. However, he then suggests that you could turn on Long Exposure Noise Reduction. This is a very bad idea!

Long Exp. NR will lock up the camera for as long as the actual exposure. Shoot for 15 secs and the camera then takes another 15 secs processing the image. In other words, you lose half your shooting time, and with many displays only lasting 10–15 minutes time is precious. Instead, shoot RAW and apply noise reduction in post-processing.

It is true, as McNally says, that more modern cameras are much less susceptible to this kind of noise, and in particular, large-sensor cameras really show their class when tackling long-exposure or high-ISO shooting. Trying to shoot fireworks on an iPhone or an average compact is likely to prove frustrating. However, a large-sensor compact like the Sigma DP-1 Merrill, which I evaluated recently, will give good results, as will most Compact System cameras and DSLRs.

You can also shoot film. Some of the best fireworks shots I’ve ever done were taken on film; if you’ve a choice between a smartphone and the old 35mm SLR in the back of the cupboard, dust off the SLR.

Leighton Fireworks Leighton Hall, Lancashire, shot on film (Fuji Velvia). The light summer evening limited the length of exposure, even on slow film.


After that preamble, here’s my ten-step guide to successful fireworks photography:

1: Prepare

Scout the location in advance if possible. Work out where the fireworks are launching from. For photographic purposes, it’s usually worth being well back, often further away than the main public viewing areas. Try and find a spot with a clear field of view. Bear in mind that strong winds can push fireworks some distance off course so if there’s room for manoeuvre on the night so much the better.

2: Look at the wider scene

Photographs of a burst of fireworks against a black sky may be pretty but ultimately they usually have a fairly high ‘so-what’ factor, with no real sense of scale. Including other elements usually makes the images more real and much more impressive. These can be buildings (especially illuminated ones), or the crowd of spectators, perhaps lit by a bonfire.

3: Use a tripod

There is no way you can shoot fireworks hand-held. Don’t even bother trying. Use a tripod and make sure it’s a good solid one. Be sure, too, that once set up all the movements are firmly locked. Use a cable release or wireless remote, preferably one with a lock, which saves you having to keep your finger on the shutter button throughout long exposures.

4: Lens choice

A big fireworks display can reach heights of 300 – 500 metres; use this to give yourself an indication of what lens to use. Once the display starts there won't be much time to change lenses. A good plan is to use a zoom lens whose widest angle covers the maximum expected extent of the display; if it turns out smaller than expected you can zoom in a bit. But also bear in mind that the biggest/highest bursts may be saved for the end, so leave some margin for error. Better to crop the images later than have half the burst disappearing out of the frame.

5: Turn off flash

Make sure built-in flash is not going to pop up unexpectedly; with some cameras you may need to disable it manually, though usually this does not arise when shooting in Manual. Flash isn’t going to have the slightest effect on the fireworks – it can only ever illuminate things at close range – so all it’s doing is running down your battery and spoiling your night vision.

The only exception to the ‘no flash’ rule is if you want to be really clever and get an image of foreground objects or people with the fireworks in the background, but if it’s your first time shooting fireworks, I’d leave this till later.

6: Set the ISO

In the days of film I had fantastic results shooting on Fuji Velvia (ISO 50). On digital, ISO 100 is a good choice for larger displays. You might try 200 for smaller shows. Turn off any automatic ISO control.

7: Camera preparation

As I’ve already mentioned, turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction.

I would also strongly recommend setting Image Quality to RAW. This gives you the opportunity to apply the right amount of noise reduction later as well as tweaking the exposure and colour balance if necessary.

8: Shooting settings

Set exposure mode to Manual. Onboard metering is highly unlikely to respond accurately to fireworks.

Some cameras have a ‘Fireworks’ mode. Don’t use it. I’ve tried it with a Nikon Coolpix P7700, for example. On this camera, it sets a fixed exposure time of 4 secs, which is just not long enough. Here’s an example of the results, though I’m almost embarrassed to show it.

DSCN1112 Stick with Manual and set shutter speed to B. Some cameras will allow you to manually set 30 secs or occasionally even longer, but I prefer the flexibility of B as I can decide exactly when to close the shutter – basically, between bursts rather than in the middle of one.

It’s harder to give a simple recommendation for aperture. Try f/11 to start with and do a quick review after the first shot. I would also do a few test shots before the display even starts, to give you an idea of the time and aperture which give a good result for the surroundings. Obviously, unlit areas will just go black, so here we are looking at illuminated buildings, the crowd around the bonfire, and so on.

Here's an alternative image from the same display as the one above, but this time the exposure was a useful 34 secs (f/11, ISO 100) rather than a measly 4 secs.


9: Shooting procedure

As the display starts, open the shutter and keep it open until several good bursts of fireworks have happened. As a rough guide, an exposure time of 30–60 secs often works well, but don’t worry about variations – anything between 15–90 secs can work well. A lot depends on the scale of the display and your first exposure will give you a good idea. If the bursts are clear but the colours look washed out, quickly reduce the aperture, e.g. from f/8 – f/11. If the image looks too busy, i.e. there are too many bursts overlapping each other, use a shorter exposure next time.

If possible, avoid closing the shutter in the middle of a burst; it’s much better to end the exposure in a pause. If there’s a pause but you don’t think there’s been enough action, keep the shutter open. If there’s a lot of other light (streetlights etc) around, you might want to cover the lens during these pauses. Hold a black card just in front of the lens without actually touching it; whip it away as soon as the fireworks resume and you can continue to record them on the same frame.

Remember that fireworks displays often start small and build to a climax, so if your first couple of frames have a lot of black sky, don’t be too hasty about zooming in for later shots. The bursts will probably get bigger and brighter. You may also find it a good idea to use shorter exposure times for these later stages.

10: Don’t be greedy

The average fireworks display lasts around 10–15 minutes. If you get 20 decent exposures, you’re doing well. If you get a dozen good shots, even better. Just one really stunning image makes the effort worthwhile.


]]> (Jon Sparks) Sat, 29 Jun 2013 08:39:43 GMT
Viewfinder roundup I’ve posted here before about my low tolerance for cameras without some kind of eye-level viewfinder. I’ve occasionally wondered if it was just me, but when I recently posted something on the same lines on Facebook, I got a strong response, showing that a lot of people are not happy being forced to use the screen.

As a result, I thought it would be interesting, and I hope helpful, to try and pull together a list of cameras which do have viewfinders. This obviously excludes DSLRs, and I’m also excluding ‘medium format’ and ‘large format’ kit, which is expensive and highly specialised.

This leaves me with a list of just 31 cameras, and that’s stretching it a bit; it includes both the Nikon 1 V1, which is probably discontinued (see end of page) and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1, which hasn’t really arrived yet. However, the Nikon is a camera that I use and like, and the Panasonic is one I’ll be very interested in seeing and evaluating as soon as possible.

The cameras are split into four main categories; I’ll discuss each one as I get to it. Before that, however, l’ll just outline the different types of viewfinder.


Optical: Sometimes called a ‘tunnel’ finder, this is essentially a simple window or porthole which shows you approximately the scene the lens will see. They have two big advantages – they’re easy to use in bright sunlight and they don’t drain the battery – and one big drawback: when I used the word ‘approximately’, I wasn’t kidding. Here’s what I wrote in my Expanded Guide to the (now discontinued) Nikon Coolpix P7100:
Unfortunately, it only gives a rough approximation of the final image framing: viewfinder coverage is only about 80%. That’s measured horizontally and vertically, so the viewfinder only shows about 64% of the total picture area. And it isn’t even necessarily the central 64%; shooting a distant scene at 200mm, for example, there’s cut-off at the sides and a lot at the top, but none at the bottom.


Electronic: Like the LCD screen which – all too often – is all that users have, an electronic viewfinder (EVF) shows you the image as seen by the camera’s sensor. This suggests that ‘what you see is what you get’ and most EVFs do indeed show you 100% of the image area (but it’s always worth checking before a purchase). They may also give you a better preview in relation to depth of field, and perhaps other image qualities, than an optical finder and even an SLR. They’re also much more usable in bright sunlight than LCD screens, but they do draw power from the battery.


Hybrid: Unique to Fuji, the hybrid finder lets you switch from an optical to an electronic finder image. It’s well-implemented, too, arguably giving the best of both worlds – but they’re among the most expensive cameras here, apart from the Leicas.


Rangefinder: Always strongly associated with Leica and in this list unique to that brand, rangefinder focusing works by aligning two images of the subject. It takes a little practice but is extremely accurate. The image area is indicated by a bright-line frame within the finder. In other respects it’s an optical finder. It doesn’t drain the battery and is extremely usable in bright sunlight. And the Leica rangefinders are, far and away, the most expensive cameras in this review.


Accessory finders. It’s worth mentioning that you can attach an accessory viewfinder to many cameras not listed here. Some, like the Sigma Merrill DP-1 and DP-2 which I reviewed recently, have optical accessory finders while others, like the Olympus Pen range, are fully-coupled electronic finders. These are welcome but they do add bulk, cost and a bit of faff, none of which are ideal when you’re looking for a simple camera that will slip into your pocket. I’d need a very compelling reason to opt for a camera+accessory finder over one that has a viewfinder built in.


Note on prices: these are based on ‘street’ prices and are as current and accurate as I can make them. For cameras with interchangeable lenses, to aid comparison, the price includes a standard zoom lens. Prices on the Leicas are somewhat more notional but then Leica is one of those brands where ‘if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it’.


Compact cameras

This is a familiar category that hardly needs description. What's striking (I think the word I really want is ‘appalling’) is that out of – literally – hundreds of compact cameras available, I could only find six boasting a viewfinder. It’s reported that the compact category is showing a sharp decline in market share. I’m not saying the lack of viewfinders is a major cause, but having one would be one way to differentiate a compact from a smartphone.

If you’re just looking for a simple, inexpensive compact with a viewfinder, then Canon’s Powershot A1400 seems to be the only option. The other five are all aimed at relatively advanced users. Canon’s G15 has a solid pedigree while the G1X has by far the largest sensor in this group, but having handled it briefly I wasn’t blown away by the build quality and it only has an optical finder. To me, it’s the two EVF cameras that are most interesting. I’d probably go for the Fuji if only because it has a slightly larger sensor, but the Panasonic is very new and I will be interested to see how it fares in reviews. 



Sensor size


Canon PowerShot A1400


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)


Canon PowerShot G1 X


1.5″ (18.7 x 14 mm)


Canon PowerShot G15


1/1.7" (7.44 x 5.58 mm)


Fujifilm X20


2/3" (8.8 x 6.6 mm)


Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1


1/1.7" (7.44 x 5.58 mm)



Bridge cameras

I’ve tended to be rather dismissive of this category – also known as ‘long zoom’ or ‘superzoom’ cameras – but they are numerically the largest group here. I still think the massive zoom range is a marketing tool rather than a feature that’s of great value to most users. 1200mm-plus lenses are impossible to handhold, even with excellent image stabilisation. If you're, say, a birder, you may value the zoom reach, but you'll need a tripod.

These are not pocketable cameras either; some of them approach or exceed SLRs in bulk. The Fujifilm XS-1, for example, weighs 920 grams:  a NIkon D3200 with 18–55mm lens is 150 grams lighter and has a sensor over six times larger by area. Most Compact System cameras are even smaller and lighter, but knock spots off bridge cameras in terms of sensor size and system flexibility. Some bridge cameras are very cheap, but possibly at the expense of build quality.



Sensor size


Canon PowerShot SX50 HS


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)


Fujifilm FinePix HS50 EXR


1/2" (6.4 x 4.8 mm)


Fujifilm FinePix SL1000


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)


Fujifilm FinePix S8500


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)


Fujifilm X-S1


2/3" (8.8 x 6.6 mm)


Leica V-Lux 4


1/2.33" (6.08 x 4.56 mm)


Nikon Coolpix P520


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)


Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ60/FZ62


1/2.33" (6.08 x 4.56 mm)


Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)


Pentax X-5


1/2.33" (6.08 x 4.56 mm)


Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX300


1/2.3" (6.17 x 4.55 mm)



Compact System cameras

Alternative names include ‘mirrorless’ and ‘EVIL’ (electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens); shame that one didn’t stick, as it’s a snappy definition as well as yielding a great acronym. Some look much like compacts with a larger lens, others more like mini-SLRs, but all have the advantages of large sensors: APS-C is the same size as used in the majority of SLRs. The larger sensors don’t necessarily translate into massively larger bodies, but they do mean that lenses have to be larger. 

Unsurprisingly, this is the category that has seen the strongest growth in recent years. All the cameras here have a lot to recommend them; the Nikon 1 series score by being the smallest, the Olympus OM-D as the most professionally specified.



Sensor size


Nikon 1 V1


1″ (13.2 x 8.8 mm)


Nikon 1 V2


1″ (13.2 x 8.8 mm)


Olympus OM-D E-M5


Four Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)


Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5


Four Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)


Panasonic Lumix DMC-G6


Four Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)


Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3


Four Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)


Samsung NX20


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)


Sony Alpha NEX-6


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)


Sony Alpha NEX-7


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)



Rangefinder-style cameras

I suppose I could have listed the Fujifilm X100S, with its fixed prime lens, as a compact, and the X-E1 and X-Pro1 as Compact System cameras; it’s a moot point. These cameras do seem to stand apart by virtue of their traditional styling and – to a greater or lesser extent – the way they embody a traditional approach to photography. The Fujis are beautifully made and to me are some of the most appealing cameras on the market. I can’t afford to even think about the Leicas.



Sensor size


Fujifilm X-E1


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)


Fujifilm X-Pro1


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)


Fujifilm X100S


APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm)


Leica M Typ 240


Full frame (36 x 24 mm)


Leica M-E Typ 220


Full frame (36 x 24 mm)


Leica M9-P


Full frame (36 x 24 mm)



Note: Nikon 1 V1

I’m unclear about the status of this camera as it has disappeared from many dealers’ listings but is still shown on Nikon’s own website. I’ve noticed discontinued kit hanging around on the Nikon site before, but as it has just had a major revamp you would expect it to be up to date.

Whatever the official story, this camera is still available to buy new from some dealers and is now at a knockdown price – it should be possible to get one for under £300. This makes it not just the cheapest Compact System camera in this review, but the cheapest camera of any type other than the very much more basic Canon PowerShot A1400. Looks like a real bargain to me.

]]> (Jon Sparks) EVF camera compact discussion hybrid photography rangefinder system viewfinder Sun, 02 Jun 2013 09:21:41 GMT