D7100 and AF-P DX 70-300 VR on an Airshow

Aero India is a biennial air show that takes place on an airfield on the outskirts of Bangalore. As per Wikipedia, it’s the world’s largest air show after the one in Paris. I first came to know of it when a friend of mine armed with a Nikon D70s and a non-VR 70-300 f/4-5.6 came back with some fabulous shots way back in 2007. Ten years later, I got to visit the show with a Nikon D7100 and an AF-P DX 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G VR.

You might already be aware of the fact that AF-P lenses don’t play nice with older cameras like the D7100. I had the choice of mixing and matching between D7100, D3300 bodies and AF-P 70-300 VR or AF-S 55-300 VR. Having tried out all four combinations, I settled for D7100 and AF-P 70-300 VR. Wondering why? Here’s why:

D7100 vs D3300

First off, let’s talk about why I chose the “incompatible” D7100 body instead of the fully compatible D3300. It’s not about IQ. Both have comparable 24MP sensors and I shot 12-bit on D7100 (more on that later). It’s actually about AF.

D3300 has a 9 point AF system whereas D7100 has 51 points. More than the number of AF points, though, it’s the possibility of AF-C with d9 (set point + 8 surrounding points) tracking AF that puts a big gap between the two bodies. I don’t have a 39 pt body like recent D5xxx or a D7000, but both of them offer d9 tracking mode, so I expect them to perform similarly. With a really long lens and high speed action, d9 mode helps in holding focus more reliably.

I did not use d21 or d51 because one, the direction of motion of aircraft is highly predictable, thereby making it less difficult to keep them positioned at the active AF point. The other factor is that the D7xxx line has a really low resolution matrix meter (2016 pixels), which makes it difficult for the camera to know what the subject is. See slides 6 through 8 of this dpreview slideshow to know more.

The other thing missing in D3300 is the ability to enable back-button AF. I normally use the shutter button to trigger AF, but when I’m shooting with telephotos, there’s nothing better than the agility afforded by BBAF. I have saved a custom setting (U1/U2) on the D7100 for BIF (Bird In Flight) shooting that switches to BBAF, among other setting changes.

55-300 VR vs AF-P 70-300 VR

Despite it’s super slow AF speed, I have shot quite a few BIFs with the 55-300 VR.

Eyes on You
Black Kite. D7100 with 55-300mm VR at 300mm

That VR bit is rather useless, though, since at the shutter speeds I use for BIFs, (1/1000s – 1/2000s) it’s more of a hindrance to smooth panning and tracking than a benefit. The inability to disengage VR on the AF-P 70-300 VR with the D7100 was a significant downside making me strongly consider going ahead with 55-300 VR.

What did switch me to AF-P 70-300 VR, though, was its responsiveness in tracking. And it’s quite sharp at the long end compared to 55-300 VR. A couple of days before the airshow, I tested the new zoom’s tracking ability. It yielded some convincing shots, even with the D3300. But that was with VR turned off.

D3300 & AF-P 70-300
Black Kite. D3300 with AF-P DX 70-300 VR at 300mm

The Air Show

I was quite certain of using the D7100 for the air show, but I still had doubts over the lenses, so I carried both. When I reached the venue, I tried a few settings with both the lenses, finally settling for the newer model.

One of the problems that plagued me was that I had to be really conservative with bursts, owing to the limited buffer of the D7100 despite using U1 95MB/s cards. That slowed me down quite a bit but not enough to actually eat up all 24 GB (16+8 GB) of memory I had available, in less than 45 minutes! I switched to a regular Class 10 card to continue capturing the SAAB Gripen that was roaring through the skies. Bursting? No way. Any good shots? Sure, like this one:

SAAB Gripen
SAAB Gripen. D7100 + AF-P 70-300 VR at 285mm

In the few minutes I got between Gripen’s landing and the next show by Suryakirans coming up, I switched from 14-bit raws to 12-bit, formatted both my fast cards and decided to start from scratch as I had another 3 hours of the air show left, with repeat performances from some of the aircraft that I missed.

Once I got settled with the settings and got into a shooting rhythm, it was smooth sailing from there on. I did wish for a few things to be better with the lens, though.

Loss of Focus on Zooming

Possibly the biggest frustration with this lens in the field was loss of focus on zooming. The lens was reasonably fast to acquire focus while the aircraft was at a distance or taking off. It also held focus admiringly well while the aircraft was on approach, even at high speeds like the F-16 Falcon that put out the fastest show with the widest stage of all. However, as the aircraft got close enough to start clipping the frame at 300mm, I tried to zoom out but lost focus in the process.

Rafale | Get a Good Look
Dassault Rafale. D7100 with AF-P 70-300 VR clipping the frame at 300mm

This happened every time I tried. Though it re-acquired focus in a second or two, it seemed like eternity and it was pointless anyway, since I was trying to time the shot precisely as the aircraft was right in front. As a result, I had to shoot at a shorter focal length and crop later.

F-16 Falcon | Approach
F-16 Falcon. D7100 with AF-P 70-300 VR at 250mm, cropped to 500mm FX equiv.

VR Interference

The other problem I faced with the lens was with VR staying on all throughout. While panning in a straight path was less of a hindrance, though it surely was, the bigger issue was with smaller aircraft performing quick direction changes. The VR caused my adjustments to lag, leading to a jarring experience. I could also not get panning shots at slow shutter speeds to get some motion blur in aircraft propellers.

Scandinavian Airshow | Viking
airshow.se Viking. D7100 with 70-300 VR at 300mm. Frozen propellers.

Vignetting & CA

The lens exhibits CA and also vignettes very badly at 300mm, even at f/8 – f/11 apertures that I was using. This is a big problem while shooting against a uniform background such as clear sky. As of this writing there’s no lens correction profile for this lens in DxO Optics Pro (my raw editor of choice) so I had to use manual vignette and CA correction, which too were not satisfactory enough.

Long End Sharpness

I was highly interested in shooting the aircraft at the moment of switching direction while they were the farthest away from the show area. Many such shots were encumbered with heat haze, but of the ones that weren’t I found that there was quite some loss of sharpness at 300mm, compared to the shots at approx. 250mm.

Rafale | Twist
Dassault Rafale. D7100 with AF-P 70-300 VR at 277mm, cropped to 800mm FX equiv.

User Errors

Along with the lens shortcomings, I should also mention that I spoiled some shots out of my own mistakes. The most stupid of these was jerking on the shutter button! Despite many years of shooting experience, I still found myself spoiling some long shots that needed precise timing, due to the nerves. If I had the ability to burst at will, I could have mitigated some of it. Times like these are when one would also wish for a heavier lens, which the AF-P 70-300 VR is not by a long shot.

Conclusion

When out shooting fast action like an airshow, the D7100’s slow buffer and the AF-P DX 70-300mm VR’s niggles leave one wanting for better. However, for anything that allows a bit more breathing space between shots, the 70-300mm VR is a very satisfying lens and should make a very compelling sports combination with a compatible D5xxx body, given the price.

As for me, despite some gear anxiety and in-field fumbling with multiple issues, it was an experience that I enjoyed a lot. For the next time, though, I have committed to an upgrade to 128GB of SD cards, a D7200 and a 70-200mm f/4 VR.

To see more of the interesting aerobatics, please have a look through my Flickr Album.

Aero India 2017

AF-S Nikkor 20mm ƒ/1.8G on DX

Early this year, I acquired a used 20mm ƒ/1.8G Nikkor lens. I only have DX bodies and the 20mm works more like a wide-normal prime than an ultra-wide, as on FX.

Inauris Aurea | D7100 + AF-S Nikkor 20mm f/1.8G ED
20mm ƒ/1.8G Nikkor on a D7100. It’s big.

Why use 20mm ƒ/1.8G? on DX?

I had long wanted to have a small, fast 24mm prime for my DX bodies. While the 35mm ƒ/1.8 DX is compact enough, I don’t like it that much. The FoV (51mm FX equivalent) is too narrow for general photography and too wide for portraits. I do most of my portrait work with a 50mm ƒ/1.8G, so I need something to cover the wider end.

The 20mm is not a bad option. Its 30mm FX equivalent FoV actually matches that of some very popular smartphones, which is what I intended this lens for – having a smartphone camera equivalent with much superior image quality.

Continue reading “AF-S Nikkor 20mm ƒ/1.8G on DX”

Nikon D750 + 20mm f/1.8G Nikkor

A few days ago I got the opportunity to try out a Nikon D750, along with the new 20mm f/1.8G Nikkor lens. It wasn’t the best of times for trying out new toys for me, because of which I couldn’t get any presentable shots. I still got some shooting to do with it and I would go ahead to include those non-presentable shots anyway.

Nikon D750 with 20mm f/1.8G Nikkor
Nikon D750 with 20mm f/1.8G Nikkor

Continue reading “Nikon D750 + 20mm f/1.8G Nikkor”

Carrying Cameras

The Problem

One of the big issues I face while photographing outdoors is that of having to carry a big 1.5 kg camera, and usually additional lenses and accessories weighing another 1-2 kg, all the time while out shooting for the day. The default carrying solution – neck strap – has a couple of disadvantages:

  1. It’s extremely tiring for the neck muscles
  2. It’s very fiddly, and gets in the way too much

Most of you might already have faced problem #1. Problem #2 is something you might not realise, until you start shooting without the camera strap. I let my cameras go without the strap a couple of years ago, and now I can’t even think of having to shoot with the strap on the body.

For quite some time, I used to carry the camera in an unzipped LowePro AW Rezo 140 (discontinued) camera bag. It solved the problem of fidgety handling, but my neck still complained. Continue reading “Carrying Cameras”

Sensor Format Blind Test

TL;DR

Rank the four shots below from best to worst. Mention the position as top-right, bottom-left, etc. Submit your ranking as a comment.

Sensor Format Blind Test
Rank the above images from best to worst. Mention positions as top-right, bottom-left, etc.

The Fuss

These are interesting times for camera enthusiasts. Digital cameras have advanced to a level where most cameras are capable of  publication quality snaps and you don’t even need to carry a camera to take good pictures, thanks to smartphones.

One big debate this has fuelled is regarding the importance of sensor size now. Some people believe, as they always have, that bigger is better and a full-frame sensor will always win.

Some people believe that beyond a certain threshold (1/1.7″? 1″? 4/3?) sensor size becomes irrelevant because the rules of equivalence (same DoF, same shutter speed, same FoV) dictate that all sensors will be operating in a similar fashion since they’re seeing the exact same amount of light, for the exact same amount of time.

Furthermore, it is argued that most pictures are never going to be printed and hung on walls. Instead, they will be viewed on phone, computer or TV screens at a nominal resolution of, currently, 2MP (HDTV resolution) or in future, 8MP (4k TV resolution). At such resolutions, minor differences in image quality become immaterial.

To find out how deep the shade of grey is between the black and white of FF supremacy vs. FF irrelevance, I’ve devised a simple test. The image you see above/below is a PNG screenshot of DPReview’s Studio Comparison Tool, loaded with camera test shots from cameras with different sensor sizes. I have chosen the web resolution from the tool to match the “common use” scenario, i.e., sharing pictures on the web.

Now, can you rank these shots from best to worst? Mention the position as top-right, bottom-left, etc. Submit your ranking as a comment below.

Sensor Format Blind Test
Rank the above images from best to worst. Mention positions as top-right, bottom-left, etc.

Once I have obtained enough responses, I’ll publish a summary and also reveal the link that will load this very comparison in DPReview’s Studio Comparison Tool, thereby revealing the cameras chosen.

Thanks in advance for participating!

Update: The poll is closed and the results are out!

Six Months with Nikon D7100

It’s been more than six months since I have had a Nikon D7100 for my own and I have been thinking of writing down my thoughts about the camera. However, these six months with the camera have been a bit of an up-and-down journey and it’s only now that I feel like I know the camera enough to write about it.

Continue reading “Six Months with Nikon D7100”

Nikon D90 vs. Sony RX100 in Goa

Last weekend I was in Goa on a leisure trip, which gave me an excellent opportunity for some photography. I carried the RX100 for landscape and street photography. The D90 also came along mainly for long range shooting with the 55-300mm VR and low light shooting with the 50mm f/1.8D. This trip allowed me to sort out some things related to the pros and cons of using a big DSLR vs. a small compact. Here’s how the cameras fared.

Continue reading “Nikon D90 vs. Sony RX100 in Goa”

Nikon 1 J1 Review

My gear has evolved from P&S to DSLRs over the last five years, and each year I end up buying a new camera. The focus this year, was on reducing the size and weight of the camera gear, unlike previous years where I had been looking to acquire the latest sensor technology (although I was tempted to swap my D3100 with D3200!).

What started out as a quest for cheap backup P&S, ended up as a story about Nikon 1. But not before I had analyzed every single camera in the INR 10k to 25k price bracket. Thanks to Flipkart which has a decent range of cameras. But somehow I resisted the urge to order J1 from Flipkart, and instead went to a Nikon store in Lajpat Nagar, where to my surprise I got a better deal.

Nikon 1 J1

When Nikon launched the 1 series, I was one of those who ridiculed their decision to go for a piddly 1 inch sensor, with a meagre 10MP resolution. More so because of their outrageous pricing of the kits. Perhaps Nikon’s think tank never updated their market study which seems to have been based on the trends prevalent five years ago. Back then, these cameras would have been ground breaking, earth shattering, but things have changed since MFTs hit the market. Pricing has become a sensitive issue, in an already overcrowded CSC market. Thankfully Nikon acknowledged this fact, and dropped the price significantly for both its cameras, a move which seemed to work in their favor as J1 (and V1) dominated the CSC markets in Japan and Europe.

J1 in Action

J1

Form Factor : J1 is not Sony RX100 or Olympus XZ1, but its a sufficiently compact ILC, and light too
Prior to buying the J1, I had mostly been carrying my DSLR kit – D3100, Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC, and Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, to my leisure trips and social events. Throw in a battery charger, UV filter and polarizer (both of which fit snugly on either of the lenses), and the kit would weigh two kilograms or thereabout. Those who have carried so much weight to day long sightseeing trips would agree that the dead weight spoils the experience.

J1 is light and how! The body weighs in a mere 235g, add a couple of lenses 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR (115g) and 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR (185g ONLY!) and you get a useful range of 18mm – 198mm (DX format) for just 535g. For the sake of comparision, D3100 weighs in a good 455g for body alone and similarly Olympus PEN E-PL1 weighs 335g and has a heavier kit lens by comparision.

In hands, the J1 is good to hold, its not feather light and that helps in keeping the hands steady. I have taken it to a few wedding events and it hasnt been a distraction, to say the least. The only gripe that I have is regarding the neck band that Nikon has provided in the kit. It would have made more sense to put a wrist band instead. I didnt even bother to put the otherwise flashy neck band, instead used an old wrist band that came with my Canon Powershot.

Nikon 1 J1 + 1 Nikkor VR 10-30mm F/3.5-5.6

Look and Feel : Solid build quality
J1, like V1 has a solid build quality. Better than my D3100, and more reminiscent of my old D80. Both lenses have metal mount, and great rubber grip. The zoom rings are sufficiently smooth to operate and have no creep. In white avatar, the camera seems unimposing to the subjects, which is particularly good for clicking those natural, life-like photos where the subjects dont consciously pose for the camera. At weddings, I have often received cold stares and unwelcomed looks by the professional photograhers, even when I wasnt obstructing their field of view. Thankfully the J1 makes it easier for me to sneak in and take advantage of their lighting setup without the professionals bothering too much.

Nikon 1 J1 Rear

User Interface : A curious camera
After using it, I labelled Nikon 1 J1 as a curious camera. It is definitely not a DSLR and nor is it a P&S. The UI, button layout and handling are all different. Yes, you find similarities with DSLR when you zoom the lenses, and to P&S when you use the buttons, but there are subtle differences and unique features (like unlock lens to switch on the camera). It takes time to adjust to the new UI (which isnt a bad thing), it kept me engaged for a while before I became familiar with the controls. For example, there is no Fn button to control ISO, but if you exit the “Menu” after adjusting ISO, J1 remembers the last option, so the next time you hit “Menu” you are directly taken to ISO settings. The menu is extensive but intuitive and easy to remember. Not once have I felt that UI has come in my way while setting up the camera for that quick shot. Infact, the camera feels more like a point and shoot, once you set it up properly. I mostly use Shutter priority mode along with Auto ISO, in order to harness the brilliance of the EXPEED 3 technology. The EV comp and ISO settings are fairly easy to reach just incase I want a greater control over the output.

The absence of PSAM dial / shooting modes is inconsequential for me since I hardly use it even on my DSLR. For those shots, where I would like to use manual mode, I would generally have enough time to delve into the menu and change the settings – a fair compromise.

CX Sensor

Performance : Stellar metering and auto focus
J1’s start up times are fast, and continuous shooting mode is a delight. The metering is brilliant in most situations, and focus is fast enough even in low light. In broad daylight, J1 performs as expected, yes, the auto focus is the fastest that I have seen in this form factor, and dare I say the most accurate, even comparable to D3100. The LCD brightness is good, so much that it can be lowered a bit without affecting legibility, in order to conserve battery. Overall, I have been very pleased with J1’s performance.

Image Quality : Gritty but detailed output; Shoot RAW for best results
The JPEGs are generally pleasing with typical Nikon colors, and the RAW output is definitely a notch above the JPEGs. The images are gritty even at base ISO (even when compared to D3100, let alone D7000), but the 1inch sensor captures plenty of details. The sensor size is no excuse for poor low light performance, however J1 fares well in absolute terms, comparable to what I used to get from my old D80. IQ is decent until ISO1600, beyond that things go down hill and require careful processing to get acceptable results.

1 Nikkor VR 10-30mm F/3.5-5.6

Lenses : A lot of options to choose from
Although 10-30mm kit lens is sharp, it is still the weakest lens in the lineup. Following up with excellent results that I got from the kit lens, I decided to buy 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR and I must say this lens absolutely shines on J1. With a complex construction and different coatings, it is a must have for your Nikon 1. The VR works surprisingly well and the images come out sharper than Nikkor 18-200mm VR, and are mostly comparable to Nikkor 70-300mm VR II. Nikon has introduced a slew of lenses which include ultra wide zoom, pancake, fast prime, and travel zooms. The pricing however, remains to be a bit on the high side. I would have preferred the lenses to be atleast 25% cheaper than their DX counterparts. For those who would like to couple their Nikon DSLR glasses with J1 there is a handy FT1 adaptor, however, I have not seen it in action as yet, so I dont know for sure if it taxes the auto focus performance of the DX/FX lenses.

Battery Life :  Good enough, doesn’t warrant buying a spare
On my last run, I have been able to get 350+ shots with VR always on, flash fired on atleast 50 occasions and the battery status still shows 50% usage. Pretty decent.

Conclusion : Not just a sidekick
My quest for a back up camera, concluded with me buying a Nikon 1 J1 and replacing my old Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR with a shiny 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR. My revised kit now consists of Nikon 1 J1, 10-30mm VR, 30-110mm VR along with Nikon D3100, Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC. With J1 taking a more active role of a pocket sized tele-shooter, and not just being a sidekick to D3100.