Some Emails Answered

Every day I answer a ton of emails. When people ask me questions, I try to answer them. Now and then I think it's worthwhile to share some of these back and forths with my readership, as questions (and my answers) often get repeated.

What follows is a small sampling of recent email conversations (both the original email and my responses have been edited for "brevity" and "clarity" here):

"Everyone thinks Nikon should introduce a mirrorless yesterday, if not sooner. I get the business argumenta lot of mirrorless cameras are being sold so Nikon needs to have one. I also get that mirrorless cameras have fewer parts and fewer of them have to carefully adjusted so inventory and assembly costs are lower. My question is, when all these people write and say that if Nikon does not introduce a mirrorless they will switch to Fuji or Sony, what problem do they think a Nikon mirrorless will solve?"

Good question. Let’s first examine reasons why people are switching, though.

With Fujifilm, it's the lenses that attract. And a bit the retro-ness, but mostly the lenses. The Fujifilm lenses are APS-C/DX appropriately sized. Coupled with a slightly smaller, lighter body, it does tend to make for a smaller, lighter travel kit.

With Sony, it's always on IS (sensor based) and better autofocus. That latter part needs some explaining: many people don't want to spend time improving skill sets, thus they're looking for autofocus magic. On the mirrorless cameras that do a contrast detect after phase detect, like the Sony in AF S mode, you get better AF when you're sloppy. On top of that, face and eye detect works, too.

With all: what you see is what you get in the viewfinder. You have to go back to the SLR/DSLR switch to understand this one. One reason most abandoned their SLRs was that they never nailed exposure (or other stuff). They'd shoot and a week later get back crap images. They had no idea how to fix their problem next time they shot. The DSLR allowed chimping: shoot, check, fix, reshoot, check. Mirrorless cameras essentially chimp while shooting.

So a Nikon mirrorless could solve some user problems. I’ve seen far too many switchers claim that their focus accuracy was “improved” by mirrorless over DSLR. Funny thing is, I’ve not had that happen for me ;~). But I can see exactly how it happens for many. It’s that combination of eye detection and contrast detect last step most of the time. 

But more importantly, who are you going to trust here? The customer who's voting with their money, or the paternalistic company that insists that nothing is wrong? One of the things I was trained to do in my career is to look at user context. When it starts changing, you have to understand what's driving the changes. At one end, smartphones have changed the context in how photos are shared. At the other end, mirrorless cameras are changing the confidence level of people taking the photo. The two really need to be combined to make the ultimate product. Japan isn't doing that. Nikon definitely isn't doing that. So, yes, Nikon could make a mirrorless camera that might do something useful for current some DSLR users.

"My current kit is all FX Nikon gear, and would be what you’d expect, 14-24G, 24-70G, 70-200GII, 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.4, 24mm 1.4 along with a D3 and a D2X.  It is all good stuff and I’ve mainly used it for doing night landscapes and portrait work (with off camera flash).  I’d really like to do more nightwork with a smaller and lighter kit.  The mirrorless Fuji’s are looking pretty good, and being able to shoot video would be a plus. Should I dare sell all my great glass and jump platforms, or do I keep holding out hope for a mirrorless Nikon that takes F mount?  I’ve pretty much given up hope in a Nikon mirrorless solution now."

I get tons of these "should I?" questions every week. In most of them you’ll find several implied (or sometimes direct) subtexts: e.g. the smaller/lighter and impatience you see in this one. There's another less obvious one here: that mirrorless is the only future. 

My responses generally don't start where people expect them to. In this particular case my first line was "depends more on output than input." What? 

What I rarely see in the "should I?" questions is rationale dictated by what you're actually trying to achieve. Had he said he wanted to print bigger, that would have been something that we could discuss. He did say he wanted to shoot video, and that's an output issue, but even there I'd want to know "video for what purpose?" What kind of video? Who is the viewer of this video? 

Most people are coming to me for confirmation, not advice. For instance, the smaller/lighter thing. They're just tired of big heavy cameras and lenses, so they want to downsize. They're looking for confirmation that it's okay to do that. Well, sure, it's okay to do that, but there could be consequences to that action. 

First, there's the cost of switching systems: it's real, tangible, and often high cost. Second, mass is actually a good thing in a lot of photography, though most people think that IS/VR can overcome that liability (it sometimes can't, not at pixel peeping levels under all conditions). Third, there's the cognitive dissonance caused by switching systems. Yes, you're setting and controlling many of the same variables, but you'll have to learn and master a new way to do that. Fourth, smaller has generally meant smaller buttons and controls and that certainly has consequences in cold weather where you might want to wear gloves; it often has consequences all the time. Finally, no system is perfect. Abandoning one system because of its perceived flaws will only lead you to another system where you'll eventually learn its flaws. Maybe that's fine, because those new flaws are less annoying than the old ones, but it could be the other way, too.

But it's the last bit that worries me most: impatience. We'll either know what Nikon is deciding to do with mirrorless by January 2019 or thereabouts, or we'll know that Nikon has completely lost any momentum in the market and will continue to contract. 

You’ll note I haven’t actually addressed whether a current Fujifilm is competitive with full frame. That’s because we’d be comparing the past (D3) with the present (X-T2). That’s where things get really tricky. Actually, in low light, the D3 still holds its weight, just not with a lot of pixels. The X-T2 uses the X-Trans trick and some hidden NR to “look full frame.” Neither are without consequences. And I personally think that if low light is what you shoot in and you’ve got the glass already for it, the Sony and Nikon full frame cameras are where you want to be right now.

"I was wondering if you can elaborate on the D7500 aperture chatter, if it is normal and safe or not. I have seen a few mentions about it on web, but nothing definitive. I contacted Nikon USA and they didn't seem to know and issued a call tag to return the camera to them."

It scares me that every day I probably answer more technical support questions right than it sometimes seems NikonUSA does. It definitely scares me that Nikon wants to possibly repair a camera that is almost certainly operating normally. 

You're using a variable aperture zoom lens. It chatters on zoom in Live View  because most of the Nikkors are using a mechanical process for adjusting the aperture, and as you zoom in/out the camera is adjusting the opening size. No, it's not going to harm your camera, your camera does not need repair, and yes, it can be annoying. 

"I doubt your review of the 24-70mm f/2.8E. I don't see any differences between it and the previous G lens."

Variations of this comment are common. Every time I see the words "I don't see..." I have to start asking questions, unfortunately. One is this: who taught you to see? Another is: what can you actually see?

I get a lot of "I trust my own eyes” comments at workshops. What usually happens next at workshops is that those that came in thinking there weren't any differences to see get trained to find where those differences lie and what it was that they weren't seeing before. 

There are plenty of ways to test individual aspects of your eyes online. For instance, your ability to assess hues correctly can be done here. [Disclosure: my test score was zero, the perfect score]

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. I've at times done this in demonstrations: I'll take my phone, a compact camera, and my best camera and take basically the same picture then send that to a portable 4x6" printer. I can mix those photos up, pass them around, and almost no one will tend to be able to tell one from the other (especially if I'm devious and try to take out obvious clues like DOF changes). 

So the first question I tend to ask is "what's your output and how is it controlled and viewed?" Also, "what's your eyesight corrected to?" Funny thing is, those are all variables in the Zeiss formula for depth of field. A really good DOF calculator will take into account not just the focus distance, focal length, and aperture, but also sensor size, magnification size, viewing distance, and eyesight correction. That's because Zeiss was trying to figure out "what was visible." 

At small magnification, long viewing distance, and with uncorrected vision, it turns out that the answer to what was visible is "not much." 

So let's talk about that 24-70mm at 24mm for a moment. In the context of a popular Web site doing some quick fly-by answers, I can't deep dive into every aperture variation and every distance and every situation. So I'll just take f/2.8 at 24mm at a distance I can achieve in my office. The E model is showing about 3800 line pairs in the center (excellent), and about 3200 line pairs at the edge (very good; this was on my D810). The G model is showing about the same in the center (excellent), but about 2700 line pairs (good) at the edge, and it drops even more into the corners. I'm trying to use my try-to-be-consistent wording here (excellent, very good, good) based upon visual evaluation at 300 dpi at rather close distances.

Most everywhere I look in terms of focal length, aperture, and distance, I see a similar pattern between the two lenses, though at 70mm I'd probably call the older version better, as it's more consistent to the edges, particularly when used at closer distances on test targets. Longitudinal chromatic aberration may be better on the G version at 70mm, too. And the big one: the G version has far less vignetting than the E version.

So I can speak to very specific test results on test targets just like all the other reviewers. But I also have trained eyes and shoot every lens in real life situations before publishing a review. My eyes were trained by some of the best experts in the business over many, many years. When not taking pictures of test targets, small things start to show up with the E version I don't see in the G: a bit more contrast differential on nearly the same tone—some people call that microcontrast—on the very high megapixel cameras, for instance. A more consistent edge to edge look in edge acuity and detail. Less spherical aberration out in the corners. A very interesting and subtle difference in how the rendering changes from the focus plane to the out-of-focus area. Small things. Very small things.

Funny thing is, back when I was young I too used to balk at what some really well trained pros were telling me about low level stuff. I couldn't see how my film processing was inferior to theirs. I couldn't see things that really bothered some, like what happens when film isn't held tight in the gate during shooting. Dust spots. Oh, I often saw some dust spots, but was appalled as others could point out ones I hadn't seen.

So, the bottom line is simple: have I built up enough reputation and reliability to trust my evaluations? Because I do believe I'm well trained, use consistent output, and control variables really well. I also think I'm relatively consistent in my analysis. 

But realistically, you're getting my evaluations for free and can do with them what you want (accept them, ignore them, rely on them, reject them, whatever). I'd ask you to make sure that you're not fooling yourself, though. Have you really been stepped through a truly critical photo analysis by someone who knows what they’re doing?

All that said, sample variation is real, particularly with lenses. If you haven't noticed Roger Cicala's testing over at Lens Rentals, you should probably stop by his blog every now and then and catch up. He often shows clearly visible sample variation in his tests, even among high priced lenses, and he's capturing and documenting that with some of the finest lab equipment available on the planet. 

It's rare that his testing shows something overall different than what I've found, but when it does I often will send him an email or have a chat with him at a trade show about it. Why? Because I want to learn. Why did I see something different? Did I miss something? Is it sample variation? Is it different priorities? What? 

Here's the thing, though: too often we drop into the "good enough" realm in photography. The autofocus is good enough. The exposure is good enough. The support is good enough. The lens is good enough. The processing is good enough. Yet if you want to stand out, you need to do better than good enough. 

When Nikon gives me better products, I embrace them. That's why you'll find a D850 in my bag (or the D5 in low light sports), and especially lenses like the 70-200mm f/2.8E. I try to not start with a compromise. I don't want good enough, I want better than. 

Yes, the differences get smaller and smaller over time and as we go up the pricing ladder. But they're there. Just make sure that your "I don't see it" isn't because you’re simply practicing good enough. Or if you are practicing good enough, that you don't try to throw shade on those of that aspire to more. 

"I own a bunch of Nikon’s top FX lenses. Do I sell them now while I can get good money for them?"

Ah, the latest variation in the “my lenses are an investment” fallacy. You buy lenses to use. If you’re not using them, you can choose to sell them and get what they’re worth today, or you can keep them around just in case you decide you want to use them again someday. Simple as that. 

But Nikon's expected transition to mirrorless has got everyone totally paranoid that they’ll have to buy an all new lens set and they’ll lose value on their existing lens set by the time they sell it. Okay, so if you’re that paranoid, switch to Sony FE today and sell off all your full frame Nikkors. Don’t wait, pennies are being lost as you contemplate that sentence. 

Reality, on the other hand, has another answer. Nikon absolutely has to make sure that they don’t lose the millions of customers with tens of millions of existing F-mount lenses. In even the absolute worst case scenario (new mount), those lenses are still going to be usable in the future or else, indeed, there will be a stampede out the Nikon F-mount door. Moreover, I’m pretty sure there are a ton of DSLR owners who would just salivate at the prices that a paranoid rush would bring to the used lens market. 

Funny thing is, we have history to look at. I’ve got a 58mm f/1.2 NOCT sitting in my gear lock up. When autofocus came around, the NOCT lost some of its value: it wasn’t autofocus, after all. Indeed, NOCT prices drifted downwards for a long time. Right up until the D1 came out, when people realized that this great lens was still a great lens and it filled an early need with the DSLR crowd (58mm f1.2 is a perfect DX portrait lens). And almost immediately the prices rocketed up. The week after I wrote that the NOCT was a great portrait lens, prices went up US$500 as supply dwindled rapidly.  

Bottom line, if you think lenses are investments, then hold onto them until they become collectable (not all lenses will become collectable ;~). If not, use them until you move on, at which time get what value they’re worth on the used market. Buying and selling lenses as timing investments is as bad as trying to time the stock market. You won’t win that game. 

"I've had a D500 for almost two years now, most of the time without issue. I shoot mostly motorsports, so I go through lots of frames (3000-6000 per event, depending on type of event and who's asking/hiring). I've recently added some Kastar EN-EL18 compatibles, which seem to work perfectly well. But in the past two months, I've started seeing pretty drastic battery consumption. Unfortunately, this correlates perfectly to starting to use the EN-EL18 compatibles and also an increased usage of SnapBridge. As an example, yesterday I chewed through 40% of an EN-EL18 in about 500 frames, which is of course terrible as I probably chimped 10 frames total in that four or so hours. I turned on Airplane Mode and got another 475 frames on the next 10% of the battery, which seems about right. My shooting partner has two D500's and a D850, all with SnapBridge and we think we're running in essentially the same configuration, only he has Android and one of his batteries is a genuine EN-EL18a. His battery consumption looks quite different than mine - more similar to what I get without SnapBridge, although of course not quite as good. Have you heard of such disparities, and do you have any troubleshooting tips? I'm up to date on iOS SnapBridge and on 1.12 on the D500. But the kicker yesterday was that three times I turned off the D500 and the camera stayed on. In one case, it stayed fully on: when I accidentally pressed the shutter release (on the genuine MB-D17) it rattled off five or six frames. The other two times it wouldn't fire the shutter, but the buffer/ISO indicators flipped as one would expect with shutter release presses. In all cases the camera was basically otherwise locked up - no menus, no display mode, etc, I don't think AF was working although I didn't try very hard. The only way to reset this was to remove both batteries. Is this something that you've heard of?"

Two different things to discuss here. Let's start with the SnapBridge bit: in the current implementation, using Airplane Mode to quiet the communications isn't good enough I've found. I've noted numerous times when Bluetooth was still active with Airplane Mode set to On. You pretty much have to also set Bluetooth to Off and make sure it stays off to disable the internal power drains. 

But, your question is mostly about batteries and the dreaded D500 lockup. I'll say this: in all my experience with third-party batteries across multiple camera systems, I've found a lot of batteries marked with the same specs that clearly didn't perform the same as the original battery. I just don't know that we can fully trust third-party batteries to be what they say they are. Some seem to be, many aren't. So I think you have to isolate your problem by making sure you see it (or don't) with an official Nikon battery.

I've noted a lot of emails from folk who've had a D500 repaired by Nikon and the power board is getting replaced. It seems clear to me that there have been failures in the field that are related to power. Is it common to have repeated lockups like you have? No. In almost two years of experience with my own pair of D500's and many, many student D500's at workshops—as well as conversations with pros using D500's—it would be common to once in a blue moon have a lockup that requires the battery to be pulled to restore. It's happened to me once in two years of shooting. 

I don't like the multiple repeats you're having in short succession. First, you have to eliminate the battery as the source of the problem. Second, you probably need to eliminate the vertical grip as the source of the problem, too. If you then continue having this issue with Nikon batteries in the camera, then I'd say the camera must go to Nikon for servicing. 

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