My Big Fat Camera Experience

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A couple of folks who are in the market for a camera have asked me about my experience with the new camera (a Nikon D70s) and whether it’s helped me to take better photos. The answer to that is so far my experience with the camera has been mostly positive. As to whether it’s made me a better photographer, I’d say yes, but with a few caveats.

To give a quick recap, the D70s is a slightly-better-than-entry-level digital SLR camera, which means it’s got the capability for more options than your basic point-and-shoot digital camera, but will also quite happily do snapshots for you if that’s what you want or need. The resolution of the camera is 6.1 megapixels, which is less than some cameras in its price range (there’s a comparable Canon model with 8 megapixels), but the various reviews I’d seen of the D70s suggested that the picture quality was as good as or better than other cameras with slightly higher resolutions, and nothing I’ve seen out of the camera leads me to believe this is not the case.

In any event 6.1Mpx is more than enough for an 8×10 print, which is about as big a print as most of us are going to get out of the local photo shop, and for technical reasons at this point in time more megapixels aren’t necessarily better (it’s not only the number of megapixels that matter but the size of your camera’s sensor, the quality of its lenses, so on and so forth). The D70s seems to hit a fair balance between the size of the picture and the quality of the picture it makes. At the very least there’s nothing I’ve tossed at the camera that a full-sized blowup of the picture in Photoshop doesn’t show pretty impressive detail.

The color response of the camera has been very good — it does an accurate reproduction of the colors I see with my eye most of the time, although I tend to boost up the saturation of sunsets and shadowed pictures in Photoshop. Aside from that, usually the only time I have to fiddle with a picture in Photoshop is when I’ve done something dumb, like take a picture of someone when their face is in shadow. It’s also really good at color gradiations; when I snap a picture of the sky I hardly ever see the sort of pixelated graininess you can get with a digital camera. The camera’s built in flash is very good — I’ve read pro photographers who say it’s one of the best integrated flash systems around, and the camera is generally good at estimating when a flash is needed.

The majority of the pictures I’ve taken with the camera have been in its auto mode, and it’s done a fine job of making me look competent; I have to go out of my way to take a bad picture with it. The only major complaint is that the autofocus sometimes needs to be convinced that it needs to focus on what’s directly in front of it, but this happens only in about one picture in 20. I’ve been fiddling with the other various modes of the camera with varying success; I get more bad pictures with those, but the limiting factor there is me, not the camera.

Has the camera made me a better photographer? In a limited sense, yes, for two primary reasons. The first is that the camera is smarter than I am with it comes to judging what it needs to do in any given situation, and thanks to its SLR heritage, its large and superior lenses, and its depth of field focusing ways, it creates pictures that look more "professional" than a snapshot digital camera would. The final picture in this entry, for example, is not one I’d’ve gotten with my Kodak EasyShare, and the fullsize version (3008×2000 pixels) is just gorgeous.

The second reason I’m a better photographer with this camera is that the camera encourages multiple photographs via a memory card that can store more than 500 photos at the resolution noted above, and it also a "continuous shooting" mode that can fire off three frames a second. The entry I pointed to in the above paragraph features three photos of Athena on a tire swing, but I took 66. Most of those have Athena with her eyes closed, or turning away from the camera, or just acting like a goofy six-year-old. When you can take as many pictures as you want with no penalty, you’re almost assured of getting a good picture, by sheer dumb luck if nothing else. This doesn’t actually make one a better photographer, but it certainly allows one to give the appearance of being one.

As to whether I am genuinely becoming a better photographer with the camera, the answer is yes, although rather more slowly than I would like. Having the capability to do more with a camera opens up a lot of options, and I’m becoming more aware of the things I need to do to make good pictures and not just snap away and rely on statistic to pop up the occasional really excellent photo. In the short run, the D70s makes me look like a good photographer; in the long run, I have the potential of actually becoming a good photographer, thanks to having a useful tool to work with.

The drawbacks to the D70s: Well, digital SLRs, like all cameras of their type, are susceptible to dust and other stuff, and I’m already seeing that; when I take pictures of the sky I can see little dust motes in the same place in each picture. It’s minor, but it’s there (you don’t see them in the pictures I post because I Photoshop them out). Eventually I’ll need to take the thing in to be cleaned. The camera is great for serious pictures but it can be bulky and inconvenient for fast, spur of the moment photos; if I just need to take a snap, I find it simpler and easier to grab my little Kodak digital camera. Likewise, I’m not all that likely to take the D70s with me to an amusement park or other such outing; for those places the Kodak does just fine.

Moving away from the camera to the processing end, the pictures themselves are large enough (1.5MB each) that loading a couple hundred of them up on the card reader I’ve attached to my computer takes a fair amount of time (another reason I use the Kodak for snaps — pictures from the Kodak load up super quick). The other thing I’ve noticed is that the pictures I take with the Nikon seem to make large files after I’ve trimmed them down for Web display than the ones I took with the Kodak, although I don’t know if that has something to do with how the camera writes data or just that I’m taking more ambitious pictures (read: more information in each picture) and that I’m making the pictures a bit larger these days (450 pixels width rather than 400 as I used to do). I do try to keep the photos under 70k whenever possible; I don’t want to antagonize my dial-up readers too much.

Overall, however, I’ve been having a great time with the D70s and I think it’s a very good camera both for what I need today, and what I’ll want to do for the immediate future. If you are in the market for a digital SLR, I do recommend trying one out.  

13 thoughts on “My Big Fat Camera Experience

  1. Incidentally, if you’re not already a Photoshop expert, Real World Photoshop CS will massively upgrade the post-photo-taking part of your skill set. (Real World Camera Raw is also highly recommended, but probably less critical.)

  2. John,
    I love burst mode for taking portraits of people. If the subject is well lit (doesn’t need a flash), you just have them pose, and then start taking the shots. They might blink for that first one, but after a shot or two their eyes will be open. Not only that, but you can get some great candid-looking shots from people who think you’ve already taken the shot.

    Also, they look good in a mosaic.

    K

  3. FYI, with the digital SLRs the sensor is big enough that they could do more megapixels without reduction of color quality. Their sensor are about 25 times larger (in area) then most point n’ shoot digital cameras. However as you note that’ll really only matter if you crop your image a lot, or get it printed larger then 8×10, or are a pro and your boss is the type that use to look at slides with a 48x loupe (i.e. anal for no good reason)

    As for “When you can take as many pictures as you want with no penalty, you’re almost assured of getting a good picture, by sheer dumb luck if nothing else”, that reminds me of something a National Geographic photographer said once when asked what kind of film they shot to get such great pictures. The answer was “Kodachrome, 10 rolls per picture”. So I would say shooting a lot might not make you a better photographer, but it is the same trick pros use.

    You should be able to put the D70 in a mode where it takes small pictures (the Canon DSLRs can, and I don’t see why the Nikon’s wouldn’t). I just put up with taking more time to read pictures off the card, but I have this irrational fear of taking an image of something normal and getting an airplane in the background doing something astounding and not being able to enlarge it enough to take advantage of my luck.

  4. Yeah, the D70s has a range of picture resolution options, but with 500+ pictures before I have to clear out the card, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort to make them smaller. I can wait (or get a better card reader with a faster trandfer speed).

  5. ” . . . and its depth of field focusing ways.”

    Does this mean that the camera gives you an indication of the hyperfocal distance? HD is usually found on the lens barrel of older cameras, and something lacking in digital cameras.

    As for: ‘The answer was “Kodachrome, 10 rolls per picture”. So I would say shooting a lot might not make you a better photographer, but it is the same trick pros use.’
    I don’t think it’s a trick. Pros take a lot of pictures because
    a) the film is free
    b)they HAVE to produce good pictures
    c) they bracket exposure
    d) test shots, different lenses, and such

    That being said, out of 3600 shots, 1 makes it into NG. Does that mean that 3599 shots were terrible? If I took 3600 shots, would one of them be good enough for NG?

  6. Having (at long last, and with great reservations) gotten a digital camera (Nikon D2H) last year, I can say it has helped me become a better photographer.

    Not for fundamental changes in my eye, but because I don’t have to wait for a client to shoot a ton of film.

    And taking a lot of pictures, esp. with a critical eye, will show you the things you’ve been missing.

    One of the painful aspects of non-studio photography is backgrounds. Discoving that one was so focused on the prime subject that the guy who was standing in the back in a bright red shirt escaped notice.

    For the dust, there are some tricks to reduce it.

    Get a really good lens, which covers the focal lengths you like to shoot. That will reduce lens changes.

    There’s a Canadian company which makes a brush for the sensor, which is charged, and so get more dust, and without needing much in the way of contact.

    Always turn the camera off when changing lenses.

    Megapixels are an odd thing. My camera has only 4.2. It takes better pictures than either the Canon 10D, or 20D both of which have far higher pixel counts. The variable are legion, and only your shooting tastes, invested hardware (I have 20 years worth of acquired Nikon equipment, it makes the idea of getting a Canon dSLR less tempting) and what you want to do with the camera more important issues than the number of pixel elemenrts in play.

    Having gone from a “stupid” camera (Nikon F3 and FE2) as my primary, to a “smart” one has given me some problems. For example, I didn’t use auto-focus before. I was getting great composition, and blown focus. Reason? The camera was set to focus on the center of the focal area, not the nearest object.

    Given the problems of computing Hyperfocal on a digital (those lenses which have the scales, well the scales aren’t accurate when the lens is effectively longer than indicated) some pictures where I was counting on the “slush” of the focal depth to save me, didn’t.

    And for all that DoF previews are nice, they aren’t much use on rapid shots, as they need both time, and light blocking, to get a good read on just what’s still in the zone of acceptable focus.

    John:, you’ve beenm getting good stuff, and as one becomes a better writer by writing more, so too with photography.

    TK

  7. Thanks, Terry. I’m definitely doing a lot of photography, and enjoying learning more about it as I go along.

  8. I will add one bit of advice: do not buy Tamron or Sigma lenses in an attempt to save a few dollars. The Nikon glass is superior, and the images will show it.

    There’s a joke that floats around camera stores that goes likes this: An amateur is disappointed when one of his pictures on a roll doesn’t come out. A pro is excited when he gets one good picture on a roll of film….

  9. Alex:

    “I will add one bit of advice: do not buy Tamron or Sigma lenses in an attempt to save a few dollars. The Nikon glass is superior, and the images will show it.”

    When I was shopping I saw some bundle options which feature Tamron/Sigma lenses, but I decided that at least initially I wanted the Nikkor lenses because I knew they would be fully integrated with the camera, and that would help me learn the camera better. The lenses I have are also computerized and “talk” to the camera, which has auto-focusing advantages.

  10. So, with all these photos you’re amassing, where are you keeping them? Are you using any sort of photo organizer, or just sticking them in folders with general labels?

  11. I’ve been away.

    Tamron glass is ok. Nikon, in fact, has Tamron make some of the kit lenses for lower end sets.

    The recommendation I will make is to, as you get more gear, spend the money to get the fastest lenses you can. You also want to get zoom, as opposed to multi-focal length. The difference is that zoom lenses have the same f-stop at the shorter length as they do at the longer.

    TK

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