Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Singapore Night F1: Fast Cars, Low Light

Nick Heidfeld, BWM Sauber. Nikon D300, 50-150mm at 150mm, 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 2000.

What camera gear do you need to shoot the Singapore Night F1? Speed is the key: High frame rates, fast glass, fast shutter speeds, and clean high ISOs. Ideally, we’ll each have a full-frame camera like the Nikon D3 or Canon 1Ds Mk III with a 300mm f/2.8 lens to do the job. Well… I can dream, can’t I?

We can get the same field of view on a crop sensor camera like the Nikon D300/D90 or Canon 50D/40D/etc with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Throw in a 1.5x teleconverter, and an ultra-wide zoom for crowd shots, and you’ve got a very versatile kit for walking around the circuit.

Any Ferrari Fans Here? The crowd along the Raffles Avenue straight during Practice. Nikon D300, 12-24mm.

A walkabout ticket is the cheapest, and ironically, will get you closest to the action. Prior to the actual race, it’s a good idea to scout out where you want to be during the practice/qualifying session.

You’ll need to get as close to the safety fence as you can. The closer you are to the fence, the easier it is to defocus the fence. Typically though, you will be at least 1.5m away from the fence. Using a large aperture will also help to defocus the fence, making it almost invisible.

Lap #1. The crowd rises to get some shots. From the back, it's difficult to throw the fence out of focus. You'll need to get closer.

The fence will also cause autofocus problems. Either slow down the AF reaction to stop it from jumping between the car and the fence (good luck there) or use Manual Focus and pre-focus on a spot on the track and wait for a car to reach it.

Not Sharp Enough. Jenson Button of Honda being chased by Heikki Kovalainen of Mclaren-Mercedes. Nikon D300, 80-400mm at 340mm, 1/250, f/5.3, ISO 3200.

What about the lightweight travel photography equipment that I use? My 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 had the right focal range, but with a maximum aperture of f/5.6, it was just too slow. With the slow shutter speeds I was forced to shoot with, none of my head-on shots were sharp. My best chance to get a good shot was to pan shots. I.e. follow focus on the car as it passes. Still, that’s all I had, so I kept shooting… and hoped I’d get lucky.

Lucky Shot. Lewis Hamilton, Team McLaren-Mercedes, being chased by Ferari's Kimi Raiknonen. Nikon D300, 80-400mm at 400mm, 1/160, f/5.6, ISO 2000.

Best accessories to bring?
A stool or 3-step ladder to stand on (if you can get it through security), and/or a tripod or monopod.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Feel The Thunder

Uniquely Singapore F1. Nikon D300, 12-24mm at 16mm, 1/30, f/4, ISO 3200.

F1 comes to Singapore as the world’s first night F1 race. It’s a street circuit, very accessible, and I’m probably just 4 or 5m (13-16’) away from the cars at Turn #5. Feel the thunder? You bet!

Fernando Alonso Wins the Singapore F1. Nikon D300, 50-150mm at 150mm, 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 2000.

The Lucky: Team Renault

Renault’s Fernando Alonso had the fastest time in practice, but due to a mechanical problem during qualifying, he started the race in 15th position. As luck would have it, a series of incidents with pit lane errors, crashes and the deployed safety cars, catapulted Alonso into the lead around the middle of the race. Not to take anything away from Alonso, he drove superbly all night.

Close enough for you? Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Turn #5. Nikon D300, 80-400mm at 400mm, 1/125, f/5.6, ISO 2000.

The Unlucky: Team Ferrari

In a racecourse known to be tight and bumpy making overtaking difficult, Ferrari started the race in poised to win with their drivers in 1st and 3rd postions. Felipe Massa started the race in pole position but after a pit lane error, which saw him driving off with the fuel hose still attached to his car, he eventually finished 13th. Ferrari were still gunning for constructor points until Kimi Raikkonen crashed out at turn #10 with 4 laps to go. Really bad luck for Ferrari tonight, and I really feel bad for Felipe Massa who was driving really well too. Ah well, that’s racing… and Ferrari will be back.

The Night F1 Circuit set against the Singapore City Skyline on the Esplanade Bridge. Nikon D300, 12-24mm at 24mm, 1/60, f/4, ISO 3200.

The WINNER: Team Singapore

It costs SGD$150 Million annually to host the event, the world’s first night F1 race. The plan to showcase the city and boost Singapore’s image as a vibrant city seems to have worked. By all accounts, this event was wildly successful, and next years race promises to be even better.


By The Numbers:
Over 1,500 special track lights to turn night into day
3.2 Million Watts of power
Over 100,000 spectators
500 Million viewers worldwide
Biggest grandstand in F1 (seating 32,000)
SGD$150 Million price tag per year

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Building The Ultimate Travel Tripod: Part II The Legset

The legset on my ‘big’ tripod weighs 3lbs (and the ballhead adds another pound). This is what many call a lightweight tripod, but it is heavy enough that it stays home (or near the car) most of the time. For adventures further afield, I look for a tripod with acceptable quality that weighs no more than 2lbs (including the ballhead) that can hold my Nikon D300 and 18-200mm lens.

The qualities important to me in a lightweight tripod are:

i. Rigidity;
ii. Stability;
iii. Vibration Damping.

There’s no free lunch. The lighter a tripod is, the more sacrifices must be made in these three areas. If you want to go lightweight, you have to be able to accept these compromises.

Rigidity
To go lightweight, manufacturers build tripods with less material. This results in tiny, spindly legs. To keep these legs rigid, the heights of these tripods are kept short. You’ll need to get down on your knees to use these things. Also, the fewer the number of leg sections the better. Favor three leg sections over four.

Stability
A small, light tripod is inherently unstable. It is made worse if you try to use the center column to extend the height. A small tripod’s legs don’t spread out very far, and this small base of support coupled with a heavy load up high will make for a very tippy tripod. The key is not to use the center column on the lightweight rigs. To save even more weight, Galen Rowell suggested removing the center column and using a bolt and some washers to bolt the ballhead directly to the legset. Another tip to increase stability is to use a hook, centered under the ballhead, so that you can hang your camera bag or some other weight on it. Adding mass to the system will increase its stability as well as improve its vibration damping. The use of an L-bracket plate will also help keep the load centered.

Vibration Damping
A heavier tripod setup will dampen vibrations better than a light tripod because there is more mass to absorb those vibrations. Certain materials also absorb vibration better than others. Compare vibration-damping quality by touching the top of the tripod and tapping the legs to see how fast vibrations take to settle. Gitzo is really good at this, and this is why they command such a price premium.The Gitzo GT530 (now replaced by the GT531), a top-shelf ultra-lightweight legset.Ultra-Lightweight Tripod Choices:

Top Shelf: Gitzo 531 or 0531
Gitzo has to come to the top of the list. Despite the price premium, these tripods last many years, and will pay for themselves over time. To pair up with the Really Right Stuff BH-25 Ballhead, two Gitzo legsets come to mind: the GT531 and the GT0531. The Gitzo GT-531, which is the latest generation in the tabletop series (like the GT530, G0027 and G001), is less than 2’ tall when extended without the center column. You’ll need to stoop and crouch to use it. It weighs just 410g and if you only use a tripod occasionally, this is the one to throw into your backpack. The Gitzo GT0531 is the latest in the weekend series (like the GT0530, G1027 and G01), comes up to waist height without extending the center column. You’ll need to either bend down or kneel to use it. It weighs 720g and is a good choice if you frequently use a tripod.

The Slik Sprint Mini with the center column removed an a RRS BH-25 Ballhead bolted directly onto the legset.

Cheap and Nasty: Slik Sprint Mini
The legs rattle and shake when you unlock the legset, and the 4 sectioned legs (I wish they made it with just 3 sections) slide out jerkily, but when locked down, the Slik Sprint Mini Tripod seems sturdy enough. Without extending the center column, the tripod extends to about crotch height. It is taller than the GT531 but shorter than the GT0531. While the maximum load rating for the legset is 5lbs, the supplied ballhead (Slik SBH-100) will only hold 3.5lbs. I got rid of the supplied ballhead and center column, and bolted my RRS BH-25 ballhead directly to the legset. The whole rig weighs less than 0.75kg (1lb 10oz) and will benefit from the addition of a hook so that you can hang some weight on it. Cheap and nasty? Perhaps… But I’ll still be using mine until I can afford to buy one of the Gitzos.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Building The Ultimate Travel Tripod: Part I The Ballhead

Cholla Cactus at Sunrise. Canon XT/350D, 10-22mm at 20mm, 1/10, f/16, ISO 800.

Galen Rowell once said that the lightest tripod you should use is the heaviest tripod you are willing to carry. Wise words. How heavy a tripod are you willing to carry on adventure trips, carrying the tripod on your back for days on end? I bet the answer is to go as light as possible.

For many years, my lightweight tripod has been a Gitzo G01 with the center column removed and a Slik Compact Ball Head bolted directly onto the legs. This setup weighed about 2 lbs and while it was good enough for my lightweight manual film cameras, the simple platform mounted (screw-on) and the small ballhead proved insufficient for modern DSLR equipment.

Getting the shot with a small travel tripod.

My search for the ultimate super lightweight tripod for all sorts of travel and adventure activities such as backpacking, bike touring and other multi-day expeditions begins with finding a good ballhead.

Components of a good ballhead are
i. The Platform; and
ii. The Ball.

1. The platform: Joining the camera to the ballhead.
With lighter cameras, you can screw on a platform mount directly into the tripod socket of the camera body. The problem with this is that with heavy DSLRs, it is difficult to apply sufficient torque to prevent the camera body from twisting itself loose when you put the camera into portrait orientation (flopped on its side). The solution to this is to get rid of the screw-on platform and get a plate and clamp that will not twist loose. The standard is the Arca-Swiss plate and clamp. The clamp has a dovetail profile that grips a matching mounting plate on the camera body. You can buy a custom plate specific to your camera body (best for heavier cameras like the Nikon D300, D700, Canon 50D, 5D Mk II), or get a generic plate (ok for lighter bodies like the Nikon D60, Canon XSi/450D). Unfortunately, the plate and clamp will add about 90g (3ozs) over the weight of a screw-on mounting platform, but until camera systems get lighter, the plate and clamp system is a necessary evil.

RRS BH-25 Pro with B2-mAS clamp. Photo courtesy of Really Right Stuff.

2. The Ball: The power to hold your gear
The holding power or load capacity of the ballhead is the main consideration when choosing a ballhead. In general, the bigger the ball, the greater the holding power will be. You will need a ballhead with holding power that is sufficient to hold the weight of the heaviest setup you expect to use. I’ve looked at many, and ended up with the Really Right Stuff BH-25 (185g) USD$145. The RRS BH-25 is by far the smallest, lightest and strongest in its class. It can hold my heaviest setup, a Nikon D300 with an 80-400mm lens, in a pinch. It has exceeded my expectations and is my choice for when I need an ultralight ballhead.

Next: Part II The Legs

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

It's Official: Canon 5D Mark II

In case you haven't heard yet, Canon has (finally!) announced the 5D MkII. It has a 21.1 Megapixel Full-frame CMOS sensor; a new DIGIC 4 processor with 14-bit A/D conversion; ISO range is from 100-6400 (expandable L: 50, H1: 12800 and H2: 25600); and it has full HD movie capture.

What's lagging is the AF system, which seems similar to the old 5D with 9 AF points (plus 6 hidden). It's also supposed to have some 'weatherproof' features, but the microphone for the HD Movie mode on the body may be a weak point. Time will tell...

Weight: 810g
Price: USD $2699
Availability: November 2008

More information at dpreview.com or at Canon USA.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Best Deal in Town for Gels


Here in Singapore, we tend to pay too much for our sports nutrition supplements, and at SGD$2 per pack of Carb Boom Gel, this is the best deal going for gels in Singapore. The catch is you have to buy 3 cases of the stuff. This shouldn't really be a problem: gather 2 of your training buddies for the upcoming Singapore Marathon and split the cases 3 ways.

You can't mix and match the flavors though, which isn't really a problem since most gels taste pretty much the same. I would suggest you get a case of Double Espresso for the caffeine kick which will extend your endurance. If you are having trouble choosing flavors, I'd also suggest getting a case of Kiwi Strawberry, which most people seem to like.

I think TSW will also deliver your order to you free. Check out their website for terms and conditions. No, I don't get paid for doing this, but I am sponsored by these guys. They are nice people and I'm just passing the word around.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

D300 vs. D90

Since the D90 hasn’t yet been released and I haven’t even seen one, this comparison is purely based on the specifications that have been released by Nikon. Base your purchase decisions on the proper reviews, once the camera has been released. In the meantime, read on for fun and at your own risk…

Movie Mode

The big difference between the two bodies is that the D90 offers a new HD movie capture mode with mono sound. This will open up new opportunities for creativity (I'd really like to try using my 10.5mm fisheye for this). You could make a short movie clip and combine it with still images for presentation on the web with a program like Soundslides or on YouTube. Score one big one for the D90, zilch for the D300.

The downside is that the D90 requires a mono microphone that may render it less weatherproof than the D300. You can see the mic as 3 small holes just above the D90 badge. If the movie mode doesn’t appeal to you, then this is just one potential area of weakness that the D300 doesn’t have.

Weight
The D300 weighs 825g and the D90 620g. This is a pretty substantial 205g weight difference. I’m more willing to accept the weight penalty to carry the D300, given its more robust build quality and weatherproofing, and the places I go and conditions I subject my equipment to.

Viewfinder Accuracy

D300 is 100%, D90 is 96%.

Auto focus

The D90 uses the 11-point Nikon Multi-CAM1000 AF module, same as D80, and D200 but updated to include 3D focus tracking and Face Detection (of the D300). I prefer the clean look in my viewfinder with the D300’s 51-point AF system, and its greater coverage works better for me.

Battery Life

Nikon rates the D300 for 1000 shots per charge (CIPA). Surprisingly, the D90 gets only 850 shots per charge.

Conclusion

I’ll stick with my D300. For the person who doesn’t challenge his gear in environmental extremes, the D90 would be a good choice. It’s lighter, more versatile, and offers the image quality of the D300 for less money. For the person who travels to rugged and remote locations in hot, cold, wet, dusty (tick all that apply) environments, the D300 may give you more confidence as it is backed by Nikon’s reputation for producing reliable and durable professional grade cameras.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

D300 vs. D700 Continued:

The D700 is going to outperform the D300 if you look at image quality. Here are some differences in the specifications in the D300's favor:

Weight
The D300 weighs 825g and the D700 weighs 995g without battery. The 170g weight difference will matter if you are backpacking in the wilderness or trekking long distances and want to make every ounce count (then again, you should also consider the D40/D40x/D60 for the weight savings).

Viewfinder Accuracy
The D300 has 100% viewfinder accuracy, and the D700 is 95%.

AF Points Pattern Spread
Both cameras use a similar 51-point Multi-CAM 3500 AF sensor module, which is also found in the D3. The difference is that the D300 uses the DX version for its smaller sensor, and the 51 AF points are spread out across more of the screen. The D700 uses the FX version of the AF sensor module and has its 51 AF Points clustered more towards the middle of the screen.

Prism Head
There’s nothing wrong with the D700’s prism head. It looks like a digital F6. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to and like the stubby prism head of the D300. The lower profile head seems less likely to catch or get hung up in my camera bag.

Anyway, this comparison is just for fun. The reasons to go Full-Frame are strong, and that’s the direction I’m moving towards (just not right now). For me, I’m looking at the lenses I want to use, and the D300 just fits me better. If you want or need a D700, don’t let me dissuade you from getting one, but if you already own a D300, and you do the same stuff as me, then this is some food for thought.

Still to Come: D300 vs. D90

Update 21 Nov 08:
Original article edited due to reader feedback.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Hang on to your D300

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of relatively new D300s being put up for sale by their owners. I can only speculate that it’s because of Nikon’s newer bodies: The D700 and the soon to be released D90. Is there any reason to hang on to your D300? Well, Nikon’s given us some great cameras and choosing one over another is not easy. Here’s my take on Nikon’s D700 vs. D300 vs. D90 considerations.

D300 vs. D700
If you want full-frame, well, then the D300 is never going to cut it. The full-frame advantages of the FX sensor are the high sensitivity and extremely low noise combined to give you the ultimate in image quality. ISO ranges previously unheard of (like ISO 6,400) are being used regularly. There is a wide range of older AI-S and AF (non-DX) lenses available, and the D700 will allow you to use those lenses at the focal lengths they were designed for. If you’re a commercial, product, fashion, wedding, fine art or landscape photographer, the D700 is probably for you. Add on the optional MB-D10 battery pack, and the D700 makes a pretty decent sports shooter as well. Pick your lenses carefully though; lenses like the new AF-S 70-200mm VR that were rated excellent on DX sensors are showing slight problems with vignetting and loss of corner sharpness on Full-Frame FX sensors.

Tsataan girl with reindeer, Lake Hovsgol, Mongolia. Nikon D300, 10.5mm, 1/500, f/11, ISO200.

I sold off all my old Nikkors when I made my brief and unsuccessful switch to Canon and I’ve since gotten used to the DX lenses. Where I feel the D300 wins out is with Nikon’s DX lens lineup. For expedition and travel photography, the Nikkor 18-200mm VR is unmatched for its versatility and quality, and there’s no full-frame equivalent. I also have the 10.5mm fisheye and 12-24mm wide-angle zoom. Both these lenses cover my wide-angle requirements. On the long end, my 80-400mm VR gives me (with the 1.5 crop factor of the DX sensor) an effective 120-600mm f/4.5-5.6 lens in a small, lightweight and relatively cheap package. Nikon doesn’t make a lens that would give you the equivalent on a Full-Frame camera. The best part of this deal is that the small DX sensor only sees the center of the 80-400mm lens, and avoids the softer corners that would show up on an FX sensor.

Michael Phelps ripping it up during training. Nikon D300, 80-400mm at 400mm, 1/1000, f/6.3, ISO 400.

My choice: D300 (for now)
I will be moving over to the Full-Frame FX format. The D700 is the right choice for a lot of people, just not for me right now. At the moment, the D300 is more versatile for shooters like me who need a rugged, dependable camera, and who don’t need the image quality of an FX sensor and can take advantage of the DX sensor by using a few DX wide-angle and FX telephoto lenses to cover a wide range of focal lengths. I’m hanging on to my D300.

Coming up next: D300 vs. D90

Friday, September 5, 2008

Destined Evolution

It looks like the long overdue Canon 5D update might be finally coming to a shop near you.

If it’s true, this could be earth-shattering stuff! Canon has waited long enough to renew the aging 5D. While still a great camera, I feel that Nikon’s D700 is a better body with better high ISO (and lower noise) and includes a pop-up flash. What’s better in Canon’s favor is its lens lineup. I really like the lightweight and high-performance ‘L’ series f/4 17-40mm and 70-200mm lenses that will match well with a lightweight full-frame body for travel and adventure. There’s nothing currently quite like them in the Nikon lineup.

Stay tuned…