SLR: Jumping From Film To Digital?
Not yet, maybe never, but here's what you'd initially face with a pro digital SLR
|| |—| | | DIGITAL NIKON D100 VS. FILM N80-SO SIMILAR, BUT SO DIFFERENT: Body construction, mechanical controls, pop-up flash, and optical systems are nearly identical, but using memory cards instead of film-with their respective image-quality choices-makes using the D100 a different ballgame.| I’m sitting here with a strange (at least to me) SLR. It’s a Nikon D100 digital camera (tested in September 2002, page 88). It’s not mine. It’s Nikon’s, on loan to me for six months. I didn’t ask for it. Nikon suggested I try it, and I bowed to the inevitable. (I intend to keep you up-to-date on all SLRs, both 35mm and digital.) If any other manufacturer of interchangeable-lens AF SLRs had been first to offer me the use of such a camera, I would probably have gone with that brand. But no matter the make, I have no plans to switch from or add to my beloved 35mm SLRs and lenses unless I find that the picture-taking convenience and practicality of a camera such as the D100 is superior.
In POP’s offices, digital cameras are used for getting functional equipment pictures for technical stories to the printer swiftly and economically. Practically all the equipment that appears on POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY & IMAGING’s covers is shot digitally.
If I worked for a newspaper or a news magazine requiring high-speed transmission of images to make deadlines, I’d unquestionably use a digital camera. But, like many of you, I do the bulk of my shooting with a film SLR. Even though I usually only have 4×6- inch prints made, I’m hooked on producing the most creative images of the best possible quality. And if I do take an outstanding shot, I want to be able to produce a critically sharp enlargement of it-up to a 16×20-inch print.
While I admit I sometimes play with my cameras for the sheer joy of focusing, zooming, and clicking the shutter, my main concern is capturing images. I hope that now, and in articles to follow, we’ll see just how well digital cameras and digital photography, in general, fit my needs-and, I hope, yours.
Since I had no AF Nikkors of my own, Nikon lent me the very practical 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G Nikkor. In 35mm camera terms, it’s the equivalent of a 36-127.5mm focal-length zoom, since Nikon’s smaller-than-35mm-frame CCD digital sensor adds, in effect, 1.5X magnification to the Nikkor’s marked focal lengths when attached to Nikon’s digital cameras. The street price of a D100 with this lens is about $2,325, very reasonable today for a professional digital SLR and in the range of a number of professional 35mm cameras, but scandalously high when compared to comparable 35mm amateur SLR gear such as the Nikon N80.
Users of tele lenses and tele-zooms will be delighted to find that the 1.5X magnification works in their favor, lengthening focal lengths by 50 percent. For instance, an 80-200mm lens produces images equal in magnification to a 120-300mm zoom on a 35mm SLR. However, wide-angle enthusiasts may be dismayed that their lenses suffer the same focal-length increase compared to 35mm SLR lenses. To get something close to the focal-length equivalent of a 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens on a 35mm SLR ($500, street price), D100 enthusiasts would have to purchase a 14mm f/2.8 Nikkor ($1,450, street price), or a less costly independently made 14mm for their cameras. Such lenses are far larger and heavier than 20mm lenses and are still only the equivalent of a 21mm lens in terms of angular coverage.
|| |—| | | REMARKABLE LOOK-ALIKE CONTROLS: Can you spot which camera is the Nikon D100 digital SLR, and which is the N80 film camera? (The D100 is on the bottom.)| Yes, Nikon will introduce a special, yet to be priced, 12-24mm f/4 DX Nikkor lens (18-36mm 35mm equivalent) later this year. But it will only be usable on Nikon digital cameras. That still leaves fisheye enthusiasts like me out in the cold.
Wide-angle users could, of course, bypass the entire magnification factor by choosing another brand of digital SLR that uses a full 24x36mm digital imaging sensor. But the cost of these is relatively astronomic at present and the weight is considerable. The new Canon EOS-1Ds (tested February 2003, page 54), which has a 24x36mm sensor, costs $7,000, street price. It weighs 45 ounces, roughly four times as much as one of the new budget-priced compact 35mm SLRs. My camera-carrying shoulder hurts just thinking about it.
In comparison to other digital SLRs offering lens interchangeability, the Nikon D100, at 25 ounces, is on the light and small size, but is slightly larger and heavier than comparable 35mm SLRs. For instance, the Nikon N80, on which many of the nondigital features of the D100 are based, measures 5.6×3.9×2.8 inches and is seven ounces lighter than the slightly larger 5.7×4.6×3.2-inch D100. The D100’s standard battery is a rechargeable EN-EL33 lithium ion, which isn’t the kind of battery you will find at a supermarket or drugstore. Anyone buying a D100 might wish to think about purchasing a spare battery ($45, street price) to keep handy when the the supplied battery needs recharging. However, our lab tests indicate that the battery is good for over 400 shots, including a good percentage with flash, before recharging is necessary. Recharging, according to the very clear D100 directions, takes two hours; I found this slightly optimistic. In contrast, the N80 requires two CR123 nonrechargeable lithium batteries (about $8 apiece, street price), easily available at local stores.
After you insert the battery into the D100, you need the digital equivalent of film. With film, you have a one-size cartridge and your choice of 24- or 36-exposure rolls capable of making acceptable 16×20-inch enlargements-slides or prints, even ISO 400 versions. The D100’s digital equivalent is the Compact Flash memory card. No matter how swiftly you can load, rewind, and unload a 35mm automatic SLR, exchanging memory cards takes a fraction of the time.
How much information (and thus number of pictures) can these cards contain? This depends on the number of megabytes (MB) in each card. Cards are designated 16, 32, and 64MB, generally doubling progressively up to 640MB with a 1GB (gigabyte) card at the present top of the heap. The more MBs, the higher the price of the card, but the lower the price for each megabyte of memory. And remember, you can erase all shots you don’t want to keep, and reshoot. A 16MB card, at this writing, sells for about $20, a 32MB for $25, a $64MB for $35, a 96MB for $44, and a 128MB for $55 (all street prices).
I wish I could report that there is a specific correlation between the MBs and the number of pictures the cards can store. There isn’t. Much depends on the maximum number of megapixels your camera’s digital sensor can capture, and just what level of picture quality or image compression will satisfy your needs. If you find that you’re using up all the space on your memory card with the quality setting you’re using, but have many more shots to make, you have two choices. You can erase unwanted images already shot, or lower the quality setting for the pictures remaining to be shot. With a 96MB card, the Nikon D100’s maximum quality settings will yield nine pictures (see chart at right) which, according to our lab tests, can provide a maximum photo-quality print size of about 10×15 inches when viewed at a normal distance. If you are a viewer who insists on examining the print inches from your nose, make that 7×10 inches.
|| |—| | | GOING ULTRAWIDE WITH NIKON THE D100? IT’LL COST YOU: 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor (left) weighs in at 9.5 ounces, sells for roughly one-third the price of the 23.6-ounce 14mm f/2.8 Nikkor that you would need on the D100 to get wide-angle coverage equal to a 21mm on a 35mm Nikon.| If this maximum size disappoints you, think how few photographers really make larger-sized prints (such as the 11×17-inch photos gracing my office walls). For the vast majority of D100 owners, the camera produces great 5x7s or 8x10s. At the opposite extreme there are digital camera owners who merely want pictures suitable for e-mailing. For that purpose, the same 96MB card can deliver more than 300 images. How? By first changing the resolution, then modifying the JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) compression level. But JPEG compression takes its toll on image quality after a certain point. At the finest JPEG settings, most photographers won’t see much difference between an uncompressed file and a JPEG image. But when compression increases beyond 1:10, artifacts-such as moiré patterns, wrong coloration, and jagged edges-can appear.
How much compression can you stand? It depends on how well you recognize JPEG effects. What might be rejected by one viewer may well be very acceptable to the next, just as a 10×15-inch print from a RAW format D100 file might be rejected by a persnickety viewer but would be quite acceptable to most photographers. Subject matter also plays a role.
The D100 offers three levels of JPEG compression-from least to most: fine, normal, and basic. At each JPEG level, you have your choice of three different levels of resolution (see chart on previous page). The less resolution you need, the more pictures you can record on the memory card. When I have time, I promise myself I will try all three D100 JPEG levels, each of which has three levels of resolution, plus a JPEG with no compression, and make prints of all to see the differences. We’ve suggested that procedure to new owners of the D100 or other digital cameras.
Alas, each different digital SLR seems to have its own set of quality levels so the D100 chart we’ve shown will not be applicable to other digital SLRs. The D100 has its own Nikon Electronic Imaging Format system as well as the ones I’ve mentioned.
Fortunately, as you change quality levels, the D100 camera’s frame counter on the back LCD and in the viewfinder indicates the approximate number of pictures left on the card. How many pictures remain also depends on the subject matter you shoot. Simple subjects don’t require as many MBs as complex, detailed ones, so you may get more shots than the “pictures remaining” counter indicated.
For beginners, the D100 has a default setting that you select by pressing two buttons with green dots simultaneously. This sets normal JPEG compression (see chart), large image-size resolution, speed equivalent to ISO 200, automatic white balance and central-area lockable autofocus. The instruction book says the default setting is “ideal for snapshots.”
When you become more conversant with the camera, you can change any image size and quality settings to ones that suit you better. The instructions specify “snapshots” for the default setting, but they don’t explain what size snapshots. I guessed it was equal to a 4×6-inch print and thought the default setting could probably produce a 5×7 print at most.
|| |—| | | BATTERIES COMMON AND UNCOMMON: CR123 single-use lithium batteries for 35mm SLRs are widely available but cost $8-$10 per battery. D100’s rechargeable lithium ion battery is a rare bird, except at Nikon dealers, but lasts for over 400 shots. A backup battery costs $45.| Unlike a film SLR, you can switch quality levels in mid-card for each picture if you wish, or if you need more room for more pictures at lower quality.
The D100, like all other digital SLRs, can shoot single frames or continuous bursts. In continuous mode, the D100 provides up to six frames at three fps. However, it takes time for digital cameras to transfer images to the memory card. The camera will hold up to six sequenced images in a buffer memory. Then it pauses until the buffer has had enough time to transfer at least one image to the memory card. Depending on the quality level the camera has been set for, the time can vary from a few seconds to a few minutes (see chart on previous page). The directions provide a table of the time required to record all images once the buffer has been filled.
For my first foray into picture-taking land with the D100, I used the default setting. At a photo exhibit by our contributing editor, Elinor Stecker-Orel, and her husband, Mano Orel, I decided to make a double portrait of them.
Lacking sufficient existing light, I used the D100’s pop-up flash on program exposure, although I worried about the reflections from my subjects’ eyeglasses. Since I was familiar with the N80, I found operating the D100’s controls a snap. Returning to the office, I removed the Compact Flash memory card and sent it to our local minilab. The 4×6-inch prints were ready the next day. I judged them comparable to film prints, but decided to enlarge one of the Elinor-Mano portraits to 5×7 and 8×10.
How could I indicate to the minilab which picture I wanted enlarged? I had no negatives with numbers, and no film frame number on the back of the print. However, I could easily scroll through the pictures on the camera’s LCD screen. There was the best one, numbered 100-31. However, our minilab asked that I leave the 4×6 print with them so the operator would be certain to print the right image.
I inquired what other enlargement sizes the minilab could make, and was told 10×15 was the largest. I decided to have one of these made as well. The various print sizes would let me see how much enlargement this “snapshot quality” default setting would allow before the image started to be unacceptable.
Was I ever in for a surprise. The 10×15 enlargement was sharp, clear, and, of course, grainless, even though the default setting included 1:8 JPEG compression. Not only were Elinor’s eyes crystal clear, but so were the bifocal correction elements of her eyeglasses!
POP’s digital experts were impressed and had difficulty finding digital defects in the enlargements. If I had included some highly detailed subject matter, such as a checkered sports coat, digital artifacts would probably have appeared.
WORKS LIKE A FILM SLR?
|| |—| | | FILM VS. MEMORY CARDS: With 35mm film, you get a definite 24 or 36 exposures. With digital memory cards, you can erase images you don’t want and take others to replace them. Or you can stretch out the number of pictures recorded by lowering quality of shots not yet taken.| The D100 is a sophisticated, pro camera that from the get-go became the hottest selling digital SLR on the market. All the other current digital SLRs are also pro-oriented. Their basic optical design and overall shape-plus the outer lever and knob controls-work like film SLR controls. Digital image quality levels, however, are determined with exquisite fineness and precision through menus on the rear LCD screen. Using these takes some getting used to. And you’d better know your pixels.
Most pros and many advanced amateurs determined to master these digital SLRs will be able to thread their way through the morass of pixel technology required. But what of average amateurs? For them, digital SLR designers can surely come up with less complex quality settings that can be reached by knobs and levers and don’t require deciphering of charts and tables.
Until then, you’ll probably find me at the D100’s default setting. That’s a JPEG 1:8 compression. Maybe I can venture one step higher to a 1:4 compression ratio and make some 11×17-inch enlargements after all.
Or maybe I’ll use film.
|NEF (Raw)||Raw 12-bit data from the CCD are saved directly to the memory card in Nikon Electronic Image Format (NEF). NEF files can only be viewed in Nikon View 5 or Nikon Capture 3 ( 169). Two NEF modes are available: • NEF (Raw): In this mode, NEF images are not compressed, reducing the time needed to process images before they are saved to the memory card but increasing file size. • Comp. NEF (Raw): In this mode, NEF images are compressed using a virtually “lossless” algorithm that reduces file size by approximately 50 to 60 percent without affecting image quality. More time is required to process images before they are saved to the memory card.|
|TIFF-RGB||Images are saved in uncompressed TIFF-RGB at a color depth of eight bits per channel (24-bit color).|
|JPEG Fine||Images are saved in JPEG format at a compression ratio of roughly 1:4.|
|JPEG Normal||Images are saved in JPEG format at a compression ratio of roughly 1:8.|
|JPEG Basic||Images are saved in JPEG format at a compression ratio of roughly 1:16.|
|Digital novice’s dilemma: This D100 image-quality choice chart for a 96MB card is simple for digital buffs, but frightening for beginners. How long does image storage take? Read text.|
|RESTORE DEFAULT SETTINGS|
|Image quality||Norm (JPEG Normal)||Pictures are compressed for a balance between image quality and file size that is ideal for snapshots.||43-46|
|Image size||L (Large)||Images are 3008×2000 pixels in size.||46-47|
|Sensitivity||200||Sensitivity (the digital equivalent of film speed) is set to a value roughly equivalent to IS0 200.||48-49|
|White balance||A (Auto)||White balance is adjusted automatically for natural colors under most types of lighting.||50-57|
|AF-area mode||Single area AF||Pressing shutter release button halfway locks focus at distance to subject in selected focus area.||65-66|
|Focus area||Center focus area||Camera focuses on subject in center focus area.||64|
|When in doubt, default: Confused by the image quality choice chart, I elected to use default settings, shown here, by simultaneously pushing two buttons with green dots (flash sync mode and bracketing). Note normal image quality option indicates default setting provides images “ideal for snapshots.” Wanting more, I was alarmed. I needn’t have been.|