Bigger, Faster, Stronger

Tonight a lesson in dork shopping. I bought a new Nikon D200 digital SLR last month. We are taking our first vacation in a while, and it seemed like a good excuse to upgrade the picture taking machine since you always take a lot of pictures on trips. After a lot of angst over whether the more expensive body was worth it (the D80 is not much of a downgrade feature-wise) I finally decided to spring for it.

Make no mistake, the camera is wonderful. It basically meets my expectations in that it fixes every major complaint I have about the D70. The AF is actually useful in action situations now. The metering is good. The viewfinder is much better. High ISO performance is a lot better. The continuous shot buffer is five times larger, so I never have to worry about the camera locking up as it decides it needs to flush stuff to the card. The only way they could possibly improve it is to make it into a D2x, only half the size and a quarter the cost. The minor gripes are

1. Battery life is not nearly as good as the D70.

2. The camera is a bit heavier.

So, I haven’t had any problems with the camera itself. Well, except that some of the shiny new features are pretty complicated, and the camera’s interface is different in subtle ways. In picture review mode, you move from shot to shot with the left/right parts of the D-pad rather than up/down. The metering mode is now on a switch rather than a button and dial. I love that I can change AF modes without opening the custom setting menus, but I hate the orientation of the switch.

Some of the default camera settings are a bit different too. I think the in- camera JPEG engine pushes the colors a bit more than the D70. The result is that unless you dial back the saturation a bit, if you use Adobe Lightroom (or Apple’s Aperture, or for that matter, anything but Nikon’s software) to do RAW processing your pictures will have a color that is very different from the original preview image embedded in the RAW file. I had this horrifying experience where I imported 100 pictures into Lightroom and watched as the color was sucked out of each and every one of them as the initial RAW conversion finished. It took a while to setup the camera to perform more like my old D70, where this was not as noticeable. Still, I now have an annoyance I didn’t have before I noticed this problem. Default color balance settings are like watches, if you have one you always know where you stand, but if you have two you never know.

Even the new AF system is not without its pitfalls. There are now 57 different autofocus rules. Before I had gotten by with two:

1. Always use the center sensor.

2. Once in a while, turn on “continuous focus” because you think it will be useful for moving objects, but turn it back off again in 15 minutes when you realize it’s not really working.

The D200 now has 11 sensors scattered all over the viewfinder such that there are some in places that are really useful even for off-center shots. That, combined with the fact that the focus tracking actually appears to be able to keep up with moving children has tempted me to really learn how to use the AF system. But it’s a lot to internalize. There are different ways to group the sensors together or not, different tracking modes, and a weird wide area sensor mode that I don’t really understand. This means I’ve filled up a lot of memory cards with pictures that range from slightly off to completely out of focus.

Speaking of memory cards, the files that come out of this camera are about twice as big. I had just bought a new 2GB card for my D70. This got me used to around 300 shots per card, but then the new camera dropped that immediate back into the 150 range. Since you can never go back, I ended up buying two new 4GB cards, especially after I found out that for some reason you can buy 4GB cards of one type that seem identical to 2GB cards of another type in almost all ways, but cost half as much per GB.

The big new files bring with them added resolution. Since starting to use digital cameras I have mostly shot handheld, although in my film days I used a tripod a lot. I just haven’t had the energy to carry the thing lately. But now I got thinking, maybe this trip I’d break out the tripod again, try and work on some of my old cityscapes.

Tripods are one of those things you have to be careful about to because only you know how much tripod you need. So if you go and ask some guy what you need, and he happens to (say) shoot wildlife in Africa for a living with a collection of lenses all of which weigh 15 pounds, he’ll tell you to buy the wrong tripod. In particular, he will tend to tell you that you need a large expensive tripod and a large expensive ballhead to have any hope of taking a decently sharp picture. Further, if you buy less, you are stupid because you will just end up coming back and buying what he told you to get in the first place. But the truth is, you might know that you are never going to shoot wildlife in Africa, or sports at the Super Bowl. If you know this, then buying too much tripod because you think you might be wrong would also be stupid.

I have always tried to get away with the smallest tripod possible, because I shoot mostly with small cameras and small lenses. A few years ago, I did try out one of the fancy 2lb ballheads that cost $400. What I found was that a 2lb ballhead weighs too much. So I sold it. If, in the future, I ever find myself in need to using a 15lb telephoto lens, then won’t feel too bad because the $500 I’d spend at that point for a head would only be 1/20th the cost of the lens itself. Let that be a lesson, they may tell you that you’ll end up with that fancy 2lb ballhead, but that doesn’t make it so.

However, I did need a tripod plate for the new camera. These days, they make these awesome new L-shaped plates so you can shoot horizontals and verticals without flopping the head over. I’ve wanted one for a while, but figured since I wasn’t using the tripod much it would be stupid to buy one. No longer. So I mosied over to the Really Right Stuff web site. Really Right Stuff makes custom machined metal plates that attach your camera to their custom machined metal clamps. These pieces of metal are horrifyingly expensive, but beautifully made. I showed my new plate to my boss, who is a machining geek and he couldn’t believe how nice it was. He didn’t even care what it did. He wanted one.

RRS had a surprise for me. New ballheads. And small ones. Now I felt was truly doomed.

The only thing that saved me was that the jewel-like perfectly machined ballheads were even more expensive than the plates (and the carbon fiber tripod), so what’s left of my cheapness kept me from ordering. I’ll probably cave later. But the web site lead me further into my shopping quagmire.

Gitzo has updated the tripods. There are now smaller and lighter carbon fiber ‘pods fold up even smaller. Also, they have fixed the one long standing problem with Gitzo tripods: the new legs have locking collars that let you open the legs in any order you want, instead of the Gitzo-standard order. I won’t get into the details, but suffice to say that you have to remember to always open a Gitzo tripod from the top down and shut it from the bottom up. Otherwise the you can’t loosen and tighten the collars that hold the legs together. This was always a source of pain, and they have fixed it.

Again I was saved by the fact that the damn things are too expensive. I’d pay a lot for a tripod that is just about as sturdy as the one I have but weighs a pound less and folds shorter and more quickly. But not what Gitzo wants me to pay.

So, as always, a tool purchased for the purpose of making my photography more enjoyable has inevitably turned into a springboard for neurotic Internet research and iterative shopping. I’m lucky to have escaped having just bought the fancy L-plate. This is especially true because this little episode overlapped with my recent bout with setting up my TV over again. As a result I also spent some time shopping for new audio accessories.

Why the hell is it, by the way, that you can’t buy custom lengths of custom- terminated speaker-wire without giving up your children for adoption? It’s criminal.

In all, there are three lessons to be learned here:

1. Be careful when you decide to buy that new toy.

2. Photography and home audio are more expensive than gaming. I should stick with just buying those $50 games. Much easier.

3. I shouldn’t have written this, because now I’ve followed the link to the RRS site again, and damn those ballheads look nice.