Photo Gear

I recently had a chance to stretch some dormant photography muscles, during a trip to San Francisco. It was a quick, couple day jaunt and I traveled pretty light. In terms of camera equipment, I packed my Nikon D7000 along with a Nikon 24-70mm. For times requiring more subtlety, I decided on the Panasonic GF1 along with the 20mm pancake. I debated between taking the 24-70 or the 16-35, and actually settled on the wider lens. However, in the rush of the morning, I forgot which lens was on the camera and ran out the door. In retrospect, I think the 24-70 was the right choice.

The D7000 with 24-70 mounted is a monstrosity. Yes, a beautiful combination, in my opinion, but a monstrosity nonetheless. While it doesn’t tire me out during a day of walking around the city, it’s a bit unwieldy, showy, and doesn’t work well inside cramped shops and restaurants. That’s where the GF1 + 20mm came into the picture.

It’s compact enough to fit into an interior pocket of my light jacket. It creates a bulge with its lens protruding, but leaves my hands and neck free. It’s effortless to get out for a photo. It’s also far less conspicuous. It’s not so in-your-face like the 24-70mm. Furthermore, it’s backed up by great image quality and is a pretty useful walk about focal length.

I haven’t followed micro 4/3 news in a while, so when I found out the spiritual successor to my GF1 has arrived in the form of the GX1, I was stoked. I also discovered the wonderful Olympus 12mm f/2.0 and 45mm f/1.8 lenses, which have received glowing reviews. The combination of those two, plus the 20mm, should make for a high quality, small, carry around set. There were some situations where the 20mm alone was a bit constricting. The 12mm and 45mm should solve any inflexibility.

Then, big news came out of Nikon recently. The D800, long waited successor to the D700, was released with a whopping 36MP sensor. I purchased the 16-35mm and 24-70mm with the intention to eventually move to full-frame, but what I was hoping for in a D700 successor was something that focused a bit more on improving high-ISO performance, while moving the resolution bar ahead, slightly. Instead, we have a sensor that is 2.25X the resolution of the D7000 and, get this, 2.25X the size (area). While I’d be surprised if the D800 doesn’t have better noise performance over the D7000, I’m not betting it’ll be even a single stop better. Does this mean that I now need a D4 to get what I was looking for? A bit too rich and serious for my blood, I think.

At the same time, I can’t deny the attraction of the D800e for landscape. I wonder if the 16-35 or 24-70 will be outmatched by the resolving power of a LPF-less 36MP sensor. I’m eagerly awaiting reviews on that one.

Canon S90 Grip by Richard Franiec

When I’m out and about to do some serious photography, I usually take my Nikon D90 and a set of lenses, but it’s not always practical to do so, when the focus isn’t photography. My search for a carry-everywhere camera eventually led to the Canon S90, which I reviewed in detail last year. The camera combined a compact form factor with great image quality (for the size, of course). However, in an attempt to be minimalistic, Canon made the camera a bit of a handling nightmare. The camera surfaces are quite slick and the natural hand position places the index trigger finger over the mode dial, instead of the shutter release. It’s a bit like holding a bar of soap.

I came across Richard Franiec’s S90 grip over at DPReview, where the comments were enthusiastic. I placed an order and waited.

Richard was on vacation around the time I ordered, so I didn’t get the grip until a short while ago. Using 3M heavy bond adhesive, the grip attaches with great solidity. It feels like it’s welded, not adhered, to the camera.

Canon S90 Grip

The grip looks great, feels great, and vastly improves handling. It’s made out of aluminum and is very well machined. It doesn’t quite match the slick exterior of the S90, and is instead more textured to impart additional grip. Aside from making the camera feel steady in a single hand, it also forces the natural hand position over, such that the index finger now lies directly over the shutter release. Bravo!

Canon S90 Grip

It simply looks professionally made. Richard has made custom accessories for a host of cameras and this is just another in the line of great additions to already great photographic tools. With Lightroom 3 beta 2 doing spectacular things for image quality (mainly noise reduction), I’m really excited to get out there with this camera. After some post-processing tests with LR3b2, I feel comfortable with up to ISO800 on the S90, but I’ll leave the results of that test for a bit later.

Lightroom ‘Underexposing’ Nikon RAWs?

Solution inside.

I used to have a dilemma. I typically shoot RAW with my Nikon D90 and process them with Capture NX2. I much prefer the workflow and interface provided by Lightroom, but couldn’t quite get the same color and tone I got from Capture NX2. I knew that Lightroom didn’t have access to all the proprietary camera data that Nikon can put into NX2, but Lightroom always seemed to do something weird with the exposure of the RAWs I took, seemingly dropping the brightness or exposure on them. I would then need to tweak the hell out of the develop settings (boosting exposure, for example) to get it anywhere close to the Capture NX2 starting point. It was a pain. Even the camera Nikon camera profiles I downloaded from Adobe didn’t help matters.

I had become content, settling with Capture NX2, but recent glowing reviews of Lightroom 3 beta piqued my interest once more. More digging on the issue led me to download some Nikon color presets, which didn’t help, and one tidbit on Capture NX2’s handling of Active D-Lighting (fancy name for dynamic range expansion through in-camera processing). Apparently the feature works by underexposing the shot, then gaining up the photo in select areas to produce the effect of increased dynamic range. Capture NX2 reads the ADL setting and previews the RAW image with the adjustment. However, Lightroom, not knowing anything about Nikon’s proprietary ADL algorithms, simply spits out the RAW sensor data, resulting in the sometimes grossly underexposed image. Take a look:

Nikon Active D-Lighting Effect on RAW

On the left I’ve switched off ADL in Capture NX2 and you see the RAW sensor data. Meanwhile, on the right, Capture NX2 has done its wizardry and applied ADL – High. Lightroom will display the image on the left, even though the camera will show you something akin to the right in its preview display.

I fault myself for not turning off ADL in the first place when shooting RAW. Now that I know what’s causing Lightroom’s ‘apparent underexposure’ problem with Nikon RAWs, I can switch my workflow over. Hope that helps people out there who were just as confused as I was. I went through a ton of unsolved trouble-shooting posts during my search.

Canon S90 IQ Compared to the Nikon D90

I went up to the Kerry Park viewpoint after the Ben Folds concert to get some shots of the city. I thought it would be good chance to test out the S90’s low-light performance as well, with an easy comparison to the D90, which I had with me as well. With a tripod set up, I started with the D90 and a Micro-Nikkor 60mm AF-S and moved on to the Canon S90. I shot from ISO 200 through ISO 1600 in RAW with the D90. With the S90, I shot from ISO 80 through ISO 1600, in both RAW and JPEG. I figure the S90’s the type of camera that could be used by both serious amateurs, who don’t mind post processing, and the more casual user, who simply wants great photos straight out of camera.

For now, I’ll set up some quick samples – the full set of ISO 80 – 1600 will have to wait to when I have a bit more time to process everything. I only used the RAWs from the two cameras for this example, with the D90 images processed in Capture NX2 and the S90 images processed in Canon DPP. The default noise reduction settings were used (none in NX2 and 2 Luminance and 4 Chrominance for DPP). No sharpening was applied to either set of photos.

So, without further ado, the canonical Seattle skyline shot.

Canon S90 at Kerry Park - ISO 80
Canon S90 – ISO 80. Click on the thumbnail for a 1600px wide version, or click here for the original size. Use sparingly, and be kind on my bandwidth!

Canon S90 at Kerry Park - ISO 200
Canon S90 – ISO 200. Click on the thumbnail for a 1600px wide version, or click here for the original size. Use sparingly, and be kind on my bandwidth!

Nikon D90 at Kerry Park - ISO 200
Nikon D90 – ISO 200. Click on the thumbnail for a 1600px wide version, or click here for the original size. Use sparingly, and be kind on my bandwidth!

And for a closeup (100% crop) –

Canon S90 at Kerry Park - ISO 200
Canon S90 – ISO 200

Nikon D90 at Kerry Park - ISO 200
Nikon D90 – ISO 200

Clearly, the Nikon D90 is pulling out much better image quality here. That’s to be expected. You can also see the difference in dynamic range between a compact camera sensor and the larger APS-C of the Nikon D90. At what ISO does the D90 have comparable quality to the S90 at ISO 200? I found it to be somewhere above ISO 800. The following is a 100% crop of the Nikon D90 at ISO 800.

Nikon D90 at Kerry Park - ISO 800
Nikon D90 – ISO 800

Compared to the Canon S90, there’s more detail here (probably due to the fact that some noise reduction was applied to the Canon S90’s RAW images in DPP), but noise levels are about the same. The D90’s ISO 1600 shot is significantly noisier than the S90’s ISO 200.

What can we take from this brief look at the differences in image quality from a large hulking DSLR kit compared to the Canon S90? There’s around a 2.5 stop (or slightly more) advantage for the Nikon D90 in this situation (I’m adding half a stop for the fact that some NR was applied to the S90 RAWs), but that’s also factoring in the 60mm AF-S lens used, which is a decently sharp macro. What I think is pretty interesting is this comment from a reader of my S90 review:

Your comparison with the D40 SLR is an interesting one because I’ve been using one for a [D40] couple years now, and I just ordered a S90 today (replacing my ancient SD200). Of course I don’t expect the S90 to take better photos than the D40, but I think it will do better in low-light high-ISO situations than the D40 w/kit lens based on sample shots, and also:

– Lens has a 1.8 stop advantage over kit at wide end
– Being 3 years newer probably gains it ~1 stop (for example, compare D90 to D40) w/ better tech and software
– 1/6 area sensor size probably means ~2.5 stop worse

Andrew S

The D90 is probably close to a stop better than the D40 in low-light, which means the D40 is probably around 2 stops better in low light than the S90. That’s fairly decent performance out of a compact camera, that weighs less than the 200g+ kit lens that comes with the D40. With the fast f/2.0 lens at the wide-end, as Andrew S remarks, the S90 could get pretty close to a D40 kit’s performance. I’d argue that although there’s still a good half stop or more difference there, it shows that in certain circumstances, you can get pretty close. Of course, this is with some pretty wonky math and some assumptions of performance on my part (I’ve long since parted with my D40, so I can’t do any scientific testing), but I think it’s within a pretty small margin of error. I’d be very interested in seeing what the image quality difference is between the S90 and an older DSLR.

Again, as I mentioned in the review, I imagine the majority of users of the S90 will end up posting their photos on the internet, with a much smaller subset doing any printing. At any reasonable web size, say 1600px wide, as I’ve done for the linked images at the beginning of the post, noise really doesn’t play a part at ISO 200. From my brief look at ISO 400, it should be absolutely no problem either at 1600px. In fact, with DPP’s default 3 Luminance and 6 Chrominance NR, there is not much visible noise in this same scene at ISO 400 at 1600px wide. Very impressive.

And remember, everything I showed here is a baseline. I pretty much used every default; there’s more image quality to be squeezed out of the S90. I did my tests in this manner to keep both the S90 and D90 on a level playing field, from a post-processing point of view.

Canon PowerShot S90 Review

My search is over.

Canon PowerShot S90

When I first read about the Canon S90, back in August of this year, I held out hope that it was the pocketable camera I was looking for to complement my Nikon D90. The only thing pocketable I had was a Canon SD200 (yeah, ancient). By the time the S90 was announced, I had tried and rejected a Canon SD870IS, a Nikon P6000, a Canon G10, and a Fuji F200EXR; okay, that last one’s a bit of a lie. It’s been my point-and-shoot up until now.  The SD870IS didn’t have the IQ or controls I was looking for, the Nikon P6000’s IQ was disappointing, as was its shot-to-shot performance (over 3 seconds between JPEGs, around 10 seconds between RAW), and the Canon G10 had good IQ and fantastic controls and performance, but was too large to fit in a pocket. That meant carrying a bag, in which case, I felt I might as well bring my DSLR. The Fuji F200EXR ended up being a compromise to myself. The low-light IQ was quite good, size was pocketable, but I sacrificed most of the manual controls I wanted.

So you might have gathered by now what my ideal P&S camera would be: small enough to fit in a pocket, have good image quality, especially in low-light situations, and give me manual control over exposure. The S90 hits all these points. I bought one on the first day it was officially available from Best Buy, October 11, so I’ve had some time to get a sense of what’s good and what’s not so great.

Design

After a couple iterations of my search with the G10 and P6000, I realized that there was one criteria I simply could not sacrifice: size. I didn’t have a camera that could slip into a pants pocket and not freak people out when pointed at them, as a DSLR too often does. The G10, and to a lesser degree, the P6000, are serious-looking pieces of photographic gear, and can’t easily fit into a pocket.

The S90 measures 10cm x 5.8cm x 3.1cm. By comparison, the SD870IS, which I also tried, measures 9.2cm x 5.9cm x 2.6cm. The body of the S90 isn’t much larger than that of the SD870IS – the lens housing protrudes somewhat, making the dimensions a bit larger front-to-back than the SD870IS.

Canon S90 size compared with Nokia E71
The S90 has a slightly smaller footprint than my Nokia E71, but is around 3 times the thickness.

From a size-performance standpoint, the main competitor of the S90 seems to be the Panasonic Lx3. Although 1.5 years old, the LX3 is still the reference point for the small, compact, high-performance camera. Its price, at least in North America, is a bit higher than the S90’s. The LX3 is advertised by Panasonic to be 10.9cm x 6.0cm x 2.7cm. However, this doesn’t seem to take into consideration the large lens protrusion, which brings the camera’s thickness to around 4cm. From a size standpoint, the S90 wins out by a fair margin, especially in the important thickness dimension. The S90 fits in a 28-105mm f/2.0-4.9 lens, which is slower, but covers a wider range than Panasonic’s 24-60mm f/2.0-2.8 lens.

Canon S90 versus Panasonic LX3 thickness

As you can see, there’s a pretty significant difference in the size of these two cameras. The key thing here is that the S90 can pass itself off as just another point-and-shoot. I don’t feel like the group photographer or any sort of awkwardness when I carry the camera to a social event. That’s very important. It means a whole new range of photographs can be taken, with decent image quality.

The S90 has a metallic-feeling outer casing, and is generally well put together. There’s no flexing of the chassis and carries some heft (175g, without battery or SD card) to give the impression of quality as well. When the flash unit is enabled, it rises up from the body using a motor, and retracts (motorized as well) when flash is disabled. It feels very confident and there’s no wobble or weird sounds from the motor system.

The Dark Side

The lens housing dominates the otherwise plain camera face. An autofocus assist light is just above and to the left of the lens. Otherwise, a couple logos adorn the front. Overall, it makes for a relatively quiet subject-facing design. There’s really nothing indicating serious camera equipment, hiding in the back.

Unlike the Panasonic LX3, there is no hotshoe. I presume Canon decided it simply isn’t what the targeted demographic is interested in. I don’t blame them. When I had the Nikon P6000, I tried mounting my SB-600 flash on it. It was comical. The flash head was about 2.5 times the volume of the camera and weighed 50% more. It was unwieldy to hold and use. It mostly defeats the purpose of a camera as small as the S90, if its size is doubled by just about anything you could mount on a hotshoe.

On the left side of the camera are mini USB and HDMI ports. At the bottom of the camera is a sturdy feeling flap for the battery and SD card compartments. The S90 takes NB-6L batteries. Also on the bottom, at just about the centerline of the lens is a metal tripod mount.