equipment

Z: The Future of Nikon? by Martin Siggers

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For quite some time now there have been rumblings that Nikon was about to embrace the hot camera trend of the moment and develop a brand new mirrorless system camera. Late last week those rumours bore fruit as the company announced the new Z system, compromising two full-frame mirrorless bodies - the Z6 & Z7 - and three lenses, all based on a brand new, fully electronic mount.

We'll get into the nitty-gritty of the details in a mo, but firstly it's important to talk about what a huge step this is for Nikon, and how important it could be for the future of the company. For almost 60 years now, since the introduction of the original Nikon F in 1959, the company has continued to use the same basic mount for all of its top end cameras, be they film or digital. This has ensured an unprecedented level of continuity and backwards-compatibility between different lenses and bodies, but in recent years it's also clearly been holding the company back when it comes to cutting-edge development. Nikon has introduced new systems before now (such as the ill-fated Nikon 1 system and its CX lenses) but this is the first time it has put a new ecosystem toe to toe with the venerable F-Mount and its professional level equipment.

There's a strong family resemblance to company's DSLR line, including Giugiaro's famous red flash

There's a strong family resemblance to company's DSLR line, including Giugiaro's famous red flash

In reality, this was really the only way Nikon could have gone. Though some speculation went around about the retention of the legacy F-Mount for unprecedented levels of support, I can't believe that was something ever truly considered by the R&D team. Not only would you inherit the limitations of the existing F system (no AF lenses faster than f/1.4 for example) but by having to match the rear-flange distance of the designed-for-SLR system you'd basically sacrifice all of the size advantages a mirrorless body gives you. With the new Z mount Nikon could ask its engineers to really push the boat out, and they've done that by making the diameter of the mount an enormous 55mm, while lowering the flange distance to a class leading 16mm. These are both important numbers, because the former means lenses can be faster than ever before (as we'll talking about in a bit) while the latter means almost any lens system should be able to be adapted to the new bodies.

Speaking of those new bodies, Nikon has spared no expense there either. The Z7 is clearly designed to be the king of the mirrorless world, boasting a colossal 45.7 megapixel sensor (most likely a derivation of the D850's), in body stabilization, ultra high-res electronic viewfinder, and 493 phase detect focus points. Little brother Z6 meanwhile has to live with 'just' 24 megapixels and 273 focus points. Nikon's press releases put a strong emphasis on video - traditionally a mirrorless strength and a Nikon weakness - noting that both cameras will do 4K at 30fps, 1080p at 120fps and will support a new 'N-Log' profile for high-end videographers.

The Sony Alpha 7RIII will likely be one of Nikon's main rivals in the space

The Sony Alpha 7RIII will likely be one of Nikon's main rivals in the space

If it weren't clear from the impressive specs, Nikon is attempting to go straight from 0-100 here, targeting the high end enthusiast market that demands and can afford cutting edge technology - the Z6 will be US$1995, with the Z7 coming in at a mighty US$3399 (body only in both cases). That puts them squarely up against Sony, the reigning kings of full-frame mirrorless, whose Alpha 7 and Alpha 7 R bodies are pretty obviously the basis for these two Nikons. The Sony Alpha models have undergone rapid evolution across their three generations (no doubt aided by the enormous technological and financial muscle of their parent company) and have been widely credited as a key factor in making mirrorless palatable to the top-end prosumer world.

So what's my take on this? As a long-time Nikon SLR user and working pro, these developments are both intriguing and potentially concerning for me. Let's get one thing straight first though - there's been a lot of talk of the new Z cameras' 'pro-level' ability and while the base technology is impressive, I'm not sure D5 and D850 users will be rushing to throw away their cameras just yet. While on-sensor phase detect autofocus has made huge leaps in the last few years, it's still not as reliable or tenacious as the traditional phase detect systems used in most SLRs, particularly Nikon's remarkable new 153-point system as seen in the D5/D850/D500. Hands on impressions also seem to suggest the new AF system isn't as programmable or powerful as the existing SLR setup, and that alone disqualifies them as serious wildlife or sports cameras. Event shooters will look on with interest, especially given the big loss in weight over traditional bodies, but the lack of dual card slots or battery grips (currently - one is in development) and limited lens selection mean this is a future possibility rather than a current one.

The Noct is certainly not a small lens however

The Noct is certainly not a small lens however

Ultimately, it's the aforementioned lens selection which makes or breaks a camera, and Nikon is at a severe disadvantage here, with other mirrorless systems being mature ecosystems, fleshed out with a wide variety of choices. At launch Nikon will only offer three native lenses for the Z Mount - a general purpose 24-70mm f/4 zoom and a pair of f1.8 Primes at 35mm and 50mm. Those are solid picks for your first lenses, but there's no ultra-wide angle for landscapes, or long fast prime for portraits, or tilt-shift for architecture, or....you get the idea. Nikon has smartly developed an F-to-Z mount adaptor, which will launch alongside the cameras, but adapted lenses will never give quite the same performance native ones will, and you're giving up on the size and weight loss which made you go mirrorless in the first place.

The flipside of this is that the new mount allows Nikon to delve into lenses that would never have been possible on the old F-Mount, and indeed one of the crown jewels of the Z reveal was the announcement that Nikon was developing a new 'Noct' lens. For those of you unfamiliar, the name has only ever been used on one lens before, the legendary 58mm f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor from 1977, a lens designed for pin-sharp astrophotography on film, and widely regarded as one of the greatest and most iconic lenses in history. The new Noct matches its forefather's unconventional 58mm focal length but manages to get speed up to a searing f/0.95, which would make it the fastest lens Nikon has ever built. Even though it's manual focus only, it's a serious statement of technological intent by Nikon.

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Nikon were also smart enough to provide a pretty comprehensive lens roadmap alongside the announcement, detailing what's coming along in the next two years. 2019 will see the arrival of pro-workhorse f/2.8 zooms, along with wide angle primes and zooms, while 2020 sees some high-grade options arrive to round out the line. I don't agree with all of these choices - I'd rather see a solid telephoto option than three 50mm equiv. primes in three years for example - but it's important to reassure potential buyers Nikon is fully committed to the system, and this certainly looks like they're going to be putting in work on the lens front.

It's a brave and forward looking move form Nikon, a company which has often been accused of dragging its heels in recent years. I'm not sure I'm entirely onboard with the concept though - I mostly looks to mirrorless systems to keep size and weight down, and by the time you get to full frame the difference between an SLR f/2.8 zoom and a mirrorless f/2.8 zoom is minimal at best. But that's speaking from someone who uses SLR systems for a living, so there's probably some unconscious bias there. It's my firm belief (and Nikon's too apparently) that the Z system and the F system can live alongside each other and share technology and advances back and forth, and if that's true then it's the best of both worlds for everyone involved. These cameras are not going to be huge sellers - they're very expensive and the market is limited - but they're an important move from Nikon, building a second pillar for the photographic business and hopefully ensuring its prosperity for years to come. For that reason, even if I'm not entirely convinced by the products themselves, I'm all in on the idea.

Images courtesy of Nikon and Sony    

Review: The Olympus M.Zuiko PRO 12-40mm f2.8 by Martin Siggers

Although there's obviously a wide range of opinions on the subject, I tend to follow the old-school train of thought that zoom lenses are necessary evils. They're much more convenient and accessible than fixed focal lengths, especially on reportage style jobs where timing is everything, but they can't match the bite, separation, or just the sheer tactility of a prime lens. Still, they're essential parts of every pro photographer's toolkit.

Over the first few years of the Micro Four-Thirds system, one of its defining characteristics was an abundance of great prime lenses in the normal to short-telephoto range, such as my much loved Olympus 45mm f1.8, or Panasonic's excellent 20mm f1.7 pancake, which became a staple walkabout lens. These primes fitted the early days of the system down to a tee, making good on the 'smaller, lighter' ethos which was the main draw of M4/3 and had never really been achieved by the legacy Four-Thirds DSLR system. Even today one of the advantages M4/3 has over other mirrorless system is the prevalence of these high quality primes, whereas other systems tend to be loaded with slow consumer zooms (Canon EOS M, we're looking at you).

As M4/3 matured though, the high end of the system grew aspirations to move into the pro space, with cameras like Olympus's OM-D range and Panasonic's GH models offering top-end features and build quality to match the best SLRs. if you're going to play in the pro leagues, you need pro-level glass to match your bodies, and Olympus to their credit realised that. Released alongside the OM-D E-M1 in 2013, the 12-40mm f2.8 was the first of Olympus's PRO series of lenses, designed as fast aperture zooms for the working professional, built to offer the quality and withstand the beatings such users expected. The 12-40 (equivalent to a full-frame 24-80mm) has since been joined by a 40-150mm f2.8, a 7-14mm f2.8 and 300mm f4, creating a full suite of wide to telephoto options.

The 12-40 was designed and released alongside the OM-D E-M1, so that's what I opted to test it on. First impressions were incredibly positive - the lens has a reassuring weight to it, probably due to the fact that almost every surface you touch is proper metal, a beautifully machined black aluminium finish. The fat zoom ring and slimmer focusing ring are both nicely smooth and well damped. Olympus are notoriously stingy on their lower end lenses, never including hoods and sticking to old-fashioned edge pinch caps, but that trend is defied here, as you'd hope for a lens which hits an RRP of £849. The cap is a lovely metal number while the hood is a solid, bayonet locking affair. Overall, the lens is one of the most well put together bits of photographic equipment I've ever used, oozing solidity and quality. Part of this might be because, as a PRO lens, Olympus advertises the 12-40 as extensively environmentally sealed - it's meant to be shock, dust, splash, and freeze-proofed to the same level as the E-M1 body. I haven't dared test it myself, but reports from braver photographers seem to indicate it's the real deal. Olympus has a pretty good history in this field too - the E5 famously bordered on being indestructible - so I'm confident that if I ever do have to take the lens into a hostile environment, it'll hold up OK.

One super neat feature that instantly makes the lens stand out from a lot of the more consumer level option available is what Olympus refers to as the 'manual Focus Clutch'. Like all M4/3 lenses the focusing ring is fly-by-wire (there's no actual connection to move the elements) and manual focus can be enabled my toggling to appropriate setting on the camera body, something I normally bind to a custom button. On the 12-40 however, you can pull back on the focus ring and it'll click into a new position. This automatically enables manual focus and reveals a distance scale, as well as giving the focus ring hard stops at either end (20cm and infinity). Pushing the ring back forward instantly returns to autofocus mode, but pulling the ring back again will remember your last point of focus, making it incredibly useful for pulling focus between too points, something videographers are sure to appreciate. The clutch also works in conjunction with the body so that functions like zoom and focus peaking are automatically enabled in the same way as selecting manual focus on the body would do. It's a really neat mechanism and a nice way to add some feel' back into the manual focusing process.

If you're thinking all this ergonomic goodness sounds too good to be true, there is a flipside, and it's size and weight. The 12-40 weighs 382g, which is nothing by normal standards but makes it something of a brick for M4/3. It's also pretty thick and long by the standards of the system, and when mounted to an E-M1 the entire thing approaches the size of an entry level DSLR. Of course, it's important to bear in mind that there's still a huge advantage when it comes to like-for-like comparisons. For example, the 24-70 2.8G I use on my full frame Nikons weighs more than twice as much (900g) and is noticeably larger in every dimension. The 12-40 balances really nicely on the E-M1, although on the smaller OM-Ds and PENs I'd recommend an additional grip piece to counter the front heaviness. Still, the point remains that you'll definitely feel this thing if you plan to lug it around everywhere.

Optical formula courtesy of the lovely people at LensRentals

Mechanically the 12-40 is a pretty complicated design, utilising 14 elements in 9 groups. There's a bunch of ED glass in there, and nearly every surface has some sort of exotic treatment, including Olympus's top end ZERO coating tech. I don't claim to be an expert or the technology, but whatever they're doing is clearly working - the 12-40 is one of the most optically stunning lenses I've used in quite some time. Even wide open at f2.8 it's razor sharp across the field, with only the very tiniest hint of softness at the extreme edges of the image. At f4 and f5.6 it's basically flawless, and only the beginning of diffraction prevents f8 being just as good.

Colour is richly saturated, without any major shift towards warm or cool, and the lens feels very natural and transparent in its rendering. Flare is very well controlled, and although you'll still need to stop down to avoid excess coma that's hardly a fault unique to this design. Being a 2.8 lens on a smaller sensor the 12-40 is not a bokeh bravo but it can still produce nice smooth backgrounds at the longer end, with very little evidence of the 'onion' shapes which often characterise aspherical elements, and none of the nasty jitter that can sometime be seen on the Panasonic 12-35 f2.8. Focusing is lightning fast in S-AF and continuous focusing on the E-M1 feels better than it does with some of the primes, though still not up to the standards of the mid-to-high end Nikons.

One unexpected bonus of the complex design is that the 12-40 has a near focus limit of just 20cm, even at the telephoto end. This makes it a surprisingly viable macro option, with a 1:3 reproduction ratio and all the optical goodness of regular shooting concentrated down. It's never going to replace a dedicated lens but again, the purpose of a zoom, especially in this range, is flexibility, and the macro aspect adds yet facet to lens's multi-talented nature.

In fact, I'd probably go as far as to say that the 12-40 represents the very best one lens solution currently available for the system. As a Swiss Army Knife for photography it's pretty much unparalleled. Pretty much the only things you can ding it for are size and price, and fast zooms of all shapes and sizes tend to suffer from both of these issues - it's just the nature of designing such an optic. Considering I use my M4/3 cameras mostly for travel and street work the 12-40 seems an excellent option to replace a couple of primes, and paired with a lightweight telephoto option (I've got the cheap 'n' cheerful 40-150mm on order) it could be the perfect portable pairing. Highly recommended.

A day in London and thoughts on the Nikon D3S by Martin Siggers

              Pretty much the only way to tell from the front that there's new hardware inside

              Pretty much the only way to tell from the front that there's new hardware inside

As the years go by, the beginner/enthusiast/pro gap between digital SLRs has narrowed considerably, especially when it comes to image quality. Rig them up in a studio and you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference in output between £300 worth of camera and £3000 worth, all other things being equal. But there are still reasons why those of us who earn a living with our pictures prefer the single digit models. Be it their incredible responsiveness, bulletproof build quality or just general ability to handle any scenario thrown at them, the kings remain the kings.

As some of you will know, I've owned a Nikon D3 for about a year now, and though it's old I've come to rely on it in a way I seldom have with any camera before. Its combination of excellent focus, terrific shooting speed, and unparalleled ability to take a beating has made it my go to camera, despite it being practically vintage tech in the ever-advancing digital world. So why would I want to replace such a stalwart? Well, how about with something the same but better?

         While the D3 begun to get a little ropey at ISO6400 it's not a problem for the D3S,                              allowing us to stop right down even in dimly lit environments                                 (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @ f/11, 1/100, ISO6400)

         While the D3 begun to get a little ropey at ISO6400 it's not a problem for the D3S,  
                         allowing us to stop right down even in dimly lit environments
                                (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @ f/11, 1/100, ISO6400)

  First introduced in 2009, the D3S was Nikon's mid-life upgrade for the D3, and one that was widely unexpected given the D3 was still king of the proverbial hill, even two years after it was announced. The 'S' version bought several small changes (a Quiet shooting mode, improved live view iteration, and a poorly implemented video mode that was bad even at the time) but one big one - a new sensor. Rather than jumping up in resolution, Nikon instead stayed at the rather modest 12.1 megapixels of its forebear and concentrated on pushing out low light performance. The net result is a camera which not only gains an extra stop of ISO performance at the high end (up to 12,800 from the D3's 6400) but produces smoother, more noise free pictures at every setting.

This is the kind of picture the D3S excels at. Low light with fast unpredictable movement? No problem when you've got a superb tracking autofocus system and 9 frames per second burst mode (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/320, ISO3200)

This is the kind of picture the D3S excels at. Low light with fast unpredictable movement? No problem when you've got a superb tracking autofocus system and 9 frames per second burst mode
(Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/320, ISO3200)

Indeed, professional testing claimed a 1.5 to 2 stop advantage, and that certainly seems to be the case in my testing. Whereas on the vanilla D3 I was always wary of moving beyond ISO1600, I'll happily push the D3S all the way to 6400 without much reservation. Even the top end rating of 12,800 is very usable with a little cleaning work in post production, and the result is a camera which truly feels like a go anywhere, do anything tool. Hand-held shooting in awful light is not only feasible, but it's actually possible to obtain great images even in near total darkness.

It's not super clean, and the banding in the sky is noticeable, but even the ultra-high range ISO 25,600 setting can be roped in when necessary to get the shot                                (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/8, 1/320, ISO25600)

It's not super clean, and the banding in the sky is noticeable, but even the ultra-high range ISO 25,600 setting can be roped in when necessary to get the shot
                             (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/8, 1/320, ISO25600)

Elsewhere this is effectively the same camera as the D3 - and that's a very good thing. That means a hefty, fully weather sealed body that feels like it would survive if a bomb hit it, a huge viewfinder that's a pleasure to look through, blazing fast 51-point autofocus and 9 fps shooting and a battery which just goes and goes forever (officially claimed life is a staggering 4,200 shots). The build quality isn't a joke either - there's a famous video of a D3S being subjected to some truly horrifying punishment and still ticking over just fine afterwards. The one I acquired has done over 170,000 shots in its lifetime, but that's barely a concern. It clicks just as smoothly as the day it was born.

                               (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/800, ISO400)

                               (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/800, ISO400)

Shooting with a D3S is not an experience to be taken lightly, and that's not just a play on the camera's huge heft. Making the most of its gargantuan ability requires a quick hand and even quicker eye. You're aided by double grips and pretty much every manual control that one could hope for, but there's no safety guard or automatic mode to fall back on. Even the Auto-ISO implementation is basic compared to modern cameras and certainly isn't trustworthy enough to depend upon full time. Despite its foibles though, when everything slots into place it's an incredibly rewarding experience. The D3S is so responsive, so quick and precise and sure, that it's never going to be the weak link in the equation. Just as you have to fight to bring out the best in the camera, it'll surely bring out the best in you.

               (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/320, ISO1600)

               (Nikon D3S, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G @f/5.6, 1/320, ISO1600)

Does it make sense in 2015? I think if you need one you already know the answer to that. The D3S's children, the D4 and D4S, exist and are better cameras, though the gap gets smaller and smaller every generation. The D3S is not a camera for those who earn their living in landscapes, where every megapixel counts, not is it for street work, where its huge size and weight aren't as big problems as its utterly conspicuous appearance. Yet even after all these years it remains an incredible photographic tool, capable of turning out high-quality pictures under nearly any circumstances. You already know if you need one. But even if you don't, it's difficult not to fall in love with it.