Greg Benz Photography » Minneapolis based cityscape and landscape photographer; luminosity masking fiend

I feel bad for anyone who comes to Cinque Terre, Italy, and doesn’t hike from town to town.  The cities get mobbed with tourists during the day, but the trails are relatively quiet.  I bet 90% of the visitors come in by train, walk around the towns, and leave without seeing the most beautiful part of Cinque Terre!  The trails can be a little steep (and a little trying in a couple spots for those who are afraid of heights), but they are unbelievably gorgeous.  From these trails, you get some of the best views of the five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  And along the way are gorgeous views of the hillsides and sea, such as these vineyards outside of Corniglia (which is the only one of the five that isn’t right down on sea).

Vineyards of Cornelia

Nikon D810

The Nikon D810 is the new heavy-weight champion of the DSLR world, or at least it has the sharpest pixels and greatest dynamic range.  It’s so good, in fact, that I have to wonder how it would compare head to head with medium format cameras.  I don’t shoot medium format, but Alex Koloskov wrote a great head to head comparison of the D800e vs the Hasselblad H4D40 medium format camera (see it here).  And now Nikon has just taken things one step further with the D810!

But, as FDA (and Spiderman) said, with great power comes great responsibility.  Or, if you want your images to stand up to the D810 hype, you have to use it the right way.  Many people have given me the awkward (or backhanded) compliment, “Your camera takes great pictures!”  Well, it also takes horrible pictures if you don’t use it the right way.  I don’t know why the general public discounts the value of the person behind the camera so much, it’s not like you’d give someone a Stradivarius and assume they can play beautiful music.  If you want to make great landscape images with the D810, there are a few key things you need to do to pull out all the color and sharpness that this camera is capable of.

I recommend the following approach to get the most out of the Nikon D810 for landscapes:

  • Use electronic first curtain shutter.  This prevents shutter movement right before the image is exposed, which helps reduce an important source of vibration.  Dpreview.com has a great example showing just how much of a difference this can make on the D810.  Nikon cautions that this feature should be turned off when using tilt-shift lenses faster than 1/125 if you see uneven lighting, and disables it by default at shutter speeds of 1/2000s for any lens.  Since this feature is only active when using mirror lockup and I’m shooting at slower speeds almost always due to low ISO and moderate apertures on a tripod, I leave this feature always enabled.  Nikon has disabled this by feature default, so go to: menu, custom settings, d5 = enable.  This is the one setting that’s unique to the D810, the rest of the steps below would apply to getting optimal images out of most cameras.
  • Shoot on a tripod.  This goes for any serious landscape work, but especially if you want ultra-sharp images at high resolution.  Think of it this way, if you smear your image even 1 pixel in each direction, you’ve cut the horizontal resolution in half and you’ve cut the vertical resolution in half.  And since resolution is height times width, you’ve just turned a 36 megapixel camera into a 9 megapixel camera.
  • Use high quality lenses.  Pixels are no better than the light that hits the sensor, so make sure you’ve got a lens that can keep up with your camera.  DXO mark has published a great list of images that have tested highly with the D800e.
  • Shoot RAW, 14 bit, Adobe RGB, Lossless compressed or uncompressed.  Anything less than this and you’re giving away a lot of quality.  I’m not just talking about the ability to tweak white balance or exposure in post, but the ability to pull more out of the image even when you nail the exposure perfectly.
  • Shoot at ISO 64-100 whenever you can.  This gives you the best possible dynamic range, which is critical to seeing shadow detail, pulling color out of a bright sky, etc.  If you have to shoot at a higher ISO (especially true for moving subjects that would blur with a longer shutter speed), try to keep things as low as you can.  I’ll shoot portraits up to ISO6400 and get very good results, but I try to keep landscapes at 400 or below whenever possible.
  • Use mirror lockup or exposure delay mode.  Set the drive move to Mup and use a cable release if you want to take advantage of my next recommendation, as Nikon apparently hasn’t yet enabled electronic first curtain shutter with exposure delay mode (hopefully this will be addressed in a firmware update, as this greatly simplifies shooting HDR and the ability to skip using a cable release).
  • Use live view.  Not only does live view offer a better ability to autofocus in many situations, but you can also activate split-screen display mode (“i” button, select the bottom option).  Split-screen display allows for an ultra-level horizon (note that you can also hit the “info” button a few times to get the tilt display, which is nearly as good for horizons and gives vertical info as well).  If you find the display is too dark, you can temporarily open up your aperture (though I wish Nikon would offer some option for brightness boost without having to change the aperture).
  • Check your histograms.  The overall histogram is good, but I really prefer the RGB histogram to make sure I’m not blowing out detail in something colorful.
  • Use f/8-f/13 when possible.  There are plenty of times when I shoot more wide open to get a shallow depth of field or use a faster shutter (or minimize the impact of shooting through glass from a building).  There are also times when I shoot with a small aperture for more depth of field (though I’d try to use focus bracketing instead) or slower shutter speeds (though I try to use an ND filter or lower ISO instead).  But both of those extremes reduce the sharpness of the image, and very small apertures really bring every bit of dust on the sensor into the image.  So stick with a middle aperture whenever you can to get the sharpest possible image.
  • Don’t be afraid to read the manual.

 

The fishing village of Manarola would get hammered by the Mediterranean Sea, were it not for this breakwater.  There’s a walking path just above it that makes for a wonderful evening stroll to watch the sunset and listen to the waves crash on the rocks below.  Megan and I headed here to capture sunset and enjoy the evening.  We climbed down a few stairs to get this view.  The ledge where we stood was dry, and there was another couple 10 feet further down towards the sea enjoying a pizza and beer.  It seemed like the perfect place to relax and get some long exposures.  Then, all of a sudden, this one rogue wave rolled in.  We could immediately see we were about to get clobbered.  Now, there’s nothing more deadly to a digital camera than salt water.  I grabbed my camera and tripod, moved the few steps I could, turned my back to the sea, and tried to shield my camera from the crashing wave.  It worked pretty well.  I got decently soaked, but the camera was fine.  We already had the shots we wanted and figured this was a good time to scurry back up to the trail and pack up our gear.  I don’t know if the couple below were spared that wave or ignored it, but they stayed below to continue enjoying the romantic view.  I can’t really blame them, that one wave was much higher than the others and just seemed like a freak thing.  Why would there be another?  We climbed a good 10 or 15 feet up back to the trail and packed our gear.  And just as we got everything packed up, another monster wave rolled in and got us wet again from this much higher spot!  And about 15 seconds later, that couple came up the trail looking like they just swam out to sea with a soggy pizza box.  You really can’t try to outsmart mother nature, she’ll teach you a pretty good lesson.

Here’s one of my last images from the shoot.  I set my shutter for 30 seconds to turn the waves into a foggy white mist and capture the mood of the evening.  Another couple minutes and my camera might have been done for good.  I can only imagine how important these rocks are to protect the city on a stormy night!

Manarola Breakwater

Nikon D810

I just picked up the Nikon D810, and it’s awesome.  I’ve been shooting with the D800 for a couple of years, and and there were three key reasons (plus some bonuses) that made me decide to jump to the D810:

Better image quality
Most cameras have an anti-aliasing (AA) filter to avoid something known as moire.  Basically, it means that really small patterns (ones that are about the size of your camera’s pixels) can look terrible.   An AA filter creates a slight blurring effect to tradeoff a little sharpness in order to avoid moire.  The D800 had such a filter, and the D800e had elements of it to keep the two cameras somewhat similar for manufacturing reasons.  But the D800e really didn’t show much moire and Nikon has further enhanced its in camera processing to further reducing it, so that an AA filter is no longer necessary.  That means that, even though the D810 has 36 million pixels like the D800, it produces noticeably sharper images.

The D810 also includes an “electronic front curtain shutter”.  This means the camera’s internal mechanisms produce less vibration, so that the images are sharper.  When used with mirror-lockup (or exposure delay mode) and the camera on a tripod, this helps produce the sharpest possible images.

In addition being sharper, the D810 also has the more powerful Expeed 4 processor, which enables it to produce images with less noise at higher ISO.  That means I can avoid grain when shooting at a higher ISO, which is especially helpful for shooting handheld photos or action in low light.

Ability to shoot at slower shutter speeds
There are a lot of situations (especially around water), where I want to use a slow shutter speed.  Having a lower ISO means that I can shoot in brighter light without having to use a neutral density filter (which slows me down and can vignette the corners of the image).  And with some lenses, such as the Nikon 14-24mm, there really isn’t an option to use a neutral density filter.  On the D800, you start to lose dynamic range (highlights blow out more easily) below ISO 100 and the camera isn’t capable of going below ISO 50.  With the D810, you can shoot at ISO 64 without penalty, and can shoot as slow as ISO 32 if you’re willing to give up a little dynamic range in the highlights.  That may sound like a small change, but it means that I have the option to set the shutter to 13 seconds instead of 8 when I really want to smooth out moving water or eliminate tourists at a popular site.

Miss fewer shots
One of the few things I don’t like about the D800 is that its huge files can quickly fill up the buffer, which means you can get stuck waiting for the camera to write images to your memory cards.  That’s understandable considering I like to shoot 14-bit RAW files, but thankfully the D810 further raises the bar by doubling the size of the buffer.  That means that even when I’m shooting at high speed with and high quality images, the camera can keep up with me so that I don’t miss the action.  I still like to be very judicious to save space on my cards and time reviewing images later, but it’s great to have the flexibility when you need it.

The D810 also includes the “group area AF” focusing capabilities of the D4s.  This helps the camera keep auto-focusing accurately on your subject when shooting in continuous drive.

And the D810 has improved both the optical (pentaprism coating) and LCD (OLED) viewfinders so that you can more accurately capture and review images.

And more
While these don’t matter quite as much to me, the D810 also adds a few other notable features, including a better LCD, highlight priority metering (definitely a plus for theatre/stage lighting, and may be good for some high contrast landscapes), better video considerably (quality, zebra stripes, faster frame rates, auto-ISO in manual mode, and built-in stereo) and better battery life (a welcome addition for me, especially to be able to lockup the mirror for sensor cleaning without swapping batteries quite as frequently).  And thankfully, the D810 finally allows Nikon users to show with brackets with greater 2-stop increments (which is very useful for shooting HDR quickly, which is a real benefit when the light is dropping quickly at sunset).  I’m also excited by Nikon’s promise to release a software development kit for the D810 to enable better 3rd party support (who knows what fun surprising that will bring).

What’s missing?
Nikon has made a great camera even better, no doubt.  There is one missing feature that blows my mind…. no WiFi.  It makes no sense to me that it’s dramatically easier for me to share photos from my phone than from my fancy professional camera.  The CamRanger is an awesome tool that adds much of this functionality to the camera, but I’d much prefer the simplicity, size, and weight of having this functionality built right into the camera.

I’d also like to see Nikon offer much longer shutter speeds.  There are numerous times when I need to use bulb exposure to shoot exposures longer than 30 seconds.  This would be helpful for bracketing a lot of sunrise/sunset photos (that often stretch into the 1-4 minute range for me).  I realize we may be beyond the limits of the meter here, but being able to manually set these times would be very helpful.

And (this is getting well off the mainstream path, but while I’m at it) I’d love to see a test exposure mode to determine long exposures where the built-in meter isn’t reliable or just to have confidence in the image before you commit to an exposure that will take several minutes (at sunset, that single exposure may well be the only one you can take before the light is gone).  I often take test images at high ISO and fast shutter speeds (such as 2 seconds at ISO 6400), check the histogram, adjust and retest if needed, and then switch to ISO 100 and the corresponding shutter speed (for example, 2 minutes at ISO 100 in this case).  This sort of process could be automated fairly easily to help take stunning long exposure images with much less fuss and experimentation.

Was it worth it?
Absolutely.  Everyone has different needs, but the D810 gives me the power to create enormous canvas enlargements, and yet use the same camera to shoot action and portraits.  The image quality alone was probably worth it, but the faster speed sealed the deal for me.  I’ve been shooting with a D700 as second body and backup to my D800.  That left me with a tradeoff between speed and image quality.  With the D810, I no longer feel like I’m making those tradeoffs and my large prints/canvas will look better than ever.  It’s been a great partner for the last 4 years, but it’s time for my D700 to find a new home.

 

 

Having moved away from the Detroit area around the time I started to really get serious about photography, I’ve always wanted to get back to shoot the skyline.  Despite the city going bankrupt, the mayor going to prison, and the dubious distinction of being at the top of Forbe’s list of most dangerous American cities for five years in a row; Detroit still still holds a special place in my heart.  I have lots of fond memories of Tiger’s games, nights out with friends, the uniqueness that comes with the grittiness, and take pride in being part of the city’s automotive history.  That said, I took this photo from Windsor.

Made in Detroit